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The meeting between Europeans and Native Americans had devastating biological and cultural consequences.

The meeting between Europeans and Native Americans had devastating biological and cultural consequences.

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Eorann Kavanagh. Originally submitted for B.A. at NUI Galway, with lecturer Dr. Enrico Dal Lago in the category of Historical Studies
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Eorann Kavanagh. Originally submitted for B.A. at NUI Galway, with lecturer Dr. Enrico Dal Lago in the category of Historical Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
In order to properly understand the consequences of European arrival to NorthAmerica for the Native North American people, it is important to first understand thecontext of pre-Columbian life on those lands. Despite the colonization rhetoric of ‘virgin lands’, North America had been inhabited by people for tens of thousands of years and at the time of Columbus’ arrival in 1492 there was an estimated sevenmillion Native Americans living throughout what is now the United States andCanada. It is also important to acknowledge the existence within this population of ‘atleast two thousand cultures and more societies’ who ‘practiced a multiplicity of customs and lifestyles’ as well as holding ‘an enormous variety of values and beliefs’
1
. This fact has a significant bearing on the question of the culturalconsequences of European and Indian interaction as it implies that there was no oneuniversal consequence but a range of complex and varied ones. There were threedistinct, although interconnected, elements to the early interaction between Native North Americans and Europeans beginning with the introduction of alien diseaseswhich wiped out a massive portion of the Native population. Next to have a major impact on Indian culture was the traders who introduced European technologies.Finally, the waves of settlers whose arrival brought increasing conflict over land,resources and religion. The Native Americans were forced to adapt to the manychallenges which arose with the coming of foreigners to their shores but they alsoembraced many opportunities which also came with this momentous occasion andactively participated in the creation of their own drastically changing culture.The sixteenth century is a period about which relatively little is knownregarding the experiences and reactions of Native North Americans who were coming
1
Salisbury, Neal.
The Indians' Old World: Native Americans and the Coming of Europeans
, Vol. 53, No. 3, ‘Indians and Others in Early America’ (Jul., 1996), pp. 435-458 (Omohundro Institute of EarlyAmerican History and Culture) http://www.jstor.org/stable/2947200
 
 p. 437
 
into contact with the first European explorers. There is no doubt that extensivetransformations and destructions, both biologically and culturally, were brought about by the appearance of Europeans on the shores of North America. However, there isvery little written information from the sixteenth century documenting the lives,cultures and experiences of the Natives of this ‘New World’. Any first hand accountsof early contact between Europeans and the Natives were usually written in an officialcapacity detailing incidents of exploration and settlement but ‘illuminat(ing)individual regions for only brief periods’.
2
Written accounts coming solely from theEuropean explorers and settlers are necessarily biased or at the very least heavily onesided. Archaeological research has done much to reveal the true extent to whichEuropean contact affected the Native American people, especially since the period‘from the earliest evidence of European goods or diseases in a region to the start of the detailed written records’.
3
 By combining archaeological findings, written reports from the Europeans andsongs and oral history of Native American people, a relatively clear, though notundisputed, understanding can be obtained of the variety of experiences and reactionshad by the Indians on the first arrival of European explorers and traders. It has beensuggested by many historians that ‘in numerous instances native people interpretedthe newcomers as supernatural’
4
. There are recorded occasions describing Indians bringing their sick to be healed, this shows that some Natives looked on some leadersof European groups as ‘powerful shamans’. Other colonists or explorers wereconsidered to be supernatural beings because their apparent immunity to the
2
B. Trigger-F. Swagerty. ‘Entertaining Strangers: North America in the Sixteenth Century’, in B.Trigger-W. Washburn eds.,
The Cambridge History of the Native People of the Americas,
Vol. I
 North America,
(United States of America: Cambridge University Press, 1996) p. 325
3
Ibid, p. 326
4
Bruce G. Trigger. ‘Early Native North American Responses to European Contact’, in Albert L.Hurado and Peter Iverson eds.,
 Major Problems in American Indian History,
(Lexington; D.C. Heathand Company, 1994) p. 55
 
epidemics raging through Native American villages suggested powers of immortality.Some Europeans encouraged the Indians in these beliefs by, for example, concealingany deaths of their fellow colonists, in order to keep up the semblance of immortalityand in this way maintain a level of control over the Native populations.
5
However,these incidents where it would appear religious beliefs had an influencing role in howthe natives reacted and interacted with the first European arrivals, did not last verylong as closer and more frequent contact resulted the realization of many of theEuropean’s weaknesses. Certainly the majority of recorded interactions according toTrigger ‘are portrayed as having been governed by relatively straightforward concernswith exchange and defence’
6
.The religious and spiritual importance of certain metals and precious stones to pre-Columbian Native Americans is apparent from their inclusion in numerous burialsites. Natural substances like silver and copper as well as white, green and red crystalswere fundamental symbols within ‘the traditional religious beliefs of the Algonquain-,Iroquoian-, and Siouan-speaking peoples of northeastern North America’.
7
The firstEuropean goods to arrive on and spread throughout North America were copper and brass kettles as well as coloured glass beads. These were equated by the NativeIndians with their own traditional spiritual metals and crystals and so were highlyvalued. This is evident from the fact the European kettles were traded or dispersedthroughout the northern tribes as small shards of copper and brass showing that, atleast at first, they were prized for their symbolical and spiritual worth rather than their  practical use. Another indicator that European glass beads, brass and copper werecoveted because of their religious significance is the fact that archaeological
5
Bruce G. Trigger. ‘Early Native North American Responses to European Contact’, in Albert L.Hurado and Peter Iverson eds.,
 Major Problems in American Indian History,
 p. 56
6
Ibid, p. 57
7
Ibid, p. 57

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