Native American Children

The original native American Indians are believed to be Asians who, twenty thousand years ago, hiked across the treeless plain that is now the Bering Strait in search of food on the hoof and eventually moved into the diverse environments of North America. Thus it is customary to divide the Indians of North American not into ethnic groups but rather into culture areas, each of which includes nations that, in response to the regional environment, adopted substantially the same ways of life.

Pre-European Cultures

When the European invaders began arriving in the sixteenth century, farming was the dominant activity on the eastern part of the continent in the culture areas of the northeast (from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes and from lower Canada to Illinois and North Carolina) and the southeast (from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River). Hunting predominated elsewhere, save for some coastal areas where fishing prevailed and parts of the dry Southwest where gathering was more important. Where farming was more intensive, settlement was more sedentary. Yet even in the farming areas, though men aided women in clearing the land, it was the women and children who did the agricultural labor—cultivating, weeding, and harvesting corn, beans, and squash; hunting and picking wild berries, fruits, and nuts–while men (and sometimes younger women) were on the hunt in the spring, early summer, and fall. In the hunting regions, where the game was larger and journeys after it longer, the Indians remained nomadic. These native economies, seemingly primitive, supported a population of five to ten million in what is now the United States and Canada.

The Eastern Woodland Indians. The natives of the culture areas in North America first affected by the European presence, those of the northeast and southeast, are customarily referred to as the Eastern Woodland Indians. They spoke different languages, and their places of residence varied in size from several thousand inhabitants to a few score of souls. Politically, organization ranged from democratic and libertarian to hierarchical and authoritarian. But within all the Eastern Woodland tribes there were clans, each claiming a single ancestor. Most tribes were matrilineal, probably because women carried on the predominant economic activity of farming. And the tribes had similar ways of regarding and rearing children. The importance of the child, unborn and born, was evident. Male missionaries and traders who visited the Indians, though barred from witnessing the delivery of the newborn, gave testimony that prospective mothers enjoyed good health during pregnancy and a painless delivery, after which they quickly reentered normal life.

The newborn child was also immediately prepared for the world. Most Indians immersed children at birth, the water temperature notwithstanding; some circumcised the boys. Other customary rituals included ear piercing, hanging wampum or other ornaments around the baby's neck, and feeding the little one oil or grease. There was a 50 percent child mortality rate due to the rigors of Indian life and the

A young Native American boy and his French father travel down the Missouri River to trade furs. Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (c.1845), George Caleb Bingham. © .

recurrent smallpox EPIDEMICS as a result of contact with Europeans. Children were born at approximately four-year intervals due to protracted breast feeding, prohibitions on sexual relations while nursing, abortions, and even infanticide. All these factors stabilized the size of the population. Families were small by European standards; three or four children appears to have been the average.

It was common to name a child at birth, possibly from a supply of names available to the clan, or in response to an event or the appearance of the child, or after an animate or inanimate object (an eagle, the wind). Boys took on nicknames that captured their exploits (as did men), which probably put pressure on them for further achievements. Huron males apparently changed names as they moved through life stages, to combat illness, and in response to dreams. (Most Huron believed they had two souls, one of which remained with the body unless it was reborn as a child, explaining why some children resembled their dead ancestors.) Finally, the name of a recently deceased person would be passed on to another member of the tribe so the name was not lost. But it was impolite to call a person by his or her own name; instead one used a term that expressed the relationship of the speaker to the person addressed, my sister's son, for example. Even if there was no family affinity, terms such as brother or nephew could still be used.

European observers, hardened to INFANT MORTALITY, were impressed by the fondness shown toward and good care taken of Indian children by their mothers. This quality was nowhere better demonstrated than in the feeding of the infant. Unlike European upper-class parents, Indians did not put their children out to be nursed. If the mother happened to die before the child was weaned the father might fill his mouth with water in which corn had been boiled and pass the liquid on to the infant. Nursing went on for several years. During this time the child stayed close to its mother, usually transported on a cradleboard tied to the mother's back. As the child grew and was allowed to crawl it was carried without a board, again on the back of the mother, who grasped it by one leg and the opposite arm. Weaned at approximately three years, the young Indian who had been so carefully attended was suddenly left to his or her own devices, unconfined and now learning from the example of elders. Still, young children must have remained under the watchful eyes of their parents and, probably, the entire village community.

Children were considered to be specially linked to the spiritual world, and in general were indulged rather than punished. Nothing shocked the Europeans more than the absence of physical punishment as a means to DISCIPLINE Indian children. Sometimes they were chastised by having a little water thrown in their faces, and there were reports of Creek parents occasionally scratching disobedient children and, along with the Chickasaws, allowing young ones to be beaten by someone outside the household. Nevertheless, corporal punishment was very much the exception rather than the rule, although ridicule or fear of the supernatural might be used to produce obedience. Surely the example of parents, especially warrior-fathers, shunning corporal punishment must have contributed to children, especially sons, mimicking the restraint shown by their elders. Indeed, in a milieu which placed a premium on withstanding pain and suffering without flinching, corporal punishment–a blatant manifestation of feeling–had no place. The development of self-restraint and stoicism, initiated in childhood, was closely linked to the cultivation of autonomy, highly prized in adulthood.

The aim of these native American parents was to train male hunter-warriors, who would be required to act individualistically yet always conform to the demands of a communal, conservative, homogeneous society. Scantily clad in winter, boys hardened their bodies as they did their minds; their elders expected of them self-control and absence of "womanly" emotion. Females were instructed as planter-gatherers, who must possess wilderness survival skills as keen as those of the males. Children were expected to adopt the clearly defined gender roles assigned to them. Education of the young was primarily but not exclusively imparted by the example of elders. Religious and moral training came from the parents, seconded by the whole community. A related but different means of instruction was storytelling. This oral literature was entertaining but, more important, conveyed cultural beliefs and practices. Often the leading characters of legend and myth were children or youths, making it clear that the young were targets of these stories.

The test of childhood training would be in adulthood, and the transit from one stage of life to the other was well-defined. For girls there were sometimes rituals surrounding the onset of menstruation. For boys, whose passage through PUBERTY was less biologically evident, there were more elaborate ceremonies: the huskinaw, a rigorous physical trial, and the vision quest, a spiritual journey. Both involved isolation as well as sensory deprivation and stimulation; their purpose was to begin life on a new course, though without forfeiting the training of childhood, and to locate through visions the spirits which dominated the young person's life. Sometimes the tribal adults gave the young man a new name, the meaning of which might shame, exalt, or even assign a personality to the recipient.

The endurance of native American customs after European contact varied by region. The Eastern Woodland custom of carrying children in cradleboards, illustrated in this 1940 photograph from Tower Rice Camp, Minnesota, persisted in some areas into the twentieth century. © .

And so the line between childhood and adulthood was clearly drawn. Eastern Woodland Indians would draw upon the lessons instilled in the early years to govern the behavior of the later ones. Sex after puberty was considered normal. Marriage partners might be tentatively chosen by parents, and a young man could be expected to consult the parents of his intended. Yet there was no coercion: both young men and young women had a choice when it came to marrying and deciding whether to remain wed.

The Plains and Pueblo Indians. Tribal organization, intertribal relations, and child rearing among the Plains Indians resembled that of the Eastern Woodland Indians. However, most of the Plains tribes, being hunters rather than farmers, were on the move rather than settled. Fathers were frequently absent, leaving mothers with additional chores. Hence, grandparents ordinarily filled the void left by otherwise-occupied parents.

The experience of childhood among the sixteenth-century Pueblo Indians of southwestern North America, whose culture dated back centuries to the by-then-extinct Anasazi, was both similar to and different from that of their distant cousins on the Atlantic coast and the Plains. The Pueblo Indians led lives governed by ritual. The umbilical cord of the newborn was buried inside the house (female) or in a cornfield (male), making clear the sexual division of space and labor. The boy's penis was sprinkled with water, while the girl's vulva was covered with a seed-filled gourd, just as in the natural (adult) world clouds (men) poured their rain on seeds (women), causing them to germinate. On the fourth day the medicine man presented the infant to the rising sun, named it, gave it an ear of corn (representing the Corn Mothers who gave life) and, if it was a male, a flint arrowhead (to create thunder and lightning). A female remained attached to her place of birth, while a male changed houses, living with his mother as a boy and moving at adolescence into a kiva to learn male lore.

Gender was not the only social division among the Pueblo Indians–age also mattered. Children were considered to be indebted to their parents, who had to pay the religious elders for their birth rituals, and there continued a dyadic relationship between givers and receivers, seniors and juniors. None were more senior or more powerful than the kachina, or spirit forces. All adolescents were initiated into the kachina cult, and quickly learned what dire punishment awaited those who did not respect generational reciprocity. With menstruation girls entered womanhood through initiation into clan-based groups, while boys had to kill an enemy before induction into the warrior fellowship through a physical ordeal reminiscent of the Eastern Woodland huskinaw.

With the Spanish conquest and the imposition of Christianity in the seventeenth century, Pueblo Indian society was fundamentally altered. The Franciscan priests set about their goal of conversion by upsetting the age relationship, attempting to turn sons from their natural to their spiritual fathers, beginning with BAPTISM. Parents were humiliated by casting adults in the roles of devils in religious dramas, fathers were emasculated by violating the gender division of labor, and children were courted with gifts, as the Franciscans played upon the Indian belief that favors must be reciprocated. Gifts of livestock and lessons in animal husbandry not only yielded baptisms and pious lives; they also under-mined the authority of the Indian hunt chiefs. The friars also offered Indian youth the nurturing benefits associated with mothers. Only those Indians who strongly resisted Christianity, among them the Hopi, remained matrilineal societies.

The Nineteenth Century and Beyond

In the mid-nineteenth century the western half of the United States was inhabited by almost a quarter million Indians: Eastern Woodland Indians (including Winnebago, Cherokee, and Chippewa) who had been forced to resettle; Plains Indians (Sioux, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Crow, Arapaho, Pawnee, Kiowa, Apache, Comanche); Pueblo Indians of the southwest (Hopi, Zuni, Navajo), and the Indians of California and the Pacific Northwest. Advancing European-American settlement, including plans for a transcontinental railroad, and intermittent Indian-white warfare led to the creation of reservations in the late 1860s. Continuing conflict was resolved in the next decades through the United States government's policy of forced assimilation. Indian children were required to attend white schools, often far from home; by 1900 there were twenty-five off-reservation boarding schools, supplemented by reservation boarding schools and day schools, public schools (attended by both Indian and white students), and mission schools. In all cases the Indian child was expected to forsake his or her own culture for the European American.

The Hopi managed to remain remote from European-American culture into the mid-twentieth century. The cradleboard remained, as did long-term nursing on demand. Mainstream medicine was rejected (and infant mortality was high); punishment (when administered, by the maternal uncle) was notably absent while rewards persisted; children grew up always in the presence of others. Girls were taught domestic chores by mothers, and boys, taught by fathers, learned farming; some games remained that were reminiscent of the warrior past. Initiation rites continued as a way of introducing youth to the Hopi world. Children were forced to go to school, but they did not internalize what they were taught, since their elders had conditioned them to believe in basic Hopi values. Thus, the Hopi maintained a strong cultural link with the past.

Usually, however, the contact between native American Indians and European Americans had a much greater impact on the former; a traditional group usually could not survive in the face of a more aggressive, more powerful, and far more intolerant society. The Delawares, for example, an Eastern Woodland tribe, went through a cultural decline from the early sixteenth into the mid-twentieth century, by which time they had lost their original identity, lost their lands east of the Mississippi, and moved into Indian Territory in Oklahoma. There they lived in frame houses, wore European clothes, accepted dependence on the federal government, sent their children to missionary (later government) schools, changed the basis of their kinship system, and became hardly distinguishable from poor rural whites.

The Winnebagos, also an Eastern Woodland tribe, were less dramatically affected. Forced to cede land to the government, they were able to remain in Wisconsin and, although they sent their children to missionary schools, the youngsters did not leave their parents' homes. But by the third decade of the twentieth century babies were being born in hospitals, and many methods of child rearing changed to a less indulgent regime, including even corporal punishment. Brothers and sisters quarreled, in adolescence the sexes mixed, and masculine tasks disappeared (as males were more affected by cultural change than females). English was taught in the home, and the dress, housing, and transportation of the dominant culture was appropriated. In the mid-twentieth century psychoanalyst ERIK ERIKSON visited the Dakota Sioux, a Plains Indian tribe, where he found that children received traditional training at home but faced the demands of European-American society in school. Yet they neither rebelled openly nor showed signs of inner conflict. Rather, students were apathetic or passively resistant, and they viewed the world as dangerous and hostile.

World War II proved disruptive to Native Americans: men joined the armed services and women as well as men took defense jobs. City living was nontraditional, as was some of the work done by rural women in the absence of manpower. But disruption also heightened cultural awareness and even inspired a return to practices long abandoned, such as war chants and prayers for victory, as well as traditional dances. After the war the government began implementing its so-called termination policy: doing away with tribal governments and the trust protection for Indian territories while granting land to individual Indians who would now pay taxes and obey the laws of the states they inhabited. As a corollary to termination, Indians were encouraged to relocate in cities, and by 1958 about one hundred thousand had done so, most without federal assistance.

Relocation was a failed attempt at assimilation; it resulted in continuing ghettoization and poverty. The deplorable living conditions of native Americans described by anthropologist Lewis Merriam in 1928, though they may have been temporarily improved due to rising incomes during World War II, were reconfirmed by reports from California in 1966 and University of Michigan anthropologist Joseph G. Jorgenson in 1971, and again by the census of 1990. Perhaps the most serious problem of all, alcohol, was confronted when the Indian Health Service (IHS) was created in 1954. Though underfunded, IHS has addressed itself to the endemic (and epidemic) matter of fetal alcohol syndrome. Why Indians have been particularly vulnerable to alcohol abuse is unclear, but they died of it at five times the rate of other Americans in the 1990s.

Alcoholism and suicide, poverty and unemployment: these realities more closely describe the life context of Native Americans than of any other group in the United States today. Although the federal government has been paying more attention to the needs of Indian children, as evidenced by such legislation as the Indian Education Act (1972), the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (1975), the Indian Health Care Improvement Act (1976), the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act (1978), and the Indian Child Welfare Act (1978)–and there is no denying the impact of this attention–nevertheless the situation for Indian children today is often grim.

See also: American Indian Schools; .


Axtell, James, ed. 1981. The Indian Peoples of Eastern America. A Documentary History of the Sexes. New York: Oxford University Press.

Boyer, Bryce L. 1979. Childhood and Folklore: A Psychoanalytic Study of Apache Personality. New York: Library of Psychological Anthropology.

California State Advisory Commission on Indian Affairs. 1966. Indians in Rural and Reservation Areas. Sacramento.

DeMallie, Raymond J., and Alfonso Ortiz, eds. 1994. North American Indian Anthropology: Essays on Society and Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Dennis, Wayne. 1940. The Hopi Child. New York: Appleton-Century.

Eggan, Dorothy. 1970. "Institution and Affect in Hopi Cultural Continuity." In From Child to Adult, ed. John Middleton. Garden City, NY: Natural History Press.

Erikson, Erik H. 1950. Childhood and Society. New York: Norton.

Ferrero, Pat. 1983. Hopi: Songs of the Fourth World. San Francisco: Ferrero Films.

Gutierrez, Ramon A. 1991. When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500–1846. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Hilger, M. Inez. 1951. Chippewa Child Life and Its Cultural Background. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Illick, Joseph E. 2002. American Childhoods. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.

Jorgenson, Joseph G. "Indians and the Metropolis." In The American Indian in Urban Society, ed. Jack O. Waddell and O. Michael Watson. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.

Mann, Henrietta. 1997. Cheyenne-Arapaho Education, 1871–1982. Niwot: University Press of Colorado.

Mannes, Marc. 1996. "Factors and Events Leading to the Passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act." In A History of Child Welfare, ed. Eve P. Smith and Lisa A. Merkel-Holguin. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Mead, Margaret. 1932. The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe. New York: Columbia University Press.

Meriam, Lewis, et al. 1928. The Problem of Indian Administration. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Newcomb, William W. 1956. The Culture and Acculturation of the Delaware Indians. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Newcomb, William W. 1974. North American Indians: An Anthropological Perspective. Pacific Palasades, CA: Goodyear.

Pettitt, George A. 1946. Primitive Education in North America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rawls, James J. 1996. Chief Red Fox Is Dead: A History of Native American Indians since 1945. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Rountree, Helen C. 1989. The Powhattan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman: Oklahoma University Press.

Sorkin, Alan L. 1978. The Urban American Indian. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Swanton, John R. 1946. The Indians of the Southeastern United States. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Szasz, Margaret. 1974. Education and the American Indian: The Road to Self-Determination, 1928–1973. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Tooker, Elizabeth. 1964. An Ethnography of the Huron Indians, 1615–1649. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Trigger, Bruce. 1969. The Huron Farmers of the North. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.