An Overview of American
Indian Diversity
Exhibiting Native American Cultures: Points of Contact
Museum Studies Special Topics, A460/560
Larry J. Zimmerman, Ph.D., RPA
Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis
The functional prerequisites of culture
Social Organization
Ideology (belief systems)
The People
America's native population in 1492
Most people lived south of the Rio Grande River with
total hemispheric populations as high as 75,000,000
North America—lower populations
Henry Dobyns —18,000,000
Ubelaker & Thornton —1,800,000
Most now accept that on the eve of European
Contact populations was less than 10,000,000
Huge depopulation impact from diseases
Diseases in ‘New World’ and ‘Old World’
Endemic: TB, dysentery, staph and strep
Epidemic: smallpox, measles, diphtheria, typus, typhoid, bubonic
plague, malaria
1815-1816: Smallpox killed 4,000 out of 10,000 Comanche
Early 1830s: Pawnee lost half of their population of 20,000,
Mandan, Arikara, Hidatsa from 35,000 to under 2,000
Smallpox – an ancient ‘childhood disease’
1700s: 10-15% deaths in Western Europe
80% of deaths under the age of 10
70% under the age of 2
Impact: 90-95% Mortality
What were the effects and repercussions of epidemic
Major shifts in social life, family life, economy, politics, religion,
What were the effects and
repercussions of epidemic
Major shifts in social life, family life,
economy, politics, religion, psychology
Many long-term traditions lost
See ‘Timeline of European Disease Epidemics Among
American Indians’
Both from Jaune Quick-to-See Smith
Top: Paper Dolls for a Post-Columbian World with
Ensembles Contributed by the U.S. Government, in
the Eiteljorg Museum
Bottom: Famous Names
Who gets counted as being Indian?
•Card-carrying Indians and tribal rolls
•Blood quantum
US Census:
Person having origins in any of the original peoples of
North, Central and South America and who maintain
tribal affiliation or community attachment.
Includes people who self-reported ‘American Indian
and Alaska Native’ or wrote their principal or enrolled
Race on the 2000 census
is by self-identification
Examples of group identity criteria
Enrollment requirements
Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez, 1977 Supreme Court ruled that no
federal agency or any entity except an Indian tribe could determine who
its people are. For even longer, the Sup. Ct. has held that Indian
nationhood & tribal citizenry are political, not racial matters
An exercise of Tribal SOVEREIGNTY
Blood Quantum – Navajo 1/4
Social/Cultural – connection to the community? Speak the language? Have
a name from the tribe?
Eastern Band: 1/16 Blood quantum
Oklahoma bands: lineage
Tribes didn’t always have BQ enrollment requirements:
Used to adopt other members from other tribes or non-Indians
Kinship rather than blood
Enrollment evolved to provide fair distribution of benefits: land, resources,
voting, compensation, etc.
Contemporary Populations
The 10 Largest American Indian tribal
groupings in the US
• Total Reporting:
• All other tribal groupings
• More than 1 tribe rptd
• No tribal affiliation rptd
Physical Variation
Stereotypic—Red-brown skin, dark brown eyes, prominent
cheek bones, straight black hair, and scantiness of beard—
but huge variation
Skin color—Very light in some tribes, as the Cheyenne,
to almost black in others, as the Caddo and Tarimari. In
a few tribes, as the Flatheads, the skin has a distinct
yellowish cast.
Hair—varies dramatically in amount, texture & color
Eyes—Generally dark
Body shape—great variation in height, weight, physique
Blood type—generally O
Other features—shove-shaped incisors, Inca bones, but
these are variable
Distribution of Native American Languages
Language Variation
For such a small population, Indian languages
are extremely diverse.
57 families grouped into 9 macro-families or
300 distinct languages
2000 dialects
California—at least 20 families
West of Rockies—17 more
Rest of the continent—20 more
Today English is the most commonly
spoken language, and many native
languages are gone or will soon be so.
Territory and
Indian Views of Land
Stereotypes abound regarding Indian views
of land.
•Land could not be individually owned
•Land could be controlled by family units,
such as clans
•The operating principle was usufruct
•The earth was sacred and to be cared
for, but it could be used, albeit carefully.
Mother Earth seems a common concept,
but it has been called into question.
•Sacred places were a key; sacredness
can be difficult to understand
From Chief Seattle’s speech
1854 *
Chief Seattle
‘Every part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of
my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain
and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or
happy event in days long vanished. Even the rocks,
which seem to be dumb and dead as the swelter in
the sun along the silent shore, thrill with memories
of stirring events connected with the lives of my
people, and the very dust upon which you now
stand responds more lovingly to their footsteps
than yours, because it is rich with the blood of our
ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the
sympathetic touch.’
*For complete text of the speech see
Do be aware that there is controversy about this speech. See About the Chief Seattle
Dawes Severalty Act. (1887)
"The common field is the seat of barbarism, while the
separate farm is the door to civilization. Sen. Henry
Dawes, Massachusetts
He also noted that selfishness was the root of
advanced civilization, and he could not understand
why the Indians were not motivated to possess and
achieve more than their neighbors
Henry Dawes
Congress sought to break up Indian communal lands
by giving Indian families 160 acres of land, backed by
a 25-year tax-free trust from the government. At the
end of the term, Indians could either keep the land or
sell it.
In 1887, the tribes had owned about 138 million
acres; by 1900 the total acreage in Indian hands
had fallen to 78 million
See the precise language of the law at
Assorted land images…
For information about Indian views of land and environment, see Native
Americans and the Environment.
The Culture Area Concept
Cultures Areas or Food Areas?
The Problem with Culture Areas
Actually, these categories have entered into the
popular culture in a big way. They are now the main
descriptors of Indian groups.
One needs to question whether it is still a useful
It may be that it locks Indian groups in time, using
descriptions of groups at the time of Contact.
Pan-Indian cultural activities and massive
influences of media have "blended" lots of cultural
traits.--Plains and Southwest stereotypes are
Doesn't account for the ability of groups to adjust
to white and other Indian influence.
Social Organization
Kinship was the social organization core for
most Indian nations
Small scale societies
Initially after first habitation, small populations
of hunters and gatherers were the norm.
•Most were nomadic, with small populations of
+/- 200
•Major unit was extended family, usually
•Microband/macroband seasonality
•Groups were nearly acehpalous (without a
head), but leaders developed with achieved
•Mostly egalitarian, with rule by consensus
•These patterns survived until well past
European Contact especially in marginal
areas or those with minimal contact.
Hunting and Gathering Life
Settled village life
Greater emphasis on gathering and use of cultivars caused
changes circa 7,000 years ago
•Cultivars and intensive gathering allowed small
•Surpluses allowed larger surpluses and more
settled life
•In the rich eastern woodlands, Primary Forest
Efficiency allowed substantially larger
populations (+/- 1000)
•Beginnings of social stratification
•Still kinship based and some use of
micro/macroband in marginal areas
•Kin based, clan structured organization still
mostly patricentric
Horticulture has a 3000 year
history in Indian Country
Horticulture brought major changes
•After 3000 BP, emphasis on domesticated plants allowed
greater surpluses
•With surpluses came dramatic population growth (100030,000) in villages and “cities”
•Gardening shifts cultural emphasis to matricentric
•Large populations keep clan structures, but often added a
layer of social control at chiefdom level
•Social stratification became substantial
•A shift toward urban life
•Emergence of “pre-state” structures
Courses toward urban life
At Contact, there was immense diversity
•A very wide range of social organizations and political
ideologies at European Contact
•Social organization ranged from nomadic, patricentric,
egalitarian hunters and gatherers with completely kin-based
systems to nearly urban, socially stratified, matricentric
horticulturalists with both kin and non-kin-based systems.
•Much of this broke down during the next 500 years.
•Social organization is still in flux.
Changes in Social Structure
since Contact
•Detribalization, migration, and urbanization
•Reservation and social structure
•Kinship and the family
•Political resurgence - reservations as a
power base
•Contemporary political organization - tribal
and urban
The Indian Wars:
Resistance was futile
The Reservation Period
Churches attacked both family
structure and belief systems
Boarding Schools attacked family structure
Boarding School Blues1
Words and Music by Floyd Red Crow Westerman
You put me in your boarding school
filled me with your White man’s rules
Be a fool
ay hey hey hey heya
You put me in Chicago one
cold and windy day
ay hey hey hey heya
You took me from my home, my friend
Think I’ll go back there again
Wounded Knee
Want to be free
ay hey hey hey heya2.
The Depression and the Indian
Reorganization Act of 1934
Indians as U.S. citizens, 1924
President Calvin Coolidge with four Osage Indians after
Coolidge signed the granting Indians full U.S. citizenship
The impact of World War II
Getting something back: The
Indian Claims Commission
Canada—1991 but with earlier
versions since 1927
Termination and Relocation
Activism and the resurgence of tribal power
1970s Activism
Casinos and economic resurgence
Pre-contact belief systems
Animatism: belief in a supernatural power not part of
supernatural beings
Animism: belief that natural objects are animated by spirits
the spirits are thought of as having identifiable personalities
and other characteristics such as gender
Everything in nature has a unique spirit or all are animated by
the same spirit or force
Both present in some societies
For Native Americans, animism dominates
We see some evidence in material remains, but most information
comes from post-Contact ethnography
Ancestral spirits
After death, spirits retain an active interest and
even membership in their family and
society. Like living people, they can have
emotions, feelings, and appetites. They must be
treated well to assure their continued good will
and help to the living.
Powerful supernatural beings with individual
identities and recognizable attributes
Rare in Native America—Creator, Mother Earth,
but these are often ill-defined
Hero/trickster figures
Beings with some supernatural abilities such as
transformation—coyote, raven, spider are
Time and Cosmology
The power of the circle
Cyclical nature of time
The sacred directions
Sacred colors
Ojibwe lodge
Medicine Wheels abound on
the Plains
Quillwork medicine wheel
Pawnee lodge
Belief system change did occur
Beliefs form a stable core, but do adapt to natural
and social environments
Example: Old vs new Lakota beliefs
Inyan Kara—rock maker
White Buffalo Calf Woman and
the spread of the calumet (pipe)
Bison herd near Wind Cave, where Iktomi tricked the people into coming from the underground
Post-Contact ideology
Contact and syncretism
Nativistic movements
The Good Message of Handsome Lake
A syncretic combination of traditional Seneca
and Quaker beliefs and practices
Purpose: to draw the Seneca back toward
“the old ways” and to “protect” them from
Revitalization movements
The Ghost Dance (see Edison 1894 film)
Wovoka with Plains
Bole-maru, California
Pawnee ghost dance drum
The Christian struggle for control
Grant’s reservation policy and churches
Boarding schools and breakdown of families
Bans on many religious practices
Woodrow Crumbow--Sundance
The Native American Church
Peyote song:
Primeaux and
Peyote cactus
For a good history,
see the Religious
Movements page
on NAC
American Indian Religious
Freedom Act of 1978
Title 42 - The Public Health and Welfare
Chapter 21 - Civil Rights
SubChapter I - Generally
American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978
§ 1996. Protection and preservation of traditional religions of Native
On and after August 11, 1978, it shall be the policy of the United States to
protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom
to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American
Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to
access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to
worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.
Native American Graves
Protection and Repatriation Act
Pan-Indian Trends
Gathering of Nations, Albuquerque
Eklutna (Alaska) Annual Powwow
Crow Fair,

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