The people who discovered America were the nomadic ancestors of modern Native Americans. Scholars believe that, over the course of thousands of years, they migrated from Asia to the region now known as Alaska.
Gradually, they moved south and east, finding creative ways to survive and thrive in deserts, forests, grasslands, and along coastlines. Native Americans were excellent hunters and farmers who built towns and sophisticated systems of trading.
By the 1400s, when European explorers began to arrive, it is estimated that more than 50 million people were already living in the Americas, 10 million of whom lived in what is now the United States.
Native Americans’ Initial Relationship with Europeans
When Columbus landed on a Caribbean island in 1492, he mistakenly called the people he encountered there “Indios”, because he thought he’d arrived in India. Ever since, Native Americans have been stereotyped, misrepresented and oversimplified. They were considered to be ruthless warriors or, at best, noble savages.
The Native Americans soon began using the new items the European visitors had brought. They traded animal hides and pelts for dyed cloth, axes, knives and guns, among other things.
Because the European settlers needed workers for construction and farming, they began to trade tools and weapons with tribes who would bring them slaves – other Native Americans who had been captured in tribal wars. Prior to 1700, in the Carolinas, one-in-four enslaved people were Native American – sent to work in the Caribbean or New England.
How the Land Became Colonised by Europeans
In 1607, Jamestown was established as the first permanent English settlement in North America. The unprepared settlers dealt with famine and perished in great numbers, despite stealing food from the Native Americans.
The introduction of European diseases was completely devastating to the Native American populace. Having no immunity to these foreign diseases, some 90% of the indigenous population may have died from outbreaks of European illnesses.
Why Native American-European Conflict Began
As more white settlers arrived, more lands were taken, and so the Native American’s began to defend themselves. The tribes’ responses varied widely and included diplomacy, religion, assimilation, legal recourse, political organisation, and war.
When the United States officially became a nation, its inaugural president, George Washington, promised to use official treaties and purchases to attain Native American lands for white settlement. Despite this, settlers continued to invade Native American lands.
By 1840, the vast majority of eastern tribes had been pushed to lands west of the Mississippi River. The US Army assisted in forcefully invading lands that had supposedly been designated to Native Americans. US President Andrew Jackson’s infamous Trail of Tears began symbolically with the American Revolution, continued with various unjust treaties, and culminated in the Indian Removal Act.
What Happened to Native Americans in the 20th Century
By the late 19th century, the United States stretched to the West coast and its population had grown to 66 million. A mere 250,000 Native Americans remained, and most of them had been forcefully moved to reservations. They only had access to a small fraction of the land they once dominated.
US citizenship for Native Americans was limited and dependent upon unfair factors, such as whether people were veterans, women, or had a spouse who was a citizen. This changed in 1924 with the Indian Citizenship Act, which granted citizenship to all Native Americans born in the territorial limits of the country.
In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Indian Civil Rights Act into law (alongside civil rights legislation for African Americans), which gave Native Americans access to the Bill of Rights. Despite this apparent move forward, a 1969 report called Indian education a ‘national tragedy’.
The US government had started sending Native Americans to boarding schools in the 1870s. They were viewed as savages who should be required to send their children to schools by any means necessary. In the 1920s, a report stated that the students at federal boarding schools were abused in many ways—overworked, malnourished, harshly punished and poorly educated. These children returned to their homes and families having been robbed of their culture and identity. As some started families of their own, they were more likely to pass on these patterns of abuse, tragically creating cycles of broken families.
How Native Americans Live Now
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 4.5 million Native Americans live in the United States today – making up about 1.5% of the total population. Currently, 562 tribes are recognised by the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs. Linguists estimate that, prior to colonisation, around 60 Native American language families (consisting of several hundred distinct languages) were spoken. Many of these languages have died out or are at risk of extinction, as the fluent speakers of the older generations pass away.
It has been approximated that just 22% of Native Americans live on reservations and retain some of their ancient traditions. The remaining 78% (approx.) are scattered across the US. Many people of Native American descent long to know more about their ancestors and reconnect with their waning culture.
Native Americans have suffered a collective tragedy over the past 500 years, and the oppression continues to the present day. Much of the youth on reservations live with serious poverty and lack of opportunities, resulting in high rates of unemployment, suicide, violence, alcoholism, drug addiction and abuse.