4. Introduction to Indigenous America

Before I continue I need to make several things absolutely clear. First, I do not have permission from any of these people to speak of their culture, their history, or their ancestors. Secondly, by no stretch of the imagination am I in anyway an expert in this field. My only interest is attempting to understand the influence of Indigenous Americans might have had on the Mid-Atlantic and Appalachian Mountain cultures. I have tried to be thorough, checking and rechecking my sources. But mistakes and misunderstandings are bound to be there so I apologize in advance should that turn out to be the case.

One thing I have learned right off is that there is no possible way to simply talk about any tribe based on geographical region or even those tribes that lived in close proximity to the south-central and southern Appalachians and the Mid-Atlantic in general. Tribes moved around. Trails, hundreds even thousands of miles long were well established long before Europeans showed up. These trails were used for many reasons such as hunting and trade, visiting distant relatives, and escaping pressure from a neighboring tribe. And of course the greatest pressure of all came from the Europeans themselves, annihilating a stunning number of people and their cultures. Those who remained were widely dispersed, moved hundreds, even thousands of miles from their traditional homelands, throwing together remnants of tribes from New England and Florida, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and so forth.  Europeans were so infected with the spirit of greed few took enough notes to make it even remotely possible to reconstruct the world prior to their invasion.

That said enormous effort has been made to rebuild cultures through the reconstruction of languages. By doing so theoretical pictures emerge with regard to who might be or might have been related to whom. And let’s be straight here about this project remaining forever theoretical considering less than a tenth of the indigenous population survived the European invasion. An unknowable number of tribes are extinct and that is true of even more languages. The US Government forbade natives to speak their own language or practice any of their customs long into the 20th century. What was left of languages was even more severely imperiled. Nevertheless understanding groups of people through related languages appears to be significant provided it is viewed with caution and a healthy dose of skepticism. But that is precisely how I decided to approach the influence of Indigenous Americans on Appalachian Mountain and Potomac River Basin cultures.

Before I leap into language classification I thought this a good place to define a few terms. There is some confusion over the new dating system: BC/AD and BCE/CE. These designations were changed to get Christianity out of science once and for all: BC = before Christ, AD = mistakenly thought of as After Death but actually means Anno Domini (translated: In the year of our lord). BCE, Before Common Era, is the same as BC, ‘before Christ’. CE, Common Era, is the same thing as AD, Anno Domini. Frankly, both seem damn stupid to me. Why on Earth is theoretical zero placed at the supposed birth of Christ? But I seem to be stuck because the eras I am going to introduce are still designated as one or the other. What I will try to do is stick to the BCE/CE in an effort to adapt. Please don’t hold me to it. With the recent discoveries that push back North American habitation from 16,000 years to 26,000 years even the designation of eras will eventually have to be tweaked to accommodate the discoveries. But allow me to at least provide an overview.

I.    Lithic = Paleolithic (hunter-gatherers) 8000 BCE to 26,000 BCE; includes Clovis, Folsom, & Solutrean
II.    Archaic = Mesolithic (hunter-gatherers) 8000 BCE to 2000 BCE
III.    Formative = Neolithic Mound Builders 1000 BCE to 500 CE
IV.    Woodland = probably Mesolithic (hunter-gatherers) 1000 BCE to 1000 CE
V.    Classic (probably transition from Mesolithic to Neolithic type agriculture) 500 CE to 1200 CE
VI.    Post Classic 1200 CE to modern times

Note the similarity between the Formative and Woodland. It can never be assumed that all tribes marched into technologically advanced eras at the same time. And I certainly don’t agree with the Post Classic span or at the very least it should be sub-categorized. The Neolithic Mound Builders, like the Anasazi of the southwest, enjoyed cultural continuity until 800 CE. It is now believed that both cultures collapsed with the advent of the Little Ice Age that spanned three centuries: 1550 to 1850. Both cultures however appear to have survived in scattered bands linked together by language. The Mound Builders are the ones relevant to this study. But to take the Post Classic era into modern times suggests that nothing of any significance took place in the last 800 years. Really? I believe the Post Classic era should be more like this:  Post Classic 500 CE to 1200 CE; Holocaust: 1200 CE to modern times.

You might not see the importance of the preceding information or what will follow concerning language to mid- and southern Atlantic cultures, but you will see it soon when I begin introducing influential tribes by language groups.


Inclusion in a language family is determined by comparative linguistics. Daughter languages are the ones that have genetic or genealogical relationships or languages derived from a common ancestor. Daughter languages often branch into groups, groups into complexes, and so forth. A Dialect Continua is a large family with many branches where at the extreme, speech and pronunciation make them unintelligible to each other. A Proto language is one where the common ancestor is unknown. Languages with no known relatives are called Isolates. None of these classifications is to be confused with a Sprachbund; yes that is a word. It refers to acquiring “shared innovation” genetically unrelated to a specific language. “A sprachbund is a geographic area having several languages that feature common linguistic structures. The similarities between those languages are caused by language contact, not by chance or common origin, and are not recognized as criteria that define a language family.”

Please be aware that the classification of languages is frequently changed and rearranged as more information becomes available. It can be discovered that a language thought to be an Isolate is in fact related to a larger family or group. And with regard to American Isolates, they might not have been Isolates at one time and were related to now extinct tribes, or when not extinct, languages completely lost or known only to a handful of people. Again, keep those population figures in mind: 60-100 million reduced to 3-5 million. It is likely unknowable how many tribes, bands, and clans were driven into extinction along with their languages.

A general cross-section of known American language Isolates reads something like this. Of the 27 recognized 14 are extinct, 11 are endangered, and 1 is undetermined. I have noticed that disparate statistics are often a consequence of where the researcher drew his line. As an overview it can be thought of this way: 296 languages are spoken or were once spoken in North America; 269 are grouped into 29 families; 27 are Isolates or unclassified. For the purpose of exploring the tribes having possibly had influence on south-central and southern Appalachia, and the Potomac River Basin I am going to loosely group them by related language and culture in this way:

A.    Paleolithic
B.    Woodland Period Mound Builders: Mississippian, Hopewell, and Adena
C.    Siouan: Saponi, Tutelo, Catawba, and others
D.    Iroquoian: Susquehannock, Cherokee, Tuscarora, and others. The Iroquoian language group is thought of as a language island surrounded by Algonquian dialects in the north. But south is where we find the Cherokee, a detached tribe of Iroquoian people driven south by their Iroquoian relatives and the Delaware. The Tuscarora and the Susquehannock, who will be included as well, are other Iroquoian groups.
E.    Yuchi and Chisca
F.    Algonquian. The Algonquian language group is enormous and is often associated with New York, New England, Canada, the Great Lakes and so forth. But their reach was remarkably far into the south making it essential to include the Delaware, the Shawnee, and many related tribes.

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Responses to “4. Introduction to Indigenous America”

  1. I maybe should have started at this end of the essays.
    This is so well written and put together!
    It’s so great to see it all in one place…a roadmap of what’s to come.

    I am wondering if our Historical Society will be as interested in this as I am?
    I’m so very excited~What a great gift you’ve given us!

    AND I appreciate all the ‘warnings’ at the top of this – I’ll heed them and repeat them.
    Thank you!

    • Yes, blogs have to be read backwards! Its something of a drag and virtually impossible to fool the formatting. I might go back and number the headings…I should have done that and will likely go back in and take care of it. I am pleased and relieved that you find the essays appropriate for your project. Perhaps we will have to share them with the Historical Society if they are interested.