Most Native Americans passed their history and traditions from one generation
to the next through the spoken word. Largely unknown to many non-Indians, the
stories of American Indians are as rich as the mythology of the ancient Greeks.
They explain the nature of creation and the universe, serve as a model of human
behavior, and transmit history and tradition. Storytellers who were usually older
members of the community, often grandparents, handed down these stories. In some
instances, the stories are an integral part of works of art, communicating
visually the rich cultural heritage of Native American people.
Too often in the past the history of America has been written as if it began with
the arrival of the Europeans. This attitude excludes the long heritage of Native
people who have lived in North America for tens of thousands of years (to traditional
people, since the "beginning of time"). Five hundred years ago at the point of initial
contact with Europeans millions of culturally diverse people speaking hundreds of
different languages populated North America. The environments in which they lived
shaped their lifestyles. Depending on the resources available to them, some were
farmers or gatherers, others fished and hunted. Many
lived in one place most
of the time, while others were
hunters following the migratory patterns of
large game animals, such as buffalo.
These different economies gave rise to diverse cultural characteristics and complex
social, political, and economic systems. In the northeast
nations formed the Iroquois Confederacy, aspects of which served as a model for the
makers of the U.S. Constitution. Highly complex agricultural societies existed in the
and Midwest for centuries prior to the arrival of the Europeans. In the
Southwest, Native people developed irrigation systems that exist today, some still in
use. Vast trade routes distributed everything from shells to fabric among the many
cultures that populated the North American continent.
Despite the five centuries that have elapsed since Native people and early explorers
came into contact, the history and culture of Native people remains unknown or
misunderstood by many non-Indian people. The misunderstanding began early. Christopher
Columbus set out to explore Japan, Korea, China, and India, which were collectively
referred to at the time as the East Indies. Believing that he had arrived in the
Indies when he reached the lands of the New World, Columbus mistakenly called the
Native people "Indians". This term has prevailed into the 20th century. Today, most
North American Natives prefer to be called Native American or American Indian,
although the majority of Native people originally referred to themselves in their
own languages by words meaning "the people." For example the
Ojibwe people, often referred to as Chippewa by non-Indians, call themselves
"Anishinabe" which is the Ojibwe word for "the people."
More about Native American History and Culture