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Introduction

Though much is know about the Aztec, Maya and Inca in Pre-Columbian Central and South America, the history of Native Americans in North America has always been a difficult field of study.  In fact, many historians long believed--and some still believe--that their field of study is unsuited or inadequate for the task of studying Native Americans.  They argue that prior to the arrival of Columbus and the advent of a written history of the Americas, Native American past must be relegated to the fields of Anthropology and Archaeology--what they sometimes deride as the realm of of Pre-History.

As the discipline of history changed in the 1960s, new groups were brought into the history books--women, immigrants, African Americans, and, of course, Native Americans.  But often that history was limited at best, as the following former West Valley textbooks illustrate:

Excerpt from Freedom and Crisis: An American History by Allen Weinstein and R. Jackson Wilson (Random House, 1978):

"From a modern perspective, the European triumph seems to have been an inevitable result of superior technology.  But from the perspective of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the European foothold in the New World appears to have been the precarious result of advantages won through daring exercises in ruthless desperation...When the English managed to establish their first successful settlement in North America, they did not encounter Native American civilizations as advanced as those the Spanish found in Latin America.  Nor did they find gold and silver.  What they found was land--land that sometimes seemed impossible to conquer."


Excerpt from Rise of the American Nation by Lewis Paul Todd and Merle Curti (Harcourt Brace, Jovanovich, Publishers, 1982):

"The understanding that enabled the Indians to develop methods for living in harmony with the land did not prepare them for an invasion by people of another culture.  This understanding was no match for the guns and other technological developments that the Europeans would bring to the Americas."

Native Americans were introduced as new characters in the story of American history, but they typically remained in the backgound of the story of European exploration, conquest and settlement.  And though the study of Native American history has improved dramatically in the past few years, it is still difficult for many to understand how Native Americans fit into the history of the America.  Professor James Loewen summarizes the difficulty of the task quite well:


Over the last few years, I have asked hundreds of college students, "When was the country we know as the United States first settled?"...I initially believed--certainly I had hoped--that students would suggest 30,000 B.C., or some other pre-Columbian date.  They did not.  Their consensus answer was "1620."  Obviously, my students' heads have been filled with America's origin myth, the story of the first Thanksgiving...Part of the problem is the word settle.  "Settlers" were white, a student once pointed out to me.  "Indians" did not settle.
--From Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong


Historical Analysis


Three major paradigms of historical study dominate the study of Native Americans:

Pre-Columbian Native American history is inaccessible to historians
--OR--
 Pre-Columbian Native Americant was rather uneventful, especially when compared to the dramatice changes that followed European contact;
--OR--
Pre-Columbian Native American is not significant because the arrival of Europeans represented the replacement of one world with another when true European colonization began in the 17th century.

A paradigm is a lens through which a historian or other scholar views a topic; often this paradigm is the most significant influence on his or her interpretation.  These paradigms have limited our understanding of the history of the Americas before Columbus and have subsequently led to a minimization of the role of Native Americans in the study of American history.


Historians—including those you will read after following the Wolf Howl link below—now argue that the history of the Americas, before, during and after the initial period of European contact, represented, in the words of Colin Calloway, “New Worlds for All.”  Clearly Native Americans and Europeans alike were agents of change in developing a world in the Americas very different from what either had experienced before.



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