1) Background & Perspective
Our perceptions of these indigenous cultures are informed by the sharing of oral traditions by modern era descendants who were entrusted with keeping alive the traditions, values and philosophies from that period, as handed down from generation to generation. This information is supplemented by the studies of archeologists and anthropologists.
A majority, but not all, of the scientists who study these things contend that the Indigenous People came to North America from Siberia, across the Bering Strait. Recent DNA and language studies tend to support this conjecture. Archeological evidence indicates that this migration started at least 13,000 years ago, and quite possibly earlier. These people had thrived here a long time by 1492.
I have read estimates by “experts” that put the 1492 Indigenous population of North America as low as 2 million and as high as 100 million. In any case, the continent was not “empty”. There seems to be more unanimity in the estimates that indicate that, at that time, there were approximately 500 distinct tribes speaking at least 300 different languages.
The conventional wisdom of most White Americans and Europeans is that the few primitives that were here in 1492, amounted to nothing more than a few small clusters of nomads. According to a Dr. Barnhart and other anthropologists, this assumption is grossly inaccurate:
“…but nothing could be further from the truth. Centuries before European contact, large parts of North America had cities of thousands of people living in finely built houses, with palaces, temples and wide public plazas. There were road systems connecting cities across hundreds of miles. There were kings and councils, architects and astronomers, great artists and musicians – virtually every yard-stick the Western World uses to define civilization.”
By 1500 BCE, Poverty Point in Northwestern Louisiana, considered to be the first “city” in North America, had 4,000 to 5,000 residents, living in a planned community of approximately 910 acres. By 1,000 CE, there were 10,000 to 20,000 residents of Cahokia, in Illinois, making it larger than London and Paris at that time.
The White invaders of this continent thought of, and treated, Native Americans as “ignorant savages”. In the early 1500s, there were documented debates in Europe as to whether these “creatures” were in fact human, or some kind of wild beast. The attitude of some was that slavery was the appropriate “lot” for these “barbarians” or that “the only good indian is a dead indian”. Some, more benevolent types, believed that is was the White Man’s responsibility to: first “civilize” them (teach them to dress, talk, act and think like Whites), and then, “save their souls” by teaching them the “one true religion”.
In our search for useful and meaningful values and principles, one could do worse than to look at those basic to the cultures of these peoples. Our culture tends to see differences as a threat. If we can get over that hurdle, understand and appreciate the value of what the Indigenous People had to share, our perspectives may become more life-affirming.