Indigenous People of the Americas

Who really discovered America?

In school we hear a lot about Christopher Columbus and how he made an incredible discovery when he sailed west and found what is now America. There is a decent amount wrong with that idea we’re all taught, but the main thing for this post is that you cannot discover a place already populated by people.

When European explorers started arriving in what is now America they were met by hundreds of thousands of people. People who already had settlements, governments, cultures, belief systems, and more in place. So the real people who discovered America are the indigenous people who were here first.

When and how did they get here?

As far as I can tell there is no fully known truth on how the first people arrived in the Americas. The most prevalent theory has seemingly always been that tribes of people migrated across the land bridge at the Bering Strait during the Ice Age.

The world freezes, the sea level lowers, and suddenly boom there’s a very cold bit of land connecting modern-day Russia to Alaska.

However, that theory has been contested lately due to new evidence found that makes it seem more likely that people had arrived in the Americas prior to the land bridge. Either way, they were here and had been here for a long time.

Evidence seems to show that people have been in the Americas for nearly 15,000 years now (for context, Columbus came to America only 530 years ago).

Many tribes, nations, and cultures

Something I was surprised to learn during all my studying was that Native American culture was not just one thing. I knew there were multiple tribes, but I had always been given the impression that they were all connected in some way, but they weren’t.

There were hundreds of unique nations and tribes spanning from the far north of modern-day Canada all the way down to the tip of South America. Each had their own system of governance, arts, beliefs, tribal structure, and more. They were incredibly diverse and unique from one another.

This map shows the Indigenous People of the southeast US prior to European settlement.

Probably every name that most people know off-hand is from this one region. How are so many other tribes and nations completely unknown to us?

And yes, the image says northeast, it is wrong, blame Britannica.

This map shows the actual northeastern distribution of tribes and nations.

More than a dozen groups spread throughout Canada and the US, all with their own cultures and histories.

I won’t overload the post with every individual map, but there is a similar one for each of these regions. Hundreds of tribes and nations.

I am not showing all of this to try to make any specific point, I was just shocked to learn how many groups there are. I was given such a narrow frame to view all Native Americans through, I couldn’t have ever imagined just how much I didn’t know about.

Why this matters

I know a lot of this stuff can feel preachy to some people. It feels like an agenda being pushed or point trying to be made, but I honestly just think it is important.

I went through all of school and college in Oklahoma and learned very little about Native American history, diversity, or anything else.

The next post I am writing after this is about the first European explorers starting to “discover” the Americas, which is where most of our history books like to start from, but I felt like it was important to acknowledge that we weren’t the first people here. Not by a long shot.

There were hundreds of full blown cultures and civilizations thriving in the Americas long before European settlement.

Sources & Additional Reading:


Library of Congress

National Park Service


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