North American Studies

Material Culture of the Crows, Western Shoshones, and Netsiliks

Characteristic features of Native Americans concerning their origin, civil rights, discrimination, religiosity, education, migration, occupation, social status, wealth, and economic issues have been researched well. However, the diversity of Indian tribes stipulates further anthropological investigations. Today, the Native Americans involve members of more than 800 tribes, while only 562 tribal nations are federally recognized.

Indigenous people of North America havecalled themselves different versions of the word “people” for many centuries. In the process of their living experiences, the North Americans acquired elementary scientific knowledge about nature, flora and fauna surrounding them. The economic specificity, social development, historical preconditions, family relations, cross-cultural communications, religious beliefs, and worldviews of the Crows, Western Shoshones, and Netsilik people predetermined the development of their material culture. Multiple ethnographic studies on these tribes are focused on descriptions of the most striking aspects of their culture such as hunting and military rituals, housing, weapons, clothing, transportation, spiritual and religious traditions, sun worship, especial militancy of Indians, and so forth.

The subsistence strategies, geographical locations, landscape, ways of life, tribal migrations, level of development and climate conditions influenced the design and materials of Indians’ dwelling. The Indians used a wide range of available materials; their shelters were constructed of clay, stone, wood, bark, canvas, animal skin, reed and other materials. The Crows’ traditional dwellings, tipis, were rather high conical constructions made of 14 –20 buffalo hides, 13 –20 wooden poles (approximately 25 feet in length), and canvas. Tipis were insulated with grass in wintertime. The specific construction of tipis facilitated their demolition and transportation of components; the Crows easily transported them to a new location. By contrast with convenient and brightly embroidered tipis, houses of the Western Shoshones were rather primitive. Despite the harsh environmental conditions, the Western Shoshones lived in small brush dwellings, open at one end. The Netsilik people adapted their dwellings to harsh Arctic weather conditions of their locations. In winter, they traditionally lived in igloos, domed snow houses, while in summer, they moved to conical sealskin tents. Igloos were made of ice blocks and sometimes supplied with windows made of freshwater ice.

Types of Indian clothing were dictated by climatic parameters and available materials, differentiating in ornamentation, colors and accessories. The Netsiliks wore exceptionally tailored clothes, specialized for the extreme cold; they crafted them using sealskin and caribou fur. In addition, sealskins were generally used for summer clothing and boots. Hooded insulated parkas, heavy pants, waterproof boots and fur mittens protected the Netsiliks from a hard frost. The Crows’ elegantly tailored clothes were brightly colored and decorated with quills and beads. Their hair was extremely long contributing towards their unique appearance. Traditional male clothes of the Crows consisted of shirts, leggings and robes made of buffalo skin, while female garments included long dresses and knee-high leggings. Both men and women wore leather moccasins. The Crows’ clothes were traditionally made of cotton and leather. Every element of embroidered ornaments had an inherent implicit meaning. The Western Shoshones’ clothes were also decorated with beads; female and male “common articles were jackets, vests, ponchos, tunics, kilts, belts, and sashes”.

Weapons of Native Americans had to correspond to their military and hunting activities. The Crows, Netsiliks and Western Shoshones acquired different skills of processing natural resources. Furthermore, their cross-tribal interactions and hunting fields differed, as well. Therefore, they had distinct types of weaponry. The Netsiliks utilized arrows, bows, knives and whale harpoons. The Western Shoshones did not have military traditions so specific to the Crows; their weaponry was significantly simpler. The Western Shoshones mainly made their knives of animal bones and stone, while the Crows’ arsenal was much more diversified, including shields, spears, knives, bows, and arrows. The Crows made their shields of rawhide. Decorating their weapons with sacred objects, they strongly believed that their weaponry was protected by spiritual powers.

These tribes used different means of transportation. Sleds and kayaks, manoeuvrable and light boats were used by the Netsiliks to travel on snow, ice and water, while hunting and transporting people, food or goods. The Netsiliks sleds were made of wood and animal bones and pulled by a team of huskies. The Crows and Western Shoshones also used dogs to pull their travois. However, after the Crows acquired horses in the 18th century, their mobility and military advantages significantly increased.

The development of the material culture of the Native Americans influenced their spiritual formation and worldviews. The theme of heroic deeds and warfare was the major motif of the Indian biographic and historical painting. That was typical of all the tribes under scrutiny. Being inserted on warriors’ clothes, patterns and images conveyed Indians’ feats, wounds, hunting scenes, killed enemies, captives and stolen horses. The Crows especially valued generosity; therefore, the distribution of gifts was depicted on their clothes and skins, covering tipis as well.

The Subsistence Strategies of the Crows, Western Shoshones, and Netsiliks

The economy and social life of the Crows was far better developed than that of primitive dismounted Indian groups. The major subsistence strategy of the Crows, as well as other Plain peoples’, was buffalo hunting. Very little of their trophies was wasted; the Crows used buffalo hides, horns, tails, and hooves to produce their weaponry, tipi coverings, house ware, clothes and moccasins. Buffalos were the main source of Indian food; therefore, the extirpation of buffalos led to starvation and caused the necessity to develop and implement new subsistence strategies. Moreover, this fact aggravated contradictions between the Crows and non-Natives.

By the early 1800’s, the Crows had completely adopted the horse. Initially, the Crows killed and ate all captured horses; however, they gradually realized the value of horses, learned to keep and perfectly ride them. Since the time when the Crows acquired and domesticated horses, their lives dramatically changed. It became more mobile and secure; they fought, hunted and migrated more easily. Previously, only the dog was their four-legged friend. Therefore, the Crows’ myths and legends described horses as magnificent animals, endowed with almost otherworldly strengths. The acquisition of horses appeared to be a life changing event in the life of Indians.

The horse served as a mean of transportation and military raids, effective tool of hunting and criterion for opulence. The horse was a pivotal part of the Crows subsistence strategies; the horse acquisition made a fundamental impact on the social structure of the group. The presence of horses created new economic activities; horses required the adjustment of Indians’ way of life. The Crows faced the problem of the acquisition of horses, care for them and green forage; the need for a good pasture identified perennial migrations and the choice of settlements.

The Western Shoshones were engaged in such subsistence strategies as foraging and hunting. Their aboriginal territory, the Great Basin, did not provide them with exuberant food resources. They foraged for seeds, roots, herbs, berries, insects and their larvae, using poking-sticks, traps, snares, and different types of baskets. The Western Shoshones hunted for waterfowl, antelopes, rabbits, and rodents. They did not have horses. The scarcity of food resources and primitive tools for the food production, transportation, and storage predetermined the absence of enemies and peaceful way of life of the Western Shoshones. The peace relations dominated in their communication with representatives of other Indian groups and non-Natives.

The Netsiliks, belonging to the Inuit, inhabited areas of northern Canada, North and West edges of Alaska, and Southern Greenland. These Native Americans were numerically insignificant due to the harsh environment and frequent accidents during hunting. The Netsiliks are frequently identified as nomadic hunters, although they were engaged in fishing, summer foraging for berries, and trade with other groups of Inuit. They hunted for land animals such as caribou, polar bears, foxes, squirrels, and musk ox. However, seals were their major hunting target. Most events connected with their hunting were extremely accompanied by religious rituals. The Netsiliks were also engaged in fishing for salmon, trout and whales. Hunting implements of the Netsiliks included bows, arrows, weirs, harpoons, prongs, seal motion indicators, and so forth. They also involved Huskies, Canadian Inuit dogs, in hunting for seals and caribou. Their well-designed hunting equipment and insulated clothing allowed the Netsiliks to endure severe conditions of the Arctic, when hunting in winter.

A traditional diet of the Netsiliks consisted of different seafood such as crabs and diverse species of fish, meat of seals, moose, walruses, caribous and reindeer. Their diet was formed in order to avoid starvation in winter; in addition, they consumed a lot of frozen fish and meat. Their eating habits were predetermined by natural conditions of their residence. Therefore, they consumed an inadequate amount of the plant food, which generally involved different seaweed, grasses, roots, tubers and berries.

From time to time, there were confrontations between groups dwelling in the Arctic, but they were settled, and peace relations were maintained.

Among the majority of groups of Native Americans, the concept of personal property was not generated. In their opinion, the earth, air, the sun, animals and trees were a part of nature. They worshipped them. Deep cultural distinctions led to the aggravation of conflicts between Native Americans and white settlers. A number of white settlers, who aspired to capture territories suitable for agriculture, increased; as a result, Native Americans were considered to be an obstacle to the English expansion. Irrespective of their economic and social development, all groups of Native Americans were dramatically affected by diseases of the European origin; their intolerance to even the simplest infections led to the demographic decline in the Indian populations. Devastating rates of deaths of Indians resulted in the dramatic decay of their populations and economies. However, indigenous Indians withstood invaders, protecting their land.

The American Indian Movement

Social inequality is a form of social differentiation, which is expressed in unequal living conditions. Separate individuals, groups, minorities or classes possess an unequal access to the limited resources of material and spiritual consumption. The major social inequalities include mechanisms of income and wealth, employment, education, housing, medical treatment and politics. Social inequality and social stratification of the US society led to an increase in the social intensity and induced the emergence of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in 1968.

The American Indian Movement was initially formed by Dennis Banks and his adherents in order to support Native Americans living in the urban area of Minneapolis and solve their problems such as poverty, police harassment, housing, and inadequate health care. Native Americans are frequently identified as the population with a lower education, health care, employment, and, consequently, well-being rates than other ethnic minorities in the USA. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics does not evaluate the unemployment rate of Native Americans due to their numerically insignificant population. The problems of Indians exaggerated, when they left their reservations and moved to urban areas.

Goals of AIM gradually expanded, involving negotiation of issues such as unemployment, some fraudulent government activities, sovereignty of Native Americans’ original lands, police abuse, low income, unequal access to education, and rights of the indigenous people of Americas. Leonard Crow Dog became the spiritual leader of the American Indian Movement. The occupation of Alcatraz Island (1969), the Trail of Broken Treaties (1972), the 71-day siege of Wounded Knee (1973), the Longest Walk (1978) and the Longest Walk 2 (2008) were the most significant events. Such actions initiated by the American Indian Movement as civil rights campaigns, demonstrations, mass street protests and other efforts resulted in the political persecution of AIM leaders, numerous indictments and imprisonment of Leonard Peltier. Moreover, the political influence of the American Indian movement has declined since then.

The Leonard Peltier Case

Leonard Peltier’s active participation in the American Indian Movement inspired numerous Native Americans to assert their rights to ancestral lands, equal access to employment, education, along with ability to avoid the police harassment. He was charged with murder of two FBI agents in 1975. Although the affidavits against Peltier could be identified as concocted evidence (the witness was absent on the scene of murder), Leonard Peltier was found guilty and sentenced to two life sentences. The hidden true reason of the indictment was the political activity of Peltier. The necessity to obviate his influence on Native Americans led to this trumped-up case.

Modern Events and Issues

The future of the Native Americans is inextricably linked with their economic development. The disintegration of former social relations and socioeconomic transformations forced Native Americans to master new niches of social and economic survival. High socioeconomic status, increasing wage rates and better health care are commonly associated with the higher education. Although educational attainment has been steadily increasing over the last decades, individuals of Native Americans differ in skills, education and knowledge. The impact of the recent economic crisis on well-being of Native Americans is of particular importance. The median income of American families has dramatically fluctuated, since the onset of the financial crisis. However, the median family incomes of Native Americans were mainly stagnant, while the median incomes of whites generally increased. The main assumption is that due to the deterioration of economic situation in the community, cultural and moral factors had deteriorated respectively.

Today, despite the reduction of their reservation in Montana, the Crows adopted a constitution (2001), which identified and established guidelines on the tribal legislature and elections. Promoting their customs and traditions, the Crows sponsor the annual Crow Fair and Sun Dances. Education of children in accordance with tribal traditions is extremely significant. Little Big Horn College is the Crow tribal college. However, specific living conditions in the reservation are the main triggers that make the Crow youth turn from traditional ways toward modern ones, including marginal ones, meaning the gang affiliation and substance abuse. Governmental policies of tax-free cigarettes selling, Indian gaming and change of cultural characteristics contributed to these negative trends.

The Netsilik community councils have gained more political and economic autonomy over the last decades. The Netsiliks current issues include the inappropriate health care, unskilled employment and low-paid jobs, poor quality housing, poverty and alcoholism. Health disparities among the Netsiliks are also apparent in primary care, communication with medical aid providers, routine care and preventive health care. However, today, the trends to revitalize the Inuktitut language and ancestral cultural traditions are observed. Exotic nature of the Arctic made this area an attractive tourist destination. Tourism and hunting are the major sources of the Netsiliks’ revenues.

In conclusion, modern economic conditions encourage Native Americans to take business, education, employment, social relations, health care issues, decision-making and family functions more responsibly. The contemporary business freedom convinces all citizens of the USA that their own initiative and choice of activity can significantly change and improve their lives.