The culture of the Indigenous People of North America was as vast and expansive as the terrain in which these people lived. From the scorching deserts of what is now Arizona and New Mexico, to the tundra of modern Alaska, Indigenous People thrived.
Though terrain and available food sources drastically influenced variety amongst these tribes lifestyles, a few sentiments applied to all. Indigenous Tribes formed societies based around their relationship with the earth and The Creator. These societies were specifically designed for each tribes unique way of life. Indigenous People were extremely conscious of what they took from the environment.
While they used elements of nature for almost every aspect of their society, they did so as sparingly as possible. When they had to harvest an animal or tree, they made sure to use all of its parts and paid respect to its life, and role in theirs. This stemmed from a belief of a natural balance that is instilled in nature.
They believed humans could potentially interfere with this balance, and wanted to limit that as much as possible.
Another key aspect of Indigenous life was the role of elders in their communities. Jordan P. Lewis, a gerontologist and professor at the University of Alaska, notes the role of Elders in Indigenous communities in his study Successful Aging Through the Eyes of Alaska Native Elders. In his study, Lewis notes that Elders live in multi-generational homes, play a large role in raising their grand children, and still contribute to their society.
Storytelling was also instrumental in Indigenous culture. Stories were shared from generation to generation and were filled with important traditional teachings and life skills the youth would need to grow into their future roles in their communities. Without these stories, there is no way to pass on teachings to ensure the betterment of society through multiple generations.
Indigenous People lived in this harmonized state for centuries before colonization, but those who preached “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” decided they did not fit under the umbrella. At the time, they didn’t know, but this would end up being the beginning of the end for Indigenous life as they knew it.
Once both groups inhabited the same land, disagreements over agriculture techniques and land division began to arise. When it was apparent a compromise could not be met, colonizers developed copious amounts of ways to dismantle Indigenous ways of life.
This started with diseases like smallpox being spread amongst Indigenous populations. These people had never been exposed to diseases of a similar nature, so their immune systems were unadapted. This enabled colonizers to capitalize on the fractured communities and start taking over.
Their multifaceted approach was implemented to strip away cultural and traditional values that had been instilled in Indigenous society and were upheld with the utmost importance.
Indigenous people had a very sacred relationship with mother earth and it tied in directly with their spirituality. Often times, their roles in society were a reflection of their relationship with the land. Hunters and fisherman took pride in being able to provide for their families and pass down their knowledge. Changing this way of living was just one of the ways colonizers uprooted Indigenous heritage.
Laws like The Indian Removal Act were designed to do just that. This law which was passed in 1830 by President Andrew Jackson gave way to one of the largest atrocities ever committed on this earth, The Trail of Tears.
During the Trail of Tears, roughly 60,000 Indigenous people were forced out of their homes in what is now the southeastern United States and told to move west of the Mississippi River to make room for colonial expansion.
Those who survived the excursion had to start new lives with tattered families away from grounds that had been sacred to their people for hundreds of years. This was designed to break the spirits of the Indigenous people and in some cases, it worked. Many men would end up committing suicide after successfully making it through the Trail of Tears because they felt useless not being able to provide for their families.
After the relocation was complete, the Indian Appropriations Act was passed by Congress. This led to the beginning of the Indian Reservation System, where the government hoped to contain the Indigenous way of life. During the reservations origins, land was set aside for Indigenous populations and they were not allowed to leave these allocated land masses. It was nearly impossible for these people to continue their traditions as their environment was completely different than before and they could not leave their sanctioned land. They were also encouraged to leave more of their heritage behind and start adopting colonial language, religion, and attire.
Another example of this is through the introduction of boarding schools for Indigenous youth. In the early 1870’s, Colonizers thought that if they could take children away from their families at an early age, the teachings of their ancestors would not be indoctrinated in them, thus making it easier for them to assimilate.
They chose to implement this by forcibly taking children from their homes and moving them hundreds of miles away to learn a new culture from people they had never met before. At these schools, the children’s hair was cut to represent them leaving their old culture behind. They then were taught a new, American, way of life and religion. All while constantly being reminded that they were viewed as less than and inferior to the rest of society simply based on how they look.
This form of schooling was meant to instill different beliefs in the youth and remove the ancestral lineage of most homes the children were born into. Many of these children never returned home to their families and were forced to grow up without their heritage.
The Dawes Act only furthered the gap between members of Indigenous Populations. Once approved on February 8, 1887, the act sought to defuse the reservation system and thus taking the communal Indigenous way of living with it. With further hopes of assimilation in mind, this act treated Indigenous people as individuals, rather than a conglomerate, and redefined everyday life for thousands. Communities were broken up and colonial communities and railway systems were setup intermittently amongst the old territory.
While all of these programs were designed to dismember Indigenous ways of life, the most upfront example of this did not occur until 1890. That is when hundreds of Indigenous People were massacred when performing a Ghost Dance, one of their many spirituality based dances, during The Battle of Wounded Knee. This example of religious intolerance was one of the most brutally honest depictions of the colonial attitude towards Indigenous life.
While politics continuously changed the course for Indigenous people, colonizers were simultaneously trying to dismantle their traditions in another way. It didn’t take long for colonizers to notice the relationship that Indigenous people had with Buffalo. The Buffalo was the most sacred and important animal to their way of life. They relied heavily on buffalo meat for food and its hide for shelter and clothing. This prompted settlers to start slaughtering buffalo populations all across North America.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Services, In the pre-colonial era, there were an estimated 30-60 million buffalo on the continent. By the year 1900, there were only an estimated 700 buffalo left.
As Indigenous populations continued to lose the land they once called home, substance abuse started to creep in amongst them. By the time the Dawes Act was repealed in 1934, Indigenous people had the highest rates for alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide amongst any demographic in the country.
The atrocities committed against this group of people are some of the worst to ever occur in human history. They left hundreds of thousands of people decimated mentally, physically, and emotionally.
Even still, the history of this land is largely falsified to the masses. Children everywhere still learn obscured accounts of the relationship between Pilgrims and Indigenous people in school and through holidays like Thanksgiving.
The annihilation of indigenous culture has led to an accumulation of grief, often referred to as Soul Wounds, that is extremely apparent amongst Indigenous populations today. According to the US National Library of Medicine, “Indigenous populations generally have a lower life expectancy than non-indigenous populations, a higher incidence of most diseases (for example, diabetes, mental disorders, cancers), and experience of third world diseases (tuberculosis, rheumatic fever) in developed countries, current indigenous health status can be grouped into four main propositions: genetic vulnerability, socioeconomic disadvantage, resource alienation, and political oppression,”.
Beginning to untangle the complex web of problems that face Indigenous people today is no easy task, but experts and educators across the country are attempting to tackle this and help the Indigenous population get back to a better place.
Jaime Geronimo Vela is a Graduate student at the University of California Los Angeles, author, and Indigenous documentarian. Vela believes the best way to resolve issues Indigenous people currently face today is through revisiting their ancestral ways of life. “Health experts tell these people what foods to eat, to go to the gym, things like that. Well, the food they advise doesn’t grow on reservations, they dont have the money to buy it from stores, and the closest gym is 50 miles away. We need to come up with solutions that will actually work for these people,” said Vela. He also insists that practicing balance, harmony, and tradition can benefit those in need. “Those are the three most important things. Tradition helps us find harmony inside ourselves which is part of our natural balance with the world.” said Vela.
Traditionally, Indigenous people think of themselves as a part of the greater good. They operate in communal societies where each member has a specific role – all holding similar value to the community, they believe in respect being based off of ancestral lineage, and even view themselves as a part of the earth in spiritual contexts. This belief is an integral part of Indigenous existence and Gene Hightower, a psychologist and previous director of mental health services at the Native American Health Center in Oakland, California believes its resurgence amongst native populations is vital for long term success.
For Hightower, this came from his experiences with a Choctaw medicine man by the name of Beaver, who sadly passed away in 2008. Beaver was a victim of the boarding school system and also served in combat during World War II, the trauma he dealt with from his experiences led him down a road of alcohol abuse. “he just really came to feel that, the only way Indian people would find themselves as by sticking to their own cultural values, they couldn’t really adopt a white way of living,” said Hightower when speaking about Beaver’s approach to rehabilitation.
Hightower believes Beaver reconnecting with his roots was essential for his progression. “It was very much seen as finding a higher power than the alcohol or the drugs to turn over too. It’s to get you closer to the creator. To the point that you feel some more joy in your life and you’re willing to contribute to other people in the community. It’s never just all about yourself,” said Hightower.
Faith in something larger than oneself has been a common theme amongst numerous cultures. While most are not only accepted, but appreciated, the Indigenous way of life and spirituality was almost pushed to a point of extinction. Despite this, their belief and themselves, and their greater purpose, lives on.