In this video segment adapted from American Experience, explore the North American lands as experienced by the indigenous peoples who migrated through much of the continent. Before the arrival of European settlers, some Native American tribes moved from region to region with the seasons—south in the winter and north in the summer. Following the guidance of their experienced leaders, they obtained the food, water, and other supplies they needed from their surrounding environment.
"The Old West": These words often bring to mind images of a wild frontier and the brave cowboys who tried to tame it. It may also bring up images of battles between American settlers and Native Americans. But why were there battles?
Although both groups wanted to use the same land in the mid-1800s, that wasn't the only reason that they did not get along. The groups also had some fundamental differences in their perspectives on life and the role of nature.
Native Americans viewed the land as something to be respected and cared for. Although not all Native American tribes had the same views, most shared certain beliefs. Central to these was the belief that every form of life—human and nonhuman—has equal value and must be cared for. This belief focused on a respect for the land, which they depended on for survival.
Although some Native American groups stayed mainly in one region to farm the land, many traveled to find the resources that they needed. From information passed down through many generations, they knew how to "read" the land and determine where they needed to go to hunt for food or set up shelter. Their goal was to use sustainable methods for meeting their needs so that they would continue to find these resources for years to come.
The U.S. settlers, on the other hand, viewed the land as something to be conquered and occupied. As people streamed into the Western lands, they saw dense forests, wild rivers, high mountains, and scorching deserts—not to mention Native peoples and wild animals—which they would need to control. When they reached their destinations, they transformed each area from its natural state into what they wanted it to be, such as a farm or a town.
As the population of settlers in the West grew, people continued to stay connected to the cities of the East. To maintain communications and receive supplies, they gradually placed telegraph wires and railroad tracks across the continent. And as resources were used up and the good lands were settled, settlers moved farther and farther west to meet their needs.
The settlers felt that it was their Manifest Destiny to own the lands of the North American continent. Therefore, they believed it was their right and duty to remove all natural obstacles, including Native Americans, from their path. As the settlers took over the land, the Native Americans began to lose more and more regions that had been part of their territory. Overwhelmed by the number of arriving settlers, as well as by the settlers' guns and other tools of war, they were slowly driven out of one area after another.
As the territories were mapped into states and made part of the United States, the U.S. government forced many Native American groups to relocate to special reservations. While the lands they left behind were fertile, the lands they were relocated to were often not as useful for their survival. Native Americans lost much of their territory and countless lives between the clashes over use of the Western lands and the forced relocation to reservations.
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