Category Archives: Indian tribes

More than 50 Indian tribes with different languages sent members to Canton Asylum for Insane Indians. The Five Civilized Tribes were eastern tribes, but most of Canton’s patients came from the West.

Farming and Food

Zuni Waffle Garden, circa 1911, courtesy Zuni Pueblo

Zuni Waffle Garden, circa 1911, courtesy Zuni Pueblo

As harvest time grows near, all peoples who cultivate the land hope for good crops. Today’s technology can help farmers produce great quantities of food, but that doesn’t mean that older techniques were not as good–or better–on smaller scales. Native Americans were the New World’s farmers, and they were better at it than history generally credits them. They knew about companion planting for pest deterrence, for instance, and the well-known “three sisters” method of planting corn, squash, and beans used the attributes of these plants to add nitrogen (from beans) to the soil while using corn to trellis them and squash leaves to provide shade for the first two.

Wide Spacing Between Plants is Part of the No-Till Method

Wide Spacing Between Plants is Part of the No-Till Method

April 1938: A dust bowl farmstead in Dallam County, Texas, showing the desolation produced by the dust and wind on the countryside adding to the problems of the depression in the USA. (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)

Over-tilling Was a Major Contributor to the Dust Bowl, April 1938, Dallam County, Texas, courtesy Three Lions/Getty Images

Native Americans also used a “no-till” method, which the USDA is now encouraging all farmers to use. Instead of plowing up acres of land and destroying the soil ecosystem in the process (along with encouraging soil erosion and poor water absorption), no-till farming disturbs the smallest area possible needed for planting. Home methods might include using raised beds or straw bales to garden, or digging individual holes for plants or seeds. Plenty of mulch suppresses weeds and keeps the ground moist. Larger farmers switch from plows to no-till planters; these create narrow furrows in which to plant seeds, and leave the rest of the soil intact.

 

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Preserving Food for Winter

Klamath Woman Grinding Corn, 1923, by Edward S. Curtis

Even in modern societies with their convenient grocery stores, many people continue to can or dry food from their gardens for winter use. Canning was not an option for native peoples, but they still needed to preserve food for times when game was scarce and/or vegetation was sparse.

There were few universal preservation practices, but drying food was an option available to almost everyone. Drying also had the advantage of making the harvest easier to store and transport: Drying not only concentrated nutrients, but the resulting product also weighed less because so much water was lost in the process. Some foods like beans could dry naturally on the vine, but other foods like corn, berries, and mushrooms were usually gathered first and then dried. Sun-drying was one way  to preserve all types of food.

Over thousands of years, Native Americans cultivated a wild grass called Teosinte, which originally grew in Central America. Over time the small kernels on this grass became larger and were spaced closer together until what we know as maize developed. These first ears were only a few inches long and had about eight short rows of kernels (today’s ears have about 600 kernels). Eventually maize became an important food source for many tribes.

Native Americans grew corn in mounds and harvested great quantities of it, compared to other gathered foodstuffs. They dried maize in the sun on mats, let the maize dry on its stalks, or picked ears and let them dry in the sun. Drying was essential because the loss of moisture made it harder for microorganisms and enzymes that spoil food to grow. Later, the maize would be stored in underground pits lined with grass to prevent mildew and spoilage; some tribes stored enough to get them through two crop-less seasons.

Boy (son of Wolf Chief) Drying Corn, circa 1914, courtesy State Historical Society of North Dakota

Ojibwa Farmer Near Cass Lake, Minn. Drying Corn Harvest, circa 1920, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

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Irresponsible and Unaccountable

Lee Moorhouse Was an Indian Agent for the Umatilla Indian Reservation

Lee Moorhouse Was an Indian Agent for the Umatilla Indian Reservation

The United States government always knew that native peoples were important–whether as friends or foes. Early federal practice was to interact with tribes as the country would with other independent nations, but this soon proved cumbersome and restrictive for the domestic policy U.S. leaders wanted to pursue. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (known more generally as the Indian Office or Office of Indian Affairs) shifted its role from negotiating with Indian nations to simply enforcing its will on them.

In 1849, Congress transferred the BIA from the War Department to the Department of the Interior and began to greatly increase its intrusiveness into native affairs. Tribes which had been removed to reservations and forced to farm arid, nonproductive land, soon faced extreme poverty. The BIA distributed food and supervised many services on reservations, but unscrupulous agents took advantage of the people they were supposed to help. Many accusations of fraud and abuse hit the agency, which never suffered a loss of power even after investigations proved many accusations to be well-founded.

Sioux Indian Women Receiving Rations, Pine Ridge Reservation, 1891, courtesy Library of Congress

Sioux Indian Women Receiving Rations, Pine Ridge Reservation, 1891, courtesy Library of Congress

Tulalip Indian School Learning Modern Farming Methods, 1912, photo by Ferdinand Brady, courtesy californiaindianeducation.org

Tulalip Indian School Learning Modern Farming Methods, 1912, photo by Ferdinand Brady, courtesy californiaindianeducation.org

Eventually the BIA became responsible for Indian schools, the issues involved in allotting land, all the contracts associated with providing supplies and service to Indians, and even with  providing justice. Tribal governments were weakened and shunted aside, giving the BIA and particularly its Indian agents dramatic power on reservations. Needless to say, there were agents who did not hesitate to use their power for selfish ends, rather than for protecting people who had been stripped of their own power and rights.

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An Easy Way to Grab Land

Indian Inspector George Wright, courtesy Oklahoma State Digital Library

Indian Inspector George Wright, courtesy Oklahoma State Digital Library

Many whites wanted access to Indian lands, and there were plenty of politicians who were glad to help them. Guy P. Cobb was typical. He held a position as the Creek Revenue Inspector (appointed through the recommendation of Commissioner of Indian Affairs William Jones, 1897-1904) and had served under Indian Inspector George J. Wright.

While he was a revenue inspector, Cobb was also general manager of the Tribal Development Company, which Cobb said “helped” Indians manage their land. How? Cobb’s company negotiated rental agreements with Indians–with the option to buy their land as soon as any restrictions were removed. He further assisted them by helping them find “good” allotments. Additionally, (and, of course, quite usefully) Cobb was one of the directors of the Bank of the Chickasaw Nation.

Cobb was not the only politician involved in trust companies, and Samuel M. Brosius of the Indian Rights Association named names in his special report on the land speculation. Dawes commissioners Thomas Needles and C. R. Breckinridge, U.S. District Attorney E. Pliny Soper, assistant U.S. District Attorney for the Northern District of the Indian Territory James Huckleberry, Indian Inspector Wright, and many other politicians and Indian Office employees were involved in various trust companies.

Clifton Rodes Breckenridge of the Dawes Commission, courtesy Biographical Directory of the United States Congress

Clifton Rodes Breckenridge of the Dawes Commission, courtesy Biographical Directory of the United States Congress

Indian Land Was Highly Desirable

Indian Land Was Highly Desirable

These companies typically induced Indians to rent their allotted lands for about five years, but then wouldn’t surrender the land after that period and/or refused to pay rent on it. Any heirs of the allottees were then manipulated into selling the land for little money. Even though allotted land was not actually vested in title for 25 years, the courts generally looked the other way at these dealings.

The losers in these arrangements were always the very people the Indian Office and Interior Department had been charged with protecting.

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Your Land is Our Land

Ojibwe Girls in a Classroom at the St. Benedict's Mission School, White Earth Reservation, circa 1900

Ojibwe Girls in a Classroom at the St. Benedict’s Mission School, White Earth Reservation, circa 1900

The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ mission was always to “manage” Indian relations, but its mission changed over time until “civilizing” Indians through the reservation system became its primary one. Part of the Indian Office’s (which the agency was more generally known by) policy included dismantling traditional tribal governments and assimilating native peoples into the broader white culture.

The Chicago Daily News, 1901

The Chicago Daily News, 1901

As it did so, the Indian Office allowed disservice after disservice to Native Americans. In 1903, a Washington dispatch to the Chicago Daily News discussed an emerging scandal which the paper then covered. The Interior Department and the Justice Department had become interested in companies trying to acquire Indian land at “ridiculously low figures and selling them at their actual values.” Bad in itself, the article also reported that: “Members of the Dawes commission are said to be implicated in the alleged efforts ‘to fleece the Indians.'”

Cartoon of Indian Agent, courtesy Library of Congress

Cartoon of Indian Agent, courtesy Library of Congress

The irony, as the paper put it, was that “in several instances the very men who are now implicated in the effort to fleece the Indians came to Washington to consult with the heads of the departments (Interior and Justice) here in devising a plan for the Indians’ protection.”

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Falling Silent

A Collection of Native American Vocabular, courtesy American Philosophical Museum

A Collection of Native American Vocabulary, courtesy American Philosophical Museum

Languages around the world have been lost over time, and this loss continues. The reference work Ethnologue lists 245 indigenous languages in the United States, with 65 already extinct and 75 near extinction.

This language loss happened in several ways. A prominent cause came from the federal government’s push to eradicate Native American culture. Children were taken from their homes to boarding schools and forbidden to use their native languages. By the time they came back home, many had forgotten it. As native peoples dispersed into cities and used English, their original languages also fell into misuse. Though there are documents that have recorded many native languages, they cannot document the vocal attributes of the language–often an important part of understanding the language’s meaning. These languages also includes concepts and culture which cannot be replicated in English.

Anthropologist Frank Speck and Delaware Lenape Chief Witapanoxwe, circa 1928, courtesy American Philosophical Society

Anthropologist Frank Speck and Delaware Lenape Chief Witapanoxwe, circa 1928, courtesy American Philosophical Society

People are making attempts to preserve languages. The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages has partnered with the National Geographic Society to form the Enduring Voices Project to preserve particularly unique, poorly understood, or threatened indigenous languages. The  Administration For Native Americans also provides grants to native communities and nonprofits to teach young people to speak native languages.

The Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of Ethnology collected audio recordings of Native American languages in the 19th century. You can hear digitized snippets of these languages at the Smithsonian’s site, http://siris.si.edu. In the blue box on the right hand side under “Culture & History” click “Native American Language.” In the new page, on the left hand side under “online media” click “sound recordings.”

Ethnogropher Alice Cunningham Fletcher and Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce

Ethnographer Alice Cunningham Fletcher and Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce

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Making Sugar at Sugar Camps

Gathering Sap in Makuks

Gathering Sap in Makuks

When sugar camps were ready (see last post), tree tapping began as soon as the sap started running. Though only experts tapped trees, these could be either men or women, and an individual could make up to 300 tappings a day.

In the Chippewa method of making sugar, workers put down sap dishes in the early morning and gathered them when they were filled. After taking the sap back to camp, workers poured the liquid into kettles or into troughs at the door of the tipi used for making the syrup. Other workers heated the sap in small kettles before pouring it into larger kettles so that all the sap could be heated gradually. The sap in the large kettles would then be boiled until it thickened, which could take all night.

Mrs. Dick Gahbowh Boiling Sap, Mille Lacs, 1925, courtesy University of Minnesota Duluth

Mrs. Dick Gahbowh Boiling Sap, Mille Lacs, 1925, courtesy University of Minnesota Duluth

When it was thick enough, the sap was strained from a full kettle into an empty one through a mat woven of basswood bark. (In later days, burlap was used instead of the mat.) After the kettles were cleaned, the syrup was reheated; women placed small bits of deer tallow in with the syrup to keep the sugar soft. At the proper consistency, the syrup was transferred to a granulating trough and worked with a paddle to make sugar.

Chippewa Indians With Maple Sugar in Birchbark Containers, 1909, courtesy University of Minnesota Duluth

Chippewa Indians With Maple Sugar in Birchbark Containers, 1909, courtesy University of Minnesota Duluth

All of this was hard work, but everyone enjoyed the end product. Women stored sugar made from the last run of sap in makuks (birchbark containers) buried in the ground. This valuable product could last for a year if properly covered with bark and boughs to keep it fresh.

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Sugar Camps

Building a Birch Bark Tepee at a Maple Sugar Camp, Mille Lacs Reservation, courtesy firstpeople.us

Building a Birch Bark Tepee at a Maple Sugar Camp, Mille Lacs Reservation, courtesy firstpeople.us

Native peoples who had access to trees with sweet sap (such as the sugar maple) made sugar products just as later Europeans did in New England states like Vermont. In the spring, Chippewa families or groups of two to three families enjoyed working together at sugar camps. The families worked their own sugar bushes, which were stands of maple trees measured by the number of “taps” available. Each tree, for instance, might have two or three taps, and a bush might have 900 taps.

Each sugar camp usually contained a permanent lodge, which would be cleared of snow and repaired each spring, sometime around March. Women went early to examine their sugar-making utensils, like bark dishes for gathering sap, makuks (birchbark containers) for storing sugar, syrup buckets, and troughs where the buckets of sap were poured. When the equipment was ready, women went back to their home camps to fetch large kettles for boiling the sap; they also got the rest of their family ready to move to the camp. Both men and women were involved in setting up these sugar camps.

Native Americans Making Maple Sugar, Cass Lake, 1905, courtesy University of Minnesota Duluth

Native Americans Making Maple Sugar, Cass Lake, 1905, courtesy University of Minnesota Duluth

My next post will explain the Chippewa’s sugar-making process.

Ojibwe Woman Tapping a Sugar Maple, 1908, courtesy Elder Nmenhs-Arthur McGregor of Whitefish River First Nation

Ojibwe Woman Tapping a Sugar Maple, 1908, courtesy Elder Nmenhs-Arthur McGregor of Whitefish River First Nation

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Many Thanks

Corn Dance, Taos Pueblo, circa 1920s

Though the majority of the U.S. population celebrates an official day of gratitude called Thanksgiving, Native Americans have always had a deep tradition of routinely giving thanks. They have particularly given attention and gratitude to the animals and plants which gave their lives to provide sustenance or medicine.

 

Planting ceremonies were also important, as were dances and feasts to celebrate good crops. Among others, the Creek, Cherokee, Seminole, Yuchi, and Iroquois tribes celebrated the Green Corn Festival, which marked the beginning of the first corn harvest. It was a time to thank Mother Earth and all living things for providing food  and other usable items that made life good. The Maple Syrup Ceremony (late spring), Strawberry Ceremony (early summer), Bean Dance and Buffalo Dance (winter), are only a few of the times that Native Americans set aside to acknowledge their dependence upon the bounty of the earth.

Buffalo Dance at Hano, courtesy www.firstpeoples.us

Buffalo Dance at Hano, courtesy www.firstpeoples.us

Qahatika Women Resting in Harvest Field, courtesy Library of Congress

Qahatika Women Resting in Harvest Field, courtesy Library of Congress

The Iroquois particularly formalized times of thanksgiving, which would include a special Thanksgiving Address. A speaker was chosen to give thanks on behalf of all the people. The thanksgiving prayer then offered gratitude to the Creator for the earth and the living things upon it. The prayer could be quite long, encompassing specific things the speaker wanted to call special attention to, like birds, rivers, medicinal grasses and herbs, wind, rain, sunshine, the moon and stars, and so on. Thanksgiving festivals provided opportunities to feast, express gratitude, and enjoy good things, and also provided times of cleansing, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

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A Remarkable Woman

Susan La Flesche Picotte, courtesy Smithsonian Institution

Susan La Flesche Picotte was born in 1865 to the last recognized chief of the Omaha Indian tribe, Chief Joseph La Flesche (Iron Eye). She went to the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey and then returned to her reservation to teach at a Quaker school. She became interested in medicine and returned east to attend the Hampton Institute, and later, the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. She graduated at the top of her class in 1889 and became the first Native American woman to receive a medical degree.

After an internship in Philadelphia, Picotte returned to her reservation where she provided health care at its boarding school. She was the only doctor on the reservation and served at least 1,244 patients while covering 1,350 square miles of territory to do so. She was also the nation’s first Indian medical missionary, and taught Sunday School, led hymn singing, and presided at funerals, amid her many other duties.

Left to Right, Nattie Fremont?, Mary Tyndall, Susan La Flesche, and Susan's Sister, Marguerite, 1880, courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society

Left to Right, Nattie Fremont?, Mary Tyndall, Susan La Flesche, and Susan’s Sister, Marguerite, 1880, courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society

Front Entrance, Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte Memorial Hospital, Omaha Indian Reservation, National Historic Landmark Photogragh

Front Entrance, Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte Memorial Hospital, Omaha Indian Reservation, National Historic Landmark Photograph

La Flesche resigned from her duties in 1893 due to her own poor health, andmarried Henry Picotte in 1894. They moved to Bancroft, Nebraska, where she set up a private practice. Picotte was passionate about improving the health of Native Americans; she was especially passionate about the evil effects of alcohol on her people and did everything in her power to prevent alcohol abuse on reservations. La Flesche eventually built a privately-funded hospital on the Omaha Reservation at Walthill, Nebraska. She died two years later at only fifty years of age, of bone cancer.

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