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Everyday Life of the North American Indian

Everyday Life of the North American Indian

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Everyday Life of the North American Indian

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Mar 8, 2012


This book by the author of several outstanding studies of ancient peoples vividly recounts the story of the Native Americans — from their earliest beginnings as immigrants from the Asian mainland, to their lives as tragic figures on U. S. government-authorized reservations.
A story of great depth and perspective, Everyday Life of the North American Indian traces the subjects' various roles in the New World: as nomad, hunter, and farmer; as athlete, warrior, parent, and spouse; as witch doctor, worshipper, artist, and craftsman.
Enhanced with more than 100 illustrations, this comprehensive, highly readable book will be valued by students of American history and welcomed by all those intrigued by Native American culture.
Mar 8, 2012

Über den Autor

JON MANCHIP WHITE (1924-2013) was the Welsh American author of more than thirty books of non-fiction and fiction, including Mask of Dust, Nightclimber, Death By Dreaming, Solo Goya, and his final novel, Rawlins White: Patriot to Heaven, published in 2011. White was also the author of a number of plays, teleplays, screenplays and volumes of short stories and poetry.

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Everyday Life of the North American Indian - Jon Manchip White



Since the original publication of this book in 1979, important developments in the prehistory, classical history, and modern history of the Indians of North America have occurred and must be noted, as we enter a new millenium.

The main prehistoric lines as depicted in the opening chapter, The Spirits of the Ancestors, still hold true. With regard to the earliest phase of all, however, the question of how the original inhabitants arrived in a hitherto empty continent has undergone increased elaboration and a certain amount of revision. The basic theory of major infiltration from Asia via Alaska by means of the then-existing ice-free corridor still appears paramount, with the Clovis culture continuing, at least for the moment, to hold pride of place as North America’s first prominent prehistoric culture, with a date of 11,500 years or thereabouts assigned to the site in New Mexico from which it takes its name. However, some scholars have made a strong case for a parallel or perhaps earlier incursion, not overland via the route between the Cordilleran and Laurentide Glaciers, but in skin boats and by sea, hugging the western coastline. I had already mentioned in the introductory chapter that the Clovis hunters seem to have penetrated as far south as Chile, and it is claimed that the site of Monte Verde and the intermediate sites of Quebrada Jaguay and Quebrada Tacahuay in Peru predate the Clovis site by as many as 1,000 years, suggesting that the peopling of the Americas may have been more swiftly effected by sail rather than by foot. En route, some of these maritime adventurers may have split away and ventured inland to settle in New Mexico, exfoliating in course of time from Clovis into Folsom, Plainview, and their associated cultures in the Southwest and elsewhere. That the Clovis hunters and their descendants gradually moved across the Plains and into eastern America is not disputed, but recent evidence suggests that eastern America may have been settled by earlier groups. An important excavation in the 1990s at a campsite at Cactus Hill in Virginia revealed a layer of Paleo-Indian stone tools situated below those of the stratum containing those of Clovis affiliation. Radio-carbon dating suggests that Cactus Hill may have been occupied between 16,000 and 18,000 years ago, a full 5,000 years before Clovis. Two other eastern sites may also pre-date Clovis: the Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania, estimated at 17,000 years old, and the Topper site in South Carolina, estimated at about 12,000 years old. Similarly, there are some additional tantalizing discoveries in South America that merit further investigation as possible pre-Clovis candidates—notably those at Taima-Taima in Venezuela, and Pedra Pintada, Pedra Furada, and Monte Alegre in Brazil. It may ultimately prove that the basic Alaska-Clovis model was correct but somewhat simplified, and that early America was inhabited not by one or two but by a number of assorted bands of wanderers hailing from widely divergent points of the compass. It has been suggested, for example, that Monte Verde in Chile and its sister sites on the western seaboard may have originated from voyages across the Pacific, and that Cactus Hill, Meadowcroft, and Topper may have resulted from voyagers making their way to North America, long before the authentic Viking pioneers, by venturing from Europe as the Vikings were to do along the coastlines of Iceland, Greenland and Northern Canada. But thus far, failing material and archaeological confirmation, such notions are speculative.

In the same way that the prehistoric scenario is being augmented by the discovery of fresh caches of bone and stone tools and sometimes entire workshops, so in recent years the record is being increasingly fleshed out by the unearthing of the skulls and skeletons of the actual men and women who long ago made and used these tools. Again, however, we must counsel caution. If controversy abounds about the status of the sites that yielded more material and mundane artifacts, the same controversy positively swirls about the various human remains brought to light in the past few years. It will be sufficient to mention the more striking of these, the majority of which would appear to be related—though one cannot be sure—to the seaborne or overland incursions from Alaska that have already been mentioned. Thus loosely attributed to the former may be Prince of Wales Island Man in Alaska (suggested age, 9,200 years), and the Arlington Springs Woman, California (10,960 years); while further inland, and provisionally assigned to the overland groups, we might mention the relics of Buhl Woman, Idaho (10,600 years); Spirit Caveman, Nevada (9,400 years); Wizards Beach Man, Nevada (9,200 years); Browns Valley Man, Minnesota (8,700 years); Kennewick Man, Washington (8,000 years); and Pelican Rapids Woman, Minnesota (7,840 years). And in one of those puzzling South American sites, the remains of the so-called Lupa Vermelha Woman turned up in Brazil and have been given the tentative age of 11,500 years.

Without exception, claim and counter-claim have been waged over these physical findings. For example, while one researcher claims that the skull of Spirit Caveman closely resembles that of an African Bushman, another claims it resembles a Japanese Ainu; Buhl Woman has been held to be Polynesian; Kennewick Man, European. Identification is of direct, practical and serious consequence to those living tribes themselves: If these remains cannot be linked to the tribes which occupy the sites where such remains were found, this must adversely affect the ancestral claims of the tribes to those reservations, which in turn calls into question the claims of those tribes to hunting and fishing rights and, above all, the right to build casinos, a subject that will be touched on shortly. Not surprisingly, the tribes have sprung into action. Citing a newly passed Indian Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Umatilla, for example, sought to rebury Kennewick Man, the Shoshone to rebury Buhl Woman, and the Paiute to rebury Spirit Caveman. In turn, this prodded the scholarly community into activity, since reburial would result in the elimination of scientific investigation and the possible surrender to the tribes of all the skeletal material in the collections of museums. In most cases sensible compromises were arrived at: but as a consequence of the Graves Act, the excavation of Indian sites and the required inventorying of Indian funerary objects in state and state-funded museums are now carried out in a scrupulous and sensitive way with regard to the feelings of the local Indian population.

A positive groundswell of respect for Indians, and Indian life in general, has become increasingly evident on the American scene. Growing concern and respect, coupled with an incremental improvement in the fortunes of the Indian community, have generated self-respect and confidence among the Indian peoples themselves. There have been setbacks, such as the inter-tribal skirmishing among the Sioux in 1973 and the Mohawks in 1990, but the increased ability of the Indian population to pull together and speak with a common voice is a striking achievement.

It would be pleasant to be able to record that the Government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs had played a leading part, or any part at all, in this fitful but positive progress. In the last chapter of this book, The Reservation, I wrote that the Bureau of Indian Affairs was resented or actively detested by the Indians themselves. Alas, today it is even more resented, detested and indeed actively hated. Under the terms of the General Allotment Act of 1887, a portion of the proceeds of oil, timber, grazing, mineral and other non-Indian activities of Indian lands was supposed to go into a trust fund for the benefit of Indians. It is not too much to say that for over a century the Government has deceived and defrauded those same Indians. In 1992, for example, the House Governmental Operations Committee detailed the widespread mismanagement of the Indian Trust Fund. In 2002 the Interior Department reluctantly admitted that it would cost $2.4 billion and more than ten years to unravel the decades-long misdemeanors and malfeasances connected with the Trust Fund. In 2003, after then-Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton and other Interior Department officials had again been ruled in contempt of court, Indian plaintiffs led by the president of the National Congress of American Indians stated that, by their own accounting, $137.5 billion was missing from the Fund. The sorry saga of bureaucratic sloth, contempt and betrayal of the unfortunate people who are its wards continues.

It is not surprising that the dire conditions under which many Indians were compelled to suffer in the 1970s, as described in graphic terms on pages 244 and 245 of the present book, are still in many cases unchanged today. However, the surge of that positive spirit that was already under way when the book was written has produced some startling improvements, the principal one being the signal advance in education. By 1990, over 70% of children between 6 and 17 had been enrolled in high school, and two-thirds of them had graduated, an increase of 30% in twenty years. At the same time Indian enrollment in college had shot up from a mere 200 in 1960 to an astonishing 50,000 in 1990. Unemployment, on the other hand, estimated at nearly 50% in 1960, had hardly dropped by 1990, and in 2001 was still estimated at 49% for those living on or near the reservations, and of those who were employed a third still lived below the poverty line. The comparable unemployment figure for the non-Indian population at that time was 6%, and those Indians at work earned scarcely half the annual earnings of their non-Indian counterparts.

Nonetheless, some of these figures are all the more encouraging when set against the phenomenal growth of the Indian population. If we estimate the prehistoric population of the United States and Alaska at its peak at about 2 million, then by 1890 it had dwindled to about 250,000, and by 1990 the numbers of those who claimed to belong to the 300 Indian tribes had still barely managed to climb back to the prehistoric level. Of these, 50% still lived on the reservations, which covered nearly a million acres in 27 states, and on which the death rate was a third higher than in the rest of the country. The disabilities that had held back Indian progress, and in too many cases still do, were the familiar ones of alcoholism, suicide, homicide, pneumonia, tuberculosis, diabetes and other assorted ills, compounded by a birthrate consistently double that of the national rate. Yet there has been a notable strengthening of Indian morale. Nor has the advance been purely material: it has been spiritually nourished, as it were, by the emergence of outstanding Indian artists and of Indian writers or of writers with Indian sympathies or affiliations such as Leslie Marmon Silko; Louise Erdrich; William Least Heat Moon; N. Scott Momaday; the best-selling crime novelist Tony Hillerman, whose tales of Navajo police officers have attracted a wide national audience; and the historian Dee Brown, whose work Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee caused a considerable stir in 1970. Of particular consequence has been a notable reversal of the old cowboys-and-Indians stereotype, compared to popular novels and Western movies in which the Indian was customarily portrayed as a not-so-noble savage. Among movies a special mention must be made of Dances With Wolves (1990). Adapted from his own novel by Michael Blake and directed by Kevin Costner, who also played the lead, the film relates the story of a young Civil War soldier who befriends and becomes the champion of a band of Sioux and—in a bold literary and social departure—eventually elects to join it, the action highlighted by the magnificence of the South Dakota setting.

Though it is growing more cohesive, because of its small numbers—the 1.2 million Indians comprise only 0.6% of the American population—and its scattered distribution, the Indian community has not managed hitherto to exercise any great political clout commensurate with this enhanced cultural standing. It has only, by the turn of the century, sent one representative to the U.S. Senate, the formidable Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, member of the 1964 Olympic judo team. Nonetheless a political tide is beginning to flow. In South Dakota, for example, where the Oglala Sioux and their fellow tribes make up 8% of the population, the Indian faction is organizing itself and starting to function as a swing-vote in local and national elections. This political component is likely to soon be leavened by those increasing ranks of young Indian men and women who are now attending college. Although they constitute a very small minority, these students have been achieving well-above-average examination results.

In conclusion, we must note that Indian political, as well as economic, fortunes may at this time be changing dramatically in a way that could not have been foreseen in the 1970s and 1980s. Americans have always loved to gamble, and until comparatively recently gambling was regarded as more or less an entertaining and minor pastime largely confined to the racetrack and the rest of the sporting fraternity. In the final quarter of the last century, however, it underwent an enormous expansion.

Many Indian tribes—or groups of Indians hurriedly assembling and claiming to be Indian tribes—have been carried onward and upward on the flood of cash generated by gambling. It is turning out to be a heady ride, all stemming from the fact that, in 1832, the Supreme Court, never dreaming of the future implications for such matters as gambling, declared that the Indians possessed sovereign immunity from state laws on their own reservations. In 1987, the Court again ruled that bingo parlors on Indian reservations could not be regulated by state and local governments; a year later Congress, possibly scenting the trouble to come, passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which had the unattended consequence of further legalizing casinos on Indian reservations. By 2002, 290 Indian casinos, including the enormously successful Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut, had sprung into existence, with combined yearly revenues estimated at almost $13 billion.

As with real estate, the prime consideration where Indian casinos is concerned is location. It is the tribes—however small—that are situated near populous, urbanized areas such as California and the Northeast who skim the cream off the top. Some tribes become flush, some tribes stay flat; it seems that most Indians remain impoverished while a fortunate few attain at least some material benefit. And any benefit, however modest, is to be welcomed where the Native American community is concerned. It is a staggering statistic: by 1997 the total revenues from the Indian casinos were already twice those of Las Vegas and Atlantic City combined. By 2001, while in the same period the revenues of Las Vegas and Atlantic City remained level at about $3 billion, the revenues of the Indian casinos had surged to well above $12 billion annually. Up to the present time, Indian political influence and political representation has been negligible—the gush of gold from the casinos may alter that.

Under any circumstances, and leaving aside the phenomenon of the casinos, the contemporary everyday life of the North American Indian must differ radically from that of the North American Indian during the classical or historical period, which is largely dealt with in the pages that follow. When the author of this book was a student of archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge University in the late 1940s, and when he was a professor at a university in the American Southwest in the 1960s and 1970s, it was still possible to study many of the tribal organisms in the world, including some of those in the United States, as they still existed in a comparatively intact and uncontaminated state. In the Information Age, when television and the Internet are percolating to even the remotest corners of the globe, this is no longer the case. All societies, including those societies within a society like that of the American Indians, must inevitably change, and change with a speed unprecedented in the annals of the human race.

I wrote in my final chapter, at the close of the 1970s, that the Indians were already truly learning the white man’s ways. As they do so, one can only hope that they will learn them in a manner expressive of their noble and generous spirit, and will sacrifice as little as may be of those shining gifts which are their unique ancestral heritage.

Jon Manchip White



The Spirits of The Ancestors

The Conestoga wagons creak and lumber across the prairie, their canvas flapping like a convoy of little ships labouring across an enormous empty ocean. The sun is just passing its zenith and beats down pitilessly. The trail-boss and his outriders urge on the teams of tired mules and their drivers; they must make the waterhole marked on their makeshift maps by nightfall. Suddenly the trail-boss stiffens in his saddle. He lifts his hand to his dust-streaked face and peers under it at the distant horizon. Where the edge of the vast plain meets the sky he can see a brown plume coiling into the air. Could that dim smudge be anything more than an ordinary dust-devil? No: this is Indian country. A moment later his ears catch the drumming of hoofs and the yelling of war-cries. Quickly he orders the toiling wagons to swing inwards and laager into a tight circle. Men leap out and pull down packing-casks, chests, trunks, even pieces of furniture, thrusting them beneath the wagons and into the gaps between to serve as a barricade. Winchesters and Navy Colts are snatched from their holsters and boxes of ammunition are broken open. The women crouch beside their menfolk, loading the spare weapons or huddling protectively above the children. None too soon. The first wild wave of horsemen is already breaking against the flimsy barrier. The men lying behind the upturned armchairs and chests of china and water-barrels fire into a blur of half-naked bodies daubed with paint and feathers. The air is filled with savage yells, with the crack of guns, with the reek of blood and sweat and gunpowder. Again and again the attackers return to the charge, leaving their dead draped across the barricade and the upturned shafts of the wagons. Finally they fall back on their traditional tactic of riding full tilt around the besieged band, yelping and yippying, guiding their bedizened steeds with their knees, twisting sideways to loose off their arrows and fire the rifles stolen from the victims of earlier massacres or sold to them by renegade white traders. The defenders squint grimly down the scorching barrels of their guns and pour fire into the maddened mass of the savages as they pound by, the manes and tails of their mounts and their own plaited locks and headdresses streaming out behind them. Bullets thud into bodies. Redskins topple to the ground to be trampled by their own comrades as they whirl past in a vortex of dust. The trail-boss is hit. His second-in-command snatches up his rifle and takes command. There can be no surrender, for the white men know that they can expect no quarter. They will be scalped, their wives and daughters will be seized as slaves and squaws, their children will be brought up in Indian ways. And now the arrows ripping into the wagons are tipped with fire and the tindery canvas burns with an oily flame. There is no alternative but to fight to the last, to sell their lives dearly . . .

1 Indians attacking a wagon train. After a painting by Frederic Remington.

Such is the portrait of American Indian activity with which we are familiar from watching a thousand movies. It is exciting and entertaining. But is it true? Does it really correspond to historical facts?

The answer is - a little . . . but not much. Yet the Hollywood stereotype, invented for the purpose of spinning a good story, has gone deep, and has done a great deal of damage. Many millions of people all over the world, even in the United States and Canada, know almost nothing about the American Indian apart from the crude picture built up in their minds by the cinema and television. The visual medium is potent: in irresponsible hands it can be dangerously misleading. Overexposure to cheap, run-of-the-mill ‘Cowboy-and-Indian’ films and pulp-novels has implanted a false image of the American Indian - as well as a false image of the American cowboy.

It must also be admitted that the American Indian has contributed generously to his own misleading stereotype. For example, he was deeply impressed by the showy caricature of himself portrayed in the show-ring, during the last century, by the Wild West circuses of such entrepreneurs as William F. (Buffalo Bill) Cody and William (Pawnee Bill) Lillie - though the Wild West Show had been started, in all good faith, as early as 1837, when George Catlin, the great artist and traveller, displayed his ‘Indian Gallery’. At one stage there were over 50 such ‘Indian Shows’ going the rounds. The genuine Indian could not resist the showy and largely fake regalia of the stage Indian. He added the latter’s plumes, spangles and sequins to his own costume, making it glamorous but spurious. Thus the Indian himself bears, ironically enough, much of the responsibility for his own ‘Hollywoodization’.

Misconceptions about Indians

Let us briefly consider a few distortions about the life of the American Indian which were implied by our opening scene.

First - and for this we can hardly blame the film-writer - the very words Indian and Redskin are inaccurate. The American Indian, as we shall see in a moment, is of Asiatic and Mongolian origin: but he has no connexion whatever with the Indian of the Asian sub-continent. The mistake occurred when Columbus first reached the shores of the New World in October, 1492. When he sighted the Island of San Salvador (modern Watling Island), he thought he had reached ‘the Indies’, as the Far East was then called, and that he was looking at the coast of Japan. The existence of an entire continent blocking off Europe from the Indies came as a complete surprise to the explorers of that day. As for the word Redskin, it came into service because for some reason the first Frenchman to reach America in the middle of the sixteenth century called the native Americans peaux rouges. The French pride themselves on their precise use of language: but here they were inaccurate. None of the American Indians were or are red-skinned, but were either a light or a dark brown, or as fair as any Frenchman.

However, the two major misconceptions conveyed by our introductory scene are that (1) the American Indians were by nature bloodthirsty, and that (2) they were exclusively a race of horsemen. Moreover the Indians in Hollywood films appear to inhabit only the deserts and mountains of the Southwest, or occasionally the northern plains, and only seldom the other three-quarters of the country where they were actually more numerous. The Southwest - West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Southern Utah and Southern Colorado - is pictorially spectacular, and makes a strong appeal to the film-director; and the Southwest also contained three of the most famous tribes: Navajo, Apache and Comanche. These tribes were certainly mounted: yet even so the popular notion of their behaviour is erroneous, since only the Comanche were truly a horse-orientated people of the type depicted in the movies. The Apache were poor

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