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Trying to describe all Native Americans, as opposed to distinct tribes that differed vastly in their language, culture, and religious beliefs, would only contribute to centuries of misunderstanding. Historians have spent years researching and writing about the rich cultures Native Americans had before the white settlers wiped them out. So, instead of doing an analysis that would either be scarily insufficient or one million pages long (there is no in-between), we'll recommend some sources you could look into.
Obviously, start here. It's brief, it's engaging and informative, and it's ours.
For more in-depth research, the best place to look is a website by the First Nations Development Institute. In honor of Native American Heritage Month (which is November, btw) they've compiled lists of the best books to read in order to gain some insight into various aspects of Native American culture, categorized for easy searches.
And there's one more book we've gotta make sure you read. It's called Lies My Teacher Told Me.
This is a crucial Step One for any burgeoning history buff, because it's not only entertaining as all get out, but insanely informative. Its author, James Loewen, spent years researching twelve leading high school textbooks on American History, and found "an embarrassing amalgam of bland optimism, blind patriotism, and misinformation pure and simple" (source). So he corrected them, and the result is mind-boggling. Check it out.
Last but definitely not least, check out the website of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. There are videos, historical documents, stories, and lots of images. It's fun, interactive, and instructive. One of the exhibits, titled simply "Americans," tries to answer the question of how we've grappled with the challenge of knowing that the creation of the United States happened at great cost to the native population.
Prior to Christopher Columbus's arrival on the shores of our nation (which he thought was India, by the way…#fail), Native Americans had lived on, hunted, and cultivated the land for thousands of years. They had intricate systems of social hierarchy, responsibility, governance, and religion. Some tribes got along well with others, some didn't. They had different languages, customs, and beliefs. In other words: they were pretty dang civilized.
Unfortunately, the people coming over by the boatload from Europe perceived the Native Americans as backwards, pagan, and highly uncivilized. The settlers wanted the land and so did the tribes. So, the settlers gradually kicked them out of the lands that they wanted, tried to teach them "better" ways to live, and started finding ways to ensure that the Indians wouldn't be a threat to their way of life. The U.S. government cooperated in passing laws that made all that possible.
When the first settlers arrived at Jamestown and Plymouth, they probably wouldn't have survived as long as they did without the assistance of the local tribes. But once the original inhabitants of Virginia, Massachusetts, etc., realized that the Europeans were going to keep coming and taking their land—and that the treaties they signed with the new U.S. government weren't going to be honored—things took a turn.
After years of deadly skirmishes between the Native Americans and the settlers gradually encroaching westward, Americans realized that full-on warfare wasn't necessarily the easiest way to go about it. The way to really get rid of the tribes was to legislate their forcible removal from all that rich southern farmland so that whites could have it. President Andrew Jackson did just that, even though the tribes there had gone along with long-standing policies of acculturation—they were the "Five Civilized Tribes."
Even that didn't save them.
Jackson's policy of removal made the reservation the new strategy for containing the Native Americans. Then came the Dawes Act, dismantling even the reservations.
It took until 1934 for the allotment system to be abolished, but the problems didn't end there. In the Eisenhower era, the government's policy was "Indian termination." The government revoked its recognition of many tribes and gave states jurisdiction over the reservations. Federal aid for health care and education was terminated, and tribal members were "encouraged" to move to the cities.
Lyndon Johnson ended this policy and restored sovereignty in 1968, a time that coincided with the resurgence of Native American activism and attempt to reclaim their culture, identity and sovereignty.
That same year saw the founding of the American Indian Movement, a group fighting for the civil rights and self-determination of the American tribes, as well as for the protection of their lands and sacred sites from things like uranium mining and oil pipelines. Oh yeah, and to question the use of those stereotyped mascots for sports teams.
Despite all these historical attempts to eradicate the American Indians and absorb them into mainstream society, they've survived. There are 568 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. today. In 2004, the National Museum of the American Indian opened on the National Mall to educate and raise consciousness about the nation's complicated history with its original inhabitants. Organizations like the American Indian Movement and the National Congress of American Indians advocate for educational and economic development and tribal self-determination, and teach the next generation about their history and culture.
And this just in: the Cleveland Indians are dropping their ridiculous Chief Wahoo logo from their uniforms in 2019.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that when it comes to the government or private companies wanting to mine or lay oil pipelines through American Indian territory, the tribes can protest but they can be overruled. (For a perspective on the sordid history of Native American land management issues, presented by the people most affected, check out this website.)
The most recent instance is the Standing Rock confrontation, where tribal members and their allies gathered to protest the laying of the Dakota Access Pipeline through lands claimed as sacred archaeological and burial sites, a pipeline that could pose serious threats to the water supply on Native American land. Tear gas, attack dogs, and water cannons were used on the people protesting in the crazy-cold North Dakota winter.
And the Washington Redskins are still the Washington Redskins. "It's honoring our heritage," supporters say. But as Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian puts it, "Heritage is history with all the bad parts taken out" (source).
Btw, oil is now flowing through the Dakota Access Pipeline.