Impact of European Imperialism on Native American Indian Nations
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Impact of European Imperialism on Native American Indian Nations

This report demonstrates the impact of European colonialism in the Americas. With pride and feelings of White superiority, combined with a conflict in values, Europeans found excuses to decimate the Native Americans and their culture. Imperialism, colonialism, materialism and ethnocentrism of the colonists resulted in genocide of the Native Americans. This paper will examine some of the details of the cultural, religious and political conflicts that resulted in the military occupation of the American continent, isolation of Native American on to reservations, the rebuilding of a decimated people and their culture, and their continuing struggle to find their place in the world today.


Native American Indians –Who Are They?

Theories about the origin of Native American Indians have changed throughout the past several decades. Most recently, genetic and anthropological evidence seem to concur that most Native Americans descended from people who migrated from Siberia across the Bering Strait and walked across the land bridge through Alaska and Canada approximately 15,000 years ago.

There is much controversy about the exact time and route. Other possibilities for the origin of Native American Indians have also been proposed. Some anthropologists believe that they may have been sea men and arrived in boats. Some believe that migration was in several successive waves and then they spread out and moved into various geographic locations of North, Central and South America.

Due to physical traits of human remains that resemble Australian Aborigines, some anthropologists have hypothesized that Siberians were preceded by people from Oceania who sailed across the Pacific Ocean or by other means much earlier.

When Christopher Columbus arrived on the shores of San Salvador in the Caribbean in 1492, he believed that he had reached India. He named the indigenous people Indians. Native American is used to describe these populations today.

Generally, the value system of the Native American Indians is expressed in “four commandments from the Great Spirit”:

1. Respect Mother Earth,

2. Respect the Great Spirit,

3. Respect our fellow man and woman,

4. Respect for individual freedom (“Native American Culture”).

Contact Between Europeans and Native American Indians

European colonization of the American continent permanently changed the culture and lives of Native Americans. Some tribes, like the Arawaks of Haiti that numbered over 2,500,000, encountered Columbus and became extinct in less than 100 years. They were enslaved, raped, scalped and lynched. Many were killed in wars. They were ravaged by diseases such as measles, chicken pox and small pox to which they had no immunity. It has been estimated that over 80% of many tribes died from diseases brought by Europeans (“Native Americans”).

When the Indians did not immediately see the advantages of the White men’s ways, children were forcibly removed from the tribes by soldiers and sent to boarding schools where they were not allowed to speak their native language. Their long hair and braids were cut off. They wore uniforms and were subjected to discipline that involved verbal and physical abuse (“Genocide of Native Americans”). The children were indoctrinated with colonial ideology, interrupting the generational transmission of cultural values. These strategies resulted in loss of cultural identity, alienation, drinking, loss of control over their destiny and relationships, violence and suicides (“Genocide of Native Americans”).

Two Tribes –The Apache and the Sioux Nations’ Humanitarian Way of Life

The Apache, the Sioux and nearly all other Native Americans take an ecological view of the Earth and perceive man in a sacred relationship with nature. To the Native American Indian, the environment is sacred, home to all life forms. The Earth must be protected, nurtured and worshipped (“Genocide of Native Americans”). Indians, in general, value cooperation, honesty, sacrifice for others, generosity, tranquility, submission and obedience (Solis, 1975). Indian spirituality lacks conflict and dualism. Their languages expresses the oneness of all things...God is Mother Earth, Corn Mother, the Great Spirit nourishes all…an invisible force that permeates the entire universe and orders the cycles of birth and death for all living things.” Further, most American Indians attribute supernatural qualities to animals, dead ancestors, heavenly bodies, geologic formations and the seasons. The world is divine.

 Their name “Apache” means “fighting-men”. The Apache were warriors, masters of guerilla warfare tactics. They lived in the desert region of the southwestern United States. They would often band together with other tribes in the area to fight common enemies. The Apache lived an isolated nomadic way of life. Because the arid desert environment was so harsh and resources were scarce, most activities were focused on survival.


The Apache tribes were a matriarchal society. There was a strict code of conduct based on strong family ties and loyalties based on social, economic and political units. Each group operated independently under the leadership of a respected family leader and a council that resolved issues and disputes.

They Apache had a rich oral history of myths, legends and story telling. Their intense religious devotion influenced every aspect of life. They concentrated on the super natural that was “responsible for the Apache way of life” and called upon the super natural when they needed help. (Ruvolo). Dancing and singing were important parts of spiritual ceremonies and rituals. The U.S. government outlawed Native American ritual practices in an attempt to separate Indians from the roots of their culture, another form of genocide.

While the Apache were fierce, courageous and cunning warriors, they were affectionate and gentle toward their relatives, especially children (“Apache Nation”). Boys and girls were tested and respected for their endurance, discipline, work skills, wisdom, cooperation, healing arts, and appreciation.

 The Apache hunted beavers, bears, buffalo, coyote, deer, gophers, jack rabbits, lizards, mountain lions and wild pigs. The men covered their bodies with animal fat to hide their human smell from their prey. They killed only enough to meet their needs and used every part of the animals to make clothing, shoes, housing, jewelry, weapons and tools. Coyotes and wolves were not hunted for food because they were regarded as teachers or “pathfinders” and were sacred to all tribes (“Diet of Native Americans: Food, Nutrition, Needs, Body, Health”). Believed to have special powers and a strong spirit, Eagles were hunted for their feathers and could only be worn by warriors. They would establish their camps where they could find game, then collect roots and berries. The women built irrigation ditches, planted corn and gathered berries, cactus fruit and acorns.

The shape of the circle is of great importance to the Apache Indians. The Apache believe that the hoop has protective and healing powers. It represents the cycle of life from birth to death. Many Indian homes are round. Religious ceremonies are performed in circle formations. Dances are performed in a circle. Heavenly bodies (the moon, sun and stars) move in circular orbits.

Sacred colors of the Apache are black, blue-green, yellow and white. The four colors represent the four directions, the four major divisions of the day, and the four seasons.

The fierce confrontations between the Apache and the United States Army ended with a final surrender of the tribe in 1886. Chief Geronimo led the last Apache raid against U.S. Army forces. The survivors were captured and sent to military prisons in Alabama and Florida.

The “Great Sioux Nation” was considered to be the most powerful of all the Native American Indian tribes. Sitting Bull was one of the most famous Sioux leaders and medicine man. The Sioux Nation consisted of seven (7) seven different tribes that inhabited the Great Plains of North America. The Sioux lived in the states of Colorado, North and South Dakota, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska and Wyoming.

The Sioux hunted the plentiful buffalo on the plains and lived in harmony with the environment before the arrival of the Europeans.

The Sioux considered family of central importance to their lives. Like the Apache, the Sioux were deeply spiritual people and worshipped and communicated with the spirit world with their music and dance.

 Going to war was a rite of passage for males and an expression of tribal unity. Through war, men gained prestige and brought honor to their families (“History of the Oglala Sioux Tribe”).

 The United States government wanted to buy or rent the Black Hills from the Sioux. When the Sioux refused to sell their sacred land, the U. S. Congress passed the “Sell or Starve Bill” known as the Agreement of 1877 and took the Black Hills from the Great Sioux Nation illegally. Later, individual Sioux tribal members were given 160 acres of land to compensate for the theft of their land.

There were many injustices by the United States government. The massacre of 300 Sioux at Wounded Knee is another example. Women and children were included among those who were scalped and murdered. The bodies of the dead were left exposed to freeze in the snow. This was the most extreme insult and disrespect to the Great Sioux Nation.

Ethnocentrism and Imperialism—Effects on the Native Americans

Clashes between cultures and value systems between Europeans and Native American Indians were inevitable, even when initial contacts may have been peaceful and friendly. Europeans are very time conscious and future oriented. They valued competition, saving and the accumulation of material things (currency, land, treasure) that demonstrated wealth and were “deserving of honor”. The new immigrants and frontiersmen valued individualism, property ownership, rights of the individual, democracy, and liberalism because these characteristics were perceived as essential to continued existence and conquering of the New World.

Native American cultures were more inclined to value sharing for the purpose of survival and creating alliances. American Indians believed that the land belongs to everyone. It was to be shared and used by everyone. When game animals became scarce, they moved on to other hunting grounds. This was contrary to the European concept of land ownership in which each landowner was the only one who had access and could use the land. Missionaries, government officials, military officers and settlers perceived the tribal, communal, thinking and life styles of the Native Americans deficient in comparison to their own. (“Moral Superiority: The White Man's Burden”). This difference in concept of land ownership eventually resulted in Native American losing the use of North American land and being forced on to reservations lands that no one else wanted (“Europeans Influence Native American Culture”).

Accumulation of money and material things, which is the historical basis of a capitalist economy, was strange and foreign to Native American. For example, Taino tribe members were ordered to produce .75 ounces of gold every three months. The Christian Europeans cut off the hands of those who refused. Entire families of Taino Indians committed suicide by jumping off of cliffs to end their humiliation and misery.

Indians beliefs were considered to be primitive and pagan by the Europeans. They discounted Indian agricultural methods and medical wisdom.

A poem by Chief Smoholla tribe expresses the reverence for the earth that is shared by Native Americans:

“God said he was the father of and earth was the mankind; that nature was the law;

That the animals, and fish and plants are beyond nature, and that man only was sinful.

You ask me to plow the ground! Shall I take a knife and tear my mother’s bosom?

Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest.

You ask me to dig for stone! Shall I dig under her skin for her bones?

Then when I die I cannot enter her body to be born again.

You ask me to cut grass and make hay and sell it, and be rich like white men!

But how dare I cut off my mother’s hair?”

Egalitarianism of Indian life is reflected in the structure of Native American literature and story telling. Their literature does not depend on conflict, crises and resolution for organization and structure (“Genocide of Native Americans”).

White Europeans perceived themselves as possessing a superior culture that needed to bring civilization to inferior cultures of the Indians. The motivation of European nations was to expand their empires, to accumulate wealth in the form of gold, land and cheap labor by enslaving the native people. They disguised their greed and economic self interests in noble, moral concepts barrowed from the Christian religion (“Moral Superiority: The White Man's Burden”) and political goals such as Manifest Destiny.

Many immigrants to North America believed that Manifest Destiny was a divinely inspired mission of the young nation. Manifest Destiny was a belief by United States citizens in the 19th century that the country had a mission to expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific, across the North American continent, to spread democracy, European culture, nationalism, individualism, idealism, and White supremacy. Within this philosophy, Native American Indians were considered to be “primitive”. Their intelligence and life style was perceived as needing to be segregated, socialized, educated, or extermination. Manifest Destiny was used as an explanation and a justification for taking the land and expanding into western territories by any means necessary. This doctrine or ideology promoted the process of westward migration and the removal of the Native Americans from the lands that the Europeans felt they could make better use of with such activities as agriculture, building cities and raising domesticated animal.

The European settlers perceived the universe as a series of dualities such as good and evil, body and spirit, man and nature, head and heart, European and primitive. They were alienated from nature and came to the New World to conquer, exploit and profit from its natural resources. Europeans perceived the Earth as inorganic and lifeless. It could be changed and manipulated.

To White Christians, their superiority and the superiority of the “American Way of Life” was self-evident to them. They thought that the Native American would see this and want to immediately adopt their beliefs and habits. Europeans, in contrast to the Indians, perceived man as conqueror over nature. They valued competition, appearances, toughness, economy, domination and power. (Solis, 1975) Missionaries were assigned to Christianize the Indians first.

To accomplish this , day schools and large boarding schools were built to transform the next generation of Native American into educated farmers who could participate in government as American citizens. Even though the federal government invested in teaching agriculture to the Indians, it often changed its policies to discourage the Indians attempts to farm.

By 1819 the federal government recognized that the Native American population was in rapid decline and nearing extinction. Thus, the government appropriated $10,000 annually “for the purpose of providing against the further decline and final extinction of the Indian tribes adjoining the frontier settlements of the United States, and for introducing among them the habits and arts of civilization.” (“The White Advance Upon Native Lands”)

The “Indian Removal Act” was passed in 1830 by one vote. The purpose of the “Indian Removal” policy was to clear land for white settlers. Some whites believed that removal and resettling of Indians on to reservations was the only way to save Indians from extermination. Men, women and children of five tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole) were forced to leave their homes, livestock, crops and their land to walk the “Trail of Tears”, across the Mississippi River to Indian Territory that the U.S. government placed in reserve for them (“Genocide of Native Americans”). Cholera, exhaustion, cold weather and starvation killed thousands of Indians as they walked to the reservation.

Extermination—The End of Native American Indian Nations

Because of arrogance, prejudice, myth-making and romanticizing, European colonists saw the Native American Indians as heathen, non-Christian, savages who had the potential to develop and learn the skills needed to build a complex civilized society. Those with more strongly racist feelings held contrary beliefs about the Indians (“Anti-Indian Ideology: European Racism”). Their differences and the desire for land made Native Americans into a “convenient enemy” for European colonialists (Ruvolo). Armed with advanced technologies and weapons, horses, diseases, and the concept of Manifest Destiny, within 400 years from their first contact with American Indians, Europeans committed genocide, took ownership of all virtually all of the land, and wiped Native Indian culture out of existence (Ruvolo).

Within three years after Columbus returned to the Americas, 5 million Indians died from mass exterminations and the brutality of slavery. Las Casas, an historian from the period, recorded acts of the Spanish colonists against the indigenous people which included, “…hanging them…, roasting them on spits, and hacking their children into pieces to be used as dog food… ‘Indian Removal’ and ‘clearing’ included military slaughter of tribal villages, bounties on native scalps, and biological warfare”. The latter included British agents giving away blankets contaminated with small pox to Indian tribes (“Genocide of Native Americans”). The American Indian population which had once been in excess of 12 million was reduced by 95% in less than four centuries to less than 250,000.

As recently as the 1970’s, Dr. R.T. Ravenholt stated, “The federal Indian Health Service was sterilizing 3,000 Indian women per year, 4 to 6 percent of the child bearing population. Surgical Sterilization has become increasingly important in recent years as one of the advanced methods of fertility management.” Indian women were being asked to sign sterilization consent forms without understanding them and being told that the operation was reversible (“Genocide of Native Americans”).


Throughout the violent history of European colonization, Native Americans resisted and fought for their survival. Some succumbed to the pressures, compromised, moved to urban cities or disappeared. But, many Native American Indians grew stronger through their adversity and have overcome. The battle continues in politics and the courts. Native Americans fought in both World Wars in support of the United States. They have excelled on the battle field and in peace time.

They have contributed to athletics, music, the arts, science and environmentalism. The American Indian Movement (AIM) became prominent in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Powerful new leaders like Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, Buffe Sainte-Marie, Wilma Mankiller, Keith Harper, Allen J. Sockabasin, Gerald Forsythe and T. Denny Sanford have lead the way to preserve the environment, Native American history and culture.

In closing, Tonya Gonnella Fricherner expresses Indian wisdom regarding environmentalism when she states, “How can you ‘save the Earth’ if you have no spiritual relationship with the Earth?... Non-Indians can’t change the current course of destruction without [a spiritual] connection.” (“Mountains Made Alive: Native American Relationships With The Sacred”)

Today Native Americans live on and outside of reservations throughout the United States, primarily in Arizona, Oklahoma and New Mexico (“Apache Tribal Nation,” 2009). They have suffered separation from their lands, but American Indian activists continue the fight. They have organized to tackle negative Indian stereotypes and increase awareness about issues of concern to Native American Indians. Some issues that are currently being address include the following: environmental issues, treaty rights, sovereignty, the protection of sacred lands, the right to practice traditional Indian religions and perform sacred ceremonies, health care, use of Indian Mascots in schools, preservation of native languages and civil rights.


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Apache Tribal Nation. (2009). Retrieved from

Attitudes Towards Native History. Anti-Indian Ideology: European Racism. Retrieved from

Dangerous Memories and Cultural Resistance. Moral Superiority: The White Man's Burden. Retrieved from

Diet of Native Americans: Food, Nutrition, Needs, Body, Health. Retrieved from

Europeans Influence Native American Culture. Retrieved from

Genocide of Native Americans. Retrieved from

The Great Sioux Nation. History of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Retrieved from

Manifest Destiny. New World Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Mountains Made Alive: Native American Relationships With The Sacred. Retrieved from

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Ruvolo, D. Summary of Native American Religions. Retrieved from

Solis, A. (1975). Comparison of Cultural Values. In Sacred Evolution. Retrieved from

The White Advance Upon Native Lands.


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Comments (3)

Nicely written Hollywood version of history. Native Americans were just as violent and warring as any other human being is, when Europeans arrived. True, many atrocities happened, all to glorify the Church of Rome.

Yes, you are right--Native Americans were just as violent as all other races--Against others and among themselves. Survival was a strong motivation. No glorification intended, sanitation--or Hollywood version here. Somebody can find something wrong with everything...It's not necessarily a sign of intelligence. As an African-American-Indian-Irish person, I am a "Truth Seeker" and accept correction when it is warranted. So much of our history has be lost, stolen or hidden andor distorted. It is a difficult thing to know exactly what happened...So I think it best to always to be in the mode of Truth Seeker.

I don't think this is a Hollywood version of events. I think you've presented a very temperate and well-balanced account of a complex topic.