In 1990, President George H.W. Bush approved a resolution designating November as National American Indian Heritage Month. Each year since 1994, the same types of proclamations have been made, including this year, when President Donald Trump announced November as Native American History Month. This is a time to learn more about and appreciate the many cultures our country has seen, including the original inhabitants of our land. In this multi-part blog series, we’ll take a look at the history, heritage, and culture of Native Americans and learn why they’re so important to the history–as well as the present and future–of the United States. Our first installment will focus on the history of Native Americans and key events that occurred along the way.
Native American tribes residing in our country have always faced challenges, dating back to the 1500s and 1600s, beginning when Christopher Columbus first stepped foot on what is now America and continuing as a seemingly never-ending stream of explorers arrived on their land with the intent of colonizing. In some cases, the native tribes got along well with their new visitors–in many others, violence and bloodshed often occurred.
1492: Relations did not get off to an ideal start upon Columbus’ arrival. Thinking he had reached the East Indies, Columbus called the indigenous people “Indians” and immediately enslaved a half dozen natives as servants.
1539-1540: Hernando de Soto, a Spanish explorer and conquistador, arrives in Florida to take over the region. He captures several Native Americans and uses them to guide his way around the land. About a year and a half later, de Soto and many other Spaniards arrive in Alabama and are ambushed by Native Americans, with hundreds of natives dying in the battle.
1607-1622: During this period of time, Pocohontas’ brother kidnaps Captain John Smith from Jamestown and is threatened by Chief Powhatan, Pocahontas’ father. Six years later, Pocahontas is kidnapped by Captain Samuel Argall during the first Anglo-Powhatan War. During her time in captivity, Pocohontas learns to speak English, converts to Christianity, and adopts the identity of a girl named Rebecca. Finally, in 1622, the Powhatan Confederacy nearly destroyed the entire colony of Jamestown.
1754, 1756: The French and Indian War begins in 1754, with the two sides joining forces to battle the English. Just two years later, in 1756, Native Americans once again help the French in the fight against the British, this time in the Seven Years’ War.
1763: In Detroit, Ottawa Chief Pontiac leads Native American forces against the British yet again. In what is known as the Battle of Bloody Run, the British counterattack just two months later in Detroit. Though Chief Pontiac and his forces are able to fend off the British, major casualties are suffered on both sides.
1791: Conversely, the Cherokee sign another treaty just six years later, the Treaty of Holston, that requires the Cherokee to give up all the land outside of the previously established borders.
1794: In summer of 1794, the Battle of Timbers begins, the final battle of the Northwest Territory between Native Americans and the United States following the Revolutionary War. The US claims victory.
1812: President James Madison declares war against Britain, a battle that will involve US forces against the British, French, and Native Americans over territory expansion and independence.
1814: In a devastating blow to the Creek Indians, Andrew Jackson along with Native American allies attack the Creek who opposed American expansion into their territory during the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. After this battle, the Creek surrender more than 20 million acres of the land after their loss.
1831: Now-President Andrew Jackson signs the Indian Removal Act, which gives Native Americans pieces of land west of the Mississippi River in exchange for land that was taken from them.
1836: In yet another crushing defeat, the last of the Creek Indians leave their land to head to Oklahoma as part of the Indian removal process. Approximately 15,000 Creeks make the journey, but more than 3,000 die along the way.
1838: One of the most tragic events in Native American history occurs when President Martin Van Buren calls upon General Winfield Scott and thousands of his troops to forcibly remove the remaining Cherokee Indians from their land in Georgia. During this act, the Native Americans are held at gunpoint and forced to trudge 1,200 miles; not surprisingly, more than 5,000 Cherokees die during the march…one of the relocation events known today as the Trail of Tears.
1851: In yet another attack on the rights of Native Americans, Congress passes the Indian Appropriations Act, thus creating the Indian reservation system. This essentially forces Native Americans to stay on their reservations; they must receive permission to leave.
1860: A tribe of Apache Native Americans attacks and kidnaps a White American. This leads to false allegations by the US military that Cochise, the Native American leader of the Chiricahua Apache tribe, was the mastermind. In revenge, Cochise and the Apache increasingly attack White Americans for the next decade.
1876: In perhaps the most important–and most famous–battle among Native Americans and White Americans, the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull defeat Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of Little Bighorn…also known as Custer’s Last Stand. Because of the casualties Custer and his troops suffered, tensions increase between the two sides.
1879: In an effort to assimilate Native American students, Civil War veteran Richard Henry Pratt opens the Carlisle Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania–the first off-reservation boarding school in the country.
1887: The intent of the Dawes Act was good, but ultimately this act signed by President Grover Cleveland cost Native Americans 86 million acres of land. The law itself gave the president the power to divide up reservation land among individuals, which led to extra land being sold to White investors. But the act was designed to help assimilate Native Americans into White American culture by steering them away from the reservation and into established communities.
1890: Ghost Dancers, led by Chief Big Foot, are surrounded by US Armed Forces by Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota and instructed to give up their weapons. The Ghost Dancers did not oblige this request, leading to a battle that cost 150 Native Americans and 25 US cavalrymen their lives in the Wounded Knee Massacre.
1907: In a sign of significant progress among Native Americans in White America, Charles Curtis becomes the first Native American U.S. Senator. Further, Senator Curtis becomes the first Native American Vice President of the United States after being selected by President Herbert Hoover in 1929.
1924: A major milestone for Native Americans, the Indian Citizenship Act is passed by Congress, granting citizenship to all Native Americans born within the territorial limits of the country. No longer were Native Americans excluded from citizenship because of their percentage of Indian ancestry, veteran status, or gender.
Of course, these are just some of the many notable events that have shaped the history of Native Americans. To learn more about what Native Americans are facing today, including how the COVID-19 crisis is impacting the Native American community, visit Native Partnership, a nonprofit organization that serves the needs of these communities every day through education, emergency services, and so much more.
And, of course, check out Elephango, our education partner with plenty more resources on the history of Native Americans! Stay tuned for the next part of our series celebrating Native American History Month!