This article deals with the histories of the native peoples of North America, and especially focusses on those of the United States and Canada from contact times onwards. Another articles offers a survey of North American peoples in pre-Contact times.
Early contacts with Europeans
The coming of the Europeans to the Americas was a catastrophe for the Native American peoples. This can be seen in something as basic as population figures. In pre-contact times estimates of total numbers of Native Americans vary from just under one million to as much as ten million. By the end of the 19th century it stood at a mere quarter of a million – a drastic decline by any measure.
The first voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492 was key to all that came later, but so far as North America was concerned, voyages such as those of Giovanni Verrazano in 1524, which charted the Atlantic coast from South Carolina to Florida; Jacques Cartier in 1537-42, which probed the St Lawrence River system; and Martin Frobisher, which sailed into the Arctic in 1576-8, were key to giving Europeans an idea of the Atlantic coastline. The expeditions of various Spanish conquistadors – most famously, Vazquez de Coronado’s between 1540-42 laid claim to the south and west of the present-day United States.
The Spanish established the first permanent European settlement in North America, at St Augustine, Florida, in 1565; the French established their first settlements in Canada in the early 17th century, and the English followed just a little later, with the Virginia colony of Jamestown founded in 1607 and the New England colony of Plymouth following in 1620.
By the early 17th century, therefore, direct contacts between Europeans and Native Americans in North America were limited to coastal areas, or some brief expeditions into the south and west. This is not to say that the Native American populations did not feel the impact of Europeans on their continent, however. Radiating inland from the contact points along the coast came diseases to which the Native Americans had no immunity, particularly smallpox, chicken pox and measles.
The populations in the east were of course most affected, with their numbers reduced by a quarter or a half; but populations far inland did not escape – some scholars think that the long-lasting “mound-building” cultures of the Mississippi and Ohio valleys (see above) were brought low by European epidemics. In any case, as the area of white settlement expanded, more and more native populations were thinned by European diseases.
Over the rest of the 17th century and into the 18th century, the English planted more colonies along the Atlantic coast (or took over ones originally planted by the Dutch and Swedes) and established a European-style colonial society in the region stretching from the coast to the Appalachian mountains. The Native Americans of this region were soon effectively moved off their lands here.
Initial contact between Europeans and natives was often friendly, with the latter providing help and advice to the former in setting up in their new homes. As more and more shiploads of colonists arrived from Europe, and their demand for land increased, the new European arrivals increasingly encroached on land belonging to the natives. This inevitably prompted a violent response from the natives, and conflict followed.
The European colonists always won in the end, thanks to their superior weaponry; however this was often not before they had sustained some fearful losses and aroused bitter animosities. The defeat of the local natives was often accompanied by the destruction of many of their villages and followed by the sale of many of them into slavery. Typically a treaty between the two sides would follow the ending of the conflict, in which a new boundary between colonists’ and natives’ land was defined, always to the detriment of the latter. The boundary would be patrolled by colonial militias, whose aggressive tactics often led them to behave more like vigilantes than protectors. They were determined to keep the natives at arms length from the colonists’ farmsteads, and so a sort of “no man’s land” would come to surround the area of colonial settlement.
More and more shiploads of colonists would arrive from Europe, the demand for new land would begin to grow again, and soon the new boundary too would be breached by colonists in need of land. The cycle would begin again.
This was a continuous process, although for ease of understanding it has been divided into certain wars, most notably the Powhatan wars (Virginia – first half of 17th cent), The Pequot War (New England, 1636-8), King Philip’s War (New England, 1675-8), Bacon’s rebellion (Virginia, 1676). By the end of the 17th century the Native Americans had lost control of the land to the east of the Appalachians, and had effectively been pushed off it.
Beyond the Appalachians
Unable to find a way through the Appalachians until the mid-18th century, however, the colonists left the interior of the continent more or less untouched. Direct European contact with the Native American peoples in these regions was through a small number of French-speaking fur traders, based in New France, along the St Lawrence river. These travelled further and further inland, travelling huge distances along rivers and lakes in their canoes, and establishing small trading posts from which to deal with the natives.
These traders were few, but they had an indirect impact out of all proportion to their numbers. They did this by upsetting the balance between the Native American tribes of the area. The demand for fur soon meant that local beaver populations came under threat, and the tribes of the areas attempted to monopolize control of remaining beaver areas.
The most concerted attempt to establish such a monopoly came with the Beaver Wars of the late 17th century. Five Iroquois tribes had established a confederacy – the League of the Five Nations – probably sometime in the 15th or 16th century, with the aim of ending incessant feuding between them. The Beaver Wars involved the Iroquois in expanding their control south and east of the Great Lakes region, with a view to taking control of the fur trade.
The Iroquois campaigns of conquests caused immense disruption to other Native American peoples. Rival tribal confederations such as those of the Huron and Shawnee, were destroyed, and some peoples were forced to move away from the region altogether, either westward across the Mississippi, or southwards into the Carolinas. The Ohio Valley was almost depopulated, but the Iroquois retained control of it as a hunting ground for beaver. Later other tribes moved into the area.
British, French and Natives
The Beaver Wars resulted in a legacy of enmity between the Iroquois (who after 1722 were a League of Six Nations, not Five) and neighbouring tribes such as the Huron. When French and British colonial rivalry also increased at the end of the 17th century, the two situations played off each other. The French, and then the British, forged alliances with different tribes (the leading French allies were the Huron, Ottawa, Illinois and Sioux, while the leading British allies were the Iroquois). A sequence of conflicts then occurred, known to American history as the French and Indian Wars, whereby the two colonial powers fought each other, often with the colonists’ forces and the Native American allies doing the actual fighting. The native tribes were fighting as much against traditional enemies as they were for European powers.
Like the earlier wars for land east of the Appalachians, this struggle was an almost continual one, but for the sake of tidiness it is generally divided into discrete wars: King William’s War (1688-97), Queen Anne’s War (1702-13), King George’s War (1744-48) and the French and Indian War (1754-63). All formed a part of major wars between British and French forces waged in different parts of the world.
This series of wars ended in a complete British victory and the expulsion of the French from North America. It led immediately to Pontiac’s rebellion, a concerted attempt by several Native American tribes – mostly former allies of the French – to drive the British out of their homelands to the south and east of the Great Lakes – the “Old Northwest”, as it came to be called.
Meanwhile, to the south and west of the present-day United States, the Spanish had been establishing a scattering of missions, forts and haciendas. Unlike the French, whose primary interest was in trading with the indigenous peoples and who therefore treated them as partners in their enterprises, the Spanish were intent on bringing the local peoples under their control, wishing to use them as forced labour on their estates. The centres they established were thus bases from which to exercise authority – backed by military power – over the surrounding territory.
The impact on these native peoples was not on the same scale as along the Atlantic seaboard, where they were more or less completely displaced from their homelands, but it was nevertheless severe. The Spanish masters tended to treat them harshly, and worked them hard; and this, coupled with the European diseases that spread among them, drastically reduced their numbers.
The “Mission Indians” of California
In the next century, in the far west, the Spanish impact was particularly disruptive. From the 1760s, the Spanish established a number of missions in California, and forcibly relocated local peoples to live within their bounds as a workforce. They were made to convert to the Catholic faith, and the give up their culture in favour of an impoverished version of a Western lifestyle.
These peoples were later dubbed “Mission Indians”, and effectively lost their previous tribal identity. They were particularly affected by the harsh conditions and European diseases, and by the late 19th century may have been reduced in numbers by 90%.
Not all post-contact influences were negative. Just as the Native Americans introduced the Europeans to new crops and foods – maize, tobacco, the turkey and much else – European traders introduced new kinds of goods: iron tools, blankets, cloth, glass beads and ribbons, as well as more disruptive ones such as firearms and alcohol.
Beadwork started amongst indigenous peoples around 1675, working with european glass beads. This practice spread to other parts of the continent and beads became a staple of inter-tribal trade.
Metal trade goods were highly valued: European brass kettles were cut up into a variety of tools and trinkets The use of metals spread along the traditional trade routes of North America, and the introduction of iron tools led to woodworking enjoying a new burst of creative energy. By 1800 the Iroquois had mastered silverwork, and this soon spread around North America. The peoples of the southwest became especially known for the silver jewelry they produced.
Even Arctic peoples were not left unaffected. For example, they began covering their kayaks with canvas instead of animal hide..
Most famously, the introduction of the horse revolutionized the society and culture of many Native Americans. The horse had been extinct for thousands of years in the Americas when it was re-introduced by the Spanish in the 16th century. The Spanish used local Pueblo peoples along the Rio Grand to tend their horses, and these newfound skills of caring for and breeding the animals soon spread to other native populations. Escaped and stolen horses became the ancestors of a rapidly increasing equine population. Some tribes took to horse dealing and horse-breeding, soon developing breeds more suited to local conditions.
By the mid-17th century, Apache, Navajo and Ute were taking to raiding on horseback: the first documented use of horses by Native Americans was in 1659, when the Spanish governor of Santa Fe reported an attack by Navajo. In the late 17th century the trade in horses spread the animal rapidly northward, and during the 18th century the use of horses widespread amongst Native American tribes.
A revolution of the Great Plains
The region where this had the greatest impact was on the Great Plains. Here, vast herds of buffalo had grazed, comparatively undisturbed by the primitive hunting techniques of the scattered groups of hunter-gatherers of the region. The coming of the horse changed all that: the increased mobility and greater height that the horse gave human hunters put them in a much better position to hunt and kill these huge, powerful animals. This made a radically new way of life possible. Hunting buffalo became a much more viable sustenance strategy than before.
Many farming tribes already living on the Great Plains abandoned their village life altogether to take up a nomadic hunting existence. Hitherto, these peoples had skills in making pottery, which is associated with settled life; they soon lost these, as ceramic vessels are too fragile for the nomadic way of life.
Other tribes, such as Cheyenne, Plains Cree, Crow and Sioux migrated into the Great Plains from other regions, because of drought or pressure of expanding European populations; but most of all they came for the buffalo. Varied tribal customs merged into a shared culture, which in the 19th century settlers of European origin were to encounter and come to think of as the typical “Indian” way of life. The prevailing image of the Native American in terms of clothing, body decoration, and accessories is that of the plains tribes: living in a portable cone-shaped tipi with a pole framework and hide covering; dressed in leather, decorated in beadwork and warpaint, and wearing an impressive warbonnet made with feathers to represent exploits in war and the hunt. Above all, the horse is the dominant symbol of wealth and honour.
Native American religion was another arena which experienced profound change in post-contact times. Where tribes converted en masse to Christianity, tribal culture more or less disappeared. The members of the tribe in effect joined European society, usually at its lowest levels. This can be see most clearly with the Mission Indians of California, who were enlisted into Spanish colonial society as serfs.
Other religious movements mingled Native American and Christian elements. The Handsome Lake movement amongst the Iroquois borrowed heavily from the Quakerism of Pennsylvania, with such practices as the worship of one god; silent prayer; the promotion of good deeds; congregational worship in churches (longhouses). This sect still exists today.
The Indian Shaker religion was also an overt mixing of Christian and native elements. This emphasised traditional ways, but also offered ideological support for its members in coping with defeat, oppression and social upheaval, for example in the transition from communal to private property, and so on.
The best-known post-contact religious movements, however, formed the inspiration behind much Native American resistance to encroaching white settlement, and these will be dealt with later (see below).
The destruction of Native American cultures
The British, having expelled the French from North America, issued a Royal Proclamation in 1763 which forbade all settlement by colonists to the west of the Appalachian mountains. This barrier, for so long hemming the British colonies in along the eastern seaboard, had been breached by various explorers around the middle of the 18th century. Almost immediately, settlers had begun trickling through, but the Royal Proclamation put a stop to this (in theory, at any rate; even in practice it seems to have limited settlement). This was of course unpopular with the settlers, and was in fact modified in the later 1760s by moving the boundary line westward.
In the American Revolution, the Native Americans generally supported the British, whom they saw as their best hope of protection. They identified the rebels with those settlers who were encroaching on their land.
Native American tribes suffered disproportionately in the fighting, with their land being grabbed and villages destroyed. The Iroquois League of Six Nations broke apart over the question of whether to support the British or the rebels. Over the next couple of generations many of them relocated to the west, like many other native Americans; others of the Iroquois settled in Canada, and a small group were given their own reservation in upstate New York.
The Northwest Ordnance
The treaty of Paris, granting the Americans their independence, obviously nullified the Royal Proclamation of 1763. The British offered protection to tribes which had relocated to Canada, but left the rest to fend for themselves. As for the newly independent United States, Congress enacted the Northwest Ordnance in 1786, which reaffirmed the British policy of recognizing the rights of Native American peoples to lands west of the Appalachians. In 1789, the republic’s new constitution placed responsibility for relations with the indigenous peoples with the Federal government rather than the states, and that lands and property should not be taken from them without their consent.
Unfortunately, the aims and policies of the Federal government were often very different from those of the individual states and the local settlers. Largely as a result of this, the lofty principles enshrined in the constitution were honoured more in the breech than in the observance. The old cycle of encroachment by settlers and reprisals by natives continued, which led to “Indian Affairs” being placed under the authority of the War Department. It would only be in 1849 that they were transferred into civilian hands, under the Department of the Interior.
American Independence in fact marked the beginning of the advance of white settlement across the rest of the continent.
A major way by which Native American lands were opened up was by the trails along which, from the later 18th century, settlers began to move west.
Ironically, almost all were originally trails layed down over the centuries by the natives themselves, and then used by whites. The first of these were across Appalachians – the Cumberland Gap, Braddock’s Road, which became known to whites in the mid-18th century. From then on the trail ends moved steadily westwards. The most famous of all was probably the Oregon trail, which was discovered in the early 19th century but came into widespread use from the 1850s.
What had originally been long-distance footpaths along which people walked in single file, became broad tracks with ruts along which carts could be hauled by horses, mules and oxen.
The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, whilst not opening up new territory, made the journey from the east coast to the midwest much quicker and easier, and was instrumental in bringing millions of new settlers to the west.
In all this, did the Native America peoples stand idly by, look on passively as their land was taken from them? They did not. They continually, bravely, desperately resisted the western expansion of settlement, but despite some spectacular victories, most famously at the Battle of Little Bighorn, in 1876, they were engaged in a struggle they could not win. The whites had the technology, the numbers and the organization to overcome them. Moreover, whereas the Native American tribes were divided amongst themselves, often as hereditary enemies, the whites were all under the ultimate authority of the US government.
What this meant in practice was that the US government’s military force, the US Army, was always at their disposal.
The US Army
This force gradually became very adept at fighting wars against the natives. Many of the trails were beaten flat over a wide area so that troops could be marched along them at speed. Later, the US army went over almost exclusively to cavalry, and this speeded up the deployment of units to trouble spots. Furthermore, the army followed a policy of building forts at strategic points in the west, and these acted as bases from which surrounding territories could be subdued and controlled.
The pattern that repeated itself again and again was that white encroachment on a tribe’s land would lead to violence between the two sides. The army would intervene, the tribe would be defeated, and (until 1871) a treaty would be signed. This would involve the loss of tribal land to the settlers, or, in many cases, the wholesale deportation of a tribe to a land designated by the US authorities as “Indian Land”, “Indian Territory” or an “Indian Reserve”.
Even before serious trouble had flared up, a tribe might be ordered to relocate to Indian Land. Some did so willingly, others under compulsion – and some of the Seminole were never successfully relocated by the US authorities, holding out in the Florida swamps until the American government gave up on the attempt to move them.
The idea of an extensive Indian zone west of the Mississippi had been taking shape since the early 1820s. It was originally seen as an effective way of dealing with the “Indian question”, whereby the Indian tribes which stood in the way of white settlement could be given a large area of land for themselves, on which they could live free from the threat of encroachment.
This area was delineated in 1825 as Indian Territory (although it was never a Territory in the usually-accepted meaning of the term, that is an administrative unit under Federal government control, moving towards statehood). It was a vast area, covering all the lands of the Louisiana Purchase apart from the already-existing states of Louisiana and Missouri, and half of Arkansas Territory.
Tribes began being relocated there in the 1830s; they came not just from the southeast, but also from the north and west; and of course there were also present local tribes. As a result, peoples of quite different cultures found themselves near neighbours.
The most famous example of this forced removal policy came in the wake of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, by which Native American tribes from the present-day southeastern United States were to be forcibly removed from their homelands to an area west of the Mississippi River. What makes this case all the more poignant is that the five tribes concerned – the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw – had taken more steps than any others to integrate into white society and culture, having adopted literacy, legal constitutions, white commercial practices and so on. They were known as the “Five Civilized Tribes”.
This removal led to one of the more tragic episodes in US history, the “Trail of Tears”. In this, members of these tribes not only suffered the trauma of losing their homelands, but endured terrible hardships on their journey – which amounted to forced marches driven on by US troops and state militiamen – to their new homelands. Many died along the way from exposure, disease, and starvation.
Almost from the outset the Native Americans were not left undisturbed in their new homelands. Their communities were disrupted by settlers on the trails passing through; the Oregon Trail, for example, ran straight through the Indian Territory.
More disruption was to follow. In 1854, by the terms of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the northern part became the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. Indian Territory was thus reduced to a mere rump of its former self, more or less the area of the present-day state of Oklahoma.
In 1862 the Homestead Act opened Indian lands in all these territories to smallholders, who were granted 160 acres of land as their own after five years working the land.
In 1866, partly as a punishment for tribal support for the Confederate side in the Civil War, the tribes in Kansas were relocated south to Indian Territory (i.e. present-day Oklahoma). From the late 1860s cattle trials connecting Texas cattle ranches with the railheads to the north began to be laid down across Indian Territory, and in the 1880s squatters called “boomers” began settling on tribal lands.
This process was greatly facilitated by the General Allotment Act of 1887 (see below). In 1889 about half of Indian Territory was bought from Native American tribes and opened up to White settlement. On April 22, over 100,000 settlers lined up at the border, and when the army gave the signal, rushed into the land to stake their claims.
This area was designated Oklahoma Territory. By this date, railroad companies had also begun buying up land, becoming major landowners in both Oklahoma and what remained of Indian Territory.
In the early 20th century, with Whites now forming the majority of the population, Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory were united to form the state of Oklahoma (1907).
From the 1850s, the West began to be opened up in earnest to white settlement, a process barely paused by the Civil War. Gold rushes, in Califormia in 1849, Colorado in 1858, and Dakota in 1874, brought thousands of miners, plus a whole host of support workers and other hangers-on, into Native American lands. The completion of transcontinental railroads, the first of which was opened in 1869, made the journey from the east to the far west – and to all points in between – much easier and quicker. In their eagerness to make their enterprises viable, the railroad companies actively campaigned in Europe to lure settlers to the new lands. Towns and farmsteads rapidly sprouted up at numerous places along the railroad routes.
This of course brought the growing number of white settlers into conflict with the Native American peoples who already inhabited the area, and created pressure on the US government to open up land securely designated for settlement. The corollary of this was to establish zones which the natives could securely call their own. The Department for Indian Affairs, which had been created in 1849, set about actively making treaties with tribal leaderships to establish reservations for them.
This procedure effectively confined Native Americans to a portion of the their former tribal lands. This naturally aroused their hostility, and numerous small wars with native tribes resulted. Until 1871 these were followed by treaties, which led to the establishment of hundreds of Indian Reservations. After 1871 Native American peoples were deemed to be already under the authority of the Federal government, which could therefore dispense with treaty-making and take unilateral action in relation to them. Whatever the legalities, the end result was the same: the establishment of reservations.
The end of the Indian Wars, which had lasted throughout most of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, is generally considered to be the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, in South Dakota. In this, about 150 Lakota tribal members were killed by US cavalry troopers in a chaotic fracas which probably came about more by accident than design.
During the 1860s, 70s and 80s, the way of life of the Plains tribes was being undercut by the catastrophic decline of the buffalo herds. During the building of the railroads, buffalo were systematically hunted for meat, to feed the construction crews. Then the railroads themselves made it highly profitable to transport buffalo hides back to the east, where they could be sold at a good profit to be made into furs, coats, rugs, shoes and boots, belts and all manner of other leather goods.
Buffalo hunting became an almost industrial business: professional hunters using high powered telescopic rifles, supported by large teams of support workers for skinning the animals, cleaning the hides, loading them onto carts, as well as cooks and other camp followers, began to multiply across the Plains – at any one time there might be hundreds of such hunting teams in action. The 1870s and 80s saw the wholesale slaughter of the herds. By end of the 1880s, where there had once been 50 million head of buffalo, only some 500 animals were left.
The end of the buffalo spelled the end of the way of life for the Great Plains tribes. This induced them, perhaps more willingly than they would otherwise have done, to move onto reservations. For the peoples of the Plains, this move involved not only a loss of land, but the loss of their whole way of life. And the initial move was often followed by further compression of their land (and economic base) as more tribes were moved onto the reservation.
From earliest days of Native American resistance to European colonialists, a very strong religious element had been present. Resistance movements of the 18th and early 19th centuries had been inspried by such figures as the Delaware Prophet, the Shawnee Prophet, and the Winnebago Prophet. However, it was from the 1850s, when white settlement of the mid-west stepped up a gear, that a host of religious movements sprung up to inspire resistance to the white man and all his ways, including the Waashat Religion, the Drum religion, the Earth Lodge religion, the Bole-Maru religion, the Feather Religion, and the Peyote religion (which included the use of a stimulant from the peyote plant in its rituals).
These tended to conform to a pattern which included several common elements. They were often started by a charismatic prophet – the most influential of whom was probably Wovoka (Jack Wilson) – who issued a call to return to pure native ways purged of alien influences. In particular, alcohol (“the destroyer”) should be cast out, and amongst the Plains peoples, agriculture should also be shunned. Prophecies would play an enormous role in these movements, mainly concerned with the end of the world in its current form, the wiping out of the white oppressors, the resurrection of dead ancestors, and the regaining by the Native American peoples of their homeland – or indeed, their gaining of the entire world. Often the prophets called on their followers to live righteous lives, and the tribes to unite against the whites.
From the late 1870s, the Ghost Dance began to spread far and wide; this ceremony, involving a communal, circular dance, was itself deemed to confer spiritual and military power on its participants.
These messianic beliefs appealed to peoples made desperate by defeat and oppression, and traumatized by the taking away of their land, culture and way of life. In the early 20th century, however, these religious movements subsided. In part, this was due to the widespread acceptance of defeat. But many such cults were also subsumed into the Native American Church, which was founded in 1918. This blended traditional and Christian beliefs and practices, and gained a large following amongst Native Americans. The church still flourishes today.
New government policies
During these years, a new idea was gaining ground – or, more accurately, an old idea was regaining ground – which would influence government policy towards Native Americans. This was the concept of assimilation.
In the early days of colonization the Puritans of New England, and later the Quakers of Pennsylvania, had tried, with some success, to convert indigenous peoples to Christianity. They sincerely believed that this would lead to their greater happiness, but conversion also tended to involve the adoption of an alien, European way of life.
This approach was steamrollered out of the way by the rush for land. However, it began to make a comeback in the later 19th century. Now, though, it had little to do with religious conversion; it was seen more in terms of economic, political and cultural assimilation, as a way of bringing Native Americans up to parity with the rest of the population.
The starting point for such assimilation was seen to be the undercutting of tribal bonds and the fostering of a sense of individual responsibility (a version of that key American virtue, self-reliance); and the chosen instrument for this was increasingly thought to be the breaking up of tribal lands, which were held in common by the tribe, into family-held farms. In the process (it was hoped) native tribesmen would be turned into American homesteaders.
In 1887, the General Allotment Act led to tribal lands on reservations being allotted to individual Native Americans. Each family was to be given 160 acres. Any surplus tribal land was then to be distributed to white settlers. In 1891, tribespeople were given the right to lease or sell their allotments on to white settlers. In the following years, the Federal government pursued a policy of enforced acculturation, in particular suppressing communal tribal land use and institutions of traditional tribal authority.
Inevitably, unscrupulous land speculators found ways to separate tribespeople from their land at a fractions of its value, in negotiations often oiled by alcohol. These developments had the largest impact in what remained of the old Indian Territory just west of the Mississippi. Here, two million acres had been opened up to white settlement by 1899, in which year these lands were formed into Oklahoma Territory, In 1907 Oklahoma became a state.
World War I and after
In the early 20th century, disquiet about the allotment system was growing. The honourable participation of many Native Americans in World War I did not go unnoticed by the wider population, and this helped stimulate interest in the condition of the native peoples. In 1924, all Native Americans who were not already citizens already – by marriage, adoption of “civilized” ways, being allotted a homestead and farming it for five years, service in the armed forces and so on – were recognized as citizens of the United States.
In 1928 a report commissioned by the government declared the allotment system a dismal failure. It had created a generation of Native Americans caught between two worlds, who had been dispossessed of their land, their culture, their identity and self-respect. It called for a new set of policies which aimed at better protection of their rights, resources and health.
The Indian Reorganization Act
Such a new policy approach was embodied in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. This legalized tribal landholding and tribal government, and expanded educational facilities on the reservations. More broadly, it encouraged Native American participation at a national level in relevant policy making. It also guaranteed religious freedom. At the same time measures were taken to promote social, educational, medical and business programs aimed at raising Native American living standards.
World War 2 and after
These policies were underpinned by Native American participation in Word War 2, both as combatants and in wartime jobs, alongside other Americans. Indeed, this war was one of the key turning points in Native American history. One-third of all able-bodied Indian men from 18 to 50 years of age served in the military during the war, with a voluntary enlistment rate 40% higher than those who were drafted. In the fighting, they were generally held in high esteem by their comrades.
When they returned home, these young men found that their wide contact with the outside world had changed them in all kinds of ways, and they often did not fir back easily into reservation life.
World War 2 also offered opportunity—as a result of wartime labor shortages—to find well-paying work in cities, and these years saw Native Americans begin to move into cities at a much faster rate than before, and this trend continued into the post-war years.
A harsher political environment set in in the late 1940s and 50s. Congress sought to pursue a policy of terminating special relationships between the Federal government and the tribes, and to reduce the scope of tribal authority. Whilst theoretically guaranteeing Native Americans equality under the law with all other citizens, in reality it took some rights away from them.
In the 1960s, however, there was a move back to more enlightened policies which sought to foster Native American self-determination. This approach came to include a variety of elements, including enhancing tribal self-government, developing economic self-sufficiency, fostering social wellbeing, and encouraging cultural revival. Political, social and cultural activism amongst Native Americans increased. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, numerous economic and social programs were initiated designed to raise Native American living standards. Cut-backs in government funding affected these activities in the 1990s, but not the principle of self-determination.
The Fur Trade
In Canada, developments took a similar, though perhaps somewhat milder, form. In its early years, under French rule, the primacy of the fur trade over settlement meant that the indigenous peoples – mainly Huron and Iroquois – suffered little of the land grabs experienced by their contemporaries to the south. Nevertheless disease and alcohol did have an adverse impact at this time.
This pattern repeated itself in the far north, after the British Hudson’s Bay Company had established trading bases on the shored of that bay. Their settlements were limited to tiny coastal enclaves, and the indigenous peoples were left in control of their lands.
Under the British
The British ousted the French from New France in 1763, but policy towards the indigenous peoples did not change much. For the First Nations, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 continued in force in Canada after the United States independence had rendered it void south of the border. This prohibited the alienation of land from native tribes without their consent, or without the crown’s approval. There were no wars between white settlers and indigenous peoples. The only armed resistance to the Canadian authorities came in fact from a different quarter, the Métis.
Unlike in the USA, a distinct ethnic group, the Métis, grew up in Canada out of inter-racial unions between whites and natives. This was the product of the fur trade, where French-speaking voyageurs spent much of their lives away from white society, living and working amongst the native peoples with whom they traded. They came to form distinct groups, usually working within the fur trade, where their contacts with both whites and natives gave them an advantage.
As Canadian society moved west, Métis were in the vanguard. However, they had little respect for the authorites, and were involved in series of violent incidents with them. Then, on two occasions, in 1870 and 1885, they rebelled against the Canadian government in protest at their particular interests being ignored. The first of these led to the establishment of Manitoba as a separate province, to cater for their rights; the second ended in their defeat and the execution of their leader, Louis Riel.
In 1982 the Canadian constitution recognized the Métis as having the status of indigenous people.
The government adopted the policy of setting aside reservations for indigenous tribes in the 1830s. Apart from in the eastern provinces, settlement of the middle and west of the country only really began after 1850. Between 1850 and 1923 the Canadian government signed a series of treaties with various “First Nations”, as they are termed in Canada. Tribes kept a portion of their land as guaranteed reserved zones, and in exchange received grants of cash and supplies. They were also promised access to free schooling and basic medical services.
The Indian Act of 1876 granted individuals the right to become full Canadian citizens on condition that they renounced their particular rights and privileges as members of a tribe. This had effectively institutionalized the First Nations as second class citizens. In 1951, therefore, native people were given the same legal rights as all other Canadian citizens, including full voting rights in national elections (in the localities they were to vote in tribal elections rather than provincial elections).
The Modern Era
As in the United States, since the 1960s the government has shifted its policies from encouraging integration to fostering self-determination. The establishment of the Office of Native Claims in 1974 created a channel whereby native tribes could seek redress where provisions of treaties had not been properly met by the government, and First Nations groups are today in the process of seeking redress. This took a further logical step when the northern province of Nunavut was created for the Inuit people, in 1999 (Nunavut means “Our Land”.)
Today there are almost two million who class themselves as Native Americans for the US census. The figure for Canada is 800,000. These figures represent a huge increase since the start of the 20th century, when the total for both groups stood at a quarter of a million.
Both on and off reservations, however, Native Americans still find the cards stacked against them. They experience shorter life expectancy, higher suicide rates, lower per capita income, more unemployment and more ill-health, often due to alcohol-related diseases, than the majority of the population. All this is unsurprising, given that, especially in the United States, their reservations are usually located on the least productive land, and are often isolated from major centres of economic dynamism. In both the United States and Canada, reservations have been adversely affected by environmental damage caused by mining, hydroelectric schemes and other industrial activities. When they do leave for the cities, moreover, individual indigenous people find themselves in an alien culture for which they are often ill-prepared.
On the other hand, a growing number of Native Americans are now members of the urban middle class, holding down professional jobs and living in affluent neighbourhoods. Such families have had to become part of mainstream American and Canadian society, as have many Native American/First Nation artists, ballet dancers and actors who have achieved success in their respective fields. Political activists work effectively within mainstream politics to improve conditions for their people. Involvement in community affairs is higher amongst native peoples than it is amongst the rest of the population. All this has been accompanied by a revival of indigenous arts, crafts, dance and story telling.
In both the United States and Canada the reserves have benefitted from an upswing in tourism. In the United States, a new source of wealth has come from the gaming industry. Casinos have proliferated since the 1980s, when a case in the Supreme Court established that tribal lands were free from state regulations prohibiting them. In some places the gaming industry has been intrusive and disruptive, but in many others it has been shielded from the rest of the community to some extent, whilst providing employment and income for local people.