December 7, 2023

Indian Tribes: Challenges and Steps Taken to Save Their Cultural Identity

Author: Rich Bernett
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By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

Thomas Jefferson expressed his sorrow about the sufferings of many Indian tribes and thought them to be almost extinguished. However, this was far from the fact. Instead, the tribes were present in large numbers all over North America. Learn how they worked to preserve their cultural identity and find a place among the mainstream population.

Image of an Indian tribesman riding a horse.
There were a large number of Indian tribes spread all over the United States with their federations, bigger tribes, and alliances working hard to preserve their identity. (Image: TORWAISTUDIO/Shutterstock)

Omnipresent Indian Tribes

The Indian tribes were far from extinguished and existed in a number of complicated social and economic relationships. The basic unit of Indian political organization remained as it was when white Europeans first landed in North America, and that was the tribe. Tribal identity was porous and several tribes created larger super tribes, federations, and alliances, such as the Iroquois of the Northeast, and individual tribes permitted the adoption of other Indians and even whites into tribal membership.

Similarities Between the Indian Tribes and the Agrarian Republic

Indians were not as few in number and as easily dismissed as Jefferson imagined. Instead of 30,000, the Indian population of North America was probably closer to 750,000. What surprised Jefferson were the striking similarities that existed between Indian societies and the agrarian Republic he admired. Like rural Massachusetts farming communities, Indian tribes were generally patriarchal, with labor divided by gender and age. In the case of the Shawnee, the largest tribal group in Kentucky and Ohio, adult males were responsible only for hunting, fishing, and the occasional war. Agriculture and child-rearing fell entirely to Indian women.

Learn more about the lack of labor to develop America that required the forced migration of laborers.

Three-Way Colonial Economy

Like whites, the Indians learned, even before the revolution, to find places in the white man’s commercial networks. They carefully managed and brokered the fur trade with white traders, much to their own economic advantage. The colonial economy was thought to be a two-way exchange between colonists and European merchants; instead, it was a three-way arrangement, in which the Indians consciously played off colonists and British or French agents against each other.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Changing Sides for Tribal Identity

With the French and Indian War, Indians placed their support behind the French and lost. Then, during the Revolution, the Indians supported the British, hoping that a British victory would help to restrain aggressive colonial expansion over the Appalachian Mountains, but they lost again.

As the much-feared Americans began pouring into Kentucky and the Northwest Territory in search of cheap land, the disheartened Indian tribes chose one of two ways of dealing with this challenge. One was accommodation, which usually meant the grudging but gradual sale or signing over of tribal lands to white settlement in return for various guarantees of protection or resettlement further west. During the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1784, the once-powerful Iroquois surrendered most of their lands in western New York and Pennsylvania. They sided with the British during the Revolution, just as they had with the British during the French and Indian War, but lost big.

Learn more about the U.S. Army’s campaign against plains’ tribes to break their resistance.

Cherokees and the Real Meaning of Accommodation

In the Treaty of Hopewell in 1785, the Cherokees, who had thrown their people in with the British during the Revolution, gave up all their claims on land in the Carolinas and Tennessee. In 1791, the part-white, part-Creek Indian chieftain, Alexander McGilliveray, reluctantly handed over all the Creek claims to land in Georgia. Sometimes, accommodation meant the decision to internalize the white civilization and convert tribal ways into settled agricultural patterns, with the reasoning that they could claim rights to the land in the same way that white people did. The Cherokees organized a common government for their villages, adopted a written legal code, and in 1827 devised a constitution, which among other things legalized black slavery and deprived any descendants of blacks from voting in tribal elections.

Image of the Seneca Chief Cornplanter in traditional outfits and accessories.
The Seneca tribe suffered a cultural collapse. (Image: New-York Historical Society/Public domain)

Accommodation for Seneca?

Accommodation also meant the cycles of cultural collapse. The Seneca of western New York fell prey to alcoholism and poverty after the Revolution. They might have died but a middle-aged Seneca named Handsome Lake experienced a dramatic vision in 1799, which led to his creation of a new tribal religion. The Handsome Lake religion was a curious amalgam of Quakerism and traditional Seneca beliefs, revitalizing the Senecas, easing them into patterns of moral behavior and land ownership that ensured the survival of their tribe.

Option of Resistance by Indian Tribe

The alternative to accommodation was resistance for many other Indians. Accommodation with the hated but victorious Americans was out of the question, and their animosities were fed during the 1790s by British Canadians, who feared American expansion just as much as the Indians, believing that the only way to restrain American expansion was the creation of an autonomous Indian buffer zone in the Northwest Territories.

Armed with British weapons and their own indignation, the Indians of Ohio and Kentucky repeatedly tried to stop white expansion by force. The most dramatic example of that resistance began in 1805, when a Shawnee shaman named Lalawethika, the Prophet, experienced a vision and emerged from this vision with a new name, Tenskwatawa, the Open Door, and a new creed for the Shawnee, which rejected assimilation to white culture.

Learn more about the Homestead Act which encouraged farmers to acquire land at no cost.

Story of Tecumseh

An image of a water color painting showing the Shawnee chief Tecumseh.
Though considered a genius, Tecumseh was forced to seek refuge with the British because of his brother’s decision to attack Harrison who defeated and burnt their town. (Image: Toronto Public Library/Public domain)

By 1809, Tenskwatawa’s brother, Tecumseh, joined his brother’s religious vision of plans for a general Indian confederation and joint armed resistance to the whites. “Tecumseh”, as William Henry Harrison, the territorial governor for the Indiana Territory once described him, “was one of those uncommon geniuses which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the order of things.”

Tecumseh certainly overcame the customary unwillingness of Indian tribes to cooperate with each other, and by 1811, he united the Wyandot, Chippewa, Sauk and Foxes, Winnebago, and Potawatomi tribes. At the same time, Governor Harrison decided to take no chances and organized a force of militia to attack Tecumsehs capital, Prophet’s Town, on the Tippecanoe River, while Tecumseh was away negotiating with the Creeks and the Cherokees. Tecumseh’s brother, Tenskwatawa unwisely led the Indians out on November 7, 1811, to attack Harrison, who defeated them, humbled Tenskwatawa, and burned Prophet’s Town to the ground. Tecumseh’s alliance fell apart and Tecumseh was forced to seek refuge with the British in Canada.

Clashes Between Americans and Indian Tribes

Tecumseh’s flight to Canada became a symbol of a deadly cycle of suspicion and expansion. The agrarian society of Thomas Jefferson provided a virtuous alternative to the corruption of Britain’s international network of commercial capitalism. However, that society could not survive without constant expansion westward, bringing Americans into serious and often fatal confrontation with the Indian tribes. Those tribes were both armed and encouraged by the British in Canada, who believed they had as much to fear as the Indians from American expansion.

Americans concluded that the root of their difficulty in perpetuating a virtuous republican society in the west was, once again, the British. The short-term solution was to strike down the Indians before they struck. The long-term solution was to strike instead at the dark force that was plotting the destruction of the virtuous Republic, which was Great Britain.

Common Questions about the Cultural Identity of Indian Tribes

Q: What did Native American tribes have in common?

Like the rural Massachusetts farming communities, Native American tribes were generally patriarchal, with labor divided by gender and age.

Q: What is Tecumseh famous for?

According to the territorial governor for the Indiana Territory, William Henry Harrison, Tecumseh was one of those uncommon geniuses born occasionally who produce revolutions and overturn the order of things.

Q: What happened to Tecumseh’s brother?

Tecumseh’s brother, Tenskwatawa, unwisely led the Indians out on November 7, 1811, to attack Harrison, who defeated them, humbled Tenskwatawa, and burned Prophet’s Town to the ground.

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