Excerpt: Indians in the United States and Canada

The following is an excerpt from Indians in the United States and Canada: A Comparative History, Second Edition (Nebraska, 2018) by Roger L. Nichols. This book is 30% off for a limited time. Enter 6NUC in the promotion code field of your shopping cart and click “Add Promotion Code.” Offer expires October 31, 2018 and is good for U.S. and Canadian shipments only.

From the Introduction:


In 1513, when Europeans first reached North America, between five and ten million native people lived in what are now the United States and Canada. During the next several centuries American Indian populations fell drastically because several million Europeans invaded, overrunning and often destroying the tribal societies. This long-running multiracial encounter brought violence and warfare that alternated with periods of peace. Whatever the circumstances, the interlopers seized land and resources that the Indians considered their own. Often trade, cooperation, and goodwill coexisted with greed, brutality, and violence. In these circumstances ethnocentrism,  misunderstanding, miscalculation, incompetence, and criminality all played central roles as they poisoned relations between tribal peoples and the intruding Europeans.

From the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, similar things happened in many parts of the world as the Europeans penetrated parts of Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and South America as well. In each place the specific events varied, but generally the invaders strove to take physical control of the region and to subjugate the local populations. Indigenous peoples, however, resisted the newcomers with great skill much of the time. Plainly what happened in North America resembled similar events elsewhere. Frontier encounters became common.1 In most cases the Europeans prevailed and came to direct the societies that emerged from these conflicts. That certainly describes the results in North America, Australia, and New Zealand.



Disease marched well ahead of many European interlopers, felling thousands, perhaps millions, of the indigenous people. Higher levels of technology, including metal tools, firearms, wheeled vehicles, and domesticated animals, gave the intruders material advantages. More hierarchically organized political, economic, and military structures also operated on the Europeans’ side. In differing frontier settings around the world, then, the invading groups often seemed to hold the most advantageous positions. They used their skills of communicating on paper to seal agreements with tribal peoples. The plagues and other medical disasters that decimated the Indians, Maoris, and Australian Aborigines seemed to pass them by. With these advantages on their side, the whites pushed forward, greedily taking possession or control whenever possible.

Despite this, many Indian societies in the United States and Canada did not disappear. Certainly some did, while others combined ranks with their neighbors or fled beyond the immediate reach of the intruders. During that process changes swept through the Indian tribes and bands. At times these brought incredible transformations among the villagers, while under other circumstances Indians merely added some white ideas or customs to their own. Nevertheless, the evidence analyzed for this study shows a distinct pattern that occurred repeatedly between 1513 and the present in what is now the United States and Canada. It includes five stages: tribal independence or even supremacy over the Europeans; a gradual shift to Indian-white equality; the reduction of the tribes to a position of dependency on the colonial or national government in each region; the further descent of Indian people to marginality at the fringes of the majority society; and for some, a resurgence of cultural nationalism, economic recovery, and political awareness and influence. By no means was this model universal, but the pattern occurred with such frequency that it is useful and effective as a means through which to examine the experiences of tribal peoples in each of the two countries.

The motivation for writing this study of white and Indian relationships in the two countries came partly from hearing a 1977 address urging those in the audience to consider research projects on comparative frontier issues. Other projects occupied my interests at the time, so the speaker’s suggestions had to wait. Then, reading for something else, I encountered a striking coincidence. In 1969 Vine Deloria Jr., a Standing Rock Sioux, published Custer Died for Your Sins. This popular and devastating critique of white destructive impacts on tribal experiences in the United States was the first of his articulate and influential books on these issues. What struck me was that during that same year, Harold Cardinal, a Canadian Cree, published The Unjust Society, often making similar criticisms about government actions and ideas in Canada. Both of these writers discussed the cultural destruction of North American Indian societies and the processes through which they had lost their homelands. To me the appearance of these two moving books in the same year indicated that the time was ripe for a comparative analysis of Indian experiences in the two countries.2 Having decided to begin this project, it became apparent quickly that comparative history is a strange undertaking. People call for such studies repeatedly. The few in existence receive much praise, but not many scholars actually attempt such complex projects. This is certainly obvious when one examines histories of North American issues. For generations writers in the United States and Canada have inundated both societies with a flood of materials on native peoples. Biographies of leaders, ethnologies of individual groups, and studies of policies, customs, economies, and warfare line the library shelves in both countries. Certainly a few broad studies address issues of Indian affairs in both countries, but when measured against the total outpourings of scholars and popular writers, the amount of comparative writing is limited indeed.3

There are many reasons for this. To do comparative history well, one must be thoroughly familiar with the issues and historiography in more than one society. The story of Indian affairs in the United States and Canada includes an overwhelming amount and variety of data. As a result, this study has depended almost entirely on published primary materials and existing secondary literature. Comparative studies also present major organizational difficulties. When looking at North American developments, one has to consider the policies and actions of five governments—Spain, France, Great Britain, Canada, and the United States—as well as the actions of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was on the scene for two full centuries. Moreover, hundreds of Indian societies occupied the region, having developed many levels of economic, political, and social organization. As a result, their perceptions of and initiatives toward the Europeans differed widely.



1. For a careful discussion of this use of the term frontier, see Lamar and Thompson, The Frontier in History, 3–13, and Jacobs, “The Fatal Confrontation.”

2. Jackson, “A Brief Message for the Young and/or Ambitious”; Deloria, Custer Died for Your Sins; and Cardinal, The Unjust Society.

3. One example for each country offers a glimpse of the bulk of the literature. In the United States, the University of Oklahoma Press’s Civilization of the American Indian series includes well over 150 titles, with new ones being added regularly. The volume of Canadian scholarship may be seen from Alber and Weaver’s A Canadian Indian Bibliography, 1960–1970, which for that single decade lists 3,082 items. In both countries, the volume of both popular and scholarly literature on Native American issues continues to rise dramatically.

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