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An Overview of American Indian Diversity. Exhibiting Native American Cultures: Points of Contact Museum Studies Special Topics, A460/560 Larry J. Zimmerman, Ph.D., RPA Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The functional prerequisites of culture. People Language

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An Overview of American Indian Diversity

Exhibiting Native American Cultures: Points of Contact

Museum Studies Special Topics, A460/560

Larry J. Zimmerman, Ph.D., RPAIndiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis


The functional prerequisites of culture




Social Organization

Ideology (belief systems)


America's native population in 1492

  • Most people lived south of the Rio Grande River with total hemispheric populations as high as 75,000,000
  • North America—lower populations
    • Henry Dobyns —18,000,000
    • Ubelaker & Thornton —1,800,000
    • Thornton—7,000,000
    • Most now accept that on the eve of European Contact populations was less than 10,000,000

Huge depopulation impact from diseases

Diseases in ‘New World’ and ‘Old World’

Endemic: TB, dysentery, staph and strep

Epidemic: smallpox, measles, diphtheria, typus, typhoid, bubonic plague, malaria

1815-1816: Smallpox killed 4,000 out of 10,000 Comanche

Early 1830s: Pawnee lost half of their population of 20,000, Mandan, Arikara, Hidatsa from 35,000 to under 2,000

Smallpox – an ancient ‘childhood disease’

1700s: 10-15% deaths in Western Europe

80% of deaths under the age of 10

70% under the age of 2

Impact: 90-95% Mortality

What were the effects and repercussions of epidemic devastation?

Major shifts in social life, family life, economy, politics, religion, psychology


What were the effects and repercussions of epidemic devastation?

Major shifts in social life, family life, economy, politics, religion, psychology

Many long-term traditions lost

See ‘Timeline of European Disease Epidemics Among American Indians’


Both from Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

Top: Paper Dolls for a Post-Columbian World with Ensembles Contributed by the U.S. Government, in the Eiteljorg Museum

Bottom: Famous Names


Who gets counted as being Indian?

  • Self-Identification
  • Card-carrying Indians and tribal rolls
  • Blood quantum
  • DNA

US Census:

Person having origins in any of the original peoples of North, Central and South America and who maintain tribal affiliation or community attachment.

Includes people who self-reported ‘American Indian and Alaska Native’ or wrote their principal or enrolled tribe


Examples of group identity criteria

  • Enrollment requirements
    • Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez, 1977 Supreme Court ruled that no federal agency or any entity except an Indian tribe could determine who its people are. For even longer, the Sup. Ct. has held that Indian nationhood & tribal citizenry are political, not racial matters
    • An exercise of Tribal SOVEREIGNTY
  • Blood Quantum – Navajo 1/4
  • Lineage
  • Social/Cultural – connection to the community? Speak the language? Have a name from the tribe?
  • Cherokee:
    • Eastern Band: 1/16 Blood quantum
    • Oklahoma bands: lineage
  • Tribes didn’t always have BQ enrollment requirements:
    • Used to adopt other members from other tribes or non-Indians
    • Kinship rather than blood
  • Enrollment evolved to provide fair distribution of benefits: land, resources, voting, compensation, etc.

The 10 Largest American Indian tribal groupings in the US

  • Total Reporting: 2,475,956 100%
  • Cherokee 281,069 11.4%
  • Navajo 269,202 10.9
  • Sioux 108,272 4.4
  • Chippewa 105,907 4.3
  • Choctaw 87,349 3.5
  • Pueblo 59,533 2.4
  • Apache 57,060 2.3
  • Lumbee 51,913 2.1
  • Iroquois 45,212 1.8
  • All other tribal groupings 753,406 24%
  • More than 1 tribe rptd 52,425 2.1
  • No tribal affiliation rptd 511,960 20.7

Physical Variation

  • Stereotypic—Red-brown skin, dark brown eyes, prominent cheek bones, straight black hair, and scantiness of beard—but huge variation
    • Skin color—Very light in some tribes, as the Cheyenne, to almost black in others, as the Caddo and Tarimari. In a few tribes, as the Flatheads, the skin has a distinct yellowish cast.
    • Hair—varies dramatically in amount, texture & color
    • Eyes—Generally dark
    • Body shape—great variation in height, weight, physique
    • Blood type—generally O
    • Other features—shove-shaped incisors, Inca bones, but these are variable

Language Variation

For such a small population, Indian languages are extremely diverse.

57 families grouped into 9 macro-families or phyla

300 distinct languages

2000 dialects

California—at least 20 families

West of Rockies—17 more

Rest of the continent—20 more

Today English is the most commonly spoken language, and many native languages are gone or will soon be so.


Indian Views of Land

  • Stereotypes abound regarding Indian views of land.
  • Generally:
    • Land could not be individually owned
    • Land could be controlled by family units, such as clans
    • The operating principle was usufruct
    • The earth was sacred and to be cared for, but it could be used, albeit carefully. Mother Earth seems a common concept, but it has been called into question.
    • Sacred places were a key; sacredness can be difficult to understand

From Chief Seattle’s speech 1854 *

‘Every part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished. Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead as the swelter in the sun along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people, and the very dust upon which you now stand responds more lovingly to their footsteps than yours, because it is rich with the blood of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch.’

Suquamish Chief Seattle

*For complete text of the speech see Do be aware that there is controversy about this speech. See About the Chief Seattle Speech.


Dawes Severalty Act. (1887)

"The common field is the seat of barbarism, while the separate farm is the door to civilization. Sen. Henry Dawes, Massachusetts

He also noted that selfishness was the root of advanced civilization, and he could not understand why the Indians were not motivated to possess and achieve more than their neighbors

Congress sought to break up Indian communal lands by giving Indian families 160 acres of land, backed by a 25-year tax-free trust from the government. At the end of the term, Indians could either keep the land or sell it.

In 1887, the tribes had owned about 138 million acres; by 1900 the total acreage in Indian hands had fallen to 78 million

Henry Dawes

See the precise language of the law at


Assorted land images…

For information about Indian views of land and environment, see Native Americans and the Environment.


The Problem with Culture Areas

Actually, these categories have entered into the popular culture in a big way. They are now the main descriptors of Indian groups.

One needs to question whether it is still a useful concept:

It may be that it locks Indian groups in time, using descriptions of groups at the time of Contact.

Pan-Indian cultural activities and massive influences of media have "blended" lots of cultural traits.--Plains and Southwest stereotypes are dominant

Doesn't account for the ability of groups to adjust to white and other Indian influence.


Kinship was the social organization core for most Indian nations

Small scale societies

  • Initially after first habitation, small populations of hunters and gatherers were the norm.
  • Most were nomadic, with small populations of +/- 200
  • Major unit was extended family, usually patricentric
  • Microband/macroband seasonality
  • Groups were nearly acehpalous (without a head), but leaders developed with achieved status
  • Mostly egalitarian, with rule by consensus
  • These patterns survived until well past European Contact especially in marginal areas or those with minimal contact.

Settled village life

Greater emphasis on gathering and use of cultivars caused changes circa 7,000 years ago

  • Cultivars and intensive gathering allowed small surpluses
  • Surpluses allowed larger surpluses and more settled life
  • In the rich eastern woodlands, Primary Forest Efficiency allowed substantially larger populations (+/- 1000)
  • Beginnings of social stratification
  • Still kinship based and some use of micro/macroband in marginal areas
  • Kin based, clan structured organization still mostly patricentric

Horticulture brought major changes

  • After 3000 BP, emphasis on domesticated plants allowed greater surpluses
  • With surpluses came dramatic population growth (1000-30,000) in villages and “cities”
  • Gardening shifts cultural emphasis to matricentric
  • Large populations keep clan structures, but often added a layer of social control at chiefdom level
  • Social stratification became substantial
  • A shift toward urban life
  • Emergence of “pre-state” structures

At Contact, there was immense diversity

  • A very wide range of social organizations and political ideologies at European Contact
  • Social organization ranged from nomadic, patricentric, egalitarian hunters and gatherers with completely kin-based systems to nearly urban, socially stratified, matricentric horticulturalists with both kin and non-kin-based systems.
  • Much of this broke down during the next 500 years.
  • Social organization is still in flux.

Changes in Social Structure since Contact

  • Detribalization, migration, and urbanization
  • Reservation and social structure
  • Kinship and the family
  • Political resurgence - reservations as a power base
  • Contemporary political organization - tribal and urban

Boarding Schools attacked family structure

Boarding School Blues1Words and Music by Floyd Red Crow WestermanYou put me in your boarding schoolfilled me with your White man’s rulesBe a foolay hey hey hey heyaYou put me in Chicago onecold and windy dayRelocationExterminationay hey hey hey heyaYou took me from my home, my friendThink I’ll go back there againWounded KneeWant to be freeay hey hey hey heya2.


Indians as U.S. citizens, 1924

President Calvin Coolidge with four Osage Indians after Coolidge signed the granting Indians full U.S. citizenship


Getting something back: The Indian Claims Commission


Canada—1991 but with earlier versions since 1927


Pre-contact belief systems

  • Animatism: belief in a supernatural power not part of supernatural beings
  • Animism: belief that natural objects are animated by spirits
    • the spirits are thought of as having identifiable personalities and other characteristics such as gender
    • Everything in nature has a unique spirit or all are animated by the same spirit or force
  • Both present in some societies
  • For Native Americans, animism dominates
  • We see some evidence in material remains, but most information comes from post-Contact ethnography


  • Ancestral spirits
    • After death, spiritsretain an active interest and even membership in their family and society.  Like living people, they can have emotions, feelings, and appetites.  They must be treated well to assure their continued good will and help to the living.
  • Gods/goddesses
    • Powerful supernatural beings with individual identities and recognizable attributes
    • Rare in Native America—Creator, Mother Earth, but these are often ill-defined
  • Hero/trickster figures
    • Beings with some supernatural abilities such as transformation—coyote, raven, spider are examples

Time and Cosmology

The power of the circle

Cyclical nature of time

The sacred directions

Sacred colors

Ojibwe lodge

Medicine Wheels abound on the Plains

Pawnee lodge

Quillwork medicine wheel


Belief system change did occur

  • Beliefs form a stable core, but do adapt to natural and social environments
    • Example: Old vs new Lakota beliefs

White Buffalo Calf Woman and the spread of the calumet (pipe)

Inyan Kara—rock maker

Bison herd near Wind Cave, where Iktomi tricked the people into coming from the underground


Post-Contact ideology

  • Contact and syncretism
  • Nativistic movements
    • The Good Message of Handsome Lake
    • A syncretic combination of traditional Seneca and Quaker beliefs and practices
    • Purpose: to draw the Seneca back toward “the old ways” and to “protect” them from whites

Revitalization movements

    • The Ghost Dance (see Edison 1894 film)

Wovoka with Plains delegation

Pawnee ghost dance drum

Bole-maru, California


The Christian struggle for control

Grant’s reservation policy and churches

Boarding schools and breakdown of families

Bans on many religious practices

Woodrow Crumbow--Sundance


The Native American Church

Peyote song: Primeaux and Mike

Peyote cactus

For a good history, see the Religious Movements page on NAC


American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978

Title 42 - The Public Health and Welfare    Chapter 21 - Civil Rights        SubChapter I - Generally American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978§ 1996. Protection and preservation of traditional religions of Native Americans

On and after August 11, 1978, it shall be the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.


Pan-Indian Trends


Gathering of Nations, Albuquerque

Eklutna (Alaska) Annual Powwow

Crow Fair, Montana