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Whose Land Are You Really On?

Whose Land Are You Really On?


“Coyote was young and foolish, consumed with curiosity. ‘What is this I carry?’ he kept asking himself. As soon as he was over the first hill and out of sight, he stopped. He was just going to peek in the bag. ‘That could hurt nothing,’ he thought. Just as he untied the bag and opened a small slit they rushed for the opening. They were people. These people yelled and hollered in strange languages of all kinds. He tried to catch them and get them back into the bag. But they ran away in all different directions.”

Ute oral tradition

The Myths of Manifest Destiny

Many Americans draw their images of the Native inhabitants of this continent from the bands of survivors that endured wave after wave of European and American expansion, genocide, and disease. The Wild West image of raiding tribes on horseback screaming in from the plains to wantonly murder settlers is the idea that Hollywood has projected for decades. The false stereotype goes like this: The land is empty, there are no agricultural projects, and the Native inhabitants have barely made an impact on the environment or changed culturally at all. Afterall, they really haven’t been here that long.

In reality, the Americas were a vast mosaic of cultures — from thriving metropolises with pyramids in Mexico, to established hunter-gatherers and mountain experts in Colorado, monumental mound builders and farmers in Mississippi, to fisher-gatherers and expert traders in California, and everything in between — this land was never empty.

Our entire national American ethos is based on the idea of Manifest Destiny, the belief that God had granted the American people an entire continent basically devoid of human presence. A pristine wilderness to be explored, tamed, and settled. The Homestead Act, which gave settlers land if they intended to farm it, is mythologized in early American history. In reality, the Homestead Act was a blatant land grab based on the belief that farming was the inherent best use for land and that there were few Native Americans living here.

In reality, the Americas were a vast mosaic of cultures — this land was never empty.

The pill is easier to swallow if we continue to believe that the people, land, and history of the Americas before the arrival of Europeans was in some way lesser than that of the Old World. It is not.

Taking a brief step back to examine this national myth reveals a deep and uncomfortable truth that still reverberates today. We live on stolen land and can often trace its theft back to a specific date. It was taken by force through genocide and massacre working in deadly concert with disease and false promises. The heroic image of the cowboy fighting the Indian becomes a lot less romantic when you realize this was a people who had literally survived an apocalypse of disease, destruction, and devastation.

Colorado has an uncomfortable role to play in this history. The Sand Creek Massacre committed against the Cheyenne and Arapho people in Kiowa County is seen by many Native Americans as the beginning of a widespread and systematic genocide of Plains Indians but barely remembered as a one-off incident by most Coloradoans.

In many histories of the American West, the Lewis and Clark expedition marks the beginning of recorded history,” writes Colin G. Calloway in his seminal work entitled, “One Vast Winter Count.” History does not begin with Europeans.

Archaeologists, historians, and other academics are discovering more evidence that supports what Native Americans have been saying all along — that the Americas were vastly more populated, with a much longer and deeper history than previously understood by non-natives.

Charles C. Mann, author of “1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus” and winner of the 2006 National Academies Communication Award states in his book that scholarship has shifted to reflect the fact that the Americas were “a thriving, stunningly diverse place, a tumult of languages, trade, and culture…”.

Demographers and archaeologists now believe that 90% of all people in the New World were killed, mostly through disease, but also due to genocide and the effects of forced migrations. Germs spread faster than colonizers. By the time explorers, trappers, and conquistadors arrived in a new area, the population had already undergone significant collapse. Farms were abandoned in favor of mobility. Tribes were forced to move to unfamiliar lands, either at the behest of a rifle barrel or due to necessity for survival.

Teotihuacan, a preeminent city in Mesoamerica, now Mexico. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

What was it like before 1492?

Not all Native Americans were mobile societies. Some of the tribes we associate with Colorado today were in fact agriculturalists with large settlements. The Arapaho tribes “originally occupied the headwaters of the Arkansas and Platte Rivers,” according to the Northern Arapaho Tribe website. The Cheyenne called lands near the Great Lakes their home. Neither of these groups of people were nomadic hunter-gatherers in the traditional sense. They had large scale agriculture and long-term settlements. Hunting and gathering was a part of daily life, as it was in many societies before refrigeration and modern factory farming, but this was coupled with growing crops. Europeans and Americans failed to recognize this.

Europeans practiced mono-crop agriculture in which a single crop is planted and grown in a field. Their preconceived notion of what farming looked like blinded them to the extensive agriculture they encountered in the Americas where milpas are much more common. A milpa is a field in which multiple crops are grown at once, each replenishing a nutrient the other plant takes from the soil. Corn, beans, and squash are commonly grown together at the same time, the plants intertwining and supporting each other. This looks nothing like a European style farm. What colonists thought were wild lands were often complicated agriculture systems that had been perfected over centuries.

The effects of colonialism are widespread and have deep roots. Even the words we use to describe the original inhabitants of the Americas can carry political baggage. Many tribes called themselves some version of “The People.” Columbus erroneously thought he landed in India, so he and his crew called them Indians.

The effects of colonialism are widespread and have deep roots.

This mistake was realized almost immediately but, as in most Euro-American and Indian relations, never rectified. “We get lumped in together all the time. It’s important to talk about the Cheyenne, the Arapaho, the Ojibwe, who those people are, and how they’re different,” Marty Strenczewilk explains. Strenczewilk is part of Creative Nations — an all-indigenous art collective at the Dairy Arts Center — and he recently was part of Wyoming Public Radio’s The Modern West podcast exploring the Plains Indians Wars from the tribal side of history. 

Neither “Native American” nor “Indian” was coined by anyone of indigenous ancestry, yet they are used as a catch-all phrase for inhabitants from the tip of South America, nearing the South Pole, all the way up to the frozen north of Canada and Alaska, almost at the North Pole. Each group should be referred to by the name they use, which can vary.

Waves of colonization caused by Europeans forced many Native American groups into new migration patterns. Disease, war, and theft of land all worked in unison to drive inhabitants out of their homes. Agricultural societies adapted to horses and transformed into nomadic hunter-gatherer groups, forced to rapidly adapt their ways to new environments and threats. The United States is almost incomprehensibly vast. The variety of terrain and biospheres leads to very different ways of life across the continent. It is no easy feat to move entire nations into new environments.

A Great House at Chaco Canyon. Photo by Austin Clinkenbeard.

These bands of survivors adopted new technologies and lifestyles. Although there were hunter-gatherers who thrived in the Americas, there were also incredibly complex agricultural societies that constructed massive monuments and cities. The Cahokia Mounds in the southern U.S. and the massive constructions by ancestral Puebloans found in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico point to higher populations, intricate world views, and farming on a scale not previously thought possible. Chaco Canyon’s largest building, occupied from sometime around 850 – 1150 AD, was five stories tall and included over 800 individual rooms.

Calloway writes about another challenge to re-creating the pre-Columbian world near Colorado, “The inter-national border established between the United States and Mexico in 1848 has distorted Native American historical geography and obscured the Southwest’s place as the northern edge of an Indian world that reached out from Mexico.”

Trade routes and cultural connections reached deep into the heartland of what is now Mexico. The Puebloans who built these settlements lived in what is the Four Corners region and had interconnected networks spanning the western United States and Mexico. Turquoise mined from California, extensive road networks, and ball courts influenced from Mesoamerica are some of the features pointing to a diverse and important central hub. None of this was noticed by settlers because the entire Chacoan system had risen and fallen centuries before their arrival.

Mesoamerican ball court. Photo by Austin Clinkenbeard.

Even the Chacoan constructions would have been relatively recent compared to the depth of history that humans have here. Radiocarbon dating has been used to show that people inhabited the Lindenmeier site in Larimer County, Colorado over 12,000 years ago. Undoubtedly the hunter-gathers that occupied this site also utilized areas of Boulder County. This means you may well be standing on ground that has been continuously inhabited in some form for well over 10,000 years. Archaeologists call this early group of hunter-gatherers the Folsom tradition, named after a distinct spearpoint used to hunt game such as bison.

Colorado’s landscape is dramatic. The plains offer completely different challenges and opportunities than the foothills and heights of the Rockies. Hunting bison is viable in the open spaces, but not a reliable option for food in the mountains. CU Boulder historian Dr. Thomas Andrews informed me of the ancient people that adapted to the mountain terrain, establishing a way of life different from those on the plains. Archaeologists call this the Mountain Tradition. Both of these traditions are situated in the larger Great Basin region, spanning from Oregon and Idaho down through Nevada and Colorado, into northern Baja California.

Some of the oldest identifiable inhabitants of Colorado are the Utes. They traded and interacted with the Pueblo people, just south of them. Puebloans are often considered the northernmost edge of the mesoamerican world of people like the Maya, the Olmec, and, later on, the Aztecs.

Robert Moore’s aptly titled book about trails in the United States, “On Trails,” states that many of the roads used by the Spanish, that were later codified into highways and overpasses by the Americans, followed the original pathways established by groups like the Utes. Taking a roadtrip today can partially be traced back to the vast distances traversed by Native Americans — a testament to the interconnectedness and complexity of the pre-Columbian world.

Rock art from the Four Corners Region. Photo by Austin Clinkenbeard.

How old is old?

Just how far back human settlement in the Americas extends is a thorny subject for scientists and indigenous groups alike. Countless indigenous belief systems place their respective nations in North America since time immemorial. For many tribes, “there’s no place to even get that information, except to go back to tribal historians who have passed on generation to generation word of mouth only,” notes Strenczewilk. “We have missing pieces of our story,” he shares. 

Vine Deloria Jr, a now deceased member of the Standing Rock Sioux and former professor at CU Boulder once said “I can’t tell you how many white people have told me that ‘science’ shows that Indians were just a bunch of interlopers.” For decades the narrative of a recent arrival, over the Bering land bridge that once connected Alaska to Asia, persisted as undisputed fact. 

These alleged first groups hunted large animals, wore furs in the icy cold, and crafted huge spear points. They followed large game across the recently unfrozen land and, when the glaciers started to melt as the climate shifted, entered North America down through Canada, across an “ice-free corridor” that led them straight to the heart of the Americas.

Countless indigenous belief systems place their respective nations in North America since time immemorial.

Their spear points, named Clovis points after the New Mexico town they were first discovered in, became the defining and identifying factor. Scientists once believed that these were the first Native Americans in the region we call Colorado. They would have been some of the most ancient arrivals, dispersing from north to south, with South America naturally inhabited much later than North America. This general theory, of big game hunters following animals though melting glaciers down from Alaska, is called “Clovis-first.”

Scientific careers were built off of this theory. Clovis First was supported by the largest names in American archaeology at the time. Discoveries that challenged the conventional dates, meaning anything providing evidence of humans in the Americas before 13,000 years ago, were seen as anomalies with incorrect dating or improper excavation techniques. Unfortunately, Clovis First had become dogma rather than a working scientific theory. This story still dominates intro textbooks and popular history today.

Archaeology regarding the populating of the Americas was flipped upside down when Monte Verde in Southern Chile was excavated by Tom Dillehay and his team. Dillehay knew the implications of claiming a pre-Clovis site and preempted the criticism by inviting the top names in American archaeology to examine his excavations themselves. In South America, the visiting experts unanimously agreed that the findings were indisputable: there was hard evidence of human occupation at the most southern tip of South America over 15,000 years ago, thousands of years before Clovis. One man later recanted his acceptance of the findings, but the paradigm had been shifted among the new generation of archaeologists.

This created an obvious academic dilemma — how did big-game, cold-weather Clovis hunters reach South America before Colorado? For starters, the earliest Native Americans may not have been arctic hunters but coastal fisher-gatherers.

More discoveries, this time on the West Coast of the U.S., added to the debate. Arlington Man represents one of the earliest human remains in North America and was found on the Channel Islands off the coast of mainland California. Daisy Cave, also located on the Channel Islands, contains artifacts dated to 16,000 years ago. These early sites on the coast, alongside coastal artifacts, point to an entirely new route of entry by sea.

For starters, the earliest Native Americans may not have been arctic hunters but coastal fisher-gatherers.

Dr. Jon Erlandson, archaeologist and professor at the University of Oregon, proposes that the main wave of humans arrived in the Americas via a coastal “kelp forest” route that would have provided a much easier passage than a recently unfrozen tundra. Similar diets, even temperatures, and identical strategies point towards a less complicated adjustment for early humans along the coast as opposed to the landscape of the interior of North America. Instead of traversing tundra, desert, mountain, and plains, the first arrivals would have followed similar tidal resources and mild climates next to the ocean before spreading inwards.

The first massive cities, temples, and artifacts such as Olmec heads are found along the coast in Central America. The oldest artifacts are along the coast of California and Oregon. Additionally, Mann presents data compiled from archaeologists that show the earliest Clovis sites are actually in the southern parts of the United States, with sites dated later near the Canadian border. Instead of a top-down, through-the-tundra path, these inhabitants likely followed the coast, down through California, Baja California, and Mexico, and well into South America, before entering the Great Basin and subsequently Colorado.

This is all to say that Native Americans have been here in the Americas at least several thousand years earlier than commonly taught. Archaeology may finally be catching up with what Native Americans have adamantly stated all along. They have been here much longer, in much larger numbers, and with greater development than previously thought.

Mesa Verde in Southern Colorado. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Acknowledging genocide

What we’ve all been told since kindergarten is a very clear history of the U.S. White people coming over to this glorious land that was prepared for them, with very Christian orientations, and they were in the right,” Strenczewilk emphasizes.

Beginning Colorado’s story with settlers, trappers, and miners erases and silences the depth of history that has existed well before anyone from across the Atlantic knew this continent existed. It makes the story of white settlers displacing the original inhabitants easier to swallow. It helps absolve us of guilt and prevents reflection on our national narrative. It is something most Native peoples have known all along — the land we occupy today was built on blood. “They kicked people off their land, took from them, killed, raped, and maimed [them],” Strenczewilk noted and elaborates. “The two things this country was built on were slavery and genocide.”

Essentially, when colonizers finally made their way to what is now Colorado, they were encountering groups that had been forced off their land, survived epidemics, endured war, and found a new home.

More archaeologists are recognizing the power and information contained in oral histories. Western oral history is purported to stretch back to the Epic of Gilgamesh, established in some form in the 22nd century B.C. We would be wise to take stock and listen to oral histories that establish Native nations in this land as well. To move forward we need to acknowledge our uncomfortable past, that is not that distant at all.


Austin Clinkenbeard
Austin Clinkenbeard has been traveling the world with his wife for the past several years exploring food, history and culture along the way. He is a passionate advocate for stronger social science education and informed global travel. Austin holds degrees in Anthropology and Political Science from San Diego State. When he’s home there’s a good chance you can catch him cooking allergy friendly food. You can follow along Austin’s travel adventures and food allergy journey at www.NowWeExplore.com.

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