Die Geschichte der Indianer Nord- und Mittelamerikas

eingegangen am: Donnerstag, 16. Januar 2003
von: Anja B.
Download: Referat im doc-Format (ca. 2 MB)


  1. Colonization and differentiation
    - Agricultural Revolution in:
    1. Mexico
    2. the eastern forests and river valleys
  2. Collision in the New World - The Spanish Invasion
    1. The Indians and Columbus
    2. The downfall of the Aztecs
    3. Conflicts in the Pueblo-territory
    4. The Christian Mission in California
  3. Between the Fronts - The British and the French
    1. The Powhatan-Confederation
    2. New England and King Philip's War
    3. Trade Relations
    4. The French and Indian War
    5. Pontiac's Rebellion
  4. American Expansion
    1. The loss of the East
    2. Tecumseh
    3. The expulsion from the South
  5. Fight for the West
    1. The Long Walk
    2. The resistance of the prairie-Indians
    3. Chief Joseph and Geronimo
  6. The end of freedom
    1. Life on reservations
    2. The last way: to Wounded Knee Creek
    3. Recovery

History of the North American Indians

40.000 - 20.000 years ago The first Americans, called Paleo-Indians, have probably arrived on the American continent during the last Ice Age, coming from Asia across the Bering Strait while following animal herds. They spread all over America and many different tribes developed from Alaska to Mexico because of the varying natural conditions.
6000 BC The Agricultural Revolution (= shift from hunting and gathering to domestication of plants like corn) led to the development of Mesoamerican cultures, like the Maya or Aztecs.
2000 BC It also caused the development of the Mississippi-Culture (Mound Builders) in the Southeast of North America.
October, 1492 Arrival of Christopher Columbus on the Caribbean Islands. Because he believed himself to be in India, he called the native inhabitants los indios.
1520 The Spaniard Hernando Cortés invaded Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec-Empire, causing its downfall.
1607 The Englishman John Smith established the colony Jamestown in Virginia and started a war against the Powhatan-Confederation
1613 The marriage of John Rolfe and Pocahontas, the daughter of the Powhatan-Chief, assured the peace for a short time.
1620 The English ship Mayflower with 102 Puritans (called Pilgrims) on board arrived in Plymouth.
1621 Having been helped by the Indians over the winter, the Pilgrims invited them over for a Thanksgiving meal, which is still held in the USA every autumn.
1675 The Wampanoag-Chief King Philip started a war to drive the Europeans out of his land (in New England), but lost.
1680 The Pueblo-Indians of the Southwest formed an alliance against the Spaniards and were able to keep their freedom till 1692.
1756-1763 The French and Indian War, which ended with the loss of the French against the English.
1765 The Ottawa-Chief Pontiac, who had united several tribes in the area of the Great Lakes against the British since 1754 to drive them out, had to make peace.
1769 First Christian mission (of 21) established by the Spaniards in California.
since 1805 Tecumseh, a chief of the Shawnee, tried to form an alliance of all tribes in the Middle West and South against the westwards-pushing American settlers.
1813 He died in the Battle of Thames and the Indian forces lost against the Americans.
1830 The Indian Removal Act contained that all tribes living east of the Mississippi, among those the Five Civilized Tribes, had to move to the Indian Territory in Oklahoma.
1830-1885 The almost complete extermination1 of the about 50 million buffaloes withdrew the basis of existence from the Indians of the plains and prairies.
since 1862 The Indians of the West resisted the committal to reservations in several wars under leaders like, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph and Geronimo.
1876 Despite single victories - for example at the Little Bighorn River, where a large Indian alliance completely defeated Custer's troops - their resistance was soon broken.
1890 The massacre at Wounded Knee Creek was the last strike against the Indians.
after 1890 All tribes lived in reservations managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Despite all difficulties they kept their culture alive and their number slowly increased to about 2 million people today.

I wondered: what comes into our minds when we think of Indians? I don't know about you, but I asked a lot of people this question, and they all told me pretty much the same. They see the red-painted horseback rider flying over the vast prairies, eagle feathers on his head and bow and arrows in his hands, arriving home at his tent and so on. This is not wrong of course. It's the image film and TV have created by showing white heroes fight against their red enemies. Even though films have changed and now show history in a more realistic way, the plains-Indian on his horse is, to Non-Indians, still the symbol of all North American Indians. But if we speak of Europeans for instance, we don't just think of Germans. There are French, English, Spanish, Swedish, Norwegian people and so on. So we also need to consider that there exist about 300-500 different Indian tribes only in North America, all with varying language, culture, religion and way of life, and most of them are not familiar to us.
So where did those people come from? How did their cultures develop? Nobody knows for sure, when and how exactly the first human foot was placed on the American continent. But one theory is that, during the last Ice Age, about 40000 to 20000 years ago, when the sea-level had dropped so much to allow a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska to appear, the so called Bering Strait, that in this time first groups of hunter-gatherers might have followed animal herds across it from Asia to America. These first Americans are often called Paleo-Indians.
When the climate began to change hotter and drier, many of the larger animals, like mammoths, died out, but the Indians were able to adapt to the change, and, while spreading over the whole American continent, developed many different ways of life to cope with the different environments and living conditions.
Very gradually, they began to domesticate some seed-plants, especially corn, and agriculture developed. This is called the Agricultural Revolution, which took place at first in Mexico, in Middle America, about 8000 years ago, where it led to the rise of the great Mesoamerican empires , like the Olmecs, the Maya, and the Aztecs. Also, in the eastern regions of today's USA, the Agricultural Revolution, starting about 4000 years ago, caused the development of the Mississippi-Culture, which is the common culture of all Indians living around the big rivers, such as Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee, who are called Mound Builders, because they built thousands of high earth mounds, some as burial mounds, others in the shape of birds, bears or snakes, for example the Great Serpent Mountain in Ohio.
The time before the arrival of the first European invaders also saw the development of democracy in the so called Iroquois League. The Iroquois or Haudenosaunee, living in the area around the Great Lakes and the Ohio River, consist of five nations, the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. A long time ago, they had been at war with each other all the time, until a man called Deganawida suggested 13 laws for a life together in peace and democracy. The democratic and republican principles, which the Iroquois League is based on have been an inspiration for Benjamin Franklin and with that have had indirect influence even on the type of government of the United States. Besides that the Iroquois, who were farmers planting mostly corn, squash, pumpkins, and beans, lived in large Longhouses out of wood and bark. Those houses could be up to 50 metres long and were inhabited by dozens of families. The Longhouse became a symbol for the whole system of the Iroquois League, the territory of which, running over 400 kilometres from East-West, was imagined as a huge Longhouse, with the territories of the single nations running parallel to each other from North to South, like the departments for the separate families.

The undisturbed development of all the different cultures in North America was suddenly interrupted in the 15th century. With the arrival of the first Europeans on the American continent, a new era began for the about 50 million people of the Western hemisphere. The attempts to colonise the country led to the decline and extermination of the native inhabitants by use of weapons and by fatal diseases. The first one to start this ever-repeating pattern, was, as we all know, Columbus.
Christopher Columbus arrived at the second largest island of the Caribbean in October of 1492, which he called Hispaniola. And because he believed himself to be India, he called the native inhabitants los indios, Indians, a name which was not replaced, but fastened to all Native Americans since then. Columbus founded a colony for the Spanish King and was at first welcomed very friendly by the hospitable natives. He wrote himself that the Indians were: "so innocent and generous with all they had that nobody would believe it who hadn't seen it with his own eyes. Whatever you ask of them, they never say no, but urge you to take it, and show so much kindness by that as if they would give their hearts to you." Nevertheless, the Spaniards soon become arrogant and felt superior, which Bartolomé de Las Casas, a friend of the Indians, tried to explain like that: "The natural, simple and generous kindness and the simple living conditions of the Indians, as well as the fact that they hardly possessed any weapons and were defenceless, led the Spaniards to the impertinence to give them a lower value than themselves." And he also described the cruelty Columbus and his men were soon treating the Indians with: "The Spaniards made bets about who could slit up a man into two halves or cut off his hand with a single strike; or they opened his innards. They pulled the babies away from their mothers on their feet and threw them head-first against the rocks. In other cases they speared the babies, their mothers, and all who stood in front of them onto their swords..." Because of the Europeans' greed for gold the Indians were forced to work as slaves in gold mines and many committed suicide. Only after the revolt of the Indian leader Enrique, the Spaniards left them alone, but they were already so decimated by European diseases, against which they had no immunity, that, already in 1552, all Indians were extinct on Hispaniola - something that would happen to many other tribes as well in the next 400 years.
The next culture, the Spaniards had a great impact on, was the Aztec-Empire in Mexico, which was at that time the greatest military power of America with the capital Tenochtitlán, today's Mexico City, on the Texcoco lake and with a King called Montezuma. In 1519 Hernando Cortés started an expedition in search for gold in the land of the Aztecs. He allied with all the enemies of the Empire and attacked the capital taking Montezuma hostage. Although the inhabitants could drive the Spaniards out in 1520, one unwelcome guest stayed in the city: the European disease smallpox. After the majority of people had fallen victim to the epidemic, Cortés returned with a new army and this time he was able to invade the city after a fierce 4 months lasting battle . This was the end of the Aztec-Empire.
The Spaniards also left their marks on the Indians of Florida and the majority of the South East of the USA, as well as on the South West, the land of the Pueblo-Indians. The Pueblo-Indians, short Pueblos, were living in the valley of the Rio Grande River in villages of multistorey houses out of hewn stones or adobes (dried clay bricks). The Spaniards called them Pueblos because of the Spanish word pueblo, which means village. The Pueblos were farmers, planting especially corn, beans, and cotton. They were also skilful potters and basket-weavers, and out of cotton they made colourful fabrics. Since 1598, the Spaniards started founding colonies in their territory and acted very impertinent against the Indians, demanding food from them all the time. This led the Pueblos to form an alliance in 1680 and start a revolt. They were actually able to drive the colonists away, and kept their freedom until 1692 when the Spaniards conquered the land back.
Some time later, the Spanish invaders reached California on the West coast, and established a series of 21 Christian missions along the shore, the first one in 1769. Then, they forced the Native Americans to live their and work for them. Because of the bad living conditions epidemic diseases broke out, which killed thousands of people, mainly because they were living together on such little space. Many cultures were totally wiped out. It was genocide, which continued even after the missions had been closed down in 1834, when a stream of white gold diggers overran the survivors, taking away their land and committing cruel massacres. This caused the Indian population in California to drop over 90 per cent in only 100 years.

Not only the Spaniards tried to form colonies in the New World, but also other European countries soon laid their claims on America as well, not even considering that it actually did not belong to any of them but to the Native Americans. In North America the opposing powers were mainly Great Britain and France. The Spaniards occupied Florida and most parts of the South of the USA. The French turned to Canada in the North, so that only the middle part of the Atlantic coast was left for the Britons. The first English settlement in North America, Jamestown, was founded in 1607 by John Smith at the James River in today's Virginia. The Indians living their formed a confederation, known as the mighty Powhatan-Confederation. Soon, they regarded the English colonists as dangerous and annoying invaders, because they were demanding corn from them. Consequently, the Indians started a war, already in the same year. But in 1613, Pocahontas, the favorite daughter of the Chief, was captured and she agreed to take on the Catholic faith and even married the Englishman John Rolfe (Smith's story about being saved by her from death was probably just invented.) securing the peace for some time. Four years later, Pocahontas and her little son sailed to England, where she died of smallpox at only 21 years. After that, the Powhatan tried again to drive the British out of their country, but the Virginia-Colony was already to large with too many white settlers, so that the Powhatan were pushed back into small reservations.
In New England (from Maine to Long Island), the first English people arrived in 1620 on the ship Mayflower. They were Puritans, often called Pilgrims, who fled religious persecution, and they called the place where they got to land Plymouth. In a hard winter their number was reduced by half and they couldn't have survived if they hadn't met Indians the next spring, who taught them how to plant and where to fish. After a rich harvest in fall, the Pilgrims invited all Indians in the neighbourhood to a feast to thank them for their help. This Thanksgiving has remained tradition in the USA. But after some time had passed, the number of the settlers grew and the friendly relations with the natives worsened. In 1675, war broke out between the colonists and an Indian alliance under the Wampanoag-Chief Metacom, called King Philip. He faced about 50000 colonists with only 20000 warriors. So being clearly the minority, their war for freedom soon turned into a fight for survival. They were hunted down merciless and an Indian priest remarked on that: "During the bloody fights, the Pilgrims prayed long and hard to their god that he might give their enemies into their hands...If this is there way of praying - to pray bullets through the hearts of people - then I just hope that they won't pray for me." Only one year later, with King Philip's death, the revolt was ended, and with it, every planned Indian resistance in New England.
The 17th century was mainly formed by trade relations between the Indians and the Whites. In the Southeast slavery was most common and besides the epidemics one of the main reasons for the extinction of many Indian nations. In the Northeast the English and French were engaged in fur trade with the Indians, which had rather bad consequences: The old life style of the Indians broke down and their relationship to nature was transformed causing many animal species, like the beaver, to die out almost entirely because of over-hunting.
The competition between England and France for the possession of colonies in North America reached its climax in the French and Indian War, 1756 to 1763. The direct cause for the war to break out were the forts of the French in the Ohio-region, which the English claimed for themselves. Some Indian tribes favoured the English, but many more the French, because they were thought of as more tolerable. So, France formed many alliances with the Indians, otherwise they wouldn't have had a chance against England. Only the strong Iroquois League could hold a neutral position between the two European powers. However, despite all the support the French had, they were defeated by the English at last and had to give up Canada to Great Britain. This also made the position of the Iroquois worse, because they could not be the balance between two powers anymore, instead they were surrounded by the British, who were extremely arrogant, shown by the advice, the commander of the British forces gives to his army: "Don't think of the Indians as noble and brave enemies, but as the most horrible race that has ever haunted the earth and whose extinction on has to think of as a very commendable act for the best of mankind."
While that was happening, the white settlers had begun to push further and further to the west, taking the land away from the Indians violently. In 1754, the Ottawa-Chief Pontiac, who was very angry with the British, started to form an alliance of all Indian nations and tribes in the area of the Great Lakes, with the message that said that all tribes should take action against the English invaders together. After the French lost in the war, Pontiac started his rebellion in 1763 with the conquest of all British forts in the Ohio-valley except for two. When he besieged Fort Detroit, the English treacherously sent the Indians blankets that were infected with smallpox. Many of the Indians caught the disease and had to give up. Pontiac's alliance crumbled into pieces and two years later his revolt was ended. In 1769, he was murdered by an Indian traitor.

After the American Independence War (from 1775 to 1783), the English were replaced by a new white force, the Americans - who were not at all better for the Indians, though. During the Boston Tea Party in 1773, the American colonists had made the Indian the symbol for their resistance against England by dressing up as Mohawk-Indians and throwing English tea into the water. But at the same time, they expanded more and more to the west, carelessly overrunning the Indians' land. Especially in the 1780s, many white Frontiersmen attacked Indian villages, the Indians of course taking revenge on the white settlements. After some time, the Native Americans refused to sign any more contracts that took their land away from them "legally". As a response an American army was sent into their land in 1794. In the Battle of Fallen Timbers, on August the 20th, the Americans defeated the Indians and forced them to sign a peace treaty in 1795 by which the tribes lost almost two thirds of their territories in the East of the USA. In 1797, even the powerful Iroquois League possessed only a few small, isolated reservations in New York and Pennsylvania.
A last attempt to get the East (especially the area between Ohio River and Great Lakes) back from the Whites, was made by the Shawnee leader Tecumseh. When his brother Tenskwatawa had a vision one day, where the creator told him all Indians should go back to their old ways of life, Tecumseh took that religious message and made a political and military out of it, saying that the Indians should defend the rest of their land altogether. He founded a village, called Prophetstown in 1808, where members of different tribes lived together. But Tecumseh knew that, before he could start an attack on the Americans, he needed the support of the British. When Prophetstown was destroyed in 1811 by the Americans, Tecumseh took his last chance and allied with the British as another war broke out between them and America in 1812. One year later, though, in the Battle of Thames, the English and Indian forces lost against the American ones and Tecumseh was killed. With that, the long fight of the tribes for their land in the East was finally lost.
Meanwhile, in the South of the USA, the so-called Five Civilized Tribes (the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminols) were more and more pressured to give up their land. Finally, in 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which contained the resettlement of all Indians of the Southeast to the west of the Mississippi, into the Indian Territory in Oklahoma. The Creek and Seminols (those under the leader Osceola) resisted at first, but it was no use. All nations were forced to leave their land, and on the way, almost 45 per cent of the Creek, over 4000 of 13000 Choctaw, and one quarter of the Cherokee population, died.

When the white men were finished with the East, having pushed all Indians into small reservations, they directed their attention to the West to repeat there what they had done in the exact same way. In the area of Arizona and New Mexico, there lived an Indian tribe called Diné or Navajo. In 1860, they were supposed to leave their home land for the white settlers, but of course didn't agree with that. The result was a war, and thousands of Diné had to escape into the Canyon de Chelley, where they were chased by the American soldiers, and finally had to give up in the winter of 1864. Then they were forced to a march over 500 kilometres to the distant reservation. The soldiers showed no consideration for children, old or sick people, and just shot them if they were too slow. An eyewitness reports: "It was dreadful how they treated our people. Some disabled old people and children who couldn't make the journey were shot on the spot and their bodies were left behind for the crows and coyotes... My daughter became tired and weak and because of her pregnancy, she couldn't keep pace with the others. So we asked the army to stop for a while, so that she could give birth to her child. But the soldiers forced us to go on... We were not long on our way again, that we heard a shot behind us..." But the Navajo were still lucky, because, after four years in the reservation, they could sign a contract about their return home and got the biggest reservation of the whole USA.
The Great Plains or the prairies are a seemingly endless grass land from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains. Tribes like the Cheyenne, Comanche, Apache, and Sioux were living there, who had formerly been seasonal farmers, but already before the direct contact with Europeans, there life-style had been changed completely with the arrival of the horse. Horses were adopted by the Indians very fast, because they were really very practical: they could carry heavy loads, they made journeying over great distances much faster and hunting much easier, especially the buffalo-hunt. Buffaloes were the basis of life for the plains-Indians. Millions of these animals used to roam the prairies and everything of their bodies was used: the flesh for food, the skin and fur for clothes, blankets and tents, the horns for drinking mugs, the bones for knifes, and other tools, and so on. With the horse now, the plains-Indians became nomadic hunter-gatherers, who lived in cone-shaped tents out of buffalo hides, called tepees. In 1871, when the demand for buffalo hides suddenly increased, buffaloes were shot down in millions, and the new routes of the transcontinental train disturbed their normal ways as well, withdrawing the basis of existence from the natives. Besides, the Indians were supposed to go into the small reservations between North Platte River and Black Hills, until January 31st 1876 at the latest. But the great Sioux-Chiefs Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull were determined to fight for their land. Although Red Cloud finally went into the reservation, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were not willing to give up, yet. In July of 1876, they assembled a huge camp with members of many different tribes at the Little Big Horn River. When General Custer tried to attack them, the Indians were such a majority that they totally defeated Custer's troops and left only one survivor. Now, of course, the Americans were very shocked and angry, and a merciless pursuit of the tribes by the American soldiers followed. During the extremely cold and harsh winter, many groups had to give up and till March of 1877 most of them had arrived in a reservation, even Crazy Horse, who was injured there by soldiers and died. Only Sitting Bull could escape to Canada.
The Nez Percé in the Northern plateau region and the Apache in the South West were the last Indian tribes to fight the Americans. When the Nez Percé were supposed to move onto extremely small reservations in 1863, Chief Joseph and his people resisted the expulsion for about six years. Because he was fooling the American military again and again, Joseph is sometimes called an Indian Napoleon. However, in 1877, they were defeated by General Howard and tried to flee to Canada and to Sitting Bull, but only 65 kilometres away from the border, they were caught and had to surrender. In the same year all Apache were brought to the San Carlos reservation at last. The chief Goyathley or Geronimo broke out with his group several times for almost ten years. He was the last Indian chief, who fought the fierce battle against the American troops. But he too had to surrender in 1887 after long years of pursuit and was banished into exile, where he died in 1909.

Now, the Americans had won after all. After 1890 the last free-living Indians were forced onto reservations, which were like prisons to them, managed by agents of the government. They were most often the worst piece of their land with infertile and dry soil, where agriculture and animal breeding was nearly impossible. So, the Indians were dependent on the food rations they got from the agencies, which were either bad quality or too little, and in this and the bad water they had to drink, diseases resulted and hopelessness and depression were drowned by alcohol. As if that was not enough, the Indians were forced to take on the white way of life. Their own traditions, beliefs and life-styles were regarded as immoral and wrong were strictly forbidden, even speaking in their own language. And the children were taken away from their parents by force and put into Indian boarding schools, where they lived under strict discipline and often lost their old identity.( It was like a nightmare for the Native Americans and they couldn't understand why they were treated like this. An Indian woman tried to explain it the following way: "We think that the true reason, why our property has been taken away from us, is that we are humans and not wolves or bears. In Washington many millions of acres of land have been declared safety zones, so that wolves and bears can live undisturbed, and nobody has anything against it. Maybe, if we were wolves or bears, we could also expect that much protection. But we are just humans.")
In 1888, the Ghost Dance reached the desperate Indians of the West, offering a possibility to let the dead ancestors and buffaloes rise again, by special dances and songs. But the Americans were afraid it was a War Dance and forbade it. In 1890 they even accidentally killed Sitting Bull because they thought he was a leader of the movement, which he wasn't. Shortly after that, in December, a little group of Sioux-Indians with their sick chief Big Foot were chased by the military because they practised the Ghost Dance. At Wounded Knee Creek they were surrounded and the next morning, somebody must have started shooting and all of a sudden, panic broke out, and all soldiers began to fire on the defenceless Indians. Big Foot and 250 people of his little group were slaughtered.
This was the last cruel deed the Whites had done to the Indians. Around the turn of the century, all Indian nations were strongly reduced or totally wiped out and the survivors were kept as prisoners on their own land. Despite all difficulties their number slowly increased again from 250.000 to about 2 million people nowadays. After many conflicts without weapons in the 20th century, the Indians have made great steps in the direction of sovereignty self-determination and have become citizens of the United States in 1924, while still keeping their Indian identity and traditional cultures by arranging Pow Wows, Rodeos, and other ceremonies, just like Sitting Bull had once advised them: "Take the best of the way of the white man, pick it up and take it with you. Leave the bad behind, throw it away. Take the best of the old Indian way of life - always preserve it. It has proved itself in thousands of years. Don't let it go to waste."

1 extermination: Ausrottung