The term “American Indian” is one that is veiled in controversy and sometimes even hostility. The term got its start when Christopher Columbus used the word “Indian” to describe the people he discovered on the islands of the Caribbean Sea. Columbus was looking for a shorter route to the spice-rich island paradise in Asia known as the Indies and mistakenly thought he’d landed there.
True American Indian tribal lands stretch from the northernmost reaches of Alaska and Canada all the way south to the Tierra del Fuego archipelago off the southernmost tip of Argentina and Chile. Today, however, the term is commonly used to denote indigenous peoples of only the 48 contiguous United States and Alaska. The indigenous tribes of Mexico and Central and South America are usually identified by today’s name of the country in which they live. In Canada, the term “First Nation’s Peoples” is used.
It is believed the first humans to arrive in the Americas were of Asian descent. They traveled across a land bridge that spanned the Bering Sea approximately 20,000 to 30,000 years ago when an ice age had caused sea levels to drop much lower than they are today. The oldest scientific evidence of human populations in the Western Hemisphere place well-established cultural establishments as far back as 15,000 BC in Sandia, 12,000 BC in Clovis, and 8,000 BC in Folsom.
The everyday life of the American Indian is thought to have been one closely associated with earth elements – plants, animals, wind, water, weather. Their reverence for the world of nature dominates their art and folklore, including tales of the creation of the earth and its people. All things in nature were considered sacred and conservation practices were instinctive to these early Americans.
Unfortunately, Columbus’ discovery of this “New World” brought an abrupt and tragic end to the lifestyle of the American Indian. The new European settlers brought with them the concepts of materialism and land ownership and soon began claiming lands the native tribes had lived on for thousands of years. The settlers also brought smallpox and measles, diseases the indigenous peoples had never before seen. Their immune systems were not equipped to fend off these diseases so epidemics followed the Europeans, killing off countless thousands of the tribal peoples.
Surveys taken in 2005 by the United States Census Bureau indicate that only one percent of today’s population (roughly 2.5 million) is of American Indian descent. The western and midwestern portions of the country have the densest populations of these original Americans.