The Native American world that history books forgot
BY Lewis Lord and Sarah Burke
28th Sep 2023 Inspire
5 min read
Before Christopher Columbus landed on its shores, America was already busy with a thriving and hugely diverse Native American culture
Most tourists driving along the Illinois motorway speed right past ancient Cahokia and its 15-acre ceremonial mound. Only the curious pull off to discover how a 12th-century feather-crowned ruler known as the Great Sun kneeled on top of the earthen temple in the morning and howled when the real sun came up.
At its peak this city boasted probably as many residents as London at that time, and a trading network that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes. But basic history textbooks in classrooms today barely mention it.
"At its peak this city boasted probably as many residents as London"
Cahokia's problem is that American history, in the minds of many, started a mere 500 years ago in 1492, with Columbus's arrival in the New World. By then, Cahokia had already thrived and vanished.
Like many great modern cities, Cahokia could not manage its growth. Cornfields that fed between 20,000 and 30,000 city dwellers gradually lost their fertility, and forests were stripped. Warfare, disease and social unrest may have added to the decline.
When French settlers arrived at Cahokia in the mid-1700s, they found only grown-over mounds.
A not so New World
Yet the New World was far from empty in Columbus's day. The first Americans were Asians, who arrived more than 12,000 years ago, probably crossing a glacial land bridge between Siberia and Alaska.
By 1492, the western hemisphere may have contained 90 million people. Most lived south of the Rio Grande, but about ten million inhabited what is now the United States and Canada. Ancient societies had been rising and falling there for centuries.
Newcomers from Europe, though accustomed to beheadings and people being burned at the stake, were shocked at what went on in America. While cannibalism and human sacrifice were rare among Indians north of Mexico, people in some tribes killed unwanted infants and practised polygamy.
Columbus claimed he had to take hundreds of Carib Indians to Spain for their own good and that of their Arawak neighbours, whom they were eating (he found it harder to explain why he also enslaved the gentle Arawaks).
Language and identity
Other customs seemed alien as well: most Indians took a daily bath, a practice the Europeans abhorred. America was not new, but it was different.
As the white man moved across the country, the tribesmen he encountered asked a recurring question: "Why do you call us Indians?"
The answer, of course, was that Columbus was mistaken. He called all the natives los indios, thinking he was in the distant Indies, somewhere between Japan and India.
The natives had no word for their race. They called themselves "people" or "real people," and gave other tribes names like "friend," "enemy" or "snake."
"The natives had no word for their race"
The diversity that Americans relish today existed long before Columbus arrived. Most of the hundreds of languages the Indians spoke were as different from one another as Farsi is from French. Some Indians loved war; others hated it. After every reluctant fight, Arizona's Pimas subjected their warriors to a 16-day cure for insanity.
Ancient caste systems endured. The Great Sun used his feet to push leftovers to his Natchez tribe subordinates. But three centuries before the US Constitution was adopted in 1789, the Iroquois League had a Congress-like council, exercised the veto, protected freedom of speech—and ran a classless society.
"The Iroquois League had a Congress-like council, exercised the veto, protected freedom of speech"
Some tribes banned women from their councils. Others were ruled by female chiefs, like the "Lady of Cofitachequi," who in 1540 greeted explorer Hernando de Soto with pearls from the Savannah River (he ungraciously kidnapped her).
Pre-marital sex was unthinkable among the Apache, but the Natchez tribe of Mississippi encouraged teenagers to have flings while they could. Once a Creek Indian of Alabama was married, an extramarital affair could cost a nose or an ear.
Still, some tribes allowed a woman to end her marriage by putting her husband's belongings outside their door—a sign for him to live with his mother.
A ceremonial culture
Pioneers who found thousands of abandoned mounds in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys refused to believe they had been built by "naturally indolent" Indians. The Mound Builders, they speculated, were stray Vikings, Phoenicians or a lost tribe of Israel. Not until the 1890s did educated people agree that the mounds had in fact been built by the Indians' ancestors.
The genius of the Mound Builders has become even more evident in recent years. In north-eastern Louisiana, for example, lies Poverty Point, a 3,000-year-old collection of concentric semicircles of earth, the biggest extending for nearly three-quarters of a mile. Visitors can stand on top of a mound just west of Poverty Point's rings.
"The mounds had in fact been built by the Indians' ancestors"
"At the time of the spring and autumn equinoxes," writes Roger Kennedy in Rediscovering America, "one can still have a clear view of the sun rising over the central 37-acre plaza, a view like that found at similar conjunctions of earth and sun at Stonehenge."
In Newark, Ohio, the 20-centuries-old Hopewell Indian earthworks contain circles, squares and octagons that once covered four square miles.
"Such nice equivalences of shape and size are not the work of savages," says Kennedy, who is director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
Every explorer and early settler seemed to notice the aromas of America that the Indians had long enjoyed.
Traveller and historian Robert Beverley was awed by "the pleasantest smell" of Virginia's magnolias. Henry Hudson paused in New York's harbour to enjoy the "very sweet smells" of grass and flowers on the New Jersey shore. But the visitors also smelled smoke.
Every autumn, Indians burned woodland to clear the way for cornfields and to create meadows for grazing. The animals flourished, and so did the trees that survived. Sycamores in Ohio grew seven feet in diameter, and the white pines of New England towered 200 to 250 feet.
Animals were bigger then. New England trout, nearly two feet long, were easy targets for Algonquian arrows. Virginia sturgeon stretched six to nine feet, and Mississippi catfish topped 100 pounds.
"Colonists interpreted the Indians' generosity as evidence they were childlike"
Off Cape Cod, Indians caught 20-pound lobsters, and many oysters had to be sliced into thirds to be swallowed.
The Bible taught that it is better to give than to receive, and the Indians couldn't have agreed more. Their desire to share perplexed the newcomers.
Long after the Arawaks showered Columbus with birds, cloth and "trifles too tedious to describe," natives were offering Europeans anything from fish and turkeys to persimmon bread and the companionship of a chief's daughter.
Colonists interpreted the Indians' generosity as evidence they were childlike. That they had no desire to accumulate wealth was seen as laziness. But many Indian tribes were traders.
Colorado's Pueblos kept parrots that came from Mexico. The Ottawas, whose name meant "to trade," travelled the North-West's Great Lakes exchanging goods. "Hootchenoo," the North-west Chinooks' word for homemade liquor, became the expression "hootch."
Disease and genocide
Twenty years after Columbus colonised Hispaniola—the island now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic—diseases and taskmasters reduced its Arawaks from a quarter of a million to under 20,000. In a short time Old World diseases killed millions of the New World's natives. Death rates of up to 90 per cent were common among some tribes.
Two years before de Soto visited Cofitachequi's female chief, pestilence had swept her province, decimating her town and emptying others near by. And four years before the Mayflower landed, a disease—probably smallpox or chicken pox—killed thousands of Indians on the New England coast.
Fifteen years after the Powhatan Indians' gifts of corn saved England's toehold settlement at Jamestown, the tribe was systematically wiped out, its crops and villages torched by settlers who wanted more land to grow tobacco.
"Acoma is twice as old as St Augustine in Florida, the Spanish-settled city that is generally considered America's oldest community"
Indians shuddered every time they found bees in a hollow tree. These "English flies" moved a hundred miles ahead of the frontier— a sign that the white man was on his way. Some tribes moved west; others perished.
Yet, at least one ancient American community that didn't move endures today. In Acoma, high on a mesa in the New Mexico desert, Pueblo Indians have continuously occupied the dwellings for 1,000 years, through droughts, Apache raids and a brutal Spanish occupation.
Acoma is twice as old as St Augustine in Florida, the Spanish-settled city that is generally considered America's oldest community.
This article is part of our archival collection and was originally published in February 1992. While we strive to present historical content accurately, please note that circumstances and information may have changed since the article's original publication. Some individuals mentioned in the article may no longer be alive, and events or details may have evolved. We encourage readers to consider the context of the original publication and to verify any current information independently
Banner credit: Michael Hampshire for the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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