The stereotype of Indians, or Native Americans, in movies and dime novels is of howling heathens chucking spears and arrows, or beating drums and dancing around in colorful costumes.
However, as we all know, the title “Indians” is the result of Columbus thinking he had landed in the East Indies instead of the Americas, so calling the people of the Americas “Indians” is consistent with other misconceptions about the native tribal peoples.
I have never liked the title “Native Americans,” even though it’s politically correct, perhaps overly so, because it joins the tribal people together as a homogenous group, which they were not.
My preference is to refer to the tribes by their names: Cherokee, Chippewa, Ute, Sioux, Cheyenne, etc. This not only recognizes the difference between the tribes, but acknowledges that these were distinct, and well developed, nations. The Americas, from Northern Canada south to the tip of Chile, was inhabited by about 500 separate tribal nations of over 10 million people with evolved cultures and patterns of interaction.
Most tribes had a matriarchal system of land holdings because men were not reliable, falling prey to hunting accidents and acts of war. But the tribes did not have the structured system of land ownership that Europeans endorsed, based on the principal of allodial title, handed down from the king to the baronial estates and then on to successors in interest. Tribes simply had flexible territories typically established by natural boundaries such as rivers and mountains, which they defended or expanded based on necessity or ambition.
The men of one nation often had to go to war with men of a neighboring nation even if they did not have a specific gripe with that nation or want to expand their territorial holdings. Achievements in war were considered a necessary part of the process of becoming a man. As was hunting and bringing home the buffalo.
For tribes of the Great Plains of the Americas, the buffalo were to their tribal economy and culture what oil is to our present-day, post-Industrial Revolution world. Buffalo provided tribes with food, clothing and shelter. It isn’t surprising that the tribes conveyed spiritual significance to the buffalo, developing rituals and ceremonies honoring the beast and its contribution to their survival.
The European system of land ownership collided with the tribes matriarchal and territorial system in ways that bloodied the earth and instituted the allodial title system in the United States that persists to the present day. (There are still some pieces of land in the U.S., however, that have not been cleared of “Indian Title,” a topic I will discuss in the next column).
The Europeans understood that eliminating the buffalo would cripple tribal economies and cultures, and this actually did more to subdue the tribes than the now infamous battles. But when the massive buffalo slaughter began — resulting in the elimination of an estimated 30 to 70 million buffalo from the High Plains — the tribes did not believe it possible to kill off all the buffalo, as they considered buffalo had come from the earth itself and were as plentiful as the stars in the sky.
Elimination of the buffalo was to the tribes the modern day equivalent of aliens descending on earth and vaporizing all the oil, depriving us of our means of food production and transportation. ❖
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