People have inhabited the Americas for thousands of years. Native American history is just as complex, fascinating, and surprising as any other story about the past, even if it isn't as widely known.
Indigenous folks across North and South America have made their mark on the world in a variety of ways, ranging from Mayan pyramids to advanced surgical techniques and popular sports that have stood the test of time. Indeed, Native American communities stretch over two continents, and no two are the same. They all have their own culture, traditions, and accomplishments that are worth remembering.
Though Native American tribes and communities are unique in their own way, they also have one important thing in common: Their histories have been shaped by colonialism, as European empires, the United States of America, and other new nation-states violently encroached on their land and disrupted their communities. Indigenous communities haven't only been targeted by colonialism; they've also shaped the histories of empires.
Native American history is more than a story of tragedy, however - it's also a story of ingenuity, innovation, and compassion. So read on and vote up the facts about Native American history that are new to you.
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The Navajo Have A Tradition Around Celebrating A Baby's First Laugh
Just like any other cultural group, Native communities have different celebrations to mark various stages in a person's life.
The Navajo - who live in the Southwestern United States and call themselves "Diné" - have arguably the most unique, joyous ceremony: a celebration for a baby's first laugh. The tradition stipulates that the person who provoked the baby's laugh hosts a ceremony and dinner to mark the occasion. As Navajo national Jaclyn Roessel explains, "This whole ceremony is really meant to show the baby how we're supposed to be as Diné, as very generous people."
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The Washoe Tribe Approached The Donner Party To Offer Them Food
In 1846, settlers from Illinois began their trek westward. The so-called Donner Party - named after Jacob and George Donner who directed the group - suffered a series of setbacks in their journey that culminated in a snowstorm. Bogged down in the snow, the scene turned horrific when the group of stranded settlers supposedly resorted to cannibalism.
The Donner Party wasn't really alone, however - members of the local Washoe tribe apparently tried to offer assistance to the starving group. This story has existed in Washoe oral history since the 19th century. Indeed, archaeologist Julie Schablitsky has even uncovered archaeological supporting evidence:
Until now the Native American perspective has been left out of the telling of the Donner tragedy, not became the wel mel ti did not remember the pioneers, but because they were never asked, or perhaps were not ready to share. Their oral tradition recalls the starving strangers who camped in an area that was unsuitable for that time of year. Taking pity on the pioneers, the northern Washoe attempted to feed them, leaving rabbit meat and wild potatoes near the camps.
Another account states that they tried to bring the Donner Party a deer carcass, but were shot at as they approached. Later, some wel mel ti observed the migrants eating human remains. Fearing for their lives, the area's native inhabitants continued to watch the strangers but avoided further contact. [...] The migrants at Adler Creek were not surviving in the mountains alone - the northern Washoe were there, and they had tried to help.
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The Oneida Consider Themselves To Be 'America's First Allies'
When the Revolutionary War broke out, Native Americans found themselves drawn into the conflict. Many nations sided with the British, figuring the British may have been a better ally in the long-run than the unproven Americans. Among the six nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy), for example, all but two sided with the British.
The Oneida was one of the Haudenosaunee nations that decided to throw in their lot with the rebelling colonists. They fought alongside the American militia at the Battle of Oriskany and the Battle of Barren Hill.
The Oneida also gave critical aid in other ways. Besides soldiers, some Oneida also served as guides and spies during the war. Some of them brought crucial food and supplies to General George Washington and the Continental Army at Valley Forge. Oneida oral history even relates that Polly Cooper, an Oneida woman, journeyed to Valley Forge and cooked for the troops there.
For their efforts to help Americans win independence, the Oneida consider themselves to be "America's First Allies."
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Ancient Mayan Temples Produce Echoes That Sound Like A Bird's Chirp
The Maya of Central America had a sophisticated culture. Among their achievements were complex feats of engineering. They designed and constructed pyramids and temples that remain marvels even in the 21st century.
One of their more impressive achievements is a pyramid that was built with acoustics in mind. Specifically, the El Castillo pyramid was designed to imitate the chirping of a quetzal bird, which was connected to their god Kukulkan. Scholar David Lubman explained how they shaped sound:
When the Mesoamericans were first experimenting with building outdoor temples of every shape and size, the only ones that seemed to reward them with the approval of the gods were the temples with the long outdoor staircase. With those temples, a hand clap would be rewarded with the sound that they would recognize as a messenger of the gods: the quetzal.