Great Basin Native Americans - History

Great Basin Native Americans - History

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The Native Americans of Great Basin come from a large area that today includes all of Utah and Nevada, as well as parts of Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado,Arizona, and California. The area of the great basin is mainly desert with very little rainfall. The area was lightly populated.

The Native Americans of the area spoke two different languages the Washoe who spoke Hokan language, and the remainder of the Indians Numic languages which had many dialects.

The Native Americans of the area were mostly hunter-gathers. The natives hunted for bison, deer, and mountain sheep, and gather roots, berries.While horses were not native to the area, interactions with the Spanish resulted in many of the Great Basin Indians using horses.

The tribes in the Great Basin were small, moving around to find food. The native Americans of the region shared many of the same general religious beliefs as those of other areas believing in a spirit world. Many of the natives thought that animals had special powers. Like other Indians, the Great Basins Indians used shamans to connect to the spirit world.

The major tribes include:
Ute Tribe
Washoe Tribe

Great Basin Indians

The American Indians of the Great Basin culture area lived in the desert region that reaches from the Rocky Mountains west to the Sierra Nevada. The Columbia Plateau lies to the north, and the Mojave Desert is to the south. The Great Basin encompasses almost all of the present-day U.S. states of Utah and Nevada as well as parts of Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, and California. The region is so named because the surrounding mountains create a bowl-like landscape that prevents water from flowing out. The mountains tend to receive ample precipitation, but they form a rain shadow such that the interior averages as little as 2 inches (5 centimeters) of moisture per year. There are some pine forests in the mountains, but few plants grow on the desert floor. Game animals are scarce as well.


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Shoshone, also spelled Shoshoni also called Snake, North American Indian group that occupied the territory from what is now southeastern California across central and eastern Nevada and northwestern Utah into southern Idaho and western Wyoming. The Shoshone of historic times were organized into four groups: Western, or unmounted, Shoshone, centred in Nevada Northern, or horse, Shoshone of northern Utah and Idaho Wind River Shoshone in western Wyoming and Comanche in western Texas, a comparatively recent offshoot of the Wind River group. The Shoshone language is a Central Numic language of the Uto-Aztecan family. Shoshone dialects were so similar that speakers from the extreme ends of Shoshone territory were mutually intelligible.

The Western Shoshone were organized into loosely affiliated family bands that subsisted on wild plants, small mammals, fish, and insects. Each family was independently nomadic during most of the year and joined other families only briefly for activities such as rabbit drives, antelope hunts, or dancing like other Great Basin Indians, they were sometimes referred to by the derogatory name Diggers, taken from their practice of digging tubers and roots for food. A few Western Shoshone obtained horses after the colonial settlement of Nevada and Utah.

The Wind River Shoshone and Northern Shoshone probably acquired horses as early as 1680, before Spanish occupation of their lands. They formed loosely organized bands of mounted buffalo hunters and warriors and adopted many Plains Indian cultural traits such as the use of tepees and the importance of counting coup (striking or touching an enemy in warfare in a prescribed way) as a war honour. Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who acted as interpreter and guide for the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804–06, is thought to have been a member of either the Wind River or the Northern group.

After acquiring horses, the Comanche split off from the Wind River Shoshone and moved south into Texas. Comanche bands were feared by the Spaniards of the Southwest because they subsisted as much by plunder as by buffalo hunting.

Early 21st-century population estimates indicated some 41,000 descendants of the four Shoshone groups.

This article was most recently revised and updated by Elizabeth Prine Pauls, Associate Editor.

Life in the Great Basin

There was a lot of variety in the plants and animals of the Great Basin, but food was scarce. Women gathered roots, herbs, nuts, berries, seeds, and native fiber plants and processed them into food and medicine. Men netted birds, fish, and rabbits and hunted game animals by killing them with poisoned arrows or driving them into pits. After the hunt, women roasted or dried the meat and made clothing, shelters, and implements out of skins, bones, and sinews. A few groups farmed in the Great Basin: some Southern Paiutes and Western Utes grew corn and beans, and Owens Valley Paiutes grew tobacco .

The Great Basin could not support the sedentary lifestyle (staying in one permanent home) needed to develop complex political structures. Before the introduction of the horse, the meager food supply meant that social groups could not become larger than one to ten households. They gathered the food within an area and then moved on.

The spiritual beliefs and practices of Great Basin peoples reflected the demands of the environment. All groups viewed the natural world as endowed with supernatural power, and all groups had shamans—males or females who could perform healing ceremonies and control the hunts and the weather. Birth, puberty, and death rituals (sets of actions done in specific ways during religious ceremonies) were widespread.

In the early 1900s, photographer Edward S. Curtis set out on an epic mission: to capture the experiences of Native Americans throughout the American West. Over the span of 30 years, Curtis documented more than 80 tribes west of the Mississippi, from the Mexican border to northern . read more

Years before Christopher Columbus stepped foot on what would come to be known as the Americas, the expansive territory was inhabited by Native Americans. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, as more explorers sought to colonize their land, Native Americans responded in various . read more

Legends of America

Washoe Indians, Lake Tahoe, 1866, Lawrence and Houseworth.

An indigenous Native American people, the Washoe originally lived around Lake Tahoe and adjacent areas of the Great Basin. Their tribe name derives from the Washoe word, waashiw (wa·šiw), meaning “people from here.”

Semi-sedentary hunters and gatherers, their territory extended from the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to areas as far east as Pyramid Lake in Nevada, including Lake Tahoe and the upper valleys of the Truckee, Carson, and West Walker Rivers. Traditionally, they would spend their summers in the Sierra Nevadas, the autumn in the ranges to the east, and winter and spring in the valleys in between. Their food base consisted primarily of pinyon pine nuts, roots seeds, berries, and game.

Sierra Nevada Mountain Range by Thomas Moran, 1875.

Family was and is the core of the Washoe because these are the people that lived and worked together and relied on each other. In the past, families are recorded as rarely fewer than five individuals and only occasionally exceeding twelve in size. A family was often a married couple and their children, but there were no distinct rules about how marriages and families should be formed and households were regularly made up of the parents of a couple, the couple’s siblings and their children, more than one husband or wife, or non-blood related friends.

Generally, a family was distinguished by whoever lived together in the winter house. Winter camps were usually composed of four to ten family groups living a short distance from each other. These family groups often moved together throughout the year. The Washoe practiced sporadic leadership, so at times, each group had an informal leader that was usually known for his or her wisdom, generosity, and truthfulness. He or she may possess special powers to dream of when and where there was a large presence of rabbit, antelope and other game, including the spawning of the fish, and would assume the role of “Rabbit Boss” or “Antelope Boss to coordinate and advise communal hunts.

The Washoe were traditionally divided into three groups, the northerners or Wel mel ti, the Pau wa lu who lived in the Carson Valley in the east, and the Hung a lel ti, who lived in the south. These three groups each spoke a slightly different yet distinct variant of the Washoe language. These groups came together throughout the year for special events and gatherings. Individual families, groups, or regional groups, came together at certain times to participate in hunting drives, war, and special ceremonies. During their yearly gathering at Lake Tahoe, each of the three regional groups camped at their family campsites at the lake. A person might switch from the group that they were born into to a group from another side of the lake. There were often cross-group marriages, sometimes even between the Paiute and the California tribes.

Relations with other tribes bordering Washoe territory were mostly about tolerance and mutual understanding. Sometimes events lead to tensions and warfare. It was beneficial to both sides to keep their distance, but they also needed to maintain a relationship to exchange trade goods.

Explorers by Frederic Remington, 1904

They were first driven into the area from the east by their long-time enemies, the Northern Paiute, by whom they were later dominated. After soundly defeating the Washoe, the Paiute, who had obtained and learned to ride horses, would not allow the Washoe to own or ride their own mounts.

When white trappers and explorers began to make their way into their territory, the Washoe did their best to avoid them. They had heard about the new intruders before they ever saw one. As the Spanish invaded the California coast to establish missions and convert Indians to Catholicism, the Washoe began to make fewer and fewer trips to the west coast until eventually, those trips stopped altogether. Neighboring tribes that escaped into hiding in the high mountains probably warned the Washoe about the invaders.

Although White historians have concluded that the Spanish never entered Washoe territory, the Washoe have told stories about them for generations, and some Washoe words, including names for relatively new additions to the Washoe world, like horse, cow, and money, are similar to the Spanish terms.

When the first white fur traders and surveyors began to enter Washoe territory the Indians approached the newcomers with caution. They preferred to observe the intruders from a distance. The first written record of non-Indians in Washoe Land were fur trappers in 1826 they may have met the Washoe, but left no description of the encounter. The first written description of the Washoe was by John Charles Fremont in 1844, who was leading a government surveying expedition. Fremont described the Washoe as being cautious of being close to them, but in time, when he showed no aggression, the Washoe came forward and gave him handfuls of pine nuts. Fremont described struggling through deep snow and being impressed by the Washoe’s skill with snowshoes. The Washoe willingly shared their knowledge of the land and eventually guided Fremont to a safe passage to California.

As more and more colonizers began infiltrating Washoe land, it was not long before relations grew hostile. The summer of 1844, just a few months after Fremont had passed through, a group of trappers left record of having shot and killed five Indians (either Washoe or Paiute) for having taken traps and perhaps horses. The Indians probably took those things in order to discourage the trappers from entering their land. After the deaths, the trappers searched the area, but not surprisingly found no more Indians. Most westward-migrating settlers had been conditioned by their experiences passing through the country of aggressively defensive tribes of the Great Plains and saw no distinction between different tribes. They expected the Washoe to be violent and dangerous and projected these characteristics upon them.

The Donner Party by Andy Thomas

In 1846, the Washoe noticed the famed Donner party wagon train because they had never seen wagons before. They described seeing the wagons and wondering if they were a “monster snake”. In route to California, the Donner party reached the Sierras late in the year and got trapped in snow for a particularly harsh winter. The Washoe checked in with the stranded travelers a few times and brought them food when they could. Even so, in the face of suffering and starvation, the Donner Party resorted to cannibalism. When the Washoe witnessed them eating each other they were shocked and frightened. Although the Washoe faced hard times every winter and death by starvation sometimes occurred, they were never cannibalistic. Stories about the situation, some gruesome and some sympathetic, were told for many generations and were said to have added to the general mistrust of the white people.

In 1848, gold was “discovered” in California, and although until then, most of the Washoe had never seen white people, or had previously avoided them, this soon became impossible. The wagon trains came by the hundreds, and because most of the wagon trails had previously been Indian trails, encounters were numerous. Most of the new people were just passing through, but by 1849, several began to establish seasonal trading posts in Washoe territory.

By 1851, year-round trading posts were established, and colonizers became permanent residents on Washoe land. The settlers often chose to live on some of the most fertile gathering areas that the Washoe depended on. A few years after gold was found in California, silver was “discovered” in the Great Basin and the “Comstock Bonanza” lured many miners that had passed through back into Washoe territory.

The Euro-American perspective viewed land and its resources as objects of frontier opportunity and exploitation. In a short time, the colonizers had overused the pine nuts, seeds, game and fish that the Washoe had lived harmoniously with for thousands of years. By 1851, Indian Agent Jacob Holeman recommended that the government sign a treaty with the Washoe and wrote, “…the Indians having been driven from their lands, and their hunting ground destroyed without compensation, therefore – they are in many instances reduced to a state of suffering bordering on starvation.” All this happened in less than ten years after Fremont had passed through Washoe territory.

Settlers and miners cut down trees, including the sacred Piñon Pine to build buildings, support mine shafts, and even burn as fuel. The Piñon Pine woodlands that had once provided the Washoe, other tribes and all the animals with more than enough nuts became barren hillsides.

In 1859, Indian agent Frederick Dodge suggested removing the Washoe to two reservations, one at Pyramid Lake, and another at Walker Lake. Because the reservations were intended to be shared by the Washoe and the Paiute, it soon became apparent that this was impossible. Not only did the two tribes speak entirely different languages, but historically they had not always been friendly and trouble would no doubt arise if they were forced to live in close quarters. Furthermore, the Washoe intended to live on the land where the Maker had created them, and they resisted all attempts to be relocated. Numerous formal requests from Indian agents were made for a separate reservation for the Washoe, but the government ignored them all. By 1865, there were no stretches of unoccupied land large enough within traditional Washoe territory to form one reservation, so an agent made a recommendation that two separate 360-acre parcels be set aside for the Washoe.

The following year, in 1866, a new agent destroyed any hope of this happening when he sent a letter to his authorities that stated, “There is no suitable place for a reservation in the bounds of their territory, and, in view of their rapidly diminishing numbers and the diseases to which they are subjected, none is required.” This man wrongly believed that in time the Washoe would disappear. Between 1871 and 1877 several more requests for a reservation for the Washoe were made by agents, but again they were not heard. The government made no attempt to secure rights for the Washoe or to stop the destruction of the lands by the colonial culture. Settler’s livestock grazed the land intensely and grasses that had once provided the Washoe with seed were trampled and eaten. Commercial fishing was practiced on every stream and lake in the area and it was not long before the fish were depleted. At the height of the fishing, 70,000 pounds of fish were being sent from Lake Tahoe to Reno, Carson City, and Virginia City, Nevada. There were several attempts by the colonizers to stop the Washoe from fishing, but the Indians banded together and restrictions were relaxed. Even so, there were no longer enough fish for the Washoe to subsist on. Sagehens that used to “cover the hills like snow” were killed off by sport hunting as well.

Though the Washoe had tried their best to avoid the white settlers, their lands had been taken, their hunting grounds succumbed to farms, and the Pinyon groves were cut down. They soon found themselves dependent upon the settlers for jobs. Their new settlements were referred to at the time as “Indian colonies,” but were not formal Indian reservations.

Despite some local opposition, land was finally purchased for the Washoe in 1917. Two tracts of land were purchased near Carson City, Nevada that totaled 156.33 acres. This became the Carson Indian Community. Shortly after this purchase, the government received 40 acres of land south of Gardnerville from the Dressler family, to indefinitely be held in trust for the Washoe, now known as the Dresslerville Community. An additional 20 acres were acquired for the Washoe and Northern Paiute families who lived in Reno called the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. Most of the lands purchased for the Washoe were rocky and had poor soil, but the people moved onto these areas and built the best homes that they could. Many were one-room shacks without electricity and running water. Eventually, the government built larger four-room houses.

Under the Indian Reorganization Act, between 1938 and 1940, the Washoe acquired 95 acres in the Carson Valley that became known as Washoe Ranch. Finally, the Washoe had agricultural land where they could raise animals and food. After settling on their newly returned land, the Washoe found it difficult to adapt to reservation life. They were traditionally a free-roaming people that were now restricted and confined to boundaries and were under constant monitoring by Indian Agents that pressured them to renounce their ancient customs in favor of colonial ways of living. The superintendent of the Reno Agency attacked several traditional practices, including the girl’s passage to womanhood. Ironically the practices that he targeted as “heathen” and “immoral” like giving gifts were similarly practiced at Euro-American birthdays and marriages. Another superintendent announced that traditional games that involved exchanging money were not permitted on government lands or Indian reservations, but he made no proclamations prohibiting similar games played by colonizers such as poker. Government officials went as far as to prohibit the use of traditional Washoe medicine.

The government had significantly reduced the area that the Washoe had designated as their ancestral homeland, and in 1951 the Washoe filed a claim to the Indian Claims Commission for their lands and resources that had been lost. The legal proceedings lasted nearly 20 years, and the Washoe finally received their claim in 1970. The final settlement was five million dollars, which “scarcely constitutes even a token compensation for the appropriation of an ancient territory and its resources which today comprise one of the richest and most attractive areas in the American West.

Also in 1970, a special act of Congress granted 80 acres in Alpine County, California to Washoe that had lived there for many years. This is now known as the Woodfords Community. In more recent years the tribe has been acquiring lands within their ancestral territory including, Frank Parcel, Lady’s Canyon, Babbit Peak, Uhalde Parcel, Wade Parcels, Olympic Valley, Incline Parcel, Upper and Lower Clear Creek Parcels. Some of the lands have been set aside as conservation and cultural lands for the Washoe People.

Lake Tahoe, California, 1908, George R. Lawrence. Click for prints & products.

The federally recognized Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California now counts among its membership, some 2,000 people. With their deep roots for the Lake Tahoe area, they combine traditional and modern conservation practices in the protection and restoration of endangered habitats.

They are governed by a Tribal Council and a Chairman, consisting of 12 representatives from the Washoe Tribal Community Councils. The council is responsible for the cultural preservation of the Washoe history and culture and the Chairman is responsible for the daily operations of the tribe.

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Compiled & edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated October 2020.

The places and stories that became Oregon had their beginnings amid cataclysmic volcanic eruptions, basalt lava flows, and powerful floods that shaped and reshaped the Columbia River landscape. The archaeological record places humans in Oregon sometime toward the close of the Pleistocene, a time when ice-age glaciers were retreating from the mountain interior of the Northwest. Archaeological finds in the Fort Rock area in central Oregon, The Dalles on the Columbia River, and on the Oregon Coast indicate that Homo sapiens were beginning to occupy several places in the region during the early Holocene epoch, from at least 12,000 years ago.

Scientific evidence demonstrates that Native Americans descended from Asian populations that migrated to North America by way of the Bering Land Bridge some 16,000 to 14,000 BP (before present). In 2008, archaeologists discovered human feces at the Paisley Cave in central Oregon, dating to approximately 12,300 BP. Additional early human evidence include dozens of sagebark sandals uncovered by University of Oregon archaeologist Luther Cressman in 1938 and later revealed to be more than 9,000 years old.

Indigenous peoples have another explanation for how people came to this place&mdashorigin stories that vary with place and circumstance and that usually involve supernatural forces. The Chinook people on the lower Columbia River, for example, tell several stories about the origin of their people. While chronicler James Swan was living in the Pacific Northwest, from 1852 to 1855, he recorded a number of stories the Chinooks told him. One involves an old man who is a giant and an old woman who is an ogress. When the old man catches a fish and attempts to cut it sideways, the woman cries out that he must cut the fish down the back. The man ignores her and cuts the fish crossways. The fish changes into a giant bird that flies toward Saddle Mountain on the northern Oregon Coast. The man and woman go in search of the bird. One day, while picking berries, the woman discovers a nest full of thunderbird eggs. As she begins to break the eggs, humans appear out of the broken shells.

In his work Coyote Was Going There: Indian Literature of the Oregon Country, Jarold Ramsey sharing a creation story from the Klamath Tribes describing the origins of Klamath country. The Klamath and Modoc creator Kamukamts floats on a great lake in a canoe and runs aground on top of the house of Pocket Gopher. While the two discuss who will become the elder brother, Gopher creates hills, mountains, fish, roots, and berries. Kamukamts names all the animals that will live on the land and walks around the earth selecting homes for the tribes. When Kamukamts sees smoke, Gopher admits defeat, declaring him the elder brother as the smoke comes from the people Kamukamts brought into being.

All Native peoples of Oregon have stories that describe how the world came to be&mdashstories that have been passed from generation to generation. Some stories were recorded by anthropologists such as Franz Boas, whose 1894 Chinook Texts, for example, includes an account of Coyote transforming surf to land and learning how to fish.

By the sixteenth century, dozens of bands of people lived in present-day Oregon, with concentrated populations along the Columbia River, in the western valleys, and around coastal estuaries and inlets. Before 1750, according to ethnologist Melville Jacobs, the Pacific Northwest was home to approximately 200,000 people, who spoke sixty to seventy languages. In the interior valleys, especially east of the Cascade Range, people shared common language patterns across a large geographic area. The greatest linguistic diversity existed on the coast, where people spoke several languages, including Chinookan, Salishan, Siuslawan, and Athpaskan-Yeak. Northern Paiutes, who lived in what is now eastern Oregon, spoke languages in the Numic family,while Chinookan and Sahaptian speakers lived on the Columbia Plateau. The western interior was home to people who spoke languages that included Kalapuyan, Siuslawan, Molala, Takelman, and Klamath-Modoc.

People living in the Great Basin, the Columbia Plateau, and the valleys between the Coast and Cascade Ranges practiced a seasonal round, subsistence way of life, moving to specific locations throughout the year to harvest, process, and preserve particular plants and animals. In eastern Oregon, for example, the Wada Tika of the Northern Paiutes dug bitterroots and fished for salmon in the spring, hunted deer and elk in the summer, and gathered chokecherries in the fall. People on the coast did not have as extensive a seasonal round, relying on the abundance of food from the ocean. In winter, all people in present-day Oregon lived in permanent villages, which typically consisted of related families. Bands were composed of closely related villages that shared a common territory.

Because food sources were so abundant, coastal groups tended to live in fixed village sites, with some seasonal movement to upstream places to gather berries, camas, and other plants. The winters were relatively mild, and fish and shellfish were easily harvested from streams and estuaries. In the western interior valleys, a transition zone between the coast and the region east of the Cascades, people gathered roots, nuts, seeds, and berries that were available seasonally from the prairies, oak savannas, and foothills. They hunted deer, elk, and waterfowl and fished local streams for salmon and freshwater fish. In the interior plateau, people lived in fixed winter villages and followed seasonal rounds to gather plants and to fish and hunt. In the spring and fall, when salmon ran heavy in the Columbia River, bands came together at fishing places such as Celilo Falls, near present-day The Dalles. The people who lived in the basin and range country moved seasonally to favored fishing spots and hunting and gathering places. More than any other human group in early Oregon, people who lived in the High Desert had to travel considerable distances to good hunting and gathering sites.

Resources to Teach Kids About Native Americans

There is so much to learn about Native Americans and the history of this indigenous people group. These resources to teach kids about Native Americans can help your homeschool explore this rich culture and vibrate history.

I feel as if the only people who can tell the story of the Native Americans are the natives themselves. Just the mere fact that as a kid growing up, they were called Indians is now wrong to me.

Native Americans didn’t coin the label “Indian” themselves. When Christopher Columbus was traveling westward, he was in search of India. So he called the Native Americans, Indian.

That alone is cringey to think about it, yet I am also unsure if it’s even offensive to some Natives since their lands are referred to as Indian Reservations. My sincere hope is not to be offensive but to encourage the studies of Native American history in our homes.

Therefore, I won’t pretend I am an expert in this area – at all. What we can do is teach our children about how Europeans got here. We can tell our kids the truth, and we teach them about the Native Americans who still hold some of their traditions and culture even to this day.

Who are the Native Americans?

That is such a stacked question. It holds a range of answers since the Native Americans had hundreds of cultures stretching from the Yukon Peninsula to the Gulf of Mexico.

  • The Inuits were from the subarctic region.
  • Washo, Ute, and Shoshone tribes were in the Great Basin.
  • The Plains were run by the nomadic groups living in teepees – Blackfoot, Arapahoe, Cheyenne, Sioux, Comanche, and Crow tribes.
  • The Iroquois, Wappani, and Shawnee tribes occupied the Northeast Woodlands.
  • Northwest plateau had cedar planks and totems for tribes called Nez Perce, Salish, and the Tlingit.
  • The Seminole and Chickasaw were in Florida and the Cherokee in the southeast. These tribes were farmers.
  • The Apache and Navajo owned homes made of adobe bricks in the Southwest.

Traditions and cultural practices differed based on the region in which the Natives were located.

The indigenous people of the Americas were primarily hunters and gatherers, eventually practicing agriculture and aquaculture. They were very advanced, building monuments and forming communities.

Here is the sad truth. Europeans arrived, and Native Americans were able to coexist with them. Unfortunately, a majority faced trouble and diseases carried by the Europeans like cholera, measles, smallpox, and pneumonia.

Whether it be by force or to flee from these deadly diseases, natives moved to areas unwanted by the Europeans.

The natives didn’t use written records of their happenings. They carried on their history from stories that have been passed down from generation to generation.

Native American people today:

There are over five hundred distinguished tribes in North and South America. The people are very spiritual, believing in many gods, performing rituals and customs, and put great emphasis on the relationship between man and nature.

You may have heard about percentage rates when it comes to the lineage of Native Americans. To be considered Native American, one would need to show 25 Percent / One-Fourth Blood Quantum (One Grandparent).

The person would either need a CDIB card or be enrolled in a tribe. A Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) is issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), an agency under the United States Department of Interior. This certificate (CDIB) is the basis most tribes use to enroll tribe members.

Why teach Native American history?

In public school, I remember thinking that maybe Native American tribes no longer exist. The teachings were so brief that one would think Native Americans, were a part of history only. I associated them with their garb, Thanksgiving, and teepees.

It is important for us to teach our children that native Americans do not fit into the box that the textbooks of old put them in. Native American cultures are alive, thriving, and beautiful.

It is important to note that 87 percent of state history standards don’t even mention Native Americans the way they should. As homeschooling families, we don’t have to adhere to these misrepresentations.

We can remember, and teach our children, that Native Americans were at the very beginning of our America and continue to be a part of what our country is today.

Native Americans play a crucial part in American history – in fact, teaching Native American history is teaching American history. Let’s do it well.

Ten Bears speaks at Yapparika Comanche treaty negotiations

Source: Ten Bears, Yapparika Comanche Chief
Public Domain Document

I heard of your coming when I was many sleeps away I knew that you had come to do good to me and my people. I looked for the benefits which would last forever, and so my face shines with joy as I look upon you.

My people have never first drawn a bow or fired a gun against the whites. It was you who sent out the first soldier, and it was we who sent out the second.

Great Basin Native Americans - History

The first inhabitants of the Great Lakes basin arrived about 10,000 years ago. They had crossed the land bridge from Asia or perhaps had reached South America across the Pacific Ocean. Six thousand years ago, descendants of the first settlers were using copper from the southern shore of Lake Superior and had established hunting and fishing communities throughout the Great Lakes basin.
One of the ways that the Indians would manipulate copper was with "hammer stones." These hammer stone were found near prehistoric copper diggings in the Keweenaw Pennisula. They are prehistoric tools used 3000-5000 years ago. The Indian "miners" would build a fire over the copper vein which would heat the rock around the copper. After heating they would pour cold water on it to crack the rock. Then they would pound out the copper with rock hammers and stone chisels. These hammers usually had a handle attached to them. Some hammers were held with the hands and were not grooved. When they broke they tossed them aside. Grooves were put in the hammers with smaller stones. The hammers are found today, underground, anywhere from 6" to 3'. It is hard work digging for them. The copper was shaped into spear points, arrow heads, knives, harpoons, and jewelry.

The native people occupied widely scattered villages and grew corn, squash, beans and tobacco, and harvesting wild rice. The state’s indigenous peoples--its first true farmers--supported themselves through a combination of hunting and gathering and simple agricultural techniques. Their modest plots produced corn, beans, peas, squash, and pumpkins. However, the Indians used only a portion of their holdings for crops and so caused few lasting changes in the countryside. They moved once or twice in a generation, when the resources in an area became exhausted (GLERL 1995). Those not in villages were scattered throughout the beautiful but inhospitable pine forests of the north. Villages were relatively impermanent and, except in two or three very populous areas, widely separated from one another. The crude and primitive means of subsistence that the Indians had at their disposal seriously limited the number that a given area could support. The greatest concentration of population coincided almost perfectly with the area of deciduous forest. Maple and birch were the two most valuable trees: the first for its sugar, the latter for housing material and canoes. Other sources of food supply, such as game, wild apples, plants, and berries, as well as land suitable for agriculture, were more likely to be found in the deciduous than in the coniferous forest lands.
A majority of Indian settlements were along waterways, as in the St. Joseph and Saginaw River valleys--then the two most populous areas. Water provided an easy means of transportation and, in fish, a plentiful supply of food. Some settlements along the Lake Michigan and Lake Superior shores were regularly occupied in summer and abandoned for more sheltered positions in winter.

When Etienne Brule', the first white man to set foot on Michigan soil, landed at the site of Sault Ste. Marie in 1620 (see image below), the population of Michigan was about 15,000. The southern half of the Lower Peninsula accounted for about 12,000. Others have estimated that the population of Native Americans in the Great Lakes was between 60,000 and 117,000 in the 16th century, when Europeans began their search for a passage to the Orient through the Great Lakes. Some estimate that 10% of all the Indians north of the Mexico border lived in Michigan, at the time of first contact with Europeans. Etienne Brule is the first European to see Lake Huron

Native American Indians were the first to use the many resources of the Great Lakes basin. Abundant game, fertile soils and plentiful water enabled the early development of hunting, subsistence agriculture and fishing. The lakes and tributaries provided convenient transportation by canoe, and trade among groups flourished. By about A.D. 100, Native American inhabitants of the Upper Peninsula (Ojibwes) were using improved fishing techniques and had adopted the use of ceramics. They gradually developed a way of life based on seasonal fishing which the Chippewas/Ojibwes still followed when they met the first European visitors to the area. Scattered fragments of stone tools and pottery mark the location of some of these prehistoric lakeshore encampments.

The above picture shows Native American Indians at a camp on Mackinac Island in 1870. The picture is a bit misleading, however, since most Native Americans in the Great Lakes region lived in hogans or wigwams like the one shown below, not in teepees.

Today, evidence of these ancient cultures is meager. Some of the paleo-Indians left burial and other ceremonial mounds behind, like these in SW Lower Michigan. (Note the gravel pit in the foreground.)

Source: Pictorial History of Michigan: The Early Years, George S. May, 1967.

Archeologists often find their projectile points and arrowheads, indicating sites where they hunted or camped for extensive periods of time. But for the most part, evidence of Native American cultures in Michigan is not great.

Source: Pictorial History of Michigan: The Early Years, George S. May, 1967.

Native Americans lived and traveled primarily along water routes and water bodies. Thus, as of about 1670, much of the dry inland areas of Michigan were essentially unoccupied (see map below). Inland Michigan was used almost exclusively for travel, not to live. It was a place to cross, not to live.

The Woodland Indian Tribes of the Great Lakes area and throughout the eastern and southern part of the United States were farmers. In the fall and winter they hunted and trapped, moving in small family groups to winter hunting camps. Beaver, muskrat, raccoon, deer, elk, bison and black bear were taken for the meat and hides. In the spring, the Indians made maple sugar in large quantities. It was a staple in their diet. They also harvested nuts, berries, wild plums, wild cherries, and pawpaws. Wild rice was gathered around the Great Lakes. Corn, beans, squash, and pumpkin were widely grown in North America, north of Mexico. Besides multi-colored Indian corn the Indians developed varieties of eight and ten-row corn. Beans grown by the Indians included the kidney bean, navy or pea bean, pinto, great northern marrow, and yellow eye bean. The Indians planted corn and beans in the small mounds of soil and often pumpkins, squash, or melons in the space between. Many other vegetables were grown by the Indians: turnips, cabbage, parsnips, sweet potatoes, yams and "Irish" potatoes, onions and leeks. Watermelon and muskmelon were introduced into North America in the 17th century and were being grown in the interior within a few years. The nature and extent of Indian agriculture are revealed in the observations of George Will, a soldier in General Anthony Wayne's campaign against the Indians along the Auglaize and Maumee Rivers (Ohio) in the summer of 1794. "Here are vegetables of every kind in abundance," Will wrote, "And we have marched four or five miles in cornfields down the Oglaize [sic], and there is not less than one thousand acres of corn around the town."

When the first French explorers pushed into Michigan, early in the 17th century, the country was inhabited by Indians of Algonquin stock. This family embraced a large number of tribes in the northeastern section of the continent, whose language apparently sprang from the same mother tongue. It was Algonquins who greeted Jacques Cartier, as his ships ascended the St. Lawrence. The first British colonists found Algonquin Indians hunting and fishing along the coasts and inlets of Virginia. It was Algonquins who, under the great tree at Kensington, made the covenant of peace with William Penn, and when French Jesuits and fur traders explored the Wabash and the Ohio, they found their valleys tenanted by the same far-extended race. In the 1700's travelers might have found Algonquins pitching their bark lodges along the beach at Mackinac, spearing fish among the rapids of St. Mary’s River, or skimming the waves of Lake Superior in their canoes.
The Algonquin had resided in Michigan for at least a century before the coming of the whites. Who preceded them, no one knows, although certain archeological finds suggest the bearers of the Hopewell culture, which is now extinct.

Source: Pictorial History of Michigan: The Early Years, George S. May, 1967.

The chief tribes in the Michigan region in the late 1700's were the Chippewa, or Ojibwa, occupying the eastern part of the Lower Peninsula and most of the UP the Ottawa, in the western part of the Lower Peninsula and the Potawatomi, occupying a strip across the southern part. None of these tribes, apparently, had exclusive possession of the section it occupied. The Saginaw Valley, in the very midst of the Chippewa terrain, was the stronghold of the Sauk. The Mascoutin had a precarious hold on the Grand River Valley, until the Ottawa, having driven them from the Straits of Mackinac, subsequently drove them beyond the borders of the present State. The Miami, in the relatively populous St. Joseph River Valley, shared a similar fate at the hands of the Potawatomi. Other subtribes that once dwelt in the southwestern part of the State were the Eel River, the Piankashaw, and the Wea, while the Menominee, established in the wild-rice country of Wisconsin, included a part of the Upper Peninsula in their domain.

The Algonquin peoples and their descendants were an agricultural people and depended more upon producing vegetables than upon hunting. In Michigan, corn was the staple foodstuff, although wild rice, which was common throughout the State in mud-bottom lakes and sluggish streams, tended to take precedence in the northwestern, especially around Green Bay. Corn was often planted in the midst of the forest--the trees having been killed by girdling, to admit the sunlight--together with squash, tobacco, and kidney beans.
Corn was stored for the winter in cribs--similar to those of the present-day American farmer--and in pits (caches) in the ground. Corn, like the land itself, was the property of the family or clan. So deeply ingrained was this notion of communal ownership of land that, when later the Indians agreed to "sell" it to the whites--oftentimes several thousand acres for a barrel or two of whiskey--they assumed they were simply granting permission for joint use and occupation of the land. It was beyond their comprehension that land could be fenced-off as private property.

To the Europeans, the Indians owed, in addition to spirituous liquors and tuberculosis, the extension of the practice of scalping. Taking the scalp lock of vanquished foes had long been a rite among virtually all North American tribes but, because it was a difficult operation with crude stone knives, it was, perforce, held within limits. Europeans brought steel knives and offered bounties for scalps especially during the War of 1812, when Chippewa sided with the British. Thus, in much the same way that the Michigan Indians were transformed from an agricultural to a nomadic hunting people by the European demand for furs, they were transformed from a peaceful to a warlike race by the French and English demand for scalps.

The basic political unit of the Indians was the tribe, consisting of people speaking the same dialect, occupying contiguous territory, and having a feeling of relationship with one another. The chief was elected to hold office until he died or the electorate became dissatisfied with his leadership and chose another. Often a son was chosen to succeed his father. Besides the chief, there were other dignitaries, notably the priests, and advisory council of minor chiefs, and sometimes a special war chief.
Within the Indian community it was customary for the women to do the gardening, cooking, and housekeeping and the men engaged in hunting, fishing, tool making, and, when necessary fighting. Medicine was the exclusive province of the priesthood, who also officiated at burials. These consisted either of interment near the village, without a marker or with houses of bark and wood over the graves, or of interment in mounds, large and small.
The Indians of Michigan were housed in dome-shaped bark- or mat-covered lodges in winter, and in rectangular bark houses in summer. Among the Chippewa, the summer residence was the conical skin or bark-covered tepee, popularly associated with Indians in general. Homes were furnished with wood and bark vessels, some splint basketry, woven bags for storage, reed and cedar-bark mats, and copper tools and utensils a hole in the roof permitted egress of smoke from the cooking fire. Native pottery was of a primitive order, as was work in wood, stone, and bone.
The men wore leggings, breechcloths, and sleeved shirts--all made of animal skins while the women wore skirts and jackets of the same material. Moccasins were soft-soled, with drooping flaps. Robes of skin served for additional protection during cold weather and as blankets at night.
Besides mining copper, the natives quarried stone to a certain extent, although a great deal of the stone for arrowheads and spearheads came from other areas, chiefly Ohio. Some was imported from beyond the Rocky Mountains. Michigan cherts and flints are generally drab in color, course-grained , and often marred by fossils, blemishes, and flaws. The richest source of supply was around Saginaw Bay. Heavy stones for axes were plentiful along the banks of streams and lakes. A gray stone, from which pipes were made, is reported to have been quarried in the vicinity of Keweenaw Bay.

The attitudes toward the Indians have changed greatly since the 1800's. The text below is taken from an 1880 history text, in which the Indians in south-central Michigan were being characterized:
Of the character of the Indians of this region: "They were hospitable, honest, and friendly, although always reserved until well acquainted never obtrusive unless under the influence of their most deadly enemy, intoxicating drink. None of these spoke a word of English, and they evinced no desire to learn it. I believe they were as virtuous and guileless a people as I have ever lived among, previous to their great destruction in 1834 by the cholera, and again their almost extermination during the summer of 1837 by the (to them) most dreaded disease, smallpox, which was brought to Chesaning from Saginaw, - they fully believing that one of the Saginaw Indians had been purposely inoculated by a doctor there, the belief arising from the fact that an Indian had been vaccinated by the doctor, probably after his exposure to the disease, and the man died of smallpox. The Indians always dreaded vaccination from fear and suspicion of the operation.
"The Asiatic cholera in 1834 seemed to be all over and was certainly atmospheric, as it attacked Indians along the Shiawassee and other rivers, producing convulsions, cramps, and death after a few hours. This began to break up the Indians at their various villages. The white settlements becoming general, and many persons selling them whisky (then easily purchased at the distilleries for twenty-five cents per gallon), soon told fearfully on them. When smallpox broke out in 1837 they fled to the woods by families, but not until some one of the family broke out with the disease and died. Thus whole villages and bands were decimated, and during the summer and fall many were left without a burial at the camps in the woods, and were devoured by wolves. I visited the village of Che-as-sin-ning - now Chesaning - and saw in the summer-camps several bodies partially covered up, and not a living soul could I find, except one old squaw, who was convalescent. Most of the adults attacked died, but it is a remarkable fact that no white person ever took the disease from them, although in many instances the poor, emaciated creatures visited white families while covered with pustules. Thus passed away those once proud owners of the land, leaving a sickly, depressed, and eventually a begging, debased remnant of a race that a few years before scorned a mean act, and among whom a theft was scarcely ever known. I do not think I possess any morbid sentimentality for Indians. I simply wish to represent them as we found them. What they are now is easily seen by the few wretched specimens around us."

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