History of Native Americans in North America

In case you didn’t know, in the United States, November is Native American Heritage month when we take the time to recognize the importance of Native Americans in the history of our country. Learning about the First Americans and the history of indigenous peoples in North and South America has been one of my favorite subjects over the years. We’ve done episodes about the Mayans who lived in Central America and famous Native Americans like Sacajawea, Sitting Bull, and Bessie Coleman. But I’ve yet to do an episode about a broader history of Native Americans in North America, how they got here, and their fascinating history and contributions.

For a very long time, North America was full of plant and animal life. There were mammoths, bison, bear and wolves, and the vast forests and deserts we see today — but no humans. Some of the other continents like Africa, Europe and Asia had humans but not the Americas because they had started out on the other side of the world. During the Ice Age something extraordinary happened that would change the history of the Earth forever. Where Alaska and Russia are today there is water separating the two lands called the Bering Strait. But around 2 ½ million years ago much of the world’s water became trapped in ice and so the sea level lowered and a land bridge formed between Alaska and Russia. This land bridge was later named Beringia and ancient humans in Asia found this land and crossed it around 15,000 or more years ago. Some even think they may have come as early as 30,000 years ago. That’s a very long time! Evidence shows that this is how humans ended up in North and South American and over the years moved down through the continents to populate it in many different areas. It’s believed that multiple groups crossed the land bridge before the Ice Age ended and the land was once again covered up by the sea. 

One very important thing to keep in mind is that most Native Americans today trace their heritage back to these groups, but this doesn’t mean they ended up being just alike. So when you hear about groups like the Mayans or the Hohokam or Cherokee or Sioux, remember that they ended up being very different in language and culture and looks. I compare it to Europeans today. We don’t think of the Germans and English and French as one people but very different because their language and customers are very different along with their heritage. 

So over time these different groups ended up in different parts of America, but we’re mostly going to focus on the North America Native Americans, who settled all throughout what is today the United States and Canada. Some ended up in California, others in the deserts of Arizona. Some made their home in the forests of Washington or along the oceans of the East Coast in New York, South Carolina, and Florida. And as we said before, as each group settled in a new area, they became very different over the thousands of years that they stayed with their same groups. Their language changed, their looks changed, and they each had unique customs and beliefs that made them different. One mistake Europeans made when they came to America was assuming these people were all the same and falsely labeled them “Indians,” and often treated them as the same group, but in reality they were very unique and special in their own way.

In the Americas, the new people found many plants and animals to survive. They hunted mammoths and bison, the gigantic creatures that roamed the forests and plains of this new country. They learned how to survive by following these animals which they used for food, clothing, and shelter. Like most indigenous people, they worked hard and used their creativity and the natural world around them to keep their families alive. This was not an easy task as you can imagine! They often spent long hours hunting animals, scavenging berries, and other food, and building shelter to avoid the cold, rain and other harsh elements. We know some things about these people today based on the materials they left behind, the things they made. This is called material culture. For example, many Native Americans in the Clovis culture shaped sharp spear heads out of stone that they used to hunt big animals like the mammoths. Archeologists have found the bones of these animals with spear points in them from when the Clovis people hunted them. 

Many of these people were hunter-gatherers, which means that they were often on the move and followed the animals they were hunting, or changed locations depending on what food was available or the weather. For example, they went north when it was hot and south when it was cold. But over time, some of these groups discovered farming and were able to stay in one place. Usually this was by a big body of water like a lake or river so they had plenty of water for their food they grew, also called crops.

One of the biggest civilizations to form was called the Mississippian Culture around 1,000 years ago around the Mississippi River. They planted corn on huge farms. This let them stay in one place because they didn’t have to chase their food. They formed complex societies with kings and held religious ceremonies led by priests. Many of these Native Amerians were artisans, which means they created art and made beautiful jewelry. They also made pots out of clay called pottery and painted it in beautiful and creative ways. These people traded jewelry and pottery and food between cities that were spread out across the United States and Canada. In these cities, they built huge mounds of earth for their temples on top and to bury their dead beneath. These gigantic mounds can still be seen today in states like Illinois, which is one reason we know about the Mississippian Culture along with all of the artifacts they left behind.

So this morning, we all got up and ate breakfast. Then I loaded the kids into the car and we drove south of our home 40 minutes to the Casa Grande National Monument in Arizona. Casa Grande means Big or Great House in Spanish and was the home of the Hohokam people who lived throughout the Southwest, which includes California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas. The Hohokam were extraordinary people. They found ways to live in very hot, dry climates with very little water and lush plant life like other places in the country. They did this by making use of what plants they had and used rivers to irrigate their farms. They ate fruit from cactus and grew corn, beans and squash. Because their farms weren’t right next to the river, they spent years of hard labor digging canals and irrigation ditches to move water from the river to their farms. When white settlers eventually moved into these areas, they were able to reuse these canals to water their own farms. In fact, many of the canals we use today where I live were originally dug by these Native American people. 

The Great House we visited is one of the few structures of its kind in the United States and was made using the hard soil called caliche and rocks and other materials even though it was constructed nearly 1,000 years ago it still stands. Check out the video link in the show description to see more of our visit to Casa Grande. The kids enjoyed seeing this amazing structure, walking through its various rooms, and imagining what it might have been like to live among the Hohokam People. It gave them an appreciation for these people who lived long before us and their hardiness and talent for being able to live off the land, especially in a very hot and dry place without all of the modern conveniences we have. Be sure to look up to see if you have Native American ruins or sites near where you live. It’s an awesome experience if you get the chance.

The ancestors of the Hohokam and the Pueblo cultures who also lived in the Southwest were the Mogollon people and Ancestral Puebloans, many of whom lived in present-day Colorado and whose fascinating homes can be seen at Mesa Verde National Park. You’ll have to look up the photos of Mesa Verde, but the people there build their homes up on the side of the mountains called cliff dwellings. Here they were able to defend their homes using towers and tunnels to move around during battle. The Mogollon culture also farmed and traded with other tribes and were very talented basketmakers.  

In 1492, Christopher Columbus reached the shores of the Americas by boat. He was surprised to find it and thought he’d run into India not an entirely new continent. Once Columbus returned to Europe and told everyone about the New World he’d discovered, other explorers chartered ships and left to see what kind of land and riches they could discover there. Along with a new land, they were surprised to find new people and with each explorer the contact with the Native Americans was different. Some explorers came searching for gold and often they treated the indigenous people as slaves making them try and dig for gold. Sometimes the Europeans came as missionaries and tried to be helpful but weren’t respectful of the Native Americans cultures and way of life. In some cases fights took place between the Europeans and Native Americans and in other cases they got along and helped each other out. They often traded with each other. Europeans were interested in the new foods, plants, and animals in the New World and Native Americans were interested in the same things from the Old World. These plants and animals moved between the different continents and now we call this The Columbian Exchange.

With the movement of people between the Old and New World also came diseases. In Europe, people lived in cities with huge numbers of people living in a very small area and around animals. They had experienced diseases, such as the Bubonic Plague, but having lived through the diseases they were immune to them. Tragically, the Native Americans were not. New diseases caused a massive loss of life. Where Native Americans once thrived across the continent from coast to coast, after years of disease they were left with very small groups. Some even think only 5% of the population was left. This left these small groups to try and survive and deal with more and more settlers coming to their land.

If you’re familiar with the story of Thanksgiving, one reason the Wampanoag tribe that held their harvest feast with the Pilgrims was so small, because of this disease that had ravaged their tribe. In this story, the Wampanoag were recovering from disease and small numbers and the Pilgrims were also suffering, too. The feast was a time of peace and Thanksgiving between the two groups of people. Like we said before, peace didn’t always last between groups like the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims. Sometimes the people of the Old and New World got along, but in many cases, they did not. 

In 1622, Powhatan Indians attacked colonists in Virginia to try and remove them from their land, and as is often the case with violent conflict, later the colonists fought back. Later, came King Phillip’s War between the Wampanoag and the Puritan settlers in Massachusetts. And as more and more colonists moved from Europe to North America, the Native American people had to move further away from the coasts and into more remote parts of the country. They increasingly found themselves battling settlers, on the run, and trying to find a safe place for their families as more of the land was settled by foreigners. 

For some groups, the safest places were the unsettled ones like the Plains. The Plains are a large area of flat land in the middle section of North America which now includes Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and other states. Here, for a time tribes like the Lakota, Sioux, Kiowa, Arapaho, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Comanche and Crow were able to survive and make a livelihood like their families. Their ancestors had lived as hunter-gatherers in these areas for thousands of years before, but one thing that changed their life after contact with Europe was the horse. You may not know it, but the horse didn’t make its way to America until the 1700s. Plains Indians were able to breed horses, tame them, and use them to move quickly across the land. They became excellent horsemen and used the speed of the horses to hunt. Also, roaming the plains at the time were huge numbers of bison, also known as buffalo. Have you seen a buffalo before? They are large cow-like animals with brown hair and horns. Groups like the Lakota Sioux, were also experts at archery, using a bow-and-arrow. They would ride up alongside the buffalo herds and fire at them until bringing down these massive animals. They used their skins for clothing and shelter and meat and other parts of their body for food. The Plains Indians were known for their bravery and skills in battle and were often feared by settlers who tried to take their lands. Some of the most famous Plains Indians and warriors were Sacajawea, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Red Cloud. Sadly, over time, like other tribes, they were pushed further into more remote parts of North America. Eventually, many of them were forced onto reservations. A reservation was a place set aside where they could live in peace, but in most cases, this wasn’t the land of their ancestors, wasn’t desirable, land they didn’t want. 

Native Americans who those times have continued to be an important part of its history. As you know, I’m a big fan of World War II history, and sometimes a lesser-known part of the history there is that Native Americans played a big part in fighting in the war and also sending coded messages. Soldiers who spoke English and their tribal language were able to send messages back and forth by radio. Languages like Navajo and Choctaw were totally unknown to their enemies, so when the enemy tried to listen in to the messages going back and forth they couldn’t understand them. And enemy soldiers definitely didn’t have Native American translators on the battlefield. Along with the Navajo and Choctaw code talkers, there were at least 14 other Native American tribes who were code talkers during World War 2. Code Talkers were in both Europe and the Pacific and took place in major battles such as D-Day and Iowa Jima. If you’ve ever seen the photo or statues of soldiers raising a flag that’s Iowa Jima, and one of the soldiers is Ira Hayes, an Akimel O’odham Native American and United States Marine from Arizona. 

Later, during the Space Race, one of the NASA engineers who helped send the astronauts to the moon was a Native American Cherokee woman by the name of Mary Golda Ross. She also helped design top secret missiles and aircraft. 

The first Native American astronaut to go to space is named John Herrington of the Chicksaw Nation. He took place in the 16th shuttle mission to the International Space Station in 2002. To honor his people during the mission he carried six eagle feathers, a braid of sweetgrass, two arrowheads, and the Chickasaw Nation’s flag.

Other well-known Native American scientists and engineers are Aaron Yazziem, who worked on the Mars landers and Thomas David Petite, who has done work on smart grid technology.

In 2020, six Native American and Native Hawaiians were elected to Congress, and others have served in other parts of the government over the years, which include governors of Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Oklahoma.

With November being Native American Heritage, take the time to research the history of these different cultures and the contributions of their people in our day. I’ve enjoyed learning more about the cultures in my state such as the Hohokam, Pueblo, and Navajo. Check out the video in the show description of us visiting the Casa Grande ruins near us. Also, last night I was just reading that right where I live there were Native American settlements hundreds of years ago. Recently, I’ve had the chance to see sites where these people lived and hiked in places where they once walked. On these hikes, I’ve been able to spend time reflecting what it might have been like to live when they did. Thinking of them made me grateful for their way of life and even today we use miles and miles of canals that they dug hundreds of years ago. 

Also, if there’s someone you know that’s Native American, get the chance to know them better. Ask them stories about their life and their ancestors. There are also many great museums and shows on these topics. Take the time to learn more about Native Americans in your part of the country, or if you live outside of the United States, I’m willing to bet there were indigenous people who once lived in your area. Take the time to learn more about them and consider with respect their lives and what they did in their time.