North American Indians are the
people whose ancestors were living in North America when the Europeans discovered the
Western Hemisphere. They often are called red men, or redskins, and they were named
Indians because Columbus thought that he had reached the East Indies in his voyage across
Stone-age people who were to become American Indians began entering America at least 10,000 years ago. Most experts believe the first Indian ancestors arrived 30,000 or more years ago.
They probably came from Asia. It is supposed that the early Indians crossed into Alaska at what is now the narrow channel of open sea called the Bering Strait. This strait is believed to have been dry land in the distant past. From Alaska, maybe during or before the last great Ice Age, they gradually spread down into the American continent.
These people from whom the Indians descended kept on entering America by way of the region of Alaska for many thousands of years. They moved and mingled throughout long periods of time. Eventually they were living across both North and South America.
No one can tell, of course, which groups of Indians as we now know them may be most directly descended from the earliest people in America, and which from peoples who came later. Based on all that has been learned, a rough timetable has been suggested.
It seems likely that some of the first people to live in America may have been speakers of Siouan languages. Among them, very possibly, were the ancestors of the Sioux of the plains.
Others of the very earliest times were probably some of the people who spoke the related languages we now call Algonkian – such as the Micmac, who lived on the far eastern edge of the continent, in what is now Nova Scotia. Another ancient people may have been the strangely white-skinned Beothuk, now extinct, who lived still eastward of the Micmac, on the island now called Newfoundland.
Some of the first Indians in America settled in the southeast. Among their descendants may have been the Tunica of the Mississippi delta or the Muskogean-speakers of Georgia.
The Yuki of California, and certain California Indians speaking the languages we call Penutian, such as the Wintun and the Miwok, are thought to be descendants of some of the oldest peoples of the far west.
The Pima and the Papago of Arizona appear to have lived in the same homeland in the southwest for possibly 9,000 or 10,000 years. If this is so, it is the only known case in the world where a people have remained more or less the same culturally, and in more or less the same place, for such a vast length of time.
Those who were to become the Apache and the Navaho of the southwest, and the many groups related to them in western Canada and elsewhere, are thought to have arrived rather late. By the time they drifted into the New World, the Mongolian race was evolving in the Asia they had left. These and some other Indian groups are somewhat Mongoloid in appearance.
Last of all to arrive, apparently, were the Eskimo. Most recent arrivals though they are, however, they were living in their present homeland in what is now Alaska and Artic Canada more than 2,500 years ago.