The year 1992 marked the 500th anniversary of Europe’s so-called discovery of the Americas, and all across the US it was a time of celebration. However, many Indigenous people considered the Columbian Quincentenary to be a time of mourning. Why?
For the Indigenous people, the European discovery of the Americas represented the advent of a cataclysm that smashed existing social orders and erased millions of lives. Let’s first survey the Indigenous worlds that emerged from the decline of the Mississippian tradition in the Southeast and the Ancestral Pueblos in the Southwest.
This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
What Formed the Native Land?
Ranging from the mid-Atlantic to the lower Mississippi Valley, the Southeast encompasses a large swath of coastal plains filled with saltwater marshes, the rich agricultural area known as the Piedmont, and woodlands dense with stands of hickory, oak, and pine.
West across the Appalachian Mountains lies another rich agricultural zone along the lower Mississippi Valley. And further south, along the Eastern Seaboard, are the subtropical Everglades.
Very few natural barriers to travel exist in the region, and extensive trade networks linked the Southeast to the plains, the Southwest, and even to the Caribbean and parts of Mesoamerica.
The Natives of America
Living in those vast regions were ancestors of Siouan language speakers such as the Tutelo, Saponi, Eno, Sugeree, Waxhaw, and Catawba; Iroquoian language speakers including the Tuscarora and Cherokee; Muskogean language speakers like the Creek, Choctaw, Seminole, and Chickasaw; and speakers of still other distinct languages, including the Natchez, Caddo, Timucua, and Calusa.
Agriculture predominated, and corn, beans, and squash served as staples. Native people supplemented their diets by hunting, gathering, and fishing. Families were typically matrilineal and matrilocal—that is, they determined kinship and where they lived through the mother’s line.
Women cultivated the earth, prepared the food, reared children, and made all the necessities of daily life, such as finely crafted clay pots and intricately woven baskets. Men hunted, fished, and fashioned bows, arrows, and canoes.
Learn more about the commonly held views of Native Americans.
Natives and Clan Exogamy
The common practice of clan exogamy—that is, the practice of marrying outside of one’s clan—served to bind people in the region together by extending kinship ties.
Hereditary rulers and hierarchical political structures were common in the Southeast. They emerged from a process of diffusion and coalescence following the transformation of the Mississippian cultural complex associated with Moundville, Etowah, Spiro, and Cahokia, the great ancient urban center located along the Mississippi River near present-day St. Louis that went into decline between 1200 and 1500.
Archaeological research has revealed that peoples throughout the Southeast continued to use temple mounds and to observe class distinctions, including chiefdoms and divine kings.
Why Did the Spanish Invade Native Land?
The Spanish, who had already devastated the Taíno in the Caribbean, the Mexica in Mesoamerica, and the Inca in Peru, invaded this southeastern world during the fourth decade of the 16th century.
So, what drove the Spanish? And how did they justify bringing fear, hunger, loss, and death to Native people and Native land? To understand that, we need to consider the three pillars of Spanish conquest.
The first was a lust for glorious battle, which the Spanish rationalized in a document called El Requerimiento or The Requirement. Pillar number two was God—that is, the Spanish desire to convert people they considered to be heathen savages. And pillar number three was gold—or, more broadly conceived, the generation of wealth from the exploitation of Indigenous land and labor.
Learn more about the Columbian exchange.
El Requerimiento or The Requirement
Devised by Spanish jurists and theologians in the early 16th century, the Requerimiento announced that God had created all men, and all men were bound to obey God’s will, and that the Spaniards were “dutifully expressing God’s will by subduing non-Christians and reclaiming them for the Catholic Church”. Conquistadors gave Indians a choice: submit or die.
Take a look at how this excerpt from the Requerimiento explains what would happen if Native people didn’t embrace the church and king:
I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall forcibly enter into your country and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highness; we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highness may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do all the harm and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their Lord, and resist and contradict him; and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their Highnesses, or ours.
So, according to the Requerimiento, violent conquest was inseparable from the glorification of God and the accumulation of riches.
Across the 16th- and 17th-century Southeast and Southwest, Native people tried to pull these newcomers into their worlds on terms of their own making. They did so only to find that the leaders of these bewildering bands of Europeans refused to reciprocate their gifts.
Common Questions about the Native South in 1600s and the Spanish Invasion
Those who resided on the Native lands before the Spanish invasion included ancestors of Siouan language speakers such as the Tutelo, Saponi, Eno, Sugeree, Waxhaw, and Catawba; Iroquoian language speakers including the Tuscarora and Cherokee; Muskogean language speakers like the Creek, Choctaw, Seminole, and Chickasaw; and speakers of still other distinct languages, including the Natchez, Caddo, Timucua, and Calusa.
Clan exogamy is the practice of marrying outside of one’s clan. It was practiced by the Native people.
The Spanish invaded the Native lands for three main reasons: a lust for glorious battle; the desire to convert people they considered to be heathen savages; and gold or the wealth from the exploitation of Indigenous land and labor.