The "Discovery" of America


When Europeans first sailed to America, Indian tribes (tribal nations) were sovereign by nature.  They conducted their own affairs and depended upon no other source of power to uphold their acts of government (Canby, 1988).  "Indigenous American nations were not conquered by the U.S. armed forces, as many believe" (Treaty Rights, n.d., Historical Context section, para. 2).  Rather, indigenous lands were obtained through negotiation and contractual consent.  The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 declared, "The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards Indians; their land and property shall never be taken from them without their consent" (Pevar, 2002, p. 6).  Due to the ability of the tribal nations to wage war and the seemingly endless availability of land, both the colonial governments and the young United States realized it was in their best interest to allow tribal nations to regulate their own affairs.  Thus began the era of treaty signing between tribal nations and the federal government.  The first treaty between the American Indians and the United States was with the Delaware in 1778 (Utter, 1993).

Treaties are defined as legally binding contracts between parties that cannot be changed or cancelled without agreement by all parties.  Indigenous nations were recognized as separate, sovereign entities and treaties established distinct boundaries between Indian and non-Indian territories.  Within their territories, Indigenous Americans governed their own internal matters.  (Treaty Rights, n.d., Historical Context section, para. 2)


The definition of treaties is reflective of a general rule of international law that states that the internal laws of acquired territories continue in force.  A tribe, as defined by the United States Supreme Court, is as follows: "By a 'tribe' we understand a body of Indians of the same or similar race, united in community under one leadership or government, and inhabiting a particular though sometimes ill-defined territory" (Utter, 1993, p. 29).  Eventually, the United States made treaties with hundreds of indigenous tribal nations, exchanging payments for land and access rights (Canby, 1988).

From the first moment of contact with Europeans, the indigenous people of North America were at an extreme disadvantage.  Not only were they at a disadvantage from a technological standpoint, but they were also at a disadvantage from a cultural standpoint.  This contrast in culture was evident in the relationship between the two groups.

Indian culture was based on an oral tradition, as they placed a high value on the spoken word.  Their verbal words were binding.  European culture was based on the written word; their written word was binding, but words spoken were often forgotten.  Therefore, Indians were at a distinct disadvantage whenever negotiations took place.  Whenever a European spoke, the Indians viewed the words as binding; Europeans did not.  Whenever Europeans tried to write things down, Indians did not understand the necessity of writing things down.  Were not the words enough?  The difference in methods of communications between immigrants and Native Americans often led to misunderstandings and broken treaties.

When Native Americans heard promises like "as long as the grass shall grow and the river flows," they took them literally.  Even today, many Native Americans do not believe that the terms education, health, and welfare, promised to them in the treaties, have all been honored by the United States.  They are still waiting for the federal government to fulfill promises outlined in the treaties.  Another cultural difference is evident in the way Indians and Europeans approached negotiations.  Whenever Indians and Europeans came together, the Indians often viewed their relationship as an alliance; the European immigrants, as a business proposition, a means to acquire more land.

An inherent weakness Native American tribes had when interacting with the "white man" was that the Indians did not view themselves as one group of people.  Prior to European contact, American Indians were not "Indians," but were members of many independent and diverse socio-political and cultural groups (Utter, 1993).  Tribes were well aware of the diversity and unique culture between each group of people.  Each tribe had its own beliefs, customs, and cultures.  Because each tribe was a unique entity and group, immigrants encroaching further and further into Indian territory often divided Indians.  The tremendous numbers of European immigrants eventually conquered the small independent bands of Native Americans, not necessarily through warfare, but through sheer numbers of persons.  A surrender speech made by Cochise, an Apache leader and warrior, demonstrates his frustration at the numbers of immigrants.

Many people came to our country.  First the Spanish, with their horses and their iron shirts, their long knives and guns, great wonders to my simple people.  We fought some, but they never tried to drive us from our homes in these mountains.  After many years the Spanish soldiers were driven away and the Mexican ruled the land.  With these, little wars came, but we were now a strong people, and we did not fear them.  At last in my youth came the white man, under your
people. . . . I have fought long and as best I could against you.  I have destroyed many of your people, but where I have destroyed one white man many have come in his place; where an Indian has been killed, there has been none to come in his place, so that the great people that welcomed you with acts of kindness to this land are now but a feeble band that fly before your soldiers as the deer before the hunter, and must all perish if this war continues.  I have come to you, not from any love for you or for your great father in Washington, or from any regard for his or your wishes, but as a conquered chief, to try to save alive the few people that still remain to me.  I am the last of my family, a family that for very many years have been the leaders of this people, and on me depends their future, whether they shall utterly vanish from the land or that a small remnant remain for a few years to see the sun rise over these mountains, their home.  I here pledge my word, a word that has never been broken, that if your great father will set aside a part of my own country, where I and my little band can live, we will remain at peace with your people forever. . . . I have spoken.  (Armstrong, 1971, p. 187)


Native Americans were puzzled by how the colonists lived, but they did not see any reason to change them.  On the other hand, the colonists' misunderstanding of the Native American way of life, of living as one with the land, wild and free, was sometimes used as an excuse by the colonists to change, "educate," or assimilate the Indians.  Some colonists wanted to modernize and help the Indians out of their ignorant state.  Many colonists were afraid of the Indians' fierce countenance and apparently "savage" existence and wanted nothing to do with them.  Other colonists may even have felt that the Indians were lesser human beings, too ignorant and wild to change, and as subordinate beings should be exterminated (Mintz, 2003).

The French philosopher Montaigne reflected on the pervasive ignorance about Indians that existed in early colonial times when he said, "[The Indian] had no knowledge of letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate, nor of politics . . . no apparel but natural" (Mintz, 2003, European Perceptions section, para. 2).  The majority of the English colonists did not want to coexist with the "savages" (Mintz, 2003).

These cultural differences between immigrants and Native Americans did not bode well for the Indians and their descendents, as Chief Tecumseh was well aware.  In 1810, he faced Governor W. H. Harrison to bitterly protest the land sales of 1805-06.  He said they were affected by the use of strong liquor, a breach of the Treaty of Greenville.  He refused to enter the Governor's mansion; instead, he said to his tribesmen,

The way, the only way to stop this evil is for the red men to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was at first, and should be now - for it was never divided, but belongs to all.  No tribe has the right to sell, even to each other, much less to strangers. . . . Sell a country!  Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth?  Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children? 

            How can we have confidence in the white people?  (Armstrong, 1971, pp. 43‑44)


For 400 years, since the first settlers set foot on American soil to the present times, European colonists and later the U.S. government have been trying to educate and assimilate the Indian into European-American culture.  All attempts have failed miserably, because the Indians are fiercely proud of their heritage, culture, and independence.  But it is hard to be proud when you are a conquered people, often living in poverty on reservations, when your history speaks of a free, plentiful, independent existence that no longer exists.

The Indians' past depended upon vast amounts of land to sustain their people.  They needed to travel, hunt, and fish.  All that changed and was gone when the colonists came.  There were too many settlers for the land to sustain all the people on the land, as it had in the past.  This defeat of the Indians, of their culture and way of life, has caused serious debilitating conditions to arise on reservations among the Indian peoples.  But it has not totally defeated their spirit.  They have been finding ways to improve their circumstances.  One manifestation of the Indians' fight for self-preservation and better living conditions has been the establishment of tribal colleges.


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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Erich Longie published on January 8, 2018 5:16 PM.

The "Discovery" of America was the previous entry in this blog.

Anishinaabe way of life, by Jt ShiningOne Side is the next entry in this blog.

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