The people who are known as American Indians are the indigenous people of North America. Despite what you may think, the native people of the United States were divided into dozens of ethnic groups with very different customs, languages, and lifestyles. The Apache, Sioux, and Cheyenne are some of the most well-known tribes thanks to their portrayal on the silver screen, but there were many more.
History: Why were Native Americans called Indians?
When Christopher Columbus went ashore in Guanahani (Bahamas) on October 12, 1492, he thought he had arrived in India. The navigator had set off two months and nine days earlier from Puerto de Santa María, in Spain, in search of a new route to India by crossing the ocean.
It wasn’t until 15 years later that the new colonizers discovered that these lands, where neither gold nor spices were plentiful, was not India, but rather another continent that they named America. Hence, during the first contact with American indigenous people, the colonizers called them Indians.
American Indian Tribes
Some of the most well-known American Indian tribes are the Apache, the Sioux, the Cherokee, and the Cheyenne. There are also many others, such as the Blackfeet, the Arapaho, and the Navajos. They have a significant population and have played an important role in the history of the United States.
The Great Sioux Nation live on the Great Plains of the United States. They are divided into various clans or tribes: the Lakota, the Nakota, and the Dakota, each of which speak a different variety of the Sioux language. In contrast to other indigenous peoples, the Sioux were nomads and experts at hunting bison. They moved around following the buffalo herds and lived in the legendary tipis, cone-shaped dwellings covered in bison skin. When the colonizers again introduced horses to America, the Sioux soon dominated them and became known as excellent jockeys.
The Apache are a group of indigenous tribes who live in the arid lands of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and northwestern Mexico. They were hunters, ranchers, and farmers. A large part of their traditional diet is based on corn, beans, sheep, and goats. Like the Sioux, the Apaches put up great resistance to invasions from the times of the Spanish colonizers. Today, the Apache are the most numerous Native American tribe and is estimated to have a population of approximately 57,000 people.
The Cherokee are an indigenous people who used to live on the southeastern coast. In ancient times, they migrated from the Great Lakes region to south of the Appalachian Mountains and used to live in what is today the area from North Carolina to Alabama. The large Cherokee population lived off of hunting and growing crops such as corn, beans, and squash. Unfortunately, they were later forcibly moved to Oklahoma.
Like the Sioux, the Cheyenne live on the great plains, but in the northernmost area, from the Black Hills of South Dakota to Colorado. They are divided into groups and were allies of the Arapaho and the Sioux. The Cheyenne participated alongside them in important battles such as Red Cloud’s War (1866-1868) and the Black Hills War (1876-1877).
Customs of the American Indians
American Indians are generally known for having the spirit of warriors, being good hunters, and having great respect for nature. Nevertheless, their customs and languages are very different among the various tribes.
It is calculated that when the Europeans arrived to North America, there were more than 300 different indigenous languages among the tribes. Of these, more than half have disappeared and some of those that are still spoken are at risk of extinction.
One of the most popular American Indian customs is group dances, rituals that are done for a variety of purposes, such as asking for good luck from mother nature. Dances include the bison dance, the rain dance, or the famous sun dance, which was done to ask for good health. Tribe leaders directed religious life and carried out different rites and ceremonies, some of which included fasting and offerings.
Another of the most important customs was a pow-wow, which are meetings of the native tribes of North America. They are still held today.
Clothing of the American Indians
Like their customs, each tribe’s clothing was different. In general, in the majority of native tribes, the men wore breechcloths and protected themselves from the cold with pants and deer and bison skin. On their part, women tended to wear leather dresses as well as tunics which covered their skin.
For ceremonial acts, some tribes wear special tunics decorated with feathers, the skin of animals such as hedgehogs, and many other accessories and decorations.
The Most Famous Native American Chiefs
Some of the most famous Indian chiefs in the West include Sitting Bull, chief of the Sioux who, along with Crazy Horse, another Sioux leader, led the famous Battle of Little Bighorn. Red Cloud, who was leader of this tribe before them, was another of the most notable Indian chiefs who fought in what is known as Red Cloud’s War. As a result of this war, the Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed.
As can be seen in United States history, the Sioux were one of the tribes that was most often at war. There were also notable Indian chiefs from other tribes such as the Geronimo and Cochise, from the Chiricahua clan, which belonged to the Apaches, or the man known as Chief Joseph, from the Nez Percé tribe.
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