Even before the British and other European settlers discovered America, there existed nearly 10 million indigenous people in the New World. They are known as Native Americans or the American Indians. Thousands of years prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Carribean during the 15th century, these groups were already traveling the land bridges from the East and all the way to Alaska. They traveled from one place to another, pushing at various directions and learning how to adapt. Anthropologists and historians categorize them into groups.
Theirs is a story of learning the ways to co-exist with European settlers, and they seem to have their distinctive way of life, traditions, customs, and culture. However, despite the many years of their living on Earth, there still exists enslavement and health issues among these American Indians even today. This time, we’re exploring the secret life of these groups and the issues facing them right at this moment.
Who are the American Indians?
The massive population they had in the previous centuries is being challenged by war and diseases. Under colonial rule, they faced persecution, lost their lands, and were forced to give up their resources. They also lived in reservations that lacked these resources. More than these, they still struggle on claiming these lands while facing threats from the government. It has been said that among any major racial group, these people have the highest rate of poverty at one out of four people rate living below the poverty line, World Population Review reports. Data from US Census Bureau reveal that the current total population of these groups in the U.S. alone is at 6.8 million, which is around two percent of the entire population of the country.
American Indians in the cold, frozen desert-like region where you can find Alaska, Greenland, and Canada are known as the Inuits and the Aleut. The Inuits who live in the northern part of the Arctic region are nomads, traveling along with polar bears and seals on the tundra. Those in the southern part, however, are settled in little fishing villages on the shore. They live in domed houses out of timber or sod, and used seal and otter skins to make clothing.
Meanwhile, in the pine forests and swampy areas of the Subarctic, there are Athabaskan and Algonquian American Indian groups, based on the languages that they spoke. Since the terrain is tundra, these groups use toboggans and lightweight canoes to travel from one place to another. They live in portable tents and sustained their food through hunting.
The Indians of the Northeast were among the first groups who got direct contact with Europeans since their areas stretch along the coastlines of the Atlantic, inland toward the Mississippi River. They comprise the Iroquoian and also the Algonquian speakers. As a way of life, they cultivated crops like beans, corn, and vegetables, and consumed them in their farming and fishing villages.
This group of American Indians is located north of the Gulf of Mexico, with farming as their primary source of living. They cultivated beans, maize or corn, squash, sunflower, and tobacco, and settled in hamlets or market villages. Among the sub-groups include the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Seminole, Choctaw, and Creek. Collectively, they are known as the Five Civilized Tribes.
These people lived in the wide prairie landscape between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico all the way up to Canada. Their groups are trained farmers and hunters. When the Spanish colonizers brought horses to their settlements, they learned to use them to pursue herds of buffalos. They are the groups who live in the renowned tents known as tepees. These groups use bison-skin to establish the shelter.
Indians in the Southwest, characterized by vast desert lands in present-day Arizona and New Mexico, either lived as sedentary farmers and nomads. Some of these people lived in permanent settlements called pueblos that looked like apartments but made in stone and adobe. Within these pueblos are kivas or large ceremonial pit houses.
The culture area right here at the Great Basin, comprises of the western Sierra Nevadas, the eastern Rocky Mountains, the northern Columbia Plateau, and the southern Colorado Plateau. Its people hunted small mammals, snakes, and lizards. Their shelter was made of leaves, saplings, and willow poles. Horses they learned to use from the European settlers were utilized for equestrian hunting.
Considered as one of the most diverse Native American groups, there are around 100 different tribes in this area, speaking more than 200 dialects. They are less into farming but rather, organize themselves in triblets or small groups, and have hunter-gathering as their main source of living.
The stretch along the Pacific coast from British Columbia, touching the north of California have the Northwest Coast Indians. The topography and nearby seas provide them with whales, seals, fish, shellfish, salmon, and more. They are permanent settlers than nomads.
Last but not least, Indians in the Plateau or the area in the Fraser river basins and Columbia lived in tiny villages along riverbanks and streams, abundant with trout and salmon. They also hunted wild berries, nuts, and roots.
However, the life of American Indians is not about wonder and all the positive things. Andrés Reséndez, a history of the University of California Davis, published a book titled “The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America,” which discussed the enslavement of these people, and how it has affected their ways of life today. From the time of colonization until the turn of the 20th century, around five million Native Americans were enslaved on the very land that they settled in.
The author explained how Indian slavery was made illegal even in the early years, unlike African slavery which is legal and sanctioned by worldwide states. However, due to the demand for labor and for driving the economy, the Europeans could not do anything but to have the natives for labor. The historian added that there were even euphemisms used to continue to profit from the forced labor among these natives.
“In the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, Iroquois people waged wars on neighboring groups for the purpose of avenging their dead and replacing them with captives. In the Pacific Northwest, elite marriages were often sealed by providing slaves. So we know that these activities went on,” Reséndez said.
One of the most controversial issues perhaps that surround these Native Americans is that of disappearances. These cases are not yet fully solved even until today.
Ashley Loring, a 20-year-old Blackfeet Nation member, was confirmed lost and couldn’t be found from the 8th of June, 2017. Her older sister Kimberly led the efforts of finding her but to no avail. The search went on flipping through rummage in the woods, within old washing machine to perhaps find clues or remains, and even reached Google Earth to find possible traces. Kimberly has hiked mountains shouting the name of Ashley, but without any strong proof that the search could finally come to an end either because her sister has been found or dead. Right now, she’s part of the larger group of American Indian or Native American women going missing or worst, even murdered.
Pacific Standard reports that there seems to be a “hidden epidemic” on why Native American women suffer from these instances. Everyone recognizes this crisis, hence this term coined by North Dakota former Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp. Plus, due to lack of support from the state government, much more the federal, many of these cases go unreported. Thus, the difficulty of finding leads.
According to the University of Kansas professor Sarah Deer, who also does research on violence against Native American women, few interventions from the federal government happen while this problem “has been going on for hundreds of years.” The number recorded in crime laboratories’ logs is even inaccurate because there are information not logged on missing from justice department databases. “There are many similar mysteries that follow a pattern: A woman or girl goes missing, there’s a community outcry, a search is launched, a reward may be offered. There may be a quick resolution. But often, there’s frustration with tribal police and federal authorities and a feeling many cases aren’t handled urgently or thoroughly,” Associated Press stated.
Because of these situations, their families are urged to conduct their own search and investigation independent from the authorities. They use their resources to seek for clues from these disappearances in the wild, because they cannot anymore depend on a government that does not provide focus on their cases. They know that the issue boils down to racism for their groups.
The stories of hardships do not end there. These American Indians also experience health challenges due to several factors including lack of government support, or something that relates to their past. An article online shares the story.
It is said that there are “steep divisions” between the health of Native Americans and the rest of the racial groups. These American Indians tend to have lower life expectancies than the rest of the population, and they lose years in their productive lives. The group also has among the highest suicide rates in the nation. Among the causes of premature death include accidents, cancer, heart diseases, diabetes, and more.
“These disparities are shaped by social inequality, historical trauma, and discrimination. Most American Indians live in chronic poverty, with limited access to health care, adequate housing, quality education, and adequate law enforcement services,” the article on The Conversation noted.
For these Native Americans, they cannot waste time. Several tribal communities and organizations have stepped up and taken care of health provision for their own clans. Native-led groups like the National Congress of American Indians, the National Council of Urban Indian Health, and the National Indian Health Board have started projects to improve the health of their own people. They work on information drives to address suicide, substance abuse, violence, and obesity, among others. They coordinate with tribal leaders to enact policies without waiting for the federal government to take action for them.