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Southwestern Native American Culture, a Brief History

Old Trails Terra Cotta HeadCultures throughout the world vary from society to society. What may be acceptable in one culture may be insulting in another. People in a particular society learn the local culture, and it is passed on from generation to generation. It gives one a model of the world and rules for interaction, not only with the world, but also between individuals and groups. It is a complex integration of shared values, ideas, symbols, language, patterns of behavior, and material products.  These things become characteristic of a society, as in “American Culture”.

The clash of cultures of throughout modern and pre-history has often led to one culture attempting to dominate the other, either by forced assimilation or warfare. An attitude of “become one of us or die” has permeated our existence.

Native American cultures have developed, changed, and been exterminated over the course of time. Native American cultures have been subjected to change and extermination from a variety of sources. Battles between competing tribal cultures to invasions of their land by Spaniards, Mexicans, and Anglo-Americans have resulted in the annihilation of many Native American cultures. In less than 100 years Native American languages alone have been tragically been reduced from 300 in 1900, to a mere 180 in 1995. Many more will soon disappear, as they are not being taught to children.

Native American cultures developed over many thousands of years on the North American continent. From the crossing of Beringia by the Clovis people, to the landing of Kennewick Man, culture on this continent grew. In the now southwestern United States (hereinafter Southwest), language families like the Uto-Aztecan, Keresan, Zuni and Nadene blossomed and grew into hundreds of different dialects. Some are reminiscent of different cultures existing on different continents, while others have structures found nowhere else in the world.

Native Americans made their way into the Southwestern over 10,000 years ago. They found a land dominated by two large river systems, and water was absolutely necessary. Four major climate zones exist in the Southwest and the people had to adapt. The Colorado Plateau in the north is a ragged and arid place. The Rocky Mountain zone is made up of craggy mountain ranges receiving precipitation from rain and snow. The Central Mountains posed steep terrain and a short growing season. The Desert Basin and Range is low desert, desperately dry and hot. Various tribes occupied these zones and adapted their lives, and therefore, their cultures to fit the land.

A few of these tribes adopted village farming, allowing them create sociopolitical organizations to handle some aspects of their culture. With irrigation and dry-farming, fewer people were needed to tend to the raising of crops, and could spend their time creating, innovating, and inventing. An elaborate material culture emerged.

More of the Southwest tribes practiced rancheria farming. Settlements were more widespread, creating different influences in the evolution of their culture. Some cultures had more widely dispersed communities than others; some were more mobile than others. These factors led to the development of cultural differences apparent in their ceremonies, leadership, and cooperation.

Some tribes remained in the hunter-gatherer phase, moving from place to place in small bands. Membership in bands was flexible, so no real “leader” became apparent. This aspect of their culture allowed different individuals to lead when their skills were needed and others to lead when their particular skills were needed. Less elaborate ceremonial structure and material culture was developed because time needed to be spent on survival.

The land and the skills of the peoples shaped the culture of these tribes. Agriculture was a paramount factor in the shaping of ceremony, leadership, and material culture. More available time meant more complex and varied customs.

The cultures of all these peoples were inexorably changed with the arrival of the Spanish in the Rio Grande Valley in the 1500’s. The drive to find gold to pay for the never-ending desire for conquest led the Spanish to move northward from Mexico and into the Southwest. The desire to impose their religion and to achieve economic security would forever change the Southwest. Governors, priests, and military leaders all had their own goals. Natives were enslaved, raped, and murdered in the furtherance of these goals. But each was looking out for himself and a premeditated plan for colonization began to unwind.

Native culture suffered greatly. Pueblo agriculture deteriorated as more and more people were forced to work in the fields of the governors, Franciscans, and military nobility. Thousands of Native Americans died from disease and famine in 1640, and many more thousands would die in the 1660’s. The seeds for revolt were planted, and they were nourished by Franciscan depredations of the ceremonial culture of the people. In 1680, the Pueblos exploded, attacking Santa Fe and removing the Spanish for over a dozen years. They did return, but their practices were considerably repressed. By 1725, Comanches and Utes were raiding their settlements. The Spanish eventually made alliances with the Utes and Comanche raiders, showering them with gifts and food to get them to stop their raids.

When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the Spanish were out. But a lack of funds meant the end of gifts and foods to the Native Americans. Mexicans now enslaved Navajo and atrocity bred atrocity. Pueblos allied with Mexicans to fight the Apache, and Mexicans moved into the Rio Grande valley.

After the Mexican-American war, the US took control of the Southwest by virtue of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 and the Gadsden Purchase of 1853. Americans were moving west, creating trails that made inroads into the previously unreachable Southwest. The New Mexico territory consisted of present day New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah and United States forts were built in the territory.

Tensions between the North and South had been brewing for many years and Jefferson Davis recognized the importance of the New Mexico territory to the South. In 1861, the Confederate States of America recognized the Territory of Arizona (below the 32nd parallel) as a Confederate Territory giving the South an unhindered path to California. United States forces were pulled from the Southwest to fight in the South leaving settlers to fend for themselves. The Natives took control of the area. Settlers organized militias for protection and the atrocities continued.

With the end of the Civil War, westward expansion grew. Americans had set out their cultural policy towards the Indians in 1823 in a US Supreme court case, Johnson v. McIntosh. It laid out the rationale for the treatment of Native Americans for tens of decades to come, including religious superiority and manifest destiny.

Reservations were turned to as a remedy to the “Indian problem”. Lands were seized and settled by Americans. Natives were taught to speak English in reservation schools and the erosion of their culture increased. America wanted to assimilate them into American Culture. Railroads were built and the American invasion began in earnest. The railroads provided the Natives with some opportunities. Trading posts where their goods could be used to purchase needed supplies were established. Tourism furthered the sale of locally produced Native products.

Into the twentieth century American policy continued to be forced assimilation. However, the attitude towards Native Americans began to change. Several legislative acts were passed, including the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which put forward the idea of self-government for the Natives. But the attitude changed again after World War II. Assimilation was pushed and this was the view until the late 1960’s. Again, self-determination became the policy and has continued to the present.

Native American culture has changed from the days of the Clovis people. Influences from tribal neighbors, sharing of knowledge, invasions of land, destruction of language, forced assimilation, destruction of burial sites, collection of artifacts, and ecological factors have all combined to shape present day culture. Renewed efforts to preserve what is left, remember what was, and shape what will be, will morph the Native American culture yet again.

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