Now, we’re all ardent travel enthusiasts here. Whether we have Kardashian levels of disposable income and jet around the world whenever we please, or we’re forced to live vicariously by watching/reading about the adventures of others, we’re fascinated by everything travel. That’s why we’re here, after all.
What is it about travel that entices us? For some, it’s simply the vacation aspect. The whole I’ve-been-working-like-a-darn-dog-all-year-and-now-I’m-going-to-lay-on-a-beach-in-the-Bahamas-drinking-silly-colorful-drinks-for-a-week thing. That kind of trip just won’t do for others, of course, and that’s what it’s all about. Finding your ideal trip and living your very best life.
There are different approaches to visiting a new country, aren’t there? There are those of us who have absolutely zero ability with the language and customs, and will stay in the English-speaking safety of their resort. Others will dive all the way in, make friends with the locals, head straight out of the tourist safety net and embrace the customs and traditions of this new country to the fullest extent they can.
The thing is, though, you don’t have to leave your home country to experience that. The Native communities of the United States are a proud and fascinating group (group of groups, I should say), and their customs and traditions are difficult to define. They have their enigmatic practices, like the ghost dance and those famous totem poles, but many members of these communities live outside of the reserves in big cities, own businesses, and live just like you or me.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the Native world, with these surprising and sometimes confusing facts.
Over the years, lots of celebrities have made claims to have Native ancestry. Some of these, as we’ll see later, are indisputable, factual claims, while others are… well, definitely not.
Megastar actor Johnny Depp has occupied both sides of the divide on this one. As The Hollywood Reporter states, he has long “claimed a sliver of Native heritage (Cherokee or Creek),” but things became official in 2012 when he was adopted by a different tribe: the Comanche of New Mexico.
This took place after Depp took the role of Tonto (himself a Comanche) in The Lone Ranger. LaDonna Harris, Comanche and president of AIO, performed the ceremony at her home.
The trouble here, as with any other similar community, is that people don’t quite understand, because they don’t have the experience. Sometimes, we base our knowledge on a people we don’t really know by cheap stereotypes, and that doesn’t get anybody anywhere.
Speaking as a Brit who has perfectly fine teeth and doesn’t even like tea, I know this better than most.
On the subject of Native communities, then, how are these for statistics: in 2017, it was reported that 78% do not live on reservations, and 72% live “in urban or suburban environments.” This was influenced by the assimilation policies of the fifties, which had terrible effects on indigenous peoples and how they continue to live their lives today.
This is the struggle that Native USA communities have always faced. Integration into society, versus the pressing need to maintain their own identities and stay true to who they are. That’s becoming more difficult than ever, for everyone, come to that.
On that note, it’s interesting to see what shrewd businesspeople Natives are. According to ThoughtCo,
“From 2002 to 2007, receipts for such businesses jumped by 28 percent. To boot, the number of Native businesses increased by 17.7 percent during the same time period.
With 45,629 Native-owned businesses, California leads the nation in indigenous enterprises, followed by Oklahoma and Texas. More than half of indigenous businesses fall into the construction, repair, maintenance, personal and laundry services categories.”
We all know the sad history. European settlers arriving on the continent spread a whole range of new illnesses that the indigenous peoples had no defences against, which resulted in terrible outbreaks that devastated communities.
It’s partly with that in mind that some see the Native communities today as marginalised groups with dwindling numbers, but that’s far from the case. On the contrary, their numbers are rising rapidly.
As ThoughtCo reports, “population rose by 1.1 million, or 26.7 percent, between the 2000 and 2010 census. That’s much faster than the general population growth of 9.7 percent. By 2050, the Native population is expected to increase by more than three million.”
So, just how big are the Native USA tribes? Well, naturally, some are much larger than others. Across America, there are reported to be 334 reservations, and 565 tribes that are federally-recognised.
Of these, the ‘big eight’ (Cherokee, Navajo, Choctaw, Mexican-American Indians, Chippewa, Sioux, Apache and Blackfeet) boast between 819,105 to 105,304 members.
The highest number of members are found in California, while the highest population percentage of Native peoples is found in Alaska. As their population continues to rise, so will their prominence, and we can hope that the issues that they face will follow suit too. That’s super important.
Being born and raised in Britain, not to mention a writer by trade, I like to think that I have a pretty good grasp of the English language. The fact is, though, it’s a darn difficult one to grasp. Like an eel. An eel, fresh from the spa, coated in luxurious and super-slippy moisturiser and essential oils.
The rules are constantly changing, and we use odd phrases that totally confuse those trying to learn English as a second language. In addition to that, the roots of words are darn confusing too, because they come from all kinds of cultures.
We have Native American communities to thank for lots of words that have entered everyday English. “In fact,” Oxford Dictionaries reports, “fully half of the names of the US states (including Arizona, Connecticut, Kentucky, and Missouri, to name a few) are derived ultimately from Amerindian words.”
“To take animals as [another] example, we have moose and skunk from Eastern Algonquian, opossum and raccoon from Virginia Algonquian, and quahog from Narragansett.”
So, yes. We certainly owe a great debt of gratitude to the indigenous peoples of America. Without them, after all, we only know raccoons as ‘those furry little guys who just will not leave our trash bins alone,’ which just doesn’t roll off the tongue at all. Did you know that there was a Canadian TV series in the eighties called The Raccoons? Did you know that there wouldn’t have been without Native peoples? I rest my case.
Another interesting point is just how pivotal the Nez Perce people were to Lewis and Clark’s famous adventures. FactRetriever explains that the Nez Perce “built canoes for them, drew maps of the rivers, and helped them reach the Pacific.”
If you’re a veteran traveller, one who likes to steep themselves into the traditions and practises of other cultures, you’ve certainly seen some things. Some may have shocked you, confused you, or even disgusted you. Others may have made you think, now why in heckola don’t we have/do this at home?
One of those things, for me, would have to be the Cry Shed. It may sound rather grim, but it’s actually quite a positive thing. The idea is that the community builds a little shed from the earth, which is infused with the fears and troubles of the people. They then burn it, releasing the pressure of their troubles’ physical form and making them easier to deal with.
As we’ve already seen, the Native peoples of the United States are certainly not fading into the background or becoming extinct. Their numbers are increasing at a great rate, their voices are becoming louder, and quite darn right too.
According to The CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), there’s a total of around 4.5 million people with Native (including Native Alaskan) heritage. As big as that number is, it doesn’t translate to a very large overall population percentage in a country as large as the United States.
What is that percentage? 1.5%, that’s what it is. It’s quite alarming.
As we’ve seen, it’s common for those in the public eye to make lofty claims about their US roots. Oftentimes, these claims come about because there’s a general lack of knowledge or records on the subject, and it’s an easy way to try and boost your mystique and credentials without really having the evidence to back it up.
If you can work an iconic name in there, so much the better. On that note, as Fact Retriever reports, “several First Families in Virginia trace their roots to Pocahontas, such as Edith Wilson (wife of Woodrow Wilson) and Nancy Reagan.”
If there’s any icon/calling card of the Native United States communities we can all name, it’s the totem pole. It’s a symbol, a statement, an immediately-recognisable part of a very proud people’s culture.
Do we know what they are, though? What they’re for? Most of us don’t, and it’s no surprise why. There are different types of totem, you see, and they all have distinct meanings. The Encyclopaedia Britannica explains that there are seven main varieties:
“...memorial, or heraldic, poles, erected when a house changes hands to commemorate the past owner and to identify the present one; grave markers (tombstones); house posts, which support the roof; portal poles, which have a hole through which a person enters the house; welcoming poles, placed at the edge of a body of water to identify the owner of the waterfront; mortuary poles, in which the remains of the deceased are placed; and ridicule poles, on which an important individual who had failed in some way had his likeness carved upside down.”
As I say, travellers who like to throw themselves into other cultures will have seen all kinds of curious customs and traditions. Sometimes, we won’t quite understand them, and that’s totally fine. All that really matters is that we respect them.
Everybody has their superstitions; their lucky talismans and beliefs. Here’s a particularly interesting one from the Iroquois: expectant mothers would not eat turtle meat, for fear that their children would grow up to be clumsy (as turtles are on land).
You are what you eat, as they say, and in the case of pregnancy, it seems that they are what you eat as well.
That is to say, the tribe. I know, that one’s a little questionable. The polite thing would’ve been not to point it out and embarrass me.
Moving right on, though, we’ve already seen that many high-profile people claim to have Native ancestry. Perhaps most famously, Elvis Presley’s great-great-great grandmother, Morning Dove White, was believed to be Cherokee. This claim has been both supported and contested by various sources over the years. Genealogy researcher Julian Riley, for instance, points out that,
“Morning Dove is an English name. Riley notes that not only would the Cherokee have spoken their own language with native names, they usually had one-word names. So he doubts she was a Cherokee.”
It’s just another example of the mysteries that often surround the Native people. And Elvis himself, come to that.
Have you ever been to Poland’s famous Crooked Forest? It’s one heckola of a sight, with its trees contorted into unnatural positions. How did they come to be that way? There are various theories, of course, but nobody quite knows.
For the Native communities of the United States, a tree with an oddly-shaped trunk was no mystery: it was darn useful. In fact, they bent the trees themselves, and used them as markers on long and winding forest trails.
Some of these markers can still be seen today, and they’re definitely a little unnerving to look at if you don’t know what they are.
Of course, many of us know Alexander Graham Bell only as the inventor of the telephone. That whole Watson, come here, I need you business is quite a party trick, granted, and we probably wouldn’t have our smartphones today without him. Even so, there’s much more to the man that you probably don’t know.
How about this, for instance: he was made an honorary chief of the Mohawks. Bell Blog explains that he lived near the Six Nations reserve and became proficient in the Mohawk language. So much so, he was able to translate their unwritten language into Visible Speech symbols, for which the tribe honoured him.
Somewhere, in a parallel universe, that’s the title of the strangest Harry Potter book ever.
Anyway, if you thought that the odd story of Alexander Graham Bell becoming an honorary chief of the Mohawk ended there, you were mistaken. At the ceremony, he donned a spiffy headdress and performed tribal dances.
It didn’t end there, though. As Jennifer Groundwater writes in her Alexander Graham Bell: The Spirit of Innovation, “he even learned their… dance which, for the rest of his life, he executed when he was very excited.” It’s said that Bell performed the mohawk dance when he finally succeeded in making the first telephone call.
As we’re about to see in the next entry (spoiler alert), the portrayal of Native peoples in TV and film often leaves a lot to be desired. A lot. If there’s one thing that Hollywood gets kinda sorta right if you squint a bit, though, it’s the intensely spiritual nature of many tribes.
The natural world is something to be deeply respected. Animals are hunted out of necessity, not wantonly. Nothing was to be wasted, either. As MSN reports, the resourcefulness of Native communities knew no bounds. Just as an example, what did they do with porcupine quills? They made hairbrushes from them!
Now, back to the unfortunate portrayals of Native communities in film and television. This has been a controversial topic for decades, and way back in 1973, a very big name made a very big splash to show his displeasure.
That’s right. That year, Hollywood icon Marlon Brando refused an Academy Award and boycotted the event. In his absence, Native actress Sacheen Littlefeather refused the award on his behalf. While she had the floor, Littlefeather read a statement from Brando himself, speaking out against the way Native communities were presented in the movies.
It was a bold and necessary step from the acting legend.
If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to require major surgery, you’ll probably be super, super darn grateful for anaesthetics. I’ve spent enough time in hospitals myself to know that, yes, I’m totally happy to fall asleep for a while so I don’t need to witness whatever it is you’re doing down there.
One thing you may not know is that Native people were among the first to use anaesthetics. According to MSN,
“They used coca, peyote, datura and other plants to make the medicine for partial or total loss of consciousness during surgery. Until the mid-19th century, immigrant doctors in America were not aware of the technique.”
America, as the history books tell us, was discovered by Christopher Columbus. That was one heckola of a feat (even if he was way off course from the place he was actually aiming for), but as reported by History, the continent was ‘discovered’ long before Columbus and his crew. Thousands of years before, in fact.
Natives, as we know them today, crossed a ‘land bridge’ from Asia to what would become Alaska, more than 12,000 years ago. On the European settlers’ arrival, there were estimated to be around 10 million people living in what would become the United States.
Anaesthetic has already proven to be more than enough of a blessing for the world of medicine, but the Native peoples of America have also given us a great bounty of other wonderful things. Here’s one that anyone with a sweet tooth can surely appreciate: maple syrup.
The delicious sticky stuff was discovered by the Native people. There are multiple versions of the story of the discovery, but the most interesting one “states that the chief of a tribe threw a tomahawk at a tree, sap flowed out and his wife boiled it down into a syrup.”
And there it was. Our pancakes would never be the same.
The Sequoiadendron Giganteum, or giant sequoia, is one of the most unique and recognisable trees in the world. They’re the largest, too, with some measuring upwards of 300 feet tall! Famous examples like General Grant of Kings Canyon National Park, California, attest to the indomitable and iconic nature of these trees.
Speaking of indomitable and iconic, did you know that the Giant Sequoia was named for Sequoyah, the great Cherokee leader and silversmith? His biggest claim to fame was his creation of a Cherokee syllabary, which made him “the only member of an illiterate group in human history to have single-handedly devised a successful system of writing.”
All too often, the Native communities of the United States are misunderstood, misrepresented. They’re often portrayed as very much separate from their fellow US inhabitants. Sometimes, by their choice, they are. They’re still very much a part of wider society in the United States, though, as Maria Tallchief demonstrates.
Tallchief was born in Oklahoma in 1925, to an Osage father. Taking an interest in dance from an early age, she rose to become prima ballerina of the New York City ballet. She was the first Native to earn that title (refusing suggestions that she change her surname so that employers wouldn’t discriminate against her), and the first person from America to perform at Moscow’s famous Bolshoi Theater.
As we’ve seen, pressure to assimilate with society at large has presented a huge problem for Native communities over the years. It’s an entirely different lifestyle, where the number one priority becomes… well, the pursuit of the almighty dollar. The rat race is not fun, as we all know, and being forced into it is downright awful.
It’s a sad fact, then, that the poorest place in the United States has an almost exclusively Native population. Allen, in South Dakota, has a population that is 96% Native, and a per capita income of around $1,539.
It’s a sad, sad state of affairs.
Speaking of the rat race, it’s a shame that so many of us have become used to sedentary lifestyles. When you work long hours in an office, you can’t quite believe that the Tarahumara can do what they do. It seems superhuman.
These secretive people have mastered the art of long-distance running, in ways that outsiders simply cannot understand. They take steps toe-first rather than heel-first, and their physical condition is beyond anything most of us can even imagine. A report from Runner’s World states,
“their blood pressure went down while running, and their average heart rate—in the midst of banging out eight-minute miles—was only 130 beats per minute… After running 50 miles, the Tarahumara didn’t even look beat. They stood around and chatted.”
How do they do this? Well, that’s exactly it.
References: The Hollywood Reporter, The Guardian, Thought Co., Fact Retriever, Oxford Dictionaries, Like Share Tweet, Encyclopaedia Britannica, MSN, History, New Georgia Encyclopaedia, National Women’s History Museum, Runner’s World.