George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School

5 Facts You Should Know About Indian Country

In celebration of Native American Heritage Day, the Tribal Law & Economics Program wants to share a few facts about the history of Indian country.

Five Facts About Pre-Contact Indians:

1. Cahokia, near present day St. Louis, was one of the largest cities in the world by the year 1050 AD. It had a population larger than London and Paris. It had structures larger than the Great Pyramids of Egypt. Approximately a third of the population was immigrants from as far away as the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes.

2. Pueblo Bonita at Chaco Canyon was the largest apartment building in the world until the 1882. Chaco Canyon is so named because of the cacao beans found there, which originate over a thousand miles away. The timber used to construct Chaco Canyon was brought in from over 50 miles away. No horses or streams were available to transport the timber either.

3. Indians being nomadic and non-agricultural is a myth. While some were, most Indians consumed primarily plant-based diets prior to 1492.¬†Indians were highly skilled farmers and intentionally created diversity in plant species, such as corn and “wild rice.”

4. North America’s indigenous people had vast trade networks. Copper from Lake Superior was traded as far south as Florida. Crops from the American Southeast were traded as far north as Canada. Shells from the Pacific Ocean reached present-day St. Louis. Frequent interactions with distant and diverse peoples led to the emergence of indigenous trade languages such as Chinook and Mobilian.

5. Tribes had well-developed legal institutions prior to 1492. Tribes enforced contracts; in fact, goods could be purchased on credit and sellers charged interest. Tribes also recognized private property rights, including property rights in land. In the early 1600s, John Smith wrote of the Indians around Jamestown, “Each household knoweth their owne lands & gardens and must live of their own labours.”

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