Displacing Indigenous Peoples
The Native Peoples
The earliest inhabitants of North America came from Asia over 30,000 years ago, by crossing the Bering Straits through a land bridge. They moved further south during the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago. When the climate became more stable about 5,000 years ago, the population started to increase.
Life of Natives: The native peoples lived in bands, in villages along river valleys. They ate fish and meat, and cultivated vegetables and maize. They often went on long journeys in search of bison for meat. They did not practice extensive agriculture. So, they did not produce a surplus, and did not develop kingdoms and empires as in Central and South America. There were stray incidents of quarrels between tribes over territory. But by and large control of land was not an issue. An important feature of their tradition was of making formal alliances and friendships, and exchanging gifts. Goods were obtained not by buying, but as gifts.
European Traders: The European traders reached North America to trade in fish and furs. The native people were experts at hunting, and willingly helped the Europeans. Along the Mississippi river, the French found that the natives held regular gatherings. Those gatherings were held to exchange handicrafts unique to a tribe or food items not available in other regions. The Europeans gave the natives blankets, iron vessels, guns and alcohol, in exchange of local products. In due course of time, the natives became addicted to alcohol. This enabled the Europeans to dictate terms of trade to the natives.
In the eighteenth century, for western Europeans the term ‘civilized’ was defined in terms of literacy, an organized religion and urbanism. To them, the natives of America were ‘uncivilized’. But to some others, the natives were untouched by corruptions of ‘civilization’ and were living in perfect harmony with nature. The goods exchanged with the Europeans were considered as gifts by the natives. For Europeans, the fish and furs were commodities; on which profit could be earned. The Europeans slaughtered hundreds of beavers to satisfy their greed for furs.
The Settlers: After the European traders, came those Europeans who had come to ‘settle’ in America. From the seventeenth century, many Europeans were being persecuted because they were of a different ‘sect’ of Christianity. Some of them were Protestants living in predominantly Catholic countries. Some others were Catholics living in Protestant countries. Many of them left Europe to escape persecution, and went to America to start a new life. Gradually, the Europeans moved further inland near native villages. For the Europeans, forests meant to be cleared to make way for cornfields.
USA and Canada: The modern day Canada and the United States of America came into existence at the end of the eighteenth century. But it took the next hundred years for these countries to reach their present size. Large areas were acquired by the USA by purchase and by war. Land in the south was bought from France (Louisiana Purchase). Alaska was bought from Russia. Much of the southern USA was won from Mexico. The western ‘frontier’ of the USA was a shifting one. As the frontier moved, the natives also were forced to move back.
Changing Landscape: Some of the migrants from Britain and France were younger sons. They could not inherit their fathers’ property. So, they were keen to own land in America. Later, there were waves of immigrants from countries like Germany, Sweden and Italy. They had lost their lands to big farmers, and wanted farms they could own. People from Poland were happy to work in the prairie grasslands because it reminded them of the steppes back home. These immigrants cleared land and developed agriculture. They introduced crops (rice and cotton) which could not grow in Europe, and could be sold there for profit. They indiscriminately killed wolves and mountain lions to protect their huge farms. It was the invention of barbed wire in 1873 which could put brakes on hunting.
Slavery: The climate of the southern region was too hot for Europeans to work outdoors. The experience of South American colonies had shown that the enslaved native had died in large numbers. So, plantation owners bought slaved in Africa. Protests by anti-slavery groups led to a ban on slave trade. But the Africans who were in the USA remained slaves, so did their children.
Civil War: The economy of the northern states of the USA did not depend on plantations, and therefore on slavery. So, the northern states argued for ending slavery. In 1861-65, there was a war between the states that wanted to retain slavery and those supporting abolition of slavery. This is known as the Civil War. The latter group won, and thus slavery was abolished. But it was only in the twentieth century that the African Americans were able to win the battle for civil liberties.
Case of Canada: The Canadian government had a long-standing problem which was apparently more urgent than the question of the natives. In 1763 Canada had been won by the British after a war with France. The French settlers were demanding autonomous political status. It was finally solved in 1867, by organizing Canada as a Confederation of Autonomous States.
The Native Peoples Lose their Land
In the USA, as settlement expanded, the natives were induced or forced to move, after signing treaties selling their land. In this deal, the natives were often cheated by the Americans. Even high officials saw nothing wrong in depriving the natives of their land. It was justified by saying that the natives did not deserve to occupy land which they did not use to the maximum. The natives were pushed westward. But they were often moved again if any mineral was found on their lands. Many tribes were forced to share the land originally occupied by one tribe, leading to quarrels between them. They were locked off in small areas called ‘reservations’. The native did not give in without a fight. The US army crushed a series of rebellions from 1865-1890. In Canada there were armed revolts by the Metis (people of native European descent) between 1869 and 1885.