Why It Matters: Indigenous America

A painting depicts an African woman, a white woman, and an Indian woman, all of whom are nude. Their hands and arms are intertwined and they all hold a vine or strand. The African and Indian women wear a gold armband on each arm.

Figure 1. In Europe Supported by Africa and America (1796), artist William Blake, who was an abolitionist, depicts the interdependence of the three continents in the Atlantic World; however, he places gold armbands on the Indian and African women, symbolizing their subjugation. The strand binding the three women may represent tobacco.

Why learn about Indigenous America?

When does the history of America begin? It certainly starts long before the “discovery” of America by Columbus in 1492, or the visits to the “New World” by Amerigo Vespucci a few years later. While the late 1400s and 1500s mark a time of European exploration to the content, North America was already populated by hundreds of civilizations and tribes, with population estimates ranging widely (between 2.1 and 18 million). As we will see in this module, the Indigenous people called the Mexica (later known as the Aztecs), for example, had built a highly advanced city called Tenochtitlan that was home to over 200,000 residents and featured a complex irrigation system, organized trash collection, and neatly planned neighborhoods. Developed nearly two centuries before the Indigenous peoples’ first contact with Europeans, these civilizational achievements were in many instances more evolved than similar efforts in contemporary European cities.

As historians, we should be wary of narrative timelines that suggest a European origin for the very concept of civilization. As the Aztec example shows, many features of advanced civilization that are central to food production, commerce, and urban planning, to name just a few elements, have developed unevenly across the populated world. Indeed, when the Spanish Conquistadors first beheld the Aztec city they perceived it as a kind of dream image, well outside of their familiar frame of reference. This is an example of Eurocentrism, which is the tendency to assume that European ways of thinking about the world are or should be considered foundational and superior to other culturally distinct perspectives. If we fail to see this form of bias, then we are less likely to gain a detailed understanding or appreciation of non-European civilizational priorities and accomplishments.

To take a few more non-European examples of important innovation, we might consider that the ancient city of Mohengo Daro, established in present-day Pakistan some 3,500 years before Paris or London, was organized in a careful grid layout and featured a centralized sewage system. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Chinese metalworkers of the 11th century were able to produce the same amount of iron that Europeans would produce in the 18th century. As we can see, important contributions to the development of civilization have come from many diverse parts of the world.

How have Eurocentric histories become the dominant accounts? European chroniclers may have simply been in positions of power that enabled them to establish seemingly definitive and self-interested histories before anybody had the opportunity to interject or to counter these narratives. The conquistador and other explorers also enjoyed the patronage of powerful political and religious rulers and surely benefited from the presumption of authority that flowed from such institutions.

Globalization, the ever-increasing interconnectedness of the world, is not a new phenomenon, but it accelerated when western Europeans discovered the riches of the East. During the Crusades (1095–1291), Europeans developed an appetite for spices, silk, porcelain, sugar, and other luxury items from the East, for which they traded fur, timber, and Slavic people they captured and sold (hence the word slave). But when the Silk Road, the long overland trading route from China to the Mediterranean, became costlier and more dangerous to travel, Europeans searched for a more efficient and inexpensive trade route over water, initiating the development of what we now call the Atlantic World.

In pursuit of commerce in Asia, fifteenth-century traders unexpectedly encountered a “New World” populated by millions and home to sophisticated and numerous peoples. Mistakenly believing they had reached the East Indies, these early explorers called its inhabitants Indians. West Africa, a diverse and culturally rich area, soon entered the stage as other nations exploited its slave trade and brought its peoples to the New World in chains. Although Europeans would come to dominate the New World, they could not have done so without Africans and Native peoples.