American Indians in U.S. History

American Indians in U.S. History

by Roger L. Nichols

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806143675
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 10/17/2014
Edition description: Second Edition
Pages: 191
Sales rank: 604,549
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Roger L. Nichols is Professor Emeritus of History and Affiliate Professor of Indian Studies at the University of Arizona. He is the author of American Indians in U.S. History and editor of The American Indian: Past and Present, Sixth Edition.

Read an Excerpt

American Indians in U.S. History

By Roger L. Nichols


Copyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4367-5


Peopling the Land

Debating Human Origins in America

At a hydroplane race along the Columbia River in June 1996, two students watching the competition saw more than they had expected. They found a skull that later proved to be part of a skeleton poking up through the mud. That sent them hurrying to call the local sheriff. At first the authorities assumed the bones were those of a recent murder victim. Soon, however, James C. Chatters, who did skeletal forensics work for the coroner, realized that the remains were much older, and in fact the bones ultimately proved to be those of a human from approximately ninety-three hundred years ago. News of this discovery might have attracted only modest media attention except for one startling fact: Chatters claimed that Kennewick Man, as he became known, had few physical features that might link him directly to the ancestors of modern American Indians. Other scientists concluded that the skeleton showed similarities to Ainu from Japan or Polynesian Pacific Islanders. This discovery brought immediate public attention to long-standing academic and scientific debates over how and when humans had reached the Americas. It also caused bitter disputes between Northwest Indian tribes seeking to claim the remains for burial and scientists eager to learn more about human origins in North America. Since a 2004 federal court ruling against the native claimants, the skeleton has lain in a vault at the University of Washington's Burke Museum.

Until well into the 1990s most scientists agreed that humans crossed the modern Bering Sea by walking from Siberia to Alaska on land that now lies far below the ocean surface. According to this theory, during the last Ice Age, the nearly unending cold locked much of the world's water in vast glaciers that stretched across large parts of the Northern Hemisphere. With so much water removed from the oceans, their levels dropped hundreds of feet, exposing an eight-hundred-mile-wide land bridge called Beringia connecting Asia and North America. To call this route a bridge is deceptive because at that width it was broader than the expanse between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. Clearly, people could cross Beringia without ever seeing the ocean at all.

Supporters of this overland-migration theory note that sometime between thirty-five thousand and fifteen thousand years ago the earth's climate began a gradual change. Warming initiated glacial melting, and as the ice sheets shrank, gaps opened in what may have been impenetrable barriers of ice. The newly formed passes allowed groups of hunters from northeastern Siberia to follow the herds of big game animals into the Americas. For several thousand years, small bands of people from Asia trekked eastward and southward, taking advantage of the passages around and through the ice fields. By about thirteen thousand years ago these Paleo-Indians had spread across North and South America. Time erased most signs of their presence, but ancient sites where they killed large game have provided scientists with stone spear points found resting among the bones of their prey. Around ten thousand years ago the gradual climatic warming and perhaps the increasing numbers and skills of the hunters combined to drive such large animals as mammoths, giant camels, and ground sloths to extinction. Prehistoric humans stood supreme!

This version of the prehistoric settlement of the Western Hemisphere now faces challenges from several quarters. Traditional Indian accounts offer sharply differing versions of tribal origins and history, explaining how their ancestors came to be in America. Most groups have creation stories that say little or nothing about traveling great distances to reach their modern locations. A sampling of those accounts reveals differing descriptions of ancient events and actions. Often these say that "the People" or "the only True Men," as they called themselves, came from under the earth. For example, the creation story of the Zuni people who live on the Arizona–New Mexico border describes how they "first emerged out of Mother Earth's fourth womb at a sacred place deep within the Grand Canyon." From there they migrated slowly along the Colorado River, building and abandoning villages as they went. Finally they came to what they call the "Middle Place" near the headwaters of the Zuni River, where they still live.

Although many tribal origin stories recount similar tales of coming up from the underworld, others tell of descending to earth from above. The Iroquois of New York describe human origins as beginning with a pregnant woman who fell to earth through a hole in the floor of the sky. A Maidu version has the creator descending from the sky to a water-covered earth, where the creator used mud brought by a turtle from the sea floor to make the earth's land and its people. The Cherokee version also describes the earth as covered with water. After a water beetle brought mud to the surface, the land grew so that the animals, plants, and people could descend from the sky to live on the earth. Except for a Paiute story in which Raven helped to crack ice that blocked their ancestors' travels, these legends include nothing suggesting that the tribal people had any memory of glaciers or having lived anywhere other than in the Western Hemisphere.

Whatever cultural or religious value these tribal accounts have for their listeners, like accounts of Moses descending from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, they offer little real data for scientists seeking clues to prehistoric migrations or settlement. As a result, scholars in such fields as archaeology, paleontology, geology, and linguistics continue their efforts to learn about humans in the early Americas through other means. The 1990 congressional passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act accelerated their efforts. That law called on museums, universities, and historical societies to examine their holdings of tribal artifacts and funerary remains to determine if present-day Indian groups had any religious or other claims on these materials. This demand focused renewed attention on items long locked away in collections but rarely studied. As curators and scientists examined their holdings, often for the first time in decades, they made discoveries that challenged not only tribal ideas about their ancestors' location of origin but also existing theories of early human activities in the Americas.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, repeated and sometimes acrimonious debates have focused on several questions. The first of these is "When did early humans first arrive in the Americas?" The long-accepted theory held that between fifteen thousand and ten thousand years ago small bands of hunters moved east from Siberia. Their descendants left behind spear points found at Clovis, New Mexico, early in the twentieth century; thus they came to be known as the Clovis people. Early skeletal remains found at their kill sites in the Southwest date to 11,000 B.C., but the hunters spread rapidly across North America, reaching the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia in Canada as early as 8500 B.C. and eastern Virginia at about the same time. Until the 1990s, most scholars accepted the theory that the Clovis people represented the earliest group of so-called Paleo-Indians to arrive in North America.

Since then, a variety of new techniques, including work with human DNA taken from skeletal remains and discoveries of petroglyphs and implements that predate Clovis materials, have pushed back estimates of early migrations and settlement. The etchings found in August 2013 at the site of ancient Pyramid Lake in northern Nevada may be as much as 14,800 years old. The time and skill needed to produce them suggests that the Native artists had a much higher level of sophistication than investigators had initially thought. At a second site, Monte Verde, in Chile, researchers located a village of about thirty hunters who lived in mastodon-hide shelters some 14,500 years ago, which predates by one thousand years any Clovis materials found thus far. Thomas Dillehay, chief archaeologist at the site, faced such opposition to his findings that eventually he invited a blue-ribbon panel to visit Monte Verde and evaluate his data. To their surprise, the "experts" came away fully persuaded by Dillehay's data.

Meanwhile, other scholars working at sites in the eastern United States began to present evidence that pushed early human occupation of those areas farther back in time than the Clovis era. At Saltville in Virginia, archaeologists have uncovered tools of stone and bone amid mastodon bones thought to be at least fourteen thousand years old. Farther east, at Cactus Hill, Virginia, scientists decided to dig below the earth level containing Clovis era spear points. To their amazement, they found, in layers, different and older weapon points and the stones used to make them, now estimated to be at least 15,500 years old. Still older dates have been suggested for the Meadowcroft Rockshelter in western Pennsylvania. For several decades researchers there have sifted through remains that include implements, charcoal they believe to be the residue of cooking fires, and even woven materials dating to at least seventeen thousand years ago. A dig in Kenosha County, Wisconsin, has found piles of bones from butchered mammoths that are at least 13,500 years old. Other sites, ranging from eastern Brazil north to Florida and west to Alaska, have yielded prehistoric items that scientists agree push back by centuries the previous estimated time frame for early human occupation of the Western Hemisphere.

The evidence of pre-Clovis settlement has increased the debate over a second question: "Where did the early people originate?" If the glaciers remained in place, blocking migration across Beringia until nine or ten thousand years ago, how did the early people get here? On this question researchers have found little evidence. Small boats, whether of wood or skin, have long since disappeared, and coastal lowlands that might provide evidence of human activities now lie under the oceans. Yet it seems clear that some of the migrants must have traveled by water. Recent findings suggest that they probably journeyed from island to island or along the edges of the ice fields, hunting for maritime animals and following the flights of land birds to find their way across the oceans. In response to skeptical colleagues, those who support this interpretation note that humans had traveled from mainland Asia to Australia at least forty thousand years ago. If they could do that, there seems little reason to reject the possibility that early hunters worked their way along the edges of the ice fields across both the North Pacific and even perhaps the Atlantic Ocean while finding their way to the Americas.

The theory that people might have traveled west from Europe has only recently found some scientific acceptance, or even a willingness among a few scholars to consider it. This claim is based on at least two kinds of archaeological data. Evidence of pre-Clovis occupation in both Virginia and South Carolina raises interesting questions. The spear points found at several sites differ markedly from the later Clovis ones. They resemble artifacts from the Solutrean culture of southern France and Spain far more than anything now recognized as having come from Asia. The discovery of red-ocher burial sites containing non-Mongoloid skeletal remains also raises questions. Such burial practices also existed in western Europe but not in Asia. If these materials have been dated correctly as having been laid down hundreds or even thousands of years before Clovis era people occupied those sites, then they must have come from migrations that predated the land-bridge migrations or from Europe, because the glaciers blocked land migration from Asia at that time.

Scientists have unearthed specific sets of bones that suggest that some of the early people who came to the Americas might not have come from northern Asia at all. For example, the Spirit Caveman, found near Fallon, Nevada, dates to ninety-four hundred years ago. Had he been a part of the overland migrations of Asian hunters to Alaska, he should resemble modern Indians, but he does not. Rather, he appears to have descended from the ancestors of the aboriginal Ainu of modern Japan or groups from Southeast Asia. The Buhl Woman, found near Buhl, Idaho, is thought to be 10,600 years old. She too bears almost no physical resemblance to members of any modern tribal group. These tentative identifications resulted largely from the 1990 federal order requiring museums to examine the burial items in their holdings and, when possible, to return these materials to the tribes considered to have descended from the ancient groups. That action brought archaeologists and other scientists into direct confrontations with Indians and with the federal government.

As a result of the federal directive to examine their holdings carefully, scientists developed a highly detailed set of ninety measurements for each of the nearly two thousand skulls held in various museums. Often, however, their findings have angered nearly everyone involved. While individual tribes demand that the bones be returned to them for proper burial, the archaeologists insist that physical evidence proves the skeletons came from individuals who could not have been the ancestors of modern Indians. Not only do the skulls bear little or no resemblance to present-day Indian physical types, researchers continue to assert, they also clearly have far more in common with Ainu, Polynesians, or even early Europeans than they do with contemporary groups in the United States. As arguments escalated, they led to threats of suits in the federal courts and produced rulings by the Department of the Interior that particular skeletons be given to individual tribes.

The suggestion that the earliest settlers in America might not be the direct ancestors of modern Indians infuriates some tribal activists and religious leaders. Pointing to their creation stories, many Native Americans believe that their ancestors have always lived in North America. Certainly they never consider the possibility that others may have arrived here first. Elders have taught that Indians have not always looked exactly as they do now, and some scientists agree. They accept the possibility that during the last ten thousand years the appearance of humans in North America most likely changed, perhaps drastically. That claim provided the basis for demands that museum skeletal holdings be turned over to the tribes for interment. The Shoshone-Bannock tribe of Idaho pressed their claim to the Buhl Woman successfully and reburied her. Both the Northern Paiutes from Nevada, who asked to be allowed to rebury the Spirit Caveman, and the Umatillas of Washington, who demanded that the Kennewick Man be turned over to them, moved aggressively to assert what they considered their tribal rights. However, in both cases the skeletal profiles scientists developed do not support the tribal claims, and so the debate continues.

The ongoing story of the Kennewick Man bones since their uncovering shows how contentious the issues surrounding the treatment of skeletal remains have become. Shortly after the discovery, researchers judged the skull to be that of a non-Indian, perhaps a Pacific Islander or even a European. Within two months of that announcement, the Army Corps of Engineers took possession of the skeleton. When scientists asked for permission to examine the engineers' study of the bones, the Corps of Engineers denied them access. This led quickly to the publication of notices that the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla were to get the skeleton for reburial. In October 1996 scientists filed a complaint that challenged the actions of the Corps of Engineers. What they wanted was a chance to do Carbon-14 and DNA testing on a tiny portion of the bones. Meanwhile, archaeologists, physical anthropologists, tribal leaders, and bureaucrats all argued about what was to be done with the remains. The major news outlets and television networks ran interviews and articles, all of which brought the question of early human presence in the Americas to public attention as never before. In August 2002, Judge John Jelderks of the U.S. District Court in Oregon ruled against those tribes demanding immediate reburial of the skeleton. He found that under federal law the remains could not be defined as "Native American." Two years later, in April 2004, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Jelderk's decision, so the bitter dispute between local Indians wanting to bury Kennewick Man and the scientists hoping to continue research on his bones continues.

The newest and in many ways most interesting part of the search for early humans in the Western Hemisphere has arisen from the recent tracing of the human genome. DNA researchers now claim that all humans descended from early peoples who came from sub-Saharan Africa as recently as one hundred thousand years ago. From there they migrated across Asia and Europe to the rest of the world. More specific studies of DNA have uncovered a rare genetic factor called haplogroup X DNA that is passed down through women. Some geneticists claim that this factor shows that the earliest migrants to the Americas had "no obvious ties to any Asian groups." They could have been earlier pioneers to the New World from Asia, or they could have come from Europe, where the haplogroup X still exists among a small portion of the population. Whatever scientists make of the new evidence, it seems clear that the older theory of a migration over the land bridge and the tribal ideas about their ancestors' origination in the Americas are too simplistic. The prehistoric process of peopling the Western Hemisphere was far more complex, and for Indians it is contested bitterly.


Excerpted from American Indians in U.S. History by Roger L. Nichols. Copyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Preface to the Second Edition xi

Preface to the First Edition xiii

Acknowledgments xvii

Chronology of Important Events xix

Part I Indian America

Chapter 1 Peopling the Land: Debating Human Origins in America 3

Part II The European Colonial Era

Chapter 2 Meeting the Invaders, 1500-1700 21

Chapter 3 Living with Strangers, 1700-1783 41

Part III Facing the United States

Chapter 4 Villagers versus the United States, 1783-1840s: The Postwar Era 63

Chapter 5 The Struggle for the West, 1840-1890: Regional and Tribal Varictes 99

Part IV The Twentieth Century and Beyond

Chapter 6 Survival and Adaptation, 1890-1930: Changing Worlds 121

Chapter 7 From Reservations to Activism, 1930-1973: The New Deal Era and Beyond 141

Chapter 8 Tradition, Change, and Challenge since 1970: Jealousy and Backlash 161

Index 183

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