Prior knowledge of American Indians was that of existence of organised communities that relied on hunting and gathering for survival. They formed the indigenous communities of America, having occupied the country way before civilization. American Indians were highly organised with defined spiritual and cultural aspects of life. However, a review of literature on American Indians has expounded knowledge of the same. This paper examines the life of American Indians before the European invasion.
Anthropologists believe that the ancestors of American Indians came into America from 10-40 thousand years ago. The magazine article “Indians in the Land,” reviews American Indian occupation of America through environmental history. Two scholars William Cronon and Richard White analyse the effects of activities carried out by American Indians on the environment and compare them to those after civilization occurred. They observe that Indians were natural and seemed almost invisible in contrast with the environment they inhabited. This, they argue, is partly why some people have disputed the existence of American Indians at the said time.
Some argue that fire is a result of civilization but the Indians were already using it to clear forests and create lands for hunting and fields for farming. Indians engaged in hoe agriculture as opposed to European plough agriculture. A key feature of American Indians was the relationship they had with animals. Although they did not domesticate, they lived in harmony with wild animals, even according them spiritual value. Food production among Indians was more for security rather than surplus purposes. Indians consumed what was abundant at the time and relied on the four seasons. During the winter, they practised hunting and gathering while in the summer they farmed. This cyclic nature helped in the conservation of the environment, as there was no time when natural resources were over-exploited.
However, the invasion by Europeans caused the near extinction of American Indians. This is because, it brought with it diseases that were previously non-existent among Indians. Diseases largely affect dense populations, yet Indians lived in small cultural groups at the time and were mostly isolated from one another. Any traces of disease were lost through migration, which was a major cultural aspect among American Indians. The population of Indians declined rapidly during this time and the previously abundant and open environment now became over-exploited and closed. There were cultural clashes between the Europeans and Indians, who had to adjust gradually to their new surroundings. As exchange of commodities became commercial, environmental degradation increased. Europeans used Indians to advance the fur trade leading to over-hunting and extinction of specific animal species at the time.
The above information has similarities with the Oakes readings, especially aspects of culture among Native Americans. Both suggest that American Indians existed years before the established civilization discovered by Europeans. When Europeans first came to America, they found Indians whom they assumed had not inhabited America for a long time. Different studies however reveal the opposite, ancestors of these Indians had inhabited American land decades earlier. Europeans found an organized society with groups that specialised in activities such as farming, bison hunting, and fishing.
Food strategies influenced the culture of American Indians in terms of housing, gender roles, and religion. Food strategies involved adapting to seasons, which determined what food was abundant in the natural environment. Indians migrated depending on the seasons therefore housing was mostly semi-permanent. The Pawnees for instance practiced farming in the fall and lived in large semi subterranean earth lodges. In early summer and late fall, they resembled Plain nomads because they lived in temporary camps called tepees while hunting buffalo. American Indians were very spiritual and worshipped many gods. Some Indians sacrificed animals to appease their gods for instance at the onset of the planting season.
There was a clear distinction of gender roles among American Indians such as the Cheyenne, Pawnees, and Sioux. Scholars have different perceptions of these roles, with some deducing that Indian men were lazy, and their women overworked. However, others admire the differentiation of roles in these societies, where women bore heavier workload than men did. Men mainly participated in hunting, war, decision making and signing of agreements and treaties. Otherwise, they would be seen outside their homes and villages smoking and gambling. Perhaps this is what triggered the notion of their being lazy.
Women did more work including setting up settlements, gathering, preserving food, and all the farm-work. This is addition to taking care of their families, coupled with the cultural norm of multiple childbearing. Although American Indian women lacked official political power and were subordinate in ceremonial life, they possessed types of power the contemporary American women did not have. They owned the houses their families lived in, planting, had the right to trade surplus food, the right to divorce and decided where to set camp. They also took care of religious items, a responsibility of the highest order. Indian women often divorced their husband and could render them homeless.
Prior to European invasion and settlement, life in North America was more complex than most people describe. There existed a world where people coexisted without the need for further civilization. American Indians were organized, had already warred, implying that they did not always live in harmony with one another. Conclusively, the history of native Americans, more so American Indians needs to be studied and publicized as much as that of other subjects such as Ancient Greece. The current environment can only be understood better by studying the past.
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