A History of the Indians of the United States

A History of the Indians of the United States

by Angie Debo

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In 1906 when the Creek Indian Chitto Harjo was protesting the United States government's liquidation of his tribe's lands, he began his argument with an account of Indian history from the time of Columbus, "for, of course, a thing has to have a root before it can grow." Yet even today most intelligent non-Indian Americans have little knowledge of Indian history and


In 1906 when the Creek Indian Chitto Harjo was protesting the United States government's liquidation of his tribe's lands, he began his argument with an account of Indian history from the time of Columbus, "for, of course, a thing has to have a root before it can grow." Yet even today most intelligent non-Indian Americans have little knowledge of Indian history and affairs those lessons have not taken root.

This book is an in-depth historical survey of the Indians of the United States, including the Eskimos and Aleuts of Alaska, which isolates and analyzes the problems which have beset these people since their first contacts with Europeans. Only in the light of this knowledge, the author points out, can an intelligent Indian policy be formulated.

In the book are described the first meetings of Indians with explorers, the dispossession of the Indians by colonial expansion, their involvement in imperial rivalries, their beginning relations with the new American republic, and the ensuing century of war and encroachment.

The most recent aspects of government Indian policy are also detailed the good and bad administrative practices and measures to which the Indians have been subjected and their present situation.

Miss Debo's style is objective, and throughout the book the distinct social environment of the Indians is emphasized—an environment that is foreign to the experience of most white men. Through ignorance of that culture and life style the results of non-Indian policy toward Indians have been centuries of blundering and tragedy.

In response to Indian history, an enlightened policy must be formulated: protection of Indian land, vocational and educational training, voluntary relocation, encouragement of tribal organization, recognition of Indians' social groupings, and reliance on Indians' abilities to direct their own lives.

The result of this new policy would be a chance for Indians to live now, whether on their own land or as adjusted members of white society. Indian history is usually highly specialized and is never recorded in books of general history. This book unifies the many specialized volumes which have been written about their history and culture. It has been written not only for persons who work with Indians or for students of Indian culture, but for all Americans of good will.

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University of Oklahoma Press
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Civilization of the American Indian Series
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5.95(w) x 9.06(h) x 1.03(d)

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A History of the Indians of the United States

By Angie Debo


Copyright © 1970 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8965-9



They were a people beginning—
With beliefs,
Ornament, language, fables, love of children
(You will find that spoken of in all the books.)
And a scheme of life that worked.

Although these aboriginal Americans varied widely from the "western" stereotype—they did not all live in tipis, wear Sioux war bonnets, or speak one "Indian language"—yet they had many common characteristics. These have influenced their history, persist to the present day in their descendants, and form their unique contribution to the American spirit.

Notable was their adaptation to their physical environment. While the white man sought to dominate and change the natural setting, the Indian subordinated himself to it. Geronimo, the wild Apache raider, looking back on his loved homeland after years of exile expressed it thus:

"For each tribe of men Usen created He also made a home. In the land for any particular tribe He placed whatever would be best for the welfare of that tribe.

"When Usen created the Apaches He also gave them their homes in the West. He gave them such grain, fruits, and game as they needed to eat.... He gave them a pleasant climate and all they needed for clothing and shelter was at hand.

"Thus it was in the beginning: the Apaches and their homes each created for the other by Usen himself. When they are taken from these homes they sicken and die."

Incidentally, this upside-down logic, this reversal of cause and effect as the white man would see it, is also typically Indian. The Indian thought with his emotions instead of his mind. But his feelings were—and are—true. He had an integrity of spirit deeper than conscious reasoning.

Geronimo's statement hints at another Indian characteristic, his love for his homeland, which amounted to a mystical identification with it. This is difficult for the white man to understand. When Garry, of the Spokanes of eastern Washington, said, "I was born by these waters. The earth here is my mother," he was not using a poetic figure of speech; he was stating what he felt to be the literal truth. Toohoolhoolzote, a chief of the Nez Percés, fighting to keep his land, said, "The earth is part of my body and I never gave up the earth." Fifteen hundred miles away in embryo Oklahoma, a region as remote to Garry and Toohoolhoolzote as the other side of the moon, Eufaula Harjo exhorted the participants in the ceremonials of the old Creek town of Tulsa, "The mountains and hills, that you see, are your backbone, and the gullies and the creeks, which are between the hills and mountains, are your heart veins." When the white man cut up this living entity with his surveying instruments, the Indian felt the horror of dismemberment.

All this, in a way not subject to analysis, was a part of the Indian's religion, for he was deeply religious. The familiar shapes of earth, the changing sky, the wild animals he knew, were joined with his own spirit in mystical communion. The powers of nature, the personal quest of the soul, the acts of daily life, the solidarity of the tribe—all were religious, and were sustained by dance and ritual.

Out of all this grew the feeling for beauty that makes the modern Indian superbly gifted in the various art forms. It is not an accident that a disproportionate number of Indians are among the great American dancers. The steps and discipline of the ballet are foreign to native experience, but the feel is there. Indian laborers are in demand as strawberry pickers in the Oklahoma Ozarks, for nobody but an Indian would arrange a box of berries with an eye to artistic effect. The beautiful penmanship of beginning Indian children is well known. A freighter on the Chisholm Trail visiting the Cheyenne school at Concho, Indian Territory, in 1880, recorded his impressions: "Their writing and drawing would beat the Kansas schools, but in spelling and arithmetic they are lost." This of young Indians only five years removed from life on the buffalo plains.

The Indians' eloquence in the use of language, even when clumsily interpreted, has been marked throughout their history. Now this sensibility joined with education and skill in English usage is finding modern literary expression. In the Institute of American Indian Arts, a new specialized boarding school for Indian teenagers at Santa Fe, is a small class in creative writing. New Mexico State University conducts an annual Creative Writing Awards Program open to high school students throughout the state. In a recent year there were 816 entries, of which eighteen were selected by the university for publication; and of these eighteen, six were the contributions of Institute students. One-third of the eighteen who placed out of the 816!

Their teacher, Terry Allen of the T. D. Allen husband-wife writing team, started them out on a combination of fact and imagination for their first assignment: "The story of your life from the time you were born until you are thirty years old." A Navaho boy, who had known no English until he started to school, wrote with such perceptive insight that she encouraged him to complete the story and publish it. The resulting book has been characterized as a succession of "sharp-edged images ... providing glimpses of meaning that few non-Indians have ever seen before." Once, preparing to write, the young writer "got wound up" by dashing off a poem about a winged seed that drifted to his desk:

The drifting lonely seed,
Came past my barred window,
Whirling orbit, it landed before me,
As though it were a woolly lamb—
Untouched, untamed, and alone—
Walked atop my desk, stepping daintily.

These young Institute students are not a selected group; or rather the selection is in reverse. In many cases they have been sent to boarding school because of a disrupted home situation. And their achievements in painting, sculpture, ceramics, design, music, and drama are as astounding as their literary expression.

This Indian creativity has received striking recent recognition in the awarding of the 1969 Pulitzer Prize in fiction to N. Scott Momaday for his novel, House Made of Dawn. It depicts the adjustment problems of a returned Indian war veteran torn between his native heritage and the world outside. The thirty-five-year-old author is a former Oklahoman, the son of a fullblood Kiowa artist father and a French-English-Choctaw mother.

None of this helped the Indians in their encounter with the white man. On the contrary, their temperamental and personality traits were a handicap. Industrious and thrifty in their own way, they lacked the ruthless driving force of the invading race and they had no experience to meet it. In 1906, shortly before Oklahoma statehood, when all that new frontier was bursting with a frenzy of development and the Indians were left stranded and helpless, Pleasant Porter, the wise old mixed-blood chief of the Creeks, made a thoughtful analysis to a committee of the United States Senate. "It is a complex problem, gentlemen. ... You are the evolution of thousands of years, perhaps.... We both probably started at the same point, but our paths diverged, and the influences to which we were subjected varied, and we see the result."

Even now Indian children do not want to "show off" in the classroom, and the Indian with a good job is pulled down by the needs of his numerous relatives. For 350 years an attempt has been made—a faltering attempt, but always present—to acquaint the Indians with the white Americans' economic techniques, but they have produced few business or industrial leaders. Even an organizing genius like Tecumseh depended upon emotional appeal and a mystical union with the unseen world rather than a drive for prestige.

There was one exception in many tribes—the attainment of distinction through war honors. Thus war as an exciting contest of courage and skill was a necessity. One time in 1724 the Creeks offered to mediate between the Senecas and the Cherokees, who were having a good time collecting each other's hair, but the Senecas explained that they could not afford to make peace, "We have no people to war against nor yet no meal to eat but the Cherokees." In their more deadly wars with the white man, chiefs convinced that peace was their only salvation always complained that they could not restrain their "crazy young men." Actually that was the only way in which these youths could rise to advancement in the tribe. This warriors' code probably accounts for the admiration they often felt for army officers and their willingness to enlist as scouts, sometimes even against their own people. But the thirst for military glory was not universal. Many tribes, like the sedentary Pueblos, fought bravely, but only in self-defense. Peace making was a highly emotional procedure involving beads and tobacco and other esoteric symbols.

In his relations with the white man the Indian had little capacity for compromise, for pliant yielding to the inevitable in order to salvage what he could. He entered into a treaty and learned its provisions and never admitted its abrogation. When the populous tribes of the Gulf and southern Appalachian region were removed to the present Oklahoma, their treaties guaranteed that their tribal autonomy would be perpetual. But conditions changed, their country was flooded with white settlers, and Congress liquidated the Indian regime in preparation for statehood. Two excerpts from many pages of testimony, taken through interpreters, before an unsympathetic senatorial committee illustrate the working of the fullblood mind—its dogged persistence, its strong religious trust (by this time these Indians were Christians), and, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, its ultimate dependence upon the good faith of the American government.

Redbird Smith, a Cherokee, showed the senators a photograph of the original patent to his tribe and an eagle feather that had been given to his great-grandfather at the negotiation of the removal treaty. He insisted, "I say that I will never change; before our God, I won't. It extends to Heaven, the great treaty that has been made with the Government of the United States. Our treaty wherever it extends is respected by the Creator, God. Our nations and governments all look to our God."

Said Willis F. Toby, a Choctaw fullblood, "I am still faithful to the Great Father of the United States, who made this treaty with the Indians, and I am faithful to that treaty, and the Almighty God that rules the world, I trust in him, and he will stand as the guardian of my people."

They never did change. Twenty-five years later they were still sending delegations to Washington working to erase the vigorous, growing state of Oklahoma from the map and restore the old untroubled life that had gone forever. Obviously, in view of the relative strength of the two races, the refusal to adjust to the irrevocable was very damaging to their own interests.

This same habit of quiet withdrawal was—and still is—used in other circumstances. The Indian wanted to be with his own people, to preserve his inner values, his cultural integrity. To this desire he owes his remarkable record of survival, the preservation of his distinctive identity, through centuries of encroachment by a more numerous and aggressive race; but it has been baffling to well-meaning "civilizers" determined to throw him into the melting pot. White settlers come in to a thriving Indian Baptist or Methodist church and innocently attempt to integrate it. The result is a white congregation with no Indian members. A home demonstration agent has an enthusiastic club of Indian women—good housekeepers from primitive times, they are eager to learn more effective methods. Then an order comes from above to integrate them with the white home extension clubs of the community. They quietly quit.

Passive resistance was carried to the ultimate extreme. The Indian could die, simply because he would not adapt to what he could not willingly accept. Pleasant Porter, with a philosophical understanding that few white men have attained, explained it to investigators from the Board of Indian Commissioners in 1903:

"... There is no life in the people that have lost their institutions. Evolving a thing out of itself is natural, transplanting it is a matter of dissolution, not growth....

"Q. You told us a moment ago they were dying off pretty fast?

"A. Yes, sir, the older people are.

"Q. Is there any special cause for that?

"A. Nothing; there is no new disease; I don't see anything other than the want of hope."

This trait accounts for the appalling loss of life when Indians were torn from their homeland. Tribes migrated voluntarily with no damage, and in times of emergency the efficiency and dispatch with which they could travel long distances is almost incredible; but any forcible uprooting carries the same dreary statistics. For example: 418 Nez Percés brought from their mountain homeland in 1877 to be imprisoned briefly at Fort Leavenworth and then settled in the Indian Territory, 367 survivors allowed to return in 1885; 24,000 Creeks enumerated by name and town before their forced removal in 1836, only 13,537 by the census of 1859, after they had begun to recover somewhat from their grief and despair. The same story can be repeated many times with widely separated tribes. Geronimo was statistically correct when he said of the Apaches, "When they are taken from these homes they sicken and die."

This universality of intellectual and spiritual traits is surprising in view of the Indians' great diversity in language and physical characteristics. It is impossible to determine whether this divergence originated before they crossed from Asia to the American continent, or whether it developed during the uncounted millenniums when they settled and intermarried in small bands apart. It is readily observed wherever a fullblood group congregates, whether in church or council or dance. Within each is a uniformity of feature and body structure never found in a similar assembly of white Americans; but these groups differ widely from each other. For convenience they are usually classified according to language families known as linguistic stocks. The tribes within these larger groupings did not necessarily recognize their relationship. Although ethnologists may find traces of common beliefs and customs, these tribes were sometimes separated by great distances or even by traditional enmity.

Among the most important linguistic stocks are the Iroquoian, the Algonquian, the Muskhogean, the Siouan, the Caddoan, the Athapascan, the Shoshonean, the Piman, the Yuman, the Salishan, the Shahaptian, the Lituamian, and the Koluschan. Besides these are the Euchees, which are not known to have a linguistic relationship to any other tribe; the Pueblos, who although of four diverse linguistic stocks are usually classed as one group; and the Kiowas, distantly related to one Pueblo stock. Non-Indian natives of Alaska are the Eskimos and the Aleuts.

Among the Iroquoian tribes was the powerful League of the Iroquois of central and western New York. It consisted of the Five Nations—Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas—later the Six Nations when joined by the Tuscaroras of North Carolina. Other Iroquoians were the Hurons, on the upper St. Lawrence and the area east of Lake Huron, and the Cherokees, of the southern Appalachian region and the adjoining areas of Georgia and Alabama.

Surrounding these Iroquoian enclaves were the many Algonquian tribes extending along the Atlantic seaboard from Virginia north to the St. Lawrence and west to the Mississipi and beyond. It was Algonquian tribes that first met the Jamestown and Plymouth colonists, and an Algonquian tribe, the Delaware, that made the treaty with William Penn. Around the Great Lakes were the Ottawas, the tribe of the celebrated Pontiac; and in the Ohio country lived the Shawnees, the tribe of the great Tecumseh. The allied Sauk and Fox tribes first lived in Wisconsin, but moved southward. Black Hawk was a Sauk leader, and the Kickapoos and Potawatomis were their friends. The Chippewas (or Ojibwas) extended into northern Minnesota and Wisconsin from Canada. The Cheyennes and Arapahos moved from Wisconsin and Minnesota to the buffalo plains; and the Blackfeet, most westerly of Algonquian tribes, lived on the upper Missouri and the adjoining part of Canada.

The Muskhogean people included the populous tribes of the Gulf region. Among them was the Creek Confederacy occupying most of Georgia and Alabama. Its nucleus consisted of several tribal towns of the Muskogees proper, who had a tradition of western origin with high mountains forming "the backbone of the world," a migration toward the sunrise, the crossing of a great and muddy river, and the occupation and conquest of their eastern home. Later they were joined by their relatives, the Alabamas, the Coushattas, the Hitchitees, and the Tuskegees. Then as the great Confederacy grew in power and influence, it was joined by fragments of unrelated tribes, refugees from white encroachment or Indian wars. Among these were the Euchees and several bands of Algonquian Shawnees. Survivors of the Natchez also fled to the Creeks. This was a distinctive Muskhogean tribe of the lower Mississippi, which had an elaborate system of sun worship, a hereditary nobility, and a royal family of divine attributes and prerogatives.


Excerpted from A History of the Indians of the United States by Angie Debo. Copyright © 1970 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Angie Debo was reared in a pioneer community, at Marshall, Oklahoma, where it has been her privilege to know from childhood the folkways of the Indians and the traditions of the western settlers. A member of her community high school's first graduating class, she later attended the University of Oklahoma, where she was a Phi Beta Kappa, and took her B.A. and later her Ph.D. degree; she received her master's degree from the University of Chicago. Her education was combined with intervals of teaching in country schools, starting at the age of sixteen.

Miss Debo's distinguished reputation as a regional scholar has been enhanced by her book, The Rise and. Fall of the Choctaw Republic, which won the John H. Dunning prize of the American Historical Society for the best book submitted in the field of United States history in 1934, and for her later, book, And Still the Waters Run. She has been a teacher in schools and colleges both in Oklahoma and Texas and was curator of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas. More recently she has been state director of the Federal Writers' Project in Oklahoma, in which capacity she edited Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State for the American Guide Series.

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