What we usually mean by the history of American people is the history in America of immigrants from other continents. Mainly they came from Europe, and there were many unwilling ones from Africa, and not a few from Asia. But one cannot ignore the "Indians", as Christopher Columbus, whom he encountered on October 12, 1492. These natives first welcomed the Europeans, then fought them, and finally were subjugated by them. They gave the Europeans some of the world's most valuable agricultural products — maize, tobacco, potato, cassava, and chocolate. They taught their conquerors hundreds of skills and so frequently mated with them: millions of people in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America have Indian blood in their veins. The Indians have so influenced, indeed so transformed he lives of white and black men in North America that we are eager to know where they came from and how their culture developed.

 

There is no reason to deprive the American Indians of credit for developing their own civilization There is no doubt that they themselves, without external aid, or example, designed and built the marvelous pre-Columbian monuments and sculpture of Central America, and produced the beautiful examples of goldsmiths' work, pottery, and implements, which are now treasured in museums.

 

The Indians had no iron, no wheel in any form, and their boats were either dug out from a log stripped from the bark of a single tree, or were rafts of reeds and balsa. At the time the first Europeans arrived, the Indians of the Great Plains between the Rocky Mountains and the forested areas bordering on the Mississippi lived partly by corn culture but mostly hunting buffalo on foot with bow and arrows.

 

Being human Indians suffered from all the human failings in one form or another. In the course of many centuries the Indian cultures had evolved in different ways, certain traits the Indians had in common, and many of these Europeans shared. Cruelty and war, slavery and plunder existed in the new world long before Columbus. Indians were by our standards chauvinists, as indeed were most Europeans of that day. Hunting and fishing, which, again like many Europeans, the Indians regarded as sports as well as sources of food, were usually male occupations, as was warfare. In agricultural communities, men and women shared other tasks: in general men did the heavy work of clearing land and building shelters; the women did planting, cultivating and harvesting. When Indians observed European men planting seeds and weeding the fields, they scoffed at them for being effeminate.

 

Most Europeans simply assumed that non-Europeans were inferior beings. Apparently their prejudices were not always of racial origin; some early colonists considered Indians members of the white race whose skin had been darkened by the exposure to the Sun.

 

The relativity of cultural values escaped all but a handful of Europeans. If some of the natives were naive in thinking that the invaders, with their huge ships and their potent fire sticks, were gods, these "gods" were equally naive in their thinking. Since the Indians did not worship the Christian God and indeed worshiped a great number of other gods, the Europeans dismissed them as contemptible heathens.

 

Most Indians lived in close harmony with their surroundings. They adjusted to and took advantage of existing ecologies, whereas the Europeans sought to change ecologies to their advantage (by plowing fields and building fences). Indians who lived nomadic lives had small use for personal property that was not easily portable. They had little interest in amassing wealth, as individuals or as tribes. Even the Aztecs, with their treasures of gold and silver, valued the metals for their durability and the beautiful things that could be made of them, rather than as objects of commerce.

 

The lack of concern for metal things led Europeans to conclude that the native people of America were childlike creatures, not to be treated as equals.

 

The Europeans' inability to grasp the communal nature of land tenure among Indians also led to innumerable quarrels. Traditional tribal boundaries were neither spelled out in deeds or treaties nor marked by fences or any other sign of occupation. Often corn grown by a number of families was stored in a common bin and drawn upon by all as needed. Such practice was utterly alien to the European mind. But in peace or in war the Indians have had a profound effect on comers to America. American culture has been enriched by their contribution and we can state that American character is very different from what it would have been if this continent had been uninhabited when the Europeans arrived.


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