Native Americans-- North America: Historic Background

Evidence for human habitation in North America Dates back more than 10,000 years. The earliest arrivals came across the land bridge to Asia at the end of the last ice age. These first immigrants arrived in waves, and gradually worked their way south, eventually inhabiting all of North and South America.

However, there is now evidence that suggests that other ancient migrations occurred across l the Pacific. Following sea currents and trade winds, people gradually crossed the Pacific from island to island, eventually reaching the South American Coast as early as 3,000 BC. The voyage across the Pacific to South America by adventurer-archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl in his polynesian built boat demonstrated this to be possible; Further evidence can be seen primarily in the presence in South America from an early date of agricultural products that are known to have originated in Southeast Asia-- notably chickens and cotton.

Also there is evidence that sailors from South China and Japan followed the Pacific rim coast of Asia to Alaska, and down the American coast to South America, as early as 300 BC. These sailors, following prevailing winds and currents, might have reached the American Coast by accident, during storms, or have come as traders, and probably as settlers. Evidence in the form of actual Japanese pottery found in Central and South America confirms that such contact occurred.

Thus we can see that not only was Columbus not the "discoverer" of America, Europeans were in fact relative late-comers to this continent. By the time Europeans arrived, North and South America were filled by a wide variety of ethnic groups, ranging from the hunter-gatherers of the central and northern plains, to the agriculturalists and city builders of the Mississippi valley and South America, and to the settled fisherman of the Pacific northwest.

The indigenous peoples of North America as they were found by the first Europeans can be grouped as either agriculturalists or hunter-gathers. The agricultural peoples followed the same cyclical patterns in their religious and social structures as did agricultural people in other parts of the world. Nature and human life were seen as aspects of one spiritual whole, and the physical and spiritual well-being of all was the result of communal effort.

However,hunter-gatherers, because of the very nature of their lives, depended on the skill, bravery, and wisdom of individuals. Therefore the search for spiritual truth was an individual quest. Rites of passage tend to be solitary experiences, as opposed to the communal rites of agricultural peoples. At the center of most hunter-gather religions is the idea that the hunted animal is a willing sacrifice, but that there is need for rites of gratitude and propitiation to renew the gift. Since hunter-gatherers must follow the herds, the life-style is nomadic. Therefore these people own and leave behind fewer artifacts.

The National Museum of the American Indian will show you traditional and modern work

This link will take you to A site where you can view the variety of Native American technologies and arts.

Native American arts

The following general regions of North America will be considered in this discussion: Woodlands, Plains, Mississippian, Southwest, and Northwest Coast. We will then discuss the influence of Native North American art on mainstream US art.

Native American Arts: Woodlands

The Iroquoian peoples who inhabited the woodlands of the Northeast and upper Midwest were a loose confederation of tribes. The Iroquois were communal farmers, who lived in extended family groups, sharing bark covered "long houses." Corn and squash were important agricultural crops, and figure prominently in Iroquois mythology and visual symbolism. However, designs tended to be highly stylized. Secret societies were at the center of communal and religious life; and the masks carved for ceremonials were believed to transform the wearer into the healing or teaching spirit represented. Although copper was known, metals were not common materials, nor were textiles. Birch bark, quillwork, wood, and stone were commonly used. Some groups, such as the Ojibwa of the Great Lakes region, wove mats and containers, using cedar fiber and a warp weighted loom.

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