Photo of John Bickers

The Native American story: A history of accomplishments

The people who represent the hundreds of Native American tribes located within the United States have a rich and accomplished history that continues to evolve. Their impact permeates many aspects of life today, helping put to rest negative historical stereotypes once associated with their heritage and culture.  

National Native American Heritage Month is celebrated each November to pay tribute to Native Americans’ rich ancestry and traditions—topics that Case Western Reserve University Associate Professor of History John Bickers knows quite well.

A citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, Bickers has partnered with Assistant Professor Noel Voltz on a project titled Native Americans and African Americans In and Out of the U.S. Body Politic. Funded by a $492,000 Mellon Foundation Higher Learning Grant, the pair hope to provide a more accurate and comprehensive narrative of Black and Native American political life in the United States before the modern Civil Rights movement. 

“Native peoples have created so many inventions and innovations that often go uncredited,” he said, pointing to one example in which Native Americans’ don’t receive proper recognition. Another example? How the members of these communities prefer to be addressed.

“Native peoples first and foremost want to be referred to by our tribal affiliation,” explained Bickers. “I am Myaamia, a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. Beyond that Native American, American Indian, Native, Indigenous are all used interchangeably.”

In recognition of Native American History Month, The Daily sat down with Bickers to discover more about Native American history. Read on to learn his insights.

Answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

1. What are the main lessons people should learn about Native American history?

Indian country is one of the most diverse places in the world. There are 574 federally recognized tribal nations within the United States, speaking hundreds of languages, with distinct cultures, beliefs and practices. 

Native Americans are not only citizens of the U.S. but also citizens of sovereign nations that exist within its borders. We existed long before the country’s creation and have survived violent expansion and exist today as modern and distinct people. 

2. What are some of Native Americans’ major accomplishments?

Native Americans are responsible for the invention of snow shoes, syringes, baby bottles, lacrosse, parkas and corn—and many people don’t realize corn is a created plant, not one that occurs naturally. Other accomplishments include how: 

  • The Iroquois Confederacy of New York served as a model for many of the founding fathers—including Benjamin Franklin—as they designed the early United States; 
  • Sequoyah, a prominent figure in the Cherokee Nation, developed the Cherokee syllabary, and was the only known person to have created a written language without being previously literate; 
  • Charles Curtis of the Kaw Nation was the 31st vice president of the United States (1929–33), and before that, had a long career in the Senate; and
  • Jim Thorpe (Sac & Fox Tribe) was a gold-medal Olympic athlete in 1912, and is often still considered the world’s greatest athlete.

3. What are some of the initiatives and programs improving Native Americans’ lives today?

The programs most benefiting Native peoples are those being created and run in the Native American community. Politically, organizations like the National Congress of the American Indians continue to lobby for Native interests. 

Educationally, the state of Kansas recently passed legislation granting in-state tuition to citizens of tribes that have historically resided within the state, most of whom were forcibly removed.

4. In your research with Noël Voltz, have you discovered anything that caught you by surprise?

One thing I’ve seen in these first stages of our grant is the ways in which the U.S. often created opposing policies for Native Americans and African Americans based on exploitation and control. 

African Americans dealt with the “one-drop rule,” in which any African ancestry made one legally “Black” and therefore bound by slavery and other forms of social and legal discrimination. Native Americans had “blood quantum” imposed upon them, which argued that those of mixed Native and non-Native ancestry were not fully Native American.  

Where African Americans were segregated away from white Americans, Native Americans experienced forced assimilation policies designed to remove them from their communities and into white society. 

5. What are some recommended readings or documentaries you would recommend that give a truer perspective of Native Americans?

I highly recommend the We Shall Remain series from PBS. It’s a documentary series that explores five moments in Native American history. 

There are many good monographs, it’s hard to pick one. For those interested in exploring the larger history of Native peoples, I would recommend Ned Blackhawk’s The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History

Other great book choices are Michael Witgen’s Seeing Red: Indigenous Land, American Expansion, and the Political Economy of Plunder in North America, Brenda Childs’ Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900-1940, and Philip Deloria’s Playing Indian