Native Americans were living in North America for many hundreds of years before Europeans reached the continent. For a long time white people called them Indians. Today, many people do not like this name since it is based on a mistake: it was given to the people living in the Americas by Christopher Columbus who, when he arrived there, thought he had discovered India. Instead, people prefer to use the term Native Americans. There are also native peoples living in Alaska and Canada, e.g. Inuits and Aleuts, but they are separate groups and are not called Native Americans.
Early contact with Europeans
In Pre-Columbian North America there were many tribes who lived by hunting animals and gathering plants. Many of the tribes moved from one place to another according to the season and what food was available. Most of what is known about Native Americans dates from the time when they came into contact with Europeans.
The first place in the US where Europeans settled permanently was Jamestown, Virginia, founded in 1607. At first Native Americans were positive about the Europeans and were happy to have the many new things they brought, e.g. metal cooking pots, cloth and guns. But the Europeans also introduced diseases that Native Americans had no resistance to, so many became ill and died. They also brought alcohol, the effects of which Native Americans did not know. Some Europeans took advantage of this by getting them drunk and then paying low prices for their goods.
The worst problem for Native Americans, which lasted into the late 20th century, was that the new settlers wanted their land. To native Americans owning land was a strange idea. Tribes moved around as they pleased and shared land with any other tribe that was friendly. They did not understand that a person might believe a piece of land was theirs, or that they would try to keep others from using it. The settlers, on the other hand, assumed that they would take control of North America and used all means to do this, including making agreements, which they usually did not keep, tricking Native Americans into selling land cheaply, and taking it by military force. Native American chiefs like Sitting Bull, Tecumseh and Geronimo fought against the settlers.
As Whites began moving west, Native American tribes had to be moved on. Some were forced to go to other parts of North America, to areas very different from the ones they were used to. The Trail of Tears was one of many terrible examples: in the cold winter of 18389 17000 Cherokees had to move from their land in the south-east to what is now Oklahoma and more than 4000 died. The government promised tribes that if they agreed to stay in one part of the country they could keep that land forever. But the promises lasted only until Americans discovered that the land they had given them was good for farming or had gold.
Whites have explained this behaviour in different ways. When the Indians fought and killed white people they said that this proved that Native Americans were wild and had to be controlled. People also believed that the Native Americans were wasting good land by not developing it. In the 19th century Americans believed in manifest destiny, meaning that they thought God wanted them to occupy the whole continent. They also believed that it was better for the Native Americans to learn to live like white people and tried to teach them Christianity. Many Native American children, including the athlete Jim Thorpe, were taken away from their tribe and sent to schools where they were not allowed to speak their own language.