It has been more than five centuries since Christopher Columbus reached the Americas. We know a great deal about Columbus, of course, and about the Europeans and Africans who crossed the Atlantic after him. We know much less about the “Indians. ” as Columbus mistakenly called them?the people already living in America. But we are learning more all the time, so I want to talk about early contacts between Native Americans and newcomers.
We now estimate that as many as seven million people were living in North America 500 years ago, and that their ancestors had been on this continent for at least thirteen thousand years. For all this time?hundreds of generations?they had remained isolated from Asia and Africa and Europe, building their own separate world. Over many centuries, these first North Americans developed diverse cultures that were as varied as the landscapes they lived in. And they developed hundreds of different languages.
Looking back, what can we say about early encounters between these diverse Native Americans and the strange newcomers who arrived from across the ocean? Let me give you a few things to think about. Remember, first of all, that these Minimal contacts stretched over the entire continent and occurred over several centuries. The encounters were nearly as varied as the people involved. But key issues such as language, belief, technology, and disease arose regularly in different times and places. We may never know exactly about the first contacts from overseas.
Long before Columbus, occasional boats may have arrived across the North Pacific from Asia, or across the Atlantic from Africa or Europe. They may have sailed intentionally or drifted by mistake. But such encounters were brief. So was the encounter with Norse Vikings. They visited Newfoundland in Canada about 1,000 years ago?nearly 500 years before Columbus. Their little colony of 160 people was short-lived. We know from sagas (family stories passed down orally across generations) that local Inhabitants attacked the Norse settlers, forcing them to retreat to Greenland after several years.
In contrast, the newcomers who followed Columbus after 1492 proved far more numerous and more willing to stay. Though few In numbers at first, these European strangers brought supplies and then enforcements from across the sea. Now, imagine that you are one of those newcomers, approaching my small portion of North America for the first time. As Native American, I have diverse friends and enemies living all around me, and because I engage in trade I am used to encounters with strangers who do not speak my language.
But you are different in various ways, and I have probably already heard rumors about you?some true and some false? from neighbors who have seen your ships. And believe me, your ships are a big surprise. My people live near the ocean, and we understand boats. But when we addle out to observe you, we are Impressed by the size of your ship, with Its tall masts. On the East Coast, I greet you from a birch-bark canoe or a dugout canoe. Indians are small. If you enter Upset Sound, the cypress canoes of the Northwest Coast Indians are much larger.
Maybe you are Russian fur-hunters reaching Alaska. If so, you are amazed at my light, quick kayak. If you are the English explorer James Cook approaching Hawaii for the first time, you are struck to see our outrigger canoes and surf boards. One way or another, we can push off from the beach or the river mouth and visit your ocean-going vessel. But it is strange for us; you needed iron tools to create this ship, huge sheets of cloth to make it sail, and navigational charts to find your way. We have none of these.
On the other hand, you are totally ignorant of our home waters. It is no secret that along Florist’s coast and North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Native Americans often found European shipwrecks. We Indians know ?and we may be willing to tell you?which anchoring spots give protection from storms. We know the local streams and which house sites might flood in springtime. We know where there is fresh water?which you probably need after weeks at sea? ND we know sources of food for every time of year.
The Indians in New England, watching the Pilgrims starve at Plymouth, showed them how to locate clams in the mudflats at low tide, how to trap fish, how to plant corn, and how to hunt strange, tasty birds called turkeys. But not all first encounters occurred near the coast. Before the middle of the sixteenth century, Spanish explorers were marching inland so far and so fast that rumors of their arrival scarcely had time to precede them. In the 1 sass, Native peoples living in the Carolinas, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas ere surprised by the fierce invasion of Despot and his army.
At the same time, Indians further west on the Great Plains experienced the sudden arrival of Coronal’s force, traveling from New Mexico on horseback in search of sudden wealth. In these two instances, and in many later confrontations, Europeans reacted at first with disappointment, frustration, and violence. The new environment seemed strange and dangerous; local people did not fit European hopes and expectations. For Native Americans, the most serious outcome of initial encounters, whether near he ocean or far inland, was the arrival of contagious diseases?unfamiliar sicknesses that they had never experienced.
Again and again, foreign newcomers brought deadly illnesses with them. Three hundred years would elapse between the early Spanish explorations and the forced removal of Native Americans from much of the expanding United States in the asses. That is a huge stretch of time, and the encounters between Indians and non-landing varied widely across those three centuries. Gradually, especially in the East, Non-landing gained the upper hand in terms of sheer numbers. Some general estimates regarding the southeast, from Virginia to East Texas, illustrate this point.
In 1700, four out of five persons in the entire region were Indians. But by 1800, Indian numbers had declined and the European and African population had risen so fast that scarcely one person in thirty was a Native American. If sickness and death moved unevenly in one direction, from non-landing to Indian, Christianity moved in the same direction. Many of the earliest encounters involved missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, who worked energetically to convert Native Americans to their Christian faith.
In New England, the Reverend John Eliot spent years translating the Bible into the Massachusetts language, and in 1663 he printed 1000 copies to be used by converts known as efforts often met with fierce resistance. In the Southwest, Catholic priests and missionaries accompanied the earliest Spanish settlers in New Mexico, and efforts began around 1600 to suppress the Pueblo religion with harsh punishments. But Pueblo leaders fought back. In the successful “Pueblo Revolt” of 1680, Indian rebels expelled the Spanish colonizers.
The Pueblos attacked missionaries, burned churches, and punished Christian converts. While the Christian religion and the strange new diseases moved in one direction, education and trade moved in two directions. Let’s take education first. Europeans were a literate society; many could write letters and read books. In America they began to share this powerful tool through schools. In the seventeenth century, Harvard build a separate Indian college on its campus. In the eighteenth century, Dartmouth College in New Hampshire emphasized Native American education, at least for a few.
But at the same time, Indians who understood the American land and the natural world offered education to the newcomers. They were constantly explaining matters of geography, climate, and food. They knew when to plant and harvest crops, when fish were plentiful in certain streams, when the abundant oak trees dropped their acorns. Then knew which plants were edible, and how to track game. Gradually they shared their knowledge with newcomers. In Louisiana, white settlers often sent a young son to live among the local Indians to learn their language and pave the way for future trade.
Trading, like education, was a two-way street. From the start, Europeans were scouring the land for items they could ship home and sell at a profit. Precious metals or spices would be best, but they saw few signs of these items. What they found instead was fur. In the Southeast, the soft hides of whitetail deer could be scraped and packed and shipped to Europe to make aprons and gloves. In New England and Canada, the pelts of beaver could be sent across the Atlantic to hat makers for the creation of fashionable beaver hats.
Along the Northwest Coast, Russian traders obtained the valuable pelts of sea otters, which they could trade to the Chinese for spices and tea. More often than not, it was the Native Americans who hunted the animals and processed the pelts for shipment abroad. But if people in Europe and Asia were eager for North American furs of all sorts, Native Americans were equally eager for unfamiliar trade items from Europe. Indians exchanged hides and pelts for woolen blankets and coats, yards of cloth and ribbons, supplies of buttons, beads, and thread.
Metal items of all kinds represented new and dramatic improvements in a world where utensils were shaped slowly from wood and rocks and clay. Metal knives and needles had obvious appeal. Metal pots, though heavy, were more durable and more versatile than clay pots. Besides, if they were poorly made and sprung leaks, they could be broken into pieces to be shaped into sharp arrowheads. When Dutch traders moved up the Hudson River to barter with the Indians for furs, the Mohawk called them “Kristin,” meaning “metal makers. Iron axes and hatchets were especially desirable. Native Americans knew how to kill trees by peeling off layers of bark. They could fell them by slowly burning away the base. But a durable metal axe made it possible to shape wood rapidly, whether building a house, carving a totem pole, or hollowing a dugout canoe. Various kinds of rum and spirits also figured early and often in the trade. Hard liquor gave European traders an person consuming alcohol also became less alert?more subject to an unfair trade or a robbery.
Two other unfamiliar items?the gun and the horse?swept across North America during the seventeenth and eighteenth century as a result of trade between Indians and non-landing. Laws passed in Spain prohibited Spanish colonists in the Southwest from trading guns to Indians. So guns moved steadily westward instead, purchased from the French and Dutch and English in the East. Once a tribe acquired guns through the fur trade, neighboring tribes worked desperately to acquire similar weapons, or else they risked being defeated in war or outdone as hunters and fur traders.
The horse, reintroduced into North America by the Spanish in the Southwest, moved in the opposite direction, After the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, horses spread north and east across the Great Plains?traded from one nation to another, or stolen in order to gain new mobility and power. A map shows clearly how the horse frontier and the gun frontier pushed in opposite directions. During the 18th century, tribes such as the Sioux on the Northern Plains and the Comanche on the Southern Plains gained access to both guns and horses, giving their cultures great power.
For a long time, these complex exchanges proved mutually beneficial. Both Indians and non- Indians felt they were gaining valuable benefits from trade. But eventually, major changes undercut and ended this beneficial and agreeable trade. For one thing, the non-landing population continued to grow, while the Indian numbers declined sharply as a result of warfare and disease. But even more importantly, European newcomers sired Indian land even more than they wanted peaceful trade.
Soon, land itself became an item of trade, and land that could not be bought was taken by force. Gradually, we are learning more about early contacts between Indians and non- Indians, and the way these relationships changed over time. The contacts were numerous and varied. They took a different shape in every part of the continent, depending upon which Indian cultures lived there and which foreigners first invaded their land. At first, these contacts were often mutually beneficial, as strangers learned from, and traded with, one another.
But later, sickness, warfare, and crushing demands for land changed these connections. Contacts became more lopsided and destructive, through long chapters of our history. So, from now on, I hope that any time you see a horse or a rifle or a metal pot or a colorful ribbon you will think about these early contacts between Native Americans who had lived here for untold generations and newcomers who have been here scarcely five centuries. After all, these varied connections are a rich and forgotten part of our shared heritage here in North America. Thanks for Joining me.
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