The American Indian: General Information Prior to 1900 Part II

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Food, Agriculture, Hunting, Fishing

Excepting on the plains and in the frozen north, agriculture was the chief dependence of most of the tribes. Those on the coast, including the Haida, were naturally fishermen. Those of the upper lakes and about the head of the Mississippi planted little, but gathered large quantities of wild rice and cranberries, besides sugar which they boiled from the sap of the maple. The equestrian plains tribes, excepting the corn-planting Pawnee and Arikara, were hunters pure and simple. Those of the Columbia were salmon-fishers, root-diggers, and berry-gatherers. Those of California and the Sierras were chiefly acorn and seed eaters.

The Navaho, since the Spanish mission period, have lived principally by the flesh of their sheep and goats, while the predatory Apaches were expert in preparing the edible roots and petals of various desert plants. The Pueblos may be considered as purely agricultural, raising large quantities of corn, beans, squashes, and other vegetables, as well as Chile and native tobacco. The tobacco was also cultivated by the Arikara and others of the upper Missouri, and by most of the Eastern tribes. Wild plums, pecans, mesquite beans, the tubers of the pomme blanche, and the seed-berries of the wild rose, were gathered and eaten by the buffalo-hunting tribes of the plains. Agriculture furnished more than half the food-supply of the Iroquois, the Atlantic coast and Gulf tribes, corn standing first in importance. In the arid Southwest irrigation was essential to success, and the Indians were skillful in utilizing the scanty water-supply in this manner.

Almost every animal of the plains and forest were hunted for its flesh, skin, horns, teeth, or sinew. On the plains the great game animal was the buffalo, after which came the elk, deer, and antelope. Very few Indians of this region ate the meat of birds or fish, although not averse to eating the horse or dog, while the Navaho and Apache refused to eat or even touch the bear, for some occult religious reason, and had an almost equal horror of fish. The Eastern Indians used fish, flesh, and fowl indiscriminately, only being careful not to put two kinds into the same pot. Salt procured from natural deposits or by boiling the water of saline springs was in general use on the plains and in the Southwest, as well as among some tribes of the Ohio Valley. In the Gulf States lye was used as a substitute.

Domesticated Animals

The horse and dog appear to have been the only animals regularly domesticated, although various birds were sometimes kept in confinement for the sake of the feathers, or possibly in some cases for their flesh. The Indian pony is commonly supposed to have descended from animals brought over by the Spanish conquerors; but some of the Western tribes stoutly assert that the horse was theirs long before the white man ever came. However that may be, it is now so much a part of the religious ceremonial, and daily life of the plains tribes that it is difficult to imagine a time when they were without it. Dogs frequently took the place of horses as light-burden carriers, and were likewise esteemed a choice article of food. The Caddo are said by other Indians to have trained their dogs to follow the trail of raiding enemies, possibly a trick learned from association with the French. The animal's main usefulness was as a vigilant sentry. From animals originally introduced by the Spanish Franciscans over two centuries ago, the Navaho now have more than 400,000 sheep and goats, from the wool and flesh of which they derive almost their whole subsistence.

Industries and Arts.

Aside from his food procuring occupations, the Indian had quite a number of industries and arts, both economic and aesthetic. Having only accidental knowledge of any metal but native copper, his tools were made of stone, bone, shell, or wood.

From stone he fashioned his knife, hammer, axe, spear-head, and arrow-point, as well as his pipe and gaming disk. Flint was the material commonly used for cutting tools in the East and obsidian in the West. Pipes were of great variety and sometimes of great beauty, being one of the most important adjuncts of ceremonial functions. The Navaho and Pueblos were expert in drilling turquoise for necklaces and ear-pendants. The black slate carving of the Haida and other north west coast tribes is probably not excelled by any primitive people. Pots, bowls, mortars, and pestles were also fashioned from stone. Arrowheads, knives, skin-dressers, sewing-awls, and fishing-hooks were frequently made from bone. Shells were also shaped into cutting tools, but were in more constant demand for gorgets and for the celebrated wampum beads, which were in universal use in the East for dress ornamentation and for weaving into record belts. The Eskimo and Aleut were expert carvers in walrus ivory, depicting whole hunting scenes upon a single tusk, with great beauty of execution. Mortars, Bowls, clubs, masks and sacred images for ceremonial occasions were made of wood.

The Pueblos carved wooden figurines to represent their traditional mythological characters, and distributed them to the children as dolls at their symbolic dances. Besides the immense carved totem-poles, the northwest coast tribes hewed great canoes from cedar-trunks, always painted and carved in characteristic style. The wooden dug-out canoe of the Atlantic tribes was a similar affair.

The Indian woman was a capable skin-dresser. Sinew was used for thread, and certain women were professionals in the work of cutting and fitting. Among the Pueblos and Navaho weaving had reached a high state of development, the material used having been originally a native cotton, and later wool. The art of feather-weaving was found with the Gulf tribes, while everywhere east of the Mississippi beautiful mats were woven from grass and rushes and stained in bright colors from native dyes. Basketry was found almost everywhere except upon the plains, where rawhide boses formed a substitute. The materials used were wood or cane splits, rushes, maguey fibre, and grass. The art reached its highest development in California, the Pomo baskets being unrivaled in any part of the world for closeness of weaving, intricacy of design, and beauty of shape and decoration. Akin to weaving and basketry was the art of decoration with beads and porcupine-quills the most beautiful specimens being the cradles and colored sashes, on some of which months of labor were expended. Pottery was made by all the sedentary and semi-sedentary tribes of the Eastern timber region and the Southwest, the coil process being everywhere used. In the East the vessel was usually decorated with stamped patterns. Among the Pueblos and adjacent tribes figures in various colors were painted upon the smooth exterior and afterwards fixed in the firing process. Almost without exception the potter, basket-maker, weaver, and skin-dresser was a woman. The only metal really in use north of Mexico at the time of the discovery appears to have been copper, which was obtained native in small quantities in the Southern Alleghanies and in greater quantities from mines along the shores of Lake Superior. It was not smelted, but hammered into a great variety of useful and ornamental objects which passed from tribe to tribe in regular trade. Mica was quarried in western North Carolina for use in mirrors and gorgets, and beads and other small objects hammered out from gold nuggets or meteoric iron have been found in some of the Southern mounds. In the Southwest the Navaho have learned the smelting and forging arts from the Mexicans, and have now many expert silver-workers and blacksmiths, making beads, buttons, wrist-guards, rings, and belts from silver coins which they melt and shape in forges and molds of their own construction.


Website: The History
Article Name: The American Indian: General Information Prior to 1900 Part II
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: From my Collection of Books: The New International Encyclopedia; 1902-1905 Dodd, Mead and Company-New York Total of 21 Volumes
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