You Gotta Know These Native American Peoples
- The Iroquois Confederacy originally consisted of five tribes native to upstate New York: the Mohawk, Cayuga, Oneida, Seneca, and Onondaga. The confederacy was founded based on the teachings of a prophet called the Great Peacemaker, whose followers included chief Hiawatha, the subject of a famous poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The confederacy gradually expanded to control much of the Great Lakes and Mid-Atlantic regions and also incorporated the Tuscarora people, who migrated from North Carolina after defeat in a colonial war. In the Beaver Wars, the Iroquois and their British allies came to dominate various Algonquin peoples allied with the French. The Iroquois Confederacy collapsed after the American Revolution, during which leaders like Joseph Brant stood by the British.
- The Powhatan are an Algonquin-speaking people who lived in eastern Virginia when the English colony of Jamestown was founded in 1607. Led by their namesake, Chief Powhatan, the tribe maintained a tenuous relationship with colonists at Jamestown. Legendarily, John Smith was captured by the Powhatan and was only spared by the intercession of his daughter, Pocahontas. The Powhatan were decimated by disease and enslavement by the mid-1600s; by the time Thomas Jefferson profiled the tribe in his Notes on the State of Virginia, they numbered only 300.
- The Cherokee people lived as one of the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes” of the southeastern United States, along with the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminoles. In the early 1800s, the Cherokee adopted many American cultural practices, from settled agriculture and representative government to an original alphabet created by Sequoyah. Though their sovereignty was acknowledged in the case Worcester v. Georgia, the Cherokee were still driven west along the Trail of Tears after some members signed the Treaty of New Echota. Today, the Cherokee are the largest federally-recognized Native American tribe.
- The Seminole, another “civilized tribe,” lived in what is now Florida and fought multiple wars against the U.S. to resist attempts to force them to move west. In the First Seminole War, Andrew Jackson invaded Spanish-controlled Florida and pushed the Seminoles out of the state’s northern region. Twenty years later, Seminole leaders like Osceola resisted removal in the Second Seminole War but were eventually driven to Oklahoma under the terms of the Treaty of Payne’s Landing. In the 1850s, Billy Bowlegs led Seminoles who remained in Florida in yet another war against American expansion, but he too was defeated.
- The Shawnee people are native to the Ohio Valley. Their leader Blue Jacket allied with the Miami people to crush an American incursion into the region at the Battle of the Wabash in 1791. Later, the charismatic Shawnee leader Tecumseh and his visionary brother Tenkswatawa, also known as “the Prophet,” built a coalition of tribes to oppose U.S. expansion. After losing at Tippecanoe to William Henry Harrison, the Shawnee allied with the British in the War of 1812 and helped them take Detroit. However, their coalition collapsed after the death of Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames.
- The Lakota Sioux were the preeminent tribe of the northern Great Plains for most of the 19th century. They drove smaller tribes out of the Black Hills and had their territory recognized by the United States in two Treaties of Fort Laramie. When American prospectors invaded the Black Hills, the Sioux fought back. With their allies the Cheyenne and Arapaho, the Sioux—led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse—wiped out a U.S. cavalry force led by George Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Later, in the 1890s, a religious movement called the Ghost Dance spread among the Sioux. While trying to suppress it, U.S. forces slaughtered Sioux civilians in the Wounded Knee massacre.
- The Shoshone people also held lands on the northern plains, while their linguistic relatives the Comanche dominated the southern plains. Sacagawea, a member of the Shoshone, served as an interpreter and guide for Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. The tribe was later devastated by such attacks as the Bear River massacre and driven from their lands by white settlers. In an attempt to secure aid, the chief Pocatello led a mass conversion of Shoshone to Mormonism in 1875.
- The Nez Perce people lived along the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest and maintained friendly relationships with Americans through most of the 19th century. When the U.S. attempted to remove them from their lands, however, the Nez Perce fought back, embarking on a 1,200-mile retreat that ended only when they were trapped just south of the Canadian border. In a speech, the Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph then declared “I will fight no more forever.” He and the Nez Perce were subsequently deported to Kansas.
- The Apache people live in the American southwest and contested land claims with both Mexican and American settlers, having earlier gained a reputation for ferocity by raiding other tribes in the southwest for generations. A federal attempt to seize the Apache chief Cochise in 1861 led to a series of decades-long clashes with the U.S. government. One Apache leader, Geronimo, repeatedly broke out of reservations and fought American forces until he was eventually captured by Nelson Miles and exiled to Florida.
- The Navajo people are also indigenous to the American southwest. After their homeland was devastated in a campaign led by Kit Carson (the namesake of Carson City, Nevada) the Navajo were driven from Arizona to New Mexico in the Long Walk to Bosque Redondo. During World War II, Navajo “code-talkers” used their native language to securely transmit messages across the Pacific theater of the war. Today, the Navajo are the second-largest federally-recognized tribe and administer the Four Corners Monument.
This article was contributed by NAQT editor Ben Miller.