The Indian. What or who is that? Well, when I ask myself this question, the answer is easy. Me. I’m laughing, but seriously…
As an almost full blood Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota, with a rich family history that runs from the Dakota War of 1862, to the Pike Expedition, to the War of 1812 when my grandfathers fought for the British… and even earlier when they led French and British explorers (coming down the St. Lawrence Rivers and the Hudson Bay) to map the Great Lakes area for future explorers and trappers. Centuries of stuff there.
But, what I’m asking is, what do most people think of when they think of an Indian?
Well, for most, I believe it is the prototypical visage of a warrior in a buckskin loincloth and war paint. Two long braids and a bow. Sometimes I think Hollywood has made many people believe that only one type of Indian existed. Well, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Sometimes I think people forget that these are stereotypes. And, there were many, many tribes along the Eastern United States that people forget about or haven’t heard of… the Penobscot, Shinnecock, Wampanoag, Nipmuc, Maliseet, and Pequot to name only a fraction.
One Eastern tribe familiar to most Americans is the Cherokee, due to the Trail of Tears that occurred in 1838 and 1839 and was a brutal, tragic chapter in the history of U.S. and Native relations. Yet, many Eastern tribes and other unnamed tribes have simply faded into oblivion, even as people remember the fabled myth of the very first Thanksgiving when Indians and colonists came together in harmony. However, the real truth is that the Wampanoag ended up bringing most of the food to this first feast and the real coming together was that the colonist settlers wanted to negotiate a treaty to secure the lands they were living on from their hosts. Kind of like inviting yourself to dinner and then telling your hosts that you like their house and they need to get out. But I digress…
Prior to European contact, there were dozens and dozens of tribes along the Eastern seaboard. As the Spanish and British explored in the 1500s the coastline of what would become the eastern United States, they brought perils with them. Smallpox and flu and settlers. Disease and treaties faded many of the tribes to extinction; some tribes dwindled so much that they abandoned their culture and assimilated into other tribes or into the settler’s culture simply to survive.
It seems to me that, beginning in the late 1500s, most of the Eastern Tribes had to endure repeated tragedies, similar to the Trail of Tears, as they experienced gentrification of the “New World.” Eastern Tribes were killed, decimated by disease, or forced by treaty and overwhelming pressure from the ever-ballooning number of Europeans plunging forth onto the shores of the Eastern seaboard. The Eastern Tribes endured the brunt of the first waves of Europeans flooding into what became the USA.
Between the late 1600s and 1700s, Eastern coastal tribes all but lost any livable amount of lands to call their own… terrible to consider as, prior to European contact, they lived all across the Eastern seaboard in various distinct groups with distinct cultures, similar languages, and shared values about the land and the ocean. Yet Indians still remain. Indians still exist through everything that happened since a European first bumped into this continent by accident. I exist.
The important thing I want you to take away from this is that an Indian isn’t just a buckskin loin clothed warrior with two braids, or a beautiful maiden on a tub of butter. “Real Indians” come from the Northeast, the Southeast, the Plains, the Mississippi River Valley and all of its tributaries, the Southwest and the Northwest. From all the places where they existed before those first Spanish and English ships saw the fires along the East Coast of what they called the New World. And, they are human beings with complex stories…just like all of humanity.