8 Incredible Inventions of the Indigenous People of the Americas

8 Incredible Inventions of the Indigenous People of the Americas

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History Countdown: From goggles to kayaks and much more, these are eight inventions of American Indigenous people that will never be forgotten.

8 Ways to Decolonize and Honor Native Peoples on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving, like Columbus Day, serves as a reminder of the genocide and violence Native communities experienced and continue to experience. Learn about Thanksgiving and early colonial history from Native perspectives.

The United States has ratified more than 370 treaties with Native American Nations. Yet, many Americans know little about the treaties that shaped and continue to impact the country today. Learn more here.

In honor of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, signed on September 17, 1851 between United States treaty commissioners and representatives of the Cheyenne, Sioux, Arapaho, Crow, Assiniboine, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nations, the campaign taps music fans and supporters of Indigenous rights and culture in an effort to raise awareness of the wisdom in upholding and honoring treaties made with Native Nations. Learn more here.

2. Decolonize Your Dinner.
Native chefs have created a culinary movement with the goal of getting Indigenous people to honor their ancestors through their dietary choices. Bring Native American dishes to the dinner table.

3. Listen to Indigenous Voices.
It was the Wampanoag People, the People of the First Light, that encountered the Pilgrims when they arrived in Turtle Island from Europe in 1620. Since 1863, Thanksgiving has been celebrated as a national holiday in the United States, mythologizing the violent events that followed European arrival into a story of friendship and mutual sharing. But the reality is that the Wampanoags’ generosity was met with genocide, and this truth has been systematically suppressed in the US education system, government, and popular culture. Listen to an interview with Cedric Cromwell, the Tribal Council Chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Nation.

4. #StandwithMashpee

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe are calling on members of Congress to help “protect the statute of reservation” after the Trump Administration overturned an Obama era decision that could see their land taken from them. This marks the first time that Native land has been taken out of trust since the “Termination Era” of the 1940-60s, a huge blow to Indigenous sovereignty. Stand with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe by calling your representatives to pass HR 5244, THE MASHPEE WAMPANOAG TRIBE RESERVATION REAFFIRMATION ACT.

5. Celebrate Native People.

  • Come to our Cultural Survival Bazaars and support Native artists on
    15-16 and 21-23. www.bazaar.cs.org FREE ADMISSION

December 21-23, 2018
Prudential Center
Enter at the corner of Huntington Ave. and Belvidere St.
800 Boylston Street
Boston, MA 02199

The Mayans

El Castillo, at Chichen Itza. Image credit: Daniel Schwen/Wikimedia.org

Do you think the Egyptians were the only ones to build pyramids? Think again, because in the Americas, indigenous people built pyramids of their own. Along with the Aztecs, the Mayans are also well-known for the pyramids that adorned their cities. In fact, they were building pyramids, not to mention other amazing buildings, at the same time Europe was in the midst of the Dark Ages. The Mayan homeland encompassed what is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. In addition to their great buildings, the Mayans were also quite advanced in mathematics and astronomy. By the year 900 CE, however, the great Mayan civilization had all but collapsed, and to this day, scholars struggle to figure out why.

First Encounters in the Americas

When two people meet for the first time, each takes stock of the other, often focusing on differences. Scholar Martha Minow warns that difference always “implies a reference: difference from whom? I am no more different from you than you are from me. A short person is different only in relation to a tall one a Spanish-speaking student is different in relation to an English-speaking one. But the point of comparison is often unstated.” 1 By identifying unstated points of comparison, we can examine the relationships between those who have the power to assign labels of difference and those who lack that power.

The first meetings between Europeans and the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas 2 illustrate Minow’s argument. Historians Peter Carroll and David Noble describe those encounters:

[On] an otherwise ordinary autumn day shortly after sunrise, the Arawak inhabitants of the Caribbean Islands noticed strange ships sailing on the horizon, much larger than their dugout canoes. As these ships moved closer and closer, they saw strange-looking people with light skins aboard, making odd gestures. The Arawak youths stood at the banks hesitantly, and then some of the braver men began swimming toward the mysterious boats.

These strangers offered the Arawak red-colored caps, glass beads, and other curious trifles. In exchange, the Arawak brought parrots, cotton skeins, darts, and other items. Then the strangers drew out swords, which the Arawak, in ignorance, grasped by the blades, cutting themselves. It was a symbolic act, this inadvertent drawing of blood. For the Arawak and the strangers looked at the world from opposite angles, and both were fascinated by what the other was not. 3

To the Arawak, the newcomers were so obviously different in language, dress, and color that the Arawak doubted that the Europeans were human beings. “They believe very firmly,” wrote Christopher Columbus after his first voyage to the Americas, “that I, with these ships and people, came from the sky.” 4 Other Indigenous Peoples reacted in similar ways to their first encounters with Europeans.

Columbus and other Europeans had their own misconceptions. They mistakenly believed that the Arawak were “Indians.” Carroll and Noble write:

This misconception originated in Columbus’s basic error (which he himself never realized) in thinking that in sailing westward from Europe he had reached the Indies [in Asia], which were the true object of his voyage. To Columbus, it was literally inconceivable that he had found previously unknown lands. Like other Europeans of his time, he believed firmly in the completeness of human knowledge. What he saw, therefore, he incorporated into his existing worldview, and the Native Americans thereby became, to the satisfaction of most Europeans, simply Indians. 5

In describing the “Indians,” Europeans focused not on who they were but on who they were not. They then went on to describe what the Indigenous Peoples did not have. Amerigo Vespucci, for whom the Americas are named, described the “Indians” as neither Muslims nor Jews. He noted that they were “worse than heathen because we did not see that they offered any sacrifice, nor yet did they have a house of prayer.” John Winthrop, an Englishman who helped found the Massachusetts Bay Colony, justified his claims to the Indigenous Peoples’ land by arguing that they did not mark their ownership of it in ways that Europeans recognized. He wrote that they “enclose no land, neither have they any settled habitations, nor any tame cattle.” 6

To many newcomers, the Indigenous Peoples were not only “backward” but also dangerous. In historian Ronald Takaki’s words, “They represented what English men and women in America thought they were not—and, more important, what they must not become.” 7 Colonial leaders warned that colonists must strictly adhere to the laws and moral guidelines that defined their communities otherwise they would allow themselves to become “Indianized.” Increasingly, “to be ‘Indianized’ meant to serve the Devil.” It also meant to be “decivilized, to become wild men.” 8 After all, the English viewed "Indians" as people living outside of “civilization.”

Such ideas were rooted at least in part in religious beliefs. As Carroll and Noble point out in their description of Spanish explorers,

Europeans in the age of Columbus saw themselves as Christians, the most spiritually pure people in creation. This ethnocentric idea found reinforcement in the ideals of the Roman Catholic Church, which claimed to be a universal spiritual community. Yet this ideology clearly excluded such religiously different people as Muslims, against whom Christians had waged holy wars for centuries, and Jews, who remained outsiders throughout European society. Believing in a single unitary religion, members of the Catholic Church viewed [nonbelievers] as suitable either for conversion to the true faith or worthy only of death or enslavement. Such religious attitudes shaped the Europeans’ relations with Africans as well as Native Americans. 9

Such attitudes were not limited to Europeans who were Catholic. They were shared by Protestants as well.

Relations between the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas and the Europeans were also shaped by the fierce competition among European nations for wealth and power. As Europeans took control of more and more of the Americas, millions of Indigenous People were killed. Countless others were pushed into the interior of both continents. Still others were forced into slavery.

American Indian History and Heritage

Since 1990, Congress has authorized an annual presidential proclamation that designates November as National American Indian Heritage Month to encourage all people to learn about the contributions and cultures of the indigenous peoples of the North American continent. Such recognition, however, dates back further with state and organizational recognition of indigenous peoples days and commemorations occurring at the turn of the twentieth century. For example, Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca Indian and co-founder of the Society of American Indians in 1911, organized American Indian Day beginning in 1915. More recently, Columbus Day, which is recognized on the second Monday of October, has been reclaimed in cities across the United States as Indigenous People's Day.

This Teacher's Guide will introduce you to the cultures and explore the histories of some groups within the over 5 million people who identify as American Indian in the United States, with resources designed for integration across humanities curricula and classrooms throughout the school year.

Guiding Questions

Who made up the first civilizations on the North American continent?

What role did indigenous Americans play in the shaping of the United States?

Where and how do indigenous Americans live today?

How have the languages, culture, and arts of indigenous Americans been preserved and engaged across the United States?

The term “American Indian” was coined by the Columbus expedition when European explorers encountered human beings inhabiting the Antilles archipelago in 1492. When possible and if known, indigenous people should be referred to as belonging to a particular tribe. For the first century of the United States, the term “American Indian” was used to denote indigenous people, while “Native American” was a term that Anglo-Saxon Protestants claimed for themselves during waves of European and East Asian immigration during the 19th century. During the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, however, indigenous people used the title Native American to remind the government of their existence in North American territory long before the establishment of the United States as a nation. This term, still used today interchangeably with “indigenous American,” excludes other indigenous people whose tribes have historically spanned across the present-day borders of Canada and Mexico. Thus, the most encompassing adjective to describe the native ethnicity is “indigenous,” but “Native American” is appropriate when describing the indigenous people living in what is now the United States.

The Federal Register recognizes 573 separate tribal entities living in the United States today. The more populous tribes include Cherokee (729,000+), Navajo (298,000+), and Choctaw (158,000+), with the Ute (10,000+), Yakama (10,000+) , and Cree (7,700+) listed among the less populous tribes. Some groups of indigenous people refer to themselves as a nation. A “people” can be used when referring to tribes that share the same language, have a similar culture, or inhabit the same geographic region of the continent.

Early localization and languages of American Indians.

Some terms used in the past that referred to indigenous Americans may be confusing or offensive. For instance, “aboriginal” is now mostly associated with the indigenous people of Australia. “First Nation” is generally used to denote indigenous Canadians. “Amerindian” or “Amerind” can be found in scholarly writing, but might be confusing elsewhere. Any term that promotes colorism, exoticism, racism, or inferiority should be avoided except where found in historical context.

For additional information on the importance of culturally-respectful terms, please read the American Historian article “What We Say Matters: The Power of Words in American and Indigenous Histories.”

In recent years, the National Endowment for the Humanities has funded preservation projects as part of its 50 State of Preservation initiative. Grantees such as the Ohio Historical Society have been working to preserve the cultures and histories of indigenous tribes still living and thriving in the U.S. Other NEH-funded projects, such as the Cahokia Mounds Museum Society’s Augmented Reality Project , will allow modern-day humans to experience pre-Columbian life as it once existed through digital reconstruction.

Monks Mound, Cahokia site (illustration ca. 1882).

The Institute of American Indian Arts provides courses that feature Native American culture at their center and as Ralph Canevali writes in the 2017 NEH blog article entitled " 50 States of Preservation: Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM ," the “IAIA is the only multi-tribal center of higher education in the United States dedicated solely to the preservation, study, creative application, and contemporary expression of Native American art and culture. To date, nearly 4,000 students have graduated from IAIA programs. ”

Similarly, the Woksape Tipi Archives in South Dakota, according to Leah Weinryb Grosghal's " 50 States of Preservation: Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, South Dakota," include “genealogy and business records, correspondence, minutes, and reports reveal aspects of Oglala family history and the story of the Oglala Lakota people. Newspapers, many of them local and not preserved elsewhere, cover events on the Pine Ridge Reservation during the occupation of Wounded Knee by the American Indian Movement.”

Although many indigenous populations in the Northeast are small today, they are still vibrant. The Tomaquag’s collections emphasize that indigenous people continue to influence their communities, making history, art, and culture, and contributing to the New England region.

Additionally, the NEH-funded project Indigenous Borderlands of the Chesapeake: The Lower Rappahannock Valley Landscape, 200-1850 produced Colonial Encounters . This website provides site maps, field photos, and images of artifacts from the Chesapeake area and can help students understand what early interactions between Native Americans and European settlers might have been like.

Mr. Tad Davis, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Environment, Safety and Occupational Health, Chief Anne Richardson and Ms. Wanda Fortune of the Rappahannock Tribe at the Camden property signing ceremony in June, 2009.

Currently, the NEH is supporting projects that will increase knowledge about sites such as the Bosque Redondo Memorial, which commemorates the removal of the Navajo and Mescalero Apache people from their homelands. It is important to note that many tribes in the U.S. do not inhabit their ancestors’ land, but land that the United States has assigned to them via treaty. Students can look up documents related to treaties in the National Archives , at the University of Wisconsin Special Collections , or by using EDSITEment's Investigating Local History to access online special collection archives provided state historical societies.

There are hundreds of Native American languages spoken in the United States today—74 in the state of California alone. As an older generation of speakers dies out, many languages run the risk of extinction. NEH supports First Nations Development Institute’s effort to preserve Native American languages through immersion classes for children and young adults . This Map of Indigenous American Cultures and Living Histories plots out specific language and tribal groups across the United States as they exist today.

Sequoyah, inventor of the Cherokee syllabary, 1836.

Recently, the Miami-Illinois Digital Archive created a dictionary that translates from Miami-Illinois to English, and vice versa. The Sam Noble Museum has collected artifacts and samples of over 175 Native American languages for educational use.The University of Hawai'i also made locating information and examples of the indigenous languages of the Pacific Ocean more streamlined in their NEH-supported project Making Pacific Language Materials Discoverable.

In partnership with the National Science Foundation, the NEH has funded the Documenting Endangered Languages project. This video from the National Science Foundation demonstrates how language researchers use new technology to listen to an indigenous language sample recorded at the beginning of the 20th century. You can learn more about how students in Oklahoma have engaged in preservation work by recording songs, oral histories, and conversations about traditional activities and their collaborations with experienced linguists to analyze the recorded speech.

To this day, Indigenous tribes cultivate spiritual and cultural relationships with their respective homelands. Ancestral ties to the land inform aspects of tribe identity and culture. While settler colonialism continues to threaten these enduring bonds to the landscape, tribes fight to sustain their community through tradition and activism. The displacement of American Indians and continued lack of recognition of rights to their homelands over time remains on the periphery of history.

National Parks

Dorothy Waugh, “His hunting ground of yesterday, National Parks,” ca. 1930

A critical examination of the institutional history of the National Park Service elucidates a trend of dispossession and displacement by the federal government. National Parks such as Yellowstone and Glacier provide the public with views of uninhabited nature. This interpretation ignores Indigenous tribes’ historical presence and contemporary ties with the land incorporated into the National Park Service.

Our Environmental Humanities Teacher’s Guide examines the history of Yellowstone National Park to trace the enduring intersection between the National Park Service and Indigenous land rights. The implications of federal policies that forcibly removed Indigenous tribes from their lands and eschewing of treaty rights that would allow Native Americans to continue traditional and cultural practices have yet to be fully addressed. Furthermore, the construction of National Parks reflects United States’ imperialism over Indigenous sovereign nations.

Burial Grounds

Native American burial grounds are sacred sites where tribal members participate in traditional rituals and pay respects to their ancestors. The arrival of Europeans and their encroachment onto Indigenous lands during the 18th and 19th centuries disturbed and destroyed these cultural sites. In 1838, profiteers excavated and commercialized the remains of prominent members of the Adena civilization from the Grave Creek Mound in West Virginia.

In other cases, white scholars at the turn of the 19th century attempted to erase connections between the mound complexes found in the city of Cahokia and Native American civilizations by promulgating the Myth of the Mound Builders.

This cartoon perpetuates the myth of "Moundbuilders," the people thought to be responsible for the numerous and diverse earthworks.

This narrative credited the mounds to an ancient race that inhabited North America and then eventually vanished. It perpetuated the belief that the “savagery” of Indigenous tribes deemed it impossible for them to be responsible for the construction of a landscape that required a higher level of civilization. The Myth of the Mound Builders justified the federal government’s policies of forcibly removing Native Americans from their ancestral lands.

In 1990, the federal government enacted the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), federal legislation which bans the illegal trafficking of Native American remains. The Act further requires federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return or repatriate stolen cultural items to descendants or affiliate communities.

Recently, protests over the construction of the Energy Transfer Partners’ Dakota Access Pipeline near Standing Rock Indian Reservation highlight concerns over the region’s water supply and the disruption of ancient burial grounds. Similarly, reactions to the Trump administration’s decision to reduce Bears Ears National Monument by 85% underscore the interest in protecting sacred burial sites from further encroachment by government entities.

NEH Resources

With support from the NEH, the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center & Museum offers visitors the opportunity to learn about Indigenous children of western tribes that lived and were educated at Stewart. The experiences revealed the resilience of the students and the adversity they faced. The museum resides on the homelands of the Great Basin tribes. The Cultural Center and Museum recognizes this ancestral connection by centering Indigenous experiences and acknowledging the importance of traditional ecological knowledge.

Hopi: Language of Place

The Hopi Tribe, a sovereign nation inhabiting over 1.5 million acres in northeastern Arizona, has a rich connection with the environment that pervades their culture and language. The reverence the Hopi have for corn cultivation is apparent in their art, poetry, songs, and dance celebrations.

Language of Place: Hopi Place Names, Poetry, Traditional Dance and Song , is a three-lesson ELA curriculum unit, which guides students’ exploration of Hopi language forms in order to help them to understand the Hopi’s centuries-old relationship with the land and the process of growing corn.

  • Lesson 1 uncovers the Hopi homeland through maps and place names. Students examine regional place names of their own home communities and create personal maps
  • Lesson 2 involves a close study of contemporary Hopi poet, Ramson Lomatewama. Students analyze how Lomatewama’s uses figurative language to describe his intimate relationship with the land
  • Lesson 3 pursues corn as a symbol manifested in Hopi song and traditional dances. Students analyze examples of these in order to expand their cultural awareness.

The foundation of a 21st-century American community is shared respect among individuals who come from different backgrounds, places, and experiences. Native Americans take that concept even further by valuing all the inhabitants of the earth and sky—animal, vegetable, mineral, and spirit. As first inhabitants of the United States, they model inclusiveness and diversity.

Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, a member of the Mvskoke (Creek) Nation, reminds us to pay attention to who we are and how we are connected to the world around us in her poem and the accompanying lesson for “Remember.” The companion lesson plan from EDSITEment’s and the Academy of American Poets’ Incredible Bridges project provides activities to use with students before, during, and after reading the poem.

As additional teaching resources, the Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan's "Trail of Tears: Our Removal" imagines her ancestors' feelings of displacement as they were moved onto reservations in the American West. Emphasizing the onomatopoeic pleasure of the Din é word for mud ( tł’ish), Naaneesht’ézhi Tábaahí ( Navajo) author Orlando White's poem "Muddy" is perfect for teaching sound devices in poetry.

History & Culture

The following section is organized by grade level and includes lessons and resources for history and social studies, literature and language arts, and arts and culture classrooms.

Grades K-5

Anishinabe/Ojibwe/Chippewa: Culture of an Indian Nation : While this lesson focuses on the history and culture of the Anishinabe/Ojibwe people, you can adapt the activities to a Native American tribe that has played an historical or contemporary role in your school's region or community.

Traditions and Languages of Three Native Cultures: Tlingit, Lakota, & Cherokee: In recent years, Native Americans are now encouraged to maintain aspects of their own cultures and languages. In this lesson, students will learn about three distinct tribes and discover the importance of preserving their legacies.

Images of the New World: In the absence of photography, Europeans brought back paintings to their home countries to share Native American customs and culture. Students will analyze similar depictions of the New World for accuracy.

Native American Cultures across the U.S.: This lesson teaches students about the First Americans in an accurate historical context while emphasizing their continuing presence and influence within the United States.

Grades 6-8

Not “Indians”, Many Tribes: Native American Diversity : In this unit, students will heighten their awareness of Native American diversity as they learn about three vastly different Native groups in a game-like activity using archival documents such as vintage photographs, traditional stories, photos of artifacts, and recipes.

Mission US: A Cheyenne Odyssey: It's 1866. You are Little Fox, a Northern Cheyenne boy. Can you help your people survive life on the plains?

Grades 9-12 and AP

Breaking Barriers: Race, Gender, and the U.S. Military: This EDSITEment and Smithsonian Learning Lab collection includes resources on teaching about the involvement of American Indians during the American Revolutionary War and questions to consider when investigating their continued involvement in the military through the 19th and 20th centuries.

Empire & Identity in the American Colonies : In this lesson students will examine the various visions of three active agents in the creation and management of Great Britain’s empire in North America – British colonial leaders and administrators, North American British colonists, and Native Americans.

Life on the Great Plains : In this four-part lesson, students examine the concept of geographic region by exploring the history of the Great Plains.

Native Americans and the American Revolution: In this lesson, students will analyze maps, treaties, congressional records, firsthand accounts, and correspondence to determine the different roles assumed by Native Americans in the American Revolution and understand why the various groups formed the alliances they did.

Imagined Nations: Depictions of American Indians: This Backstory podcast looks at the representations and misrepresentations of American Indians across U.S. history. Backstory is a NEH funded program.

There are many excellent educational resources on all aspects of American Indian life provided by the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian’s Native Knowledge feature , the Newberry Library’s interactive Indians of the Midwest , and Scholastic’s Native American Heritage lesson plans. Both the National Park Service and National Public Radio feature podcasts that deal with national landmarks of importance and current issues in American Indian communities, respectively. In "Alaska Sojourn," a feature of the Humanities magazine, students can learn more about how indigenous communities live in contemporary Alaska, the 49th U.S. state.

Native American History across the Curriculum

American Literature: Learn how American Indians contributed to whaling in Beyond Moby Dick: Native American Whalemen in the 19th Century, and important part of New England's economy.

Geography, Social Studies: You can search for territories, languages, and treaties all across North America in this comprehensive map with links to additional sources of information for many tribes and language groups.

Law and Government: Learn how indigenous groups can maintain intellectual property rights over their cultural works at Local Context, an NEH-funded project.

Oral History: Lesson plans introducing students to oral histories are only one feature of the rich trove of ideas in this collection written by alumni of the NEH Summer Institute Teaching Native American Histories.


When Europeans began to arrive in the 1600s, they often fought with tribal members over land. Tribes sometimes made treaties with these immigrants to cease fighting, and these agreements moved the Native Americans to land called reservations—but those areas were often far from their original homes. Today many tribal members choose to live on reservations, where they have their own governments and support themselves with businesses such as forestry and blueberry farming.

Many tribes are working to protect the natural resources of the land that they live on. For instance, the Maliseet (pronounced MAL-uh-seet) people are working to protect bald eagles, and the Penobscot (pronounced puh-NOB-skot) people are active in helping endangered Atlantic salmon.

Research Reveals America's Attitudes about Native People and Native Issues

LONGMONT, Colorado (June 27, 2018) – First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) and Echo Hawk Consulting (EHC) today released groundbreaking research about attitudes toward and perceptions of Native Americans as part of a jointly-managed effort called Reclaiming Native Truth: A Project to Dispel America’s Myths and Misconceptions. The project also released two messaging guides based on the research findings and a narrative-change strategy framework that will be used to begin to change the false and misleading narratives about Native peoples.

The project seeks to create a long-term, Native-led movement that positively transforms popular narratives and images of Native Americans. A two-year phase, launched in 2016, created a solid foundation of unprecedented public opinion research and data, building upon previous research efforts. It was funded by a $2.5 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and significant financial contributions from numerous other entities and individuals.

“Some incredible findings were unearthed through this research – many of which had long been experienced and assumed but not proven,” said Michael E. Roberts (Tlingit), President & CEO of First Nations. “The findings clearly validate the realities that so many Native people face in their day-to-day interactions in communities. They provide our project, and the larger movement, with a strong foundation upon which to move forward.” Crystal Echo Hawk (Pawnee), President & CEO of Echo Hawk Consulting, shared, “This research informed how we could create a new narrative that would be effective in changing misperceptions. We formulated a new narrative, created by renowned Native American artists and storytellers, that proved to change people’s understanding of Native people and issues. We are excited to take this new narrative and our research findings and transition into a new phase of this project, harnessing the power of a movement of movements.”

Highlights from the publicly available findings include:

  • Discrimination: Most Americans surveyed significantly understate the degree of discrimination against Native Americans. Only 34 percent of Americans believe that Native people face discrimination. At the same time, myths about the abundance of Indian gaming and free government benefits to Native Americans are widely held and fuel bias across diverse demographics and within institutions.
  • Narratives: The research found that people have limited personal experience with Native Americans but accept pervasive negative narratives that are erroneously set or reinforced by others, and that proximity shapes some perceptions. For instance, people who live near or work in Indian Country, especially in areas of great poverty, are likely to hold significant bias. Only 56% of survey respondents living in close proximity to Native communities believed the U.S. should do more to help Native Americans compared to 64% of respondents further removed.
  • Invisibility: Unsurprisingly, another key finding was that Native Americans are assigned to a romanticized past. However, one of the biggest barriers identified was the invisibility and erasure of Native Americans in all aspects of modern U.S. society. Respondents, including members of Congress and administrative officials, agree that invisibility, stereotypes and narratives set by others do impact policy.
  • Desire for Complete History: One of the key opportunities uncovered is that, across the research, people are well aware of the inaccurate historical lessons they have learned about Native Americans, and want more accurate education about both historical and contemporary Natives. This was reflected in national polling that indicated that 72 percent believe it is necessary to make significant changes to school curricula on Native American history and culture.


Narratives are broadly accepted, overarching stories that reinforce ideas, norms and expectations in society. Repeated over and over, through diverse platforms and channels, a narrative becomes the story people accept without question. Often a narrative reinforces the status quo and perpetuates unfair systems, structures and norms. The Reclaiming Native Truth project worked to identify and test a new accurate narrative that can support cultural shifts to advance social and policy change to support racial equity and justice for Native Americans and tribal nations.

  • 78% – Most Americans are generally open to hearing this narrative. A majority in this survey say they are interested in learning more about Native American cultures. Strong majorities support Native American positions on most issues — mascots excepted — without hearing the narratives.
  • 81% – The public reacts strongly to our narrative.
  • 88% – Nearly nine in 10 respondents find it credible.

One of the most significant outcomes of the project related to developing and testing a new strength-based narrative that incorporated messaging related to values, history and the visibility of Native peoples. The narrative was tested through an online survey conducted between April 27 and May 1, 2018, with 2,000 Americans over age 18. Majorities of Americans support the new narrative and find it credible. A 65 percent majority say they would be willing — 31 percent very willing — to share these ideas with others. More issue-specific narrative messages written around key issues — mascots, the Indian Child Welfare Act, tribal sovereignty and pop culture depictions of Native Americans — find similar validation.

Most noteworthy is the objective difference between those exposed to the new narrative (treated group) and those that were not (untreated “control” group). Large differences emerge among the half that read the new narrative, which gave them a framework for understanding information about key Native issues related to the Indian Child Welfare Act, sovereignty, mascots and other issues. For example, 39 percent of Americans who were not exposed to the new narratives support a ban on Native American mascots. Among those who read the narratives, 53 percent support such a ban.

“We are encouraged by the findings of the research and narrative message testing in this first phase,” said Vicky Stott, Program Officer at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. “As a philanthropic partner to the project, we are committed to telling more authentic and complete stories about who we are as interconnected people living in America. This work has the potential to transform the way we understand and relate to one another and, ultimately, co-create a new story about our shared humanity.”


The next phase of work will focus on bringing the power of many movements — of organizations, tribes, grassroots leaders, non-Native allies, foundations — each of whom can adopt, adapt and disseminate the new shared narrative as part of their ongoing efforts and work, while leading implementation of their own priority strategies. An introduction to the narrative and messaging strategies are available as part of the Reclaiming Native Truth messaging guides at www.ReclaimingNativeTruth.com. The detailed research report and the Narrative-Change Strategy are also available online.

Potential allies, supporters and others can partcipate in the movement of movements. The network will contain a support and infrastructure function that will be determined jointly by core organizations working collaboratively on the initiative. There will be many ways for allies to do their their part to shift the narrative, remove bias and barriers, and achieve the collective vision for the change that is sought: thatNative peoples collectively author and powerfully lead a more equitable reality where they fully benefit from and contribute to both Native and American society. Interested partners are encouraged to download the messaging guides from www.ReclaimingNativeTruth.com.

“The project provided us the critical opportunity to begin to assemble an incredible team of not only researchers, but other experts and thought leaders across Indian Country, and both Native and non-Native allies and professionals in the media, the arts, entertainment, politics and education, as well as others who have worked on successful racial narrative change projects,” noted Echo Hawk. “We have the new research foundation built, a cadre of willing and able experts at the ready, and we have the desire and ability to move this project into the next phases where we can begin to shift the narrative.”

Roberts shared, “We have also sought and received input and feedback at every step in the project, from more than 180 stakeholders, including an incredible swath of Indian Country that came together in a new and different way to support these efforts. Their voices are reflected in this project and we are all committed to work together going forward. Native Americans and tribes have faced discrimination and bias at every level of society, institutionally, and within government. They have been held back from reaching their full potential by the negative stereotypes, damaging misperceptions and lack of awareness that prevail within education, the media, entertainment, popular culture, and among thought leaders. Changing that begins now.”

About First Nations Development Institute

For 38 years, using a three-pronged strategy of educating grassroots practitioners, advocating for systemic change, and capitalizing Indian communities, First Nations has been working to restore Native American control and culturally-compatible stewardship of the assets they own – be they land, human potential, cultural heritage or natural resources – and to establish new assets for ensuring the long-term vitality of Native American communities. First Nations serves Native American communities throughout the United States. For more information, visit www.firstnations.org.

About Echo Hawk Consulting

The mission of Echo Hawk Consulting is to help create new platforms, narratives, strategies and investment that can help catalyze transformational change for and by Native Americans. It partners with Native American, philanthropic and diverse multi-sector partners to move hearts and minds and drive institutional, policy and culture change. Founder Crystal Echo Hawk was recently recognized by the National Center for American Indian Economic Development as its 2018 “Native American Woman Business Owner of the Year.” For more information, visit www.echohawkconsulting.com.


Crystal Echo Hawk, President & CEO of Echo Hawk Consulting

Sarah Dewees, First Nations Director of Programs - Research, Policy and Asset-Building


The clay body is a necessary component of pottery. Clay must be mined and purified in an often laborious process, and certain tribes have ceremonial protocols to gathering clay. Different tribes have different processes for processing clay, which can include drying in the sun, soaking in water for days, and repeatedly running through a screen or sieve. Acoma and other Pueblo pottery traditionally pound dry clay into a powder and then remove impurities by hand, then running the dry powder through a screen, mixing it with a dry temper, and then mixing water to create a plastic paste. [2] In preparing the clay, potters spend hours wedging it to remove air pockets and humidity that could easily cause it to explode during firing. The clay then needs to "cure" over time. [3]

Coiling is the most common means of shaping ceramics in the Americas. In coiling, the clay is rolled into a long, thin strands that are coiled upon each other to build up the shape of the pottery. While the potter builds the coils up, she also blends them together until there was no trace of the ropes of clay entwined to form the pot, no deviation in the thickness of the walls, and therefore no weaknesses. Potter's wheels were not used prior to European contact and are only used today by a limited number of Native American artists. Pinch pots and other small clay objects could be formed directly by hand. Hohokam potters and their descendants in the American Southwest employed the paddle-and-anvil technique, in which the interior clay wall of a pot was supported by an anvil, while the exterior was beaten with a paddle, smoothing the surface. [4] In precontact South America, ceramics were mass-produced using molds.

Slip is a liquid clay suspension of mineral pigments applied to the ceramics before firing. Slips are typically red, buff, white, and black however, Nazca culture ceramic artists in Peru perfected 13 distinct colors of slips. They also used a hand-rotated turntable that allowed all sides of a ceramic piece to be painted with ease. These were first used in 500 BCE and continue to be used today. [5] Slips can be applied overall in washes, creating large color fields, often with cloth, or they can be painted in fine detail with brushes. Yucca leaves, chewed slightly to loosen fibers, make excellent brushes that are still in use today in the American Southwest. Negative painting is a technique employed by precontact Mississippian potters in the Eastern Woodlands, Mayan potters in Mesoamerica, and others, which involves covering the ceramic piece in beeswax or another resist, incising a design in the resist, then soaking the piece with a slip. In the firing process the resists melts away, leaving the colored design.

While still green, pottery can be incised with designs. Cords, textiles, baskets, and corncobs have been rolled over wet clay, both as a decoration and to improve heat dispersion in cooking pots. Carved wood or ceramic stamping paddles are used throughout the Southeastern Woodlands to create repeating designs. Clay can also be added to the main ceramic structure to build up designs.

Before firing, ceramics can be burnished or polished to a fine sheen with a smooth instrument, usually a stone. Glazes are seldom used by indigenous American ceramic artists. Grease can be rubbed onto the pot as well. [2]

Prior to contact, pottery was usually open-air fired or pit fired precontact Indigenous peoples of Mexico used kilns extensively. Today many Native American ceramic artists use kilns. In pit-firing, the pot is placed in a shallow pit dug into the earth along with other unfired pottery, covered with wood and brush, or dung, then set on fire whereupon it can harden at temperatures of 1400 degrees or more. Finally, the ceramics surface is often polished with smooth stones.

Tempers Edit

Tempers are non-plastic materials added to clay to prevent shrinkage and cracking during drying and firing of vessels made from the clay. [6] Tempers may include:

  • Bone [7] [7]
  • Charcoal [8] (cariapé) [9] [6]
  • Sand, crushed sandstone [3]
  • Crushed limestone [10]
  • Crushed igneous rocks, such as volcanic rock, feldspar, or mica [9][11][12] [3] [13] , freshwater and marine (sometimes fossilized), crushed [6][10]
  • Freshwater Sponge spicules. [9][14][15]

Not all Indigenous American pottery requires added tempers some Hopi potters use pure kaolin clay that does not require tempering. [3] Some clays naturally contain enough temper that they do not required additional tempers. This includes mica or sand in clays used in some Taos Pueblo, Picuris Pueblo, and Hopi pottery, [2] and sponge spicules in the clay used to produce the "chalky ware" of the St. Johns culture. [15]

Ceramics are often used to identify archaeological cultures. The type of temper (or mix of tempers) used helps to distinguish the ceramics produced by different cultures during particular time periods. Grog, sand, and sandstone were all used by Ancestral Pueblo people and other Southwestern cultures. [3] Crushed bone was used as temper in at least some ceramics at a number of sites in Texas. [16] In the Southeastern United States, the earliest ceramics were tempered with fiber such as Spanish moss and palmetto leaves. In Louisiana, fiber as tempering was replaced first by grog and later by shell. In peninsular Florida and coastal Georgia sand replaced fiber as tempering. [17] [18] Still later, freshwater sponge spicules became an important temper in the "chalky ware" of the St. Johns culture in northeastern Florida. [15] Locally produced ceramics of the Lucayan people in the Bahamas were characterized by crushed conch shell tempering, as opposed to the quartz sand-tempered ware imported from Hispaniola. [19]

The choice of temper used in ceramics was constrained by what was available, but changes in the choice of temper can provide clues to influence and trade relations between groups. Shell-tempered ware was produced sporadically in various places across the eastern United States, but in the late Woodland and early Mississippian periods it became the predominant temper used across much of the Mississippi Valley and middle gulf coast, and a major defining characteristic of Mississippian culture pottery. [20] [21]

The earliest ceramics known from the Americas have been found in the lower Amazon Basin. Ceramics from the Caverna da Pedra Pintada, near Santarém, Brazil, have been dated to between 7,500 and 5,000 years ago. [22] Ceramics from Taperinha, also near Santarém, have been dated to 8,000 to 7,000 years ago. [23] Some of the sherds at Taperinho were shell-tempered, which allowed the sherds themselves to be radiocarbon dated. These first ceramics-making cultures were fishers and shellfish-gatherers. [24]

Ceramics appeared next across northern South America and then down the western side of South America and northward through Mesoamerica. Ceramics of the Alaka culture in Guyana have been dated to 6,000 to 4,500 years ago. [24] Ceramics of the San Jacinto culture in Colombia have been dated to about 4530 BCE, and at Puerto Hormiga, also in Colombia, to about 3794 BCE. Ceramics appeared in the Valdivia culture in Ecuador around 3200 BCE, and in the Pandanche culture in Peru around 2460 BCE. [25]

The spread of ceramics in Mesoamerica came later. Ceramics from Monagrillo in Panama have been dated to around 2140 BCE, from Tronadora in Costa Rica to around 1890 BCE, and from Barra in the Soconusco of Chiapas to around 1900 BCE. Ceramics of the Purrón tradition in southcentral Mexico have been dated to around 1805 BCE, and from the Chajil tradition of northcentral Mexico, to around 1600 BCE. [25]

The appearance of ceramics in the Southeastern United States does not fit the above pattern. Ceramics from the middle Savannah River in Georgia and South Carolina (known as Stallings, Stallings Island, or St. Simons) have been dated to about 2888 BCE (4500 BP), and ceramics of the Orange and Norwood cultures in northern Florida to around 2460 BCE (4300 BP) (all older than any other dated ceramics from north of Colombia). Ceramics appeared later elsewhere in North America. Ceramics reached southern Florida (Mount Elizabeth) by 4000 BP, Nebo Hill (in Missouri) by 3700 BP, and Poverty Point (in Louisiana) by 3400 BP. [25] [26]

North America Edit

Arctic Edit

Several Inuit communities, such as the Netsilik, Sadlermiut, Utkuhiksalik, and Qaernerimiut created utilitarian pottery in historic times, [27] primarily to store food. In Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Canada, when the mine that employed much of the community closed down, the national government created the Rankin Inlet Ceramics Project, whose wares were successfully exhibited in Toronto in 1967. The project foundered but a local gallery revived interest in Inuit ceramics in the 1990s. [28]

Eastern Woodlands Edit

    is the ceramic tradition of the various local cultures involved in the Hopewell tradition (ca. 200 BCE to 400 CE) [29] and are found as artifacts in archeological sites in the American Midwest and Southeast. is the ceramic tradition of the Mississippian culture (800–1600 CE) found as artifacts in archaeological sites in the American Midwest and Southeast.

Southeastern Woodlands Edit

Geological studies show that certain areas of the southeastern portion of North America are rich in kaolins and ball clays (Hosterman, USGS), [ clarification needed ] the types of plastic clays best suited for pottery. Clay beds which still produce ceramic clays are from primary and secondary deposits formed in the Late Paleocene and Early Miocene Epochs in formations that formed the Gulf Coastal Plain. According to all geological surveys the entire southeastern portion of the continent has abundant clay deposits, with the exception of all of south Florida and a portion of western central Florida (Calver) (Matson). [ clarification needed ]

Fiber-tempered ceramics associated with shell middens left by Late Archaic hunter-fisher-gatherers appeared in the Atlantic coastal plain of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina starting in 2500 BC. The earliest attested pottery is in the Stallings culture area, around the middle Savannah River. [nb 1] Fiber-tempered pottery of the Orange culture in northeast Florida has been dated to 2000 BC or a bit earlier. [31] [32] Fiber-tempered pottery of very similar form spread along coasts and river valleys of the Southeastern United States from the Atlantic coast into Alabama, reaching northwestern Florida (Norwood culture) and the Gulf coast by 1300 BC, the interior Middle South by 1100, and Poverty Point by 1000 BC. [33] [34]

Thoms Creek ceramics closely resembled Stallings ceramics, but used more sand and less fiber as temper than Stalling or Orange ware. Thoms Creek ceramics were largely contemporary with Stalling and Orange ceramics, although no Thoms Creek ceramics have been found that are as early as the earliest Stallings. Thoms Creek ceramics overlapped Stallings ceramics in northern Georgia and southern South Carolina, but were the dominant tradition north of the Santee River into North Carolina. [35]

The similarities of the Stallings series ceramics to the earlier Puerto Hormiga ceramics of Colombia, which were both associated with shell rings, and the presence of winds and ocean currents favoring journeys from South America to the Southeastern United States, led James A. Ford, among other archaeologists, to offer the hypothesis that the two areas had connections, and that the technology of fiber-tempered ceramics in the southeastern United States had been imported from Colombia. Other archaeologists have noted that there are no known archaeological sites between Colombia and Florida that are of a type or age consistent with such connections, and that the cultural traditions of the Southeastern United States show no significant changes associated with the appearance of ceramics, indicating that there was no migration or people, and no transfer of technology or other elements of culture, other than the appearance of ceramics. [36]

Later significant developments in ceramics in the Southeastern Woodlands included Mississippian culture pottery in the Mississippi River valley, and Weedon Island pottery, a style of pottery used primarily in ceremonial contexts and high status burials, produced and traded along the Gulf of Mexico coast from southwestern Florida to the Florida panhandle.

10 indigenous inventions that will change how you see the world

A Matsés man takes aim with his bow and arrow. Many Matsés prefer the silent weapon for hunting as shot guns can scare the game away.
© James Vybiral/Survival

Tribal peoples have developed unique expertise and specialized technologies to live sustainably in some of the most challenging environments on the planet. Here are 10 amazing innovations:

  1. There is evidence that the Dani people of West Papua developed agriculture at least 9,000 years ago, far in advance of Europe. People in Great Britain only began farming just over 6,000 years ago.
  2. The Shipibo people of the Peruvian Amazon make intricate geometric art that can be read as music. The people can “hear” the song by looking at the patterns, like sheet music. The patterns represent chants and songs associated with Ayahuasca healing ceremonies.
  3. Many tribes around the world use clever chemistry to fish sustainably, like the Penan people of Sarawak. They use toxins from plants to stun fish, which then float to the surface. People can take only what they need and allow the smaller fish to recover and swim away so fish stocks aren&rsquot depleted.

Penan man from Ba Pakan fixing his fishing net. The Penan’s rivers are being polluted by the logging and plantation industries, killing fish and preventing some communities from accessing safe drinking water.
© Survival International

Tribal societies are extraordinarily diverse and there&rsquos a lot to learn from them. They suffer racism, land theft, and genocidal violence just because they live differently. Join us now to help prevent genocide, end logging and mining on tribal lands, and stop government violence and oppression.

Himba woman, Namibia.
© Nicolas Marino

A Nukak man who has been forced out of the jungle after his territory was taken over by armed groups. Guaviare province, Colombia.
© Arnau Blanch/Survival

IV. Spanish Exploration and Conquest

As news of the Spanish conquest spread, wealth-hungry Spaniards poured into the New World seeking land, gold, and titles. A New World empire spread from Spain’s Caribbean foothold. Motives were plain: said one soldier, “we came here to serve God and the king, and also to get rich.” 25 Mercenaries joined the conquest and raced to capture the human and material wealth of the New World.

The Spanish managed labor relations through a legal system known as the encomienda, an exploitive feudal arrangement in which Spain tied Indigenous laborers to vast estates. In the encomienda, the Spanish crown granted a person not only land but a specified number of natives as well. Encomenderos brutalized their laborers. After Bartolomé de Las Casas published his incendiary account of Spanish abuses (The Destruction of the Indies), Spanish authorities abolished the encomienda in 1542 and replaced it with the repartimiento. Intended as a milder system, the repartimiento nevertheless replicated many of the abuses of the older system, and the rapacious exploitation of the Native population continued as Spain spread its empire over the Americas.

El Castillo (pyramid of Kukulcán) in Chichén Itzá. Photograph by Daniel Schwen. Wikimedia. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

As Spain’s New World empire expanded, Spanish conquerors met the massive empires of Central and South America, civilizations that dwarfed anything found in North America. In Central America the Maya built massive temples, sustained large populations, and constructed a complex and long-lasting civilization with a written language, advanced mathematics, and stunningly accurate calendars. But Maya civilization, although it had not disappeared, nevertheless collapsed before European arrival, likely because of droughts and unsustainable agricultural practices. But the eclipse of the Maya only heralded the later rise of the most powerful Native civilization ever seen in the Western Hemisphere: the Aztecs.

Militaristic migrants from northern Mexico, the Aztecs moved south into the Valley of Mexico, conquered their way to dominance, and built the largest empire in the New World. When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico they found a sprawling civilization centered around Tenochtitlán, an awe-inspiring city built on a series of natural and man-made islands in the middle of Lake Texcoco, located today within modern-day Mexico City. Tenochtitlán, founded in 1325, rivaled the world’s largest cities in size and grandeur. Much of the city was built on large artificial islands called chinampas, which the Aztecs constructed by dredging mud and rich sediment from the bottom of the lake and depositing it over time to form new landscapes. A massive pyramid temple, the Templo Mayor, was located at the city center (its ruins can still be found in the center of Mexico City). When the Spaniards arrived, they could scarcely believe what they saw: 70,000 buildings, housing perhaps 200,000–250,000 people, all built on a lake and connected by causeways and canals. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a Spanish soldier, later recalled, “When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land, we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments. . . . Some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream? . . . I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about.” 26

From their island city the Aztecs dominated an enormous swath of central and southern Mesoamerica. They ruled their empire through a decentralized network of subject peoples that paid regular tribute—including everything from the most basic items, such as corn, beans, and other foodstuffs, to luxury goods such as jade, cacao, and gold—and provided troops for the empire. But unrest festered beneath the Aztecs’ imperial power, and European conquerors lusted after its vast wealth.

This sixteenth-century map of Tenochtitlan shows the aesthetic beauty and advanced infrastructure of this great Aztec city. Map, c. 1524, Wikimedia.

Hernán Cortés, an ambitious, thirty-four-year-old Spaniard who had won riches in the conquest of Cuba, organized an invasion of Mexico in 1519. Sailing with six hundred men, horses, and cannon, he landed on the coast of Mexico. Relying on a Native translator, whom he called Doña Marina, and whom Mexican folklore denounces as La Malinche, Cortés gathered information and allies in preparation for conquest. Through intrigue, brutality, and the exploitation of endemic political divisions, he enlisted the aid of thousands of Native allies, defeated Spanish rivals, and marched on Tenochtitlán.

Aztec dominance rested on fragile foundations and many of the region’s semi-independent city-states yearned to break from Aztec rule. Nearby kingdoms, including the Tarascans to the north and the remains of Maya city-states on the Yucatán peninsula, chafed at Aztec power.

Through persuasion, and maybe because some Aztecs thought Cortés was the god Quetzalcoatl, the Spaniards entered Tenochtitlán peacefully. Cortés then captured the emperor Montezuma and used him to gain control of the Aztecs’ gold and silver reserves and their network of mines. Eventually, the Aztecs revolted. Montezuma was branded a traitor, and uprising ignited the city. Montezuma was killed along with a third of Cortés’s men in la noche triste, the “night of sorrows.” The Spanish fought through thousands of Indigenous insurgents and across canals to flee the city, where they regrouped, enlisted more Native allies, captured Spanish reinforcements, and, in 1521, besieged the island city. The Spaniards’ eighty-five-day siege cut off food and fresh water. Smallpox ravaged the city. One Spanish observer said it “spread over the people as great destruction. Some it covered on all parts—their faces, their heads, their breasts, and so on. There was great havoc. Very many died of it. . . . They could not move they could not stir.” 27 Cortés, the Spaniards, and their Native allies then sacked the city. The temples were plundered and fifteen thousand died. After two years of conflict, a million-person-strong empire was toppled by disease, dissension, and a thousand European conquerors.

The Spanish relied on Indigenous allies to defeat the Aztecs. The Tlaxcala were among the most important Spanish allies in their conquest. This nineteenth-century recreation of a sixteenth century drawing depicts Tlaxcalan warriors fighting alongside Spanish soldiers against the Aztec. Wikimedia.

Farther south, along the Andes Mountains in South America, the Quechuas, or Incas, managed a vast mountain empire. From their capital of Cuzco in the Andean highlands, through conquest and negotiation, the Incas built an empire that stretched around the western half of the South American continent from present day Ecuador to central Chile and Argentina. They cut terraces into the sides of mountains to farm fertile soil, and by the 1400s they managed a thousand miles of Andean roads that tied together perhaps twelve million people. But like the Aztecs, unrest between the Incas and conquered groups created tensions and left the empire vulnerable to invaders. Smallpox spread in advance of Spanish conquerors and hit the Incan empire in 1525. Epidemics ravaged the population, cutting the empire’s population in half and killing the Incan emperor Huayna Capac and many members of his family. A bloody war of succession ensued. Inspired by Cortés’s conquest of Mexico, Francisco Pizarro moved south and found an empire torn by chaos. With 168 men, he deceived Incan rulers and took control of the empire and seized the capital city, Cuzco, in 1533. Disease, conquest, and slavery ravaged the remnants of the Incan empire.

After the conquests of Mexico and Peru, Spain settled into their new empire. A vast administrative hierarchy governed the new holdings: royal appointees oversaw an enormous territory of landed estates, and Indigenous laborers and administrators regulated the extraction of gold and silver and oversaw their transport across the Atlantic in Spanish galleons. Meanwhile Spanish migrants poured into the New World. During the sixteenth century alone, 225,000 migrated, and 750,000 came during the entire three centuries of Spanish colonial rule. Spaniards, often single, young, and male, emigrated for the various promises of land, wealth, and social advancement. Laborers, craftsmen, soldiers, clerks, and priests all crossed the Atlantic in large numbers. Indigenous people, however, always outnumbered the Spanish, and the Spaniards, by both necessity and design, incorporated Native Americans into colonial life. This incorporation did not mean equality, however.

An elaborate racial hierarchy marked Spanish life in the New World. Regularized in the mid-1600s but rooted in medieval practices, the Sistema de Castas organized individuals into various racial groups based on their supposed “purity of blood.” Elaborate classifications became almost prerequisites for social and political advancement in Spanish colonial society. Peninsulares—Iberian-born Spaniards, or españoles—occupied the highest levels of administration and acquired the greatest estates. Their descendants, New World-born Spaniards, or criollos, occupied the next rung and rivaled the peninsulares for wealth and opportunity. Mestizos—a term used to describe those of mixed Spanish and Indigenous heritage—followed.

Casta paintings illustrated the varying degrees of intermixture between colonial subjects, defining them for Spanish officials. Unknown artist, Las Castas, Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlan, Mexico. Wikimedia.

Like the French later in North America, the Spanish tolerated and sometimes even supported interracial marriage. There were simply too few Spanish women in the New World to support the natural growth of a purely Spanish population. The Catholic Church endorsed interracial marriage as a moral bulwark against bastardy and rape. By 1600, mestizos made up a large portion of the colonial population. 28 By the early 1700s, more than one third of all marriages bridged the Spanish-Indigenous divide. Separated by wealth and influence from the peninsulares and criollos, mestizos typically occupied a middling social position in Spanish New World society. They were not quite Indios, or Indigenous people, but their lack of limpieza de sangre, or “pure blood,” removed them from the privileges of full-blooded Spaniards. Spanish fathers of sufficient wealth and influence might shield their mestizo children from racial prejudice, and a number of wealthy mestizos married españoles to “whiten” their family lines, but more often mestizos were confined to a middle station in the Spanish New World. Enslaved and Indigenous people occupied the lowest rungs of the social ladder.

Many manipulated the Sistema de Casas to gain advantages for themselves and their children. Mestizo mothers, for instance, might insist that their mestizo daughters were actually castizas, or quarter-Indigenous, who, if they married a Spaniard, could, in the eyes of the law, produce “pure” criollo children entitled to the full rights and opportunities of Spanish citizens. But “passing” was an option only for the few. Instead, the massive Native populations within Spain’s New World Empire ensured a level of cultural and racial mixture—or mestizaje—unparalleled in British North America. Spanish North America wrought a hybrid culture that was neither fully Spanish nor fully Indigenous. The Spanish not only built Mexico City atop Tenochtitlán, but food, language, and families were also constructed on Indigenous foundations. In 1531, a poor Indigenous named Juan Diego reported that he was visited by the Virgin Mary, who came as a dark-skinned Nahuatl-speaking Indigenous woman. 29 Reports of miracles spread across Mexico and the Virgen de Guadalupe became a national icon for a new mestizo society.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is perhaps the most culturally important and extensively reproduced Mexican-Catholic image. In the iconic depiction, Mary stands atop the tilma (peasant cloak) of Juan Diego, on which according to his story appeared the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Throughout Mexican history, the story and image of Our Lady of Guadalupe has been a unifying national symbol. Mexican retablo of Our Lady of Guadalupe, 19th century, in El Paso Museum of Art. Wikimedia.

From Mexico, Spain expanded northward. Lured by the promises of gold and another Tenochtitlán, Spanish expeditions scoured North America for another wealthy Indigenous empire. Huge expeditions, resembling vast moving communities, composed of hundreds of soldiers, settlers, priests, and enslaved people, with enormous numbers of livestock, moved across the continent. Juan Ponce de León, the conqueror of Puerto Rico, landed in Florida in 1513 in search of wealth and enslaved laborers. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca joined the Narváez expedition to Florida a decade later but was shipwrecked and forced to embark on a remarkable multiyear odyssey across the Gulf of Mexico and Texas into Mexico. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, and it remains the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the present-day United States.

But without the rich gold and silver mines of Mexico, the plantation-friendly climate of the Caribbean, or the exploitive potential of large Indigenous empires, North America offered little incentive for Spanish officials. Still, Spanish expeditions combed North America. Francisco Vázquez de Coronado pillaged his way across the Southwest. Hernando de Soto tortured and raped and enslaved his way across the Southeast. Soon Spain had footholds—however tenuous—across much of the continent.