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.

How About Asking?

Senator Henry Dawes, Who Sponsored the Dawes Act

Senator Henry Dawes, Who Sponsored the Dawes Act

Native peoples and European immigrants have had varied relationships. At one time, native tribes were treated as independent nations and trading partners, then later as enemies who needed to be destroyed, and even later, as childish wards who needed federal guidance to educate and assimilate them into the so-called “superior” white society. Several congressional Acts were passed to push this agenda forward, among them the Dawes and Curtis Acts. Land was the essential question: how should Indians hold titles to it?

In 1881 Senator George Hunt Pendleton of Ohio argued that whether for right or wrong, fairly or unfairly, “They [Indians] must either change their mode of life or die.” He pointed out that conditions had changed drastically for them: they were no longer treated as independent nations, they no longer had vast, rich territories on which to live, and white settlements had encroached upon lands once set aside exclusively for Native use.

Senator George Hunt Pendleton

Senator George Hunt Pendleton

Pendleton stated that as much as people might regret the situation or wish it to be otherwise, the fact remained that “The Indians cannot fish and hunt . . . they must either change their modes of of life or they will be exterminated.” He went on to urge the President: “we must change our policy . . . we must stimulate within them to the very largest degree, the idea of home, of family, and of property.”

Indian writer and activist D’Arcy McNickle (1904 – 1977), who was Cree, Métis, and Irish but an enrolled member of the Flathead tribe, later commented harshly on Pendleton’s remarks. McNickle wrote: “In the heat of such a discussion, it would not have occurred to any of the debaters to inquire of the Indians what ideas they had of home, of family, and of property.”

D'Arcy McNickle

D’Arcy McNickle

His comment was sad but true. McNickle added, “It would have been assumed, in any case, that the ideas, whatever they were were without merit since they were Indian.”

 

 

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Fourth of July

Sioux Indians Hitting a Dime at 100 Yards, July 4, 1891, courtesy Library of Congress

The Indian Bureau was never culturally sensitive, especially when it came to Native American celebrations. It actively discouraged or forbade ceremonial dances, feasts, and other gatherings, fearing that they might unite tribes or keep them from assimilating into white culture. Most gatherings required written permission. One explanation for the Indian Bureau allowing celebrations at all was offered in Sunday Magazine (July 2, 1911): “Shut off on reservations and compelled to do without any extraneous amusements, the Indian grows morose and is much more inclined to give trouble than when occasionally permitted to enjoy himself.”

The Bureau didn’t pay as much attention to Fourth of July celebrations, and Native Americans soon discovered that they could get together on that day without written permission. They began to use the Fourth of July as an excuse to gather and perform the dances and ceremonies they enjoyed. Some tribes had a practice of giving away assets during celebrations, often through a formal ceremony called a potlatch. Native Americans considered it an honor to give their possessions to others, and often gave to the poorest members of the tribe, first. Sioux Indians apparently ramped up this gift-giving practice on the Fourth of July, and the Indian Bureau began calling this “Give-Away Day.” Tribal members celebrated the Fourth with games of skill and strength, feasting, and dancing. They also incorporated their practice of honoring individuals with important gifts, with no thought of reciprocation. Gifts were substantial–horses, fancy bead work, saddles, and other valuable items. Whites seemed to be amazed by the practice, since it often left the giver without any resources.

Fourth of July Celebration, 1891, South Dakota, courtesy Library of Congress

 

Nez Perce Fourth of July Parade, Spaulding, Idaho, 1902, courtesy Library of Congress

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Natural Medicine

Woman Digging Roots

Woman Digging Roots

Before modern pharmaceuticals, people looked to nature for their cures. The Chippewa, for instance, used numerous plants to treat ailments, often in conjunction with special songs and music. Red baneberry treated the “diseases of women,” giant hyssop treated cough and pain in the chest, and jack-in-the-pulpit was useful for sore eyes. Other plants, like wild sarsaparilla and white mugwort, could be used for both medicine and as charms.

Medicine Man Preparing Medicine, courtesy National Library of Medicine

Medicine Man Preparing Medicine, courtesy National Library of Medicine

Isabelle Thing, a Kumeyaay Indian Traditional Healer

Isabelle Thing, a Kumeyaay Indian Traditional Healer

Chippewa plant names often indicated the appearance of the plant, the place where it grew, one of its properties, or its use. Blue cohosh was called becigodjibiguk; becig meant “one” and djibiguk meant “root,” thus “the plant having a tap root.” Often, one plant had several names, and individual gatherers often gave a plant a name, as well. Sometimes when a medicine man taught someone about a plant, he would show the person the plant without telling its name, in order to keep it secret.

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The Hope of Spring

Navajo Family Near Fort Defiance, circa 1873

Navajo Family Near Fort Defiance, circa 1873

Cultures throughout the ages have celebrated the return of spring after a long, harsh winter by eating the first new greens they can find. Native Americans took advantage of fresh, wild plants to supplement their winter diets of dried foods; foraging in woodlands or near streams could bring in an entire meal in some cases.

Mushrooms often sprouted with the renewed moisture of spring; experts had to hunt for this very nutritious, but dangerous food. Women hunted dandelions, wild onions and leeks, ramps, chickweed, poke, and wild mustard (or a related plant called “creasy greens”) as soon as possible, since many of these plants get more bitter as they grow older. Even young, tender leaves and shoots can be bitter, but these wild plants are very nutritious and have long been considered a tonic to wake up the liver and kidneys after a long winter diet of dried starches (like beans and pumpkin) and meat.

Pueblo Indian Planting Maize

Pueblo Indian Planting Maize

Sugar-Making Among the Indians in the North, Nineteenth Century Illustration

Sugar-Making Among the Indians in the North, Nineteenth Century Illustration

Traditional (Algonquin) Green Salad: One part wild onions or leeks, chopped, and one and a half parts dandelion leaves, to four parts watercress. Add a small amount of sheep or wood sorrel, and then flavor to taste. (Add a bit of maple syrup for sweetness, or use other traditional flavorings like salt, along with enough oil to coat the leaves.)

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Winter Food

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

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

Throughout the ages, people have had to energetically search for food to stay nourished; that task has always been much more difficult in winter. Like most other peoples, Native Americans worked hard to find and preserve enough food for their winter needs. Some game and fish might remain available during the cold months, but not usually in plentiful enough quantities to feed a whole population.

Convenient as these methods are to many of us today, freezing and canning are recent innovations. Napoleon Bonaparte offered a reward in 1795 to anyone who could discover a safe and reliable method to preserve food for his traveling army, and by 1810, both glass “bottling” and true tin “canning” had been invented. Neither of these methods were used by the masses, however, until John Mason invented his glass container with a molded screw-on thread at the top. Until that time and well after, drying, salting, and fermenting foods were the best methods of food preservation for many people.

Lillooet Indians Drying Berries, 1954, courtesy British Columbia Archives

Lillooet Indians Drying Berries, 1954, courtesy British Columbia Archives

Native Americans traditionally dried corn, beans, meat, fish, and other common foodstuffs. Food like berries and sweet corn could be sun-dried and eaten later as snacks or with other dishes. Salting and smoking often went together, and were used most often with fish and meat products. Meat (whether salted or unsalted) might be hung in racks over fires fueled by aromatic woods like mesquite or apple wood to both dry and flavor the end product.

Arapaho Camp With Buffalo Meat Drying Near Fort Dodge, Kansas, 1870, courtesy National Archives

Arapaho Camp With Buffalo Meat Drying Near Fort Dodge, Kansas, 1870, courtesy National Archives

Fermented foods like sauerkraut and pickles were not common among Native Americans, though they did eat some fermented foods. A type of Cherokee bread consisted of maize wrapped in corn leaves that then fermented for a couple of weeks; however, it was not a long-term storage item. Fish and meat items might also be allowed to ferment, but again, were eaten fairly quickly after fermentation.

 

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Fry Bread

Navajo Woman and Baby at Bosque Redondo, 1866, courtesy New Mexico State Monuments

Navajo Woman and Baby at Bosque Redondo, 1866, courtesy New Mexico State Monuments

Fry bread (or frybread) is associated with Native American cuisine, but it is not a traditional food for native peoples. The food originated during hard times, and is a symbol of both pride and pain.

In 1863 Gen. James Henry Carleton, commander of New Mexico Territory, rounded up Navajos and Mescalero Apaches in the Four Corners region and forcibly marched them from Ft. Defiance in Arizona to a camp called Bosque Redondo at Fort Sumner. Around 10,000 men, women, and children (including the elderly) walked 450 miles into this eastern New Mexico encampment. Many died along the way or were shot as stragglers. This tragic event is known as The Long Walk.

Once in Bosque Redondo–which was 40 square miles of shortgrass prairie and desert that wouldn’t support farming–at least 2,380 people died of exposure, disease, and hunger. The U.S. government finally issued commodity rations like white flour, lard, sugar, and canned goods to alleviate the misery. Fry bread was a filling meal these prisoners could make, though it was not a nutritious one.

Today fry bread is still a common food which is also popular and prominent at celebrations and powwows. The bread has been eaten for many years by Native Americans and represents a shared culinary experience among many tribes, but more importantly, it represents their perseverance and resiliency. Fry bread is a subsistence food that represents repression and hard times on one hand, yet speaks to triumph and tenacity on the other.

In 2005, the Bosque Redondo Memorial center opened as a place to mourn the dead and to celebrate survival.

Survivors of The Long Walk, 1864, at Fort Sumner

Survivors of The Long Walk, 1864, at Fort Sumner

Navajo at Bosque Redondo

Navajo at Bosque Redondo

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Eating to Live

Native American Woman Using a Scaula Hoe in North Dakota circa 1912

Native American Woman Using a Scapula Hoe in North Dakota circa 1912

Autumn and harvest-time go hand in hand, and many people today are paying far more attention to their food than they have in the past. We are beginning to recognize that our food has changed dramatically over the years in terms of nutrition and safety; many families are trying to to get away from modern processed food and return to foods that are actually healthy.

Native Americans who lived off the land before they were displaced were probably healthier, with less degenerative diseases than people today. Foraged produce like dandelion greens have far more phytonutrients (natural chemicals found in food that aren’t essential to health but have many benefits to human nutrition, such as carotenoids) than spinach. The traditional colored corn types that Native Americans grew were rich in the anthocyanins that protect against cancer, high blood pressure, inflammation, and cholesterol. Today’s common grocery-store sweet corn has far fewer of these phytonutrients and much more sugar.

Native Americans ate regional foods, meaning that desert dwellers did not eat seafood and coastal dwellers did not eat prairie chicken. Locally grown fruits, vegetables, and grains  produced seeds with traits that were well-suited for that region, leading to better crop success. Earlier foods were more bitter, less tender, and more fibrous than foods today; farmers have spent hundreds of years breeding crops for sweetness and tenderness, to the detriment of nutrition.

The growing interest in heritage foods may bring many forgotten foods back into the mainstream. Organic methods will also recall Native practices and enhance food safety. Native peoples lived in environmental balance and prove that it can be done.

Dandelions

Dandelions

Native American Farmer

Native American Farmer

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Other Ills at the Asylum

Blankets Infected With Smallpox Were Distributed to Native Americans to Start an Epidemic, courtesy sphtc.org

Blankets Infected With Smallpox Were Distributed to Native Americans to Start an Epidemic, courtesy sphtc.org

Though there is no mention of any smallpox epidemics at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, the threat of this terrible disease was very real. Smallpox had devastated Native American communities once Europeans arrived, since native peoples had no immunity to a disease they had never encountered. Mortality estimates range from 50% for the Cherokee, Catawba, and Huron, and as high as 90% for the Mandan after first contact.

Native Americans did not immediately connect smallpox to the Europeans who brought it. Plains tribes thought the disease was the Bad Spirit appearing, while the Creeks and Cherokees thought it came to them because they had violated tribal laws. Missionaries and Jesuits were later blamed for smallpox because of their religious paraphernalia and concern about dying, and they may well have carried infection to the various peoples they visited in the course of their work.

By the early 1900s, Native Americans were well aware that Europeans had brought this tremendous disaster with them. In 1914, Dr. Harry Hummer vaccinated 48 patients and five employees against smallpox. (Another five employees had previously contracted smallpox, and 13 refused the vaccination.) Hummer asked  the Commissioner of Indian Affairs what he should do about the employees who had refused the vaccine, and he had a right to be concerned. Considering the frail health that many of his patients endured, smallpox would have been an overwhelming illness for them to fight.

Smallpox Prevention Poster Distributed by the Minnesota Department of Health, circa 1924

Smallpox Prevention Poster Distributed by the Minnesota Department of Health, circa 1924

A Navajo Hogan is Burned After Occupation by a Smallpox Victim, Leupp Indian Reservation, circa 1890 to 1910, courtesy National Library of Medicine

A Navajo Hogan is Burned After Occupation by a Smallpox Victim, Leupp Indian Reservation, circa 1890 to 1910, courtesy National Library of Medicine

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A Full Time Job

Chiefs of the Yankton Sioux With Their Indian Agents, courtesy S. J. Morrow Collection, the W. H. Over Museum, University of South Dakota

Chiefs of the Yankton Sioux With Their Indian Agents, courtesy S. J. Morrow Collection, the W. H. Over Museum, University of South Dakota

Indian inspectors had their hands full trying to ensure that laws and policies were properly carried out within all the reservations (see last post).

But, it was the Indian agent who actually made things tick at the local level. Almost all reservations had an agent, who wielded enormous power over the lives of the Native Americans who were living on them as wards of the U.S. government.

Continue reading

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Too Much to Inspect

Board of Indian Commissioners, courtesy Library Company of Philadelphia

Board of Indian Commissioners, courtesy Library Company of Philadelphia

The federal government has long provided for inspection in most areas over which it has control, and Indian reservations were no exception. In 1904, the legislature published Laws and Treaties, Vol. I, which outlined laws, policies, and procedures pertaining to its “Indian Affairs” responsibilities. Continue reading

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