Long before Europeans showed up in North America, Native Americans had been living here for centuries in every corner of the country. Just as the landscapes of the continent are vastly diverse, so too are the land’s native residents. Every Native American tribe has its own unique culture, customs, and history, all of which deserve a full deep dive. Today, the U.S. government officially recognizes 562 different tribes; here are five major ones you should know.
The Navajo tribe (sometimes spelled “Navaho”) live in the southwestern United States around New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. Navajo Nation extends for more than 27,000 square miles with almost 300,000 people, making it one of the largest Native American reservations in the country and the second-most populous behind the Cherokee.
It’s believed that the Navajo moved to the area between 1100 and 1500 CE. They were originally hunters and gatherers, but once they arrived in the Southwest, they adopted farming practices from the nearby Pueblo tribe and settled down.
During World War II, the United States was in need of a new secret code that couldn’t be deciphered by the Japanese or Germans. The Navajo people stepped up. They spoke a completely different language, a language that the nobody in any other country knew how to speak. They could send messages in their Navajo language, without any code at all, and the enemy wouldn’t be able to understand it. The brave Navajo Code Talkers, as they became known, were instrumental in the war effort. Without them, the U.S. would not have been so successful.
“Wampanoag” means “People of the First Light,” which is perfect for a tribe that lives in Massachusetts and Rhode Island as they were literally one of the first people on the continent to see the sunrise every morning. The tribes were semi-sedentary and would typically move between two fixed camps depending on the season and hunting availability.
In the 1600s as many as 40,000 Wampanoag people lived throughout what we now call New England. Most notable was the high chief Massasoit. When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, Massasoit made a treaty with them, and with the help of his interpreter, Tisquantum, who is better known as Squanto, they essentially saved the Pilgrims’ lives by helping them through their first harsh winter.
In 1621, the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims had a feast to celebrate their first year’s harvest. It’s now known as the first Thanksgiving. Today, around 5,000 Wampanoag still live in New England. Most of them live in the Martha’s Vineyard area.
The Apache tribe dominated the Southwest across modern-day New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Texas, and northern parts of Mexico. They were a nomadic people that relied on the buffalo for food and clothing. Based on their language, it’s believed that they moved to the Southwest from western Canada around the year 1100 CE.
After Europeans arrived on the land, the Apaches were one of the first tribes to adopt from them horseback riding as their primary mode of transportation — and adopt it they did. Despite their short time around horses, the Apaches quickly became some of the best riders in the West.
They originally attempted to befriend the Spanish, Mexicans, and Americans in the 17th century, but that relationship quickly dissolved when Spanish slave traders attempted to capture Apache people for work in the mines. The Apaches began raiding encampments throughout the area, and their fierce fighting abilities became legend. In 1861 an official confrontation between the U.S. military and the Apache people began. For 25 years, they battled back and forth for the land. Eventually, the Apache surrendered and moved to a reservation in New Mexico.
Even though the conflict was technically over, some Apache leaders refused to give up their nomadic lifestyle and continued to raid the United States. The Apache leader Geronimo was probably the most feared and influential warrior during this time.
Shoshone tribes lived in the western part of the U.S. in the areas now occupied by Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and California. In 1845, there were an estimated 4,500 Shoshone people living in the United States.
One of the most famous Shoshone individuals, and Native Americans in general, is Sacagawea. When Lewis and Clark began their famous expedition to explore the West, they enlisted the help of a local Native American who could speak English. She served as their translator and guide on the voyage. It’s likely that the trip wouldn’t have been a success without her.
The Sioux people are actually an alliance of three separate tribes that speak different dialects. The Lakota people lived in North and South Dakota, the Dakota in Minnesota and Nebraska, and the Nakota in the western Dakotas and Montana.
Sioux tribes were mostly nomadic and followed the buffalo around the plains. They were also fierce warriors. The men earned prestige for their families based on how many scalps they could take in battle. Religion played a major role in everyday life. They believed in one god, called Wakan Tanka, who controlled everything.
Red Cloud and Crazy Horse are two of the most notable Sioux leaders who led campaigns against the encroaching settlers looking for gold. As the conflict escalated, the U.S. government sent 300 men led by General George Custer to resolve the conflict. Sitting Bull famously defeated General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.
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On Dec. 4, if everything goes according to plan, hundreds of veterans will muster at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. The mission: To stop the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“Most civilians who’ve never served in a uniform are gutless worms who’ve never been in a fight in their life,” Wes Clark Jr. declares. “So if we don’t stop it, who will?”
Clark Jr. is one of the most vociferous opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a controversial 1,170-mile project that, if and when it is completed, will shuttle an estimated 470,000 barrels of crude oil every day from North Dakota to Illinois. “It’s immoral, and wrong, and dangerous to us all,” Clark Jr. adds.
He doesn’t fit the traditional tree-hugger mold. He’s not a hippie. Nor is he a member of the Lakota or Dakota tribes, the two Native American group known collectively as the Sioux. He’s a former Army officer and the organizer of an upcoming three-day deployment of U.S. military veterans to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in southern North Dakota, the site of an escalating months-long standoff between law enforcement-backed security contractors and activists that has so far resulted in multiple injuries, more than 500 arrests, and a United Nations investigation of potential human rights abuses.
According to an “operations order” for the planned engagement, posted to social media in mid-November, “First Americans have served in the Unites States Military, defending the soil of our homelands, at a greater percentage than any other group of Americans. There is no other people more deserving of veteran support.”
Clark Jr. is a 47-year-old writer, political commentator, and activist based in California. Joining him in the fight is Michael A. Wood Jr., a Marine Corps veteran and former Baltimore police officer who retired his badge in 2014 to become an advocate for national police reform. Earlier this month, the duo formed Veterans Stand For Standing Rock with the hope of drawing scores of veterans, as well as fire fighters, ex-law enforcement officers, emergency medical personnel and others to the battleground for a three-day “deployment” in early December to “prevent progress on the Dakota Access Pipeline and draw national attention to the human rights warriors of the Sioux tribes.” Both men say they’re prepared to take a bullet, rubber or otherwise, for a cause they believe should be of critical importance to any patriotic American.
“… if we’re really going to be those veterans that this country praises, well, then we need to do the things that we actually said we’re going to do…”
“This country is repressing our people,” Wood Jr. says. “If we’re going to be heroes, if we’re really going to be those veterans that this country praises, well, then we need to do the things that we actually said we’re going to do when we took the oath to defend the Constitution from enemies foreign and domestic.”
The Standing Rock Sioux Reservation was originally established as part of the Great Sioux Reservation under Article 2 of the Treaty of Fort Laramie of April 29, 1868. In 1877, the U.S. government initiated the still ongoing process of chipping away and dividing the land it had granted to the people of the Lakota and Dakota nations, with significant reductions taking place in 1889 and then again during the 1950s and 1960s, when the Army Corps of Engineers built five large dams along the Missouri River, uprooting villages and sinking 200,000 acres of land below water.
When the Corps of Engineers returned to Standing Rock in 2015, it was to assess whether or not it should approve a path for the Dakota Access Pipeline across the Missouri River, a project that would involve construction on some of the land that had been stripped from the Sioux, who still regard it as sacred — although, that fact seems to have been ignored, maybe even intentionally, in the assessment.
Because the Corps neglected to consult the Standing Rock Sioux, as it was required to do under the National Historic Preservation Act (Section 106), the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Interior, and the American Council on Historic Preservation all criticized the assessment, but the project was eventually approved. The decision was a major victory for Energy Transfer Partners, the Texas-based parent company of Dakota Access LLC, which estimates the pipeline will bring $156 million in sales and income taxes to state and local governments and create thousands of temporary jobs.
For the Standing Rock Sioux, the Dakota Access project poses two immediate threats. First, the pipeline would run beneath Lake Oahe, the reservoir that provides drinking water to the people of Standing Rock. (An earlier route that avoided native lands was ruled out in part because it posed a danger to drinking water.) Second, according to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, the building of the pipeline would destroy the sacred spots and burial grounds that were overlooked in the Corps’ assessment. But as the protests have intensified, and more outsiders, including members of more than 200 Native American tribes from across North America, have become involved, Standing Rock has, for some, come to represent something much bigger than a struggle between a disenfranchised people and a government-backed, billion-dollar corporation. It’s a battle to save humanity from itself.
“Mother Earth’s axis is off and it’s never going back,” says Phyllis Young, a Sioux tribal elder. “And we have to help keep it in balance for as long as we can. I am a mother and a grandmother. Those are my credentials to ensure a future with clean drinking water — a future of human dignity, human rights, and human survival.”
Young grew up on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. She has been present at many of the protests and says she’s seen people brutalized at the hands of the security contractors and law enforcement officials guarding the land where the drilling is set to take place. It was Young who got Clark Jr involved. In late summer, she was in Washington, D.C., lobbying for the military to promote an alternative (and scientifically dubious) clean energy source called low-energy nuclear reaction, when she heard of a military veteran who was a forceful advocate for environmental conservation. Clark Jr. was eager to help. He spent weeks trying to assemble a legal team for the Standing Rock Sioux, and even contacted Independent Diplomat, a nonprofit organization that helps governments navigate complex diplomatic processes. “I pulled all of the levers, and none of them worked,” Clark Jr. recalls. Then, in early November, the plan dawned on him: He’d bring his fellow veterans. Lots of them. And they’d come prepared to put their lives on the line.
“We’re not going out there to get in a fight with anyone,” Clark Jr. says. “They can feel free to beat us up, but we’re 100% nonviolence.”
You may have heard of Clark Jr.’s father. Wesley Clark Sr. retired from the Army in 2000 as a four-star general. His career began in the jungles of Vietnam, where he was shot four times during an enemy ambush near Saigon, and culminated in a posting as Supreme Allied Commander Europe during the Kosovo War. In 2004, he ran for the Democratic Party presidential nomination on platform that criticized the Iraq War and called for measures to combat climate change. Clark Jr., who was born in Florida while Clark Sr. was in Vietnam and grew up on military bases throughout the United States and Europe, seems to have inherited both his father’s commanding spirit and his progressive ideals.
Clark Jr. had just graduated from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service when he joined the Army as a cavalry officer. He served on active duty from 1992–1996 — “nothing dangerous,” he says. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was living in New York City, and after seeing the towers fall, he decided to re-enlist. “I was like, ‘I’m going back in. I’m going to go in there and fuck people up,’” he recalls. It was Clark Sr., the decorated war hero, who convinced him not to. As Clark Jr. recalls, his father foresaw U.S. military intervention in Iraq and warned that as a soldier he would be fighting a war that had nothing to do with defeating al Qaeda. “He was right, but I’ll tell you, I’ve never felt worse about a decision in my life,” Clark Jr. says.
Clark Jr. may never have served in combat, but when he talks about Standing Rock, he sounds like a battle-hardened general. This isn’t his first foray into boots-on-the-ground environmental activism. He’s currently working with an organization called Climate Mobilization, which is focused on “building and supporting a social movement that causes the US federal government to commence WWII-scale climate mobilization.” But he’s perhaps best known as a co-host of the political web series The Young Turks. On the The Young Turks website, Clark Jr. is described as an Army veteran “currently trying to save human civilization from climate change.” The impending confrontation at Standing Rock, he says, will be “the most important event up to this time in human history.”
“We’re not going out there to get in a fight with anyone. They can feel free to beat us up, but we’re 100% nonviolence.”
Vets Standing For Standing Rock was announced via an official sounding letter formatted like a five-paragraph military operation order, breaking down the “opposing forces” — “Morton County Sheriff’s office combined with multiple state police agencies and private security contractors” — “Mission,” “Execution” and “Logistics,” among other things. A packing list virtually mirrors the ones issued to soldiers preparing to deploy to the field (minus the weapons). But there are also parts of the document that read like a revolutionary manifesto. Under the section titled “Friendly Forces,” for example, the op order states, “we are there to put our bodies on the line, no matter the physical cost, in complete nonviolence to provide a clear representation to all Americans of where evil resides.”
The document was accompanied by a link to a GoFundMe campaign that has raised nearly $20,000 of its $100,000 goal since it was created on Nov. 11. The money, Clark Jr. says, will only be used for helping volunteers with transportation costs and then bailing those who are arrested out of jail.
Wood Jr. says the op-order was Clark Jr.’s idea, but the two men agree that organizing like a military unit is the smartest approach, especially because most of the people expected to join them on the ground have served.
“It’s simple and we have clearly defined goals, so people don’t get caught up in the confusion,” says Wood Jr., who served with the Baltimore Police Department for more than a decade. “One of the issues the police are going to face is that our level of planning and coordination is vastly superior to theirs, so they may end up with a problem when it comes to that.”
“We’ll have those people who will recognize that they’re not willing to take a bullet, and those who recognize that they are.”
Here then is the plan: On Dec. 4, Clark Jr. and Wood Jr., along with a group of veterans and other folks in the “bravery business,” as Wood Jr. puts it — 500 total is the goal, but they’re hoping for more — will muster at Standing Rock. The following morning they will join members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, including Young, for a traditional healing ceremony. With an eye toward the media, old military uniforms will be donned so that if the veterans are brutalized by the police, they are brutalized not as ordinary citizens, but as people who once served the government they are protesting against. Then body armor, ear plugs, and gas masks will be issued to those who didn’t bring their own. Bagpipes will play, and traditional Sioux war songs will be sung. The music will continue as everyone marches together to the banks of the Missouri, on the other side of which a line of guards in riot gear will be standing ready with rifles, mace, batons, and dogs. Then, the veterans and their allies — or at least the ones who are brave enough — will lock arms and cross the river in a “massive line” for their “first encounter” with the “opposing forces.” The goal is to make it to the drilling pad and surround it, arm in arm. That will require making it through the line of guards, who have repelled other such attempts with a level of physical force Sioux tribal members and protesters have described as “excessive” — claims that recently prompted a United Nations investigation. Of course, that’s what the body armor and gas masks are for.
“We’ll have those people who will recognize that they’re not willing to take a bullet, and those who recognize that they are,” says Wood Jr. “It’s okay if some of them step back, but Wes and I have no intention of doing so.”
Of course, as most veterans know full well, even the best plans go out the window the moment the shit hits the fan. It seems probable that the group will be met by fierce resistance from those charged with keeping people out of the construction site. Despite a recent decision by the Corps of Engineers to delay further work on the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners is still hoping to complete the project by January. The segment that will cross beneath the Missouri at Standing Rock is the last major piece of the puzzle. Strengthening the resolve of the company’s executives is the fact that Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren donated more than $100,000 to elect Donald Trump, and Trump himself owns stock in the company. “I’m 100% sure that the pipeline will be approved by a Trump administration,” Warren told NBC News on Nov. 12.
Nonetheless, Clark Jr. and Wood Jr. remain undeterred. If anything, the likelihood of approval only makes them more determined. After all, this is war.
“The Joint Chiefs of Staff labeled the climate emergency as the number one security threat to the country, and they’ve been labeling it that for years,” Clark Jr. says. “All you need to do is put an overlay on any map in the world where there’s a water and crisis and you’re going to see massive political violence in that location. And unless we act, we’re going to be dealing with that exact same situation right here in the United States.”
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Youth Visits Were Made Possible Through the National Park Service “Visiting Our Past” Transportation Grant
Published November 15, 2016
EAGLE BUTTE, SOUTH DAKOTA — This year, teens from South Dakota’s Cheyenne River reservation have had the opportunity to visit sites of major significance to the Lakota Nation with the Cheyenne River Youth Project®. In August, they visited Bear Butte (Mahto Paha) State Park and Devil’s Tower (Mahto Tipila) National Monument, and more recently, they traveled to the Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills and Badlands National Park.
The trips were made possible with funding from the National Park Service “Visiting Our Past” Transportation Grant. The grant was made available to native nonprofit youth organizations so they could pursue initiatives that would connect young people to the places of their ancestors and introduce them to the work of the National Park Service, and NPS staff worked closely with CRYP to plan the youth visits.
According to Tammy Eagle Hunter, the trips had both educational and recreational purposes. Not only were the teens able to learn more about the cultural significance of each site, they were able to do some hiking as well.
“At Crazy Horse, we visited the Indian Museum of North America and took a bus ride to the base of the monument, where we learned more about Crazy Horse himself, the history of the monument and the minerals inside the rock,” Eagle Hunter said. “Then we went on to Badlands National Park, where we met up with Jesse Short Bull.”
Jesse Antoine Short Bull, a member of the Oglala Lakota Oyate, is a passionate storyteller, particularly where it concerns is Dakota homeland. He participated in the prestigious Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) Disney/ABC Screenwriters program in Santa Fe, New Mexico, co-wrote a short film titled “Istinma: To Rest,” and remains involved with both writing and film. Short Bull also co-founded and continues to work with the Native Youth Leadership Alliance, which provides young tribal college students with a safe place to promote culturally based change.
Short Bull talked to the Cheyenne River teens about the Badlands’ Lakota history and cultural connections, and he led the group on an off-trail hike that involved some fossil-finding.
“The kids loved that,” Eagle Hunter said. “Not only did they have the opportunity to hear the stories, and see the beautiful natural and sacred places in those stories, they could actually get out there and engage with the environment. That gave them a level of understanding they would not be able to achieve any other way.”
Cheyenne River’s teens also were able to learn more about NPS management of the sites. And, they discovered ways to build their own outdoor leadership skills in preservation, recreation and education.
“It was a great privilege to share these experiences with our teens, and to help them strengthen their connections as Lakota people to the power of place,” Eagle Hunter said. “Visits like this give them greater understanding of the stories in their oral tradition, and more deeply appreciate the sacrifices of their ancestors. It’s so important to us that our young people feel proud of who they are and realize that, like their ancestors, they are both resilient and powerful beyond measure.”
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WASHINGTON – The final White House Tribal Nations Conference of President Obama’s administration focused on the past eight years of accomplishments in Indian Country. While tribal leaders acknowledge those accomplishments, they had the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s fight to stop the Dakota Access pipeline on their minds. Sidebar conversations went to Standing Rock.
Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archembault II – Native News Online photo by Levi Rickert
After a brief reception to conclude Monday’s activities inside, tribal leaders took their “Stand of Standing Rock” outside of the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium onto the sidewalk on Constitution Avenue. Several non-Native supporters joined the American Indians and Alaska Native leaders.
Dallas Goldtooth, from 1491’s and an organizer of the Indigenous Environmental Network emceed the news conference. Among the speakers were: Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II, Oglala Sioux Tribal Robert Yellowbird Steele and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Chairman Harold Fraizer.
Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II thanked the supporters who have shown unprecedented solidarity throughout Indian Country during the several weeks.
“WE SEE THE POWER OF UNITY AND THE POWER OF PRAYER,” SAID ARCHAMBAULT. “FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY HEART, I THANK YOU FOR STANDING WITH US.”
The National Congress of American Indians, the oldest national American Indian organization, passed a resolution to support Standing Rock’s fight to stop the pipeline.
“THEY ARE AWAKENING A SLEEPING GIANT. THE ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS NEEDS TO DENY THIS PERMIT.” STATED BRIAN CLADOOSBY, PRESIDENT OF THE NATIONAL CONGRESS OF AMERICAN INDIANS, WHO ALSO SERVES AS CHAIRMAN OF THE SWINOMISH INDIAN TRIBAL COMMUNITY. “WE AS TRIBAL LEADERS WILL KEEP STANDING WITH STANDING ROCK.”
Tribal leaders wore red sashes with white letters with the message “protector” on them signifying protectors of water and protectors of land.