12 Facts about the Lives of America’s Original Inhabitants Before Europeans Arrived

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  1. What’s in a Name?

Native American tribe names often reflected the pride of each group in itself and its way of life. For example, the Delaware Indians of eastern North America called themselves Lenape, which means genuine people.

2. Saying “I Do”

Many Indians married at a relatively early age—the girls between 13 and 15 and the boys between 15 and 20. A boy had to convince the girl and her parents that he would make a suitable husband. In many cases, he offered them valuable gifts to win their consent. Many newly married couples lived with the girl’s family—and the husband worked for her family—until the birth of a child.

  1. Seeing is Believing

Boys in their early teens went through a test of strength or bravery called an initiation ceremony where they went without food, sleep, or companionship for a long period or lived alone in the wilderness until they saw a vision of their guardian spirit. This is known as a vision quest. In some tribes, a boy was expected to have a vision of the spirit that would become his lifelong guardian. Some wounded themselves to help bring a vision.

  1. Catching Dinner

Both North and South American Indians used drugs to catch fish. In one method, Indians chopped up certain plants and threw them in the water. These plants stunned the fish. Then the Indians could easily scoop them out of the water.

  1. Alternative Medicine

Some Indians believed that certain diseases were caused by an object in the body. Shamans, sometimes called medicine men or medicine women, sucked on the body of the sick person until they “found” the object causing the illness. Then they spit out the object—usually a small stick or a stone that they had hidden in the mouth. They also blew tobacco smoke over the sick person because tobacco was believed to have magical powers.

  1. Crop Insurance

The Pueblo of the Southwest had religious societies that performed dances the year around to ensure good crops. One such group was the Kachina Society of masked dancers who visited the homes of children to ask if the youngsters had been good. If they had not, the Kachina dancers might punish them. The sun dance, which lasted several days, was the chief ceremony of the Plains Indians. The Indians performed it to gain supernatural power or to fulfill a vow made to a divine spirit in return for special aid. Some men even tortured themselves as part of this ceremony.

  1. A New Language

The Indian tribes of the Plains spoke many languages and needed some means of communicating with one another. From this need came a series of commonly understood gestures called sign language. Sign language was not a complete language, and it could not express any complicated idea. 

  1. Asian Ancestors

Scientists believe that American Indians are descended from the peoples of eastern Asia. For example, Indians, like those who descend from eastern Asians, have straight black hair and high cheekbones, and little hair on their bodies.

  1. Female Power

The five tribes that formed the Iroquois League chose 50 sachems to lead their federation. Only men could be sachems, but only women had the right to select who became a sachem. If a sachem did not do what the women wanted in council, they could remove him and select a new leader.

10. Wartime Heroes

Success in warfare earned fame for a warrior. Counting coup—that is, the act of touching a live enemy and getting away from him—won the highest honor. After battle, the warriors told of their heroic deeds and celebrated their victory. Eagle feathers were awarded for bravery.

11. A Purified Village

The Pueblo usually fought only when attacked. If a Pueblo killed someone—even in warfare—that individual had to go through a long period of self-purification before returning to live in the village.

12. Perfect Precision

The Inca, a group of South American Indians who ruled a large empire in Peru and other parts of western South America, did not use mortar to bind stones together to construct their huge public buildings. However, they carved the stones so carefully that a knife blade could not be inserted between the stones of a building.

Be sure to read about the Lives of America’s Original Inhabitants After Europeans Arrived

These fun facts­—and much more—can be found in World Book Online, your answer for fast, reliable information.

Feel free to share your comments below!

This article is part of our Native American Heritage Month Blog Series

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