Study Guide

Native American History Introduction

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Native American History Introduction

In 1783, the United States was a new nation of about 3 million people living, for the most part, along the Atlantic seaboard. Native Americans, perhaps numbering around 600,000, controlled most lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. 

In classic American fashion, by 1890, a bit more than a century later, the United States stretched from "sea to shining sea" and was home to some 66 million people. But only 250,000 Native Americans remained, most of them living on reservations holding just a fraction of the land they once controlled.

Would you be surprised if we told you that many Native Americans, were not happy with this new arrangement? Some even refused to leave their land. So, force was used.

In the century between, waves of western settlers pounded against the borders of Native American lands. But the course of events that led to this narrative of conquest was not inevitable. It didn't have to be this way, guys. 

See, America's first president, George Washington, and his Secretary of War Henry Knox claimed to respect Native American rights and promised to secure Native American lands for white settlement only through treaty and purchase.

Later, politicians and philanthropists also rose to oppose Andrew Jackson's removal policies during the 1830s. Still, by 1840, the great majority of the eastern Native Americans had been relocated to lands west of the Mississippi River. And in the second half of the 19th century, homesteaders, miners, and railroad companies, assisted by the United States Army, encroached on the lands supposedly set aside for the Native Americans into perpetuity.

At most every turn, Native Americans found themselves overwhelmed by Anglo-Americans' financial and military resources. But their response to events was neither one-dimensional nor defeatist. 

Some tried diplomacy. Others turned to religion. Still others tried to deflate white antagonism by embracing the economic and cultural values of their enemies. Some worked the legal system skillfully. Others found success in war. Some even turned philanthropists' well-intentioned but ethnocentric plans for their assimilation into a basis for political organization.

In short, the road leading up to Andrew Jackson's ordered Trail of Tears—the event most of us recall—was a long one: from the Revolution to various treaties, all the way to the Indian Removal Act. 

Native Americans suffered a collective tragedy over the course of the 19th century, but their stories can't be simply condensed into one master narrative of defeat and decimation. To understand what happened to the American Indian, we need to look at the lives of the many Native Americans—and whites—that contributed to this multi-faceted story.

What is Native American History About and Why Should I Care?

Native Americans were here first, but those Americans who arrived later have never gotten their story quite right. 

From the moment Columbus stepped off his boat in the Bahamas and called the people he met there "Indios"—meaning "people of India"—Native Americans have been misrepresented, stereotyped, and simplified. Puritans assumed they were consorting with the devil in the forest. White expansionists branded them ruthless warriors. Even their 19th-century defenders often described them as "noble savages."

In the 20th century, many historians tried to correct these false narratives. But they often cast  Native Americans as hapless victims—too trusting and too simple to defend themselves against the malevolent forces of white expansion.

  • But Alexander McGillivray, a Creek chief, was a skilled diplomat.
  • Major Ridge was a committed and talented Cherokee nation builder.
  • Tenskwatawa was a shrewd Shawnee negotiator, skilled at playing competing European powers against one another.
  • Henry Standing Bear was a far-sighted Lakota political organizer.
  • And Wovoka, a charismatic Paiute preacher from western Nevada, inspired a religious-political movement that spread from California to the Dakotas.

The United States Bureau of Indian Affairs currently recognizes 562 different tribes. And linguists estimate that several hundred distinct Native-American languages, falling into roughly 60 language families, were spoken by North America's native populations at one time. 

In other words, Native American history can't be fully captured in just a few stories. But it's the only way to start.

Native American History Resources


R. David Edmunds, The Shawnee Prophet (1983)
Tenskwatawa, the younger brother of Tecumseh, the legendary Shawnee leader, is the focus of this useful and interesting book. Edmunds explores the nationalist vision of this Native American prophet, the conditions that contributed to his ascendance, and the rise and fall of the movement he initiated.

Michael Hittman and Don Lynch, Wovoka and the Ghost Dance (1997)
This is the best book on the Paiute mystic and the revival of the Ghost Dance in the 1890s. Based on meticulous research, including interviews with family members, the authors build a compelling and authoritative narrative.

William McLoughlin, Cherokee Renascence in the New Republic (1992)
McLouglin traces the nation building efforts of the Cherokees from the late-19th century through Worcester v. Georgia. He sets these efforts against an interesting introduction to Cherokee culture and society in the decades preceding.

Ronald Satz, American Indian Policy in the Jacksonian Era (1974)
This book offers the most balanced and useful review of Jackson's Native American policies. Satz provides a thoughtful exploration of the positions assumed by Jackson and the other participants in the debate over removal. The complications that plagued the removal process itself are also thoroughly discussed.

Thurman Wilkins, Cherokee Tragedy: The Ridge Family and the Decimation of a People (1989)
Wilkins offers a more sympathetic treatment of the Cherokee signers of the Treaty of New Echota than most other historians. Placing Major Ridge's decision within the context of a lifetime of nation-building efforts, Wilkins suggests there was more tragedy than treason within his actions.


Henry Knox
Secretary of War Henry Knox.

Major Ridge
The Cherokee nationalist "executed" for signing the treaty of New Echota.

The Carlisle Industrial Indian School
Students at the Carlisle school, circa 1890.

"Kill the Indian, Save the Man"
Tom Torlino before and after his "education" at the Carlisle Industrial Indian School.

Last in His Class
George Armstrong Custer as a West Point Cadet. He graduated last in his class in 1861.

Sitting Bull
The Lakota hero of the Little Big Horn.

The Paiute mystic responsible for the revival of the Ghost Dance during the 1890s.

The Ghost Dance
This Frederic Remington illustration appeared in Harper's Weekly three weeks before Wounded Knee.

Wounded Knee
The corpse-strewn battlefield at Wounded Knee. This photographer identified this as the body of the "medicine man." According to many accounts, white soldiers panicked when the medicine man Yellow Bird began the Ghost Dance.

Movies & TV

We Shall Remain (2009)
This five-part series traces Native Americans' efforts to defend their lands and rights from the seventh century through the 1970s.

Little Big Man (1970)
This film, based on a somewhat far-fetched premise—an interview with Jack Crabb, 121 years old and the only white survivor of the Little Big Horn—turns Western mythology upside down in recounting Crabb's life. At times hilarious, at others tragic, the film avoids both traditional stereotypes of the Native American: bloodthirsty warrior and noble savage.

The Searchers (1956)
Filmed in Monument Valley, directed by John Ford, and starring John Wayne, this is considered one of the great Westerns. Ethan Edwards sets out to rescue his niece, who was kidnapped by Native Americans. His search, however, turns into a quest to kill her when he learns that she's done the unthinkable: married a Native American man. Some critics argue that Ford's message was a complex commentary on racism. Even if true, it's doubtful that 1950s audiences caught the nuances.


Cherokee Nation
The Cherokee Nation maintains an informative website with a history page containing short essays, biographies of important figures, and numerous documents.

Carlisle Industrial Indian School
Public historian Barbara Landis had constructed a useful site on the Carlisle Industrial Indian School. Photographs, a virtual tour of the school grounds, extracts from the school newsletter, and a bibliography are available.

The Ghost Dance
A great introduction to the Ghost Dance, including eyewitness accounts, are made available here.

National Archive Images
Almost 200 photographs are made available here by the National Archive.

Historical Documents

Native American Treaties and Laws
Texts of all treaties negotiated with Native Americans and all laws pertaining to Native Americans through 1883 can be accessed through this site.

Cherokee Documents
The history page on the official site of the Cherokee Nation contains numerous documents including texts of all of major treaties and letters from first president John Ross.

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