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Indian Tribes Sedentary

 Native American Nations | Linguistic Families                    

In the first place, the linguistic map, based as it is upon the earliest evidence obtainable, itself offers conclusive proof, not only that the Indian tribes were in the main sedentary at the time history first records their position, but that they had been sedentary for a very long period. In order that this may be made plain, it should be clearly understood, as stated above, that each of the colors or patterns upon the map indicates a distinct linguistic family. It will be noticed that the colors representing the several families are usually in single bodies, i.e., that they represent continuous areas, and that with some exceptions the same color is not scattered here and there over the map in small spots. Yet precisely this last state of things is what would be expected had the tribes representing the families been nomadic to a marked degree. If nomadic tribes occupied North America, instead of spreading out each from a common center, as the colors show that the tribes composing the several families actually did, they would have been dispersed here and there over the whole face of the country. That they are not so dispersed is considered proof that in the main they were sedentary. It has been stated above that more or less extensive migrations of some tribes over the country had taken place prior to European occupancy. This fact is disclosed by a glance at the present map. The great Athapascan family, for instance, occupying the larger part of British America, is known from linguistic evidence to have sent off colonies into Oregon (Wilopah, Tlatskanai, Coquille), California (Smith River tribes, Kenesti or Wailakki tribes, Hupa), and Arizona and New Mexico (Apache, Navajo). How long before European occupancy of this country these migrations took place can not be told, but in the case of most of them it was undoubtedly many years. By the test of language it is seen that the great Siouan family, which we have come to look upon as almost exclusively western, had one offshoot in Virginia (Tutelo), another in North and South Carolina (Catawba), and a third in Mississippi (Biloxi); and the Algonquian family, so important in the early history of this country, while occupying a nearly continuous area in the north and east, had yet secured a foothold, doubtless in very recent times, in Wyoming and Colorado. These and other similar facts sufficiently prove the power of individual tribes or gentes to sunder relations with the great body of their kindred and to remove to distant homes. Tested by linguistic evidence, such instances appear to be exceptional, and the fact remains that in the great majority of cases the tribes composing linguistic families occupy continuous areas, and hence are and have been practically sedentary. Nor is the bond of a common language, strong and enduring as that bond is usually thought to be, entirely sufficient to explain the phenomenon here pointed out. When small in number the linguistic tie would undoubtedly aid in binding together the members of a tribe; but as the people speaking a common language increase in number and come to have conflicting interests, the linguistic tie has often proved to be an insufficient bond of union. In the case of our Indian tribes feuds and internecine conflicts were common between members of the same linguistic family. In fact, it is probable that a very large number of the dialects into which Indian languages are split originated as the result of internecine strife. Factions, divided and separated from the parent body, by contact, intermarriage, and incorporation with foreign tribes, developed distinct dialects or languages.

But linguistic evidence alone need not be relied upon to prove that the North American Indian was not nomadic.

Corroborative proof of the sedentary character of our Indian tribes is to be found in the curious form of kinship system, with mother-right as its chief factor, which prevails. This, as has been pointed out in another place, is not adapted to the necessities of nomadic tribes, which need to be governed by a patriarchal system, and, as well, to be possessed of flocks and herds.

There is also an abundance of historical evidence to show that, when first discovered by Europeans, the Indians of the eastern United States were found living in fixed habitations. This does not necessarily imply that the entire year was spent in one place. Agriculture not being practiced to an extent sufficient to supply the Indian with full subsistence, he was compelled to make occasional changes from his permanent home to the more or less distant waters and forests to procure supplies of food. When furnished with food and skins for clothing, the hunting parties returned to the village which constituted their true home. At longer periods, for several reasons—among which probably the chief were the hostility of stronger tribes, the failure of the fuel supply near the village, and the compulsion exercised by the ever lively superstitious fancies of the Indians—the villages were abandoned and new ones formed to constitute new homes, new focal points from which to set out on their annual hunts and to which to return when these were completed. The tribes of the eastern United States had fixed and definitely bounded habitats, and their wanderings were in the nature of temporary excursions to established points resorted to from time immemorial. As, however, they had not yet entered completely into the agricultural condition, to which they were fast progressing from the hunter state, they may be said to have been nomadic to a very limited extent. The method of life thus sketched was substantially the one which the Indians were found practicing throughout the eastern part of the United States, as also, though to a less degree, in the Pacific States. Upon the Pacific coast proper the tribes were even more sedentary than upon the Atlantic, as the mild climate and the great abundance and permanent supply of fish and shellfish left no cause for a seasonal change of abode.

When, however, the interior portions of the country were first visited by Europeans, a different state of affairs was found to prevail. There the acquisition of the horse and the possession of firearms had wrought very great changes in aboriginal habits. The acquisition of the former enabled the Indian of the treeless plains to travel distances with ease and celerity which before were practically impossible, and the possession of firearms stimulated tribal aggressiveness to the utmost pitch. Firearms were everywhere doubly effective in producing changes in tribal habitats, since the somewhat gradual introduction of trade placed these deadly weapons in the hands of some tribes, and of whole congeries of tribes, long before others could obtain them. Thus the general state of tribal equilibrium which had before prevailed was rudely disturbed. Tribal warfare, which hitherto had been attended with inconsiderable loss of life and slight territorial changes, was now made terribly destructive, and the territorial possessions of whole groups of tribes were augmented at the expense of those less fortunate. The horse made wanderers of many tribes which there is sufficient evidence to show were formerly nearly sedentary. Firearms enforced migration and caused wholesale changes in the habitats of tribes, which, in the natural order of events, it would have taken many centuries to produce. The changes resulting from these combined agencies, great as they were, are, however, slight in comparison with the tremendous effects of the wholesale occupancy of Indian territory by Europeans. As the acquisition of territory by the settlers went on, a wave of migration from east to west was inaugurated which affected tribes far remote from the point of disturbance, ever forcing them within narrower and narrower bounds, and, as time went on, producing greater and greater changes throughout the entire country.

So much of the radical change in tribal habitats as took place in the area remote from European settlements, mainly west of the Mississippi, is chiefly unrecorded, save imperfectly in Indian tradition, and is chiefly to be inferred from linguistic evidence and from the few facts in our possession. As, however, the most important of these changes occurred after, and as a result of, European occupancy, they are noted in history, and thus the map really gives a better idea of the pristine or prehistoric habitat of the tribes than at first might be thought possible.

Before speaking of the method of establishing the boundary lines between the linguistic families, as they appear upon the map, the nature of the Indian claim to land and the manner and extent of its occupation should be clearly set forth.

Indian Linguistic Families of America North of Mexico, 1891

Linguistic Families


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