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Oral Tradition
Most Native Americans passed their history and traditions from one generation to the next through the spoken word. Largely unknown to many non-Indians, the stories of American Indians are as rich as the mythology of the ancient Greeks. They explain the nature of creation and the universe, serve as a model of human behavior, and transmit history and tradition. Storytellers who were usually older members of the community, often grandparents, handed down these stories. In some instances, the stories are an integral part of works of art, communicating visually the rich cultural heritage of Native American people.

Too often in the past the history of America has been written as if it began with the arrival of the Europeans. This attitude excludes the long heritage of Native people who have lived in North America for tens of thousands of years (to traditional people, since the "beginning of time"). Five hundred years ago at the point of initial contact with Europeans millions of culturally diverse people speaking hundreds of different languages populated North America. The environments in which they lived shaped their lifestyles. Depending on the resources available to them, some were farmers or gatherers, others fished and hunted. Many tribes lived in one place most of the time, while others were nomadic hunters following the migratory patterns of large game animals, such as buffalo.

These different economies gave rise to diverse cultural characteristics and complex social, political, and economic systems. In the northeast Woodlands region, six nations formed the Iroquois Confederacy, aspects of which served as a model for the makers of the U.S. Constitution. Highly complex agricultural societies existed in the Southwest and Midwest for centuries prior to the arrival of the Europeans. In the Southwest, Native people developed irrigation systems that exist today, some still in use. Vast trade routes distributed everything from shells to fabric among the many cultures that populated the North American continent.

Why "Indians"?
Despite the five centuries that have elapsed since Native people and early explorers came into contact, the history and culture of Native people remains unknown or misunderstood by many non-Indian people. The misunderstanding began early. Christopher Columbus set out to explore Japan, Korea, China, and India, which were collectively referred to at the time as the East Indies. Believing that he had arrived in the Indies when he reached the lands of the New World, Columbus mistakenly called the Native people "Indians". This term has prevailed into the 20th century. Today, most North American Natives prefer to be called Native American or American Indian, although the majority of Native people originally referred to themselves in their own languages by words meaning "the people." For example the Ojibwe people, often referred to as Chippewa by non-Indians, call themselves "Anishinabe" which is the Ojibwe word for "the people."

More about Native American History and Culture

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