Connecting....., Culture, Gospel, Religion — November 4, 2019 at 8:09 am

Native Americans: The First Inhabitants of the Americas

Beyond Denali: Restoring Native American names
Beyond Denali: Restoring Native American names

The Native Americans are the first inhabitants of the Americas. They view nature as Mother Earth. To them the spirit world is embodied in every part of the natural world, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral. They became our first environmentalists and horticulturists. Native Americans first survived as big-game hunters and as fishermen. The Indians were excellent fishermen and invented the birch-bark canoe. It was not long before they became agricultural, adapting to climate changes and the discovery of the plant maize (corn). First harvesting wild plants with edible seeds, they gradually developed hybrids to increase productivity. Soon, maize, squash, and beans became major agricultural products.

The history of the Native Americans is a fascinating subject. Did they originate here, or did they migrate with the seafarers of Phoenicia, or from Siberia across Beringia, a land mass once connecting Siberia with Alaska, or perhaps a combination of the above? The oral tradition of the Native Americans must be respected along with the archaeological, linguistic and scientific studies of pre-Columbian history. An ancient civilization has been discovered in Caral in the Supé Valley of Peru. The Inca of Peru, the Olmecs and Mayans of Central America, and then the Toltecs and Aztecs of Mexico were early Native American civilizations. The earliest peoples within our national borders were the Southwest Ancestral Puebloans, identified at sites such as Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, and the Mississippian Mound Builders at places such as Cahokia on the Mississippi River.

Native Tribes in North America Before and After Colonization
Native Tribes in North America Before and After Colonization

The Native Americans settled in different regions in the country and formed independent tribes with distinct Indian cultures, such that by 1492 there were over 300 separate native american languages! When Christopher Columbus landed on October 12, 1492, he thought he had reached India, and called the native people Indians, a name which native americans have come to appreciate, as the term gave them a collective identity. The following table includes mainland tribes of both historical and current interest.

Major Native American Tribes of the USA
Southeast MidAtlantic/
Great Lakes Great Plains California/
Great Basin
Cherokee Piscataway Chippewa Sioux Paiute Spokane Navajo
Seminole Lenape Fox Blackfeet Shoshone Columbia Apache
Apalachee Powhatan Shawnee Cheyenne Cahuilla Cayuse Pueblo
Catawba Rappahannock Huron Comanche Chemehuevi Chinook Hopi
Chickasaw Yaocamico Kickapoo Arapoho Chumash Colville Keres
Choctaw Algonquin Menominee Crow Costanoan Coos Maricopa
Coushatta Iroquois Miami Kiowa Diegueno Nez Perce Mojave
Creek Narragansett Oneida Mandan Hupa Nisqually Pima
Houma Nipmuc Onondaga Omaha Luiseno Puget Sound Salish Tohono O’odham
Lumbee Pequot Ottowa Osage Maidu Quileute Yaqui
Miccosukee Pokanoket Potawatomi Pawnee Pomo Quinault Yuma
Timucua Wampanoag Winnebago Wichita Ute Tulalip Zuni

Native American Indians welcomed us to these shores in Florida, Virginia, and Massachusetts, and eventually the entire East coast. The first Mass of Thanksgiving on American soil was actually celebrated by the Spanish with the Timucuan Indians from Seloy village in attendance on September 8, 1565 in St. Augustine, Florida.

The Pilgrims, who sought religious freedom and crossed the Atlantic in the Mayflower in 1620, were treated kindly by the Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts. Samoset and Squanto showed the Pilgrims how to plant corn, beans, and pumpkins, and where to hunt and fish. William Bradford and the sachem Massasoit made a treaty which they honored as long as both were alive. The image of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth in 1621 with the Pilgrims, Massasoit of Pokanoket and the Wampanoag Nation is forever etched upon the American conscience.

The Pilgrims in Massachusetts, Roger Williams and the Baptists in Rhode Island, Leonard Calvert and the Catholics in Maryland, and William Penn and the Quakers in Pennsylvania began their religious settlements buying the land and treating the Indians with mutual respect. For example, Father Andrew White SJ, who was one of the first settlers to arrive in Maryland on March 25, 1634, worked patiently with the Piscataway Indians of Maryland and prepared a grammar dictionary and catechism in their native tongue: this was the first time an Indian language was distilled into grammatical form. The Missionary Reverend John Eliot in Massachusetts translated the entire Bible in 1649 into the Algonquin language, the dialect of the Massachusetts Indians. Indians who did convert lived mainly on Cape Cod and were known as Praying Indians.

Celebration - However this harmonious relationship was short-lived
Celebration – However this harmonious relationship was short-lived

First, Native Americans had no immunologic protection against such European diseases as smallpox, typhus, and measles. For those in frequent contact with European settlers, the effects were devastating: it is estimated that up to 90% of native Americans, perhaps numbering in the millions, died during the first century of contact with the Europeans.

Second, Native Americans had different spiritual beliefs than Europeans. They saw the land as a living being, as a mother who nurtured her children. The thought of buying and selling land was unthinkable to them. The Indians saw the offers from Europeans for land to build and farm as joining an existing relationship, not to transfer ownership. Misperception ensued. Some tribes resented the attempts of the Europeans to convert them to Christianity.

And third, the Indian tribes, with the exception of the Five Nation Iroquois, lacked unity, and, as most of the European nations at the time, were often rivals with each other. This made them vulnerable to the Europeans with their superior weaponry.

English colony in 1607 at Jamestown
English colony in 1607 at Jamestown

The Virginia Company was the first to establish a permanent English colony in 1607 at Jamestown, named after King James I of England. The Anglicans barely survived the first winter, but antagonism quickly developed with the Powhatan Indians. The first of three Anglo-Powhatan Wars ensued as early as 1609, and did not resolve until the marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe in 1614. Tobacco brought survival to the English colony. The first meeting of the House of Burgesses in a Jamestown church on July 30, 1619 was the first representative government in the English colonies.

Atrocities between Indians and colonists happened everywhere and were committed by both sides. Five Spanish Franciscans who attempted to introduce monogamous marriage to the Guale Indians were martyred in Darien, Georgia in September 1597. Five hundred Pequot Indian men, women, and children were burned alive in May 1637 at Mystic River, Connecticut by a vengeful Puritan militia in the name of divine retribution. Isaac Jogues and seven French Jesuits were martyred by the Mohawks at Auriesville, New York in October 1646. Metacomet, known as King Philip, the son of the Pokanoket sachem Massasoit, tried to preserve Native American presence against the unprincipled land grab of colonial expansion in New England, and led the June 1675 – August 1676 King Philip’s War, but died August 12, 1676. But the worst devastation began in 1702, when James Moore, the English Governor of South Carolina, wrote his own Black Legend when he, his soldiers, and Yemassee Indians swept through Georgia to Florida and annihilated the Franciscan missions and massacred the Timucua and Apalachee Mission Indians of Florida, some by impaling them on stakes or burning them alive. He then attacked St. Augustine, but the townsfolk retreated to St. Mark’s Castle. Moore bombarded the castle for 50 days, but, unsuccessful, Moore finally gave up, but not before he torched most of the town. By his own writings, Moore captured several thousand Indians and reduced them to slavery. Disgraced, he stepped down as governor upon his return, not because of his extreme cruelty, but because of his failure to capture St. Augustine!

What began peacefully ended in aggression and conflict.

European settlers subsequently drove the Indians from their lands as settlers moved westward. Treaties were often drawn up after Indian leaders were plied with alcohol. Whether through intimidation, war, treachery, or outright fraud, the Native Americans were systematically dispossessed of their lands.

An Indian known as the Prophet advised the Shawnee to give up alcohol and the ways of the white men and return to their traditional ways. He founded a peaceful community in Prophetstown, Indiana. His brother Tecumseh organized surrounding Indian tribes into a Confederation to resist the incursions of white settlers. In the Treaty of Fort Wayne in 1809, William Henry Harrison negotiated with only three of the many Indian tribes and bought 3 million acres in Indiana and Illinois for less than one cent an acre! When an Illinois tribe raided a small village, Harrison took advantage of the situation and headed to Prophetstown, even though the Shawnee had nothing to do with the raid. Harrison defeated the Confederation at Tippecanoe on November 11, 1811.

The peak of disenfranchisement occurred with the enforcement of President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830. Four of the five “Civilized Tribes” were driven from their lands. These acts left the once proud and resourceful Indians a dispirited, heart-broken race. The Choctaws in Mississippi and Alabama were the first to be resettled in 1832, followed by the Creeks (1836) and the Chickasaws (1837). But it was the resettlement of Cherokees by Jackson’s Federal troops in 1838-1839 from Georgia to lands west of the Mississippi that left 5000 Cherokees dead on the Trail of Tears.

Seminole Tribe of Florida
Seminole Tribe of Florida

The fifth tribe, the only one to maintain presence in their native territory, were the Seminoles of Florida. In spite of three Seminole Wars, the Seminoles wisely never signed a treaty with the Federal Government and survived in Florida!

The Indians of the Great Plains and those resettled from the East faced a similar fate from the Western expansion of the Nation. The Lewis and Clark Expedition from 1804 made it to the Pacific Ocean because of the hospitality of the Mandan Indians and their Shoshone guide Sacajawea.

Once again, this kindness was not returned.

Two different cultures would face off on the Plains for nearly a century: the “Manifest Destiny” of white settlers heading west versus the Plains Indians protecting their heritage. In an effort to confine Indians to reservations, Federal agents would sign treaties such as the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, granting extensive territory to the Indians, only to have other Federal agents break the treaties in support of the Homestead Act of 1862, which granted land to predominantly white settlers from the East. But the Indians put up incredible resistance under such figures as Red Cloud, the only Indian to have defeated the U. S Army in Red Cloud’s War of 1866-1868. In reaction to the US breaking the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse defeated George Custer and the Seventh Cavalry in Custer’s Last Stand at Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876. Using justified resistance as an excuse, Federal troops eventually drove the Nez Perce, Crows, Apache, Sioux, and other Plains Indians from their lands. In response to the Ghost Dance, the final defeat occurred at Wounded Knee in December 1890, with the death of Sitting Bull, Big Foot, and a band of Lakotas.

The ultimate absurdity occurred on June 2, 1924 when the American Indians, the natives of America, were granted citizenship by the very people that drove them off their lands.

Native American Indian Maiden And Warrior Watching Bear Western Mountain Landscape (Painting by Walt Curlee)
Native American Indian Maiden And Warrior Watching Bear Western Mountain Landscape (Painting by Walt Curlee)

The Navajo Nation played an invaluable role in the Pacific theater during World War II. When the Japanese had broken American codes and launched the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the U. S. Marines turned to the Navajo nation to develop a code based on their language, a code which the Japanese never could decipher. The Navajo code talkers were instrumental to our victory in Iwo Jima in March of 1945. A Franciscan priest founded the Southwest Indian Foundation in Gallup, New Mexico in 1968. A memorial to the Navajo Code Talkers has been completed and is situated in the Gallup Cultural Center.

Fortunately, during the latter half of the twentieth century, beginning with President John F. Kennedy, long-overdue respect and concessions have been given to our Native Americans. Pope John Paul II beatified Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), the Lily of the Mohawks, in 1980, and she was canonized in 2012. The feast day of our first Native American Saint is July 14.


Lily of the Mohawks, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha
Lily of the Mohawks, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha

2010 U. S. CENSUS

There has been a flourishing of the Native American Indian population: in 2010, 5.2 million people in the United States identified themselves as American Indian or Alaska Native, either alone or in combination with one or more different races. Out of this total, 2.9 million people identified themselves as American Indian/Alaska Native alone. The Native American Indian population experienced an increase of 39%, the greatest growth of any population group since 2000.

41% of American Indians live in the West, and 33% in the South. The 2010 Census indicated that the five states with the largest Native American Indian population in order are California, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Alaska, Florida, North Carolina, and South Dakota experienced the greatest growth.

The following chart lists the Top 25 American Indian Tribes by population in the year 2010. These are the original U. S. Census Bureau figures, which indicate those listing one tribe only. Whereas the Cherokee tribe has the largest overall population, the Navajo tribe has the largest population reporting one tribe only.

2010 Top 25 Native American Tribes
Rank Tribe Population
1 Navajo 286,731
2 Cherokee 284,247
3 Mexican American Indian 121,221
4 Chippewa 112,757
5 Sioux 112,176
6 Choctaw 103,910
7 Apache 63,193
8 Lumbee 62,306
9 Pueblo 49,695
10 Creek 48,352
11 Iroquois 40,570
12 Alaskan Yupik 28,927
13 Chickasaw 27,973
14 Blackfeet 27,279
15 Alaskan Inupiat 24,859
16 Pima 22,040
17 Yaqui 21,679
18 South American Indian 20,901
19 Potawatomi 20,412
20 Tohono O’Odham 19,522
21 Central American Indian 15,882
22 Alaskan Athabascan 15,623
23 Alaskan Tlingit-Haida 15,256
24 Puget Sound Salish 14,320
25 Seminole 14,080


Indian Village Trapper Western Mountain Landscape Oil Painting. (Painting by Walt Curlee)
Indian Village Trapper Western Mountain Landscape Oil Painting. (Painting by Walt Curlee)


1 Doyle RC. American History. Class Lectures & Notes, Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio, 2001.
2 Berkin C, Miller CL, Cherny RW, Gormly JL. Making America. Fourth Edition, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2006.
3 Waldman C. Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. Checkmark, New York, 2006.
4 Morison, Samuel Eliot. Oxford History of the American People. Oxford University Press, New York, 1965.
5 Waldman C, Braun M. Atlas of the North American Indian. Checkmark Books, New York, 25-50, 2000.
6 Census 2010, United States of America.
7 Gannon M. Florida – A Short History. University Press of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, 2003.


  • Jesus Christ Savior

    Our anonymous author is a physician and a Masters graduate in Theology and Christian Ministry from Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio. He teaches Sunday Bible Class at St. James Catholic Church and serves both Pastoral Care and the Medical Staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

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