Much of what you learned in your early American history class is wrong. New methods of analysis and translation of extensive records left by the Indians themselves are dramatically changing our understanding of the dynamics of Indian-European interaction.

During the Columbian Quincentenary of 1992, I was disturbed by common misconceptions, held even by scholars, concerning the character of European-Native American interactions in the colonial period. I decided that my next major research project would be an interpretive synthesis of the colonial encounters in the Americas and of the ways in which native peoples responded to these encounters and maintained their separate cultures.

In order to make valid comparisons of the encounters over such a vast area and involving so many distinct peoples, my first task was to classify the indigenous cultures based on their systems of agricultural production and the types of societies that resulted.

Sedentary societies

Sedentary peoples practiced agriculture on land of sufficient quality to enable them to reside in one location. They could thereby develop large urban populations that were subdivided into different social ranks and craft specializations. In the Americas, all of the sedentary societies were located in Mexico and Central America—an area commonly termed Mesoamerica—and in the Andean Zone, the mountain highlands and adjacent coastal lowlands that extend from Colombia into northern Chile. Many people lived in communities that numbered in the thousands and even tens of thousands. Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, contained over 200,000 residents when the Spanish arrived; Cuzco, the Inca capital, contained around 60,000.

Both sedentary zones contained dozens of distinct ethnic provinces, many of which spoke mutually unintelligible languages. These provinces had developed state structures, complete with royal dynasties and governmental bureaucracies, well over a thousand years before contact with Europe. They frequently conducted warfare against neighboring provinces, and the victors sought to construct empires, demanding tribute payments or labor service from the vanquished.

Many Mesoamerican societies maintained official scribes who composed their records and histories. (Unfortunately, no similar group seems to have emerged in the Andes.) Most of the surviving documents and carvings from the pre-contact era have been translated, providing insights into provincial and dynastic histories. Soon after the Spanish conquest, some members of these Mesoamerican societies learned to write their indigenous languages in the Spanish alphabet, producing a vast body of documentation, much of which has been preserved.

Semi-sedentary societies

Much of the Americas in 1492 was occupied by semi-sedentary societies. They dominated the eastern half of North America, parts of the American Southwest, the large islands of the Caribbean, and much of central and eastern South America. Semi-sedentary peoples practiced agriculture, but the less fertile land they inhabited required that they move periodically to a fresh site within their boundaries, where they would clear and burn the underbrush.

Such land use restricted the amount of food each community could produce. This, in turn, limited the size of the population and the complexity of the social and political hierarchies. They did not develop states, but instead were commonly led by chiefs who shared power with village councils. Although semi-sedentary peoples engaged in considerable warfare, because of the mobility and independence of their communities they could not construct enduring empires.

Women enjoyed considerable authority in a number of these societies throughout the Americas. Family identity was calculated through the female line, and the senior female in each lineage group presided over the long houses or residential compounds in which her relatives and their mates dwelled. These women were influential in village councils and could order their male descendents and in-laws to go to war.

Nomadic societies

Non-sedentary or nomadic peoples relied on hunting and gathering, dwelling in deserts, hard-dirt plains, rugged mountains, and tropical jungles that frustrated all efforts to cultivate crops. These bands consisted of small family groups with no permanent social differentiation. Highly mobile, they typically migrated with the seasons, which permitted only low population density.

Political alliances among nomadic peoples rarely endured, and the formation of empires was impossible. These societies dominated much of North America west of the Mississippi River, the small islands in the Caribbean, and the least fertile parts of South America, most notably the pampas of Argentina. Like the Great Plains in North America, the pampas did not become productive agricultural land until cultivation by heavy plows was introduced.

Successful societies, easy conquests

The very success of the sedentary peoples of Mesoamerica and the Andes in developing densely populated, complex societies made them more vulnerable to Spanish expeditions, and helps to explain the speed of the conquests. Spanish administration of these sedentary societies, the conversion of the natives to Christianity, and the collection of tribute and labor service, all relied on the retention and use of traditional indigenous political structures and practices. Colonial governors simply replaced their Aztec and Inca predecessors; otherwise, they counted on established native institutions to govern effectively.

Continuing human contact between Europe and the Americas made inevitable the spread of Old World diseases, such as smallpox, typhus, measles, and influenza. Lacking contact with the Old World for many thousands of years, the Native Americans had not developed any natural resistance to its epidemic diseases. Thus, when these ailments erupted among the densely populated sedentary societies, great numbers of people became gravely ill and died at the same time. Over the first century-and-a-half of contact, disease reduced the native population to only 5 to 10 percent of its pre-contact size. Although their numbers then slowly began to recover, this enormous die-off caused a simplification of the indigenous cultures, as various crafts and other specialized activities could no longer be supported. Also, these enormous civilizations lost much of the cultural vibrancy and unity that had characterized them for many hundreds of years before contact, and the native societies became more limited in their reach and vision.

The continual, widespread dissemination of goods and ideas that had characterized Mesoamerica and the Andes for well over a thousand years became greatly curtailed after the conquest. This did not result from any intentional Spanish policy, but simply from rule by an external power. Cultural exchanges over long distances and involving many people now transpired largely among the colonists, as they gradually increased in number across these zones. At the same time, indigenous cultural life became increasingly local and circumscribed. The native peoples now lacked any larger cultural and political entities with which to identify.

Most Indians had only periodic exposure to Spaniards, whether colonial officials, churchmen, or private individuals. The colonists lived primarily in cities. Their movement into the rural areas dominated by native villages was very gradual.

Indigenous communities continued to be governed by their traditional elites. The tribute and labor service that they delivered to the colonial government was similar to that of the pre-contact era and was likewise administered by their own governors. Even when Indian laborers were summoned to perform labor service in the cities or on Spanish estates, they did so under the immediate supervision of their own leaders, worked in groups, and had at best occasional contact with any Spaniards.

The Christianization of the sedentary peoples is often misunderstood. These societies had traditionally incorporated the major god of any conquering power into their local pantheons, as they figured that it had shown its effectiveness through the victory of its believers. So it is more accurate to refer to the acceptance of Christianity by these communities than it is to their conversion. In fact, a chronic shortage of Spanish priests prevailed, and few proselytized or lived among the natives. Priests assigned to extensive Indian parishes traveled periodically to its various communities, spending much time only in the largest of them. The form of Catholicism that developed in native communities emphasized devotion to the saints, religious brotherhoods, the social ties of ritual godparenthood, and the sponsorship of public festivals on religious holidays that also promoted community identity.

Colonial treatment of native people

On most issues, no sharp distinctions can be drawn between the character of native-European relations in the colonies of one country against those of another. For example, the general view holds that French and Dutch colonies in North America cooperated closely with indigenous peoples, while the English sought to drive them from their colonies. In fact, significant exceptions can be found in all three cases.

The colonists of French Canada certainly maintained friendly relations with the native societies of that region; however, in the Mississippi territory, French settlers massacred Natchez villages and drove the survivors from the area. Dutch traders at Fort Orange—later named Albany—traded peacefully with surrounding Indian peoples for several decades. But Dutch settlers around New Amsterdam—later New York City—attacked local native societies to eliminate them. Finally, while English colonists in Connecticut massacred the Pequot people, they carried on a lively trade in deerskins with local tribes in the Carolinas. When few deer remained, however, these English pitted local tribes against each other to obtain slaves to sell.

The few Spanish who settled in Paraguay cooperated with the local Guaraní society from the very founding of the colony. The colonists joined them in combat against the hostile nomadic peoples who surrounded them. Tremendous interculturation took place, with the Spanish adopting as many Guaraní cultural practices as the natives did theirs. All inhabitants became bilingual. The colonists learned that Guaraní men would work for them only when the female heads of their lineage groups instructed them to do so. The settlers therefore incorporated one, two, or sometimes even several Guaraní women into their households to gain access to workers. Within a few generations, all members of the “Spanish” sector of society were biologically mestizos, the Spanish term for people of mixed-race ancestry. However, the few prominent families of the colony continued to term themselves as “Spanish,” for it was inconceivable that a colony’s elite could be otherwise.

Thus, colonists of the different European countries never followed a consistent policy towards the Indians. Instead they sought close relations with local native societies that controlled trade in a valuable commodity, such as furs or hides. But when the Indians had no such resource, colonists typically had no qualms about attacking them or driving them away to gain their lands.

Tribe against tribe

The material gains available from trade or political alliance with the colonists gradually transformed the nature of warfare among native societies. The increased use of firearms made combat far more deadly than before. Instead of being characterized by small bands of warriors conducting sudden attacks against each other in forests and glens distant from settlements and inflicting few deaths in battle, warfare among the Indians began to involve the destruction of enemy villages and the driving away of survivors to gain control over an entire region and its resources. These “remnant societies” of survivors were sometimes destroyed, but more often they were adopted by intact tribes in the region. The adoption of outsiders, both individuals and groups, into tribal communities as full and equal members was a longstanding tradition among the Indians.

Almost inevitably, tribal peoples throughout the Americas experienced a sometimes lengthy period of military alertness against a local European colony. The two sides might not be actually fighting all the time, but war could break out at any time. This required indigenous communities to modify some longstanding political and cultural traditions. The colonists, belonging to hierarchically ordered societies, pressured the natives to designate political leaders with the authority to enter into binding decisions and treaties. Tribal societies traditionally practiced consensus politics, imbued local councils with decision-making authority, and elected temporary political chiefs and war chiefs to conduct diplomacy and to lead their forces in battle. But to respond more effectively to continual threats of war and European demands, many native peoples began to name permanent chiefs and war chiefs, sometimes even permitting sons to succeed their fathers in these positions.

At the same time, this increase in warfare encouraged native communities to become more dispersed, causing the authority of tribal leaders to weaken over the years. Further, the customary authority of senior women in these societies decreased substantially because the continuing military threat highlighted traditionally male functions and concerns, and because the cultivation of crops—so often a female activity—was often disrupted and gradually became less central to their existence.

I have pointed out other notable similarities and differences related to Indian-colonist interactions in Resilient Cultures. Only a book-length treatment can include the individual histories and case studies necessary to illustrate the complexity of this important historical process and the impact it had on the lives and cultures of the millions of people, both native and non-native in origin, who have since called the Americas their home.