Everything that American children of my generation knew—or thought they knew—about Indians, or Native Americans, came from Saturday afternoon cowboy and Indian movies. We knew that they talked funny; they all lived in teepees; they were skilled horseback riders; and they hunted buffalo. Mostly, they painted their faces with war paint and tried to kill our favorite cowboy hero and innocent settlers who were trying to farm the land or herd the cattle.
We did not know better then; today we do. This is due in large measure to the careful and thoughtful work of historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists, and to the compilations of many tribal traditions by American Indian scholars themselves. These scholars, and their colleagues in the field of Indian history, are retelling the story of American Indian life from the perspective of the Native Americans rather than from the perspective of those who colonized the Americas after Columbus’s voyages. To do this, they have often turned away from the traditional written sources of English and European cultures and looked to the sources familiar in anthropology and archaeology as well as to folklore and oral tradition. And, they have subjected European assumptions of racial superiority to critical reexamination.
They have challenged the old myths, including those that suggest American Indian societies were “primitive,” lacked leadership, did not cultivate agriculture, and were inevitable victims of superior European culture and weaponry. In the past four decades these myths have been replaced by the sophisticated and fascinating reconstruction of the complex, varied societies that populated the Americas before, and for centuries after, Europeans arrived in what they called “the New World.”
In this issue of History Now, we are pleased to present a sampling of this new and important research. We begin with an essay by Elliot West, “The Impact of the Horse,” which immediately establishes the complexity of the meetings between Europeans and Indians. The focus here is on complex exchange rather than simple conquest, and on the impact new resources such as the domesticated horse had on many key aspects of American Indian culture and society. Next, Timothy R. Pauketat reminds us in “Cahokia: A Pre-Columbian American Indian City,” that Indian civilizations flourished before there was a nation called Spain or England. The city of Cahokia, with its pyramids, plazas, and sustaining farmlands, reached its peak in AD 1100. Even before its emergence as a center of American Indian culture, there had been other Woodland-era mound-building communities. Why Cahokia declined remains a controversial mystery, but the richness of its culture and the diversity of its population are not in doubt. In “The Pueblo Revolt,” Edward Countryman shows us that Indian communities fought to preserve their independence and their way of life against European invaders. In 1680, the people known collectively as “Pueblos” rose up against the oppression of the Spanish who had ruled since 1598. It took twelve years for the Spanish to reestablish their control, and even then, some of the rebel pueblos such as the Hopi were never vanquished. The leader of this successful rebellion, Po’pay, created a unified movement for independence among the many Pueblo tribes, something North American English colonists were unable to achieve until almost a century later. Both Matthew Dennis, in his essay “The League of the Iroquois,” and William White, in his examination of “The Colonial Virginia Frontier and International Native American Diplomacy,” firmly establish the political and diplomatic sophistication of eastern North American Indian confederations. Iroquois consolidation began almost a thousand years ago, long before the famous League of Peace we sometimes studied in our history books. That League, which joined the Five Nations in central New York, found itself caught between the expanding colonial empires of the French and the English, but through diplomatic skill and great resourcefulness, the League established a neutrality that allowed it to survive. Like the peoples of Iroquoia, the Virginia Indians were not a monolith but a unification of diverse communities. And, here too, as White demonstrates, the most effective weapon in the struggle against Anglo-American and European incursions was diplomacy. Virginia Indian leaders relied on diplomatic solutions in their dealings with colonial powers, but they also took care to establish lines of communication and patterns of cooperation with other American Indian confederations. By the nineteenth century, the United States’ Indian policies had a powerful and often tragic impact on Native American communities. In “Indian Removal,” Theda Perdue reassesses for us the motivations and justifications for the removal of the Indians from their lands east of the Mississippi River. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 uprooted long-established communities in order to provide more land for the burgeoning white population. Although Indian removal is most often associated with Southern groups like the Cherokee, Perdue reminds us that the Oneida of New York and the Sauks of Illinois were also subject to forced relocation.
As always, History Now provides critical supplemental materials to these scholarly essays. Our two master teachers, Bruce Lesh and Phil Nicolosi, suggest themes around which classroom lessons might be created. Mary-Jo Kline, our archivist extraordinaire, offers a rich listing of articles, books, and other sources for further reading and examination. Lesson plans are provided for high school, middle school, and elementary level classes. And an interactive map, showing the relocation of Indian tribes, helps you chart their forced migration.
We at History Now wish you a good summer, filled with the perfect combination of relaxation and learning.
Editor, History Now
Carol Berkin is Presidential Professor of History at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of several books including Jonathan Sewall: Odyssey of an American Conservative, First Generations: Women in Colonial America, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, and Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence.