Wednesday, November 5, 2014

More Than Buffalos and Tipis

Kathryn Page Camp

As a child, I was fascinated with Native American history. Well, that isn’t quite accurate. I was actually fascinated with the Native American culture and lifestyle back before the days when they were herded onto reservations or integrated into white society.
I grew up in Chippewa County, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. There were no Native Americans in the immediate area at the time, but there were plenty of historical reminders that they were the original inhabitants. My father got a month’s worth of vacation every year, and we spent many of those vacations traveling around the United States (as well as spending time in other countries). On those U.S. vacations, I visited and learned about various Native American sites. All of that peaked my interest.
One thing I quickly learned was to discount the stereotype of nomadic hunters chasing buffalos and living in tipis. Although many of the plains dwellers fit that stereotype, using it is like saying that all modern-day Americans live in stately homes surrounded by Magnolia trees.
The way Native Americans lived was dictated by their environment. Their primary means of obtaining food ranged from farming to fishing to hunting animals to gathering plants, and they often used a variety of these methods. Their shelters ranged from tipis to grass houses to wood homes to adobe apartment buildings such as the pueblo shown in the picture above. The plains dwellers lived in tipis because they needed something that was easy to pack up and move and because the materials (buffalo skins, for example), were easy to come by.
In parts of the Southwest, on the other hand, game was scarce and many Native American groups relied on farming. Since clay was plentiful and people didn’t have to move around to find food, they built permanent structures such as the one pictured above.
Then there were the Chippewa and others who lived off of the forests and rivers of the upper Midwest. They tended to move often during the summer and stay in one place during the winter, or sometimes the other way around.
Native Americans did whatever they could to adapt to their environment.
So if you want to write a historical novel that includes Native Americans, do your research. Putting buffalos and tipis in Florida makes as much sense as populating California with Southern accents.
And someone will notice your error.
The photograph at the head of this blog is from a slide my father took in 1965 on a family vacation to the western U.S. This picture shows a Native American pueblo in Arizona. I don’t know if it was an original structure or—more likely—a reproduction built for the tourist crowd, but it is one of the buildings that peaked my interest. In any event, it shows that not all Native Americans lived in tipis.
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Her most recent book, Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal (KP/PK Publishing 2013), is a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection. Kathryn is also the author of In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion (FaithWalk Publishing 2006) and numerous articles. You can learn more about Kathryn at