The Effects of Colonization on Native Americans
Though European travelers and settlers referred to the Americas as “the new world”, there was nothing new about the lands they had “discovered”. For thousands of years, Native people roamed the lands freely in the form of hundreds of different tribes. They built communities, practiced their own religions, spoke their own languages, and lived their own lives, uninterrupted. That all changed the day Columbus landed on San Salvador, October 12, 1492: “Columbus mistakenly assumed that they must be near the Indies, so he called the island people “Indios”… He marveled that they “would make fine servants” (America: A Narrative History, 21). Almost immediately, the European bias towards Native Americans was born. From this point forward they would go through centuries of hardship in direct correlation with the colonization of the Americas.
There were many ways European colonizers caused harm during early interactions in the 16th century with the Natives of these “new lands”. Native Americans had been isolated on their own continent for hundreds of years. Their immune systems were not equipped to handle the new diseases being brought across the ocean. They were being wiped out in large numbers, whether they got the opportunity to stay on their home turf, or if they were being taken back as servants to Europe. The Natives were at a disadvantage fighting back against the colonizers due to the advancements in technology Europeans had over the Americas. By no means were Native Americans simple. They had built complex communities, they had social structure, language, their own way of doing things. One thing they did not have was guns. Their weapons could not hold up against that of the conquerors. Europeans not only brought over guns and disease to these “new” lands, but they also brought domesticated animals the Natives had never seen before. “The Spanish brought with them strange beasts: horses, pigs, sheep, and cattle. Horses provided greater speed in battle and gave the Spanish a decided psychological advantage” (America: A Narrative History, 30). The power dynamic between Natives and the Europeans was great. Native Americans were overwhelmed by the force of their intruders. It was relatively easy for the colonizers to overpower them. If you did not comply, you would die. So, in general, the Native Americans would succumb to slavery or join forces with conquering armies and overtake other tribes. This was the beginning of a vicious cycle that would dismantle the culture Native Americans had established over thousands of years.
Europeans were motivated to come to America for many reasons. For some it was gold and glory with their monarchs, for others it was religious freedom. Religious freedom was the case for the Puritans who traveled across the sea to escape the reign of power the Church of England had over their home country in the early 17th century. The Native Americans were essential to the livelihood of Massachusetts’s first settlers. Without them and their help, who knows if this starter colony would have made it. A Native American man named Squanto was particularly helpful to the young settlement the pilgrims built. He was captured and seized by explorer John Smith. He managed to escape and return back to his homeland. “In addition to interpreting and mediating between the colonial leaders and Native American chiefs, Squanto taught the pilgrims how to plant corn, as well as where to fish and hunt beaver” (Editors). Understanding the way of the land was crucial to surviving the harsh winters of New England. Even with this knowledge, many settlers didn’t make it through their first year. Without it, it’s doubtful any of them would have.
Even though the Pilgrims received help from the Native Americans they still held prejudice against them based off of their strict beliefs. In an Article from Publick Occurrences, an early newspaper printed out of Boston in 1690, the author describes Native Americans in two different lights. “The Christianized Indians in some parts of Plimoth, have newly appointed a day of Thanksgiving to God for his Mercy in supplying their extream and pinching Necessities under their late want of Corn, & for His giving them now a prospect of a very Comfortable Harvest. Their Example may be worth Mentioning” (Publick Occurrences). If the natives complied with their religion and conformed to their ways, they were praised. On the other hand, those who didn’t satisfy their agenda were described as “barbarous Indians” (Publick Occurrences). The goal of the Puritans coming to America was to establish pure land that followed their very specific and strict beliefs. This meant changing anyone they came in contact with or forcing them out. As long as the Native Americans followed along, they were generally accepted. In following along with Christianity, the Native Americans begin to lose their own culture and beliefs they worked thousands of years to establish. In not following along with these beliefs they were forced out of the land they have known as home for thousands of years. With the introduction of the Pilgrims to these lands, the Native Americans continue to lose their lives to diseases, lose their culture to the new “norm”, and lose their land to their invaders.
The Native American’s will continue to deal with hardships and prejudice for decades. It gets particularly bad for them as colonizers begin to expand their grasp of the land out west. Tribes that are used to the east coast climate, the oceans and the way of life they established are now forced to uproot themselves. They find themselves in unknown territory, meeting new unknown tribes, having to reestablish themselves and the way they live, only to be forced further west as the years go on. One of the biggest political enemies of the Native Americans was President Andrew Jackson. “President Andrew Jackson’s military command and almost certainly his life were saved thanks to the aid of 500 Cherokee allies at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814” (Cherokee Nation Cultural Resource Center). Despite this, Jackson was the one who signed into law the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The trail of tears is responsible for thousands of Native American deaths due to disease, hunger, and exhaustion. Andrew Jackson signed their death warrant. Regardless of how the Native Americans acted around their European neighbors, they continue to be subject of discrimination. Without the help of the Cherokee nation, Jackson and his army would not have succeeded at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. Still, he has no problem turning his back against them and sending them away from their lands and into their graves.
During this time in the early 19th century, it was still a goal to assimilate the Native Americans to the white man’s cultures. “Jackson rescued a Creek boy orphaned during the Battle of Horseshoe Bend… He adopted “Lyncoya” and sent him to be raised among his family, noting to his wife Rachel that he felt “unusual sympathy” for the orphan” (Shire). He had no problem taking this boy from the culture he knew and assimilating him into that of the white man. Not to mention he only gained access to this orphan through a battle that the Native Americans had no benefit fighting in. Before the United States became the United States, the natives were able to live peacefully on their land. Now they are forced to fight in battles that have nothing to do with them. Now they are forced to leave the lands they’ve called home for thousands of years. Now they are forced to assimilate to a life that’s foreign to them in order to survive in society. Andrew Jackson and other Americans believed they were doing the natives a favor in converting them to European lifestyle. All they were doing was erasing Native American history. The population of Native Americans from all different tribes will continue to decline rapidly throughout generations. They will lose their homes, their traditions, their way of life, their culture. It is all a result of the selfishness of colonization.
Since the “discovery” of what is now known as the Americas, the native people that occupied these lands have been victims of colonialism. The judgment and prejudice started in the 15th century with the explorers who were quick to enslave these human beings. These stereotypes carry on throughout the centuries. Native Americans were prosecuted for their way of life and belief systems because it was different from that of the white Europeans. They were dehumanized and named as barbarians, savages, beasts. They were forced to assimilate to new religion and culture and in turn erase their history. Those who didn’t conform to social norms accepted by the majority of the United States were forced from their homes into unknown territory and often times to their untimely deaths. Even into the 20th century when film comes around Native Americans are portrayed on the silver screen in an unflattering light, continuing the patterns of racism against them. Nowadays Native Americans have reservations, few and far between, that are even still being taken away from them. From the Dakota Access Pipeline to the United States not recognizing the Mashpee Wampanoags as an official Native tribe. The same tribe that initially greeted the Pilgrims with open arms and helped them survive harsh New England winters are fighting the U.S. government to be recognized and get their land back… In the 21st century. We cannot erase what has happened to our Native American brothers and sisters throughout history. Though there is nothing we can do to make it right and it’s too late to fix things, we must not forget. We must recognize their history, their heritage, and acknowledge the hardships they were put through because of our ancestors and our government.
- “1. The Collusion of Cultures.” America: A Narrative History, by David Emory Shi and George Brown Tindall, W.W. Norton and Company, 2016, pp. 4-53.
- Cherokee Nation Cultural Resource Center. “A Brief History of the Trail of Tears.” Cherokee Nation, cherokee.org/About-The-Nation/History/Trail-of-Tears/A-Brief-History-of-the-Trail-of-Tears.
- Editors, History.com. “The Pilgrims.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2 Dec. 2009, www.history.com/topics/colonial-america/pilgrims.
- Publick Occurrences, no. I, 25 Sept. 1690, p. . Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANX&docref=image/v2:[email protected]@[email protected] Accessed 22 Apr. 2019.
- Shire, Laurel Clark. “Sentimental Racism and Sympathetic Paternalism: Feeling Like a Jacksonian.” Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 39, no. 1, Spring 2019, pp. 111–122. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1353/jer.2019.0009.