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Pre-colonial North America and the Native Americans

Native Americans (also Aboriginal Peoples, American Indians, Amerindians, Indians, First Nations, First Peoples, Alaskan Natives, Native Canadians, or Indigenous Peoples of America) are the indigenous inhabitants of The Americas before the European colonization. This term encompasses a large number of distinct tribes, states, and ethnic groups, many of them still enduring as political communities.

The terms "Amerindian" and "Indian" (both of which are derivatives of "American Indian") are not necessarily completely synonymous with "Native American". Although all Amerindians are Native Americans, not all Native Americans are Amerindians. "Amerindian" relates to a mega-group of people spanning the Americas that are related in culture and genetics, and are quite distinct from the later arriving Eskimos (ie. the US Alaskan Native and arctic Native Canadian; Inuit, Yupik, and Aleut peoples) who share their cultural and genetic commonality with non-Native American peoples, such as those from arctic Russian Siberia. However, in some contexts, Native American is used as an exact synonym of Amerindian with the implied exclusion of Eskimo peoples.

The same distinction is made in Canada, where the term First Nations applies only to Native Canadians who belong to the cultural and genetic mega-group of Amerindians mentioned above. The Canadian First Nations specifically exclude the Inuit in the north, though they are included in the terms "First Peoples" and "Native Canadian".

Most often, the term Native American may be construed to either include or exclude the Métis of Canada and the Mestizos and Zambos of Latin America.

Though cultural features, including language, garb, and customs vary enormously from one tribe to another, there are certain elements which are encountered frequently and shared by many tribes.

Native American Religion
The most widespread religion at the present time is known as the Native American Church. It is a syncretistic church incorporating elements of native spiritual practice from a number of different tribes as well as symbolic elements from Christianity. Its main rite is the peyote ceremony. The church has had significant success in combatting many of the ills brought by colonization, such as alcoholism and crime. In the American Southwest, especially New Mexico, a syncretism between the Catholicism brought by Spanish missionaries and the native religion is common; the religious drums, chants, and dances of the Pueblo people are regularly part of Masses at Santa Fe's Saint Francis Cathedral.

Gender Roles for Native Americans
As in many indigenous cultures around the world, homosexual and transgender individuals (and animals) are considered routine and expected. Many Native American tribes formally recognize these homosexual and transgendered individuals in the role of the "two-spirit" person (previously labeled by Europeans as "berdache," a term now considered obsolete). Two-spirit transvestite and homosexual roles are known to have been recognized and honored, at the present time or historically, in more than 150 different tribes.

The two-spirit is a man or woman who mixes gender roles by wearing clothes of the opposite or both sexes, doing both male and female (or primarily "opposite-gender") work, and often engaging in same-sex relations with other members of the tribe. Two-spirit people often are shamans, performing religious and/or mediating functions. Their special status is thought to invest them with exceptional spiritual power, as a result of which they are both feared and respected.

Music and Art of Native Americans
Native American music is almost entirely monophonic, but there are notable exceptions. Traditional Native American music often includes drumming but little other instrumentation, although flutes are played by individuals. The tuning of these flutes is not precise and depends on the length of the wood used and the hand span of the intended player, but the finger holes are most often around a whole step apart and, at least in Northern California, a flute was not used if it turned out to have an interval close to a half step.

Performers with Native American parentage have occasionally appeared in American popular music, most notably Shania Twain (ethnically European, but raised by a First Nations adoptive father), Robbie Robertson, Rita Coolidge, Wayne Newton, and Redbone (band). Some, such as John Trudell have used music to comment on life in Native America, and others, such as R. Carlos Nakai integrate traditional sounds with modern sounds in instrumental recordings. A variety of small and medium-sized recording companies offer an abundance of recent music by Native American performers young and old, ranging from Pow-wow drum music to hard-driving rock-and-roll.

The most widely practiced public musical form among Native Americans in the United States is that of the pow-wow. At Pow-wows, such as the annual Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque, New Mexico, members of drum groups sit in a circle around a large drum. Drum groups play in unison while they sing in a native language and dancers in colorful regalia dance clockwise around the drum groups in the center. Familiar pow-wow songs include honor songs, intertribal songs, crow-hops, sneak-up songs, grass-dances, two-steps, welcome songs, going-home songs, and war songs. Most indigenous communities in the United States also maintain traditional songs and ceremonies, some of which are shared and practiced exclusively within the community. For further information, see A Cry from the Earth: Music of North American Indians by John Bierhorst (ISBN 094127053X).

Native American art comprises a major category in the world art collection. Native American contributions include pottery, paintings, jewelry, weavings, sculptures, basketry, and carvings. The Cradle board is used by mothers to carry their baby while working or traveling.

Artists have at times misrepresented themselves as having native parentage, most notably Johnny Cash, who traced his heritage to Scottish ancestors and admitted he fabricated a story that he was one-quarter Cherokee. The integrity of certain Native American artworks is now protected by an act of Congress that prohibits representation of art as Native American when it is not the product of an enrolled Native American artist.

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