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15 Facts About Native American History & Culture That You Probably Didn't Know

OMG November 22, 2016 By Vincent

The indigenous people of America were long a part of the country's history well before Europeans arrived on their shores and their rich and vibrant culture and beliefs have not only influenced the American way of life but become enveloped within it. Sadly, history has not been kind to these communities of Native Americans.

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Many are unaware of the vibrancy and depth of Native Americans as the term encompasses  varying ethnic groups, bands and tribes which lend to a grand and majestic past. Here we try and tell of only a few of the hardships, great moments, facts and traditions of the American Indian experience.


1. Totem Poles

One of the enduring images that the rest of the world associates with Native Americans is the totem pole despite the fact it is not attributed to all tribes. in fact, mostly carved by those living in the Pacific Northwest regions of America, these ornately designed poles are started from scratch and are typically made from red cedar wood.

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The symbol and faces on the poles often depict and describe the status of the family, their beliefs recounting familiar legends, clan lineages, or notable events.


2. Buffalo Hunting Etiquette

When the American plains were full of wild buffalo they were common fare for the tribes in the region and would often be hunted for their meat and hides. When a Native American hunter had successfully secured his first Buffalo kill, it was custom for him to be offered the tongue of the slain beast as a tasty prize.

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He was then expected to share his prize with friends. The rest of the animal's meat would be taken back to the tribe to be shared around.


3. The Formation of The Iroquois Confederacy

The Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois,  is not a singular tribe but rather a confederacy that initially started out as group of five indigenous nations coming together to establish a strong and powerful peace within their land. Known to the English as the "Five Nations", the confederacy initially was comprised of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and later the Tuscarora peoples.

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Formed in 1142,  each nation within the Iroquoian family had a distinct language, territory and function and has gone on to absorb many other peoples into their cultures as a result of warfare, adoption of captives, and by offering shelter to displaced peoples.


4. The Influence of The Bald Eagle

The Iroquois adopted the American Bald Eagle as their totemite as it represented peace and protection, the aims of the confederacy. It is now thought that this adoption by Native American people of the bird as their symbol also led to it becoming the icon of modern America as it is now on the U.S shield and the Presidential Seal.

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The bald eagle is widely depicted in Native American art and culture.


5. Advanced Civilization

Although many tribes were seen as having wildly different cultures and beliefs of the first European settlers, some had social systems and planned farming that appealed to the new immigrants and the Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, Creek and Chickasaw were used as an example of how many settlements would plan their infrastructure.

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Benjamin Franklin was particularly impressed by the government of the Iroquois and thought it was something that the colonies could emulate.


6. Displacement

Despite admiration for their systems of government and the way they lived off the land, governments and people in both Canada and the United States went against the native Americans in order to force them off of their land and removing them of any power. This eradication of native cultures and taking land by force remains a contentious issue in American society.

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Many tribes were removed and sent to other areas as settlers saw fit whilst other Europeans became deeply critical of their culture and tried to integrate them into their own instead. Many were unable or unwilling to adapt and so there was a great decline in Native American numbers.


7. Reservations

In later years, courts would often rule in favor of Native American rights but this did not prevent displacement or mistreatment and, in an attempt to correct this, the US Bureau of Indian Affairs made legal reservations to be run by Indian rule, without the infiltration of United States democracy.

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Of around 5 million Native Americans in the US now, 22% are thought to live on reservations. However, housing is often poor on these reservations and they were often forced to be placed on infertile soil making farming and sustenance hard. As of today, approximately 40% of children on reservations are under the poverty level.


8. The Origins of Big Cities

The US is well known for its big cities filled with skyscrapers and massive industry but many of them started out as Indian trading posts before morphing into enormous metropolises they have become today. Detroit, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Chicago are all examples of this where they started out as trade posts, before becoming forts and then cities.

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In fact, the name "Chicago" is derived from a French rendering of the Native American word shikaakwa,which is a type of wild onion that grew in the area.


9. State Names

It is not just cities that have their roots in Native American languages and culture but states as well. Of the 50 American states that make up the USA, over half have Indian origin with 26 of them being Named after Native Americans. Some of these names come from tribes and others come from the languages spoken by those indigenous to the areas.

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Alabama comes from the Alibamu tribe, meaning "clears the thicket", whilst  Massachusetts means "about the big hill".


10. Fighting In America's Wars

Despite often being mistreated by the American governments, Native Americans have fought in the wars that the nation has been involved with including the civil war, which saw tribes like the Chippewas and Cherokee volunteer to fight. With the outbreak of WWI, the U.S Government mandated that Native Americans be drafted into the army.

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This was controversial and confusing as they were not considered to be citizens of the United States at the time. However, around 12,000 Native Americans volunteered to fight in World War I. 


11. Code Talkers

In both of the world wars, Navajo Indians were used to send coded messages due to the complexity and difficulty of their language, it is practically impossible to decipher to those who do not speak it and so their language was used, to great success, over the airwaves. With little of the language being written down, much of the Native American culture being an oral history told through words and stories, materials to try and understand the unfamiliar language were not available to enemy combatants. 

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Other native American code talkers were deployed by the U.S army including Cherokee, Choctaw, Lakota Meskawki and Comanche soldiers.


12. Diverse Languages

So rich and diverse are the languages of Native American peoples that around 300 existed although, sadly, many have become extinct today. So unique and varied are they that it is actually too difficult to exactly pinpoint where they came from with some academics declaring three distinct regions of migration called Eskimo-Aleut, Na-Dene, and Amerind.

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Others dispute this claim and experts are still divided on the origins of these languages.


13. Hot Chocolate

Cocoa was very popular amongst many Native American tribes but far from it being like the sugary, sweet chocolate we have today, it was harvested for its bean which was then ground down into a fine powder before being boiled with water and sometimes pepper and served as either a hot drink in the winter or cold drink in the summer months.

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Often used as a clan symbol, it was so highly valued that it was even traded as a form of currency.


14. Shelter and Dwellings

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Many are familiar with the image of the Native American tent called Teepees. Conical in shape, these were easy to set up dwellings that were efficient to put up and often only took around 30 minutes to assemble and so were used by roaming tribes as they were relatively easy to transport as the materials involved only wooden poles and animal hides. The wigwam is another shelter which is a domed dwelling with arched poles and covered in grasses, brush, barks and hides.

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A lesser known shelter is the Hogan, which is a Navajo home constructed of mud, bark, thick tree branches, and sometimes stone. All of these shelters are still used today but mostly for ceremonial purposes.

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15. The Importance of Headdresses

Many Native Americans wore headdresses and a great deal still do for ceremonial purposes. Each bead and feather in the headdress has significance and importance with different animals holding unique significance within the culture and so multiple feathers are often used in these. 

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These headdresses are culturally significant and should not be worn as part of a costume or just for fun but respected as a symbol of a unique culture.


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