Native Americans and Environment Essay

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The Native Americans in the United States are the indigenous people of the continental United States and their descendents, covering a large number of tribes and communities. For simplicity, many scholars divide them into the following main cultural groups: the Native Indians of the eastern Woodlands covering New England and eastern Canada; of the southeast; of the plains covering most of the Midwest; of the plateau west of the Great Plains; of the southwest; and of the predominantly fishing communities in modern-day California. There are still major cultural differences between the tribes within these areas.

It is believed that the origins of the Native Americans go back to about 50,000 years ago when some hunters and their families from Siberia crossed the Bering Straits into what is now Alaska. Gradually they moved south until they populated North and South America.

The Northeast

The Native Americans who moved to what is now New England and eastern Canada developed into woodland farmers, and the tribes there include the Abenaki, the Susquehannock, the Massachuset, the Narraganset, the Delaware, the Powhatan, the Iroquois, the Huron, the Algonkin, the Ottawa, the Menominee Sauk, the Potawatonmi, the Erie, the Miami, the Illinois and the Shawnee. On the island of Labrador was the Beothuk tribe, which differed slightly in customs from those on the mainland. Archaeological work has found items at settlements dating back to between 200 B.C.E. and 400 C.E. located alongside the rivers of the northeastern and midwestern United States. Known as the Hopewell culture, these were the ancestors of the communities that were the first to come into contact with the Europeans. Many accounts of their lifestyle survive.

The woodland Indians lived in small settlements, and planted crops of corn, beans, and squash. Women tilled the fields while the men hunted deer, rabbits, bear, and other wild animals including the woodland buffalo. The men also collected wild fruits and vegetables, with artichokes, cherries, grapes, onions, persimmons, and potatoes all forming an important part of the diet.

The method of agriculture was what became known as “slash and burn,” by which the tribes would clear a part of the forest, slashing bark from the trees, and then burn the undergrowth. This cleared the land for planting crops, but the method rapidly depleted the soil, forcing the people to move to another area about every 15 years when crop production started to decline. They did use some fertilizers, but not enough to allow the soil to recover. Environmentally it has proven not to be a good system, but with a very small population living in the woodlands, it was easily sustainable as the woodlands would regrow gradually, reestablishing themselves.

Leadership of the tribes was entrusted to chieftains, with some of these becoming known as kings in early English accounts. Powhatan was the ruler of a large part of what is now Virginia, and had contact with the Jamestown settlement. He controlled some 200 villages and was able to raise a force of several thousand warriors quickly, using them to attack and subdue other villages. His daughter Pocahontas married the Englishman John Rolfe and accompanied him to London, where she was presented to Queen Elizabeth I.

As a result of the fighting between some tribes, many of the villages were protected by stockade fences, as shown in early paintings by artists such as John White who captured many scenes of the region. The crops planted and harvested by the women-the corn, beans, squash, and tobacco-were located within these enclosures. The women were also involved in making clothing from animal skins, with deerskin cloaks used for warmth in winter. As these tribes were the first to come into close contact with the European settlers, they were also the first to assimilate.

Some, like the Wampanoags in Massachusetts, welcomed the Europeans. However, of the 10,000 who were probably living there when the Mayflower arrived in 1620, nine-tenths of the population succumbed to smallpox and other diseases introduced by the settlers. In 1636 a number of English settlers attacked the Pequots, who retaliated, and in the following year the English allied with the nearby Narragansets and killed most of the Pequot nation.

The Southeast

Southeastern communities were also farming settlements, and archaeological work at Poverty Point, Hardaway, and Etowah has shown strong variations from the Hopewell culture. These tribes were the Cherokee, the Catawba, the Creek, the Choctaw, the Chickasaw, the Caddo, the Natchez, the Timucua, and the Calusa. As with their near neighbors to the north, they also lived in small communities, practicing slash and burn techniques. The men hunted wild animals, especially deer, and were involved in skirmishes with the Spanish.

The Great Plains

The Native Americans of the Great Plains were very different, and although they did farm in river valleys, they also hunted the buffalo and other animals, moving as the herds roamed the Great Plains. These tribes included what became the Sioux Confederation, and also, from the north to the south, the Sarcee, the Blackfoot, the Crow, the Cheyenne, the Pawnee, the Arapaho, the Kiowa, the Osage, the Wichita, and the Comanche. Archaeological work has been done on their early settlements at Huff Village and Simonsen.

The Indians of the Great Plains had connections with nearby tribes, although the differences between the Blackfoot in the north and the Comanche in the south were marked. Many of the communities in this part of North America consisted of 20 to 30 families. They lived in tipis, which could be easily dismantled, and they followed the buffalo herds, which they hunted with great skill.

Most often, a number of hunters would creep up on an individual buffalo and kill it with arrows. All parts of the buffalo were then used, with the meat feeding many families, and the leather being important for clothing and for tipis. Occasionally a large number of Indians from the Great Plains would gather together to plan a piskin, or communal drive.

The drive involved the preparation of traps, or the use of natural features, such as a rocky outcrop, and then a large group would make as much noise as possible and force the buffalo to stampede toward the trap or cliff. This often resulted in the deaths of many buffalo, providing enough meat and leather to last a long time. The number of buffalo killed as a percentage of the overall herds was very small and every part of the buffalo was used. Unlike the wanton killing by European Americans in the 19th century, the hunts did not endanger the buffalo population, which flourished alongside the Indians for centuries.

In the societies of the Plains Indians, many women enjoyed a high status, but the work undertaken by men and women was strictly delineated. Men hunted and prepared meat. Women looked after the home, preparing it for transport when needed, and raised the children. Women were also involved in much of the craftwork, such as matting, making and stringing beads, and piecing together clothing.

The Southwest

In the southwest, the Pueblo Indians were probably the most settled of the Native American groups, with the most well-known being the Apache. The other tribes were the Pueblo, the Navajo, the Hopi, the Mohave, the Papago, the Pima, and the Coahuiltec. Much evidence about their early life comes from the archaeological work carried out at Mesa Verde, Tyuonyi, and Pueblo Bonito. To the west were tribes of desert gatherers, with archaeologists finding remains of their lifestyle at Hogup Cave and Danger Cave. These were the tribes known as the Ute, the Paiute, and the Shoshone. To the north of them were the Nez Perce and the Shuswap.

These tribes lived in one of the least hospitable parts of what became the United States, and as a result the tribes were smaller and the communities produced some of the most adept hunters, who pursued deer, elk, and mountain sheep. The Nez Perce of this region famously refused to hand over their lands by treaty and managed to evade U.S. forces until cornered at Yellowstone River, Montana.

The West Coast

Along the west coast of North America, the communities predominantly lived off the sea, but also had small agricultural concerns along the coast. The tribes around modern-day Washington State, Oregon, and adjoining parts of Canada are the Kwaktutl, the Nootka, and the Chindok. In California and Baja California (in modern-day Mexico) were the Yurok, the Karok, the Pomo, the Yokuits, the Chumash, and the Cochimi. In some parts, especially along the northwest coast of modern-day British Colombia, there were battles over control of fishing grounds, and many warriors wore armor made from wooden slats and built walls around their encampments.

The Revolutionary War

In the early years of British settlement in North America, land was taken from or ceded in various treaties by the Native Americans. Some tribes supported the British; others were allied to the French. The particularly brutal manner in which some tribesmen fought was regarded as repugnant by Europeans, who recoiled at the concept of scalping the defeated after a battle. Nevertheless, both sides were anxious to create alliances. During the American Revolutionary War, the British managed to get the support of many Native Americans who had hoped that a British victory might end further colonial expansion westward.

When the British signed the Treaty of Paris in 1783 at the end of the war, they ceded Native American lands to the new United States without informing the inhabitants. The new U.S. government tended to regard the Native Americans as having been conquered, but as they had not actually been defeated in battle, the occupation of their lands was a long process as the Native Americans did not recognize the Treaty of Paris.

The Indian Wars

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 compelled many Native Americans to move westward, and those who refused were taken on forced marches. In one horrendous march, known as the “Trail of Tears,” some 4,000 Cherokees died. After the American Civil War, the westward expansion of the United States saw a massive encroachment on Native American lands, ushering in the “Indian Wars.” Although the Native Americans had victories, such as the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, they were defeated on most occasions. The treaties they signed were not honored by the U.S. government, which pushed the tribes into reservations where sometimes brutal forced assimilation programs were introduced.

At the same time, the destruction of the buffalo herds ended any hope for Plains Indians to return to their former lifestyle. The U.S. government and state governments encouraged the settlement of Indian lands. The lands taken were opened up for cultivation after World War I, and with so much of it marginal agricultural land, it was not long before the Dust Bowl forced many of the new farmers off their lands.

In recent years Native American lifestyles and cultures have been recorded in detail. There were 2,786,652 Native Americans recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2003, with 413,382 living in California, 294,137 in Arizona and 279,559 in Oklahoma, with the others in the remaining 47 states, the District of Columbia and the territories. The U.S. government currently recognizes 563 tribal governments.


  1. Angie Debo, The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Nation (University of Oklahoma Press, 1934);
  2. Angie Debo, A History of the Indians of the United States (Pimlico, 1995);
  3. John Ewers, The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains (University of Oklahoma Press, 1958);
  4. George Bird Grinnell, The Cheyenne Indians: Their History & Ways of Life (Cooper Square, 1923);
  5. Arlene Hirschfelder and Martha Kreipe de Montano, The Native American Almanac: A Portrait of Native America Today (Macmillan, 1993);
  6. Jason Hook, The American Plains Indians (Osprey, 1999);
  7. James Howard, The Dakota or Sioux Indians: A Study in Human Ecology (University of South Dakota Press, 1966);
  8. Michael Johnson, The Tribes of the Sioux Nation (Osprey, 2000).

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