An Introduction to Native North America, 4/e
©2012 / ISBN: 9780205121564
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In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed west from Spain, looking for a shorter and more direct route to the Indies. Instead, he landed on a small island in the Caribbean and encountered a New World occupied by many millions of people belonging to many hundreds, perhaps as many as a thousand, different cultures. These cultures were incredibly diverse, ranging from very small groups of hunters and gatherers to large groups of farmers living in cities, and having social and political institutions of varying complexities comparable to any in the world. Europeans wanted to believe that they had “discovered” a new land, untouched and pristine, a land occupied by wandering, primitive savages who did not “properly” possess the land. They believed it their duty to drag these native peoples from their state of savagery into the light of civilization. These beliefs served to justify the conquest of the New World and are still widely held today. But despite the onslaught of Europeans, native peoples have survived. Why are we interested in learning about Native North America? In the abstract, Native American culture is part of the larger human experience. Each culture is unique and the more we know about different cultures, the more we know collectively about all people. Anthropology holds the view that all cultures are valid, that they have the right to exist, and no one has the right to suppress them. Following this, the more that is known about a group, the better it is protected. Another tenet of anthropology is that no culture is better or worse than any other (with some exceptions such as Nazi Germany) and that cultures should not be judged. We all live in a multicultural world and it is important that everyone comprehend and appreciate cultural diversity so that bias, ethnocentrism, and racism can be conquered. As all cultures are unique, each has lessons to teach others and there is much (good and bad) that Native Americans can offer, such as their environmental practices, philosophy, literature, and the like. Their knowledge is useful to everyone and we can all learn from their successes and failures. A bit closer to home, American culture has been shaped, in part, by contact and interaction with native peoples over hundreds of years and an appreciation
of that history can help to better understand where we all are now and how we got here. It is important for everyone to grasp the issues that surround minorities within a larger dominant culture, and to look for solutions to problems inherent in that situation. Many native peoples have gotten a “raw deal” and everyone should understand how that happened and what can be done about it. In some cases, the culture and practices of some native peoples were, at least in part, preserved for later generations by anthropologists. Lastly, Native American cultures are not “vanished races” consigned to natural history museums but modern, active, and vibrant groups. Everyone should celebrate the survival and revival of those cultures.
The Geography of North America
Prior to 1492, Europeans thought they knew the geography of the world and the location and extent of the various major landmasses and bodies of water. The landmasses known at that time consisted of Europe, Africa, Asia, and many of the islands of the western Pacific. However, when they encountered a huge new landmass full of unfamiliar people, it was seen as a “New World,” a name that continues to be used today (Fig. 1.1). The world known to the Europeans prior to 1492 was...
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