Question: What are some of the most commonly held misconceptions about native american indians both in the past and in the present?
Submitted by Jennie T.

Probably the biggest misconception non-indians have about native american indians is that they are all the same, that they share a common culture, common beliefs, and a common governmental structure. Many people picture the Plains Indian tribes as representative of all Indians because of their romanticized portrayal in Hollywood movies.
In reality,there are well over 1,000 separate native american indian tribes in the United States and Canada, and hundreds more in Mexico, Central America and South America. While they do share some general philosophies on life, just as most non-indian people in the United States, Canada, and Europe do, each tribe has their own culture, beliefs, languages, and religions, similar to differences separate countries in Europe and North America do, or different states in the US have different traditions. 

Individual indian tribes vary in size from less than ten surviving members to more than half a million tribal members. Some tribes have reservation lands, some do not. About half of all native american tribal members continue to live on reservations, the other half live off reservations in predominately anglo towns and cities.

Most live in houses just like you do, whether on or off the reservations. The Plains Indian tribes use tipis mainly on special occasions, like powwow gatherings. Other native americans never lived in tipis at all, even in the old days. Some tribes built their homes from bark, woven reeds, bent sticks, thatched palms, partially submerged pits in the ground or side of a hill, or adobe bricks.

Some tribes, such as the Plains tribes, were nomadic hunter-gatherers, others lived in permanent villages and were agriculture based societies. Still others made their living from the rivers and oceans, and some still do. For example, many of the Inuit of Alaska and the Northwest Territories still make 80% of their living from subsistence hunting and gathering.

Many people believe native american medicine men and healers practiced primitive medicine and European scientific knowledge was more advanced than that of Indigenous Americans at the time of contact. However, 90% of all the synthetic drugs we have today were based on natural chemicals extracted from the herbs and plants native americans used for medicine.

Indians of North, Central, and South America had developed so many botanical medications by the time of contact that the Spanish King, Philip II sent physician Francisco Hernando to the Americas in 1570 to record Aztec medical knowledge and bring it back to Europe.

Eventually 200 native american botanical remedies were included in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia, an official listing of all effective medicines and their uses, which is still used by doctors today.

Pre-contact native american healers had developed a sophisticated system of medical treatment compared to European healers of the time, who relied on bloodletting, blistering, religious penance, and concoctions of lead, arsenic and cow dung to treat disease.

They recognized the powerful connection between body and mind in the power of healing, a concept that has only been accepted by modern doctors in the last few decades of the last century.

The blades of their flint surgical instruments were so thin that the incisions they made could not be duplicated until the advent of laser surgery.

In addition to performing surgery, American Indians from several culture groups understood the importance of keeping wounds sterile and used botanical antiseptics. They made syringes out of bird bones and animal bladders to administer plant medicine.

Another area of scientific knowledge in which native american indians excelled was plant breeding. American Indian farmers, who had formed a working knowledge of plant genetics between 5200 and 3400 B.C., used seed saving to create hundreds of varieties of food crops.

By comparison Europeans showed little interest in plant genetics. In 1865 when Gregor Mendel made public his experiments with hybrids, the European scientific community scoffed at his ideas. Not until the early 1900s did European scientists begin to take agricultural experimentation seriously.

Many people believe native american indian people were living in a Stone Age culture at the time of conquest, and they first received metal tools from Europeans. In reality, the polar Inuit near Baffin Bay used meteorites to make iron blades before Europeans did. The people of the Old Copper Culture in the Great Lakes region of North America 7,000 years ago are considered by many scientists to have been the oldest metal workers in the world. 

Pre-Columbian metal workers invented sophisticated techniques for working with other metals. Pre-contact metallurgists living in what are now Ecuador and Guatemala learned how to work with platinum, a metal that has the extremely high melting point of 3,218 degrees by developing a technique called sintering.

Europeans were unable to work platinum until the 19th century. Metal workers in other parts of the Americas knew how to solder, could make foil and used rivets to fasten pieces of metal together.

While north american indians did get their first guns from Europeans, they were a relatively new invention for the Europeans, too. Europeans used crossbows as weapons of war until 1485 when half of the English army was equipped with guns. Europeans did not use guns for hunting game until 1515.

Many people believe native americans were blood-thirsty savages who always scalped their enemies. American Indians probably learned the practice of scalping from the Europeans. Although archaeologists have found a few prehistoric human remains in the Americas that show evidence of cut marks on the skulls, they disagree about whether these marks are evidence of scalping.

Absolutely no evidence exists that scalping was a widespread practice in the Americas before European contact. If it was practiced, it was done by very few tribes and then very infrequently.

On the other hand, scalping was a well-established war badge for Europeans. Ancient Scythians (Russians) practiced it. Herodotus, the Greek Historian, wrote of them in B.C. 440, "The Scythian soldier scrapes the scalp clean of flesh and softening it by rubbing between the hands, uses it thenceforth as a napkin. The Scyth is proud of these scalps and hangs them from his bridle rein; the greater the number of such napkins that a man can show, the more highly is he esteemed among them. Many make themselves cloaks by sewing a quantity of these scalps together."

Much later the English paid bounties for Irish heads. Because scalps were easier to transport and store than heads, Europeans sometimes substituted scalping for headhunting. Records show that the Earl of Wessex, England scalped his enemies in the 11th century.

In 1706 the governor of Pennsylvania offered 130 pieces of eight for the scalp of Indian men over twelve years of age and 50 pieces of eight for a woman’s scalp. Because it was impossible for those who paid the bounty to determine the victim’s sex – and sometimes the age – from the scalp alone, killing women and children became a way to make easy money.

During the French and Indian Wars and later during the war between the British and the Colonists, both the British and the French encouraged their Indian allies to scalp their enemies, providing them with metal scalping knives.

The practice of paying bounties for Indian scalps did not end until the 1800’s.