American Indian History, Through Indian Eyes

by Hari Balasubramanian

I came to the United States from India in August 2000 to start graduate school in engineering. I had just finished a college degree and had no idea of the history of any place, including India. I did not, for example, know that Judaism referred to a religion, let alone the religion of the Jews. Many students get radicalized, develop a political and historical consciousness during college. For some reason, during my own college years in the town of Trichy in south India, I did not develop an interest in either India's past or the world.

The milieu in the United States, in the sprawling desert city of Phoenix, Arizona, was a curious one. On the one hand, graduate school was full of highly motivated students from all parts of Asia. On the other, the neighborhood I lived in, a ten minute walk from the university, was home to immigrants from indigenous or mixed race communities in Mexico and Central America (the closest genetic relatives of the North American Indians). Many of the immigrants had made life-threatening journeys across the southwestern desert into the US, and now did restaurant and construction jobs, legally and illegally, for a living.

This change in my setting was as invigorating as it was confusing, a first glimpse of how complex the world was. Suddenly history, which I had long ignored and thought boring, became indispensable. I began to read a lot more. I remember what a revelation it was to learn that Muslims had been dominant in Asia, Europe and North Africa before the Renaissance; that Europe had experienced something called the “dark ages”, a fact that had once seemed unimaginable, and now somehow comforting; that Genghis Khan, a man born into a nomadic tribe, had through a combination of brutality, shrewdness, and military strategy, built an unimaginably vast Eurasian empire. I was equally surprised that India too supposedly had had a great past, a “golden age”, a claim that had earlier, living with Indian realities, sounded hollow and untrue. Without realizing it, I had, like millions of people the world over, internalized the idea of Western superiority. The fact that non-Western people could be dominant, that the fortunes of all regions and cultures fluctuated, was liberating.


It was in this frame of mind that my attention turned to what had happened in the Americas. The only thing I really knew was that due to Columbus' famous error, the original inhabitants of the Americas were called what I was called. About North America, I had bought subconsciously into the narrative that Europeans had come and settled a largely empty continent. But somehow the urge to get a fuller, more nuanced answer to the American Indian question kept growing within me; it eventually became the lens through which I saw everything else in world history.

It all began in 2004 when I started traveling extensively in Arizona. In the north of the state is the relatively cooler high-plateau region with surreal mesas, canyons, ponderosa pine forests, and tall, standalone spires of rock with layers of color, as in Monument Valley. In the south, there are endless mountain ranges alternating with desert valleys full of unique vegetation: majestic forked arms of the saguaro cactus, thirty or forty feet tall, along with prickly pears, yuccas, and ocotillos. At first glance, one would think that without modern infrastructure, this region could not have been habitable. But to my surprise, I found that a large number of cultures had flourished here before Columbus' arrival. Despite the desert setting, many had been farming communities and not hunter-gatherers, the default state condescendingly presumed of North American Indians.

ChacoCanyon02I visited many archaeological sites in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, from the large and architecturally sophisticated – the relatively unknown Chaco Canyon in a remote corner of New Mexico (left image) – to small but equally instructive ruins around Phoenix and northern Arizona: Wupatki, Tuzigoot, Casa Grande, and Tonto monuments. I traveled to the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Havasupai, Apache and Tohono Odham reservations (a reservation refers to an American Indian territory in the US), to understand how modern day southwestern Indians were trying to maintain cultural continuity. With every visit, a new dimension would emerge and stereotypes would unravel; I learned about the diversity of the groups, their conflicts, and history of migrations; their languages, which belonged to very different lineages, and were still spoken, though in small numbers; and issues of substance abuse, poor health, and lack of economic initiatives that plagued reservations.

In Phoenix too, the American Indian imprint had always been there, but I had missed it for many years: the ancient inscription on a rock of the hill adjacent to Arizona State University; roadside signs marking the beginning of a reservation; the advertisements and neon signs of Indian casinos. Most fascinating of all, the name Phoenix is itself a tribute. White settlers in the late nineteenth century chose that name because they anticipated a modern city to rise out of the ashes of the Hohokam, an agricultural people who had marked the desert valley with their well engineered irrigation canals in the centuries before Columbus.


As I traveled and read more, I learned that it wasn't only the American southwest that had a rich pre-Columbian history. The same applied to all other regions in US. Let's first consider New England, where I have been living since 2008. In contrast to the southwest, there are, today, very few reservations. This can give the false impression that the place was largely empty before the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620. But one only has to question where the names of the states, towns, rivers and lakes — Massachusetts, Connecticut, Norwottuck, Mattabesset and countless others — come from; these beautiful and strange sounding names, clearly evoking a different culture, are reminders of the people who once lived everywhere in this region.

Tribal_Territories_Southern_New_England“Sixteenth century New England housed 100, 000 people or more,” writes Charles Mann in his excellent book 1491. Sailors who traveled along the East Coast before the arrival of the Pilgrims noticed that it was “thickly populated”. New England during the early part of European contact was a teeming mosaic of shifting alliances and confederacies: the Wampanoag (whose decision to ally with the Pilgrims led to the first Thanksgiving); the Narragansett to the west, who were rivals of the Wampanoag; the Nauset, in Cape Cod, to the east. There were also the Nipmuck, and the Western Abenaki to the northwest. Population levels were certainly not as high as in some of the dense parts of the world at the time but not trivial either. Maize (corn) was farmed along with squash and beans. The presence of this triumvirate – maize, squash and beans – provides an interesting clue. All three were domesticated in Mexico. For them to have made it this far north meant that there must have been a network of communities, all the way from Mexico to the American Northeast, through which such ideas of cultivation were relayed – perhaps in the same way that the knowledge of the cultivation of Middle East crops such as wheat, barley, lentil and chickpeas were relayed to the rest of Asia and Europe.

Next, consider the American South. When in 1539-42, Hernando de Soto, the so-called “discoverer” of the Mississippi (what a strange notion!), made his ruinous 4-year long expedition through the region – a typical conquistador style effort with lots of aggression and a lust for gold – he encountered a multitude of groups, not always friendly to his incursions. Near Memphis, “several thousand Indian soldiers approached in canoes to within ‘a stone's throw'”. Eastern Arkansas was a land “thickly set with great towns…two or three of them to be seen from one.” The expedition spent time with the Coosa, who were part of the Muscogee Creek Confederacy. In Alabama, de Soto's army was ambushed in a fortified city called Mabila, by thousands of soldiers under the powerful Mississippian leader, Tuskaloosa.

Go to any state, and you'll find the same story. Whether it is Montana or New York, Washington or Virginia, you'll find that no place was ever unoccupied; invariably there were a lot of groups in a network of alliances and rivalries. Many of them were doing quite well in the 1500s; the Haudenosaunee in upstate New York, also known as the Iroquois, were quite a force to reckon with. Some might say: well, there weren't any major cities or continent spanning empires. To that I say: so what? It is sufficient that there were hundreds of groups, small and large, distributed all across the continent; this actually makes it more interesting. California alone had 300 dialects and 100 distinct languages — an astonishing fact that researchers are still trying to explain. Magnify all this, add the dozens of groups that have perished, and imagine how much richer North America might have been had its natural trajectory been disrupted less.

The diversity I had known growing up in India — the different languages, customs and religions, people often quarreling with and biased against each other, but still sharing a cultural base — something like that, on different scale and in a different form, had existed in North America too. Yet how invisible all this is in mainstream America! How often I was told that there is no history in America before European arrival worth talking about! Even today there are 550 recognized American Indian groups and over 300 reservations in the US alone.


In the currently prevailing view, the biggest reason for the demographic decline of American Indians was not colonization, however unfair or terrible that may have been. Rather, the blame is assigned to European communicable diseases such as small pox, to which Indians did not have immunity. American diseases, in turn, did not cause sufficient casualties to deter European advancement (Africa's diseases and terrain did deter Europeans, and this is probably why Africa today has many millions of Africans and not European immigrants). This view of history, where geography, natural environment, domestication of crops and mammals, and the co-evolution of microorganisms play an equal if not more important role in shaping the course of the world, was originally proposed by Alfred Crosby in his 1972 book The Columbian Exchange. Crosby's thesis is also the basis for Jared Diamond's more famous Guns, Germs and Steel, published 25 years later.

No doubt disease was a huge factor. But I also find that shifting the blame to germs sometimes becomes a convenient excuse. It takes the following form: “Well, there were so few of them and unfortunately disease killed them off.” It ensures that history is never closely examined. Besides, I do not feel the impact of disease can be viewed in isolation; it has to be considered in view of the relentless conquest that American settlers were imposing on North America at the same time or just after pandemics had taken their toll. The equivalent might be an invading army in Europe, intent on keeping land only to themselves, just after the locals had gone through the horrors of the Black Death.

Homelandsecurity3If there had been no disease and only colonization, the American Indians would have wrested power back eventually. In one alternate version of history, the entire continent is still ruled by its original inhabitants, a multitude of nations across the continent, demographically much stronger — similar to how Africa is today. In another, colonization was only partial, and armed indigenous resistance against settlers continues even today. A harmless echo of the latter is in a t-shirt I repeatedly come across at contemporary American Indian gatherings such as powwows; the image on the t-shirt shows armed Apache warriors (Geronimo is on the right) and the tongue-in-cheek statement: “Homeland Security: Fighting terrorism since 1492.”

If there had been only disease due to contact through trading and no subsequent conquest, then indigenous populations would have likely developed immunity and recovered in the long run — just as European populations recovered after the plague. There has, in fact, been an upward trend in American Indian populations in the last hundred years (from 600,000 in the 1890s to 3 million now), as hostilities have – officially at least – ceased. That upward trend would have been much more significant if the Indians had retained more of their original territories. Of course, such an outcome could not have been palatable to an America that was continously expanding westward, from one coast to another, fulfilling its so called Manifest Destiny. The US government kept breaking treaties and it moved many groups by force to faraway places. The Cherokee Trail of Tears is just one example. This is why most Indian reservations today are not in the locations that the tribes were originally based. The loss of key points along rivers and other resource-rich locations meant that there were no safe havens for indigenous populations to recover, adjust and grow to a new equilibrium.

So disease may well have drastically reduced numbers upon initial contact, but it was unrelenting conquest and displacement that ensured that population levels could not bounce back to their full potential.


The sentiment that too much land had been lost was poignantly expressed by a teenage girl I met in March 2006 in the Navajo Reservation. I was in the small town of Ganado, which had once been a trading post, and now has been converted into a museum and gift shop. In the gift shop, there was a map of modern day Indian reservations in the United States. Near the top margin, there were other miniature maps showing how Indian land had been progressively encroached; the loss in the 1800s was especially severe, only a few scattered scraps of red remained. The last map, dated 2090, was blank and had a question mark over it, suggesting that the process that had started after the arrival of the Europeans would finally end in this century.

American Indian Land

The Navajo girl, who was across the counter, saw me studying the maps, and explained with feeling her thoughts on the loss of land. Pointing to the third map in the progression – in which more than half of the United States was labeled “Indian country” – she said: “I wish we had at least that much.” I found it interesting – and affecting too – that she had opted for a middle ground. It suggested that she considered European expansion inevitable, but wished only that it hadn't been so pervasive. Then, pointing to her home, the Navajo reservation, the largest patch of red on the present-day map of Indian reservations, she said, brightening a little: “But at least now we have this much land, and hopefully in the future we'll have more.”

Indeed, the Navajos are among the largest indigenous groups in the US now. Who could have predicted this in the 1860s when the Navajos were force marched at gunpoint at the order of the US government (the Long Walk) so that they could be resettled in eastern New Mexico, 400 miles away. At the time, there were eight to ten thousand Navajos. But soon after, the Navajos were allowed to return to their their original territories, and these territories eventually became a large reservation. Most other tribes have not had the same luck. The Navajo population today stands at 300,000.


1. The Chaco Canyon aerial image is from Scott Haefner; the southern New England map is from here; the Homeland Security image is from here; and the map of Indian reservations is from here.

2. For details of the Hernando de Soto expedition, I used a combination of the first-hand accounts briefly quoted in Charles Mann's 1491, as well as Wikipedia where plenty of interesting information about the topic is aggregated.