The Declaration of Independence gives a classic affirmation of Human Rights:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Despite this declaration, the history of Native Americans in the United States has often involved denial of these rights.
What follows is a brief list of some of the historical milestones in the struggle of Native Americans to achieve civil liberties within the United States. Although this background information is helpful, your ability to comprehend the essentials—Main Idea, Detail, Inference—from what you are given to read is more important for answering questions than tapping into an encyclopedic memory.
Before European Contact
10,000 BC Native Americans originate from a migration of people from Siberia to Alaska over a land bridge, which is now the Bering Sea.
10,000 BC to 1492 Native Americans form numerous distinct tribes throughout North America. The tribal economies often focus on community-wide sharing of the proceeds of hunting and agriculture.
After European Contact
1492 Christopher Columbus “discovers” America (landing in the Caribbean). Believing he has discovered a western passage to India, Columbus is credited with calling Native Americans “Indians.” (This story of the naming of Indians may or may not be true.) The population of Native Americans has been estimated to be as low as two million to as high as eighteen million at this time.
1500 – 1900 Epidemic. Although external warfare (with European colonists), internal warfare (between tribes), enslavement, and intermarriage are all contributing factors, death by epidemic is the main factor in a sharp decline in the Native-American population. The epidemics brought by largely unaffected, previously immune European colonists include but are not limited to smallpox, typhus, cholera, measles, mumps, and whooping cough. By 1890, the Native-American population is reduced to 250,000.
1607 According to history and/or legend, the Native American Princess Pocahontas saves Captain John Smith from death at the hands of her father Chief Powhatan in Jamestown, Virginia.
1614 Pocahontas marries John Rolfe in the first recorded interracial marriage. She later gives birth to his child and converts to Christianity.
1754 – 1763 French and Indian War (Seven Years’ War). Many Native Americans fight with the French against the British in an effort to preserve hunting grounds and thwart British expansion.
1775 – 1783 Revolutionary War. After the American colonists win, the Treaty of Paris assigns Native-American territory to the newly formed United States without
Native-American consultation or permission.
1789 Correspondence between President George Washington and Secretary of War George Knox reveals a desire to “civilize” Indians via missionaries, while also dealing with Indians via treaties and military means.
1804 Native American Sacagawea accompanies and assists Lewis and Clark on their expedition.
1812 Chief Tecumseh’s Shawnee tribe sides with the British in the War of 1812 in an effort to halt westward expansion of American settlers.
1824 Office of Indian Affairs created as a division within the War Department.
1830 Indian Removal Act. Signed by President Andrew Jackson, this act amounts to ethnic cleansing by providing for the removal of Native-American tribes east of the Mississippi River to reservations west of that river.
1838 Trail of Tears. Thousands of Cherokee Indians die in forced march from Georgia to Oklahoma.
1845 The term “Manifest Destiny” is coined by journalist John L. O’Sullivan to advocate the expansion of white settlers across the American continent.
1876 Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Colonel Custer’s U.S. cavalry regiment is wiped out by Chief Sitting Bull’s Sioux Indians.
1890 Lakota Indians are massacred at Battle of Wounded Knee, ending over a century of “Indian Wars” between westward-expanding white settlers and Native-American resisters.
1890 Indian Boarding Schools, established by the United States government, attempt to “Christianize” and assimilate Native Americans. Some of these schools traumatize Native Americans mentally, physically, and sexually.
1924 Indian Citizenship Act. Grants citizenship to all Native Americans.
1941 – 1945 World War II. Many Native Americans serve in WWII, including the famous Code Talkers. As a result of the war, many Native Americans also end up relocating from reservations to cities.
1947 Office of Indian Affairs renamed Bureau of Indian Affairs under the Department of the Interior. Over ensuing years, its duties evolve to include administering 55 million acres of land held in trust for 566 federally recognized tribes.
1968 Indian Civil Rights Act. Applies the Bill of Rights to members of Indian tribes.
1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. Responding to the Civil Rights movement and Native-American activism, this Congressional Act gives Native Americans the right to self-determination and self-government.
1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Establishes rules and regulations for gaming enterprises, including casinos, under the auspices of Native-American tribes.
2009 President Barack Obama signs an official apology, introduced by Native American Senator Sam Brownback, for “past ill-conceived policies” by the U.S. government toward Native Americans.
2020 According to the 2020 Census, 9.7 million people identify as having some Native-American ancestry, of which 3.7 million people identify as having Native-American ancestry alone. The Census also reports that the Native-American population is growing.
Speech by Chief Powhatan to Captain John Smith
1 I am now grown old and must soon die, and the succession must descend in order, to my brothers, Opitchapam, Opechancanough, and Kekataugh, and then to my two sisters, and their two daughters.
2 I wish their experience was equal to mine, and that your love to us might not be not be less than ours to you. Why should you take by force that from us which you can have by love? Why should you destroy us who have provided you with food? What can you get by war? We can hide our provisions and fly into the woods. And then you must consequently famish by wrongdoing your friends.
3 What is the cause of your jealousy? You see us unarmed and willing to supply your wants if you come in a friendly manner; not with swords and guns as to invade an enemy. I am not so simple as not to know that it is better to eat good meat, lie well, and sleep quietly with my women and children; to laugh and be merry with the English, and, being their friend, to have copper, hatchets, and whatever else I want, than to fly from all, to lie cold in the woods, feed upon acorns, roots and such trash, and to be so hunted that I cannot rest, eat, or sleep. In such circumstances, my men must watch, and if a twig should but break, all would cry out, “Here comes Captain Smith.” And so, in this miserable manner to end my miserable life. And, Captain Smith, this might soon be your fate too through your rashness and unadvisedness.
4 I, therefore, exhort you to peaceable councils, and above all I insist that the guns and swords, the cause of all our jealousy and uneasiness, be removed and sent away.
Practice – Questions
1. Chief Powhatan addressed the above speech to Captain John Smith, leader of British colonists in Virginia, in 1607. Which of the following can you infer from this speech?
A. The British colonists seemed completely friendly to the Native Americans.
B. The Native Americans were tired.
C. The Native Americans were starving.
D. The British colonists were perceived as a threat by the Native Americans.
2. What is the main idea of this passage?
A. The first Thanksgiving is just around the corner.
B. Food is scarce.
C. Chief Powhatan and his tribe want to live in peace with the British colonists.
D. Chief Powhatan and his tribe wants to make war with the British colonists.
3. It is better to:
A. sleep quietly
4. Chief Powhatan would prefer not to:
A. have copper
B. be merry
C. eat good meat
D. feed upon acorns
5. Which of the following is implied by the passage?
A. Let’s all sing “Kumbaya.”
B. If the British colonists fight, the Native Americans will fight back.
C. Jealousy is a virtue.
D. There isn’t enough to go around.
Practice – Answers
1. D. The British colonists were perceived as a threat by the Native Americans.
2. C. Chief Powhatan and his tribe want to live in peace with the British colonists.
3. A. sleep quietly
4. D. feed upon acorns
5. B. If the British colonists fight, the Native Americans will fight back.