Lecture 2: American Indian Cultures


This lecture deals with the origins of American Indians and the diversity of Indian cultures in North America, with special attention to native ways of life on the Great Plains. It includes a general comparison between American Indian cultures and the European cultures they encountered.


Outline of Lecture


This lecture establishes the primacy of American Indians in American history. In the course of surveying Indian cultures in the regions of North America, it gives particular consideration to those of the Great Plains.


The Indians of North America were a diverse lot. What explains the great differences among them? One explanation is environmental influence. An environmental determinist would argue that the differences between Southwestern Pueblo cultures, Pacific Northwest cultures, Moundbuilder cultures of the central regions, and Iroquois cultures of the Northeast came from differences in environment and resources.

Perceptions of Indians

Certain categorical differences between Indians and Europeans can be outlined, treating aspects ranging from religion to gender roles. In addition, European perceptions of Indians can be discerned—and perhaps should be questioned. These include perceptions of Indians as passive children of nature, as victims of the fatal contact, and as a vanishing race.

The Great Plains

Native cultures on the Great Plains evolved through deep time with cultures of big game hunting, hunting and gathering, and village farming. European introduction of horses and commerce wrought profound cultural change in the region. By late 19th century Plains Indians had been confined on reservations—but remained stubbornly persistent in their tribal identities.

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12. Unlimited Power of the Majority in the United States and Its Consequences

In this chapter Tocqueville puts forward his most famous and controversial concept, the "tyranny of the majority." He applies this both to political life and to social custom. This concept, tyranny of the majority, is basic to understanding Tocqueville, so make sure you understand it. Listen in lecture for an application of the concept to Indian-European relations.


         What is tyranny of the majority? Can you give an example?

         Comment on: "When I refuse to obey an unjust law, I do not contest the right of the majority to command, but I simply appeal from the sovereignty of the people to the sovereignty of mankind."

         Is there true freedom of thought in the United States, a democracy?


American Indian Ways of Life on the Great Plains, Prof. Isern’s page on the deep history of native life in the region


National Park Service, Knife River Indian Villages—a great example of the village farmer culture on the Great Plains discussed in lecture

Film Review

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Book Review

Crosby, The Columbian Exchange


Morgan, The League of the Iroquois


Korp, The Sacred Geography of the American Mound Builders


Bancroft-Hunt, People of the Totem: The Indians of the Pacific Northwest