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A Tribal Rite
Salma the Priest Woman buried the salmon bones carefully. It was her religious duty to do so. Salma was a member of the Makah tribe. The Makahs lived along the coast of what is now the state of Washington. The Pacific Ocean and the rivers that run into it made this good country for fishing.
Fishing for salmon and halibut was important to the Makahs. It touched upon every aspect of their culture. Culture is the way of life of a people. Salmon became almost sacred to the Indians of the Pacific Northwest. That is why Salma treated the bones of the fish in such a respectful manner.
When Europeans first came to America, there were at least 200 different Indian tribes in the territory that would become the United States. Each tribe had its own distinctive culture. Such a culture set each tribe apart from other tribal groups.
Some tribes, however,shared certain ways of doing things with other tribes in the same area. This occurred because nearby tribes shared the same environment. Environment means everything in an area--land, water, plants, animals, and climate. These physical surroundings are important to any group. This is especially true of the Indians because they had few means of changing their physical surroundings.
The environment of the Makahs favored fishing, so salmon became an important part of their lives. In fact, salmon was the word for "fish" among several of the Indian tribes of the Northwest. In the dry Southwest, of course, fishing played little or no part in the lives of the tribes living there.
Farming in North America
At the time that Europeans came, most North American Indians knew how to grow a few crops. Maize, squash, and beans were the most common. Nevertheless, crops varied, depending on the climate where a tribe lived. Indians of the Southwest could grow cotton. In the Southeast, tobacco was grown.
Indians worked out ways to grow better crops. Eastern Woodland Indians used dead fish as fertilizer when planting maize or beans. The Pueblo Indians and other tribes in the dry Southwest knew how to irrigate their fields.
Most Indian tribes stayed in the same place for only a few years. A tribe suffering from unusual weather conditions would move to escape from drought, or too much rain or cold. Also, tribes would have to move if their ways of farming wore out the soil. Occasionally a tribe would lose its crops because of raids by stronger, more aggressive Indians. This might force them to move to a safer place.
Since certain Indian tribes often moved, they seldom built permanent homes. An exception is the pueblos, which you read about earlier. Pueblos were built of stone or adobe, which is a brick made of sun-dried earth and straw. Even though most pueblos were abandoned by the time the first Europeans came to America, a few are still used.People have lived in Oraibi, a pueblo in Arizona, for more than 800 years. About 600 people still live there. Oraibi is thought to be the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States.
In the Pacific Northwest, cedar trees were plentiful. So Indians there built their shelters of cedar boards or logs. The cedar was fitted or tied together because the Indians had no metal nails.
In the wooded lands of the Northeast and the Great Lakes region, lodges were made from logs, branches, and the bark of trees. Deer hides might have been stretched over cracks to keep out the winter cold.
The area bordering the Gulf of Mexico had a hot, humid climate. Therefore, Indians in this region usually built their houses without walls so cooling breezes could enter. Poles supported roofs made of wood, bark, thatch, or reeds.
Culture of the Plains Indians
At first, Indians living on the western plains hunted and farmed in much the same way as Indians to the east and south. But their culture changed as buffalo herds increased in numbers. The Indians trailed the herds and cleverly invented ways to bring down the big animals. Sometimes the Indians surrounded a herd and drove it over a cliff. At other times, a hunter wrapped himself in a buffalo skin and crept close enough to the herd to kill one or more animals with a bow and arrows.
Following the herds made it necessary to have shelters that were light and easy to carry. To make such shelters the women stitched buffalo hides together. Then they stretched the hides over a framework of poles. This form of dwelling was called a tepee.
The women not only provided the basic dwelling but also did the cooking. They prepared rich buffalo meat, using buffalo stomachs as cooking pots. To serve the food, they used ladles and spoons made from buffalo horns.
With the arrival of Europeans in America, the buffalo became even more important in the lives of the Plains Indians. The use of horses and guns brought to America by the Europeans made buffalo hunting much easier. In later years the Plains Indians became almost totally dependent on the buffalo for their livelihood.
Culture of the Eastern Woodland Indians
In the eastern region the Indians also practiced farming. They cleared trees to make fields where they raised beans, corn, pumpkins, and squash. They fished in the streams, and those who lived near the ocean gathered shellfish.
The Eastern Woodland Indians hunted deer. They ate venison, the meat of the deer. They made the deer hides into clothing and the antlers into arrowpoints. But they never became as dependent on deer as the Plains Indians became on buffalo. Yet, like the Plains Indians, the Eastern Woodland Indians made the best use of the animals and natural resources.
The Five Nations
The Iroquois lived in what is today the state of New York. The Iroquois were not a single tribe but rather a confederacy. In a confederacy, several groups join in a loose union to act together for certain purposes. The Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca tribes were members of the confederacy. At the beginning the main purpose of the Iroquois Confederacy was to stop warfare among the five tribes, or the Five Nations as they called themselves.
In the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy, women occupied a unique position. Like women in other tribes, they cultivated the crops, prepared food, made clothing, and took care of the children. In addition, Iroquois women chose the 50 sachems, or chiefs, who met as a council each year to discuss matters of common concern. The Senecas sent 8 representatives; the Cayugas, 10; the Onondagas, 14; and the Mohawk and Oneidas, 9 each to this council. Each tribe voted as a unit, and each had its own special tasks within the confederacy. The two war chiefs were always Senecas. The meeting place for the council was in the territory of the Onondagas. They had charge of the central council fires and always kept them burning.
Each tribe was made up of several families, or groups of families. Each village had a governing council. The women chose the members of this council, just as they chose the 50 sachems of the confederacy council. The members of all the councils were men, though. Iroquois families lived in villages of from 10 to 50 families, numbering 50 to 250 people. A palisade, or fence of sharpened logs, enclosed the village. Outside the palisade lay the fields where the women cultivated and tended rows or corn, squash, and pumpkins.
Indians in the Americas had made different kinds of adjustments before the arrival of the Europeans. Some tribes had risen to more advanced levels of civilization. Others had remained at lower levels.
Except for the Mayas and the Aztecs, the tribes in early America did not develop a written language. What they knew was passed on by word of mouth. The wheel was not known to the Native Americans. Nor was the secret of exploding gunpowder. Thus, Indians had no guns.
Except for the Incas, Indians lacked large animals for transportation or use as beasts of burden. In the Andes, the Incas had trained wild llamas. These animals were probably descendants of prehistoric camels. Like the small horses that once roamed the plains of North America, the camels had become extinct. But llamas were much less useful than the horses, oxen, and mules brought to America by the Europeans.
Adapting to the Environment
Still, the Indians had the knowledge and skills that enabled them to survive in the Americas. Outsiders coming to these continents at first had to learn from the Indians.
American Indians had great respect for nature. Their religions differed from tribe to tribe, from culture to culture. But all the religions showed in many ways the Indians' respect for the natural wonders they saw about them.
American Indians had a long history in what came to be called the New World. Of course, to the Indians it was really a very old world. They had developed complex civilizations that had adapted to various environments in the Americas. Some of these civilizations, to be sure, had declined or vanished entirely. But so had other civilizations elsewhere.
A Clash of Civilizations
In Europe a new kind of civilization had developed by the fifteenth century. It was a rising civilization, ready to expand its influence. This Western civilization, as it has been called, put a high value on technology. Technology is the amount of scientific knowledge and the kinds of tools a people have. Some of this technology had been borrowed from cultures in Africa and Asia. Some had been invented or improved upon by the Europeans.
Whatever the sources, Western technology was more advanced than that of the Indian cultures of the Americas. In any conflict between the Indians and the European settlers, the Europeans' technology would give them a big advantage. In basic values, however, American Indian civilizations were at least an even match for Western civilization.
Indeed, today there are many parts of the Americas showing a blend of Western and Indian civilizations. Thousands of names for cities, states, lakes, mountains, and rivers throughout the Americas are taken from Indian languages. Half the states in our nation have Indian names. Americans daily use such Indian words as squash, tobacco, chipmunk, skunk, moose, pecan, woodchuck, and toboggan. Phrases such as "walking Indian file" and "enjoying Indian summer" are frequently heard.
In spite of Western civilization's superior technology, the first European explorers and colonists had to learn from the Indians. Indians taught them how to plant, fish, and hunt in the Americas. Indian medicine men and women often were called on to doctor pioneer colonists when no other physicians were available. The Indians' knowledge of herbs and plants as medicines proved enormously useful to grateful pioneers.
Today we are still making use of Indian knowledge and skills. Indian jewelry designs are popular. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts learn Indian woodcraft. Today's conservation movements owe much to Indian ideas of the relationship between human beings and nature. Books, movies, and television make use of Indian themes. Unfortunately, the way Indian history, culture, and characters are portrayed is often inaccurate. Sometimes it seems as if Western civilization overwhelmed the Indians. Actually, there is evidence all around us to show that the civilization of the Native Americans has had a lasting influence.
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- Physical evidence indicates that the first Americans probably came from Asia by crossing a land bridge thousands of years ago.
- Carbon dating has proved to be the best method of finding out when ancient peoples were living in the Americas.
- Agriculture enabled the Indians to develop civilizations because they no longer had to search for food.
- The Mayas, the Aztecs, the Incas, the Pueblo Indians, and the Mound Builders were among the more advanced Indian civilizations to develop in the Americas.
- Very little is known about the Mound Builders' civilization and disappearance because they left no written records.
- A tribe's environment affected it life-style, type of dwelling, and diet. It also affected its cultural development.
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