The Western Hemisphere Before the Conquest

Indians are traditionally viewed as natural features of the land, rather like mountains or rivers or buffalo or troublesome, if colorful, wild varmints, affecting American history only by at times impeding the civilizing progress of advancing settlers. William Brandon, The Last Americans, 1 A Multiplicity of People Civilization in America emerged from certain centers, just as it … Continued

Indians are traditionally viewed as natural features of the land, rather like mountains or rivers or buffalo or troublesome, if colorful, wild varmints, affecting American history only by at times impeding the civilizing progress of advancing settlers.

William Brandon, The Last Americans, 1

A Multiplicity of People

Civilization in America emerged from certain centers, just as it did in the three other major continental land masses of the world. These centers tended to incorporate groups and territory on their peripheries, sometimes in growth spurts that led to periods of integration, sometimes very gradually through periods of decline and disintegration. The shifting of boundaries and control in the Western Hemisphere resembled that in Europe and Asia, especially in that it occurred over thousands and thousands of years.Naming every tribe and nation and giving their characteristics would require a huge amount of space.  The following list is not intended to be exhaustive, but it gives an idea of the number and variety of groups in the Western Hemisphere at the time of the conquest. Several centers can be identified:

The Iroquois Confederacy

  • At first five, eventually six nations formed from thousands of agricultural villages from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic to the Carolinas.
  • Population around two million.

[The Iroquois Confederacy] was a highly structured state system which allowed the multi-ethnic state to incorporate many diverse peoples and nations. Undoubtedly, it would have continued to incorporate and annex other peoples in North America. The remarkable aspect of the Iroquois state was its ability to avoid centralization by means of a clan-village system of democracy, based on collective ownership of the land; its products, stored in granaries, were distributed equitably to the people by elected authorities. “Clan mothers” played the key role of supervising all activities, having the final veto on any decision.

All material in italics is from Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, Indians of the Americas, 2-8 




Eastern Woodland Indians

Eastern Woodland Indian by John White 

  • Many diverse groups who lived along the eastern coast, from Nova Scotia to Florida, and west to the Great Lakes.
  • Three large language stocks: Algonquian, Iroquoian, and Siouan; included the Delaware, Ojibway/Chippewa, Sauk, Fox, Menominee, Kickapoo, Illinois, Winnebago, Shawnee, Seminole, Creek, as well as thirty or forty more nations.
  • Population hard to estimate since thousands were obliterated before awareness of them was developed; certainly in the hundreds of thousands, possibly half a million or more.

Political organization of these semi-nomadic town dwellers took the form of large confederacies such as the Three Fires, composed of the Ojibways, Potawatomis, and Ottawas on the eastern end of Lake Superior. Wide trade networks were well established. The people were skilled in hunting; they also cultivated wild rice, squash, corn, and other crops. They developed snowshoes, used birch bark to build canoes and houses, and produced maple syrup. They introduced wampum, seashells strung on strings or braided into bets, used for trading and also as a way of remembering for a non-literate society; for example, belts might embody the terms of treaties in the symbolic placement of the shells. Some tribes were matri-lineal; some created clans claiming descent from the spirit of an animal, or special societies formed for a specific purpose such as war or healing. Occasional wars of battles gave the erroneous impression to early settlers that all these people were warlike; the French and English used ancient enmities to turn tribes against each other.



 Peoples of the Plains and Prairies

  • Several centers of state development, from West Texas to the sub-Artic.
  • Cree in prairies of Canada, Lakota and Dakota (Sioux) in present-day North and South Dakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho to the west and south.
  • Human population approximately one million; bison population around eighty million.

Many other bison-hunting peoples occupied various parts of the territories, and territorial disputes occurred. Some peoples, such as the Potowatomie, turned almost entirely to commerce. These groups tended to be peacemakers and negotiators in disputes, speaking many languages, perhaps originating the sign language which became universal in the Western Hemisphere in pre-colonial times.



Fishing Peoples of the Pacific Northwest

The great sea has set me in motion.Set me adrift,And I move as a week in the river.The arch of skyAnd mightiness of stormsEncompasses me,And I am left,Trembling with joy.

Eskimo Song

  • Included the Tlingit, Hoopa, Poma, Karok, and Yurok peoples.
  • Total population of four million.

A state system as such is not apparent, although their ceremonial and trade linkages could have supported some sort of state structure. These were wealthy people living in a paradise of natural resources… These people are also the inventors of the potlatch, the ceremonial destruction of accumulated goods, and of the gigantic totems and masks.



Villages between the Two Great Mountain Ranges

Nez Perce Man, 1899 

  • Nez Perce, Blackfeet, Shoshones, Utes, Paiutes and others.
  • Inhabited difficult terrain, developed clan-based democratic communities which shifted habitations according to animal migrations and seasons.
  • Around two hundred thousand people.







Peoples of the Southwest

 Zuni Woman with a potThe mountains, I become part of it..the herbs, the fir tree, I become part of it.The morning mists, the clouds,the gathering waters, I become part of it.The wilderness, the few drops,the pollen…I become part of it.

Navajo Chant

  • Desert and alpine arid and semi-arid region, fragile land base suffering from drought.
  • One to two hundred city-states maintained by Pueblo and Hopi Indians, living according to the “right way”: moderations, industry, peaceful interactions.
  • Developed vast irrigation systems, including extensive leak-proof canals.
  • Also home for the Athabascans (Navajos and Apaches), who hunted and traded, interacted and intermarried with the Pueblo peoples and became involved in the inter-village fights and wars engendered by disputes over water usage and territory.
  • Numbered around two hundred thousand.






Major Nations of the Southeast

Creek Warrior Osceola 

  • One of the most fertile agricultural belts in the world, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico along the southeast portion of what is now the United States.
  • Muskogee-speaking Choctaw, Creek, and Chickasaw in the south center; Algonquin-speaking Cherokee in the east; Natchez in the west.
  • Five major nations, a thriving civilization in 1492.
  • Total population of at least two to three million.

These states functioned in a confederacy similar to that of the Iroquois, with decision making based on popular consensus. Among these groups were mound builders who created massive communal graves and temples; it is possible that they had contact with Mayans or other groups in Central America.








The Toltec Nation

Toltec Warriors at Tula Ruins 

  • Appeared around two thousand years ago in central Mexico, creating great cities.
  • After flourishing for two centuries, wiped out by invaders who waged war among themselves.

Huge buildings, sculptures and markets made up the cities, which housed vast universities and libraries. Their written language was (a forerunner to the later) Mayan form, as was the calendar used in scientific research and study. 


http://www.mexconnect.com/mex_/hpostclassic1.htmlThe Aztec Nation

  • Expanded through wars of conquest to an area from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific and northwards.
  • Population of some thirty million.

 The economy was based on hydraulic agriculture, with corn (maize) as the central crop and many others such as beans, pumpkins, tomatoes, cocoa, tobacco, and cotton, which provided the fiber for all cloth and clothing. The Aztecs created works of art and useful commodities of cloth and metal, built huge stone dams and canals as well as fortress-like castles, had huge markets in each city and a far-flung trade network, using turquoise for exchange. They developed a sophisticated political organization: the land was owned in common and worked by commune members, who lived in clans and elected leaders, including the principal commander o the military who was also the main political and religious leader. By the late fifteenth century Aztec dominance was in a process of decay. Constant warfare had many negative effects: the equitable distribution of wealth was skewed by rewards of property and land given to distinguished warriors; slavery was becoming an essential institution, with prisoners of war used as slaves; formerly elected offices were being transformed into hereditary ones by the emergence of a clan nobility. The clan structure itself gradually disintegrated, with a corresponding emergence of a class society, similar to the state development taking place in Europe at the same time. Most slaves taken in conquest were used for human sacrifice; eventually the dominant religious cult required the daily human sacrifice of thousands of people to the Sun God. At the time of the conquest, peasant uprisings were increasing and intensifying all over Mexico; Montezuma II, who came to power in 1503, was making an attempt to reform the regime. http://library.thinkquest.org/27981/



Mayan Civilization

  • Prospered for five centuries in the northwest of what is now Central America.
  • Population around ten million.

 Mayan culture, often compared to that of Greece in the golden age of Athens, amazes everyone who studies it. The cultivation of corn was its basis, so essential that a religion was constructed around this vital food. However, methods of agriculture never became more technically sophisticated than slash and burn: hacking down and burning trees and brush, planting a cornfield in the rough clearing, and then repeating the process in another place in a few years. The Mayans used a variety of materials, including gold and silver, in their highly-developed art, architecture, sculpture, and painting. But it is in the realms of mathematics and astronomy that their achievements are the most impressive. The calendar system developed by the Mayans was one-thousandth of a day per year more accurate than the one we use now, and they were familiar with the concepts of positional numbers and zero, unknown in Europe for another thousand years. They also had a written language with hieroglyphic ideographs, conventionalized symbols standing for certain words, as in Chinese writing, and possibly some symbols representing sounds like modern alphabets. There was a distinct commercial class, and the cities were authentic urban centers, not simply bureaucratic or religious ones; but ordinary Mayans retained the fundamental features of a clan structure in their communities. They were required to work in the nobles’ fields and to pay them rent for use of the land, and also to contribute to the building of roads, temples, noblemen’s houses, and other structures. It is not clear whether these relations of production were exploitative or democratically and co-operatively developed. It is clear that certain groups, such as war prisoners, criminals, debtors and orphans were used as slaves, and although easily freed and not hereditary, features of slave-dependence for labor were apparent.


The Caribbean Basin

Arawak Indians 

  • Important as the place Columbus first landed.
  • Total population of at least several million.

This region, like the resource-rich and temperate Pacific Northwest, was a virtual paradise where hunger and want were unknown. Tied by cultural, clan, and trade bonds, there may have been state developments or federations that have not been detected; the pre-colonial cultures in the Caribbean have been very little studied, since most were annihilated or merged with African populations during slavery.




Four Major Nation-State Formations in the Southern Continent

Machu Pechu one of the sites of the Inca Empire 

  • The peoples of the Amazon basin.
  • The Mapuche (Araucan) of the Pacific regions.
  • The Guarani of Paraguay and Argentina.
  • The peoples of the Inca state, present-day Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia.
  • Total population fifty million.

The Incas were agriculturalists and stock-breeders, metal-workers and weavers, and notable architects; their science, mathematics, and medicine were much more highly developed than in Europe at that time. The Quechua language had a hieroglyphic script and books were published in it.Road-building and trade were extraordinarily far-flung and developed in these highlands, where villages are at elevations of several miles. The main social unit in land tenure was the ayllu, or the commune, the members of which worked together to till the land which was distributed equitably to families. The Sapa Inca (leader of the state) was considered the owner of the land, and a portion of the harvest and animal produce went to the state to support its functions, both secular and religious.The irrigation canals of the sierra and the coast and the agricultural terraces of the Andes, which survive to this day, are evidence of the degree of economic organization reach by the Inca state. As regards religion, the cult of Mama Pacha is considered to be on a par with the worship of the Sun. Like the Sun, Mother Earth represents no one in particular, with a correlation between communal ownership of land and the universal religion of the Sun. Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, Indians of the Americas, 2-8; also see William Brandon, The Last Americans




The Lands of the Western Hemisphere

Detail of an Inca tunicVaried societies, in differing degrees of “civilization,” ordering the lives of their members according to deeply held principles and beliefs, lived in the land mass unknown to Europeans, about to be “discovered” and forever changed. Pre-Columbian North America was fairly densely populated, as such cultures go, and certainly was not the empty wasteland and untouched wilderness that Europeans took it to be…… We must imagine a sizable population, such as the European invaders did not achieve until the 1840’s, in some areas quite densely settled, that would have been trapping and shooting small game and game birds day after day for centuries, fishing any available stream and clamming any available coast, gathering fruits and nuts and roots of several hundred species over thousands of acres a year, hunting big game over hundreds of square miles with many thousands of pounds of meat every year (more than fifteen thousand for a village of four hundred in southern New England alone, one estimate suggests), ringing and burning trees and planting crops on a scale of perhaps an acre a person, clearing underbrush and driving animals by fires any one of which might be as much as twenty miles around, and, let us assume, occasionally blundering with a fire out of control or a hillside denuded for firewood or a well dried up from overuse—all that, and still occupying an environment that in important ways was ebullient and wild, abundant in both kinds and numbers of flora and fauna, functioning to all intents and purposes in its original primal state.

Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise, 316-317

The Natives’ View of the Land

Cahokian Indian Mound The Indians say: The land has an owner? How’s that? How is it to be sold? How is it to be bought? If it does not belong to us, well, what? We are of it. We are its children. So it is always, always. The land is alive. As it nurtures the worms, so it nurtures us. It has bones and blood. It has mild and gives us suck. It has hair, grass, straw, trees. It knows how to give birth to potatoes. It brings to birth houses. It brings to birth people. It looks after us and we look after it. It drinks chichi, accepts our invitation. We are its children. How is it to be sold? How bought?

Eduardo Galeano, Memory of Fire: Genesis, 225

Men of the Good

Tainos The following excerpts from an article by Jose Barreiros describe in some detail the culture that had enjoyed a long existence in the area where Columbus landed. Although the cultural patterns of the “new world” vary tremendously, this one, as the first to feel the effects of the conquest, is a key example of the values, lifestyles, and community organization practiced by many groups throughout the Western Hemisphere. The word Taino meant “men of the good,” and from most indications the Tainos were good. Coupled to the lush and hospitable islands over a millennium and a half, the indigenous people of “La Taina” developed a culture where the human personality was gentle. Among the Taino at the time of contact, by all accounts, generosity and kindness were dominant values. Among the Taino peoples, as with most indigenous lifeways, the physical culture was geared toward a sustainable interaction with the natural surroundings. The Taino’s culture has been designated as “primitive” by Western scholarship, yet it prescribed a lifeway that strove to feed all the people, and a spirituality that respected, in ceremony, most of their main animal and food sources, as well as the natural forces like climate, season, and weather. The Taino lived respectfully in a bountiful place and so their nature was bountiful. The naked people Columbus first sighted lived in an island world of rainforests and tropical weather, and adventure and fishing legends at sea. Theirs was a land of generous abundance by global terms. They could build a dwelling from a single tree (the Royal Palm) and from several others (gommier, ceiba), a canoe that could carry more than one hundred people. … The Tainos lived in the shadows of a diverse forest so biologically remarkable as to be almost unimaginable to us, and, indeed, the biological transformation of their world was so complete in the intervening centuries that we may never again know how the land or the life of the land appeared in detail. What we do know is that their world would appear to us, as it did to the Spanish of the fifteenth century, as a tropical paradise. It was not heaven on earth, but it was one of those places that was reasonably close. The Taino world, for the most part, had some of the appearance that modern imaginations ascribe to the South Pacific islands. The people lived in small, clean villages of neatly appointed thatch dwellings along rivers inland and on the coasts. They were a handsome people who had no need of clothing for warmth. They liked to bathe often, which prompted a Spanish royal law forbidding the practice, “for we are informed it does them much harm,” wrote Queen Isabella. The Taino were a sea-going people, and took pride in their courage on the high ocean as well as their skill in finding their way around their world. They visited one another constantly. Columbus was often astonished at finding lone Indian fishermen sailing in the open ocean as he made his way among the islands. Once, a canoe of Taino men followed him from island to island, until one of their relatives, held captive on Columbus’s flagship, jumped over the side to be spirited away. Among Tainos, the women and some of the men harvested corn, nuts, cassava, and other roots. They appear to have practiced a rotation method in their agriculture. As in the practice of many other American indigenous eco-systemic peoples, the first shoots of important crops, such as the yucca, beans and corn, were appreciated in ceremony, and there are stories about their origins. Boys hunted fowl from flocks that “darkened the sun,” according to Columbus, and the men forded rivers and braved ocean to hunt and fish for the abundant, tree-going jutia, the succulent manatee, giant sea turtles and countless species of other fish, turtles and shellfish. Around every bohio [hut], Columbus wrote, there were flocks of tame ducks (yaguasa), which the people roasted and ate. …The Taino world of 1492 was a thriving place. The Taino islands supported large populations that had existed in an environment of Carib-Taino conflict for, according to archeological evidence, one and a half millennia, although the earliest human fossil in the region is dated at fifteen thousand years. Tainos and Caribs may have visited violence upon one another, and there is little doubt they did not like each other, but there is little evidence to support any thesis that genocidal warfare existed in this world. A Carib war party arrived and attached, was successful or repulsed, and the Tainos, from all accounts, returned to what they were doing before the attack. These attacks were not followed up by a sustained campaign of attrition… Early descriptions of Taino life at contact tell of large concentrations, strings of a hundred or more villages of five hundred to one thousand people. These concentrations of people in coastal areas and river deltas were apparently well-fed by a nature-harvesting and agricultural production system whose primary value was that all of the people had the right to eat. Everyone in the society had a food or other goods producing task, even the highly esteemed caciques and hiques (medicine people), who were often seen to plant, hunt, and fish along with their people. In the Taino culture, as with most natural world cultures of the Americas, the concept was still fresh in the human memory that the primary bounties of the earth, particularly those that humans eat, are to be produced in cooperation and shared. … Like all American indigenous peoples, the Taino had an involved economic life. They could trade throughout the Caribbean and had systems of governance and beliefs that maintained harmony between human and natural environments. The Tainos enjoyed a peaceful way of life that modern anthropologists now call “ecosystemic.” In the wake of recent scientific revelations about the cost of high impact technologies upon the natural world, a culture such as the Taino, that could feed several million people without permanently wearing down its surroundings, might command higher respect.

… There was little or no quarrelling observed among the Tainos by the Spaniards. The old caciques and their councils of elders were said to be well-behaved, had a deliberate way of speaking and great authority…. The peoples were organized to the gardens (conucos) or to the sea and the hunt. They had ball games played in bateyes, or courtyards, in front of the cacique’s house. They held both ceremonial and social dances, called areitos, during which their creation stories and other cosmologies were recited. Among the few Taino-Arawak customs that have survived the longest, the predominant ideas are that ancestors should be properly greeted by the living humans at prescribed times and that natural forces and the spirits behind each group of food and medicinal plants and useful animals should be appreciated in ceremony.

As can be seen throughout the Americas, American indigenous peoples and their systems of life have been denigrated and misperceived. Most persistent of European ethnocentrisms toward Indians is the concept of “the primitive,” always buttressed with the rule of “least advanced” to “ most advanced” imposed by the prism of Western Civilization—the more “primitive” a people, the lower the place they are assigned in the scale of “civilization.” The anti-nature attitude…[inherent in this idea] came over with the Iberians of the time, some of whom even died rather than perform manual labor, particularly tiling of the soil. The production and harvesting of food from sea, land, and forests were esteemed human activities among Tainos. As with other indigenous cultures, the sophistication and sustainability of agricultural and natural harvesting systems was an important value and possibly the most grievous loss caused by the conquest of the Americas.

Jose Barreiro, “A Note on Tainos: Whither Progress?”

Length of Habitation

It is difficult to get an accurate picture of the inhabitants of the lands visited by Columbus for two reasons: overall, they were very quickly destroyed, and most of the words we have on the subject were written by the Europeans who were responsible for that destruction. The current state of knowledge about pre-Columbian civilization in the Western Hemisphere reflects scholars’ fairly recent attempts to describe the cultures found by Europeans in a fair and nonjudgmental way.

For a long time learned writers wanted to justify the conquest by pretending that the hunting and gathering tribes existing in what became the Americas had only recently migrated from Asia over the Bering Strait and therefore had little claim to the vast resources of the ”new world.” If the explorers and colonizers found only a seemingly endless, relatively unpopulated wilderness, they were clearly entitled, indeed mandated by the presumptions of their own culture, to tame it. And furthermore, if the groups of human beings they encountered were unorganized, unskilled, unchurched, unschooled—in short, “primitive”—then the colonizers had every right to share their superior civilization. According to this line of reasoning, massacres and murders were necessitated by the resistance of the subjects of their generosity.

Now it is generally agreed that human beings have lived on the American continent for at least twenty thousand years and possibly as much as twice that long. They may indeed be the oldest known people on earth (Brandon, 26)

Scholars disagree about where they originated. It is possible that they crossed what is now Alaska from what is now Siberia, using a land bridge exposed by the lowering of the ocean during the last Ice Age. Moving southward and populating the whole continent took thousands of generations, until much, much later, by the late fifteenth century, many diverse cultures and civilizations with very long histories occupied the land mass of which Europe knew nothing.

Number and Variety

Population estimates range widely, but a rough academic consensus now maintains that between ninety and one hundred twenty million people lived in the Americas before Columbus’ voyage, compared to sixty to seventy million people in Europe at the same time (excluding Russia.)

The extraordinarily rich variety of cultures had adapted not only to their wide range of physical environments but also to each other. Some were gentle and peaceful, some were fierce and quarrelsome, some were reserved in their demeanor, and some were emotional. Some remained hunters and gatherers, others developed kingdoms and empires.




Cherokee script

Groups in the Western Hemisphere spoke some two thousand distinct languages at the time of the conquest, some as different from one another as Chinese and English. In the entire “old world” about three thousand languages are known to have existed at the end of the fifteenth century. The languages of the “new world” can’t be classified as primitive, in vocabulary or in any other respect.

“Whereas Shakespeare used about 24, 000 words, and the King James Bible about 7,000, the Nahuatl of Mexico used 27,000 words, while the Yahgans of Tierra del Fuego, considered to be one the world’s most retarded peopled, possessed a vocabulary of at least 30,000 words” (Stravianos, 213-214)



We are all thankful to our Mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she continues to care for us as she has from the beginning of time. To our Mother, we send greetings and thanks. Now our minds are one.Haudenosaunee prayer

Although generalization is risky because of the variety of lifestyles and systems represented in the many pre-Columbian cultures, it’s safe to say that at least some of the cultures of the “new world” exhibited admirable characteristics.  People in those ancient societies tried to live according to the moral principles agreed on by their forebears.  Among many groups’ freedom and equality prevailed, with no division between rich and poor, no form of servitude, no money, no meddling governmental bureaucracy, no private property. In many cases governments were established to promote the general good, not to create a state apparatus for repression.http://www.sapphyr.net/natam/nacodeethics.htm

Attitudes toward Property

One very basic difference between the two worlds, the one known to Europeans and the one unknown, was the attitude toward property.

With some notable exceptions, the European way of life had developed into a focus on individual competition for the acquisition of property. What motivated the early colonizers was desire for gold and other minerals, for land as a means of production, for labor to extract or create wealth and commodities, and for all the other promised riches of the newly discovered territory. From humble settlers looking for small land-holdings to powerful forces of land and mineral speculation, all white frontier expansionists understood the advantages of owning property.

The basic attitude of the inhabitants of the unknown world (also with some notable exceptions) seems to have focused more on cooperation, using property in common rather than competing to acquire private property. In many of the native groups, all members seemed to live as equals, with no hierarchies or class structure. Societies emphasized the nonmaterial satisfaction of being in harmony with nature; individuals didn’t appear to work very hard. The profit motive was far from primary.

“It might be said, in sum, that the Indian world was devoted to living while the European world was devoted to getting. This may be the essence of the Indian world and image” (Brandon, 8)

For instance, the people referred to as the Incas, one of the most highly developed civilizations according to European criteria, valued harmony with the universe as their chief goal of life. Their intricate political organization relied on two principles: reciprocity and redistribution.

Reciprocity, the mutual exchange of gifts, was important to the allyus, groups united by kinship ties that formed the basis of society. Gradually, these small groups organized into much larger units and fed into a central government which had a high respect for local institutions. Farmers paid a tribute from their surpluses to a coordinating center, responsible for storing the collected produce and redistributing it to local chieftains in time of need (Wachtel, 61).

Meaning of the Land
The land that Europeans coveted and eventually took away from the Indians had totally different meanings to the two cultures. To the Indians land was sacred, obviously precious and life-giving and worthy of special reverence, with holy spots that evidenced the oneness of all creation. The souls of the ancestors were mixed with the soil.

“In a way that few Europeans could understand, the land was Indian culture: it provided Native Americans with their sense of a fixed place in the order of the world, with their religious observances, and with their lasting faith in the importance of the struggling but united community as opposed to the ambitious acquisitive individual” (Segal and Stineback,28)
Identification with the land in no way implied ownership. The concept of owning the land was as foreign to the Indians as the idea of owning the air would be to us. The early inhabitants had an intimate and abiding relationship with nature that colored their view of humans as only one of many species participating in an intricate web of life. The rituals, myths, and ceremonies passed down through the ages that helped individuals understand their obligations and responsibilities played a primary role, at the very center of existence.

Living on the land required conscious caretaking, a finely-tuned sense of balance, and respect in such everyday activities as hunting, farming and foraging.

Importance of Giving Gifts
Potlatch ritual
The generosity of the Indians was extolled by Columbus and other early explorers. It was a natural product of the understanding among natives that life depended on the largesse of nature. Grateful recipients of good harvests and successful hunting expeditions routinely shared their bounty with others in the ritual known as “potlatch” among Northwest Coast Indians.

The formal distribution of food and other goods to the community was deeply engrained in the society and went beyond mere customs of hospitality; the colonizers benefited greatly from its practice.

The Natives Who Welcomed Columbus

Tainos going to meet Spanish ship

The natives who rowed out to investigate the strange intruders in their gigantic ships, greatly overdressed for the climate and so eager to display the power of their weapons, were Tainos, related to a larger group known as Arawaks. Evidently they were peaceful and agricultural, living in houses built of perishable materials such as reed and palm trees.

Some of their household implements have been recovered: small stones chipped and carved in the shape of chisels, gouges, spearheads, hoes, and knives; mortars and pestles, the latter with carved heads, possibly idols; beads of stone and oyster shell and fragments of pottery.

Frederick Ober, commissioned in 1890 as a special representative of the World’s Columbian Exposition to follow the path taken by Columbus, reported on his findings, “There yet remain other articles to mention, which show that these barbarians did have among them, or were in communication with, skillful artisans who carved wonderful things in wood and stone, the like of which have not been found elsewhere…

“When the Indies were discovered, all the common people sat on the ground in the presence of strangers, but… their chiefs made use of low seats, of stone or wood, carved in the shape of a beast or reptile, with very short legs, its head and tail erect, and with golden eyes” (Ober, 84)
Variety and Harmony
It is safe to say, then, that in the immediate world Columbus and his crew “discovered,” human beings lived in harmony with nature and shared nature’s bounty and that the larger world later visited by other Europeans was characterized by a very large populations and a wide variety of cultural patterns.


The United States 1500s--Early 1900s

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