Reflection on Native Peoples of North America

Since the semester is almost a third of the way finished, my professor thought it would be important to reflect on what we have learned in class up to this point. It seems as though the semester is flying by, and I have learned so much that it is difficult to try and combine all this information into one cohesive picture. So far in class, we have learned about four tribes from slightly different regions of the world: the Netsilik, Chipewyan (Dene), Kootenai, and Tlingit. These tribes settled starting in the Arctic with the Netsilik and ending on the Northwest Coast with the Tlingit.

Map of Native American Regions and Tribes

Map of Native American Regions and Tribes

During historic times, population sizes in these groups ranged from several hundred to several thousands, depending on the location. In looking at and comparing the subsistence patterns, religious practices, and social organization of these tribes, one of the key things that I have noticed is how much the environment has a great effect on the people that live in it.

For example, we began our investigation of Native American tribes with the Netsilik (also referred to as Eskimo/Inuit), a group of people who likely numbered around 700 at the time of first contact with Europeans. These people lived in arguably the harshest climate with very few natural resources, main ones being Caribou, soapstone, and seal. As a result, the Netsilik were very familiar with starvation, a possibility that was largely out of their control. These environmental circumstances had a great influence on how the Netsilik viewed life, their food, and each other. Due to the scarcity of game, the Netsilik had a large amount of religious taboos surrounding the animals that they hunted, specifically seals. When hunting seals, one was expected to follow a particular procedure which involved pacifying the soul of the seal. These taboos were an attempt to regain control over their food supply when in reality the Netsilik had very little control over whether they survived or starved. This environmental influence can also be seen in the social structure of the Netsilik. In general, there was very little social stratification among these people, and resources were shared freely between family members. Families often had hunting partners, and the tribe hunted as a group to increase the likelihood of having success. This egalitarian lifestyle with resource sharing was to ensure that as many people as possible survived because the Netsilik realized that it was impossible to survive on one’s own in the unforgiving climate of the Arctic. Finally, we see this environmental influence reflected in the Netsilik’s views of life and their subsequent actions. For example, it was not uncommon for one member of the tribe to be killed by another, if that member was making trouble or endangering the community. Additionally, female infanticide was a somewhat common practice among the Netsilik. Rather than showing a disregard for human life, these actions reflect the way in which the Netsilik responded to the environment that they lived in. For these people, working together was very important for survival. As such, anyone who threatened this group cohesion also threatened the lives of the members of the group, requiring a seemingly drastic action to ensure that the group survived. On the other hand, men provided more of the food supply through hunting than women, making male infants more essential to survival than female infants. Due to the limited food supply, it was difficult to support many children and it was sometimes deemed necessary to kill an infant if a family was not able to support it. All of these practices were deemed necessary for survival and were adopted as a result of the limited resources and unpredictable hardships that the Arctic provided.

Netsilik eating frozen fish

Netsilik eating frozen fish

This connection between environment and lifestyle became very obvious when comparing the Netsilik to the Tlingit, who reside in the Northwest Coast of North America. In this region, game and natural resources are plentiful and diverse, ranging from salmon to berries to sea and land mammals. As opposed to the Netsilik, the Tlingit had fairly large numbers, potentially as high as 10,000 before European contact. Even with their large population size, the Tlingit did not struggle with starvation and were able to feed their families through numerous subsistence activities which took place mainly in the spring and summer. This seasonal pattern allowed for more leisure time in the winter when they used food reserves to feed the tribe. This surplus of resources can be seen in the Tlingit religious activities which were very different from that of the Netsilik. One of the most noticeable differences was that there were very little taboos surrounding their main food source, salmon. This was likely the case because for the Tlingit, there had never been the possibility that the salmon would not be there, as there often was with the seals and caribou in the Arctic. Thus, the Tlingit did not have to worry as much about whether they would be able to find food because of the availability and diversity of resources in their environment, manifesting in a difference in religious emphasis. This environmental difference is also reflected in the Tlingit’s social structure which was much more elaborate than the Netsilik. Among the Tlingit, individuals had the capacity to gain social status within their family and community. Social status was based on age, wealth, and skill, with the hierarchy ranging from the wealthy and aristocrats on top to the commoners and slaves on the bottom. This type of social stratification was unheard of with the Netsilik community and was likely derived from the surplus of resources that the Tlingit had available to them. Through this comparison, it becomes clear that where one lives can have a great effect on one’s social life, religious beliefs, and community organization.

Two Tlingit women with children

Two Tlingit women with children

I believe that this connection between environment and lifestyle is important because it allows outsiders to understand to some degree why certain groups act and live the way that they do. Looking back on Native American history, there has been a long tradition of cultural disconnect with both sides misunderstanding one another. In particular, European settlers often saw the way that Native Americans lived as barbaric and wrong without grasping the meaning behind their actions. While their viewpoint were clouded by their own beliefs and traditions, Europeans were not able to see how the environment and context in which Native peoples lived shaped how their society functioned in order to survive. Thus, some of the practices that they deemed savage were merely practical and logical ways to ensure that the community as a whole would survive. This cultural disconnect led to many Europeans making assumptions about the thoughts and ideas behind actions without consulting Native Americans themselves. Consequently, Europeans saw Native Americans as inferior or child-like and believed that they needed to teach them to act and live the “right” way. Many problems between Europeans and Native Americans resulted from this inability to understand the circumstances, thoughts, and beliefs behind American Indians’ way of life.

This insight is crucial for improving modern relations between Native Americans and Non-Native Americans. Even in modern times, it has often been the case that the federal government makes decisions about the Native American lifestyle without consulting Native Americans or fully understanding their situation. This kind of legislature, although well-intentioned, is ultimately ineffective. It is important when interacting with people of different cultures to understand where they are coming from and the reasons behind their actions. It is also necessary to look beyond the superficial to the morals, beliefs, and circumstances that guide the way that people conduct themselves. This kind of understanding would allow both parties to see where the other is coming from and would make negotiations and interactions much more productive and beneficial. I believe that classes like the one that I am taking would be a good resource in teaching about Native American culture as well as learning by visiting and interacting with modern Native Americans. True learning can come only from observing and interacting with modern American Indians.

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