The History of Native Americans

An overview of the people who discovered and first lived in the Americas, called American Indians or Native Americans

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

Many thousands of years ago, late in the Ice Age, the Indians journeyed across the Bering land bridge, from Asia into Alaska. Their descendants explored along the west coast of North America, and as early as 13,000 years ago, they had covered both continents, reaching all the way to the southern tip of South America. It is not exactly known when the first Americans arrived, but some archaeologists (scientists who study the remains of past human lives) believe it might have been as long as 40,000 years ago.

American Indians, like the peoples of Asia from whom they are descended, usually have dark hair, dark eyes, and light brown skin. However, over thousands of years, they have developed a wide range of characteristics, appearances, languages, and customs. There are as many different Indian nations, or communities, in the Americas as there are nations in Europe, Asia, or Africa, and there is as much variety among them.

Ten thousand years ago, when the Ice Age ended, changes in climate and increasing populations inspired the Indians to experiment with growing different crops. Some became highly skilled farmers. As early as 7000 BC in Mexico, they cultivated corn and squash. Indians also raised turkeys, llamas, and guinea pigs for food. They also hunted deer and bison and regularly burned off patches of land to keep it in pasture, so the animals would come to graze. On the coasts, they hunted sea mammals from boats and caught fish, using a variety of efficient methods.

After 2000 BC, the Indians developed states, each governing thousands of people. They established extensive trade routes across the continents and used cargo rafts and other boats to ship their goods from one trading point to another. In South America, llamas provided transportation on land.

From the present-day region of the mid-western United States to southern Peru in South America, centers of government were marked by enormous mounds of earth. Most of these mounds were flat on top, with palaces and temples built on them. Some were burial sites of honored leaders. American Indian cities were as big as the cities in Europe and Asia at that time, and their fine architecture is still greatly admired.

European invasions of the Americas began shortly after Columbus' discovery of the "New World" in 1492. The Europeans brought diseases with them, including smallpox and measles. These unfamiliar diseases spread quickly among the Indians, wiping out the populations of many Indian cities before the Europeans even saw them.

The Europeans started colonizing the Americas in order to cultivate new farmlands and create new jobs for the growing populations of Europe. To do so, they often had to fight the Native Americans for the land. Several factors gave the Europeans the advantage in these conflicts. First, they had some immunities to their own diseases and thus were not as completely devastated by them as the Indians were. Second, the Europeans had horses and guns, which overpowered the Indians' hand weapons and arrows in battle. Third, European settlements in the Americas grew at such a rate that the Europeans' descendants eventually simply outnumbered the Indians.

One by one, the Indian nations were defeated. In the regions of present-day southern Canada, the United States, and southern South America, survivors were gathered up and moved to specific areas, called reservations. In Mexico, Central America, and northern South America, the Indians of former great empires and small kingdoms remained as peasants and laborers, under Spanish rule. In the last few decades, developments in transportation and earth-moving machinery have made it profitable for outsiders to colonize the tropical lowland forests. Now the way of life for those Indians, too, is threatened.

Today Indian populations across both continents are once again on the rise. Indian leaders are beginning to achieve greater political success in fighting for the rights of their peoples. In addition, recent widespread concern over human rights has prompted governments and others to respect Indian cultures and traditions when responding to their needs.

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  • Subjects:
    Native American History, Early Exploration and Settlements, Ceremony and Tradition, Indigenous Peoples, Native American, Native American Heritage Month

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