Telling All Americans' Stories: Introduction to Indigenous Heritage

There are many stories about the first people who lived on the North American continent. One tells of the Great Spirit who collected dust from the four winds to create the Comanche people. The Hopi people tell of two brothers who slashed open great swaths into the ground and sowed powerful stalks of cane so the ancient people living beneath the earth could climb above ground.

Long before Europeans, Africans, and Asians  settled in North America, sovereign societies shared the continent through complex and frequently negotiated networks of alliances, confederacies, intermarriage, treaties, and trade agreements.

An American Indian woman plays the flute at the American Indian Arts Festival
Musician Rona Yellowrobe performs at the American Indian Arts Festival in 2013.

Ronnie Ziemba

Archaeologists research migrations of peoples from north central Asia across a land bridge that stretched across the Bering Strait between modern-day Siberia and Alaska during the Pleistocene Ice Age—some 13,000 years ago. At the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, visitors can learn about these migrants. Different tribes developed unique languages and cultures.  Some of these remarkable journeys can be retraced at our nation’s parks and historic places. Chaco Culture World Heritage Site contains some of many places that illuminate the civilizations that shaped the pre-Columbian North American landscape.

The ancestors of American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians were indigenous to the lands that have since become the United States.  There are many diverse tribes and ethnic groups with distinct languages, customs, and traditions. Long before Europeans, Africans, and Asians  settled in North America, sovereign societies shared the continent through complex and frequently negotiated networks of alliances, confederacies, intermarriage, treaties, and trade agreements. Like most civilizations, periods of peace and prosperity were disrupted by periods of violence, warfare, and disease. Through times of stability and upheaval, these groups preserved their collective histories and memories through rich oral traditions.

By the 1500s, indigenous peoples discovered that new groups of foreigners were exploring and claiming tribal lands. As European explorers made their way across the continent, they established trading posts, missions, churches, and settlements that altered the land long used by native peoples. These sites are not solely remnants of European exploration. They were also the sites of important cross-cultural encounters. French traders built posts throughout the Lower Mississippi Valley. In the late 1600s, Henri de Tonti established one such settlement called the Poste de Arkansas in order to more easily trade with local native peoples, such as the Quapaw Indian village of Osoturoy. Today, visitors at the Arkansas Post National Memorial can begin to glimpse a shared space where these cultures met, clashed, and converged.

The American Revolutionary War (1776-1783) disrupted established patterns of alliances and trade between European settlers and indigenous peoples. Fort Stanwix National Monument in New York highlights the trials the Six Nations Confederacy —comprised of the Seneca, Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Tuscarora—endured during the war. While most members believed an alliance with the English would prevent Americans from further encroaching on their lands, the Oneida and Tuscarora threw their support behind rebelling colonists, serving as scouts, guides, and even as continental soldiers. When England and the United States signed the Treaty of Paris (1783) at Fort Stanwix, neither nation made provisions for their Six Nations allies. While the revolution brought peace and liberty for the new American republic, the Six Nations survived with a dismantled confederacy and devastated lands and villages.

After the colonies won their independence, the United States steadily extended its borders westward and indigenous peoples struggled to retain their autonomy and cultural identities.  Conflicts arose between Americans Indians and others -- especially ranchers and homesteaders --over land and border disputes. Tribes adopted various strategies of survival. Some tribes signed peace treaties with the U.S. government or land agents in an attempt to retain their ancestral lands. Others held on to their lands through armed resistance—with devastating losses for all parties involved.

During the early 1800s, the early republic sought to address European American settlers’ demands for more land. President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act (1830) forced American Indian peoples remaining in the eastern states to relocate west of the Mississippi river. Between 1830 and 1850 approximately 100,000 people lost their homes. In 1838, the U.S. government forced over 16,000 Cherokee people from their lands in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee to current-day Oklahoma. The Cherokee suffered devastating losses during their resettlement west—nearly 5,000 people perished due to the forced relocation in the journey known as the Trail of Tears.  

By the end of the 1800s, American Indians’ resistance to the encroachment of European American settlers led to increasingly violent clashes. Broken treaties between the United States military, the Plains Indians, and the Nez Perce Indians led to violent battles at Fort Laramie National Historic Site and Nez Perce National Historic Park. Visitors at Washita Battlefield National Historic Site  and Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site learn about how U.S. military attempts to deter raids led to the massacre of hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women, and children. After decades of violent struggle over Montana territory, the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne nations defeated Civil War hero, Lieutenant Colonel George Custer’s troops at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in 1876.  The monument was once solely a commemoration of Custer and his 7th Cavalry.  It now also interprets the stories of the U.S. troops and American Indian warriors, such as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

As national borders reached the Pacific Coast, the U.S. government adopted a series of policies that sought to “Americanize” and “civilize” American Indians. During the 1800s, policymakers, social reformers, and religious groups developed programs to force minority groups to adopt European American cultural practices. They outlawed indigenous religious ceremonies and developed homesteading programs. Boarding schools, such as the Pipestone Indian School Superintendent’s House in Minnesota, taught American Indian children the English language and Christian faith. These policies caused an irreparable loss of indigenous languages, tribal customs, and ancestral lands. Opponents of such forced assimilation would spend much of the 1900s attempting to reverse many of these policies and preserve traditions for younger generations.

Indigenous people carried their struggles for both legal equality and political sovereignty into the twentieth century. During the Civil Rights Movement, activists founded the American Indian Movement (AIM) to address Native sovereignty, education, inadequate housing, unemployment, racism, and police harassment. On November 9, 1969, Mohawk Indian Richard Oakes and a group of supporters symbolically reclaimed the Alcatraz Island for native people and brought national attention to American Indians’ demands for self-determination. Activists occupied the island for 19 months before a group of armed federal marshals, FBI agents, and Special Forces police halted the occupation on June 10, 1971.  During the following months, the U.S. government officially reversed its long-held policy of the termination of native tribes and affirmed its commitment to American Indian self-determination. The occupation galvanized a political movement that continues today.

As our nation’s storyteller, the National Park Service is committed to telling all Americans’ stories. By working closely with tribal leaders, National Park Service historians, archaeologists, historians and anthropologists interpret some of these diverse histories for all Americans. Find these stories in our national parks and historic sites.

Visit the National Park Service Telling All Americans' Stories portal to learn more about American heritage themes and histories.

Last updated: February 9, 2017