Native North America

Painted military drumThe British Museum collection represents the arts and history of Native North America from prehistory to the present day. Some of the modern artefacts, such as textiles, have been created by Native craftspeople while working in the Museum.

The earliest objects in the collection are stone tools made about 8000 years ago by Big-Game hunters who were part of the Paleoindian Tradition. These ancient people were followed by Archaic hunters from 8000-1000 BC who exploited the new animal and plant resources of a warming climate, following the end of the ice-age, using specialised tools. 

After the Archaic period came the Woodland peoples, from about 800 BC, who lived in settled communities, hunting, fishing and gathering and cultivating plants. Large earthworks, such as those of the Ohio Hopewell culture (from about 100 BC to AD 600), were created for religious, economic and defensive purposes.

At the time of European contact in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there would have probably been between two and ten million Native inhabitants. They were incredibly diverse, living as distinct nations with distinct traditions and speaking different languages.

European colonisation and the expansion of the United States brought diseases and warfare that killed most of the Native population. Bison, on which many depended for food, clothing, housing and tools, were hunted almost to extinction by commercial hunters. Further hardship came as many were forced to live in reservations.

Continuing conflict culminated in the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890 when United States troops massacred hundreds of Lakota after they had surrendered.

Today, between two and three million people of native descent live in Canada and the United States of America. They are grouped into more than 1000 bands, tribes or nations all possessing their own oral literatures and histories; their survival and continued vibrancy a testament to the enduring strength of their traditions.

Image caption: Painted military drum
Algonquian, AD 1850s. Probably from Manitoulin Island, Ontario, North America

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