Tribes and Reservations in 1917

During the nineteenth century, the United States had attempted to settle all Indians on well-defined reservations on lands deemed unsuitable for non-Indian development. Here Indians were to remain until they became extinct or had fully assimilated into the Christian American lifestyle. By the end of the nineteenth century, the government began the process of dismantling Indian reservations and increasing the pressures to assimilate. During the early twentieth century, for example, the United States had dissolved all of the tribal governments in Oklahoma so that the territory could become a state. By 1917, a majority of Indians still lived on reservations where they were considered wards of the government. In general, the reservations were pockets of poverty with poor health care and few educational opportunities. Briefly described below are a few of the events of 1917 which are related to Indian reservations and tribes.

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World War I and American Indians

In 1914, the nations of Europe began the conflict which would become known as the Great War and later as World War I.  In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson called for the United States to enter what he called “the war to end all wars” and “to make the world safe for democracy.” The military estimated that a million men would be needed for the war and in the first six weeks following the declaration of war only 73,000 men volunteered. In response, Congress implemented a draft and 2.8 million men were called to service. American Indians, however, were not citizens and could not be drafted. Many Indians volunteered for service.

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American Indians in 1717

The fur trade was an important part of the economic history of North America and incorporated American Indian economies into a larger world economy. Furs were valuable, easily portable, and renewable resources. The prime furs—marten, otter, fox—were sold at high prices in the European and Chinese markets. Of less value, but still profitable, were pelts from buffalo, beaver, muskrat, and squirrel.

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The Algonquian Language Family

In North America, linguists generally recognize 58 language families and isolates. Understanding language families is one of the keys to understanding the historical relationships between the Indian groups. The Algonquian language family is a large American Indian language which is found in the Eastern Woodlands, the Plains, and California.

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Apache Spirituality

Bands or tribes known collectively as the Apache ranged widely throughout the American Southwest at the time of the first Spanish exploration and invasion. The Apache are Athabascan-speaking and migrated into the Southwest from Canada perhaps as early as 850 CE, but most likely between the late 1200s and early 1400s. In her entry on the Western Apache in the Encyclopedia of North American Indians, Elizabeth Brandt writes:

“Evidence from archaeological sites suggests a date around A.D. 1450 for the entry of Athabaskan peoples into the Southwest, but some scholars call for earlier dates.”

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American Indians in 1617

By 1617, four European nations—Spain, France, England, and the Netherlands—were staking their claims in North America through exploration and colonization. Archaeologist Jerald Milanich, in his book The Timucua, describes the reasons for the European expansion into North America:

“The driving force behind these initiatives was a desire for wealth: precious stones or metals, fertile lands suitable for productive plantations, human populations to be sold into slavery, and animals and plants that could be hunted or harvested and exported.”

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Spirituality and Jimsonweed Among California Indians

Throughout the world, different religious and spiritual traditions have used hallucinogenic drugs to enhance the mystical experience. These drugs can trigger the experience of flying or floating. In Southern California, many tribes traditionally used jimsonweed (a part of the nightshade family Datura, also known as toloache and datura) to help produce visions. Most frequently this was used during the initiation of boys into full manhood. During this time the initiates would drink an infusion made from jimsonweed root. The visions received at this time would guide people for the rest of their lives. In recognizing the spiritual power of jimsonweed, the tribes also knew that the plant could be deadly if used incorrectly and thus it was used only in ceremonial context and administered by knowledgeable elders. Even with these cautions, there were occasional deaths from using the plant.

Briefly described below are some of ceremonial uses of jimsonweed by California tribes.

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The Uto-Aztecan Language Family

Linguists studying and comparing languages throughout the world have noted that some languages are similar to each other in terms of vocabulary, sound patterns, and grammatical structure. Using these comparisons, they group languages into language families. According to linguists Laurence C. Thompson and M. Dale Kinkade, in their chapter on languages in the Handbook of North American Indians:

“Language families are groups of languages that can be shown to be genetically related, using techniques developed by comparative linguistics.”

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Federal Indian Policy in 1817

In 1817, James Monroe became the new President of the United States. In his book The Removal of the Choctaw Indians, Arthur DeRosier writes:

“America embarked upon a period of intense nationalism which completely dominated Monroe’s administration.”

Arthur DeRosier goes on to say:

“The changing attitudes of the period affected even the handling of the Indian problem and coincided with the emergence of a new policy.”

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American Indian Religions in 1917

During the first part of the twentieth century, the United States continued in its efforts to assimilate American Indians into an English-speaking, Christian European culture. Traditional American Indian religious practices were oppressed and discouraged as barriers to this assimilation. Briefly described below are some of the events of 1917 related to Indian religions.

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Voluntary Associations Among the Omaha Indians

Many American Indian nations had formal groups which cross-cut kinship ties. These formal groups, known as voluntary associations, sodalities, warrior societies, military societies, and healing societies, had names, membership rules, and even their own special ceremonies. Among the Omaha there were two kinds of voluntary associations: (1) social groups, and (2) secret societies. Included in the social groups are the warrior societies. The secret societies often had knowledge of medicines which were used for healing. Ethnologists Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche, in their classic 1911 ethnography The Omaha Tribe, report:

“The secret societies dealt with mysteries and membership was generally attained by virtue of a dream or vision.”

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The Cherokee in 1817

When the Europeans began their invasion of the Americas, the Cherokee were an agricultural people whose villages could be found throughout the American Southeast. By the first part of the nineteenth century, the Cherokees had had enough experience in dealing with the American government that they understood that they needed to have a unified government. Summarized below are some of the Cherokee events of 1817.

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Children Among the Indian Nations of the Great Basin

The Great Basin Culture Area includes the high desert regions between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. It is bounded on the north by the Columbia Plateau and on the south by the Colorado Plateau. It includes southern Oregon and Idaho, a small portion of southwestern Montana, western Wyoming, eastern California, all of Nevada and Utah, a portion of northern Arizona, and most of western Colorado. This is an area which is characterized by low rainfall and extremes of temperature. The valleys in the area are 3,000 to 6,000 feet in altitude and are separated by mountain ranges running north and south that are 8,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation. The rivers in this region do not flow into the ocean, but simply disappear into the sand.

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Marriage Among the Indian Nations of the Great Basin

The Great Basin Culture Area includes the high desert regions between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. It is bounded on the north by the Columbia Plateau and on the south by the Colorado Plateau. It includes southern Oregon and Idaho, a small portion of southwestern Montana, western Wyoming, eastern California, all of Nevada and Utah, a portion of northern Arizona, and most of western Colorado. This is an area which is characterized by low rainfall and extremes of temperature. The valleys in the area are 3,000 to 6,000 feet in altitude and are separated by mountain ranges running north and south that are 8,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation. The rivers in this region do not flow into the ocean, but simply disappear into the sand.

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A Brief Overview of Cherokee Culture

When the Europeans began their invasion of the Americas, the Cherokee were an agricultural people whose villages could be found throughout the American Southeast. In his book In the Courts of the Conqueror: The 10 Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided, Walter Echo-Hawk describes it this way:

“The aboriginal Cherokee homeland extends throughout the mountainous Allegheny region of the American Southeast in present-day Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Virginia, Kentucky, and the Carolinas.”

This territory spread over 40,000 square miles.

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A Short Overview of the Potawatomi Indians

The Potawatomi were one of several Algonquian-speaking Indian nations which inhabited the western portion of the Northeastern Woodlands culture area. Among the Algonquian-speaking people of the western Great Lakes area, farming was of secondary economic importance (hunting and gathering were of greater importance) and contributed less than half of their food. As with the other Indian farmers of the Northeast, they raised corn, beans, tobacco, and squash.

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Cherokee Spirituality

Among the Cherokee, spirituality (religion) was embedded into everyday life and was not seen as something apart. In her book Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835, historian Theda Perdue writes:

“The Cherokees did not separate spiritual and physical realms but regarded them as one, and they practiced their religion in a host of private daily observances as well as in public ceremonies.”

Cosmology refers to the concept of the general order of the universe. The cosmos was seen as being composed of three levels: The Upper World which was the domain of past time and predictability and which was represented by fire; the Under World which controlled the future and change and which was associated with water; and This World which was the domain of human beings who mediate between the Upper World and the Lower World.

In This World, human beings do not have dominion over plants, animals, and the rest of creation. Instead, they live with creation, attempting to maintain balance within This World. Spiritual power can be found throughout creation. Thus plants and animals have spiritual power, as do rivers, caves, mountains, and other land forms. In their book The Columbia Guide to American Indians of the Southeast, Theda Perdue and Michael Green report:

“These features served as mnemonic devices to remind them of the beginning of the world, the spiritual forces that inhabited it, and their responsibilities to it.”

Sacred Fire

One of the common elements of the spirituality among the Indians of the Southeast is the sacred fire as a symbol of purity and the earthly representative of the sun. Among the Cherokees, the fire and the sun were viewed as old women. Out of respect, the fire was fed a portion of each meal, for if she were neglected she might take vengeance on them.

While the sacred fire represents the sun and the Upper World, water (especially water in springs and rivers) represents the Under World. Among the Cherokee, it is important to keep these two elements apart and therefore water is never poured on the sacred fire.

For the Cherokee, the sacred fire is seen as a grandmother and is human in thought, emotions, consciousness, and intent. Anthropologist Peter Nabokov, in his book Where the Lightning Strikes: The Lives of American Indian Sacred Places, writes:

“Fire was the medium of transformation, turning offerings into gifts for spiritual intercessors for the four quarters of the earth.”

The sacred fires are fed with the wood from the seven sacred trees: beech, birch, hickory, locust, maple, oak, and sourwood.

Balance

Among the Southeastern tribes, such as the Cherokee, the idea of balance is important. There is a spiritual view that the world is a system of groups which oppose and balance one another. In her book Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835, historian Theda Perdue says:

“In this belief system, women balanced men just as summer balanced winter, plants balanced animals, and farming balanced hunting.”

Illness and Healing

It was believed that illness was caused primarily by animals. Thus healing also had to come from animals. In his book A Law of Blood: The Primitive Law of the Cherokee Nation, John Reid reports:

“All human diseases were imposed by animals in revenge for killing and each species had invented a disease with which to plague man.”

The fish and reptiles, for example, would retaliate against humans by sending bad dreams that would cause them to lose their appetite, sicken, and die. To prevent disease, hunters would apologize to the animals which they killed and explain their great need.

Purity

An important concept in Southeastern Indian spirituality is that of purity. Maintaining purity involves the avoidance of pollution. Pollution occurs when things from two different categories – such as fire and water – are allowed to physically mix. Thus the maintenance of purity involves the separation of opposing forces or items.

One of the ways of overcoming pollution is to bathe early in the morning before eating any food. Among the Southeastern tribes, everyone went to the river in the morning to bathe. This ceremonial bathing was done year-round, even when the bathers had to break the ice on the river.

Green Corn Ceremony

One of the important ceremonies among the people of the Southeastern Woodlands was the Green Corn Ceremony or puskita (which became Busk in English) which was an expression of gratitude for a successful corn crop. The ceremony was held after the harvest and was a time for renewing life. Old fires were put out, the villages were cleaned, and worn pottery was broken. This was a time of forgiveness: debts, grudges, and adultery were forgiven. According to Theda Perdue and Michael Green:

“Held when the crop first became edible, the Green Corn Ceremony celebrated both the crop and the communitarian ethic that shaped their lives.”

The Green Corn Ceremony was also associated with the quest for spiritual purity. Fasting – one of the principle ways of attaining purity – was an important element in the ceremony.

Sacred Places

Land often has special spiritual significance for Indian people. Among the Cherokee there are a group of spirits known as the Immortals who are invisible, except when they want to be seen. The Immortals have town houses within the mountains, and especially within the bald mountains (those mountains on whose peaks no timber grows). The Immortals like to drum and dance. The rumbling coming from the mountains is evidence of the drumming and dancing of the Immortals within the mountains.

The Cherokee view the Little Tennessee River as a benevolent spirit whose head rests in the Great Smokies and whose feet touch the Tennessee River. According to anthropologist Peter Nabokov:

“For Cherokee who bathed in his body, who drank from him and invoked his curative powers, the Long Man always helped them out.”

Nabokov also writes:

“At every critical turn in a man’s life, the river’s blessings were imparted through the ‘going to the water’ rite, which required prayers that were lent spiritual force with ‘new water’ from free-flowing streams.”

The Traditional Cherokee Family

When the Europeans began their invasion of the Americas, the Cherokees were an agricultural people whose villages could be found throughout the American Southeast. Cherokee families were based on matrilineal clans. Matrilineal clans are extended family groups with names, tradition, and oral history. Membership in each clan is through the mother: you belong to your mother’s clan. To be without a clan was to be without human identity. The clan is also exogamous, which means people cannot marry a person from their own clan.

With regard to the Cherokee family, historian John Finger, in his book The Eastern Band of Cherokees 1819-1900, says:

“Most incomprehensible of all to non-Indians was the Cherokee family system.”

With regard to inheritance, the matrilineal system meant that children did not inherit from their fathers. Instead, men had a special relationship with their nephews – their sisters’ children – as these were members of their clan.

Folklorist George Lankford, in his book Native American Legends: Southeastern Legends: Tales from the Natchez, Caddo, Biloxi, Chickasaw, and Other Nations, writes:

“Another consequence of matrilineality, which both outraged and delighted Europeans, was that unmarried women were free to seek pleasure or children from anyone they chose.”

The Clans

The Cherokee had seven clans:

  • Blue: (A ni sa ho ni) Also known as the Panther or Wild Cat clan
  • Long Hair: (A ni gi lo hi) The Peace Chief was usually from this clan
  • Bird: (A ni tsi s kwa)
  • Paint: (A ni wo di) Many of the medicine people were from this clan
  • Deer: (A ni ka wi)
  • Wild Potato: (A ni ga to ge wi) Also known as the Bear, Racoon, or Blind Savannah clan
  • Wolf: (A ni wa yah) Many war chiefs came from this clan

Looking at the Cherokee clans from a legal perspective, law professor John Reid, in his book A Law of Blood: The Primitive Law of the Cherokee Nation, reports:

“Clanship was the most fundamental of all Cherokee legal rights. Membership was too exact to be legally challenged.”

Fathers had no official relationship to their children because their children belonged to a different clan. Fathers might love their children and provide them with some care, but still the children belonged to the mother’s clan. A father did not have the right to punish his children. In fact, if a father were to harm his children, the children’s clan (that is, the clan of their mother) could hold him responsible.

The traditional roles of uncles—more specifically, the mother’s brothers—was very important in Cherokee culture. Law professor John Reid writes:

“Avuncular responsibility was the keystone of Cherokee education. So too was avuncular authority.”

For a young boy, this meant that the most important men in his childhood were his uncles, not his father. In her book Seven Clans of the Cherokee Society, Marcelina Reed writes:

“The primary responsibility for discipline and instruction in hunting and warfare rested not with the child’s father but with his maternal uncle.”

Law professor John Reid puts it this way:

“The uterine uncle was, by necessity of law as well as social custom, the disciplinary and tutorial authority in the family.”

If there was no blood uncle, then another male from the mother’s clan would assume these duties (known as a classificatory uncle).

Marriage

Among the Cherokee, individuals were not allowed to marry members of their own clan or members of their father’s clan. They were, however, encouraged to marry members of their maternal grandfather’s clan or their paternal grandfather’s clan. In general, marriage was regulated by the women of the village.

Marriage was not seen as a binding contract and divorce was common. In his book The Qualla Cherokee: Surviving in Two Worlds, sociologist Laurence French writes:

“Monogamous marriages were of short duration among the early Cherokee with some sources suggesting that it was not unusual for individuals to change spouses as frequently as three or four times a year.”

In their book The Columbia Guide to American Indians of the Southeast, Theda Perdue and Michael Green report:

“When marriages dissolved, husbands simply left their wives and children, who were not blood relatives, and returned to the houses of their mothers and sisters.”

In examining the non-Indian notion that Cherokee girls could be required to marry someone, law professor John Reid writes:

“Cherokee marriage was not binding on either husband or wife, and to imagine that a girl could be compelled to wed ignores the fact that no relative—neither her mother, her uncles, nor her brothers—exercise compulsory authority over her.”

Cherokee men often married women from outside of their own village. The men were expected to live in their wives’ village (matrilocal residence).

Premarital chastity was unusual and there were no cultural prohibitions against fornication or adultery.

Among the Cherokee, a widow was encouraged to marry the brother of her deceased husband. Similarly, a widower was expected to marry the sister of his deceased wife.

The Cherokee wedding ceremony was brief and simple. According to Grace Steele Woodward, in her book The Cherokees:

“The ritual merely entailed the exchange of gifts, in lieu of vows, between a bride and her groom, and lasted but half an hour.”

Children and Birthing

With regard to Cherokee child birth, historian Theda Perdue, in her book Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835, reports:

“During delivery, a woman stood, knelt, or sat, but she never gave birth lying down. Usually no one bothered to catch the baby, who simply fell on leaves beneath the mother.”

It was a good omen if the child fell on its back and a bad omen if the child fell on its breast.

Among the Cherokee as well as the other tribes, deformed infants were simply abandoned in the woods. Infanticide was used as a means for controlling population growth. Among the Cherokee, however, only the mother had the right to abandon a child.