The Native Americans of North America

This article deals with the histories of the native peoples of North America, especially those of the United States and Canada.

Settlement of North America

Sometime after 35,000 BCE and before 10,500 BCE, people from Siberia arrived in North America. They had crossed the Bering Straight between Siberia and Alaska, which at that time was dry land due to the lower sea levels during the last Ice Age. Linguistic evidence indicates that they probably arrived, and then dispersed throughout the Americas, in at least three waves.

Archaeologists give the label “Paleo-Indian” to the first (and by far the longest) period of North American pre-history, lasting from as early as 35,000 BCE to 8000 BCE (and in some parts, 4500 BCE). In this period, the peoples of North America were predominantly big-game hunters, living a nomadic lifestyle and hunting the giant mammals (“megafauna”) which ranged North America in those days, such as woolly mammoths, mastadons, camels, bighorn bison, giant beavers, giant sloths, giant armadillos and musk oxen. They also had to contend with such fearsome animals as saber-toothed tigers, American lions and giant short-faced bears. Until around 9200 BCE they hunted with wooden spears, their tips hardened by fire. They used stone and bone tools for such applications as chopping and scraping.

As well as big game, the Paleo-Indians’ diet included a a wide range of seeds, berries, toots, bulbs and other wild plants.

Early cultures

In about 9200 BCE North Americans began using stone such as flint, chert and obsidian to make spear points. This marked the beginning of the Clovis culture (9200-8000 BCE), which spread throughout much of North America. The contemporary Sandia culture was local to the south west.

Between 10000 and 8000 BCE, the ice sheets retreated as the last Ice Age gave way to the Watershed Age. This was a warm, wet period North American pre-history. Coniferous forests spread across the continent, and then, from c. 6000 BCE, deciduous forests followed.  By 5000 the climate was very similar to that of the present-day.

Plano (8000 BCE to 5000 BCE) and Folsom (c. 8000-4500 BCE) cultures were both centred on the Great Plains, and developed techniques for stampeding herds over cliffs or into swamps The Folsom culture was the more advanced, developing the atlatl, a wooden shaft used as an extension to the throwing arm to give a spear greater speed and power, and, wether there were no convenient cliffs or swamps, constructing corrals to trap animals in.

It is possible that these superior hunting strategies helped the magnificent megafauna of North America on its way to extinction, a process that took place between 9000 and 5000 BCE (some modern scholars refer to this as the “Pleistocene Overkill”) . From now on, hunting was restricted to much smaller game.

In human terms, this was marked by the transition from big-game hunting cultures of the Paleo-Indian to the more specialised Archaic cultures, which lasted from c. 5000 BCE to 1000 CE.

Archaic cultures

Old Cordilleran culture

The pioneer cultures of the Archaic way of life in fact emerged much earlier, around 9000 BCE. These were the Old Cordilleran culture of the west coast (9000-5000 BCE), and the Desert culture of the Great Basin (9000-1000 BCE); both were located in regions where big game was not to be had. They were thus distinguished from their Paleo-Indian contemporaries by concentrating on hunting small game, fishing, and placing greater emphasis on foraging for edible nuts and berries. In short, they were exploiting their environments in a more intensive way, apparent in the wider range of implements they left behind, such as fishhooks, traps for small game, grinding stones for preparing food, and woven baskets.

As such they paved the way for Archaic cultures to thrive, in a world absent of megafauna. These tended to be more localized than their Paleo-Indian predecessors had been, more closely adapted to their particular environments. They remained nomadic, though some Archaic settlements, especially near lakes and rives where there was an abundance of aquatic food, were at least semi-permanent. They developed new technologies, such as atlatls, bolas (throwing weapons with weights attached), hammers, anvils, awls, drills, mortars and pestles, fishhooks, harpoons, stone cooking and storage pots, and baskets and cloths woven from plants. Food preparation and cooking was much more sophisticated. They domesticated dogs and built boats. They also shaped materials into ornaments, and buried their dead in elaborate ways.

Cochise culture

The earliest true Archaic culture was the Cochise culture (7000-500 BCE), which was an offshoot of the Desert culture. In their dry desert environment, the Cochise hunted and trapped small animals such as deer, rabbits, snakes, lizards and insects. However they probably gained most of their nutrition from wild plants like prickly pear, juniper and yucca. They prepared their food using millstones. For shelter they used caves and cliff ledges, and later constructed simple pit houses – brush roofs over holes. In c. 3500 BC the Cochise began cultivating a primitive form of domesticated maize, probably as a result of contact with Mesoamerican peoples to the south.

Old Copper culture

In the Great Lakes region to the East, the Old Copper culture flourished from c. 4000 to 1500 BCE. Exploiting the wet and lush environment of the eastern woodlands, its people subsisted by hunting by hunting, fishing, and a wide variety of gathering plants. Uniquely for an Archaic culture, the Old Copper people used copper as a material for their tools, gaining it by quarrying it and gathering nuggets of the metal found in the soil. Originally they fashioned it using techniques developed for working stone – basically, chipping it – but later they developed annealing techniques, alternately heating and hammering the metal. In this way they were able to manufacture beautiful ornaments and tools.

The artifacts made by the Old Copper people were apparently in high demand from peoples throughout the eastern woodlands, and formed the basis of an extensive exchange network.

Red Paint culture

Another eastern Archaic culture emerged in the coastal region of New England and maritime Canada. This was that of the Red Paint people (3000-500 BCE) who got their name from the graves they dug, lined with red hematite. These graves contained beautifully made tools and ornaments of slate, quartzite, bone and antler.

Formative cultures

From c. 1500 BCE, several cultures moved into the next phase of cultural development, often called the Formative. This was marked by such technological advances as the spread of agriculture, the emergence of settled villages, the domestication of animals, the acquisition of pottery-making and weaving techniques, and the invention of the bow and arrow. The archaeological remains of formative cultures also point to much more sophisticated belief systems and religious practices.

Native American Religion

Before we look at the cultural variations which emerged in the different regions of North America, a discussion of Native American religion is in order.

Their religion varied from tribe to tribe, but, as with many traditional peoples, the Native Americans regard the material world as inseparable from the spiritual. Natural phenomenon such as trees, animals, rocks and mountains were infused with the supernatural. Many tribes had shamans to channel the spirit world towards fulfilling objectives desired by humans, and they used ritual and magic to attempt to gain power over nature. The rain dance is probably the best known example of this.

The belief systems of the Native Americans encompassed a variety of deities, differing from people to people. Some, such as the Iroquois, had an almost monotheistic belief in a Universal Spirit, the creator and source of all things; others worshipped a multiplicity of deities. Many feared ghosts, revered ancestors, respected the spirits of animals and plants, and sought to ward off demons.

Two traditions mingled

Modern scholars have detected, beneath the rich variety of religious belief and practice, the cross-fertilization of two main traditions. A “northern” tradition was bound up with the hunter-gatherer way of life, with shamans, trances, and communication with animal spirits to gain mastery over the hunt. Shared elements with the belief systems of peoples in northern Siberia and northern Europe suggest a very early date for this religious tradition, going back to days before the ancestors of the Native Americans came to the New World.

The “southern” tradition arose from the agricultural way of life, and would therefore have had originated in Mesoamerica. Here the emphasis is on fertility and the cycle of the seasons, and its tone is more hierarchical and disciplined: its ministers are priests, its practices involve secret rituals open only to the initiated.

Creation mythologies embodied elements from both, and the practices of different people were also a mixture of the two types. In some cases an agricultural deity such as the Corn Goddess is infused with characteristics elsewhere more at home in a hunting spirit such as the Great Bear.

Regional cultures of North America

The Eastern Woodlands

This huge region was home to the most extensive Pre-Columbian cultures north of Mexico. It covers the area from the Atlantic seaboard to the Mississippi Valley, and onwards into Texas; and from north of the Great Lakes down to the Gulf of Mexico.

This land of coast, mountain ranges, valleys, large rivers and huge lakes was until recent times blanketed by deciduous and coniferous woodlands. The abundant plant life and game – especially deer – that these environments offered fed large populations of hunters and foragers, especially along the banks of the rivers and lakes where people could also exploit aquatic resources. Trees also provided material for shelter, boats, tools and fuel.

It was in this rich environment that Formative cultures began to emerge. These were clearly more complex than those that had gone before, and their advent is marked by the construction of large-scale earthworks, often in the form of mounds. Indeed the leading cultural traditions that emerged in the region is often given the label “Mound-Builders” by archaeologists.

Poverty Point culture

The earliest such earthworks were found at Poverty Point, in Louisiana, and dated to between 1800 and 500 BCE. They reveal a society able it to organize large groups of people over long periods of time to work on public projects.

Similar sites have yielded similar earthworks, but remarkably, there is no clear indication that their builders practiced agriculture. There is, however, evidence for long-distance exchange networks, with objects made from materials from other regions, such as copper, lead and soapstone. This would be a continuing feature of eastern woodland cultures, and as time went by these networks became more extensive.

Adena culture

From about 1000 BC some groups began supplementing their hunter-gatherer way of life with small-scale farming.  This allowed villages to grow, often semi-permanent in nature: they moved to new locations as local soils became exhausted. The people of the Adena culture, which flourished between 1000 BCE and 200 CE, and which originated in the Ohio Valley before spreading out into neighbouring areas, carried on the tradition of mound building – but with a difference. Whereas previously these earthworks seem to have been purely ceremonial, they are now burial mounds.

The Adena earthworks were larger and more complex than those of the Poverty Point culture, and this must reflect a more complex society. The grave goods show that some individuals enjoyed higher status and wealth than others.

Hopewell culture

As time went by farming became more important to the economy of the people of the eastern woodlands. The Adena culture was eventually displaced by the Hopewell culture, which emerged around 200 BCE and came to an end about 700 CE. This shared many features with the Adena, but on a larger and more sophisticated scale; it also covered a much larger area than the Adena had done.

Mississippian culture

Eventually the Hopewell culture was succeeded by another, the Mississippian. And just as the Hopewell had been more advanced than the Adena, so the Mississippian was more advanced than the Hopewell.

Whilst the Mississippian culture carried on many of the traditions pioneered by the Adena and Hopewell, it also displayed new features, possibly derived from contact with the Mesoamerican world to the south.  Most notably, the Mississippians constructed not just burial mounds, but temple mounds as well – a strikingly Mesoamerican characteristic.

The Mississippian people’s society was the most complex of all the “mound-building” cultures of the eastern woodlands, and was moving towards urbanism. Indeed, their larger settlements were the size of major European cities of the time, though lacked the denisity of true urban settlements.

The Mississippian culture as a whole lasted until just before contact times, though remnants of it, for example amongst the Natchez people, endured into the 18th century.

Post-contact Woodland culture

With the passing of the last of the “mound-builders”, semi-urban culture disappeared amongst the peoples of the eastern woodlands, but the lifestyles of the great majority of the people will have continued as before. By contact times, the leading tribes in the northeast were the members of the Iroquois League of Five Nations, with the Huron as their most powerful contenders. There is evidence that the Iroquois had moved into the northeast from further south, probably in the 15th or 16h century. Their’s was not the only confederacy in the region: others were the Abenaki and Powhatan confederacies.

In the southeast, the larger tribes included the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole.

The people of the eastern woodlands tended to be semi-nomadic, practicing a mixed economy of hunting, fishing, foraging and farming. Southeastern peoples tended to focus on farming more, using other hunting, foraging and fishing to supplement the diet.  Crops included maize, beans, squash, sunflowers, pumpkins and gourds for food, and tobacco for ceremonial purposes.

Eastern villages and fields were often situated on the banks of rivers, streams and lakes, to give their inhabitants access to fresh water and aquatic food sources. These small settlements tended to move regularly to take advantage of fresh soils to cultivate, as well as new wild resources.

In the northeast, longhouses built of wood formed large communal dwellings, on average about 60 feet long by 18 feet wide. These were used by various Iroquois tribes, and by the Hurons. Other peoples generally lived in smaller wigwams, with longhouses serving as council or ceremonial buildings. To the south, people lived in small huts made of wattle and daub, with thatched or matted roofs.

The eastern woodlands were criss-crossed by a network of well-beaten paths, used for inter-tribal trade. Rivers and lakes were also vital trade arteries. Bark canoes were the main form of water transport: their lightness and portability made them ideal for long-distance inland voyages which involved stretches of overland portage from one waterway to another. To facilitate trade, clam-shells ground into beads and strung into wampum were used as a form of money, as well as for tribal records.

The Southwest cultures

This region is today covered by the states of Arizona and New Mexico, and stretches north into southern Utah and Colorado and south into northern Mexico. This is a dry terrain of mountains, tablelands (mesa) and desert, with steep canyons cutting into the landscape. The vegetation covering is characterized by desert shrub and cactus, and by evergreen trees able to grow in the dry climate, such as pinyon and juniper.

It was in this unpromising environment that farming reached its highest state of development north of Mexico. Indeed, it was this region’s contact with the advanced societies of Mesoamerica, as well as the harsh environment, with its very limited supplies of game and edible plants, that led to the rise of a remarkably sophisticated, irrigation-based agriculture here.

The Archaic Cochise culture gave rise to three major Formative cultures in the region: the Mogollon, Hohokam and Anasazi.

Mogollon culture

The Mogollon culture arose around 300 BCE, and endured until c. 1200 CE. It was the first southwestern culture whose economy was primarily based on agriculture, though small-game hunting remained an important activity (and may have become increasingly so after the adoption of the bow and arrow around 500 CE), as did foraging for wild plants.

From 1200 CE the Mogollon culture was gradually absorbed into the Anasazi culture, which by then had reached a more advanced stage.

Hohokam culture

Meanwhile, to the west of the Mogollon the Hohokam culture had emerged around 100 BC, and shared many of the same characteristics. The distinctive feature of Hohokam culture was an economy based almost entirely on irrigation agriculture.

The Hohokam culture came to a sudden end around 1500 CE. Their descendants are gnereally considered to be the Akimel O’odham (Pima) and Tohon O’odham (Papago) peoples.

Anasazi culture

The Anasazi culture was the most advanced of the southwestern cultures. It emerged to the north east of the Hohokam culture, and at about the same time as. It was from c. 750 CE, however, that the Anasazi developed a new kind of architecture, the pueblo, for which their descendants are still famous.

Post-Anasazi Southwest

The Anasazi culture began to go into decline from about 1300. Many of the survivors moved south and settled in the Rio Grande and Little Colorado valleys. Here they maintained the cultural traditions of the Anasazi and became ancestral to present-day Pueblo peoples such as the Zuni, Keres, Tiwa and Hopi.

Most modern pueblos are located on mesa tops. There are also some villages situated in the desert lowlands, or along rivers. These displayed other types of houses – pole-framed huts covered with plant mats or earth.

Maize was the most important of all crops, perhaps providing more nutrition than all the other crops combined. After maize, the most important food crops were beans and squash. Other crops were not grown for food. Fiber plants such as cotton were a major source of fabrics – only in the southwest of North America were true looms in use. Also, dye plants, ornamental plants, medicinal herbs and stimulants (such as tobacco) were grown.

Other groups have arrived in the region in more recent times, from c. 1000 CE onwards. These came in from the north, following a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Later they took to raiding farming settlements to supplement their diets, and may have played an important part in the decline of the older, more settled cultures. These peoples included the Apache and the Navajo (Dineh). The latter, after contact with the Spanish and their sheep, eventually took to a herding lifestyle.

The Pacific coast

This region comprises the long mountainous coastal strip down the western side of present day Canada and the United States, from the Alaskan panhandle down to southern California. It also includes the Columbia Plateau of the United States/Canadian border, with its streams and rivers flowing down into the Pacific.

The ocean currents keep the climate temperate, and rainfall ranges from very abundant in the north to sparse in the south. Throughout the two thousand miles coastal region, however. the presence of sea life in the ocean and fresh water life in the streams and rivers allowed dense populations and complex societies to grow up at an early date, in the almost complete absence of agriculture (the only crop grown was tobacco).

The Northwest

The northwest in particular was noted for its large villages, warlike chiefdoms and precocious artistic development. The mountainous terrain, punctuated by inlets, islands and inshore channels, led the inhabitants to use the sea as a primary resource, for hunting big sea mammals (whales and seals), fishing, inter-community communication and trade. They used very seaworthy dugout canoes, the biggest of which were almost 100 feet long and able to seat up to 60 people.

The dense tree cover of their homeland also provided the materials for a vast array of other products, and they were master woodworkers. They made roomy plank houses, giant, elaborately decorated totem poles, beautifully carved chests, boxes, masks, bowls and a variety of other items. They also crafted fine baskets, textiles and other goods, including copper objects – a testimony to trade they practiced, as the nearest copper was only available along the Copper River in inland Alaska.

Californian cultures

Further south, the Californian coast also gave rise to a dense hunter-gatherer-fisher population. This landscape was not as mountainous as the northwest, nor the tree cover as dense (and in the south almost disappears). This made wood resources less available. Though wood plank houses similar to those of the Northwest were by no means unknown, particularly in the north, the inhabitants constructed many other kinds of dwellings as well. Among the most common were cone-shaped structures made from poles, and covered with brush, grass and reeds. There were also domed earth-covered pit-houses.

The Columbian Plateau

The peoples of the Columbia Plateau also lived in a land of abundance, with plentiful game and fresh water foods, as well as berries, roots and bulbs. Like the other peoples of the Pacific regions they could easily subsist without cultivating crops. However, they had a more nomadic lifestyle than their coastal neighbours, living in villages of semi-underground, earth-covered pit-houses in cold weather and in temporary shelters of wood frames and mat coverings in warm weather.

The Central Regions: the Great Plains and the Great Basin

These comprise the grasslands of the Great Plains, which stretch from east-west from the Mississippi Valley to the Rocky Mountains, and north-south from Canada to southern Texas, and to their west the desert of the Great Basin, between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada range.

The Great Plains

The Great Plains are covered by a mostly treeless grassland. The rainfall diminishes the further west one goes, from around 40 inches per year to under 10 inches per year, and the grass gets shorter. Throughout its entire length and breadth, however, the Great Plains offered grazing lands for millions upon millions of American bison, generally known as the buffalo.

These grasslands had been home to hunter-gatherer societies since the time of the Plano culture (from c. 8000 BCE, see above), but some scholars think that they were emptied of people in the 13th century, due to prolonged droughts. If so, people returned sometime in the 14th century, and in late pre-contact times, the population was made up of many small, semi-nomadic farming communities along the rivers, of such tribes as the Wichita and Pawnee; and hunter-gatherer tribes such as the Blackfoot and Comanche on the open plains.

The nomadic lifestyle of some of these groups, coupled with the flat, open landscape, enabled them to use dogs to haul supplies on a travois. This was a v-shaped wooden frame, with the pointed end placed over the animal’s shoulders and the open ends dragging on the ground. A plank or webbing in middle created a platform to hold goods.

The Great Basin

In the Great Basin the rainfall falls off to nearly nothing, and the vegetation cover is very sparse. The streams coming off the encircling mountains evaporate in the extreme heat and vanish into “sinks”.

The few inhabitants were hunters of small game such as rabbits, rodents, snakes, lizards and birds; and foragers for edible seeds, nuts, berries, roots and insects. The harsh environment forced on them a continually nomadic existence in the search for food and water, and for materials for basic tools and utensils. They lived in small family groups, dwelling in small cone-shaped structures called “wikiups”, made of a pole frame covered by brush and reeds. At times during the year the various bands met together for communal antelope or rabbit hunts, but their public ceremonial and tribal identity were impoverished compared with those of other Native American peoples.

The North: the Arctic and Subarctic

This region encompasses most of Canada and Alaska.

The Subarctic

The subarctic is made up of northern forest, and is a land of coniferous woodlands, lakes, swamps, rivers and streams. Long, harsh winters are interspersed by all too short summers, plagued by black flies and mosquitoes.

The thin population, consisting of peoples related to other Native Americans to the south. consisted entirely of nomadic hunters and hunter-gatherers: the cold climate made farming impossible. For most, life revolved around the seasonal migration of caribou between the Arctic tundra and the subarctic forests. In the latter, other large animals such as mouse, musk oxen, deer and to south, buffalo could also be hunted. Smaller game included beaver, mink, here, otter and porcupine. Fish and wildfowl supplemented the diet.

The fur and feathers of animals and birds were crucially valuable for warmth. Birch bark was also a valuable material, used for making boats, cooking vessels and other containers.

The most common dwellings were small cone-shaped tents (or tipi) covered in animal hides.

The Arctic

To the north are the tundra and ice fields of the Arctic proper. This was inhabited by small groups who specialized in living in such an inhospitable environment. Between about 2500 BCE to 1000 BCE, Inuit and Aleut groups – who shared many cultural traits and spoke closely-related languages – crossed the Bering Sea from Siberia in small boats and dispersed throughout the Arctic regions.

By the time they arrived in North America they had already developed a lifestyle highly adapted to extreme cold. Hunting sea mammals – whales, seals and walruses – was the primary means of subsistence, supplemented by fishing. Those parts of the animals which were not edible were used for making clothes, houses, sleds, boats, tools, weapons and ceremonial objects; and for cooking fuel (wood being extremely rare).

Dogs were vital to these people. They were used for pulling sleds, sniffing out seals beneath the ice, and tracking land animals.

The typical “Inuit” lifestyle – igloos, kayaks, sleds, dog teams and so on – was that of the groups living on the coast. Other groups lived inland, tracking caribou and fishing freshwater lakes. Yet other groups migrated seasonally to take advantage of both inland and coastal environments.

Adaptations and innovations

The peoples of the Arctic developed specialized clothing for the extreme cold. The skins, furs and intestines of sea mammal, caribou and polar bear were pressed into service for clothing, as were the furs and feathers of small animals and birds. From these materials the Arctic peoples crafted insulated and waterproof trousers, boots and mittens, and tailored hooded parkas to hang loosely over the body – often in double layers for insulation – but to fit snugly at the neck, wrist and ankles. They insulated their mittens with down and moss.

Snowshoes were used in both the Arctic and subarctic; the Inuit also had crampons to walk on ice, and test staffs to judge the strength and thickness of ice.

Kayaks made of hide coverings, mostly walrus or seal, over a whale-rib or wooden framework, were used for hunting expeditions. They were powered by a single person with a double paddle;  some had a front seat for a harpooner or passenger. For transporting people and goods by water, umiaks were used. These were large, open flat-bottomed boats carrying as many as 10 people. They were not suitable for icy conditions, so were only used in summer.

The Inuit lived in temporary settlements, which in summer consisted of wooden- or bone-frames covered in hides. Sometimes large numbers would gather together and form sizeable settlements. In winter, they would scatter again into small family groups to pursue the quarries. When out on the snowfields and ice sheets, they built igloos – dwellings made from blocks of ice, carefully shaped to make a dome-shaped structure.

Early contacts with Europeans

The coming of the Europeans to the Americas was a catastrophe from Native Americans. 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 – for example,  Vazquez de Coronado’s between 1540-42 – explored 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 contact 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 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.

Between the Atlantic and the Appalachians

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.

A cycle of conflict

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. 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 Beaver Wars

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.

The South and West

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%.

Transformations within Native American cultures

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.

New crafts

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..

The horse

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.

Religious fusions

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 merged 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 is still followed 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, was 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.

The American Revolution and after

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.

The trails

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 fro the east coast to the midwest much quicker and easier, and was instrumental in bringing millions of new settlers to the west.

Conflicts between settlers and natives

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 that they could not win. The whites had the technology, the numbers and the organization to overcome them. 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.

The US Army

What this meant in practice was that the US government’s military force, the US Army, was always at their disposal.

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”, or an “Indian Reserve”.

Indian Territory

A variant of this was, even before serious trouble had flared up, for a tribe to 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 Indian Removal Act

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”.

The Trail of Tears

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.

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 problem”, 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.

The Indian Territory

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 taking in all or most of the present-day states of Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. 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.

Continued disruptions

Almost from the outset the Native Americans were not left undisturbed in their new homelands. Their communities were disrupted by settlers of the trails passing through; the Oregon Trail, for example, ran straight through the Indian Territory. More disruption was to follow. In 1854 the northern part became the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. In 1862 the Homestead Act opened Indian lands in these territories to smallholders, who were granted 160 acres of land as their own after five years working the land. In 1866 the tribes in Kansas were relocated south to present-day Oklahoma.

The West

From the 1850s, the West began to be opened up in earnest to white settlement. 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.

Wars and reservations

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.

The destruction of the buffalo

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.

Religious movements of resistance

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.

Ghost Dance

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 into family-held farms. Native tribesmen would be turned into American homesteaders.

The General Allotment Act

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 nit 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, the 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.

Métis resistance

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 renounce 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.


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