Native Americans of North America
Native Americans of North America, indigenous peoples of North America. Native Americans
had lived throughout the continent for thousands of years before Europeans began exploring
the “New World” in the 15th century.
Most scientists agree that the human history of North America began when the ancient
ancestors of modern Native Americans made their way across a land bridge that once
spanned the Bering Sea and connected northeastern Asia to North America. Scientists believe
these people first migrated to the Americas more than 10,000 years ago, before the end of
the last ice age (see Migration to the Americas). However, some Native Americans believe
their ancestors originated in the Americas, citing gaps in the archaeological record and oral
accounts of their origins that have been passed down through generations.
Native Americans excelled at using natural resources and adapting to the climates and
terrains in which they lived. Over thousands of years distinct culture areas developed across
North America. In the Northeast, for example, Native Americans used wood from the forests
to build houses, canoes, and tools. Dense populations in the Pacific Northwest exploited the
abundance of sea mammals and fish along the Pacific Coast. In the deserts of the Southwest,
Native Americans grew corn and built multilevel, apartment-style dwellings from adobe, a
sun-dried brick. In the Arctic, inhabitants adapted remarkably well to the harsh environment,
becoming accomplished fishers and hunters.
Among the several hundred Native American groups that settled across North America, there
existed, and still exists, many different ways of life and world views. Each group had
distinctive social and political systems, clothing styles, shelters, foods, art forms, musical
styles, languages, educational practices, and spiritual and philosophical beliefs. Nevertheless,
Native American cultures share certain traits that are common to many indigenous peoples
around the world, including strong ties to the land on which they live.
When European explorers and settlers began to arrive in the Americas in the 15th century,
Native Americans found themselves faced with a new set of challenges. Some Native
Americans learned to coexist with Europeans, setting up trade networks and adopting
European technologies. Many more faced generations of upheaval and disruption as
Europeans, and later Americans and Canadians, took Native American lands and tried to
destroy their ways of life. During the 20th century, however, Native American populations
and cultures experienced a resurgence. Today, Native Americans are working to reassert
more control over their governments, economies, and cultures.
The indigenous peoples of North America are known by many terms. Most tribal peoples
prefer to be identified by their tribal affiliation, such as Hopi, Onondaga, Mohawk, or
Cherokee. The most common collective terms are Native American or American Indian. For
many years, Indian was the most prevalent term. When Christopher Columbus and other
European explorers arrived in the Americas, they thought they were in Asia, which the
Spanish referred to as “the Indies.” They called the native peoples indios, as in the people of
the Indies, later translated to Indian. However, some scholars believe the Europeans were
not calling native peoples indios, but rather In Dios, meaning “Of God.”
The term Native American became popular in the United States in the 1960s, although some
people believe it is too broad because it can refer to anyone born in the Americas, including
Hawaiians and descendants of immigrants. In Canada, aboriginal people is a commonly used
collective term. It refers to Indians, Métis (people of mixed indigenous and European
ancestry), and Inuit. In the 1970s many Indians in Canada began calling their bands First
Nations. When referring to the original inhabitants of the United States, this article uses
Native Americans, American Indians, Indians, and native peoplesinterchangeably. When
referring to the original inhabitants of Canada, the article generally uses aboriginal peoples,
indigenous peoples, and native peoples.
This article divides its discussion of Native Americans into four main parts. The Culture Areas
section examines Native American ways of life in ten different geographic regions. Traditional
Way of Life looks at specific aspects of Native American life, such as food, clothing, and music.
The History section describes the history of Native Americans in North America from the
earliest times to the present day. Native Americans Today discusses contemporary life for
indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada.
For a discussion of the indigenous peoples of Middle and South America, see Native
Americans of Middle and South America. Other major articles on Native Americans in North
America include Indian Treaties in Canada, Migration to the Americas, Native American
Architecture, Native American Art, Native American Languages, Native American Literature,
Native American Policy, and Native American Religions.
II POPULATION: PAST AND PRESENT
A Early Population
Scholars vary greatly in their estimates of how many people were living in the Americas when
Columbus arrived in 1492. Estimates range from 40 million to 90 million for all of the
Americas, and from 2 million to 18 million for the aboriginal population north of present-day
Mexico. These figures are hypothetical; exact population figures are impossible to ascertain.
Furthermore, the date of Columbus’s arrival was not necessarily the peak of the Native
American population. Civilizations had risen and fallen before that time—the Adena-Hopewell
culture, for example, flourished from 200 BC to AD 400 in eastern North America. Some
anthropologists believe the peak occurred around AD 1200.
The number of distinct Native American groups or cultures that existed at the time of
European contact is more difficult to estimate. Scholars do not estimate the number of tribes
that existed at the time because few Native American peoples had the level of political
organization associated with true tribes. For many native peoples, especially those who lived
in areas with sparse resources, the family was the largest unit, while others were organized
into bands. Some tribes did exist, but it is impossible to estimate their number, for smaller
groups were constantly merging into new, larger groups, or in some cases, disappearing.
Europeans applied the term nation to people with a common language and customs and a
name for themselves, and by 1700, they were aware of some 50 or 60 distinct Indian
“nations” east of the Mississippi River. The Spaniards found some 50 Indian nations in the
West, including the Pueblo, Athapaskan-speaking peoples, Comanche, and Piman- and
Yuman-speaking peoples. In the Southeast and East, many Indians tried to meet the
European invasion by creating confederacies or by increasing their reliance on existing
confederacies of smaller groups.
European settlement of the Americas drastically reduced the Native American population.
The European conquest was primarily a biological one. Explorers and colonists brought a wide
range of deadly communicable diseases directly from crowded European cities. These
diseases spread quickly among Native Americans, who had no immunity to them.
Transmitted through trade goods or a single infected person, measles, smallpox, and other
diseases annihilated entire communities even before they had seen a single European. From
the 16th century to the early 20th century, 93 epidemics and pandemics (very widespread
epidemics) of European diseases decimated the native population. To cite only one example,
in the American Southwest, the Pueblo population fell by 90 to 95 percent between 1775 and
1850. In addition to smallpox and measles, explorers and colonists brought a host of other
diseases: bubonic plague, cholera, typhoid fever, scarlet fever, pleurisy, mumps, diphtheria,
pneumonia, whooping cough, malaria, yellow fever, and various sexually transmitted
Despite the undisputed devastation wreaked on Indian populations after European contact,
native populations showed enormous regional variability in their response to disease
exposure. Some peoples survived and, in some cases, even returned to their pre-contact
population level. Others disappeared swiftly and completely. Today, as scholars explore the
magnitude of the Native American population decline, they are finding that the issues are
much more complex than was previously assumed. Archaeological evidence indicates that
illness was increasing in the Native American population in many regions before the arrival of
Columbus, probably in response to problems of population density, diet, and sanitation.
Although the introduction of new diseases was the main cause of the rapid decline of
indigenous populations, other reasons were genocidal warfare, massive relocations and
removals of Native Americans from their homelands, and the destruction of traditional ways
of life. With white encroachment on their land, Native Americans no longer had access to their
traditional hunting, gathering, and farming areas. Their subsistence patterns broke down,
leading to malnutrition and greater susceptibility to disease. Relocation to new areas, often
among hostile Indian tribes that were already living there, meant that people demoralized by
their circumstances had to establish new subsistence patterns as well as come to terms with
their forced dependency. By 1900, these factors, along with increased mortality and
decreased fertility, had reduced the Native American population to its low point of only about
250,000 people in the United States and about 100,000 in Canada.
During the 20th century, Native Americans experienced a remarkable population recovery
because of decreased mortality rates, including declining disease rates. Intermarriage with
nonnative peoples and changing fertility patterns have kept Native American birthrates
higher than birthrates for the total North American population. Another factor in the increase
is that more people in the United States are identifying themselves as Native American on
their census forms. By one estimate, as much as 60 percent of the population increase of
American Indians from 1970 to 1980 was due to these changing identifications.
In the United States, 2.48 million people identified themselves as American Indian in the
2000 census, up from 1.8 million in 1990. More than 300 American Indian tribes are
recognized by the U.S. federal government. In Canada, there are about 600 bands of Indians.
At the 1996 census, about 805,000 people—including Indians, Métis, and Inuit—identified
themselves as aboriginals. For more information on current population trends in the United
States and Canada, see the Native Americans Today section of this article.
Trudy Griffin-Pierce contributed the Population: Past and Present section of this article.
III EARLIEST PEOPLES
Most anthropologists believe the ancestors of Native Americans were hunter-gatherers who
migrated from northeastern Asia during the last part of the Pleistocene Epoch (1.6 million to
10,000 years before present). From about 25,000 to 10,000 years ago a now-submerged
land bridge, called Beringia, linked northeastern Asia and northwestern North America. At
that time, sea levels were lower than they are today because more of the world’s water was
frozen in glaciers. The early colonizers who crossed this natural land bridge were surely
unaware they had arrived on a new continent. Scholars may never know why ancient peoples
ventured to the Americas. Perhaps they were in pursuit of wide-ranging game; perhaps they
were driven by the enduring human urge to explore unknown territory. Whatever their
motivation, these peoples, or their descendants, pushed south toward what is now the
continental United States. Eventually, they made it all the way to the southern tip of South
Traveling south during the late Pleistocene would have been no easy task. Massive glaciers
buried much of present-day Canada and parts of the United States. By about 14,000 years
ago, however, the glaciers had retreated far enough to open a passable southern route down
the Pacific Coast. Then, about 2,500 years later, a habitable ice-free corridor opened in the
continental interior, along the eastern flank of the Rocky Mountains. Many scholars suspect
that both routes were used by ancient peoples migrating to the Americas.
A The First Americans
For much of the 20th century, the earliest archaeological evidence of a human presence in
the Americas was of the Clovis people, who first appeared about 11,500 years ago. For
decades archaeologists believed these early Americans were fast-moving hunters who
singularly pursued mammoth, mastodon, and other large, now-extinct Pleistocene-age
animals. There is little doubt Clovis groups were highly mobile and spread rapidly, for their
distinctive fluted stone spearpoints occur throughout North America in the centuries after
11,500 years ago. However, there is now evidence that Clovis people relied on a variety of
food resources and were less dependent on big game than once supposed. It also appears
they were not the first Americans.
Excavations in the late 20th century at the site of Monte Verde, in southern Chile, testify to
an earlier human presence in the Americas, one dating to at least 12,500 years ago.
Archaeologists had long suspected a pre-Clovis occupation of the Americas, but no site
achieved wide acceptance until Monte Verde. The artifacts unearthed at Monte Verde include
well-preserved remains of leaves and seeds, meat and bone, and ivory, as well as stone tools
that are quite different from those produced by Clovis peoples. For some archaeologists,
these findings suggest that Monte Verde’s ancient inhabitants were descendants of a
separate, pre-Clovis migration to the Americas—possibly one that traveled down the Pacific
The early colonizers of the Americas, known as Paleo-Indians, faced the challenge of
adapting to vast new lands with a great diversity of local environments. These lands were
themselves undergoing dramatic changes as the great ice sheets melted off and global
climates rapidly warmed. Living in small bands of perhaps 25 to 75 people, Paleo-Indians had
to learn how to survive in the new lands and to maintain contacts with distant kin. For this
reason, they were highly nomadic, moving regularly and camping in easily transported
animal-skin tents or other lightweight shelters. Equipped with an assortment of tools made
from stone, bone, and wood, they hunted a variety of animals, from small prey such as turtles
and birds, to large game, including deer and the occasional mammoth. They probably also
relied on wild plant foods as well, although evidence of this is rarely preserved.
By about 10,000 years ago the descendants of the first Americans had left traces of their
presence in virtually every corner of the Americas, from high in the Rocky Mountains down to
lush tropical lowlands near the equator. After that time, regionally distinctive ways of life
began to appear throughout the Americas as Paleo-Indian groups adapted to local
environments. In North America these environments included deciduous woodlands and
evergreen forests, vast deserts, grassy prairies, fertile river drainages, and coastal lowlands.
Paleo-Indians living in desert country became adept at collecting wild plant foods because
game animals were scarce. Buffalo- (or bison-) hunting cultures appeared on the Great Plains,
where large herds of the animals lived. People living in forests hunted woodland game
animals, while those near rivers and lakes fished and hunted waterfowl. Along the coasts,
Paleo-Indians fished and gathered shellfish. In time, agriculture spread to North America
from Mesoamerica, where cultivation of food crops began as early as 7,000 years ago, and
sophisticated farming cultures appeared in the southwestern and eastern regions of what is
now the United States.
For more information about the peopling of the Americas, see Migration to the Americas.
David Meltzer contributed the Early Peoples section of this article.
IV CULTURE AREAS
When European explorers first arrived in North America, they encountered a great diversity
of Native American peoples with widely varying customs. Over time, these indigenous
peoples had developed different cultural practices that were suited to their local
environments. Scholars find it convenient to group Native Americans who shared similar
cultural patterns before European or Euro-American contact into regions known as culture
Culture areas are applied to distinct geographic regions. Each region has a characteristic
habitat made up of the prevailing climate, landforms, and natural resources, including plant
and animal life. Prior to European or Euro-American contact, habitat profoundly influenced
how Native Americans lived. Indigenous peoples adapted to the available resources in each
habitat to obtain foods and materials for shelter, clothing, tools, and arts. The environment
shaped how they organized their communities and how they viewed the world around them.
Peoples living where land was suitable for farming but rainfall was limited, for example, were
likely to develop similar types of agricultural practices and to share mythological themes
surrounding their farming. Similarly, peoples living in areas with large herds of migrating
game were likely to have nomadic or seminomadic lifestyles and to celebrate the animals
they hunted in their mythologies.
Culture areas may also help provide a framework for understanding Native Americans after
European or Euro-American contact, as non-Indians made inroads onto indigenous lands and
influenced indigenous culture. One culture area in particular—that of the Great Plains—came
to be defined long after the first Europeans had arrived in North America. Horses brought to
the Americas by Spanish colonizers transformed aboriginal ways of living on the vast North
Scholars have devised a number of different systems for defining culture areas. The most
common system divides North America north of Mexico into ten culture areas. These include
the Southeast culture area, Northeast culture area, Southwest culture area, California culture
area, Great Basin culture area, Northwest Coast culture area, Plateau culture area, Great
Plains culture area, Subarctic culture area, and Arctic culture area.
Whichever culture area system is used, it should be kept in mind that each tribe or group had
its own distinctive customs, making cultural generalizations difficult. It is also important to
remember that many Native American customs and behaviors that originated in pre-contact
times are still practiced today. The Native American saga is ongoing.
A1 Land and Habitat
The Southeast culture area is a semitropical region north of the Gulf of Mexico and south of
the Middle Atlantic-Midwest region. Humid and well-watered, the area extends from the
Atlantic coast westward approximately to what is now central Texas.
The terrain and vegetation of the Southeast culture area consists of a coastal plain along the
Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, with saltwater marshes, grasses, and stands of cypress.
Especially rich soils are found in present-day Alabama and Mississippi in a narrow belt, called
the Black Belt, and along the Mississippi River floodplain. The region also includes the vast
swamplands, hummocks (rounded hills), and high grass of the Everglades in present-day
Florida, and the rolling mountains of the southern Appalachian chain.
At the time of early contacts between Native Americans and Europeans, much of the region
was woodland, with southern pine generally thicker near the coasts and more broadleaf trees
further inland. Because of these extensive forests, some scholars refer to this region as the
Southeast Woodlands culture area. Others combine the Southeast culture area with the
Northeast culture area—another heavily wooded region—and refer to it as the Eastern
Woodlands culture area.
A2 Peoples and Languages
The larger Native American groups of the Southeast culture area included the Alabama,
Caddo, Catawba, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Coushatta, Creek (Muskogee), Natchez,
Timucua, Yamasee, and Yuchi. Also important were the Seminole—a post-contact offshoot of
mostly Creek. There were many other tribes as well, a great number of them now extinct.
Many Southeast peoples spoke languages in the Muskogean family. Scholars have identified
at least 48 distinct Muskogean-speaking tribes at the time of European contact. In addition to
Muskogean, language families of the Southeast included Siouan, Iroquoian, Caddoan,
Timucuan, and Tunican. Other tribes spoke languages not associated with the main language
families, including Atakapan by the Atakapa, Chitimachan by the Chitimacha, and Natchesan
by the Natchez.
A3 Early Peoples
Humans have occupied the Southeast for many thousands of years. For millennia, prehistoric
hunter-gatherer bands were on the move, preying on large and small game, fishing, and
collecting wild plant foods. Cultivation of some native plants—including sunflower, marsh
elder, and goosefoot—began in the region about 5,000 years ago. A dramatic shift in
agriculture occurred in the Southeast about AD 400 as indigenous peoples looked beyond
native species and began to cultivate maize, or corn, a crop domesticated thousands of years
earlier in Mesoamerica. This development, which spread to the Southeast from the
Southwest culture area, revolutionized subsistence and permitted the development of large,
By AD 750 a great agricultural culture of mound builders, called the Mississippian or Temple
Mound culture, arose in the Southeast. Like the earlier Adena and Hopewell mound-building
peoples living along the Ohio River Valley to the north, Mississippian peoples constructed
great earthen burial mounds. They also built massive earthworks that supported temples and
rulers’ residences. Across the Mississippi River from present-day St. Louis, Missouri, the
Mississippians built the city of Cahokia, which may have been home to 20,000 or more
Master farmers, Mississippians typically settled along riverbeds, where soils were rich and
productive. Mississippian peoples are thought to be ancestors of some Native American
peoples of the region. Spanish explorers reported seeing earthen mounds among the tribes of
the Creek Confederacy—an alliance of some Muskogean-speaking peoples—and Cherokee in
the 1500s. As late as the early 1700s, at the time of contact with French explorers, the
Natchez people were still using earthen mounds, growing maize, and exhibiting other cultural
traits consistent with Mississippian culture.
A4 Diet and Subsistence
A4a Three Kinds of Maize
Southeast Indians were expert farmers, growing maize, beans, squash, and sunflowers as
staple crops. The Cherokee, among other peoples, cultivated three different kinds of maize.
They roasted one, boiled another, and ground a third into flour for cornbread. Because sandy
soil conditions were common in many areas, Southeast peoples frequently changed
agricultural fields to keep crops healthy, moving their villages when necessary to develop
A4b Hunting and Gathering
Southeast peoples also hunted and foraged to supplement their diets. They used bows and
arrows to kill deer and blowguns equipped with poison-tipped darts to hunt turkeys and other
small game. For fishing they used spears, traps, weirs (enclosures set in waterways), and
poisons. They also foraged for nuts and fruits, as well as edible roots, stalks, and leaves.
These were collected and sometimes stored in baskets or ceramic pots.
A5 Social and Political Organization
Villages served as the primary form of sociopolitical organization among Southeast Indians.
Among many Southeast tribes, villagers governed their own affairs and claimed control over
a specific geographic area, such as a river valley. Village councils of tribal leaders, often led
by a head chief, met to discuss matters important to the community, such as cultivating fields
owned by the community, building or repairing public buildings, or providing for village
Some Southeast tribes were organized into chiefdoms—societies with a supreme ruler and
with social rank determined by birth—and some chiefdoms encompassed many villages.
Chiefdoms typically had powerful priesthoods. The Natchez, a Sun-worshipping people, were
ruled by a leader known as the Great Sun, a supposed living deity who held autocratic power.
His relatives, called Suns, formed a class of high priests. Beneath them were nobles of
varying rank, and under nobles were commoners, who did most of the farming, hunting, and
mound building. The tribes of the Creek Confederacy also had well-developed hierarchies, as
did the Chickasaw, although less so. Other tribes of the region, including the Cherokee and
Choctaw, were more democratic and less formal in their social structure, with leadership roles
usually determined by a person’s achievements.
A6 Settlement and Housing
Most Southeast peoples located their villages along river valleys and planted their crops in
nearby fields. Homes and public buildings were typically rectangular or, less frequently,
circular. Most structures were constructed of wattle and daub, a type of architecture in which
branches and vines are tied over pole frameworks and covered with a mixture of mud or clay.
Sometimes structures were covered with plant materials, including thatch—made from straw,
reeds, rushes, and grasses—as well as woven mats, bark, bamboo stalks, and palm fronds.
Animal hides were also used as coverings. For swampy areas the Seminole people built
chickees, distinctive open-sided houses on stilts with wooden platforms and thatched roofs.
In addition to travel by foot on established trails, Southeast peoples used dugout canoes for
transportation along the waterways that crisscrossed much of the region and along coastal
areas. To make these boats, they charred parts of logs with embers from a fire and then
hollowed out the softened parts with stone and bone scrapers. Some dugouts, having hull
walls just a few centimeters thick, were light enough for one person to carry. Native
Americans propelled these boats with wooden paddles.
A8 Clothing and Ornamentation
In warm weather Southeast Indian men typically wore only breechcloths, usually of deerskin.
Women typically wore wraparound plant-fiber skirts and shell necklaces. In cold weather men
wore deerskin shirts, leggings, and moccasins; women wore deerskin capes and moccasins.
For ceremonial purposes, tribal leaders and priests wore capes of feathers. Among some
Southeast tribes, men plucked out their hair with shell tweezers and tattooed themselves
with designs representing exploits in war and with totems (symbols that serve as an emblem
of a family or clan). Elaborate tattoos also adorned some Southeast women.
A9 Religious Beliefs and Practices
Southeast peoples, like indigenous peoples throughout North America, regarded themselves
as part of the natural and spiritual worlds. They considered religion a function of daily activity,
with rituals capable of influencing the interconnected realms of physical and supernatural
existence. Shamans, or medicine men, served as priests, and they led tribal members in
rituals believed to ensure an adequate food supply. Since Southeast Indians practiced
agriculture, many of their ceremonies surrounded the planting and harvesting season.
The Green Corn Ceremony, or Busk, was an annual renewal and thanksgiving festival
performed by the Cherokee, Creek, and other Southeast tribes. It was held in mid- to late
summer, when the corn was ready for roasting. The ceremony lasted from four to eight days
and included ritual fasting, dancing, and feasting. Old fires were extinguished, and a new
sacred fire was lit from which every household obtained fire. New tools, weapons, and
clothing were made. Wrongdoers were forgiven for most crimes except murder. A beverage
known as the Black Drink—so named by English traders because of its dark color—was
believed to purify spiritually all those who imbibed it. Different tribes had different recipes for
this ritual tea, made from varying species of holly, tobacco, and other plants.
A10 Post-Contact History
Spanish explorers are the first known outsiders to have visited the Southeast. They sailed
northward from the Caribbean region in the late 1400s and early 1500s, soon after
Christopher Columbus reached the West Indies. The earliest cross-cultural contacts took
place along coastal areas. Southeast coastal tribes received European goods as gifts or in
trade; they also were exposed to European diseases and were kidnapped as slaves. These
early contacts probably impacted inland groups as well through the spread of diseases, when
exposed coastal peoples traded with interior tribes. Entire villages may have perished before
the first European explorers even reached them.
From 1539 to 1543 an expedition under the Spaniard Hernando de Soto explored many of
the Southeast's interior regions and came into contact with numerous peoples. In 1565 the
Spanish founded the first permanent settlement in North America at Saint Augustine in
modern-day Florida. By the 1600s the English and French had also taken a strong interest in
the Southeast. The English established settlements on the Atlantic Coast, and the French
built towns along the Mississippi River Valley. Epidemics among Southeast peoples and
intermittent warfare with Euro-Americans took a heavy toll on the indigenous population, and
many tribes were displaced from their lands. For many groups, displacement led to a loss of
By the time the United States achieved independence from Britain at the end of the American
Revolution in 1783, many Southeast tribes had disappeared. Refugees of smaller tribes were
often absorbed by the larger groups that remained. Some Southeast peoples, including the
Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole, came to adapt Euro-American
customs. The Cherokee, for instance, created a representative form of government with a
constitution and a written form of their Iroquoian language. Non-Indians eventually referred
to these groups as the Five Civilized Tribes.
Euro-Americans soon displaced many of the remaining Southeast peoples from their lands.
Pressure by non-Indian settlers led U.S. president Andrew Jackson to pass the Indian
Removal Act of 1830, under which the Five Civilized Tribes were relocated to the Indian
Territory (a region encompassing present-day Oklahoma). Many Indians died on the long
journey in difficult weather with little food or water. This forced exodus came to be known
among the Cherokee as the Trail of Tears. Today, many descendants of the Southeast tribes
live on reservations in Oklahoma. Some Southeast Indians still live in their ancestral
homelands, since pockets of their ancestors did manage to avoid relocation. In recent times,
small groups throughout the Southeast have tried to reestablish tribal unity and identity.
B1 Land and Habitat
The Northeast culture area consists of the temperate-climate regions of what is now the
eastern United States and southeastern Canada. The region stretches east from the
Mississippi River Valley across the Appalachian Mountains to the Atlantic seaboard. In the
east the region encompasses the portion of the Atlantic Coast that extends from southeastern
Canada to the Chesapeake Bay region in Maryland and Virginia. Inland it includes the
northern Appalachian chain, which runs in a north-south direction and creates a natural
barrier. In the north central part of the culture area are the large inland bodies of water
known as the Great Lakes.
Hundreds of rivers flow throughout the Northeast, and much of the soil, especially in the
valleys, is suitable for agriculture. Although generally humid, the climate is varied, like the
terrain, with the lengths of the four seasons determined by latitude and altitude. The
Northeast culture area is sometimes referred to as Northeast Woodlands because of the
widespread forests, including broadleaf hardwoods and coniferous evergreens. Sometimes
the area is grouped with the Southeast culture area and referred to as the Eastern
B2 Peoples and Languages
At the time of European contact, two great lines of people of two major language families
lived in the Northeast: Algonquian-speaking peoples and Iroquoian-speaking peoples. These
peoples can be organized into five major groups. In addition, there were many other smaller
tribes and bands that maintained distinct political identities.
The first of the five groups was the Algonquian peoples of Nova Scotia, New England, Long
Island, Hudson Valley, and the Delaware Valley. The largest tribes of this group were the
Abenaki, Delaware (Lenni Lenape), Mahican, Maliseet, Massachuset, Mi’kmaq (Micmac),
Mohegan, Montauk, Narragansett, Nipmuc, Pennacook, Pequot, Wampanoag, and Wappinger.
Second were the Chesapeake Bay and Cape Hatteras tribes, including the Algonquian
Nanticoke, Powhaten, and Secotan. Also in this group were the Iroquoian Susquehannock
and Tuscarora (the latter tribe eventually migrating northward and settling among other
Iroquoians). Third were the Great Lakes Algonquian tribes. These included the Algonquin,
Menominee, Ottawa, Potawatomi, and some bands of Ojibwa (Chippewa), along with the
Siouan-speaking Winnebago (Ho-Chunk). Fourth were the Prairie Algonquian tribes,
including the Fox (Mesquakie), Illinois, Kickapoo, Miami, Sac (Sauk), and Shawnee. Fifth
were the New York and Ontario Iroquoian tribes. These included the Cayuga, Mohawk,
Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca—referred to collectively as Iroquois (Haudenosaunee)—and
the Erie, Huron, Neutral, and Tobacco.
B3 Early Peoples
Ancient hunter-gatherers entered the Northeast more than 10,000 years ago, possibly
following game animals into the region from the west. By about 9,000 years ago, as the
climate warmed, the peoples of the area became increasingly dependent on deer, nuts, and
The early history of the Northeast is similar to that of the Southeast culture area. About
5,000 years ago Northeast peoples began cultivating plants they found growing wild. All of
these wild plants—including amaranth, marsh elder, and goosefoot—were grown for their
seeds, which were ground into flour. Maize agriculture had reached the region from the
Southeast after about AD 400, permitting many peoples to rely more heavily on farming for
Exact connections between prehistoric peoples and the later Native American inhabitants of
the region are not known. It is generally thought that the Algonquian-speaking tribes, who
spread out over a huge area from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, occupied the
Northeast first. Algonquian groups may be descendents of some of the earliest
hunter-gatherer peoples in the region. Alternatively they may be descendants of the ancient
mound builders, the peoples of the Adena and Hopewell cultures, centered along the Ohio
River Valley. The Iroquoian-speaking peoples, who settled to the east of the Great Lakes and
in the southern reaches of the culture area on the coastal plain, appear to have entered the
area later and from the south. A Siouan-speaking group called the Winnebago lived west of
the Great Lakes. Other Siouans had made their homes nearby, but eventually migrated
westward and adopted a different way of life on the Great Plains.
B4 Diet and Subsistence
B4a Hunting and Gathering
Northeast peoples hunted a variety of game, large and small: deer, rabbit, squirrel, beaver,
and various birds, such as turkey, partridge, duck, and goose. Peoples of the northern woods
also hunted moose, elk, and bear. Some peoples living near the prairies of the Mississippi
River Valley hunted the North American bison, or buffalo. In addition to hunting with spears,
bows and arrows, and clubs, Northeast Indians used traps, snares, and deadfalls (traps
designed to cause heavy objects, such as logs, to fall, disabling or killing prey). They used
disguises to get close to animals, lured prey with animal calls, and set fires to drive animals
toward hunters or traps.
Northeast Indians also fished rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds. They caught fish with
harpoons, hooks, nets, and traps. Peoples living along the Atlantic Coast depended on
shellfish for part of their diet. Wild plant foods were also an important food source, including
berries, nuts, roots, stalks, and leaves. Some tribes along the western Great Lakes collected
a tall grass with an edible grain, referred to as a wild rice. Peoples living in maple country
collected sap from the trees in early spring and boiled it down into maple syrup and sugar.
Most Northeast peoples supplemented a hunting-gathering diet with farming. The Iroquois
thought of their three most important crops—maize (corn), beans, and squash—as the Three
Sisters and planted them together on small earthen hills. Corn stalks supported the vines of
bean plants while the large-leafed squash plants served to block weed growth. Algonquian
peoples introduced the Pilgrims and other early settlers in their homelands to these cultivated
crops in addition to many wild foods, including maple sugar, cranberries, blueberries,
lobsters, clams, and oysters.
B5 Social and Political Organization
B5a Families and Clans
The family played an important role in Northeast Indian society. Most tribes were further
organized into clans—clusters of related families who claimed a common ancestor. Clans
often took animal names, such as the Deer Clan or Bear Clan. The Iroquois were a matrilineal
society, with descent and property passing through the female line. Each clan was headed by
an elder woman, known as a clan mother. Clan mothers owned the crops and the communal
dwellings and held great political power. They elected tribal chiefs, who were generally male,
retained the right to veto actions they opposed, and had to approve declarations of war.
Unlike the Iroquois, the Algonquian were a patrilineal society, with descent and property
traced through the male line.
To reduce conflict and maintain unity against enemies, Northeast tribes organized into a
number of confederacies. The Iroquois Confederacy, also called the League of Five Nations,
helped its member tribes achieve great power and long-term political stability. The
confederacy was founded by the late 1500s, possibly earlier, and was composed of the
Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. It became known as the League of Six
Nations after the Tuscarora migrated to the area from present-day North Carolina and
formally joined the confederacy in 1722. Central to the alliance was a deliberative council
composed of delegates from all the member tribes. Clan mothers selected a proportion of the
delegates to the council, and many procedures were established in a constitution that was
passed down orally from generation to generation.
Confederacies were also common among the Algonquian tribes, although they were less
tightly organized than the Iroquois Confederacy. Some Algonquian alliances resulted from
the abilities of a single strong leader, such as Chief Powhatan of the Powhatan Confederacy.
Other Algonquian confederacies included the Abenaki Confederacy, Delaware Confederacy,
Wampanoag Confederacy, and the Wappinger Confederacy.
B6 Settlement and Housing
Some Northeast Indians maintained permanent villages. Other peoples were seminomadic,
changing village sites depending on food availability. They made clearings in the woods,
usually near streams or rivers, and sometimes surrounded them with palisades (tall walls
made from sharpened logs stuck upright in the earth) for defensive purposes. Two types of
houses were common in the Northeast: the Iroquoian longhouse and the Algonquian wigwam.
The region’s vast forests provided the main building materials for these shelters.
The Iroquoians built longhouses, communal dwellings capable of housing a dozen or more
families. Longhouses had pointed or rounded roofs and doors at both ends. The buildings
were constructed with post-and-beam and bent sapling frames and usually covered with
sheets of elm bark. Raised platforms were used for sleeping. Smoke holes in the roofs allowed
smoke from open fires to escape.
Algonquian peoples generally lived in smaller structures known as wigwams. Wigwams were
domed or cone-shaped dwellings consisting of pole frames overlaid with birchbark or elm
bark, reed mats, or animal hides, depending on what materials were available. They were
typically built over a shallow pit, with earth piled around the base. Fires in the center provided
a source of heat and light. Longhouses were sometimes used as council or ceremonial
Northeast peoples frequently relied on birchbark canoes for transporting people and
provisions in waterways. Algonquian peoples crafted them using a framework of cedar or
spruce wood and a covering of birchbark. They sewed pieces of bark together with spruce
root, then sealed the seams with melted spruce gum. These elegant boats drew little water,
making them well suited for navigating shallow lakes, rivers, and streams. Light and strong,
birchbark canoes could be carried easily overland, making them advantageous for hunting or
raiding expeditions. Iroquoians used heavier elm bark instead of birchbark to cover their
B8 Clothing and Ornamentation
B8a Hide Garments
Deerskin was the material of choice for clothing before Europeans brought cotton and other
trade goods into the Northeast. Treated and softened hide was used for shirts, leggings,
dresses, skirts, breechcloths, and moccasins. Northeast Indians also made robes and mittens
from beaver and bear fur. To decorate clothing they used feathers, shells, stones, paint, and
porcupine-quill embroidery. Sometimes they used paint for body decoration or adorned their
faces with tattoos, although tattooing was not as prevalent as in the Southeast culture area.
The Algonquians and Iroquoians placed a high value on wampum, an Algonquian-derived
term that refers to small beads made from shells, or the strings, belts, or sashes made from
these beads. Wampum was used for a variety of tribal and intertribal purposes. Especially
valued were beads made from the dark purple, black, and white quahog clamshells.
Algonquian and Iroquoian peoples used beads to decorate tools and weapons, and as jewelry.
They also used belts of wampum with beads arranged in pictographs for keeping tribal
records and to communicate messages of peace or war to other tribes. Some tribes used
wampum belts in religious and kinship ceremonies.
Prior to European contact, wampum sometimes served as a medium of exchange, although
its other cultural functions were more significant. The Europeans began making wampum out
of glass beads for trade purposes—especially for the fur trade—and it eventually became
used as a form of money. Native Americans also began making wampum from European
B9 Religious Beliefs and Practices
B9a The Great Spirit
Northeast Indians believed in a spirit world that interacted with the physical, or natural,
world. This included belief in a primary spirit, a great animating force that pervaded all
existence. Algonquians called this animating force Kitche Manitou (“Great Spirit”), or simply
Manitou, and by other names depending on language dialects. The Iroquoian version of
Manitou is known as Orenda, among other names, and Siouans referred to it by variations on
Wakan, or Wakanda. According to indigenous beliefs, the Great Spirit had many
manifestations. It was believed to be present in all things—animals, plants, water, rocks, and
other natural phenomena, such as the Sun, Moon, weather, or sickness. Lesser
manifestations of the Great Spirit were sometimes referred to as manitous or by other names,
such as Thunderbird, Bringer of Rain. Shamans were believed to be capable of controlling
Apart from a general belief in the Great Spirit, Algonquian tribes had different legends and
believed in different supernatural beings. Some of these beings were considered heroes or
guardian spirits, such as Manebozho, the Great Hare, who, according to the legends of the
Ojibwa and other Algonquian tribes, remade the world after bad spirits had destroyed it in a
B9b Medicine Societies
Medicine societies, composed of practitioners skilled in the arts of healing, were important
among many Northeast peoples. These societies sought the help of the spirit world and
dispensed herbal cures to ward off disease and heal the sick. One of the most famous
Northeast medicine societies was the Medewiwin (Grand Medicine Society), which originated
among the Ojibwa and spread to other Great Lakes Algonquians. Members, known as Mides,
served a long apprenticeship before gaining admittance to the society. Separate
apprenticeships were necessary to attain the four ranks of Mides, each of which was
associated with ever-greater supernatural powers.
Members of the False Face Society of the Iroquois wore wooden masks known as false faces.
The masks, which represented spirits known as Faces of the Forest, were carved on a living
tree. Then a ceremony of prayer and tobacco offering was held while the masks were cut from
the trunk. The masks were believed to frighten away malevolent spirits that caused illness,
and False Face dances were performed to heal the sick.
B10 Post-Contact History
Some Northeast coastal peoples may have had contacts with non-Native Americans as early
as about AD 1000, when Vikings sailing from Iceland attempted to found colonies in North
America, including at least one settlement in what is now Newfoundland and Labrador. The
first known contacts with later European explorers occurred in the 1500s. However, it was not
until the 1600s that European influences began to alter significantly indigenous ways of life.
Trade goods, including iron tools and pots, brightly colored clothing, glass beads, and
firearms, spread throughout the region at varying rates depending on the location of tribes.
Many groups maintained something close to their traditional ways of life for generations,
even with the new tools and materials. European goods were incorporated into aboriginal
technologies, art forms, and rituals. However, alcohol was one trade good that rapidly and
consistently proved detrimental to tribal identity. The spread of European diseases also led to
significant loss of life among Northeast peoples, as it did throughout North America.
Patterns of non-Indian expansion in present-day eastern Canada—much of which was once a
part of New France (the French Empire in North America)—were less disruptive than they
were further south. The economy of New France revolved around the fur trade, which began
with the voyages of French explorer Jacques Cartier in the 1530s. The French were more
likely to develop trade relations with Native Americans than to settle permanently on their
lands, and European settlement of indigenous lands in Canada occurred more gradually.
English colonists, pushing inland from the Atlantic Coast in what is now the northeastern
United States, were more land hungry than the French traders, since many of them hoped to
establish new lives as farmers. In 1607, with the help of Chief Powhatan and his daughter,
Pocahontas, the English founded their first successful American colony at Jamestown in what
is now Virginia. However, conflict between Indians and colonists—who wanted land to grow
tobacco as a cash crop—eventually destroyed the Powhatan Confederacy. Warfare between
Native Americans and English colonists also occurred in the years after the Plymouth Colony
was founded in 1620 in present-day Massachusetts. Although these colonists were
subsistence farmers rather than cash-crop farmers, their desire for land sparked a series of
conflicts that ultimately led to the destruction or displacement of many New England tribes.
Colonial wars in the 1700s drew in many Northeast tribes on opposing sides. A long
succession of attacks and skirmishes between the British and French culminated in the French
and Indian War (1754-1763). The Iroquois Confederacy blocked French efforts to control the
waterways from the St. Lawrence River to the Great Lakes. The Mohawk, a leading Iroquois
tribe, became firm allies of the British and helped defeat the French in Québec in 1759. Many
Northeast peoples, however, came to resent British restrictions on trade and British
expansion west of the Appalachians. Beginning in 1763 a series of Indian attacks on British
outposts swept through the Great Lakes country and along the Ohio River Valley. In an
attempt to maintain peace the British issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which
guaranteed indigenous peoples all the land west of the Appalachians. Nevertheless,
non-Indian settlers continued to cross the mountains in the wake of such explorers as Daniel
During the American Revolution, pro-independence colonists tried to win the support of
Northeast peoples by halting Euro-American settlement on Indian lands. However, Mohawk
chief Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea) and Seneca chiefs Cornplanter and Red Jacket
persuaded four of the six Iroquois nations to join the British side. At the end of the war in
1783, the Iroquois ceded large tracts of land to the United States, and many Iroquois moved
with their British allies to Ontario in Canada. Most Seneca, as well as smaller numbers of the
other Iroquois people, remained on ancestral lands.
Increasing non-Indian settlement in the Northeast pushed many of the remaining tribes
westward across the Mississippi River and onto the Great Plains. By the mid-1800s, few
indigenous peoples still lived in the Northeast. Those who stayed retained a small land base
and became in many instances forgotten neighbors of the dominant Euro-American culture
around them. Beginning in the 20th century, Northeast peoples in both the United States and
Canada sought to revive their traditional cultures.
C1 Land and Habitat
The Southwest culture area reaches across a great swath of arid country in what is now the
southwestern United States and northern Mexico. It includes diverse terrain, from the high
mesas and canyons of the Colorado Plateau in the north to the Mogollon Mountains of
present-day southern New Mexico. Cactus-dotted deserts flank the Little Colorado River in
present-day southern Arizona and the Gulf of Mexico in present-day southern Texas.
Few rains water the Southwest, and most rainfall occurs during a six-week period in the
summer. Snowfall is infrequent except in mountain areas. Three types of vegetation are
dominant, depending on altitude and rainfall: western evergreen in the mountains; piñon and
juniper in mesa country; and desert shrub, cactus, and mesquite in lower, drier regions.
C2 Peoples and Languages
Three language families predominated among peoples in the Southwest: Uto-Aztecan,
Yuman, and Athapaskan. Uto-Aztecan speakers included the Hopi of Arizona and the Tohono
O’Odham (Papago) and Akimel O'Odham (Pima) of Arizona and northern Mexico. Some
Pueblo peoples, including the Tewa, Tiwa, and Towa in modern-day New Mexico, spoke
dialects of Kiowa-Tanoan, a language family related to Uto-Aztecan. The Cocopah, Havasupai,
Hualapai, Maricopa, Mojave, Yavapai, Yuma (Quechan), and other neighboring peoples in
Arizona spoke Yuman, and they are referred to collectively as Yumans. The Apache and
Navajo (Diné) of New Mexico and Arizona and the southern fringe of Colorado and Utah spoke
Athapaskan. Southwest languages considered distinct from the main language families
included Coalhuitecan of the Coalhuitec in Texas and northern Mexico; Karankawan of the
Karankawa in Texas; Keresan of the Keres, a Pueblo people in New Mexico; and Zunian of the
Zuni, another Pueblo people of New Mexico.
C3 Early Peoples
When prehistoric peoples first arrived in the Southwest more than 10,000 years ago, there
was enough rainfall in the region to support mammoths, bison, and other large mammals.
Stone spearpoints found with the remains of these animals provide evidence that ancient
Southwest peoples hunted them. After the climate became drier and the large animals
disappeared, subsequent generations of Southwest peoples hunted deer and small game and
collected fruits, nuts, and seeds of wild plants. About 5,000 years ago the Cochise people in
present-day Arizona and New Mexico began growing a primitive species of maize (corn),
which was domesticated in earlier centuries in Mesoamerica. By 4,500 years ago they had
become skilled farmers.
In later centuries, four distinct farming peoples occupied the Southwest: peoples of the
Mogollon, Hohokam, Anasazi, and Patayan cultures, as well as a number of smaller offshoots.
The people of these cultures raised maize, beans, and squash. For each of these peoples, the
adoption of agriculture permitted the settlement of permanent villages and the continued
refinement of farming technology, arts, and crafts, especially pottery.
The Mogollon people of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico, who appeared
about 2,300 years ago, are believed to be descendents of the Cochise people. Mogollon
Indians built permanent villages in the region’s high valleys and learned to make pottery
decorated with intricate geometric patterns. The Mimbres people, a Mogollan subgroup, is
famous for painting pottery with dramatic black-on-white geometric designs of animals and
ceremonial scenes. From about AD 1200 to 1400 the Mogollan culture was gradually absorbed
by the then-dominant Anasazi culture.
The Hohokam people of southern Arizona may also have descended from the Cochise. First
appearing about 2,100 years ago, Hohokam Indians dug extensive irrigation ditches for their
crops. Some canals, which carried water diverted from rivers, extended many kilometers.
Hohokam people also built sunken ball courts—like those of the Maya Civilization in
Mesoamerica—on which they played a game resembling a combination of modern basketball
and soccer. Hohokam people are thought to be ancestors of the Tohono O’Odham and Pima,
who preserved much of the Hohokam way of life.
In the Four Corners region, where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado now join, lived
the Anasazi Indians, also known as ancestral Pueblo peoples. The Anasazi culture, which
gradually emerged from older Southwestern cultures, had taken on its distinctive
characteristics by about 2,100 years ago. Anthropologists refer to the Anasazi of this early
era as Basket Makers because they wove fine baskets from rushes, straw, and other
materials. Basket Makers hunted and gathered wild foods, tended fields, and lived in large pit
houses, dwellings with sunken floors that were topped by sturdy timber frameworks covered
with mud. By about AD 700 Basket Maker culture had evolved into the early Pueblo cultural
period. Over the next 200 years these peoples made the transition from pit houses to surface
dwellings called pueblos—rectangular, multistoried apartment buildings composed of
terraced stone and adobe. They built large planned towns connected by an extensive network
of public roads and irrigation systems. At its peak, after about 900, Pueblo culture dominated
much of the Southwest. From about 1150 to 1300 Pueblo peoples evacuated most of their
aboveground pueblos and built spectacular dwellings in the recesses of cliffs (see Cliff
Dweller). The largest of these had several hundred rooms and could house a population of
600 to 800 in close quarters.
The Patayan people, who lived near the Colorado River in what is now western Arizona,
learned to farm by about AD 875. They planted crops along the river floodplain and filled out
their diets by hunting and gathering. Patayan Indians lived in brush huts and made brownish
pottery, sometimes painted red, as well as baskets. They were known to use seashells from
the Gulf of California in trade. The Patayan people are thought to be ancestors of the
During the late 1200s the Four Corners area suffered severe droughts, and many Pueblo
sites were abandoned. However, Pueblo settlements along the Rio Grande in the south grew
larger, and elaborate irrigation systems were built. Between 1200 and 1500 a people
speaking Athapaskan appeared in the Southwest, having migrated southward along the
western Great Plains. Based on linguistic connections, these people are believed to have
branched off from indigenous peoples in western Canada. They are the ancestors of the
nomadic Apache and Navajo. Their arrival may have played a role in the relocation of some
C4 Diet and Subsistence
C4a Desert Farmers
Two principal ways of life developed in the Southwest: sedentary and nomadic. The
sedentary Pueblo peoples were mainly farmers who hunted and foraged to fill out their diets.
They cultivated a variety of crops, including corn of many varieties, squash, beans,
sunflowers, cotton, and tobacco. Pueblo Indians also raised tame turkeys. A number of desert
peoples, including the upland and river Yuman tribes and the Tohono O’Odham and Pima,
maintained a largely agrarian way of life as well.
Agriculture north of Mesoamerica—the cradle of farming in the Americas—reached its
highest level of development in the Southwest. Growing food crops gave many Southwest
peoples the ability to prosper in a harsh landscape with few game animals or edible wild
plants. The agricultural peoples were such skilled farmers that, even in the dry country, they
managed to maintain sizable populations in permanent villages.
C4b Nomadic Subsistence
In addition to the Apache and Navajo, the Karankawa and Coahuiltec tribes of southwestern
Texas practiced a nomadic hunting and gathering way of life. Game was scarce throughout
the Southwest, with larger mammals, such as deer and elk, found only in high, forested
country. Smaller game included rabbits, birds, and rattlesnakes. Southwest peoples also
gathered wild plant foods, especially mesquite seeds and cactus. Some tribes, such as the
Karankawa living along the Gulf of Mexico, supplemented their diet through fishing. When
nomadic peoples could not find enough food to eat in their rugged homelands, they raided the
village peoples for their crops.
C5 Social and Political Organization
Sociopolitical structure varied throughout the Southwest. Pueblo Indians had a closely knit
village life. Descent was matrilineal—traced through the female line. Women owned the
houses, and married men lived in the homes of their wives. Tribes were organized into clans,
groups of families who claimed a common ancestor. Pueblo priests served as both civil and
religious leaders, and they were organized into secret societies. The civil responsibilities of
priests included advising on matters affecting the entire pueblo, such as defensive measures
against raiding peoples; settling disputes between individuals; or helping individuals make
personal decisions. Various clans helped the priests direct a full calendar of religious events,
with elaborate rituals of dance, song, and prayer. Women prepared food for these unifying
Apache and Navajo bands had less formal types of social and political organization. Each
band, which was made up of extended clans, had a headman who was chosen informally for
his leadership abilities and military prowess. However, other warriors could launch raids on
their own without a headman's permission.
C6 Settlement and Housing
C6a Pueblos and Kivas
One of the most distinctive types of housing in the Southwest was the pueblo (Spanish for
“village”). Pueblo-style dwellings are unique among Native American homes because of their
apartment-like design, as high as five different levels. The flat roof of one level served as the
floor and front yard of another, and the different stories were interconnected by ladders.
Inhabitants entered their rooms by ladder through holes in the roofs. The largest pueblos,
known as Great Houses, could shelter perhaps 1,000 people.
Southwest peoples used different types of building material to construct pueblo walls. The
Hopi and Zuni typically used stones, which were cemented with adobe mortar and sometimes
covered with adobe plaster. Pueblo Indians along the Rio Grande typically used adobe bricks
made from sun-dried earth and straw.
Pueblo Indians also built a type of pit house, known by the Hopi term kiva. Anthropologists
believe kivas evolved from the earlier Basket Maker pit houses. Kivas were circular or
rectangular in shape and served as ceremonial chambers or clubhouses for men. They were
usually located at a central place in the pueblo, often on the plaza. The largest pueblo towns
had Great Kivas that could hold hundreds of people. These kivas are thought to have been
used for councils and for the most important religious ceremonies.
C6b Wickiups and Hogans
The most common type of dwelling for Apache bands was the wickiup, a dome- or
cone-shaped hut with a pole framework. The Apache covered this framework with brush,
grass, or reed mats. Wickiups frequently had a central fire pit and a smoke hole.
The Navajo lived in shelters called hogans. These structures were either cone-shaped or
dome-shaped with six or eight sides. Logs and poles were used for the frameworks, which
were covered with mud, sod, and bark. In later years the frameworks were covered with
stone or adobe. The doorways of hogans always faced east, with the floor symbolizing Mother
Earth and the roof Father Sky.
Tohono O’Odham and Pima houses were small, round, flat-topped, pole-framed structures,
covered with grass and mud—a type of wattle-and-daub architecture. Their villages also
contained ramadas, rectangular structures with no walls, or sometimes just one wall as a
windbreak. Ramadas served as clubhouses. Some Yumans lived in dwellings similar to those
of the Apache and some built homes resembling those of the Tohono O’Odham and Pima.
C7 Clothing and Ornamentation
The main clothing material used by Pueblo Indians was cotton, which they spun into fabric
for garments. They also used animal skins, furs, and feathers for clothes. Men typically wore
a cotton loincloth, a short kilt, and skin moccasins. For cold weather or ceremonies, they
added a poncho (a rectangular cut of cloth with a hole for the head). Women wrapped a
cotton rectangle around themselves, tying it over the shoulder, and they wore calf-length
skin boots. The Tohono O’Odham and Pima also wore cotton and animal-skin clothing, but
they favored hide sandals over moccasins. The Yumans, who wore minimal clothing,
preferred garments made from animal skins and woven bark, as well as hide sandals. Some
Southwest peoples also crafted sandals from woven plant fibers. The Apache and Navajo
originally wore deerskin clothing. In later centuries they adopted some of the dress customs
of Pueblo Indians.
C8 Religious Beliefs and Practices
C8a Gods and Legendary Beings
Southwest religions centered on an unseen world of gods and legendary beings. For the
agricultural peoples, the ritual calendar revolved around the growing cycle of corn; the
function of most rituals was to enlist the help of spiritual beings to bring good crops upon
which life depended. Central to the religions of nomadic peoples were mythologies relating to
natural forces and spirits thought to intervene in human affairs. Southwest nomads sought
the protection of the supernatural to cope with illness, shortage of game, drought, and other
matters of daily survival.
Among the Pueblo Indians, kivas provided an important space for their ceremonies and
rituals. An underground chamber, the kiva represented a primordial homeland, the place
from which the Corn Mothers—legendary ancestors of Pueblo peoples—entered this world. A
shallow hole set in the floor of the kiva, called a sipapu, symbolized the connection to the
spiritual world below. Ceremonies in kivas lasted as long as a week or more and included
singing and prayer.
Spiritual beings known as kachinas to the Hopi and by other names to other Pueblo Indians
were revered as bringers of rain and social good. Pueblo men carved wooden masks to
represent these spiritual beings in ceremonies. They also carved figures, called kachina dolls,
to teach their children about their religion.
The most powerful gods among the Tohono O’Odham and Pima were Earthmaker, who
created the Earth, and Elder Brother, who made the people out of clay and passed their arts
and crafts to them. Directed by their shamans, both peoples practiced a ceremony called the
Viikita, or harvest ceremony, every fourth year. In the Viikita, costumed and masked dancers
and clowns were believed to bring about tribal prosperity and good fortune. Shamans also
directed the religious practices of the Yumans, whose rituals were less elaborate than other
To attain the aid of supernatural forces, nomadic peoples made offerings to their gods and
spirits, which were often represented in ceremonies by painted and masked men. The ga’ns,
or mountain spirits, were important in Apache ceremonies. Men dressed up in elaborate
costumes to impersonate the ga’ns in dances in order to gain their protection. The men wore
kilts, black masks, tall wooden-slat headdresses, and body paint, and they carried wooden
swords. The Navajo believed in ghosts, thought to be the spirits of dead ancestors, and
witches, people who practiced magic.
C8b Sand Painting
The Navajo practiced sand painting, a ceremonial art in which colored powders made from
ground minerals and organic materials are trickled onto neutral sand, often for the purpose of
healing. Sand painters, under the guidance of shamans, typically created their mosaics on
the floor of a lodge at dawn. Using five sacred colors—white, black, blue, red, and
yellow—they depicted legendary beings and natural phenomena. At the end of the ceremony
the sand paintings were destroyed; no works were kept after sunset.
C9 Arts and Crafts
Southwest Indian women, especially of the Pueblo peoples, crafted elegant pottery from
coiled strips of clay. The pottery was polished and frequently painted with intricate geometric
patterns. Southwest peoples also made baskets in many shapes and sizes, often with
elaborate designs. The Apache, Navajo, Tohono O’Odham, and Pima were known more for
basket making than pottery making; Yumans crafted both.
C10 Post-Contact History
After the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés invaded present-day Mexico and conquered
the Aztec Empire in 1521, the Spanish began exploring northward. Reports of gold and other
riches in the Southwest convinced the Spanish viceroy in Mexico, then called New Spain, to
send an expedition to the region. From 1540 to 1542 a group of explorers led by Francisco
Vásquez de Coronado searched in vain for the legendary gold-studded Seven Cities of Cíbola.
Coronado never found these mythical cities, but his expedition came into contact with many
Southwest peoples. Spain soon established a military, economic, and religious presence in
In 1598 the Spaniard Juan de Oñate founded a settlement at San Juan Pueblo along the
upper Rio Grande, and he claimed New Mexico as a colony for Spain. After sacking the
villages that resisted, Oñate added much of the Rio Grande region to Spain’s dominions. At
about the same time, Jesuit missionaries began moving into present-day Arizona. In 1610
Santa Fe was founded near San Juan Pueblo to serve as the capital of New Mexico. Southwest
Indians, especially Pueblo peoples, were forced to accept Spanish rule and Roman Catholic
religious customs. Throughout the region the Spanish imposed the encomienda system,
which bound the Indians to work on Spanish ranches in virtual slavery. Southwest peoples
were also forced to work in textile and dye factories, and in silver mines.
In 1680 Pueblo Indians staged the Pueblo Revolt under Popé, a Tewa shaman of the San Juan
Pueblo, and the Spanish were driven out of the region. For a time Pueblo Indians lived free
from the Spanish yoke and followed their traditional ways. However, the Spanish recaptured
Santa Fe in 1692, and by 1696 they once again controlled most of the pueblos. The Spaniards
permitted more freedom of religion following reoccupation, however, and many Pueblo
Indians continued to practice their traditional kiva-centered religion as well as Catholicism.
Spanish missionaries soon were present among the Tohono O’Odham, Pima, and Yumans, in
addition to the Pueblo Indians. Bands of Apache and Navajo, as well as Comanche from the
southern plains, remained unconquered, however, and continued raids on the Spanish as well
as on Pueblo Indians.
Spanish rule in the Southwest lasted until Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821.
Mexico controlled the Southwest until it was forced to cede much of the region to the United
States in 1848 following the Mexican War; additional Southwest lands were acquired by the
United States after the Gadsden Purchase in 1853. Throughout this period the Apache
maintained their nomadic way of life. Many Navajo, however, became sheepherders and
master weavers after the introduction of domesticated sheep by the Spanish.
During and after the American Civil War (1861-1865), U.S. authorities attempted to pacify
militant bands of Navajo and Apache, who frequently raided the ranches of non-Indians for
livestock. In the mid-1860s the U.S. army destroyed Navajo orchards, seized Navajo flocks,
and rounded up militants, and the Navajo were relocated to eastern New Mexico. The Navajo
refer to this forced migration as the Long Walk. They were later allowed to return to
reservations in their ancestral homelands. Apache resistance ended with the surrender of
Apache chief Geronimo in 1886, and the last free Apache bands were moved onto
reservations. Other Southwest peoples were also resettled onto reservations in the late
In modern times the Navajo still hold many reservation lands in both New Mexico and
Arizona. The Apache retain smaller parcels, as do the Tohono O’Odham, Pima, and Yumans.
Many Pueblo Indians still live in their ancestral villages, a continuum from ancient times. The
Acoma Pueblo, located atop a mesa in west central New Mexico and founded in AD 1075, is
believed to be the oldest continuously occupied settlement in the United States. Today, many
Southwest peoples raise livestock, farm, and practice their traditional religious ceremonies.
The sale of traditional handicrafts frequently supplements income from agriculture. The
discovery of oil, natural gas, and rich mineral deposits on tribal reservation lands has helped
raise the standard of living for some, as have tourism and casino gaming.
D1 Land and Habitat
The California culture area includes roughly the present-day state of California as well as the
Lower California Peninsula, or Baja California. Two mountain ranges run north-south along
the California culture area: the Coast Ranges to the west and the Sierra Nevada to the east.
The Coast Ranges drop off to coastal lowlands along the Pacific Ocean in most areas. Between
the Coast Ranges and the Sierra Nevada, the San Joaquin River and Sacramento River form
a natural basin, the Central Valley. The climate is generally mild, with many days of warm
weather, especially in the south. Rainfall varies significantly from north to south, with the
forests in the north receiving the most and the deserts in the south the least. Bountiful plant
and animal life is found throughout much of the region.
The Sierra Nevada long provided a natural barrier to the movement of peoples. As a result,
Native Americans east of the Sierra Nevada practiced different ways of life and are often
included in the Great Basin or Southwest culture areas. Some Native American peoples just
south of California’s present-day northern border shared ways of life with peoples of the
Northwest Coast culture area and the Plateau culture area.
D2 Peoples and Languages
California was one of the most populous North American culture areas before European
contact, with numerous tribes and bands speaking more than 100 distinct languages. Many
California peoples spoke languages based on the Penutian and Hokan language stocks—older
language groups from which a variety of language families evolved. Penutian-based
languages were spoken by tribes in the north and north central regions, including the
Costanoan, Maidu, Miwok, Wintun, and Yokuts. Hokan-based languages were spoken by
tribes in the central and northern coastal areas, including the Achomawi, Atsugewi,
Chimariko, Chumash, Pomo, Esselen, Karok, Salinas, Shasta, and Yana. Hokan-based
languages were also spoken by the Diegueno and Kamia to the south.
Other major language families found in the north and north central regions included
Athapaskan, spoken by the Hupa and Tolowa, among others; Yukian, spoken by the Wappo
and Yuki; and possibly an offshoot of Algonquian, spoken by the Wiyot and Yurok. In the
south languages of the Uto-Aztecan family were spoken by the Tubatulabal, Kitanemuk, and
Serrano, as well as by the Mission Indians—tribes whose European names were taken from
the Spanish missions where they were relocated. The Mission Indians included the Cahuilla,
Cupeño, Fernandeño, Gabrieliño, Juaneño, and Luiseño, among others.
D3 Early Peoples
Little is known about the most ancient Californians, who were drawn in great numbers to the
region’s warm climate and plentiful food supply. The California culture area is thought to have
been a melting pot of tribes from other regions, based on the number of different languages
spoken there. For thousands of years California peoples practiced a hunting-gathering way of
life that persisted virtually unchanged until recent centuries. They hunted large and small
animals, fished, and collected nuts and wild grains.
D4 Diet and Subsistence
California had abundant resources to support a large Native American population without
agriculture. The dietary staple of California Indians was the fruit of the oak tree, the acorn,
collected in the fall. Acorn kernels were removed from their shells and placed in the sun to dry
out. They were then pounded into flour, which was rinsed repeatedly with hot water to
remove the bitter-tasting tannic acid. Acorn meal could be boiled into a soup or mush, or
baked into bread.
D4b Other Wild Foods
California peoples ate many other wild plant foods, including various nuts, seeds, berries,
greens, roots, bulbs, and tubers. Insects were also a food source. Grubs and caterpillars were
plucked from plants and boiled with salt. Grasshoppers, driven from fields into pits, were
collected and roasted.
California Indians hunted deer and small animals, especially rabbits, using bows and arrows,
clubs, and snares. They also hunted ducks, geese, swans, and other birds from boats with
nets or from blinds (camouflaged areas) with bows and arrows. On the Pacific Coast people
hunted sea lions, seals, and sea otters, and they fished a variety of species. Their fishing
methods included hooks and lines, spears, nets, and weirs. They also gathered clams, oysters,
mussels, scallops, and other shellfish.
D5 Social and Political Organization
Most Native Americans in the California culture area lived in villages of related families with
descent and property ownership traced patrilineally, or through the male line. A permanent
village often had temporary satellite villages nearby, presided over by one principal chief.
Anthropologists sometimes refer to these types of small, tightly integrated villages as
tribelets. Tribelets typically occupied a distinct territorial area, such as a river drainage, and
they were often relatively isolated from each other. Chiefs, as members of leading families,
usually inherited their positions. Most decisions made by chiefs involved economic matters,
such as how food would be collected and distributed. Some northern groups, including the
Yurok, lacked chiefs or other formal political structures.
D5b Peaceful Relations
Unlike peoples from other culture areas, California Indians did not have war chiefs, nor did
they bestow war honors. Raids were generally carried out for the purpose of revenge rather
than for acquiring food, possessions, or slaves. The great wealth of natural resources in
California stimulated extensive trading relationships among indigenous peoples. Strings of
disk-shaped dentalia (tooth-shaped mollusk shells) were used as a medium of exchange.
D6 Settlement and Housing
California peoples constructed many different kinds of dwellings, the majority to house a
single family. The most common design was cone-shaped, usually about 2.5 m (8 ft) in
diameter at the base. A pole framework was covered with brush, grass, reeds, or mats of tule,
a kind of bulrush. Other common dwellings included dome-shaped pit houses covered with
earth and lean-tos (shelters with a single slanted roof) covered with bark slabs. Some
northern California peoples built wood plank houses that resembled those found in the
Northwest Coast culture area.
The most common type of watercraft used by California peoples was the raft, made from logs
or from tule reeds. To make tule rafts, known as balsas, Indians wove reeds together into
watertight bundles. The bundles became waterlogged after repeated use, but they could be
reused after drying out in the sun. Some peoples, such as the Yurok, made simple dugout
canoes, carved from redwood logs. Another tribe, the Chumash, made the only plank boats
known among Native Americans. To do so, they lashed pine planks together with fiber
cordage and caulked the seams with asphalt.
D8 Clothing and Ornamentation
Because of the generally warm climate, most California Indians needed minimal clothing.
Men often went naked or wore animal-skin or bark breechcloths. Women wore fringed
animal-skin or shredded bark aprons in front and back. Headwear included basket hats,
hairnets of iris fiber, feather headbands, and feather crowns. Footwear included ankle-high
leather moccasins or sandals made from the yucca plant, although most California Indians
went barefoot year around. In cold weather, robes and blankets of rabbit skin, sea-otter fur,
or feathers were worn. Shell jewelry was widespread for ornamentation, as was the practice
D9 Religious Beliefs and Practices
For California peoples, spirits and spiritual forces infused all existence. Some spirits were
worshipped as god figures. Shamans were highly regarded for their ability to cure diseases,
often through the practice of sucking illness out of patients, and they were frequently seen as
aided by spirit helpers. Some groups had specialized weather shamans who attempted to
control weather, and animal or mythical shamans who impersonated particular animals and
The peoples of central California practiced the Kuksu religion, or Kuksu Cult. The principal
deity of this religion was Kuksu, who was surrounded by an array of lesser beings. Members
of the secret Kuksu Society wore elaborate feather or grass headdresses, both to conceal
their identities from women and children of the tribe and to impersonate spiritual beings in
order to acquire power. The Kuksu Society held its ceremonies in the winter months in hopes
of securing plentiful game and wild plant foods the following spring and summer. One of the
ceremonies, known as Hesi, was a four-day dance. Some participants drummed a beat for the
dancers, usually by stomping on a foot drum, while others chanted sacred songs.
D10 Arts and Crafts
California Indians crafted objects from stone, antlers, shells, wood, and ceramic, but they are
most famous for fine basketry. They wove many useful items from readily available grasses,
reeds, barks, and roots. These included containers, mats, traps, baby carriers, ceremonial
objects, games, hats, and footwear. They fashioned baskets of all sizes and shapes, from
large containers 1 m (3 ft) in diameter to tiny baskets no wider than a few centimeters.
Among some tribes as many as eight different kinds of baskets were made for holding and
processing acorns. Some peoples of the region, such as the Pomo, added intricate designs
and decorations with dyes, shells, and feathers.
D11 Post-Contact History
In the mid-1500s the Spanish explored the California coast by boat. English navigators soon
followed. Yet indigenous traditions endured until the colonizing expeditions carried out by the
Spanish in the late 1700s. In 1769 the Spaniard Junípero Serra, a missionary of the
Franciscan order of the Roman Catholic Church, founded a mission at San Diego in
present-day southern California. Before long, Serra and other Franciscans constructed a
string of missions northward along the Pacific Coast to San Francisco.
Peoples of many different tribes were rounded up and forced to work at the missions and to
accept Catholic teachings. The missions continued to operate until 1834, a decade after Spain
withdrew from California, which had become a formal territory of Mexico in 1825. Some
indigenous peoples fled to the interior and others revolted, although challenges to Spanish,
and then Mexican, authority were short-lived. European diseases brought by the Spanish also
had a devastating impact on California peoples.
The United States won control of California in 1848 after the Mexican War (1846-1848). The
discovery of gold in California that same year and the ensuing gold rush of 1849 further
disrupted the lives of indigenous peoples. Native Americans who did survive lost most of their
tribal lands. Modern-day California tribes now hold only small parcels, which are sometimes
referred to as rancherias.
Today, the state of California has a large Native American population. Especially since the
1950s and 1960s, many rural Native Americans have moved from reservations in other states
to urban areas in California, encouraged by U.S. government policies that supported
migration from reservations to towns and cities. A renaissance of traditional culture is
currently underway among many groups.
E Great Basin
E1 Land and Habitat
The Great Basin culture area is an arid inland region encompassing much of the western
United States. The Great Basin consists of a vast natural basin, with occasional rocky uplands
breaking up long stretches of mostly barren desert. The region is surrounded by mountains
and plateaus: the Sierra Nevada on the west; the Rocky Mountains on the east; the Columbia
Plateau on the north; and the Colorado Plateau on the south. The open expanse of the Mojave
Desert in the southwest portion of the region is the one exception.
The rivers and streams of the Great Basin drain from the flanking high country into the
central depression and disappear into sinks; the waterways thus have no outlet to the oceans.
The mountains to the east and west block the rain clouds, leading to low rainfall and high
evaporation. The Great Basin once contained dozens of enormous lakes, the remnants of
which include Great Salt Lake, Utah Lake, and Pyramid Lake, among others. These modern
lakes have a high salt content. In the western part of the Great Basin is found Death Valley,
where summer temperatures exceed 52°C (125°F). The sparse vegetation throughout the
Great Basin is called desert shrub, in which sagebrush is dominant with some piñon and
juniper trees in the higher elevations.
E2 Peoples and Languages
The nomadic tribes ranging throughout much of the sparsely populated Great Basin spoke
languages of the Uto-Aztecan family. The lone exception was the Washoe to the west
who—like some peoples of the California culture area—spoke a Hokan dialect. The major
Great Basin peoples were the Paiute, Shoshone, and Ute, with various subdivisions and
offshoots, including the Bannock, who branched off from the Northern Paiute. Although
dialects varied throughout the region, their similarity made it possible for different groups to
find common words to communicate.
E3 Early Peoples
Human settlers may have arrived in the Great Basin around 11,000 years ago, when the
prevailing climate was cooler and wetter. Lacking plentiful food resources, the indigenous
population remained sparse for thousands of years. Early peoples settled around lakes or
along rivers, where game animals were more abundant. As the warming climate dried up
marshes and lakes and larger game animals grew scarce, ancient settlers turned to hunting
smaller animals and collecting and processing a variety of wild plant foods. For millennia,
small bands of Native Americans managed to eke out an existence in the Great Basin.
E4 Diet and Subsistence
Life in the Great Basin was an unrelenting quest for food, water, firewood, and materials for
basic tools and utensils. The vast deserts supported few large game animals, so indigenous
hunters preyed upon available small game, including rabbits, rodents, snakes, lizards, and
birds. They were adept foragers and collected insects, grubs, seeds, nuts, berries, and roots.
They had to dig for much of their food—small mammals, reptiles, roots, and insects. As a
result, non-Indians who encountered these peoples often referred to them as Diggers.
The availability of food dictated whereabouts and activities in the course of a year. Some
food gathering was communal. Families would occasionally gather to drive rabbits and other
mammals into brush corrals where they were slaughtered. Grasshoppers were driven into
trenches with fire, roasted alive, and ground into flour. Peoples venturing into highland areas
hunted pronghorn antelope and mountain goats, fished rivers and lakes, and harvested pine
nuts from piñon trees.
E5 Social and Political Organization
Great Basin Indians adopted a nomadic lifestyle to exploit wild food resources as they
became available, and they had no permanent social group larger than the family. They
typically traveled in small bands of extended families without the formal organization and
shared rituals evident among other Native Americans. Band leaders of related families acted
more as advisers than as decision makers. When various bands gathered for hunting drives
in warmer weather, temporary leaders would be appointed. Some bands congregated for the
winter months as well.
E6 Settlement and Housing
Most Great Basin peoples lived in small, simple cone-shaped structures that were made of
willow pole frames and covered with brush, reeds, and grasses. Such dwellings were similar
to wickiups made by the Apache in the Southwest culture area. Some Great Basin Indians
also built larger huts and windbreaks using similar materials.
E7 Clothing and Ornamentation
Clothing was scanty among Great Basin Indians. Men sometimes went naked or wore
nothing more than a deerskin apron or loincloth; women wore overlapping front and rear
aprons of shredded bark. Most people went barefoot or wore sandals made from yucca,
deerskin, or rabbit skin.
E8 Religious Beliefs and Practices
Great Basin peoples believed in a spirit world and spirit beings, who communicated with
them through dreams and visions. Their shamans conducted rituals to locate food and heal
the sick, and they passed on mythological traditions through storytelling. The folklore of
many peoples included Wolf as the good brother who makes things and Coyote as the
trickster bad brother who disrupts things.
E9 Arts and Crafts
Many Great Basin Indians, like peoples in the California culture area, used baskets as both
carrying and cooking containers, although their baskets were typically less sophisticated. To
traverse large streams, they built bulrush floats to carry their belongings. They wove nets for
hunting small game from plant materials, and they made bows and arrows and clubs. Long,
hooked sticks were fashioned for pulling small animals from burrows. Some groups made
duck decoys using tule reeds covered with duck skins. In Ute society, arrow and spearhead
makers held a special place of honor.
E10 Post-Contact History
Much of the Great Basin is landlocked desert country, and Native Americans living there
avoided contact with non-Indians until later than tribes to their west and south. A Spanish
expedition ventured into what is now central Utah in 1776 and 1777. By then, some Ute
bands had traded with Pueblo Indians to the south for horses. They adopted a lifestyle similar
to tribes east of the Rocky Mountains, traveling onto the Great Plains as horse-mounted
hunters. Some Shoshone bands also took to the plains on horseback.
For most Great Basin peoples, the first contacts with outsiders that significantly altered
traditional ways of life occurred in the 1840s. At that time, many Euro-American migrants
began traveling through the Great Basin on their way to California. Other newcomers sought
land in the western interior for homes, including the Mormons who settled near the Great Salt
Lake in Utah. The Colorado gold rush that began in 1858 brought more settlers to the region.
A number of wars ensued in the 1860s and 1870s, in which indigenous peoples unsuccessfully
fought non-Indians in an effort to retain traditional lands and ways of life. In the following
decades, most Great Basin peoples were settled on reservations.
Today, the Ute retain the largest share of Native American lands in the Great Basin. They are
followed by the Paiute, who hold scattered parcels, then the Shoshone, Bannock, and Washoe.
Oil, gas, and mineral leases provide some income for present-day Great Basin peoples. Other
economically important activities include farming and raising livestock, casino gaming, and
the sale of traditional arts and crafts.
F Northwest Coast
F1 Land and Habitat
The Northwest Coast culture area encompasses more than 3,200 km (2,000 mi) of the Pacific
coast, from the panhandle of present-day southern Alaska to northern California. The width
of this narrow coastal region varies from about 16 km (10 mi) to 240 km (150 mi). It is cool,
damp, thickly forested, and cut by many rivers. Vancouver Island, the Queen Charlotte
Islands, the Alexander Archipelago, and other smaller islands off the Northwest Pacific coast
are part of the culture area.
Mountains run north-south along the eastern limits of the Northwest Coast. These include the
Coast Ranges in Canada and the Cascade Range in the United States. In some areas the
mountains extend to the ocean, forming rocky cliffs. In other regions the uplands drop
dramatically to inlets and rocky beaches. The region is characterized by mild wet winters and
cool summers. Evergreen forests thrive where there is soil enough to support them, and huge
trees form a dense canopy that blocks out much sunlight. The floor of the great Northwest
Coast forests is dark, damp, and covered with ferns and mosses. Springs and streams from
mountain glaciers feed numerous rivers, which run to the ocean. The forests are home to
abundant flora and fauna, and the rivers and sea teem with aquatic life.
F2 Peoples and Languages
Northwest Coast peoples spoke a variety of languages. The Haida and Tlingit spoke distinct
dialects thought to be related to the Athapaskan language family. Athapaskan peoples who
settled in the region included the Chastacosta, Chetco, Clatskanie, and a number of other
tribes. Languages based on the Penutian language stock were spoken by such tribes as the
Alsea, Chinook, Coos, Kalapuya, Siuslaw, Takelma, and Tsimshian. Other languages in the
region included those of the Salishan family, spoken by the Coast Salish and other tribes; the
Wakashan family, spoken by the Haisla, Heiltsuk, Kwakiutl, Makah, and Nootka; and the
Chimakuan family, spoken by the Chimakum and Quileute.
These various peoples settled throughout the Northwest Coast region. For the most part,
they did not cluster geographically according to language. Culturally, Northwest Coast
peoples can be divided into three groups: those of the colder northern area, including the
Queen Charlotte Islands of western British Columbia; those of the central region, in the
vicinity of Vancouver Island and the mouth of the Columbia River; and those of the warmer
southern region, who shared some cultural traits with peoples of the California culture area.
F3 Early Peoples
Evidence for the first settlement of the Northwest Coast is scarce, with the earliest
documented sites dating to about 10,000 years ago. Salmon has been an important staple for
Northwest peoples for at least 7,000 years, and by about 5,000 years ago indigenous peoples
began to exploit shellfish resources. After that time, Northwest Coast Indians gradually
learned to use marine and land resources more efficiently, and complex societies arose.
Indigenous peoples built numerous settlements, typically right at the ocean's edge on narrow
rocky beaches. The Northwest Coast became one of the most densely populated areas in all
of North America. Trading along the coast and inland up rivers was widespread, and
woodcarving and other crafts attained great sophistication and artistry.
F4 Diet and Subsistence
Northwest Coast Indians had more than enough food to support a dense population, even
without agriculture and extensive gathering of wild plants. The sea provided the primary
foods: seals, sea lions, and fish, including many species of salmon, halibut, herring, cod, and
flounder. Some tribes, such as the Makah, hunted whales. Northwest Coast peoples also
fished streams and rivers, especially when salmon left the ocean waters to lay their eggs.
Sometimes they ventured inland to hunt deer, elk, bear, and mountain goat. They learned to
dry their meat and fish with smoke to preserve them for the long winter months.
F5 Social and Political Organization
F5a Village Life
Villages and kin groups were central to the social fabric of Northwest Coast peoples. Indians
lived in clans, or groups of families claiming a common ancestor. Kin groups built villages,
and sometimes groups of villages were united by kin relations. There were no large,
integrated tribes, however, because kin groups typically remained politically and
economically distinct from other groups. Each clan was headed by a chief who determined the
timing of key ceremonies and rituals, and decided such things as when, where, and how
communal food resources would be harvested. Chiefs were village nobles, born to families of
high social status. Heredity also played a role in the passing of specialized crafts, such as boat
building, from generation to generation.
F5b Wealth and Status
Northwest Coast Indians, especially northern groups, had rigid class systems defined by
social status and property. Social rank was determined in part by birth, with those highest in
status closest to the direct line of descent from a common ancestor. Property included
ownership of food, blankets, canoes, slaves, and sheets of hammered copper, as well as the
right to a particular title, crest, or song. At the top of the social hierarchy were wealthy nobles.
Below the nobles were common people, and below them were slaves. Slaves were war
captives, people who had fallen in debt, and the children of slaves. The wealthiest nobles
were typically chiefs, or headmen, of the villages.
F5c The Potlatch
Among Northwest Coast peoples, great wealth was important mainly as a measure of what a
person could afford to give away in the potlatch ceremony. The term potlatch, as the gifting
custom is known, is taken from the Nootka word patshatl, which means “sharing.”
Traditionally held in the winter to dedicate a new house, raise a totem pole, or honor a
wedding, the potlatch included feasting, speechmaking, storytelling, singing, drumming, and
dancing. Some individuals saved for years in preparation and gave away many items, such as
animal furs and woven blankets. Generosity in the potlatch increased a giver’s rank within the
social group, and the gifting often meant a return in goods from others in reciprocal
F6 Settlement and Housing
Northwest Coast Indians typically situated their villages on the narrow beaches of the
mainland and islands, their homes facing the sea. They lived in rectangular plank houses
large enough to fit an entire extended family. Each family had a separate cubicle in the house.
Cedar was the building material of choice for plank houses. Huge cedar logs were used for
framing. Broad, hand-split planks, running either vertically or horizontally, were lashed to the
framework to make walls and gabled or shed (single-slope) roofs to keep out the frequent
rains. Cedar planks also served as flooring. Plank houses usually had central fire pits, and
platforms for sleeping and storage along the walls. Some houses had two levels. For
additional insulation from the cold, mats were hung on the inside walls. The fronts of the
houses were carved and painted with designs, sometimes with attached totem poles.
Northwest Coast peoples traveled up and down the coast in large dugout canoes for purposes
of trade, fishing, hunting, and slave-raiding. The seaworthy dugouts were made from giant
cedar logs, some as long as 21 m (70 ft) and able to hold 60 paddlers and passengers. They
made these large boats by alternately burning the interior of a log and chipping out the
charcoal with a stone adz. Dugouts were painted with totemic designs. High bows and sterns
were attached to the hull with cedar pegs and ropes. Equipped with hand-held bailers carved
from wood, the dugouts could weather even the roughest seas.
F8 Clothing and Ornamentation
Men often went unclothed or wore full-length tunics of woven plant fibers. They found bare
feet more comfortable in the damp coastal climate, but added deerskin leggings and
moccasins for overland travel. Round brimless hats or conical broad-brimmed ones made
from plant fibers kept off the rain. Blankets and fur robes, preferably made from light and
warm sea otter fur, gave protection from the cold. A woman’s basic garments included a
woven plant fiber skirt and sometimes a cloak. Headdresses were also worn, often made from
woven plant materials or bird heads and feathers. Tattooing was common among some
Some Northwest Coast peoples practiced head-flattening, considered a sign of beauty and
status. Infants would have their heads compressed on a board to produce a strong slope
leading to a distinctive peak at the top of the skull. They achieved this form by flattening
either the back of the skull or the forehead above the eyebrows.
F9 Religious Beliefs and Practices
The peoples of the Northwest Coast continually sought the protection of animal spirits,
chiefly the raven, bear, eagle, and beaver. Individuals sought visions of guardian spirits and
appealed to them if misfortunes occurred.
Religious life was dominated by shamans—who were believed to have great power over
spiritual forces—and their secret societies. Members of societies met in large sweat lodges
where they bathed in steam made from cold water thrown on heated rocks. There they talked,
sang, and conducted elaborate ceremonies, including masked dancing. Shamans conducted
special rites to cure the ill.
F10 Arts and Crafts
F10a Woodworkers and Weavers
Northwest Coast peoples were master woodworkers. They shaped giant wood plank houses,
totem poles, and dugout canoes. Haida and Kwakiutl carvers made wood chests, boxes,
masks, and utensils with stylized bird and animal designs. Similar designs in green, yellow,
black, and white were woven by Tlingit and Tsimshian women into blankets of mixed goat hair
and cedar bark. The famous blankets of the Chilkat, a subgroup of the Tlingit, were traded
throughout the area. Northwest Coast peoples also made exquisite baskets and spoons of
horn and shell.
F10b Totem Poles
Totem poles were common among Northwest Coast peoples. These were wooden posts
carved and painted with a series of symbols, including representations of the owner’s
guardian animal. Totem poles were typically erected to commemorate dead ancestors, with
the symbols confirming the lineage and social rank of the owner. Sometimes totem poles
were structurally part of a plank house; others stood alone. Most were made from cedar.
F11 Post-Contact History
Spanish and English ships first reached the Northwest Coast from the south in the late 1500s.
However, Europeans did not stake territorial claims in the area until the 1770s. In the Nootka
Convention of 1790, Spain surrendered its land claims to Britain. Most early contacts between
non-Indians and Indians were peaceful and fostered trade relations.
The arrival of fur traders to the Northwest Coast in the late 1700s—first Russian, then British
and American—initiated a period of extensive trade with indigenous peoples. The Russians,
who explored the region from the north, established trading posts along the Gulf of Alaska.
Contacts between Indians and non-Indians further increased with the U.S.-sponsored Lewis
and Clark Expedition, which reached the mouth of the Columbia River by land from the east
in 1805, and subsequent American and Canadian trade expeditions. In exchange for valuable
animal pelts, Northwest Coast peoples received steel axes, firearms, wool blankets, molasses,
and whiskey. However, the Tlingit resented Russia’s expansion in the region and attacked
Russian outposts, including the settlement of Sitka in 1802. Tlingit resistance, along with
increasing competition from British and American fur traders, contributed to Russia’s
eventual abandonment of the North American enterprise; they sold Alaska to the United
States in 1867.
Increasing contacts with foreign traders exposed indigenous peoples to many contagious
diseases and led to rapid population declines. In the mid-19th century, Northwest Coast
peoples were subjected to many new pressures as growing numbers of non-Indians from the
United States and Canada settled in the region. Non-Indians prospected for gold, sought out
new land for timber, farms, and homes, and attempted to spread Christianity among the
Native Americans. The completion of transcontinental railroads in the northern United States
and southern Canada in the late 1880s further increased non-Indian settlement in the
Northwest. Many indigenous peoples were forced onto small reservations. In modern times
Northwest Coast peoples have had to struggle for traditional land and fishing rights. They
have also rediscovered traditional practices, including arts and rituals.
G1 Land and Habitat
The Plateau culture area in western North America is an upland region that encompasses the
Columbia Plateau and the basins of the great Fraser and Columbia rivers. The Columbia
Plateau is flanked by the Cascade Mountains to the west, the Rocky Mountains to the east, the
desert country of the Great Basin to the south, and the forest and hill country of the upper
Fraser River to the north.
The mountains bordering the Columbia Plateau catch large amounts of rain and snowfall.
This precipitation drains into a great number of rivers and streams, many of which feed the
Columbia River that flows to the Pacific Ocean. The mountains and river valleys have enough
water to support forests of pine, hemlock, spruce, fir, and cedar. The plateau land between
the mountain ranges consists of flatlands and rolling hills covered with grasses and sagebrush.
The climate varies greatly depending on proximity to the ocean and altitude. Game animals
were generally small, except in the mountains. Nutritious tubers and roots could be found in
meadows and river valleys. Bountiful seasonal runs of salmon in the Columbia, Fraser, and
tributary rivers significantly enhanced the region’s available food supply.
G2 Peoples and Languages
The Plateau was not as densely populated as the Northwest Coast culture area to the west,
yet many different tribes inhabited the region. Two language groups were dominant. In the
southern regions, stretching from the Columbia River to the Great Basin, lived peoples who
spoke languages based on Penutian, a language stock that includes many language families.
Penutian-based languages were spoken by the Cayuse, Klamath, Klickitat, Modoc, Nez Perce,
Palouse, Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Yakama. North of the Columbia, extending into Canada,
the most common language family was Salishan (of uncertain stock). Dialects of Salishan
were spoken by many tribes, including the Columbia, Coeur d’Alene, Flathead, Kalispel,
Shuswap, and Spokane. Exceptions to this pattern were the Athapaskan-speaking
Stuwihamuk in the north; the Chinookian-speaking Wishram in the southwest; and the
Kutenai-speaking Kootenai in the northeast. Some linguists believe Kutenai is related to the
Algonquian language family.
G3 Early Peoples
Archaeologists have found ancient traces of human settlement in the Plateau region dated at
more than 10,700 years old. Early settlers lived along rivers and lakes, hunted a variety of
game, including deer and elk, collected wild plant foods, and possibly traded shells obtained
from the Pacific Coast. Fishing has a long history on the Plateau. Some groups may have
relied on salmon runs as long as 7,000 or 8,000 years ago, and fishing in the region appears
to have increased after about 5,000 years ago.
More than two dozen distinct tribal groups inhabited the Columbia Plateau at the time of
European contact. Collective ancestors of peoples speaking languages of the Penutian stock
probably settled the area before 8,000 years ago. Another group, ancestors of people of the
Salishan language family, may have arrived in the region about 3,500 years ago. Other
groups entered the region in later years. Chinookians probably migrated from the west,
Athapaskans from the north, and Algonquian-speaking peoples from the east. Indigenous
peoples who settled on the Plateau used the many rivers as avenues of trade, and contacts
among different tribes were frequent.
G4 Diet and Subsistence
G4a Master Fishers
The limited ground vegetation in the dry, rugged country of the Columbia Plateau supported
too few large game animals for them to be a staple food source. However, Plateau Indians
managed to survive without farming by fishing the rivers and by gathering wild plant foods in
the river valleys and on the grasslands. The most important of the many different kinds of fish
found in the rivers were the abundant salmon that swam upriver from the ocean in the spring
and summer months to lay their eggs.
Plateau Indians used many fishing techniques: They stood on riverbanks or on platforms and
thrust at fish with long-handled spears; they used nets, both handheld nets on long poles and
large weighted nets attached to floats; and they used small traps made from poles and brush,
as well as large enclosures called weirs. Much of the catch was dried in the sun or over a fire
for consumption during the winter months.
G4b Hunting and Gathering
Plateau peoples hunted a variety of game on the forested mountain slopes of the region,
including elk, deer, mountain sheep, and bear. On the lower dry flatlands of the Plateau they
hunted jackrabbits and occasionally pronghorn antelope. In the river valleys they harvested
wild berries, including blackberries and huckleberries. Plateau Indians collected edible roots
and bulbs from grasslands, including the camas plant, a kind of lily, as well as bitterroot, wild
carrots, and wild onions.
G5 Social and Political Organization
Villages, usually located along rivers, were the main social units for Plateau tribes. A village
typically consisted of five or six dwellings, each housing four to six families. Sociopolitical
organization was much looser than among Northwest Coast Indians, their neighbors west of
the Cascade Mountains, with Plateau peoples having fewer status distinctions and their
village chiefs having less power. Plateau chiefs, who frequently inherited their positions,
typically ruled through social consensus; outright coercion was rare. Among some Plateau
peoples, chiefs from different groups occasionally gathered to make decisions in council.
G6 Settlement and Housing
G6a Pit Houses
In cold weather, most Plateau peoples lived in pit houses. To construct a pit house, a large
post was placed in the center of a round excavated area, and numerous other poles were
extended from its top to the edge of the pit to form a conical framework. Then the roof poles
were covered with mats of cedar bark, sagebrush, grass, and other plants, as well as packed
earth. A hole at the top allowed smoke from open fires to exit.
G6b Temporary Shelters
In warm weather, Plateau peoples usually lived in temporary lodges. These structures
typically had basswood frames in the shape of a ridged tent or lean-to, and bulrush-mat
coverings. These warm-weather houses were easy to assemble and disassemble for moving
from one place to another, such as along rivers at salmon-spawning time or across the
flatlands at camas-digging time.
G7 Clothing and Ornamentation
Plateau men usually wore deerskin loincloths. Women wore front and back aprons or skirts of
shredded bark fiber similar to those of Northwest Coast Indians. In the west, both men and
women went barefoot. In the east, bison-skin or deerskin moccasins typical of Indians of the
Great Plains were worn. Fur robes were added for warmth in winter months.
G8 Religious Beliefs and Practices
For Plateau peoples, spirits and spiritual power infused all living things, as well as natural
phenomena such as thunder, mountains, rivers, and rocks. Individuals were believed to have
personal guardian spirits that offered protection from disease or misfortune. Each person was
considered responsible for carrying out rituals, ordeals, and offerings necessary to secure the
goodwill of these spirit helpers. Plateau shamans cured illness with the help of spirits or by
purging a patient of the bad spirit that was causing sickness.
Most Plateau communal ceremonies centered on rituals to ensure an abundant supply of food.
Salmon ceremonies, for example, celebrated their first arrival in the spring. After the first fish
was captured and eaten, its bones were returned to the water to guarantee abundant salmon
runs the following year. Many Plateau legends also involved food, and how animals were
punished for stinginess.
G9 Arts and Crafts
Plateau Indians wove exquisite baskets. For cooking, heated stones were placed in tightly
woven containers filled with water. Other baskets were made for collecting wild plant foods.
They also wove soft bags of marsh plants and adorned them with intricate designs. The
women were famous for their handsome basket hats, which they wove out of dried leaves and
other materials. Plateau Indians did not make pottery.
G10 Post-Contact History
The Plateau, like the Great Basin, was not explored by non-Indians until long after Europeans
reached North America. The Rocky Mountains blocked the route from the east, and mariners
missed the outlet of the Columbia River for centuries. In 1792 Robert Gray, exploring for the
United States, managed to travel a short distance up the great river. Then, in 1805, the Lewis
and Clark Expedition reached the mouth of the river along an overland route. Meriwether
Lewis and William Clark, with the Shoshone woman Sacagawea as a guide and translator, had
friendly contacts with more than 50 tribes of the Great Plains, Plateau, and Northwest Coast
culture areas. The good relations led to successful trade contacts in the following years, and
by the 1830s fur trappers known as mountain men had thoroughly worked the region. Their
efforts led to the establishment of the Oregon Trail, which brought growing numbers of
settlers to the region over the next decades.
Long before settlers arrived in the area, however, the traditional way of life of the Plateau
Indians had evolved to include horses, originally brought to North America by the Spanish. In
the early 1700s the Nez Perce—the largest tribe in the Plateau region—had acquired horses
through trade with tribes to the south. They rapidly became skilled horse-breeders and
trainers, as did other tribes of the Plateau, including the Cayuse and Palouse. Some groups
ventured east of the Rocky Mountains to hunt bison. On these forays they learned to make
large animal-hide tipis, like those of the Great Plains peoples, instead of the small mat tents
and lean-tos they had traditionally used when on the trail.
By the 1840s and 1850s, increasing non-Indian settlement in the Plateau area caused
friction as indigenous land rights were ignored. This led to outbreaks of violence between
non-Indians and indigenous peoples, including the Cayuse War (1847-1850). Conflict
continued until the late 1870s. One of the last battles waged was the unsuccessful fight of the
Nez Perce against the U.S. Army in 1877. During the late 19th century most Plateau peoples
were relocated to reservations.
Persistent warfare with non-Indians, the spread of European diseases, and the loss of fishing
sites and hunting lands brought about sharp declines in indigenous populations. Reservation
life, too, inflicted hardships on Plateau peoples. Modern tribes of the region continue to fish
the Columbia and its tributaries, and they have maintained some traditional ways of life.
Facing competition for fish resources, intertribal groups have organized to defend ancestral
H Great Plains
H1 Land and Habitat
The vast inland region of the Great Plains culture area stretches west from the Mississippi
River Valley to the Rocky Mountains and south from present-day central Canada to southern
Texas. It includes rolling, fertile tall-grass prairies in the east, where there is adequate rainfall
for agriculture, and the short grasses of the drier high western plains. Windy conditions are
common and changes in temperature can be dramatic. Summers are typically hot and dry,
and winters are long and harsh.
Some wooded areas interrupt the fields of grass, mostly stands of willows and cottonwoods
along the river valleys. In some places highlands rise up from the plains and prairies, such as
the Ozark Mountains in Missouri, the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming, and the
Dakota Badlands. The region is remarkable, however, for the extent and dominance of its
grasslands. For thousands of years tens of millions of American bison, more commonly known
as buffalo, found nourishment from the grasses of the Great Plains.
H2 Peoples and Languages
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, most occupants of the Great Plains lived along rivers in the
eastern regions. They were predominantly farmers who hunted bison and other game
seasonally to fill out their diets. Agricultural peoples at the time of European contact included
the Siouan-speaking Hidatsa and Mandan; the Caddoan-speaking Caddo, Pawnee, Tawakoni,
and Wichita; and a group that split off from the Pawnee, the Arikara. Scattered groups of
nomadic hunting peoples are thought to have made their homes on the Great Plains before
non-Indians explored them. These groups included, on the Northern Plains, the
Algonquian-speaking Blackfeet, who separated from other Algonquians and migrated to the
area from the east. On the Southern Plains were the Uto-Aztecan speaking Comanche, who
had separated from the Shoshone and migrated there from the northwest.
Other nomadic hunting peoples came to live on the Great Plains, most migrating to the region
in the centuries after European contact and the acquisition of horses by Native Americans.
They came for many reasons: to escape droughts in their homelands; because of increasing
non-Indian settlement in eastern North America; and most of all, to pursue the great bison
herds. Peoples who migrated onto the Great Plains from the east included the
Siouan-speaking Assiniboine, Crow, Ioway, Kaw, Ponca, Missouria, Omaha, Osage, Otoe,
Quapaw, and Sioux. From the northeast came the Algonquian-speaking Arapaho, Cheyenne,
Gros Ventre, Plains Cree, and Plains Ojibwa. From the northwest came the
Kiowa-Tanoan-speaking Kiowa and the Athapaskan-speaking Kiowa-Apache (a subgroup of
Apache) and Sarcee. The Tonkawa, who spoke a language that some scholars believe evolved
from Algonquian, are thought to have migrated onto the Plains from the east or south.
H3 Early Peoples
For thousands of years prehistoric peoples hunted the large herbivores that inhabited the
Great Plains, especially bison. Over time these peoples refined their hunting practices and
technology, and they exploited a broader range of available plant foods.
More than 2,000 years ago some central and eastern prairie peoples learned to raise crops
and make pottery, possibly from the groups of mound builders to the east. In contrast, the
nomadic peoples who lived year-round in the high western plains remained hunters and
gatherers because the dry, cold climate was unsuited for agriculture. By the time Europeans
arrived in the Americas in the late 15th century, the majority of Great Plains peoples were
villagers and farmers, or at least seminomadic farmers who lived in villages part of the time.
The densest settlements were along or near the Missouri River. As soil became depleted in
one area, they probably migrated up or down the river in search of new village sites.
The indigenous way of life now considered typical of the Great Plains culture area evolved
after contacts with Europeans and the spread of horses. These animals—brought to North
America by the Spanish in the early 16th century—made possible a new way of life on the
Plains. With increased mobility, village-dwelling farmers could become nomadic hunters
year-round. With time, many different tribal customs blended into common ones. By the 19th
century, dozens of tribes and bands of horse-mounted hunters dominated the Great Plains.
H4 Diet and Subsistence
After European contact, some Great Plains peoples continued to farm, and many groups
hunted a variety of game, fished rivers, and gathered wild plant foods. However, with the
spread of horses as a means of transportation to follow the seasonal migrations of bison
herds over great distances, bison meat became the staple food. It was eaten raw, roasted
over fire, or preserved. Indians made jerky by drying meat in the sun, and pemmican by
pounding dried meat with fat and berries. Great Plains peoples also ate the tongue, liver,
kidneys, bone marrow, and intestines of their kill. Buffalo chips (dried manure) provided a
common source of cooking fuel.
H5 Social and Political Organization
Most Great Plains tribes consisted of bands of related families, with several hundred
members. Tribal leadership was typically divided between a peace chief and a war chief or
war chiefs; both peace and war chiefs acted with the advice and consent of a council of other
tribal leaders. Peace chiefs tended to internal tribal affairs. War chiefs, usually younger men,
conducted warfare and led raids on enemies. The bands lived apart most of the year in their
own territories. In the summer months they gathered for communal bison hunts, ceremonies,
or councils. A tribe might share its hunting lands with friendly tribes, but protect them from
H6 Settlement and Housing
Plains Indians lived in a variety of shelters. The portable tipi (also spelled teepee or tepee)
became the most common dwelling for Plains nomads. To construct a tipi, either three or four
poles were used as the basic framework. They were tied together near the top and spread out
at the bottom to form a cone shape. Up to 20 additional poles were then propped against this
framework. A covering of bison skins sewn together with sinew was stretched around the
framework and held in place around the bottom edge with wooden pegs or stones.
An unfastened seam provided an entrance, with a hide or fur door stretched on a pole or on
a hoop. An opening at the top served as a smoke hole for the central fire. Three or four beds
were typically situated along the walls. The various openings of the tipi could be adjusted for
ventilation, and the bottom edge could be rolled up for increased airflow. A tipi could also be
sealed from the elements, with extra pelts added to the walls for insulation. The outer
coverings and inner linings were commonly painted with designs that represented spirit
beings, ancestors, family histories, and battle honors.
H6b Earth Lodges
Large communal earth lodges and grass lodges up to 15 m (50 ft) in diameter were common
among the tribes of the eastern prairies. Earth lodges were usually dome-shaped with a log
framework. This framework was covered with smaller branches or brush mats and then
packed with mud or sod. These dwellings were typical of the Arikara, Hidatsa, Mandan,
Pawnee, Ponca, and Osage. Grass lodges, with pole frameworks covered with grass or thatch,
were typical of the Caddo and Wichita.
H7a The Spread of Horse Culture
In 1659 the Spanish governor of the colony of New Mexico reported an attack by Navajo
(Diné) on horseback—the first documented use of horses by Indians in North America. During
the 1680 Pueblo Revolt in the Southwest culture area, Indians captured hundreds of horses
owned by Spanish colonists. By the mid-18th century, horse culture had spread to indigenous
peoples throughout western North America and had become the catalyst for a new culture,
that of the Great Plains. This relatively recent culture has often been portrayed as the typical
Native American way of life by many non-Indians.
H7b Adaptations to the Horse
Use of the horse among Native Americans revolutionized transportation, hunting, and
warfare. With horses, Great Plains tribes could readily travel great distances, pursue fleeing
bison, and attack their enemies at great speeds. Many groups originally used dogs to carry
possessions, attaching them to a type of sled known as a travois. These sleds had two poles
tied together in the shape of a V, the closed end resting on a dog’s shoulders and the open
end on the ground, with hide stretched between the poles for holding cargo. Horses enabled
Indians to use much larger travois and carry more possessions, as well as carry the sick or the
elderly or children if need be.
Most Great Plains Indians rode bareback, using a rawhide thong around the horse's lower jaw
as a bridle. Others rode on blankets or on small hide saddles stuffed with bison hair or grass.
Still others rode on more elaborate wooden saddles covered with deerskin and decorated with
beadwork, along with decorated stirrups and bridles. Leather and beadwork ornaments were
sometimes attached to bridles or draped over the horse's shoulders. Leather bags, known as
parfleches, were hung from saddles to carry food and possessions. Some Indians painted
their war horses with symbols, or trimmed and dyed their horses’ manes and tails, or placed
eagle feathers or ribbons in their manes.
Great Plains Indians eventually became some of the best horse riders in the world. They
could wield clubs, lances, and shields, or throw spears or shoot bows and arrows while in
motion. Horses became a sign of wealth, and some individuals were known to own as many
as 1,000 each. Native Americans also became skilled breeders, especially in the neighboring
Plateau culture area. They chose the fastest and most responsive animals for breeding.
H8 Clothing and Ornamentation
H8a Decorated Clothing
Peoples of the Great Plains had warm and cold weather clothing, made from bison, deer, and
other mammals. Designs on clothing, such as insignia on robes, often honored exploits in war
or had other specific meanings. In other cases, designs simply provided decoration. Dyed
quillwork, later replaced by beadwork, decorated bison-skin or deerskin shirts, vests,
leggings, dresses, boots, and moccasins. Fringes added another decorative element. Other
articles of clothing commonly seen on the Great Plains included leather breechcloths in warm
weather, and fur robes, caps, and headbands in cold weather.
H8b War Bonnets
A prevalent symbol of Native Americans through modern times is the eagle-feather
headdress, more commonly known as the war bonnet. Great Plains war chiefs had the longest
war bonnets, with black-tipped tail feathers of the male golden eagle representing exploits in
battle. The feathers were attached to a skullcap of bison skin or deerskin, with a browband
that was decorated with quillwork, beadwork, and dangling strips of fur or ribbons. Additional
downy feathers were tied to the base of the eagle feathers and tufts of dyed horsehair to their
After Great Plains peoples acquired horses, war became a central part of the Plains Indian
way of life. Plains Indians typically attacked an enemy to steal horses, seize hunting land, or
avenge the death of a fellow warrior in a previous skirmish. Fighting usually occurred among
small groups of warriors and rarely involved sizable tribal forces.
H9a Military Societies
Great Plains warriors often belonged to particular military societies. Each society—some of
them intertribal—had its own insignia, costumes, medicine bundles (wrapped parcels
containing objects of personal and spiritual significance), songs, dances, and code of
behavior. Some societies were open, with only an age requirement for membership. Others
were exclusive, and a warrior was invited to join based on his deeds in battle. Some of the
military societies, such as the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers or the Kiowa Ten Bravest, were known
and feared throughout the Great Plains.
H9b War Honors
Warfare offered an important way for Plains warriors to achieve social prestige and positions
of leadership. All the tribes accorded varying degrees of honor to warriors who performed a
graded series of war deeds. These included stealing the horse or weapons of an enemy, killing
and scalping him, or merely touching him without harming him. This last action, a custom
known by the French word coup, meaning “blow,” was considered among some groups to be
the most honorable because it was more dangerous to escape from a live victim than to kill
him. A weapon, such as a club, spear, bow or arrow, a specially crafted coup stick, or even the
hand might be used to make contact. Each returning warrior recited his deeds to the rest of
the camp while his comrades stood by to challenge him if he lied. The practice of reciting war
deeds was known as counting coup. Eagle feathers were awarded to warriors for each brave
deed. To be a council member or a chief, a warrior had to perform many brave deeds, which
were represented by the number of feathers in his war bonnet.
H10 Religious Beliefs and Practices
Great Plains peoples believed a mystical spiritual world existed below the surface of life. Most
peoples considered the Sun the most powerful of all the spirits, and they conducted rituals to
receive its blessings and protection. The Sioux also believed in a more generalized force
present in all things, animate and inanimate, similar to the Algonquian concept of Kitche
Manitou (“Great Spirit”), that they called Wakan or Wakanda. The seminomadic farming
tribes of the Eastern Plains had ceremonies surrounding agriculture in addition to those
emphasizing individual rites of passage and warfare rituals typical of the nomadic hunting
H10a The Vision Quest
The vision quest, a religious practice widespread among peoples throughout North America,
spread to tribes of the Great Plains and took on new forms. The term refers to the effort to
seek visions through sweat baths, isolation, exposure to the elements, fasting, and even
self-mutilation. Visions were understood as signs from the spirit world that could give
personal power, such as success in hunting and war, and convey purpose in life.
The quest for visions was usually undertaken in connection with an important event, such as
preparation for war or a boy’s passage into manhood. The resulting vision, often in a dream,
might be of an animal, ancestor, object, or natural phenomenon, such as a storm. After the
experience, a shaman helped the individual interpret the vision, which could reveal the future
or provide a guardian spirit. For a boy passing into manhood, the vision would give clues
about the name he should receive as an adult—in contrast to the name he was given at birth.
Afterward, a person might then carry a totemic object representing the vision, such as a part
of an animal, in a medicine bundle.
H10b Communal Ceremonies
The quest for visions played a part in a renewal ceremony common to many Great Plains
tribes. This ceremony was called the Sun Dance by the Sioux, the Offerings Dance by the
Arapaho, the New Life Lodge by the Cheyenne, and the Mystery Dance by the Ponca. The
varying rituals practiced by these tribes served similar purposes: to make contact with the
spirit world; to ensure good hunting; to bring victory in battle; to make marriages successful;
to heal the sick; to settle old quarrels; and to make new alliances.
This ceremony was typically held for a period of 8 to 12 days in the summer. Bands of Indians,
sometimes from different tribes, would set their tipis in a great circle. Many of the series of
rituals involved drumming, singing, and dancing. Tobacco was smoked from a sacred pipe
while participants met in council. Tribal members erected a pole—the focal point of the
ceremony—and placed a figure, usually of rawhide, at the top. In one vision-inducing ritual
men had skewers implanted in their chests that were tied to the pole with ropes. Blowing
whistles made from eagle bone and dancing to the drumbeat, participants danced backwards
until the skewers ripped their flesh. Other men carried out similar acts of self-mutilation, such
as dragging bison skulls attached to their flesh with skewers and rope, in an effort to
communicate with the spirits.
H11 Arts and Crafts
Great Plains Indians used a variety of materials for their arts and crafts. They shaped bows
and arrows from wood and carved elegant pipes from stone. Yet perhaps their most valuable
resource for creating tools and other objects was the bison. From bison skin they crafted tipi
coverings, shields, travois platforms, parfleches, blankets, and clothing—either in rawhide
form or softened into leather. They made thread and rope from bison hair and sinews, and
fashioned various tools from the bones. They made rattles and other ceremonial objects from
the hooves, horns, and skulls.
Great Plains women mastered the art of preparing hides. They stretched the skins on frames
or on pegs in the ground and scraped away the flesh. They then worked the rawhide to an
even thickness. To soften the hide into leather, they applied to it a mixture of ashes, bison fat
and brains, and various plants, and then soaked it in water. Sometimes hair was left on the
hides for warmth.
H12 Post-Contact History
The development of the Great Plains culture area is unique among all the culture areas
because the indigenous way of life evolved after Europeans reached the Americas. Some
indigenous peoples had contacts with non-Indians before migrating onto the Great Plains
from other regions. Other peoples avoided all interaction with the newcomers. Yet they too
were affected indirectly through barter with other peoples who traded with or raided
non-Indians. The first horses on the Plains, for example, were obtained from Southwest
peoples in the 1600s—before non-Indians reached the area. European diseases also probably
first reached Great Plains Indians through other indigenous peoples who came into contact
with European explorers.
During the colonial period, eastern prairie Indians acquired guns from French and English
trading posts in the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys. Horse-mounted Indians with firearms
could kill far more bison than those traveling on foot with spears and bows and arrows;
surplus food and hides were traded with non-Indians. By the mid-18th century, the prospect
of good bison hunting had drawn many tribes from other areas to the Great Plains. At the
same time, following the route pioneered by the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806) up
the Missouri River, fur traders began to have extensive contacts with Great Plains peoples.
Before and during the American Civil War (1861-1865), much of the non-Indian activity on
the Great Plains was transient, with traders or migrants to California and Oregon passing
through. However, the number of migrants sharply increased after the discovery of gold in
California in 1848. The horses and cattle of the pioneers ate the grass needed by the bison
and frightened them away, and many bison were shot by non-Indians for food and sport. In
retaliation, Indians stole animals from the pioneers and sometimes wiped out entire wagon
trains. The U.S. government responded by building a chain of forts across the Great Plains
and by assigning the U.S. Army to patrol the main wagon routes. In addition, beginning in the
1830s many indigenous peoples from the eastern United States were forced to relocate
westward to the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). This resettlement also affected
the migratory hunting patterns of some Great Plains Indians.
After the Civil War ended, the U.S. government began a highly organized campaign to pacify
nomadic and warlike Great Plains peoples and to force them onto reservations. Meanwhile,
large numbers of settlers continued to move west, and a great many settled permanently on
the Great Plains. Beginning in the 1870s, professional hide hunters equipped with large
caliber guns contributed to the rapid destruction of the last major bison herds. Hostilities
intensified among Indians and settlers. The Great Plains wars reached a climax in the 1870s,
with such famous clashes as the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn—the last major Indian
victory in U.S. territory. However, the U.S. Army soon rounded up most of the remaining
nomadic Indians and put them on reservations. The annihilation of the great bison herds
upon which Plains nomads lived—a process completed by the early 1880s—gave Plains
peoples little choice but to remain on the reservations. The so-called Ghost Dance Uprising,
a religious movement in which Indians of various tribes sought to gather and dance to bring
back the bison and their earlier way of life, led to a massacre of one band by U.S. soldiers at
Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890. This event marked the end of organized Native
American military resistance in the United States.
Some Native American unrest occurred on the Canadian Plains as well, but to a lesser degree.
Attempts to eradicate Plains Indian culture in the United States and Canada through the early
1900s failed, and indigenous peoples endured. Today, many Great Plains peoples still live on
reservations, where they keep cattle and tend fields; some receive income from leases to
non-Indian cattle ranchers and mining interests and, more recently, casino gaming. Although
many contemporary Indians living in the Great Plains suffer from poverty, they still proudly
maintain their traditions.
I1 Land and Habitat
The Subarctic culture area is an immense region that stretches from present-day inland
Alaska to the Atlantic coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. Most lands in the Subarctic are
within the continental interior; the only coastal areas are found along the Atlantic coast and
on Hudson Bay. Most of the Subarctic has thick pine forests with some broadleaf trees, called
taiga; it opens up on flat, treeless arctic plains, called tundra, on its northern edge. Because
of minimal topsoil, most trees in the Subarctic are scraggy and short. In addition to
woodlands, the Subarctic contains thousands of lakes, ponds, swamps, rivers, and streams.
Mosquitoes and black flies breed in the swamplands. Winters in the Subarctic are long, with
deep snow covering the woodlands and thick ice on the lakes. Short summers and poor soil
conditions make agriculture impractical.
I2 Peoples and Languages
At the time of European contact, Subarctic peoples were linguistically separated into two
groups. Peoples native to the western Subarctic spoke Athapaskan languages. They included
the Chipewyan, Beaver, Kutchin, Ingalik, Kaska, and Tanana, among others. In the eastern
Subarctic lived Algonquian-speaking groups, including the Cree, Algonquin, Montagnais,
Naskapi, and some bands of Ojibwa (Chippewa). The Churchill River extending northeast to
Hudson Bay from western Saskatchewan formed the approximate dividing line between these
language groups. The Beothuk of Newfoundland and Labrador were the only exception to this
linguistic pattern. They spoke a language known as Beothukan, which some experts believe
was distantly related to the Algonquian language. The geographic distribution of the two
language families has led some scholars to divide the Subarctic culture area into the Western
Subarctic and Eastern Subarctic.
I3 Early Peoples
Nomadic bands of hunters first roamed the Subarctic region at least 8,000 years ago
following game animals, including herds of caribou. There were few peoples in this vast,
rugged, and often cold landscape. The peoples of the eastern Subarctic, those of the
Algonquian language family, probably arrived in the region first, possibly before 5,000 years
ago. They migrated from the west or from the south in ancient times. The majority of their
ancestral relatives came to live in the more forgiving environment of the Northeast culture
area to the south. The peoples of the western Subarctic, those of the Athapaskan language
family, were probably among the last peoples to arrive in the Americas, reaching the
Subarctic perhaps about 3,000 years ago. Some Athapaskan peoples eventually migrated
southward to warmer climates, including the Apache and Navajo (Diné) of the Southwest
culture area sometime before AD 1500. Yet most Athapaskan groups remained in the rugged
I4 Diet and Subsistence
Lacking agriculture, Subarctic peoples lived mainly by hunting. A staple for many bands was
the caribou (a North American reindeer), and life revolved around the seasonal migrations of
caribou herds. In the spring Subarctic hunters gathered at the edge of the taiga to intercept
the animals as they migrated onto the treeless tundra to the north. In the fall some groups,
such as the Chipewyan, returned to hunt the caribou on the animals' southern migration.
They used bows and arrows and spears; they drove caribou into corrals made of brush; they
snared animals with ropes strung between two trees; and they attacked them from canoes as
the animals swam across a river or lake.
Subarctic peoples boiled the fresh caribou meat in water-filled caribou-skin or birchbark
containers by adding heated stones. Little from the animal was wasted. They ate the head
and the stomach with all its contents. Some of the meat was made into pemmican (dried and
pounded meat mixed with fat and berries), which was packed into caribou intestines—much
like modern-day sausage—and carried on the trail. The hide of the caribou was cured to make
tents, clothing, and thongs. The bones and antlers were shaped into tools.
I4b Other Wild Foods
Subarctic Indians hunted many other animals, large and small, besides caribou. Large game
included moose, deer, musk oxen, mountain sheep, and, in more southern latitudes, bison.
Small game included beaver, mink, otter, porcupine, rabbit, squirrel, and waterfowl. Many
hunters used dogs to stalk game animals and keep them at bay.
Subarctic peoples also fished from land and from canoes using lines and hooks, barbed
arrows, spears, nets, and enclosures called weirs. They preserved some of the catch with
smoke or by drying it in the sun to provide convenient food for the trail. Peoples west of the
Rocky Mountains, in the area drained by the Yukon River, ate more salmon than meat from
large game animals, a practice shared with peoples of the Northwest Coast culture area.
Wild plant foods, including seeds, berries, and bark, supplemented the Subarctic diet. Some
tribes, such as the Chipewyan, made moss into a soup and ate fermented lichens found in
I5 Social and Political Organization
Because of limited food resources, Subarctic groups generally remained small. They traveled
in hunting bands united by kinship and dialect, sometimes as families and sometimes as
loosely knit groups of extended families. Chiefs were chosen for hunting skill and bravery.
They had little power beyond their own families, apart from the authority to settle disputes
and lead war parties.
Women did most of the hard work around camp. They made fires, prepared food, and cured
animal hides to make leather. When it was time to move camp, women hauled most of the
provisions, putting supplies on their backs or pulling sleds called toboggans. When food ran
out, women were the first to go hungry. A man without any relatives might attach himself to
a family as a servant. The old and sick might ask to be strangled to spare their families the
task of providing for them.
I6 Settlement and Housing
The most common dwelling used by Subarctic peoples was a small cone-shaped tent with a
pole framework covered with animal skins or birchbark. These dwellings resembled a cross
between the tipi of the Great Plains and the wigwam of Northeast Indians. Smoke holes were
left at the top. Easily assembled and transported lean-tos of poles, brush, and leaves were
also common, especially in the western Subarctic region.
I7a Snowshoes and Toboggans
In the winter Subarctic peoples relied on snowshoes for transportation. The snowshoes of the
Subarctic were generally long and narrow, but had variations depending on the type of snow
most encountered. The frames and crossbars of snowshoes were made from spruce, birch, or
willow, with the snowshoe tips bent up to prevent them from snagging on brush buried under
the snow; webbing was made from animal hide, sinew, or gut. Subarctic peoples invented the
toboggan, a type of flat-bottomed sled without runners pulled by hand or by dogs. A
toboggan’s wooden platform was curved up in front to facilitate pulling heavy loads in deep
I7b Birchbark Canoes
In warmer weather, groups in both the western and eastern Subarctic crafted birchbark
canoes similar to those found among indigenous peoples of the Northeast culture area, but
with varying designs. Canoes made by Kutchin peoples had flat bottoms and nearly straight
sides. Beothuk canoes had sides that curved up and met at a point in the middle as well as at
the ends, giving them the shape of a shallow W when viewed from the side. Some tribes used
the more plentiful spruce bark for their canoes. To propel their boats, Subarctic peoples used
I8 Clothing and Ornamentation
Subarctic peoples made trousers, leggings, shirts, dresses, capes, robes, headbands,
mittens, and moccasins from the skin and fur of mammals, especially caribou and moose.
Feathers, seeds, shells, and quills were used to decorate clothes and for jewelry. Some
peoples colored their faces with red ochre and black lead or with tattoos.
I9 Religious Beliefs and Practices
Subarctic peoples—like Native Americans throughout North America—believed that spirits
lived in all things: in plants, in animals, and in natural phenomena such as landforms or
weather. To navigate within this spirit world, Subarctic Indians enlisted the help of good
spirits to find game or avoid evil spirits and unseen dangers. Sometimes friendly spirits might
appear to a person in a dream. Spiritual assistance was also obtained through divination
techniques such as scapulimancy, in which the cracks in scorched animal bones were studied
to learn the location of prey. Shamans carried out rituals centered on summoning friendly
animal spirits to provide good fortune or heal the sick. Among some groups, shamans
attempted to remove disease-causing agents by sucking them out of a patient’s body.
Subarctic peoples also believed in supernatural beings that terrorized the forests. One
character in Algonquian folklore was Windigo, an Ojibwa name, known by other names in
other tribes. According to legend, Windigos were giant cannibals with long jagged teeth
protruding from lipless mouths and hands in the shape of claws. They sought out human flesh
and caused the disappearances of hunters. Windigos were also believed capable of
possessing people and making them crave human flesh. Windigo legend is thought to have
evolved as a taboo against cannibalism, which might be a temptation to peoples in lands
where food was scarce.
I10 Arts and Crafts
Subarctic peoples crafted useful items from leather, wood, stone, and bone. Some peoples,
such as the Chipewyan, also worked in copper. They used annealing techniques (alternate
heating and hammering) to work copper nuggets from the soil into a desired shape. They
fashioned a variety of copper tools, including knives, axes, scrapers, arrowheads, spearheads,
awls, drills, and chisels. They also traded raw copper to other tribes for food, shells, and other
I11 Post-Contact History
In the Subarctic, non-indigenous settlement generally proceeded from east to west. In the
colonial period, the southeastern Subarctic tribes, such as the Algonquin, Ojibwa, and Cree,
felt the greatest impact from European exploration and settlement, as did the Canadian tribes
of the Northeast culture area. The growth of the fur trade, marked by the founding of the
Hudson's Bay Company in 1670 and the North West Company in the 1780s, led to
non-indigenous exploration of much of Canada. Non-Indian traders rarely settled in Subarctic
wilderness areas. As a result, few Indian wars erupted in the region compared to in the United
States, where settlers claimed Indian lands for homes and farms. However, Subarctic peoples
did not escape the cultural disruptions caused by the spread of European diseases and the
trade in alcohol.
From 1850 to 1923 the Canadian government and Subarctic peoples enacted a series of
treaties that gradually reduced tribal landholdings. The Klondike gold rush in Canada’s Yukon
Territory in the 1890s brought growing numbers of non-Indians onto Indian lands. The gold
rush affected Native Americans in Alaska as well, although peoples in remote regions saw few
settlers until the 20th century.
Canadian Indian policy evolved over the years from an effort to acculturate and assimilate
indigenous peoples to one supporting indigenous self-determination and cultural expression.
Unlike in the United States, where some Native Americans control large reservations,
Canadian Indians hold few large parcels of land. First Nations—as Indian groups are now
referred to in Canada—are more likely to hold many small, scattered parcels. Following the
passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971, indigenous communities in
Alaska organized into several hundred village corporations and 12 regional profit-making
corporations. The corporations manage lands granted to the Indians by land claims, with
individuals enrolled as shareholders of the corporations. Many Subarctic Indians continue to
hunt in the tradition of their ancestors, but they generally do so using modern technology.
J1 Land and Habitat
The Arctic culture area reaches across present-day northern Alaska and Canada, and
includes portions of northeastern Siberia and coastal Greenland. Much of the vast, treeless
arctic plains, called tundra, are frozen and snow-covered, with temperatures below -18°C
(0°F) for seven or eight months of the year. Winters are long and severe, with few hours of
daylight. The Arctic region’s craggy coastline touches upon three oceans: the Pacific, the
Arctic, and the Atlantic. The Arctic Ocean freezes over in winter and then breaks up into drift
ice during the brief summer thaw. Thousands of islands are found offshore.
The Arctic is actually a frozen desert with little precipitation. Gale-force winds stir up what
surface snow exists, creating intense blizzards and enormous drifts. The Arctic’s extreme
environment has little vegetation other than mosses, lichens, and scrub brush, and it is
unsuited for agriculture. Few peaks, other than the northernmost Rocky Mountains in the
west, rise above the rolling plains. The subsoil stays frozen all year in a condition known as
permafrost, and the water on the surface does not drain, resulting in numerous lakes and
ponds along with mud and fog.
J2 Peoples and Languages
The indigenous peoples of the Arctic culture area spoke dialects from only one language
family, known variously as Eskimaleut, Eskimo-Aleut, Eskaleut, and Inuit-Aleut. This
language family is considered part of the American Arctic-Paleo-Siberian language stock,
with related dialects spoken by indigenous peoples in Siberia. Aleut and Inuit peoples can be
organized into four groupings at the time of European contact. Moving west to east these
groups included, first, the peoples of the Aleutian Islands off Alaska, with the Atka Aleut
occupying the eastern Aleutians and the Unalaska Aleut the western islands. Second were
Alaskan Inuit peoples, including the North Alaska Inuit, West Alaska Inuit, South Alaska Inuit,
and Saint Lawrence Island Inuit, with the Mackenzie Inuit of the Yukon and Yuit of Siberia
sharing similar ways of life. Third were the Central Inuit, including the Netsilik Inuit, Iglulik
Inuit, Copper Inuit, Caribou Inuit, Southampton Inuit, Baffinland Inuit, and Labrador Inuit. A
fourth group beyond North America was the Greenland Inuit, including the Polar Inuit, West
Greenland Inuit, and East Greenland Inuit. All these groups consisted of numerous bands
with distinct identities.
Although Arctic peoples shared many ways of life, there were significant variations across the
four main groups. In cultural terms, the Central Inuit practiced ways of life often considered
typical for Arctic peoples. They lived in snow houses called igloos, traveled in lightweight skin
boats called kayaks, and used sleds and dog teams. However, one Central Inuit group, the
Caribou Inuit, were an inland people who hunted the animals for which they are named and
fished freshwater lakes. Their way of life was similar to that of peoples of the Subarctic
culture area. The Copper Inuit, another Central Inuit group, were unusual in that they used
copper surface nuggets found in their territory to craft tools. The Inuit of southern Alaska had
regular trade contacts with Athapaskan Subarctic peoples, among other Indians, and adopted
some of their customs. The Aleut, because of their location on the Pacific Coast and frequent
contact with coastal peoples to the south, exhibited some cultural traits similar to those found
in the Northwest Coast culture area.
J3 Early Peoples
People settled the upper regions of North America relatively recently. Many of these settlers
probably arrived from eastern Siberia sometime after about 4,500 years ago, although some
inhabitants of the Aleutian Islands were there as early as 8,000 years ago. Anthropologists
believe that prehistoric ancestors of Arctic peoples did not cross the ancient Bering Strait land
bridge that once connected Asia and North America—as many of the ancestors of other Native
Americans are thought to have done (see Migration to the Americas). Instead, they most
likely traveled in skin and wooden boats, or perhaps on ice floes. They appeared in North
America in a series of migrations and gradually moved eastward. The earliest Arctic peoples
belonged to the Old Dorset culture, which was absorbed by a later group, the Thule Inuit,
between about AD 1000 and 1300.
The peoples of the far north were of a different stock than other Native Americans. They
were generally shorter and broader in stature with a rounder face, lighter skin, and a small
fold of skin covering the inner corner of the eye typical of Asian peoples. They came to be
known historically as Eskimo and Aleut. However, the modern descendents of the Eskimo
prefer the term Inuit, which means “the real people.” The term Eskimo was given by
Algonquian peoples and means “raw meat eaters.” Variations for Inuit (singular, Inuk) in
Alaska are Inupiat (singular, Inupiaq) in the north and northwest and Yupik in the southwest
and on Saint Lawrence Island. The Aleut are also known as Alutiiq.
J4 Diet and Subsistence
Arctic peoples adapted remarkably well to the harsh environment and meager resources of
the far north. Hunting provided the primary means of subsistence. Dogs, used for hunting
and hauling, helped Arctic peoples survive. Along the coasts sea mammals—seals, sea lions,
sea otters, walruses, and whales—provided the main staple foods. Inland groups hunted
caribou. Other game included polar bears, musk oxen, mountain sheep, wolves, wolverines,
foxes, rabbits, marmots, squirrels, and waterfowl. Fishing supplemented the diet.
Hunting methods were varied and ingenious. Arctic hunters harpooned seals or other sea
mammals from boats or snuck up on them on ice floes and used harpoons or nets. They also
used dogs to locate seals by sniffing out their breathing holes in the ice. They attached
inflated buoys to harpoons used for hunting whales to tire the animals and make them easier
to kill. Caribou hunters, equipped with bows and arrows, hid in snow pits to surprise the
animals, or they drove caribou herds into corrals. For small game Arctic peoples used bolas,
weighted ropes thrown at animals to entangle them. They also learned to conceal dried and
folded whalebones in pieces of fat, which would unfold and kill animals when the fat was
eaten and digested.
Fishing methods in the Arctic included the use of hooks and lines, lures, harpoons, and
leisters (spears with three prongs, one for penetrating and two for grasping the catch). Arctic
peoples fished from skin boats and through holes in the ice, and they used weirs made from
stones to trap fish. Some bands were able to forage roots and berries, but there was
generally little edible vegetation in the Arctic other than mosses and lichens. Meat was often
eaten raw because fuel for adequate heating was scarce.
J5 Social and Political Organization
J5a Inuit Extended Families
For the Inuit the extended family was the most important unit of sociopolitical organization.
Villages were loosely knit and democratic. If the food supply in a region ran out, people
abandoned their villages and formed new ones elsewhere, sometimes with other families.
The Inuit had special kinds of partnerships with nonfamily members, and these helped
maintain a cohesive community. Men had sharing partners, with whom they shared food.
They also had song partners, with whom they performed ceremonies. Song partners
sometimes even shared wives. And both men and women had name partners, people of the
same name with whom they exchanged gifts.
J5b Aleut Chiefdoms
The Aleut maintained more permanent villages than the Inuit, and they had village chiefs
with significant political power. Chiefs were typically recruited from the noble class. Under the
nobles were commoners and slaves. Like peoples of the Northwest Coast culture area, the
Aleut were concerned with rank and wealth, and they demonstrated their personal
importance through their possessions, including furs, amber, and shells. Unlike Northwest
Coast peoples, however, they did not practice the gifting custom known as the potlatch.
J6 Settlement and Housing
Inuit lived in igloos, hide tents, and sod huts. The igloo—the most widely recognized Inuit
dwelling—was actually used only by the Central Inuit and only in the wintertime. Also called
a snow house, it was constructed from blocks of ice laid in an upward spiral from a base and
leaning slightly inward to form a domed shape. Soft snow was used to cover the blocks of ice
for additional insulation. A hole at the top provided ventilation, and a block of clear ice served
as a window. A platform of ice, covered with fur, was used as a bed. Igloos normally had a
covered passageway as an entrance, as well as a smaller domed storage room. Sometimes a
third dome, with its own attached passageway, was added as a separate bedroom.
J6b Other Dwellings
In summertime the Central Inuit used tents made from driftwood poles and caribou-hide
coverings. Alaskan Inuit built year-round houses from either stones and sod or logs and sod,
either circular or rectangular and often partially buried. Sometimes driftwood and whale ribs
were used in framing, and intestines of whales and other sea mammals were used as
windows. Some groups built aboveground wooden homes. Stone lamps that burned oil from
sea mammal fat provided heat and light. The Aleut lived in barabaras, large communal pit
houses with roof beams made from driftwood or whale bones and walls made from chunks of
sod. The smoke hole or a separate passageway served as an entrance.
Arctic peoples had to adapt to unique travel conditions over stretches of ice. Some Inuit used
crampons (spikes attached to their boots) for traveling on the ice. They walked with test
staffs, shafts resembling ski poles, to judge the thickness and strength of the ice. Other
groups traveled on snowshoes similar to those used by Subarctic peoples to the south.
The Inuit invented the kayak, a light, narrow, and maneuverable boat with an enclosed
cockpit and propelled by a double paddle. Kayaks were crafted by stretching oiled hides from
sea mammals over wooden or whale rib frameworks. Most were designed for a single person,
but some had a front seat for a passenger, such as a harpooner. Aleut baidarkas, similarly
made, typically had two cockpits. They were short, with the bow curved upward and the stern
squared off. Some bows were shaped like a bird's open beak. Inuit umiaks were large, open
flat-bottomed boats made from similar materials as kayaks and designed to hold eight to ten
people at a time.
To make their sleds, known in some dialects as komatik, Inuit lashed together wooden
frames with strips of rawhide and attached either slats of wood or large pieces of rawhide as
raised platforms. They shaped the runners from wood or bone and applied a coating of ice or
frozen mud and moss to them. Teams of huskies were frequently used to pull the sleds,
although hunters traveling on ice floes sometimes pulled them. Hunters frequently attached
kayaks to sleds with the runners facing up. On reaching water the sleds could then be turned
upside down and the kayaks used without being detached.
J8 Clothing and Ornamentation
Inuit clothing offered protection from the cold and was comfortable to wear. Parkas, pants,
mittens, stockings, and boots were crafted in a variety of styles and materials.
Water-resistant sealskin was ideal for summer rains and hunting at sea. Caribou skin was
warmer and lighter weight and offered better protection against the dry cold. Dog, squirrel,
marmot, fox, wolf, wolverine, and polar bear hides and furs were also used, along with bird
skins and feathers. Sea mammal intestines were sometimes sewn together in place of hides.
Hooded parkas—another invention of the Inuit—were worn with the fur facing inward and
were tailored to the contours of the body to keep out cold air at the waist, neck, and wrists.
Some parkas had double layers. Boots, known as mukluks, and mittens were insulated with
fur, down, and moss. Fur, leather fringes, embroidery, and ivory buttons served as
decorations. Some Inuit, mostly women, wore jewelry, such as ear pendants, nose rings, and
labrets (lip-plugs or chin-plugs, placed in slits cut in the flesh) made of ivory, shell, wood, or
sandstone. Tattoos were also common.
Aleut clothing, made from hides and intestines, also offered efficient protection from the rain
and cold. Their parkas, like those of the Inuit, had hoods. Intricate decorations made from
hair bristles and animal skin dyed different colors were added to clothing. Aleut hunters wore
wooden helmets with long visors that were decorated with ivory and sea lion whiskers.
J9 Religious Beliefs and Practices
Innumerable spirits and powerful gods populated the religious universe of Arctic peoples.
Many of these supernatural figures were connected to survival in a harsh land. Since the sea
sustained many Arctic peoples, Sedna, the sea goddess, was the supreme deity for most
Central Inuit groups. Among the Caribou Inuit, the principal deity was Mother of Caribou.
Many Arctic peoples believed that all living things were endowed with a spirit or soul. Respect
was paid to the soul of an animal killed by a hunter to ensure the soul would one day reappear
in another animal willing to forfeit its life to humans. If proper respect was not given, the
animal’s soul might turn into a destructive demon. Human souls, too, were believed to live on
after a person’s death. Death taboos, including a strictly enforced period of mourning in which
no work could be done, were respected to prevent souls of the deceased from turning into
wicked spirits. It was also believed that the souls of living persons could become lost or stolen
by evil forces, causing sickness or madness. To cure illness, Inuit shamans, or angakok,
might be called upon to help retrieve a patient’s soul.
The Inuit built large ceremonial houses called kashim, a Russian word for an Inuit term.
Within kashim, the angakok conducted rituals and used a system of magic based on
sleight-of-hand to treat sickness or advise on hunting problems. Kashim were usually
partially buried and contained secret passageways known only to the angakok, which
increased the structures' mystery for the rest of the band. Ropes enabled the angakok to
create illusions with acrobatics. The angakok directed the carving of masks representing the
forces of nature and the spirits of animals, as well as the ceremonies in which the masks were
worn. One such ceremony, performed by the Alaskan Inuit, was the Bladder Dance.
According to Inuit tradition, the bladder was the location of an animal's soul. This event lasted
for days inside the kashim. Participants danced to music and performed rituals with inflated
sea-mammal bladders, which were later returned to the sea.
J10 Arts and Crafts
The Inuit used parts of sea mammals for tools, weapons, bags, ornaments, and ceremonial
objects. The tusks of the walrus provided ivory, a choice material for the handles of weapons
and tools. Carvers often adorned ivory tools with geometric figures and other designs.
Driftwood was also highly valued in Inuit arts, especially for carving the elaborate wooden
masks that were important in Inuit ceremonies and festivals. When wood was in short supply,
the Inuit carved masks from whalebone. The Aleut crafted elegant baskets from rye grass
found on the beaches. The stems of the grass were split with the fingernails to make threads,
and some of the threads were dyed before being woven into intricate designs.
J11 Post-Contact History
The first Europeans to visit the Arctic regions of North America were probably the ancient
Vikings. Viking navigators, who landed in northeastern North America around AD 1000, came
into contact with a people they referred to as Skraelings, possibly the Inuit. In the late 16th
century Sir Martin Frobisher, exploring for England in search of the Northwest Passage, a
water route through North America, made three voyages to the Canadian Arctic. Frobisher
kidnapped several Inuit and took them to England. Other coastal explorers soon followed.
Russian expeditions approached the North American Arctic from the west in the mid-1700s,
starting with the voyages of Vitus Jonassen Bering. In later decades, the Russians developed
the fur trade. This had a devastating impact on Aleut peoples, since traders forced them to
participate in hunting by capturing villages and taking hostages.
The search for the Northwest Passage continued through the centuries. Yet maritime and
overland expeditions to the Arctic were costly and dangerous and, as a result, sporadic. In
1848 commercial whaling ships began working Alaskan and Arctic waters. At the same time,
growing numbers of Christian missionaries began to reach Inuit and Aleut villages, teaching
new belief systems. Increasing contacts with foreigners spread diseases among indigenous
peoples, and populations declined.
During the early to mid-1800s, many Inuit began using trade goods that altered their
traditional culture, including guns, knives, kettles, cloth, and alcohol. Other developments in
the late 1800s impacted many Inuit. In 1867 the United States purchased Alaska from Russia
and began to develop it economically. Meanwhile, the Hudson's Bay Company established
many Arctic posts to develop the fur business. Despite these initiatives, some Central Inuit
bands had no contact with non-Indians until the early 1900s.
Contemporary Inuit peoples use many modern technologies. Frame houses have replaced
igloos, hide tents, and wood, stone, and sod huts. Motorized canoes have taken the place of
kayaks, and snowmobiles are used instead of dogsleds. In addition, most Inuit use electricity,
kerosene, or oil as fuel instead of animal fat; factory-made wool, cotton, and synthetic
clothes instead of handmade sealskin and caribou garments; and rifles and shotguns instead
of harpoons, spears, and bows and arrows.
A renaissance in Inuit art, which began in the 1950s, combines traditional and modern
techniques, materials, and themes. Two other recent developments are helping to improve
the quality of modern-day Inuit life. In Alaska indigenous peoples have benefited from the
1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which helped protect Alaskan indigenous lands
and granted funds for economic growth. In Canada a new Canadian territory, known as
Nunavut, was carved out of the eastern parts of the Northwest Territories in 1999. Inuit
peoples comprise most of population of Nunavut, and they have worked to promote their
economic, social, and cultural interests.
Carl Waldman contributed the Culture Areas section of this article.
V TRADITIONAL WAY OF LIFE
Long before the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans in North America developed rich and
varied cultures, as diverse as the cultures of Europe or any other continent. Each group
adopted a way of life suited to the resources and demands of its environment. For example,
groups devised unique tools and weapons needed to hunt local game and to gather and
process plant foods effectively. They built homes and shelters out of materials available in
their area. Each culture had its own language, style of art, oral traditions, spiritual beliefs,
and system of social organization.
With such rich diversity, it is problematic to generalize about traditional Native American
ways of life and beliefs; there is no single Native American culture. Nevertheless, Native
American cultures share certain traits that are common to many indigenous peoples around
the world. These include spirituality as the foundation of tribal and personal life, strong ties to
the land on which they live, a sense of kinship with the natural world, a conception of the
natural and supernatural worlds as interrelated and whole, an intimate relationship between
health and spirituality, creative expression as an integral part of daily life, and the oral
transmission of traditions and histories. Yet each Indian culture has its own distinct tribal
identity; many are related but no two are exactly alike.
The following sections explore the traditional ways of life of Native American peoples. The
discussion covers food and subsistence, housing, clothing and adornment, social and political
organization, marriage and family life, recreation and games, transportation, trade, warfare
and weaponry, language and communication, spirituality and religious practices, music and
dance, and arts and crafts. Because these sections primarily describe ways of life as they
existed before European contact, the past tense is generally used; traditions that continue to
the present are noted where appropriate. For a discussion of contemporary Native American
cultures, see the Native Americans Today section of this article. For a discussion of traditional
Native American cultures arranged by geography rather than thematically, see the Culture
Areas section of this article.
A Food and Subsistence
The foods Native Americans ate, and the methods they used to acquire them, depended on
where they lived. The land and its resources determined whether Indians foraged, fished,
hunted, or farmed. But no group ever relied on only one type of food. Even those who
practiced agriculture still relied on game and wild plants to supplement their harvests.
The ease or difficulty with which North American Indians could obtain food directly influenced
how they lived. The more time that was required to hunt, gather, or fish, the less time there
was for other cultural activities. In the barren environment of the Great Basin, for example,
Indians adopted a nomadic lifestyle because they constantly needed to search for food. But
on the Northwest Coast, where rivers and oceans teemed with life, there was enough food for
people to live a settled village lifestyle.
This section provides a general discussion of Native American foods and subsistence
methods. To learn more about the foods and subsistence methods of Native Americans in a
specific geographical area, see the Culture Areas section of this article.
Native Americans gathered a wide range of plant foods, including many varieties of edible
wild nuts, berries, seeds, and grasses. Almost all Native Americans relied on some wild plant
foods. Wild rice—a type of seed-bearing grass that grows naturally along the muddy shores
of marshes and streams—was such a staple for the Menominee people of present-day
Wisconsin that they derived their tribal name from the Ojibwa word for wild rice: manomin.
The people of the arid Southwest harvested agaves, cactus, acorns, piñon nuts, and juniper
berries, which ripened at different times of year and at different elevations.
For most California Indians, the acorn was the most important single food source. Gathered
in the autumn, acorns were stored for year-round use through a time-consuming process.
Women had to dry, hull, and pulverize acorns into meal, then leach the meal in hot water to
remove the tannin, a bitter-tasting substance that causes indigestion. After boiling the acorn
meal into mush, they molded and baked it into cakes for their families. In the southern
California desert, the Cahuilla made the seed pods of the mesquite tree into food. By
pulverizing the ripened pods in an upright wooden mortar with a pestle, they were able to
obtain the juice as a beverage. Once the pod meal dried, it was made into cakes, providing a
nutritious food for traveling.
In some areas of the Northwest Coast, more than 40 kinds of berries and fruits were
available. Women in this region also gathered ferns with edible roots, lilies with edible bulbs,
such as riceroot and camas, and starchy tubers. Camas and edible roots such as bitterroot,
yampa, and sego were key food sources for the Plateau Indians. Among peoples like the
Iroquois, for whom farming was the main source of food, wild plant foods served as an
important dietary supplement, especially if crops failed.
Native Americans who lived along rivers or in coastal areas depended on fishing for a major
portion of their diets. They caught fish using spears, hooks and lines, lures, harpoons, barbed
arrows, nets, traps, and even poisons.
Fishing provided the basis for the affluent way of life enjoyed by the Nootka and other
Northwest Coast peoples. Although they ate many different kinds of fish, salmon was
especially important because of its predictable and distinctive life cycle. The Nootka knew
that salmon returned every spring and summer from the sea to their spawning grounds in
freshwater streams. Fishermen erected latticework fences called weirs across the entire
width of a river to prevent continued upstream swimming by the salmon. The current then
swept many of the salmon back into traps while others were harpooned. Fishermen also used
dip nets—bags of netting suspended from wooden frames—and boxlike or cylindrical traps.
The salmon swam back in such densely packed schools that the Nootka could catch five
months’ food supply in the course of several weeks. By supplementing smoked and dried
salmon with berries, deer, and clams, as well as other types of fish, the Nootka had enough
food to last them until late February, when the herring returned. The Nootka and some other
Northwest Coast peoples also practiced whaling, which they considered the noblest of all
occupations. Paddling dugout canoes, they ventured into open seas between March and
August to hunt California gray whales with harpoons.
Fish and waterfowl were easy to catch in the Southeast, a region of meandering rivers and
vast swamps of cypress and cane. In subtropical south Florida, the Calusa had such an
abundant supply of fish and shellfish that they flourished without the need for agriculture.
The Delaware (Lenni Lenape), Montauk, and Powhatan enjoyed the flat, fertile coastal plains
of the East Coast, one of the world’s richest fishing areas. The clam beds of Long Island were
an asset to those who lived there.
The earliest inhabitants of the North American continent, known as Paleo-Indians, survived
by hunting big game and other wild animals. Until the end of the last ice age, around 10,000
years ago, many giant animals roamed the land. Paleo-Indians used spears to hunt
mammoth, mastodon, a now-extinct form of bison, and smaller animals. They were skilled at
making razor-sharp stone spearpoints—as well as knives, scrapers, and choppers—by
chipping stone flakes away from a larger rock. They lashed these stone points to wooden
shafts with strips of animal hide to create spears. There is also evidence that Paleo-Indians
stampeded herds of bison to drive them over cliffs, killing or crippling large numbers with a
minimum of effort. In addition to hunting, Paleo-Indians likely relied on wild plant foods to
supplement their diet.
The development of a new tool, the atlatl (pronounced at-LAT-ul), revolutionized hunting.
The atlatl was a spear launcher that greatly increased the force and speed with which a spear
could be thrown, allowing a hunter to kill his prey from a safe distance away. The hunter lifted
the device over his shoulder and sent the spear hurtling toward his target with a whiplike
motion. By 8000 BC hunters in southwestern Europe and southwestern North America were
using the atlatl, although no one knows where or when it was invented.
After the ice age ended, the mammoth, mastodon, American camel, saber-toothed cat, giant
ground sloth, and many other large mammal species became extinct, possibly because of
severe climate changes or disease. Some scholars believe overhunting by humans may have
played a role in this extinction, but there is little archaeological evidence to support this
theory. After the large mammals died out, the most important game animals in North
America were grazing and foraging mammals such as caribou, moose, elk, bison, pronghorns,
deer, and bighorn sheep; scavengers and carnivores such as bears, coyotes, wolves, foxes,
and pumas (mountain lions); sea mammals such as seals, sea lions, and whales; and smaller
game such as ducks, geese, turkeys, rabbits, beavers, raccoons, opossums, and squirrels.
Centuries before the arrival of Europeans, Plains hunters lived in nomadic bands that hunted
the American bison, commonly called the buffalo, on foot. Living with the constant threat of
starvation, these Plains Indians survived by driving bison herds over cliffs. Men dressed in
bison skins positioned themselves at the head of the herd to lead the chief bull bison.
Snorting and rolling in the dust, they lured the herd toward the edge of the cliff before
disappearing into the brush. Other hunters then used fire to incite a stampede over the cliff.
Another Plains hunting method used fire to encircle a herd of bison. Hunters stationed
themselves at a single opening in the circle, where they killed the frightened animals with
bows and lances. The arrival of the horse, widespread among Native Americans by the
mid-1700s, completely changed the bison hunt. Instead of stampeding an entire bison herd
over a cliff, hunters raced after bison on horseback and shot them with bows and arrows, and
The exact origins of agriculture in the Americas are uncertain. By 4000 BC inhabitants of
Mesoamerica were cultivating maize (corn); at roughly the same time, beans and squash
were being cultivated in Peru. The cultivation of maize spread from Mesoamerica into the
Southwest by about 3000 ; beans and squash were planted there later. These three
foods—maize, beans, and squash—would remain, for thousands of years, the primary crops
for Native Americans north of Mexico. Other food crops included tomatoes, chili peppers,
pumpkins, vanilla, and avocados. Of all crops in the Americas, maize was the most important.
At the time of European contact, maize probably provided more food than all other cultivated
The development of agriculture marked a turning point for Native Americans. By producing
enough food to feed the population year-round, agriculture made it possible for groups to
establish settled villages and sedentary lifestyles. They no longer had to live a nomadic
foraging existence, although many continued to do so. In the Southwest, farming and a
relatively dependable food supply made possible the Mogollon culture in the highland areas of
Arizona and New Mexico and the Hohokam culture in the deserts of southern Arizona. The
Hohokam developed irrigation ditches to sustain their crops because the desert climate
provided scant rainfall. The ancestral Pueblo, or Anasazi, culture developed from groups of
gatherers who supplemented their diet by growing maize and pumpkins.
North American Indians used hand tools for cultivation; they did not use draft animals or the
plow. To break up the ground for planting and to make a hole for planting grains of corn,
beans, or squash, they used a straight pointed stick. Some tribes also used a wooden-bladed
implement that resembled a spade; rakes and hoes were also common. Irrigation was limited
to the Southwest, and there men were the principal farmers. In other areas, where
agriculture was of secondary importance to hunting and gathering, women did most of the
farming, especially within and near their villages. Men usually helped with clearing new land
and with the harvest. Men also farmed farther from the villages, where enemies could attack.
The growing season varied with latitude and elevation. Northern farmers, such as the
Iroquois tribes, were able to grow enough food in their 120-day growing season to see them
through the winter.
For centuries, the Hopi Indians of the Southwest have practiced some of the most
remarkable farming techniques in North America. They developed drought-resistant strains
of corn that are particularly hardy, mature quickly, and are not harmed by extreme desert
temperatures. By planting the corn some 30 to 40 cm (12 to 16 in) deep, the seeds receive
the benefit of all the moisture in the soil, and shoots develop a strong root system that
anchors the plant so that it will not be blown away by the wind or washed out by flash floods.
Livestock was not as important to Native Americans as it was to the people of other
continents. After Spanish horses spread to the Great Plains and the Plateau regions, some
groups, such as the Nez Perce, became respected horse breeders who carefully worked to
improve the bloodlines of their herds. The Nez Perce also maintained herds of cattle. The
Navajo (Diné) of the Southwest acquired Spanish sheep and goats as well as horses. The
Navajo population began to increase in the late 1700s because sheep and goats provided
such a dependable food source.
A6 Preparing and Storing Food
Techniques of food preparation varied according to the culture area and the types of foods
that were available. Meat or fish could be cooked by roasting it over a wood fire or baking it
in an earthen pit filled with hot stones. It could also be boiled in a stone pot over a seal-oil
flame, as the Inuit did, or in a tightly woven basket filled with water and hot stones and
treated with pine pitch to make it watertight. Other foods, such as corn, beans, and
vegetables, were also boiled in baskets or baked in pit ovens.
Groups that lived in settled villages often used pottery for food preparation and storage.
Nomadic groups, who had to transport all of their families’ goods frequently, used lighter
materials. Plains Indians, for example, used a bison’s paunch as a cooking pot. Propping the
paunch up with four poles, a Plains Indian woman filled it with water and dropped in red-hot
stones to bring the water to a boil, allowing her to prepare a stew of bison meat. She had to
replace such a pot after a few days’ use because it softened so quickly. After Europeans
arrived and began trading their goods, Native Americans were quick to adopt metal cooking
pots and other containers that made their lives easier.
Many foodstuffs demanded considerable investments of time and work to prepare and cook.
To prepare maize, the Fox (Mesquakie) of eastern Wisconsin dried out the cobs over a fire,
ground the maize into a coarse meal, and boiled the meal into gruel. In another method, they
first soaked the maize in a caustic lye solution made from wood ash to dissolve the tough
outer seed hulls. After washing away the lye solution, they boiled the inner kernels whole to
make hominy. Iroquois women also used lye to remove the hulls. They would grind the
kernels into cornmeal using a tree-trunk mortar and a wooden pestle, pass the meal through
a sieve to remove larger pieces, mix the cornmeal with water, and shape the mixture into
loaves that were boiled to make cornbread. The Iroquois also prepared succotash (a dish
made of corn and beans), roasted corn, boiled corn, and hominy. A Hopi meal traditionally
included piki, a paper-thin bread. Prepared by spreading a thin batter of cornmeal, water, and
wood ash on a hot greased sandstone slab, piki was especially delicious when dipped into a
stew made of deer meat, squash, beans, and wild greens such as milkweed, watercress, and
Indian meals were often eaten with the fingers; many groups also used utensils and dishes
made from horn or bone. Plains Indians made spoons, drinking vessels, ladles, and bowls
from bison horn. The intricacy of carving depended on the utensil’s intended use. Utensils and
serving dishes used for elaborate feasts on the Northwest Coast often were inset with abalone
shell or had handles elaborately carved into animal shapes.
Animal fats and oils, rendered from animals such as bears, bison, and seals, added flavor and
texture to soups and stews. In the Northeast and around the Great Lakes, Native Americans
collected sap from sugar maple trees and used maple sugar as an all-purpose seasoning.
Other sweeteners included fruits and wild honey, and, in tropical areas, vanilla. In the
Southwest, chili peppers were a popular seasoning.
Salt was a highly prized but scarce substance in North America. In addition to its use as a
seasoning, salt was needed as a dietary supplement by groups who ate mainly vegetable
foods instead of meat (which supplies an adequate amount of mineral salts) and by those who
lived in warm climates and lost salt through perspiration. Thus, Native Americans in California,
the Great Basin, the Southwest, and parts of the Great Plains and Southeast had to
intentionally eat salt. Salt was obtained by evaporating salt water, collecting it from the
surface near dry lake beds, and by mining rock salt from shallow underground deposits. The
Zuni of the Southwest collected and processed salt from their own salt lake (present-day Salt
Lake in New Mexico). They considered salt a sacred item and undertook the gathering of salt
with prayer and ritual.
Native Americans learned to preserve and store food for the winter or for a journey. They
buried it in pits, dried it in the sun, or smoked it over fires or in smokehouses. Traveling Plains
Indians filled rawhide envelopes with pemmican, a nourishing high-protein food made by
pounding strips of dried bison meat into fine bits, mixing it with melted fat and berries, and
then tightly pressing it into cakes. Pemmican remained edible for years.
B Housing and Shelter
The dwellings Native Americans built depended on the climate, the building materials
available, and their lifestyle. A nomadic lifestyle required simple, temporary structures or
movable dwellings, whereas a sedentary lifestyle allowed tribes to build more substantial
homes. Many tribes used different dwellings at different times of year. For example, during
the farming season, tribes along the Missouri River lived in large, multifamily earth-covered
dwellings known as earth lodges. During bison-hunting season, they were nomadic and lived
in smaller hide-covered shelters, called tipis, that could be easily moved.
This section describes only some of the many kinds of shelters used by North American
Indians, including earth lodges, tipis, longhouses, wigwams, hogans, wickiups, pueblos,
plank houses, igloos, and chickees. To learn more about housing types in a specific
geographical area, see the Culture Areas section of this article. For a more detailed discussion,
see Native American Architecture.
B1 Earth Lodge
Plains tribes that practiced agriculture, such as the Mandan and Pawnee, lived in earth-lodge
villages. Earth lodges were large, dome-shaped houses covered with earth. They were made
by constructing a wooden frame of logs and beams (usually cottonwood), covering the walls
and roof rafters with small branches, brush, and grass, and then packing the exterior with a
thick layer of earth or sod. The earth layer served as insulation that provided protection from
the intense summer heat and the bitter winter cold. The interior was usually quite spacious,
providing living quarters for several related families. Among the Pawnee, earth lodges
reached 3 to 4 m in height (10 to 14 ft) and 9 to 15 m (30 to 50 ft) in diameter. Women
cooked food around a central fire, and smoke vented through a hole in the roof. Sleeping
compartments lined the inner walls. After the Pawnee acquired horses, they often stabled
them in the earth lodge at night to prevent their theft by raiding parties.
The tipi (also spelled tepee or teepee), probably the best-known Native American dwelling,
was a cone-shaped tent covered with animal hides. It was used primarily by nomadic tribes
of the Plains. Women were responsible for making, setting up, and moving tipis. To erect a
tipi, they first set up a cone-shaped frame of long wooden poles. Three or four main poles
were staked in the ground first and fastened together near the top; then other poles were
added to form a roughly circular base. A waterproof cover, made from 12 or more bison hides
sewn together, was pulled over the frame. (Plains Indians began to use canvas for tipi covers
after it became available in the late 1800s.) A hole at the top permitted smoke from the
central fire to escape. This opening was adjustable with outer flaps of the cover and could be
closed in rainy weather.
Each family had its own tipi that measured from 3.5 to 5 m (12 to 16 ft) in diameter at the
base. Stones or stakes held the bottom edges of the tipi cover in place, but in the heat of
summer, families often rolled up the cover to allow a cool breeze to circulate. In winter,
families often added an inner lining of skin to help insulate the tipi against snow and cold
The longhouse, built by Iroquois tribes of the Northeast, was a large, long building that
typically housed six to ten families of five or six people each. Most Iroquois longhouses were
about 18 m (60 ft) long, 5.5 m (18 ft) high, and 5.5 m (18 ft) wide. The largest known
longhouse was 102 m (334 ft) long and was home to perhaps 150 to 200 people. The
framework, constructed of slender wooden poles or saplings (young trees), was covered with
elm bark sewn on in overlapping layers like shingles.
The interior of a longhouse was dimly lit, with the only outside light coming from smoke
holes in the roof and from doorways at both ends of the structure. During snow or rain, sliding
panels covered the smoke holes, filling the longhouse with the smells of cooking food,
tobacco, babies, soot, and sweat. The floor space was divided by a central corridor that ran
the length of the building. Each family in the longhouse had its own living space about 7.5 m
(25 ft) long and shared a fire with the family living on the opposite side of the corridor. Each
family living space had a low, wide platform covered with reed mats or thick bearskin rugs for
sitting or sleeping. The platform was built a short distance off the ground to avoid dampness
and fleas. Shelves above the platform held robes, food, and cooking utensils, and other items
were stored below the platform.
Iroquois villages typically consisted of about 30 or 40 longhouses surrounded by a high
palisade, a fence made from pointed wooden posts set upright in the ground. Some types had
saplings or bark woven between the posts. Palisades protected villagers from enemy attack
and also helped to keep out wild animals. Sometimes two or three palisades encircled a
village. Longhouse villages were often located between the fork of two streams, which
provided drinkable water, fishing, and convenient canoe transport to nearby villages.
The wigwam was a domed hut. To construct a wigwam, flexible saplings or poles were set
into the ground and bent into an arched frame. Then the frame was covered by sheets of bark,
woven mats, or animal hides. An opening was left in the frame for a low doorway, which could
be covered with mats or a hide. A hole in the roof allowed smoke to escape from a central fire.
Most wigwams housed one or two families, ranging in size from 2 to 6 m (7 to 20 ft) at the
Wigwams were used primarily by the Algonquian-speaking peoples of the Northeast
woodlands. The Menominee, for example, lived most of the year in wigwams covered with
mats of reeds and cattails. Summer heat and humidity, however, made these structures too
hot, so they moved into spacious, rectangular bark-covered houses with peaked roofs and
high ceilings that provided better air circulation. Some types of sweat lodges, used by the
Menominee and many other Indians for rituals and purification, were similar to wigwams in
construction but smaller and more temporary. Other sweat lodges were permanent, partially
subterranean structures similar to earth lodges.
B5 Hogan and Wickiup
The hogan, the traditional Navajo (Diné) home, was a round or polygonal (six-sided or
eight-sided) domed house made of logs or poles and plastered with mud or earth. The
entrance traditionally faced east to greet the rising sun. It had one large room, up to 7.5 m
(25 ft) in diameter, and was designed for a single family. The Navajo tended to live in isolated
groups of several related families, each of which had its own hogan. Some hogans were built
for ceremonies or storage. Although hogans are no longer the primary form of housing for
Navajo people today, they are still used to some extent, especially by older people. Hogan is
a Navajo word meaning “home place.”
The wickiup was a similar though less substantial dwelling used by the Apache peoples of the
Southwest. The Mescalero Apache built these dome-shaped structures by erecting a frame of
sturdy but flexible branches. Then they covered the frame with grass thatching, brush, or
hides. Some Great Basin Indians, such as the Paiute, built structures similar to wickiups.
B6 Pueblo and Kiva
In contrast to the single-family, one-room dwellings of the Navajo and the Apache tribes,
Pueblo Indians lived in distinctive, apartment-like building complexes made of stone or adobe
bricks (made from sun-baked clay and straw) and supported by wooden beams. These
dwellings, centuries old, are still in use today. The early Spanish explorers referred to these
housing complexes as pueblos, Spanish for “villages” or “towns.” Building complexes were
typically two or three stories high—the largest were five stories high—and had enough rooms
to house many families. A Hopi dwelling, for example, was home to mothers, daughters,
granddaughters, and all their husbands and children. Each family lived primarily in a single
room, using other rooms in the building for storage, work, and sacred rites. Rooms were
constantly being added to accommodate more people. The Anasazi, the ancestors of modern
Pueblo peoples, lived in cliff dwellings, multichambered houses built beneath rocky
overhangs on the sides of cliffs.
The Pueblos also constructed kivas, underground or partly underground chambers entered
through roof hatchways with ladders. Seldom entered by women, the kiva was a men’s club,
used for religious ceremonies and rituals, council meetings, and weaving cloth.
B7 Plank House
The wooden plank house was made by Northwest Coast Indians, who had access to bountiful
forests of red and yellow cedar trees. They used large cedar logs or beams to make a
rectangular frame and then attached hand-split cedar planks to the frame either vertically or
horizontally. Plank houses typically housed several families and ranged in size from 4.5 by 6
m (15 by 20 ft) to 15 by 18 m (50 by 60 ft). Plank-house villages were often located on
One of the most distinctive house types was the igloo, a domed house built of snow blocks
used by the Central Inuit in the Arctic. (The word igloo comes from the Inuit word iglu, which
can refer to any type of house.) Igloos provided effective protection against the cold and the
wind. Working from the inside, the builder piled up snow blocks in a continuous spiral that
leaned slightly inward, then capped the dome with a snow block at the top. Entering the igloo
required crawling on hands and knees through a short tunnel covered by an arch of snow
blocks; the floor of the tunnel was sunken to trap heat inside the igloo. Igloos usually held a
single family and ranged from 2 to 4.5 m (6 to 15 ft) in diameter at the base. In the summer,
the Central Inuit lived in tents covered by seal or caribou hides. Other Inuit groups lived in
stone houses covered with sod and supported by a frame of whale rib or driftwood.
The Seminole and Miccosukee tribes of Florida lived in distinctive structures known as
chickees, open-sided homes measuring about 3 by 5 m (9 by 16 ft). The hot, humid climate
of the Southeast made open-sided structures much more comfortable than closed dwellings,
which did not permit as much air circulation. Chickees consisted of a wooden platform raised
a short distance above the ground and covered with a roof. Family members sat and slept on
the platform, protected from the marshy ground and torrential rains. The steeply pitched roof,
made from the leaves of the palmetto tree, created a natural storage space where articles
remained dry even in slanting rain. Palmetto logs provided the central frame.
C Clothing and Adornment
The traditional clothing of Native Americans varied according to climate, cultural traditions,
and the clothing materials available. Tribes that subsisted primarily by farming made most of
their clothing from plant materials. Among hunting tribes, animal skins and fur were
In hot climates Indians wore minimal clothing and body adornment was common. In the
extreme heat of the Southwest, for example, Mojave women wore knee-length skirts of
willow bark. Men dressed in breechcloths (loincloths) woven from strands from the inner bark
of willow. During the winter, rabbit-skin robes provided warmth. The Mojave customarily
tattooed their chins and painted their faces with a wide variety of elaborate designs.
The Timucua, who lived in hot, humid Florida, also wore little clothing. Timucua women wore
dresses of Spanish moss and decorated their bodies with intricate tattoos. Timucua men wore
a breechcloth and adorned their bodies with tattoos from head to ankles. The tattoos were
created by pricking the skin with needles dipped in cinnabar or lampblack (powdered carbon),
and their particular design indicated a person’s social status. In winter, the Timucua wore
cloaks made of feathers or animal skin for warmth.
Peoples of the Arctic developed clothing adapted for the extreme cold. The Inuit had to wear
multiple layers of clothing to protect themselves from blizzards and February temperatures
that regularly dipped below -28°C (-20°F). Although clothing varied by region, the basic
winter wardrobe was usually a hooded parka made of a double suit of caribou hides: an outer
layer worn with the fur on the outside, and an inner layer worn with the fur on the inside.
During the summer months, the inner suit was worn by itself. For footwear, men wore two
sets of fur stockings beneath soft sealskin boots known as mukluks. Women wore a
distinctive one-piece combination of leggings and boots. They carried their babies on their
upper backs in the open hood of their parkas.
Farther west, the Aleut, who lived in the Aleutian Islands, used animal intestines to make
waterproof clothing. Both women and men wore ankle-length parkas made of walrus
intestine stitched together from horizontal strips; men also wore sealskin trousers and
waterproof overdresses made of sea lion intestine. Aleut garments, except for rain parkas,
differed from those of the Inuit in having standing collars instead of hoods. In contrast to Inuit
women, Aleut women carried their babies in cradles instead of in parkas. One of the most
distinctive articles of Aleut clothing, worn by hunters in their sea kayaks, was a wooden hat
shaped like a deep inverted scoop and decorated with beads and sea lion whiskers. The Aleut
were said to wear no foot coverings except on and near the Alaska Peninsula, where they
Deer, elk, caribou, and bison hides were some of the most common materials for clothing
and footwear in North America. Tanning the hide—that is, turning it into soft, durable
leather—required considerable work. In most areas, women were responsible for tanning
hides and making all the clothing for their families. Women began the tanning process by
scraping fat, tissue, and hair from the hide until it was clean and smooth. For warmer clothes
and blankets the hair was often left on the hide. Next the hide was softened using one of
various techniques, which usually involved repeated rubbing, soaking, drying, stretching,
and smoking. To soften a bison hide, for example, Plains Indians rubbed it with a mixture of
bison brains, fat, and other ingredients. After the hides were tanned, women cut and sewed
the leather into dresses, breechcloths, shirts, robes, and moccasins.
Among the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest, cotton was the most common clothing material.
The Pueblo were the only Native Americans in what is now the United States who wore cotton
garments before Europeans came. Men did nearly all the weaving. Among the Hopi, men used
looms suspended from high beams to weave cotton blankets and larger sheets of cotton cloth
for clothing. After the Hopi acquired sheep from the Spanish, men began to weave wool
blankets and cloth.
All groups wore special clothing for ceremonial occasions. The Tlingit of the Northwest Coast
had especially elaborate clothing for dances and feasts, much of it emphasizing the wearer’s
social rank. Some of these items included brightly patterned blankets woven from mountain
goat wool and cedar bark (known as Chilkat blankets), conical painted wooden hats, and
painted leather dance capes. On the Plains, high-ranking warriors often wore trailing feather
headdresses and scalp shirts (shirts decorated with portions of enemy scalps) to denote their
status for ceremonial occasions.
Many Indians decorated their clothing with painted designs and with porcupine quills
softened in water and dyed with plant pigments. The elaborately beaded designs that
decorated dresses, shirts, leggings, and moccasins appeared only after contact with
Europeans, who traded manufactured glass beads. These beads were desirable for their
bright colors, and they were easier to apply to clothing than quills. In the Great Plains
beadwork usually took the form of geometric designs, while in the Northeast the designs
tended to use curved floral motifs.
Traditional jewelry, while similar in form, varied in style and materials. Claws, teeth, and
shells were the most common materials. Inland groups obtained shells through extensive
trade networks; shell objects were considered signs of prestige because of the difficulty and
expense of acquiring them. In the Northwest Coast area, men and women used claws, teeth,
and shells to make necklaces, belts, armbands, and leg bands. Both men and women wore
earrings, but only men pierced the nasal septum and attached ornaments to it. In the
Southeast, men and women wore ear ornaments of feathers, shiny stones, and pieces of shell.
They also wore strings of pearls and necklaces made from beads of bone, stone, or shell. In
the Southwest, jewelry usually took the form of necklaces and ear ornaments made of
turquoise, other precious stones, or shells.
To learn more about the clothing and adornment of Native Americans in a specific
geographical area, see the Culture Areas section of this article.
D Social and Political Organization
The size and organization of Native American communities was determined by a number of
conditions, including climate, available resources, and the presence or absence of
neighboring groups. People who inhabited desert regions with sparse natural resources, for
example, had to live in small groups that moved frequently to find new supplies of food,
firewood, and other materials. The small size of the group meant that its people did not need
a highly structured government or strict laws of inheritance. Instead, flexibility was important
because it enabled them to make decisions based on the changing conditions of their
Native American groups that lived in areas of abundant natural resources, or on fertile lands
suitable for agriculture, had enough food to establish permanent villages. The larger
concentration of people in villages created the need to organize people in certain ways. For
example, a village might need to organize a large work force to build and operate an irrigation
system for its crops. Inheritance rules were important so that land and houses could be
handed down to children in orderly ways. Government also had to be more structured, with
agreed-upon social behaviors and ways of accomplishing tasks.
Scholars have developed various terms to classify Native American systems of social and
political organization, including band, tribe, lineage, clan, association, phratry, moiety,
chiefdoms, and confederacy. These systems ranged from simple to complex, depending on
the group’s environment, its needs, and its traditions and customs.
At the time of European contact, the family was the largest permanent social unit for most
people in the Great Basin, Arctic, and Baja California because resources were scarce in these
areas. During the spring and summer, when resources were most plentiful, several extended
families organized into bands with leaders who exercised limited control over others in the
band. The band was the social unit of nearly all hunters and gatherers because of its flexibility
in membership. Families were free to join a different band if resources were more plentiful in
that band’s territory.
The Eastern Shoshone of the Great Basin practiced this system of social organization,
assembling into a large band in the summer and then dispersing into three to five smaller
bands each winter. In the absence of a tribal council, the leader of the large band was a
middle-aged or older man who had distinguished himself in war or as a shaman (religious
leader). He ordered a hunt or a move to a new area and counseled other important decisions
that affected the group as a whole, but he did not deal with internal disputes. To survive the
winter, families left the large band to gather resources best exploited by just a few people,
using what they could collect to supplement the dried food that they had prepared to see their
families through the bitterly cold winter.
In addition to the band, the nuclear family—a father, a mother, and their unmarried
children—was important to foragers such as the Shoshone. Where resources were most
meager, groups of Shoshone spent most of the year in family groups, traveling alone through
the countryside in search of food. In certain seasons, these families joined others to hunt
cooperatively as a band, dispersing after a few months.
D2 Composite Bands and Tribes
A composite band consisted of a larger group of families than would belong to a simple band.
Leadership in composite bands was informal and was based on influence rather than
authority over band members. Many Native American groups that are thought of as tribes
were actually composite bands. The Comanche of the Great Plains, while sharing a common
language, customs, and ethnic identity, are a good example of composite bands that never
organized at a tribal level. As a nomadic bison-hunting people, the Comanche, in the early
and middle 1900s, had a population of about 6,000 to 7,000 people. When resources were
plentiful, they were divided among 5 large bands; when resources were scarce, they spread
out into as many as 13 smaller bands. Individuals and families could shift from one band to
another, and families could form a new band. Each band was headed by an older male
member, called a peace chief, who was known for his kindness, wisdom, and leadership
abilities. Another more aggressive man, called a war chief, led warriors in raiding neighbors
and conducting warfare. Although the Comanche shared a strong awareness of common
identity, each band was autonomous, and seldom did several bands join to carry out common
True tribes, while not necessarily larger than composite bands, usually organized their social
and political activities at a much wider level and had much greater group cohesiveness. For
example, the Yuman-speaking peoples who lived along the Colorado River were organized
into agricultural tribes of 2,000 to 3,000 people. Each tribe, such as the Mojave, had multiple
chiefs (usually including a peace chief and a war chief) and a strong sense of tribal
nationalism. During times of war, all Mojave united together to fight other tribes. However,
political organization at the tribal level was generally limited to warfare, and at other times
the Mojave were loosely divided into bands.
Before European contact, tribes were a much less common form of political organization than
bands and villages that governed their own affairs. After contact some Plains groups
organized as tribes to survive European encroachment. The Cheyenne, who numbered about
4,000, were governed by a civil council of 44 chiefs. The council met once a year when the
entire Cheyenne population gathered together for the annual bison hunt. For most of the year,
however, the Cheyenne lived in bands.
D3 Lineages and Clans
Families in a tribe were often linked together through lineages or clans, which are groups
whose members claim common ancestry. A lineage was only several generations deep, and
lineage members traced their descent from a known ancestor. In contrast, clans persisted
across so many generations that members, although they presumed a common ancestor,
could not trace specific family links. Lineages and clans traced ancestry either through the
female line alone (matrilineal descent) or through the male line alone (patrilineal descent). In
some tribes, clans named themselves after animals and traced their ancestry to animal
totems that represented the clan’s mythological history. For example, according to Hopi
belief, the Bear Clan arose when a group of Hopi left the underworld and came upon the body
of a dead bear. All groups with clans had lineages that made up each clan. Other groups had
Clans and lineages served to organize many aspects of village life. Clan membership usually
determined who was an appropriate marriage partner, who inherited property, which families
lived together, and to whom political power was transferred when a leader died. For example,
in most Native American societies, a person had to choose a marriage partner from outside
his or her own clan. The clan also supervised the ceremonies that initiated the young into the
status of adults. Individuals were deeply loyal to their clan and would readily help members
of their clan who lived in another village.
The Iroquois tribes of the Northeast had matrilineal clans in which women wielded
considerable political power. The senior (highest-ranking) woman in the clan, called the clan
mother, consulted with other women to choose the man from their clan who would represent
them at the annual Grand Council of the Iroquois League, a powerful confederacy of five
tribes. The women of the clan could also impeach him if he failed to represent their interests
Although there were some tribes without clans, almost all tribes had associations (also called
sodalities), which were clubs whose membership was not based on kinship. Each association
had its own function, such as war, hunting, medicine, or religion. For example, nearly every
Plains tribe had warrior societies that guarded the camps during periods of intertribal warfare
and played a major role in warfare. Many tribes had different warrior societies for different
age groups, with boys moving from one society to the next as they grew older and more
Phratries (pronounced FRAY-trees) were groups of related clans whose primary purpose was
to govern marriage rules and to provide aid. For example, in the Southwest, a Navajo (Diné)
woman or man was expected to marry an individual who not only was from a different clan
but also was from a different phratry. Otherwise, he or she would be committing incest, a
violation believed to bring terrible misfortune to the individual and his or her relatives.
Many Indian tribes were divided into two groups called moieties (pronounced MOY-uh-tees).
Each moiety, in turn, was often composed of related clans. For example, among the Osage,
farmers who lived in present-day Missouri, 9 clans formed the “household” moiety, which
symbolized the sky and peace, and 15 clans formed the “sacred ones” moiety, which
symbolized the Earth and war. People were not allowed to marry someone from their own
moiety. Each Osage village had two chiefs, one from each moiety, and each chief had
identical authority. The chiefs’ primary role was to keep peace among village families and to
organize and lead the village bison hunts.
Chiefdoms, even more complex than tribes, were governed by a single chief who was both
the political and religious leader. His position was often hereditary within a single family or
clan that had rights based on supernatural powers attributed to them in their origin story.
Whereas bands and tribes were egalitarian societies, in which lineages and clans had equal
status in principle, chiefdoms were ranked societies, in which certain families enjoyed greater
authority and privileges. Access to resources was based on inherited status. The chief, viewed
as a god on Earth, evoked reverence and fear from his subjects. His supernatural status
conferred authority and power, and he governed through decree rather than consensus.
Powerful chiefdoms in North America arose with the Mississippian culture, which flourished in
the eastern part of the continent from approximately AD 800 until the arrival of European
explorers. Its people, who subsisted through intensive maize farming, built large towns with
earth platforms, or mounds, supporting temples and rulers’ residences. Across the Mississippi
River from present-day St. Louis, Missouri, the Mississippians built the city of Cahokia, which,
at its apex between AD 1100 and 1200, may have had a population of 20,000. Its central
temple mound rose in four terraces to an elevation of 30 m (100 ft), atop which lived the chief
and his close relatives, who were considered nobles.
A similar chiefdom, the Natchez, survived into the 18th century in the Southeast. Like the
earlier Mississippians, the Natchez had a central temple mound as well as other mounds for
nobles’ residences and for burials. The supreme ruler, known as the Great Sun, was
considered divine, as were his relatives. Most of the Natchez were commoners, but those who
were nobility were divided into three ranks: Suns, Nobles, and Honored People. All ranks of
nobility were allowed to marry only commoners.
In areas where warfare among tribes, usually over resources and territory, occurred
frequently, some tribes formed confederacies (also called federations), or alliances of several
tribes. By becoming part of a confederacy, tribes could amass greater forces against their
enemies. The best-known confederacy of Native American tribes is the Iroquois League, or
League of Five Nations, formed in the 16th century as an alliance of the Seneca, Cayuga,
Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk tribes; the Tuscarora later joined and it became the League
of Six Nations. A Grand Council, composed of male delegates from each tribe, met annually
to settle disputes between tribes and to plan military strategy. Many believe that the ideals of
the Iroquois Confederacy—unity, democracy, vision, and fair representation—inspired
American colonial leaders to seek the help of the Iroquois in their attempt to replace the
British monarchy with a democratic alternative; in 1754 they formulated the Albany Plan of
Union, which may have been based on Iroquois ideals (see Albany Congress). Today, the
Haudenosaunee, as the Iroquois call themselves, continue to maintain the confederacy and
to regularly convene the Grand Council.
The Algonquian tribes of the Northeast also formed confederacies, including the Abenaki
Confederacy, Delaware Confederacy, Powhatan Confederacy, Wampanoag Confederacy, and
Wappinger Confederacy. Another important Native American confederacy was the Creek
Confederacy in the Southeast.
E Marriage and Family Life
In contrast to industrial societies, where marriage is usually a private relationship between
two individuals, marriage in Native American tribal societies was more a public relationship
between two families. Instead of simply taking a spouse, a person assumed obligations to a
group of in-laws. For example, among certain Apache tribes of the Southwest, when a man
married, he assumed the support of his wife’s parents for the rest of his life—even if his wife
died. Kinship played an important role in organizing family and work life. Kin ties helped to
determine potential marriage partners, where a person lived, whom a person farmed or
hunted or gathered with, and whom a person called on for aid and advice.
E1 Selecting a Partner
In most Native American societies, children married at a relatively young age. Girls were
considered eligible for marriage after first menstruation, around age 13. Boys usually married
before the age of 20. However, many young men waited to marry until their early 20s, so
they could prove their ability as a good provider. Most societies tolerated sexual activity
before marriage, although some, like the Cheyenne and Crow, placed a high value on sexual
abstinence before marriage.
Parents usually chose a mate for their children. A child’s older relatives might also participate
in the choice of marriage partner. In some tribes, marriages were arranged far in advance,
during a child’s infancy or early childhood. In other areas—particularly the Arctic, Subarctic,
and Great Basin—young people had greater control over their choice of spouse. If a boy and
a girl expressed interest in each other, their families would decide whether to permit them to
marry. If the families approved, a date was set for a wedding ceremony or an exchange of
gifts. Marriage to someone from another tribe was unusual but not prohibited unless the
person was from a warring tribe.
The only rule that universally governed the choice of marriage partners was the incest taboo,
a prohibition against marrying close relatives. Members of the same nuclear
family—specifically, sister and brother, father and daughter, or mother and son—were never
allowed to marry and produce children. In most societies, the incest taboo was extended to
prohibit marriage between some cousins, uncles and nieces, aunts and nephews, and other
close relatives. However, each group had its own definition of which relationships were
considered to be too close for marriage. Among some groups, such as Northwest Coast
peoples and the Chipewyan of the Subarctic, first cousins were preferred as marriage
Most North American Indians allowed polygyny, the marriage of one man to two or more
women. Often these wives were sisters. But usually only wealthy or powerful men were able
to support several wives. In some societies, such as those of the Great Plains, women far
outnumbered men, because a large number of men were killed each year through bison
hunting or warfare with other tribes. Men were expected to have several wives not only to
maintain the population but also to lighten the wives’ crushing workload of tanning, sewing,
beading, cooking, and packing camp. The wives could also share childrearing responsibilities.
Polygyny was most common in the Northwest Coast region; in some parts of this region more
than 20 percent of marriages were polygynous. Other groups, such as the Iroquois and the
western Pueblos, exclusively practiced monogamy, the marriage of one man to one woman.
E2 Marriage Customs
Once a young person’s mate was chosen, it was customary in many North American Indian
societies for the families of the bride and groom to exchange gifts. This custom was a means
of establishing the social rank and position of each of the families. The groom’s family gave
the bride’s family goods that were among the most valuable symbols of wealth in their culture,
and her family reciprocated with gifts of equal value. After the Europeans brought horses, a
young man often gave his prospective father-in-law at least one horse for the right to marry
his daughter. This custom was most common on the Great Plains and Northwest Coast. In
other areas, rather than giving gifts, a male suitor lived with the bride and her family for a
year to demonstrate his ability to hunt and earn a living. This custom, known as bride service,
dominated in the Subarctic and Great Basin. Many Indian groups practiced both the exchange
of wealth and bride service. Often, the groom helped his wife’s family to farm the land or build
the house where the couple would reside.
Marriage ceremonies varied widely. In some societies, there was no formal ceremony, and
the exchange of gifts served to sanction the union of bride and groom. Other peoples held
formal ceremonies marked by feasts and celebrations. Among the most elaborate wedding
ceremonies were those of the Hopi in the Southwest. Traditional Hopi weddings still occur
today. These formal affairs last at least a week but take a year or more of preparation
involving all the members of the two families. Among other rituals, members of the bride’s
family give the groom’s family massive amounts of food—flour, cornmeal, baked goods, and
two years’ worth of corn harvest—to show their prowess as homemakers. The groom and his
family, in turn, bring meat, firewood, and clothing to the bride’s family to prove his ability to
provide for the family.
Living arrangements for a newly married couple differed depending upon the rules of the
society. Most commonly, the wife was expected to leave her band or family home and spend
the rest of her life with her husband’s band. Such an arrangement, which anthropologists call
patrilocal residence, enabled the husband to continue to hunt in a territory that he had grown
up in and knew well. Groups in the Arctic, eastern Subarctic, northern Great Plains, California,
southern Northwest Coast, Plateau, and the Southwest practiced patrilocal residence. Among
other groups, such as the Hopi, the new husband moved to the household of his wife and
spent the rest of his life with her relatives, an arrangement known as matrilocal residence. In
this way, property remained in the woman’s family and was passed down to her daughters.
The new husband farmed his wife’s fields and lived with his wife in the house where she had
Less common, but found in the Great Basin and western Subarctic, were societies with bilocal
residence rules, in which the couple could reside with either the husband’s or wife’s families
or shift back and forth between the families. Very seldom did people establish their own home
in an area where neither set of parents lived (neolocal residence). However, sometimes the
husband would decide to move with his wife to a new band that had greater access to food or
other important resources.
Divorce was not uncommon in Native American societies, and sometimes a husband or wife
remarried almost immediately. Laziness, continual bickering, infidelity, failure to have
children, and lack of respect for in-laws were acceptable grounds for divorce.
E3 Childrearing and Education
Native American societies usually desired large families. Children often died during birth or in
the first years of life, so having many children helped to maintain and replenish the
population. In addition, children were desirable because they helped their parents with food
gathering, farming, and care of younger children. They also cared for their parents as they
aged. In general, family members depended greatly upon each other, with grandmothers and
aunts taking care of the children when a mother had to work in the fields. Babies and children
were often raised and cared for by members of the extended family—grandparents, uncles,
and aunts all assumed part of the parental role.
Native American children were given little formal educational instruction; instead, they
learned by example and by doing. Relatives usually educated boys and girls separately.
Mothers and other female relatives taught girls to sew, weave, make pottery, and gather and
prepare food, while fathers and male relatives taught boys to hunt, ride horses, and
participate in warfare. Children were lavishly praised for their accomplishments. Each time a
boy killed a kind of animal he had not killed before, his relatives praised him and recognized
his achievement. But they also taught him generosity by making him give away all the meat.
Similarly, a girl had to give away the first roots, berries, or seeds that she gathered.
Another means of instruction was the telling of stories. Grandparents played important roles
as teachers. They recounted their own experiences to the children and told traditional stories
that included valuable lessons related to proper behavior. They also passed on tribal history
and creation stories. Such stories were generally told in the winter months, when there was
less work to perform, the nights were longer, and cold weather forced families to stay inside.
Discipline of children was usually the responsibility of someone other than the parents, often
the father’s sister or the mother’s brother. This arrangement helped keep hostility between
parents and their children at a low level. Spirits, brought to life by masked or painted men
whose identity was disguised, also served as disciplinarians. Physical punishment was rare or
mild throughout native North America. The most common form of correction was ridicule.
Ridiculing a person in song or through personal criticism in public was common. Among the
Crow Indians of the Great Plains, a person even had a designated “joking relative,” such as a
cousin, who ridiculed him or her for bad behavior. The threat that this relative could accuse
one of misbehavior acted as a deterrent to such behavior.
E4 Puberty Rites
Puberty rites, also called initiation rites, mark the passage of boys and girls into adulthood.
Among some Native American societies, such as the Sioux of the Great Plains, boys were
initiated into manhood with a vision quest, in which they sought contact with the spirit world.
For a Sioux boy at puberty, seeking a vision meant first purifying himself in a sweat bath in
a willow-stick lodge covered with bison skins; water poured over hot rocks inside the lodge
produced steam to cleanse the body and spirit. A shaman, a person with ties to the spirit
world, prayed for him, invoking the spirits to come to the boy’s aid. Next the boy walked to a
lonely hilltop wearing only a breechcloth (loincloth) and moccasins. Crouching in a pit, the
boy stayed there for four days and nights without food until receiving a vision or message
from his guardian spirit, who might take the form of an animal, human, or natural
phenomenon. This guardian spirit would provide guidance and purpose to the person for the
rest of his life. Although first undertaken in puberty, the vision quest could be repeated as
often as a man felt the need for spiritual assistance. Vision quests are still performed today,
although not nearly as widely as in past times, as Plains Indians seek to recover their spiritual
Puberty rituals for girls varied. Girls could go on a vision quest, but it was considered less
necessary than it was for boys. Some Native American cultures developed rituals around first
menstruation. In the Yukon Subarctic and on the Plateau, a pubescent girl had to follow
special behavior for one to four years. For example, she might be expected to abstain from
certain kinds of meat so that she did not spoil the men’s success in hunting game. In nearly
all cultures, a pubescent girl was supposed to avoid contact with hunters, fishermen,
shamans, and priests. These individuals were believed to be susceptible to harm from her
close contact with supernatural forces. Elaborate girls’ puberty ceremonies were held by
northern California groups and by the Navajo and Apache tribes. Still held today, the Girls’
Puberty Ceremony of the Western Apache, also called the Sunrise Ceremony, lasts four days
and four nights. Girls who have had their first menstrual period during the previous year are
blessed by singers and by their relatives and friends. During the four days, the girls are
believed to embody White Painted Woman, a spiritual being who gave many blessings to the
people. The girls demonstrate the strength they will need in life by running in the four
directions, dancing continuously for many hours, and undergoing other rites. In the
Mescalero Apache version of this ceremony, singers recount the history of the Apache,
reminding the girls of their responsibility to their people. Thus, the ceremony not only
instructs and honors the girls as they make the social transition to womanhood, but it also
affirms the closeness of the entire community and its enduring history over time.
E5 Division of Labor
In most Indian communities, men and women performed different tasks. Men and boys had
many responsibilities, including hunting, trapping, trading, butchering animals, and making
boats, tools, weapons, carvings, and other objects. They also did most of the fishing, clearing
of land, preparation of the soil, building of houses, and the making of rope and cords. Women
and girls were responsible for carrying water, gathering and processing wild plant foods, and
cooking meals. They also gathered shellfish and fuel, wove cloth, made clothing and mats,
and fashioned pottery. Either or both sexes farmed the land, prepared animal skins, and
made leather products.
E6 Unmarried Individuals
The only unmarried individuals in Native American societies were those too young to be
married, the widowed, the divorced, and berdaches, men who assumed many of the
mannerisms, behavior patterns, and tasks of women. Yet sometimes berdaches married men.
In such cases, the berdache fulfilled the traditional wifely role while the male partner provided
game from hunting and performed other male tasks. Some Native American cultures also had
“manly-hearted women” who hunted and assumed other male roles; often the
manly-hearted woman married another woman who fulfilled female tasks.
F Recreation and Games
Sports and games were an important part of many Native American cultures. Many games
held a central place in ceremonies, and many popular sports began as religious rites. Often
games prepared participants for such activities as war and hunting. Nearly all Indian games
required the participants to prepare spiritually and to demonstrate high standards of
sportsmanship. Indians often lavishly decorated their game equipment and wore body paint
or decorations during the game. Wagering on the outcome of games was very common.
Gambling was not considered to be a moral issue, but rather was part of the social life of the
Competitive team sports, such as ball games and foot races, were the most widespread and
popular games. The most prevalent ball game was lacrosse, one of a variety of stickball
games in which players could not touch the ball with their hands. Played with a single netted
racket or stick by the Iroquois and with two rackets by Southeastern tribes, lacrosse is
considerably tamer today than its original form. The original form was such a violent game
that it was considered to be a peacetime substitute for war, and nearly any strategy was
acceptable, including stomping, butting, and biting. Players were often killed in the melee. As
many as 700 players participated in the Choctaw version of lacrosse, running, leaping, and
tripping each other in their efforts to catch the ball in their sticks and throw it to their goal.
Played between the residents of neighboring Choctaw villages, the games were major social
events that drew over 1,000 spectators, many of whom wagered skins or furs on the
Even more popular than lacrosse was the hoop-and-pole game, which required players to
stop a rolling hoop by hitting it with a wooden pole or spear. Two players or teams could play,
and the highest score was awarded for stopping the hoop with the pointed end of the pole.
Played on a smooth, level course roughly 45 m (150 ft) long, the hoop-and-pole game tested
fleetness, eyesight, and skill in spear throwing, all essential skills for warfare and hunting. A
similar game called chunkey (also spelled chungke or tchung-kee) was played with a stone
disk or ring as the target; further variations used netted hoops as targets or darts or arrows
instead of poles. Other athletic games included archery, wrestling, foot racing, and after the
acquisition of horses, horse racing. Snow snake, a game played in colder northern climates,
involved hurling a long, smooth stick on a course of ice or packed snow; the player whose
stick slid farthest was the winner.
Men and women devoted a great deal of leisure time to playing games of chance, such as
dice games or guessing games. The hand game was a guessing game played throughout
much of North America. Teams would take turns guessing which of an opponent’s hands held
a marked object. A correct answer won a counting stick (used to tally the score), and the
team that won all of the counting sticks claimed a prize. Guesses were often accompanied by
singing and drumming. Another guessing game, the moccasin game, required the winner to
identify which moccasin hid a stone. The moccasin game was integral to the Navajo (Diné)
creation story. In this story, night animals and day animals played the moccasin game to
determine whether the Earth should be in total darkness or total light. Neither side won, so
each day was divided into periods of darkness and daylight.
Children played games among themselves that prepared them for adult activities. Girls
played with dolls and other miniatures (such as miniature tipis on the Plains), while boys
pretended to hunt and make war. Grandparents, who often had more leisure time than
parents, prepared children for their adult roles through play.
Storytelling was a popular form of entertainment and an important way that older tribal
members handed down cultural knowledge and moral teachings. The traditional time for
storytelling was winter, when inclement weather kept families inside in most parts of North
America. According to Native American belief, winter was the only time that bears and other
hibernating animals could be talked about without disturbing them.
The most common form of Native American transportation was foot travel. The backpack
was the primary means of carrying loads, whether a single woman was carrying home the
food that she had gathered for her family or an entire group of people was shifting camp.
Women consistently carried heavier loads than men because men had to be prepared to
pursue game at any moment and to defend their families. The wheel, used in the Middle East
as early as 3500 , was absent in the Americas before Europeans arrived.
Canoes were used for transportation nearly everywhere in North America, except for arid
regions such as the Great Basin and Southwest. In the Arctic, Subarctic, Northeast, and on
the Plateau, most canoes were built of wooden frames covered by bark or animal hides. The
Iroquois of the Northeast used elm bark to cover their canoes. Canoes were an essential
means of long-distance travel for Iroquois warriors, who might leave their villages for as long
as three months at a time on military expeditions, and, soon after their return, go on hunting
or trading expeditions that took them far from home. The lightest and most maneuverable
canoes, however, were made by the Algonquian Indians, who lived north of the Iroquois in
lands where white birch trees were so plentiful that the light of the noonday sun barely
reached the forest floor. Bark from the birch trees was sewn into sheets large enough to make
a canoe. These exceptionally light, waterproof vessels so impressed French fur trader Samuel
de Champlain that he encouraged his men to replace their clumsy French skiffs with birchbark
Dugout canoes made from large hollowed-out logs were common in much of North America.
The peoples of the Northwest Coast were the masters of this method, and some tribes made
as many as seven different types of canoes. The largest and most impressive of these types
was the Haida war or ceremonial canoe, a seagoing vessel that was as long as 21 m (70 ft)
and could hold up to 60 people. The canoe was made by splitting a giant red cedar log
lengthwise, shaping it, and hollowing it out with controlled burning and hand tools. A tall prow,
elaborately carved and painted, improved the canoe’s stability and repelled wave action in
stormy seas. Other Northwest tribes, such as the Nootka and the Makah, also built large
seagoing dugout canoes for whaling, seal hunting, and trading. Northwest Indian canoes
were highly prized and often used for trade.
Bullboats were round, basin-shaped boats made and used primarily by Mandan women of the
Great Plains to transport goods across shallow rivers or streams. To construct a bullboat,
several women worked together to stretch bison hide over a willow frame. A single paddler
could successfully steer a bullboat. The vessel was kept on a straight course using a drag of
driftwood attached to the bison tail that had been left on the hide.
The Ojibwa and other Subarctic peoples used toboggans and snowshoes for winter travel. An
Ojibwa family had to move at least once or twice during the winter to new hunting grounds
because fresh game was so hard to find. They loaded their goods onto toboggans that were
as much as 2.5 m (8 ft) long and were often pulled by dogs. Even with toboggans hauling
supplies, women shouldered loads of up to 64 kg (140 lb) on their backs, while men ranged
through the woods in search of game. Snow remained on the ground until early spring, so
snowshoes were necessary. Their usage determined their shape. Most northern groups
preferred long, narrow snowshoes for use on already traveled trails, while more southern
groups were partial to rounded snowshoes for traveling over fresh snow. Spruce, birch, or
willow provided the frames, and snowshoe webbing came from partly tanned strips of hide.
With the proper type of snowshoes to keep him on top of the snow, a hunter could easily keep
pace with caribou or moose as the animals moved with difficulty through high drifts.
Until horses became available in the mid-1700s, moving camp on the Great Plains was a
lengthy and exhausting experience, and groups were only able to cover 8 to 10 km (5 to 6 mi)
per day. Each family used a dog to pull a travois (pronounced truh-VOY), an apparatus that
consisted of two poles on either side of the animal that were harnessed to its chest, shoulders,
and back. Crossbars covered with hides joined the poles behind the dog and served as the
cargo platform; the rear end of the poles dragged on the ground. The family tipi and other
belongings were lashed securely to the travois; the travois poles also served as the main
poles for the tipi. Because dogs could only carry about 34 kg (75 lb), tipis had to be relatively
small. Dogs were also unreliable because they often disappeared while chasing rabbits or
were injured during fights with each other.
Horses could travel twice the distance and carry four times the load of a dog. Before the
introduction of the horse, old and sick people had to be left behind, but with horses, they
could be carried on a horse-drawn travois. Horses could haul heavier, longer poles, so tipis
became taller as well as wider. Originally, tipi covers were made to suit the dog’s carrying
capacity of 6 to 8 hides, but with horses carrying the weight, tipi covers expanded to 12 or
more bison hides. The amount of food, clothing, and household objects Plains Indians could
keep also increased because larger loads were easily transportable on horseback.
To learn more about the transportation methods of Native Americans in a specific
geographical area, see the Culture Areas section of this article.
H1 Before European Contact
Trade was extremely important among Native American tribes long before European contact.
Some of the earliest evidence of trade within North America comes from copper tools,
ornaments, and utensils found at archaeological sites from the Great Plains to the Ohio Valley
and New York. Evidence shows that these artifacts were produced by Native Americans in the
northern Great Lakes region some 6,000 to 7,000 years ago. At the Indian Knoll site in
Kentucky, which is between 3,000 and 7,000 years old, archaeologists have found shell
ornaments and copper items. The site is far from the coast and far from any copper source,
which means that the people of the Indian Knoll region must have participated in an
extensive trade system.
Trade networks were far-reaching and linked nearly all parts of North America. Marine shells
from the coast of southern California were traded as far north as southwestern Colorado and
as far east as the Texas Panhandle. The Mojave, who lived along the Colorado River in the
Southwest, obtained shells and manufactured shell objects from the Angelino Indians in
California and traded them to the Hopi in Arizona for textiles and pottery. The macaw, a
brightly colored parrot, was highly valued for its feathers. Macaws were transported alive
from their Mexican habitat 1,900 km (1,200 mi) to northern New Mexico and Arizona.
Nomadic tribes of the Great Plains traded dried meat, fat, tanned hides, tipis, bison robes,
and buckskin clothing for the corn, beans, pumpkins, and tobacco cultivated by sedentary
H2 After European Contact
Once European goods became available, they were quickly integrated into previously
existing trade networks. In the Southwest in the 1850s and 1860s, the Hualapai traded their
buckskins for Hopi and Zuni textiles, which they exchanged for horses from the Mojave. The
Hualapai then traded the horses for guns and ammunition from the Southern Paiute, who had
obtained these firearms from Utah Mormons. The Havasupai, who raised crops in a side
branch of the Grand Canyon during the summer, traded their crops for Hualapai deer and
mountain sheepskins. The Mojave also farmed corn, pumpkins, and beans that, during times
of peace, they traded for Hualapai game. Other highly valued Hualapai commodities included
basketry, mescal (a product of the agave plant prepared as food or used to make an alcoholic
beverage), and, especially, the rich red ochre pigment that they collected from a cave in their
territory. Navajo blankets were especially prized as trade items and were seen as far away as
the Great Plains.
Many Native American groups had indirect contact with European culture through trade
goods long before they actually encountered European explorers, missionaries, or traders.
Metal tools and firearms probably had the greatest impact of the earliest trade items because
they made it easier for Native Americans to obtain food and to make clothes and equipment.
The acquisition of guns and ammunition became necessary for the survival of most Native
American groups. A tribe’s survival could depend on whether it acquired firearms before
neighboring rival tribes had them.
Trade with Europeans dramatically changed Native American ways of life. In the Northeast,
for example, European demand for furs was so strong that Indian men spent more time
trapping fur-bearing animals, especially beavers, than hunting game for their own families,
and women spent time tanning them. With furs to trade, they could obtain guns, knives,
horses, tools, glass beads, sugar, flour, whiskey, and other desirable trade items. But as
tribes became increasingly dependent on European goods, their self-sufficient ways of
hunting, gathering, and farming began to vanish. In addition, trade with Europeans exposed
Indian groups to devastating diseases and introduced alcohol addiction. See Fur Trade in
Although no true money existed in Native American societies before Europeans came, some
articles were used as media of exchange: dentalia (tooth shells) on the Northwest Coast,
clamshell disk beads in California, and beaver furs in the Subarctic. In the Northeast,
beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries, many tribes used wampum, cylindrical beads
fashioned from the central column of seashells. Whelk shells were used for the white variety
and quahog shells for the dark purple or “black” variety. The beads were woven into strings,
belts, sashes, headbands, and other items. Pictographs—designs that represented figures or
other forms—were sometimes woven into wampum belts. For example, the George
Washington Covenant Belt, which commemorated a peace treaty between the United States
and the Iroquois League, included 13 large human figures that represented the 13 founding
states of the United States. The value of wampum increased as it moved farther from its place
Among Native Americans, the use of wampum as a medium of exchange was originally less
important than its ceremonial functions. For example, among the Iroquois it was traditional
to accompany important statements with a gift to demonstrate the sincerity and significance
of the statement. In time, wampum became the most appropriate and customary gift
because it was such a rare and prized item that took intensive labor and time to produce. In
addition, wampum came to serve as a letter of introduction and a certificate of authority.
Treaties between the Iroquois and other Indian nations, as well as those between the
Iroquois and European nations, were accompanied by an exchange of wampum to signify the
sincerity of the parties involved. Wampum beads were also sometimes used in religious
Beginning in the 17th century, however, wampum drew the attention of Europeans who were
trying to encourage Native Americans to provide them with furs. It soon became an important
medium of exchange. Indians increased their wampum production to obtain goods from
Dutch and English traders, who then traded the wampum to other groups for furs. In the late
1700s and throughout the 1800s, Europeans established wampum factories on Long Island
and in New Jersey to mass-produce wampum for trade.
I Warfare and Weaponry
Native American warfare was a highly ritualized activity that included particular behavior,
dress, and preparation. Rituals varied according to tribal traditions, history, technology,
environment, and values. Some tribes placed greater emphasis than others on warfare. For
example, most peoples of the Great Basin and Arctic lacked the political and military
organization associated with true warfare. In the Great Plains, Northeast, and Southeast, on
the other hand, warfare was a more integral part of the culture. However, even in these areas,
conflicts between whole tribes were rare before the European demand for furs created
I1 Warfare Between Tribes
Warfare between tribes was fairly common practice before European contact, although some
tribes were more warlike than others. There were various causes of warfare. Most commonly,
tribes fought over territory. Tribes that did not have enough farmland or hunting territory to
feed their people might attack a neighboring tribe to gain more territory and avert food
shortages. Revenge was another reason for warfare. Tribes might attack another tribe to
avenge tribal members who died in a previous conflict. Among tribes with a strong sense of
ethnic superiority and invincibility, hostilities could be easily ignited by ethnic insults from
members of another tribe. To avenge those insults, the tribe went to war.
Once Europeans arrived in North America, power relations changed among tribes. Some
tribes allied themselves with Europeans to fight old tribal enemies and to improve their own
chances of survival. The acquisition of superior European weaponry or horses gave some
tribes an immediate advantage over others. After the five nations of the Iroquois Confederacy
and several Algonquian tribes in Canada acquired European guns, they were able to seize
great stretches of the Northeast from tribes that did not possess firearms. The desire for
European goods or horses could also lead to warfare; some Indians captured members of
rival tribes and sold them as slaves to Spanish settlements in exchange for horses.
I2 Tactics and Customs
Native Americans distinguished between raiding and warfare. The purpose of raiding was to
find and bring home enemy property, such as horses, cattle, and sheep (all acquired after
European arrival) or other food sources. Usually 5 to 15 men made the foray into enemy
territory. Their goal was to retrieve as much as possible without any loss or injury to those in
the raiding party. Stealth was essential to avoid capture. Raiders usually worked under cover
of darkness, and they moved as quickly and quietly as possible while in enemy territory.
Warfare, in contrast, involved all the available men in the tribe or band; the men might even
send out messages to members of other bands to join them. As in raiding, scouts were sent
out in advance to locate the enemy. Based on this information, the men tried to fully surround
their target without the enemy’s knowledge, then attack with surprise. Another tactic was to
lure enemies into pursuit so that a larger group could surround them and attack. While
raiding and warfare tactics were similar, their goals were quite different. Raiding was done
without disturbing enemies to acquire goods, whereas warfare involved the full engagement
of enemies and, generally, the slaying of as many of them as possible.
On the Great Plains, war was considered a sport through which individuals performed
personal exploits that brought them prestige. Plains warriors obtained honor through the
custom of counting coup, which involved performing a feat of courage during battle. A warrior
counted minor coups when he killed a foe or was wounded himself. But the greatest honor
came from touching an armed foe with a coup stick (or anything else held in the hand) during
battle without necessarily harming him, because the Plains Indians valued bravery much
more than killing. After the battle, warriors who had counted coup received the right to wear
eagle feathers that were notched or marked to identify their courageous deed to others.
Plains women performed special dances when parties returned victorious and derived honor
from their husband’s deeds. Sometimes they even participated in battle.
The rewards of successful warfare were compelling. Warriors obtained prestige and fame in
their tribes, and they reaped material goods such as the enemy’s weapons and horses. The
Mojave of the Southwest enjoyed warfare as an activity because it required energy, skill, and
courage to fight warriors from other tribes, and they gained satisfaction from doing so. On a
larger scale, successful warfare could result in increased tribal territory and better access to
natural resources, especially fertile farmland. However, battle carried many risks for warriors.
These included death, permanent injury, and, if one did not perform with valor, loss of
respect. If a warrior died or was severely injured, his family members had to find other means
of supporting themselves. If a warrior showed cowardice during battle, such behavior
reflected poorly on his family and could cause permanent shame in the village or band where
they lived. The death of warriors also reflected negatively on the war leader, who lost prestige
The torture of prisoners was the most distinctive feature of warfare in eastern North America.
The torture of enemy tribal members and later, of Europeans, appears to have originated in
the East; after European contact the practice spread to the Great Plains. Tied to a stake or
platform, prisoners were tortured with mutilation, stabbing, shooting with arrows, fire, or
dismemberment while still alive. Prisoners might also be made to run between two parallel
rows of warriors who beat them with clubs and sticks as they ran; if they survived, they might
be given freedom. Usually only men were tortured in large public spectacles. Captured
women and children were treated as slaves until they married or were adopted into the tribe.
Young male captives might be taken as husbands by one of the many widows of slain warriors
and eventually adopted into the tribe as free and equal members.
Every tribe had ritual preparations for warfare, and nearly all conducted purification rituals
after warfare. Preparations might involve fasting or eating only certain foods before going to
war, as well as abstaining from sexual relations. Often, warriors’ wives had to follow specific
rules of behavior while their husbands were away at war. Among the Tohono O’Odham
(Papago) of southern Arizona, for example, wives and daughters of warriors laid firewood
down gently and avoided laughing or talking in a loud voice, believing that such behavior
would put the husbands and fathers in jeopardy. The Tohono O’Odham believed that a
menstruating wife so weakened her husband that he would be killed, so such husbands
stayed home. Men who returned from battle were considered to be full of power that could
harm their families if they were not purified. Tohono O’Odham warriors who had killed or
scalped enemies lived in isolation for 16 days, where they ate from bowls that had to be
thrown away because the bowls were believed to have absorbed too much of the power;
warriors also had to be bathed to wash off the power. The Navajo (Diné) performed a
ceremony called the Enemyway for returning warriors to exorcise the ghosts of non-Navajo
they had slain, while the Blessingway ceremony invoked positive blessings to protect both
departing and returning warriors. Both the Enemyway and Blessingway are still performed
today. The Enemyway is performed for Navajos involved in conflicts as part of their service in
the United States military, while the Blessingway ceremony is used to bless Navajo members
of the armed services as well as for marriages, new houses, and many other purposes.
I3 Warfare with Europeans
The main cause of war between Europeans and Native Americans was the European
colonists’ hunger for land and, in some cases, slaves. Although the European groups varied in
their expressed goal—whether it was religious conversion, trade, or settlement—ultimately,
the Spanish, French, and English all sought to gain control of North America. All three
European groups bartered manufactured items for furs and skins. Europeans also sold their
Indian prisoners as slaves to other Europeans.
Periodically, tribes rose up in rebellion against the loss of their people and land, slaughtering
whites and destroying their property. The government then sent military expeditions to
punish the tribe. Sometimes the two sides would sign a treaty guaranteeing Indians a portion
of their homelands. Inevitably, however, white settlers would encroach on Indian land, and
the cycle of Indian-white warfare began again.
Many Native American tribes formed alliances with other tribes to fight Europeans and
Euro-Americans with their superior weaponry. In the beginning, Indians used the same battle
methods and tactics against non-Indians as they had used in warfare against other tribes.
However, the Native American perception of war as a stage for acquiring personal glory,
instead of killing the enemy, put them at a distinct disadvantage in fighting white soldiers
who sought to destroy them above all else.
The treatment of captives varied from tribe to tribe. Some tribes tortured their European
prisoners, and whites wrote lurid accounts of Indian torture. But such stories were easily
exaggerated and often served to justify white hostility and the taking of Indian lands. In fact,
there were some white captives who wanted to remain with their Indian families even when
they had the opportunity to return to the Euro-American way of life. Mary Jemison was a
teenager in 1758 when her family was brutally murdered by a French and Indian raiding party.
Given to two Seneca sisters to replace their slain brother, Mary was treated as a long-lost
child and lost all desire to return to her previous life. She married and had children in the
Although Indians had been taking scalps as war trophies and visible proof of valor before the
arrival of Europeans, the worth placed on scalps varied from tribe to tribe and not all groups
took scalps. Once Europeans began offering bounties for scalps (of both Native American and
European enemies), the practice spread to Indians who had not previously taken scalps, and
those who had intensified their efforts. The practice of scalping spread further with the
expansion of the American frontier.
For a discussion of specific wars between Native Americans and Europeans during the period
of European settlement in North America, see Indian Wars.
The standard Indian weapons were the bow and arrow and the spear, with each tribe having
its own variants. Plains warriors were so skilled that they could shoot arrows more rapidly
than a white marksman could fire his revolver. For close combat, Plains warriors used many
types of clubs, including tomahawks, stone-headed clubs, wooden clubs with knife blades,
ball-and-spike clubs, pointed clubs with rawhide wristbands, and rawhide slingshots that
hurled heavy stones. The Mojave, who considered warfare an important part of their culture,
relied on short, very heavy clubs made of mesquite or ironwood, with a handle whose shaft
was sharpened to a point for use as a weapon. The introduction of European firearms made
it possible to kill people from a greater distance, revolutionizing Indian warfare.
J Language and Communication
There is no way of knowing exactly how many Native American languages once existed in
North America. It is known, however, that in 1900, more than 300 distinct languages were
spoken. In some areas, such as the Arctic rim, the same language was spoken over a large
area. In other areas, such as California, greater linguistic diversity existed than is found in all
of modern Europe. Today, about 150 Indian languages are still spoken in North America, but
less than 50 of these are widely spoken.
Usually members of a tribe learned a neighboring tribe’s language to communicate with
them, facilitating trade and intertribal agreements. However, in areas where many different
languages existed, sign language (a language of hand gestures) was necessary. Originating
either on the Texas Gulf Coast or in the extreme southern Plains, American Indian sign
language probably arose to meet the communication needs of the deaf, or in other contexts,
such as hunting and warfare, where silence was crucial. It was ideal for face-to-face
communication between people who spoke different languages. Sign language spread onto
the Great Plains, where it gained wide use because so many languages were spoken there
that lacked similar vocabulary or grammar.
Smoke signals were another nonverbal form of communication. They were used throughout
the continent mainly to announce the presence of game or to warn of enemies. In smoke
signaling, Native Americans fed a fire with damp grass or green leaves to create smoke. By
varying the type of fuel and manipulating the smoke with a blanket, Indians could create a
smoke column in a wide range of different shapes and colors. On the Plains such signals could
be seen as far away as 80 km (50 mi). Mirror signals were also used to communicate in areas
of wide visibility, such as the Plains and Southwest.
Many Native American groups used pictography, or picture writing, to aid in remembering
information and to convey new information. Tribes recorded historical and religious events in
pictorial form on various materials. For example, Plains Indians painted pictographs on hides,
while Northeast tribes used birchbark scrolls. Sometimes pictographic texts were sent as
messages. The most famous Native American writing system was created by Sequoya, a
member of the Cherokee tribe, in the early 19th century. He devised a syllabary, a set of
written characters representing syllables that enabled hundreds of Cherokee to learn to read
and write their language by the 1820s. Today, the Oklahoma Cherokee continue to use his
syllabary for their tribal newspaper.
All Native American tribes had and continue to have a strong tradition of storytelling, also
called oral literature. Older members of the tribe taught their traditions, morals, legends,
myths, and history to younger people through stories and performances that were often as
entertaining and humorous as they were educational. On the Northwest Coast, performers
riveted their audience’s attention by wearing fantastic masks and costumes as they danced
by a central fire.
When Europeans landed in America, they encountered many things for which they had no
names and had to adopt Native American terms for identification. Thus, many Native
American terms entered the English language. Animals names based on Indian words include
moose, cougar, skunk, and caribou, while plant names that come from Indian words include
mesquite, pecan, saguaro, hickory, and persimmon. Europeans also borrowed Native
American names for cities such as Chicago, Seattle, Tallahassee, and Tucson. Many states in
the United States are named for Indian nations, including Delaware, Dakota, Kansas,
Massachusetts, Utah, and Illinois.
See also Native American Languages.
K Spirituality and Religious Practices
Spirituality was central to the lives of all Native Americans. Most Native American groups
shared the following spiritual concepts, although their expression differed: the existence of
unseen powers or spirits, the interdependence of all forms of life in the universe, a form of
worship that reinforces personal commitment to the sources of life, sacred traditions that
teach morals and ethics, trained practitioners who pass on sacred practices, and a belief that
humor is a necessary part of the sacred to remind us of our human weaknesses.
Each group’s origin story told how a holy being or beings meant for them to live in their
particular territory. Many groups believed in a single Creator or Great Spirit; others believed
there were multiple holy beings who joined together to create and guide human beings into
existence. Spiritual forces were believed to be present in every natural object, from insects to
mountains. Thus, Native Americans maintained a sacred relationship to animals and plants,
which provided physical and spiritual sustenance and were often part of a tribe’s mythological
All Native American belief systems shared the idea that the natural world was not created for
human exploitation and domination. Instead, Native Americans believed that if they cared for
the resources of the Earth, then the Earth would take care of them. Although considered to be
a sacred, living being, the Earth was not worshiped. Rather, the land was seen as an
expression of the Creator or Great Spirit that must be treated with respect. As a way of giving
thanks for the great gifts of the Earth, all indigenous peoples left offerings of a precious
substance, such as corn pollen, to plants and animals that gave their lives for human benefit.
Some tribes practiced elaborate thanksgiving ceremonies.
A person strived to live well, with respect for others, in order to attain a full life and reach old
age. Living a good life also meant that one prepared for death. Death was greatly respected
in all Native American traditions because of its inevitability. It was not feared or seen as the
end of life; rather, it was regarded as a natural part of life, a time of transition into another
world. Most Native American groups believed that at death the soul continued into an afterlife,
which varied according to the beliefs of different groups.
K1 Shamans and Priests
Health and spirituality were intimately intertwined in Native American beliefs, and spiritual
practices played an important part in maintaining and restoring health. Most communities
had individuals called shamans, who were believed to have direct contact with the
supernatural. A shaman’s primary roles were to diagnose and treat illness and to divine the
location of an enemy, food source, or missing object. The shaman generally went into a
trance to contact his or her personal spiritual guide for assistance in healing or divination. The
Havasupai of the Southwest believed that the spirit helper, after being summoned, lodged in
the shaman’s chest. When the shaman sang, it was really the spirit helper that sang. When
the shaman applied his mouth to a patient’s body to suck out the illness, the spirit helper
entered the patient and drew out the trouble. Shamans were sometimes called medicine men
or medicine women because they tended the sick.
Shamanism dominated religion and medicine in the Arctic, Subarctic, Plateau, and Great
Basin. On the Great Plains, in most of the East, and in much of the Southwest, religious
leaders included both priests and shamans. Priests had more formal religious training than
did shamans, and often led the ceremonies that marked major events in community life. They
derived their power from a codified body of rituals learned from an older priest. Such rituals
had to be carefully memorized and replicated precisely to be effective. The Southeast may
have been the only area in North America with full-time priests. Linked to the Sun, the
political and religious ruler of the Natchez inherited his position and had the power of life and
death over his subjects.
Native Americans celebrated many public ceremonies as well as private rituals. While tribal
practices varied considerably, many ceremonies focused on stages of the human life cycle.
These ceremonies, known as rites of passage, were often held to recognize the birth of a child,
the coming of age for a young woman, the warrior status of a young man, or the death of a
loved one. (For a discussion of puberty rites, see the Marriage and Family Life section earlier
in this article.)
Other ceremonies, rather than focusing on individuals, centered on communal well-being
and were held annually to give thanks and keep the universe in balance. The Green Corn
Ceremony, celebrated in the Southeast and Northeast near the end of summer when the late
corn crop ripened, marked the beginning of the new year. In this renewal ceremony, tribes
gave thanks for a successful harvest and formally forgave tribal members of all crimes except
murder. In the Southwest, the Hopi held the Snake Dance to bring the last summer rains.
Part of the dance involved the use of live snakes, which were believed to carry the request for
rain to the underworld, where the snakes lived. The Hopi also held religious ceremonies in
which dancers impersonated kachinas, or spirit beings, by wearing sacred costumes. Hopi
girls received wooden kachina dolls—elaborately carved, painted, and costumed—to teach
them about the kachinas. The Snake Dance, kachina dances, and other ceremonies continue
among the Hopi today.
Most Plains Indians performed the Sun Dance, a ceremony of spiritual renewal held to benefit
the welfare of the entire tribe. Lasting up to 12 days, the ceremony marked the beginning of
the summer encampment when the various bands of a tribe gathered after being separated
during the winter. The final four days of the ceremony, the most sacred period, included the
preparation of the Sun Dance Tree, or central pole, from which dancers suspended
themselves through skewers inserted through their flesh. Other dancers fasted or dragged
bison skulls attached to their skin with skewers. The extraordinary pain suffered by each
individual was believed to bring personal contact with the spirit world and to enhance tribal
Indians often prepared for ceremonies inside a sweat lodge, a low dome often made of willow
saplings covered with animal skins or blankets. Inside the sweat lodge, cold water was
poured over a pile of red-hot rocks to create steam. Usually a medicine man sang prayer
chants to help everyone release moral and physical impurities. In this way, sweat baths
helped to clear the mind and body.
The Pueblo peoples of the Southwest were among the few groups that had permanent
ceremonial structures. Pueblo peoples built round or rectangular chambers called kivas
underground, or partially underground, to house religious items and to serve as the site of
some ceremonies. Other Pueblo ceremonies were held outside on a central plaza. Only a few
tribes, such as the Natchez, had temples, but nearly all tribes established small temporary or
permanent shrines where they left sacred offerings.
K3 Tobacco, Alcohol, and Peyote
Indians in almost every region of North America used tobacco for religious rites and
ceremonies, for medicinal uses, and for relaxation. It was considered a sacred plant to most
Native American tribes, for its smoke enhanced their prayers as it rose to the sky and to the
Great Spirit. European explorers found tobacco in use by Native Americans of all regions
except the Arctic, Subarctic, and part of the Northwest Coast. For Plains Indians, tobacco
pipes were among the most sacred of objects. In addition to individually owned pipes, tribal
pipes were used to ensure a successful bison hunt, for healing purposes, and to mark the
initiation of peace or war. In California and Nevada, Native Americans ground tobacco leaves
with lime and water and ate the mixture. Sometimes Datura (jimsonweed) was mixed with
tobacco and drunk in an attempt to produce visions, acquire a spirit helper, bring success on
a hunt, or alleviate illness.
Alcoholic beverages were used in some parts of North America before European contact. The
Tohono O’Odham of the Southwest fermented syrup of the saguaro (a type of cactus) into
wine for their four-day saguaro wine feast, a ritual intended to bring the summer monsoons.
By saturating themselves with saguaro wine, they prayed that life-giving rain would likewise
saturate the parched earth of the Sonoran Desert.
Many tribes used hallucinogenic plants—plants or plant derivatives that produce
hallucinations when ingested—to enhance their religious rites and bring them into closer
contact with the Great Spirit. The most common hallucinogen was peyote, a spineless cactus
whose mushroom-shaped caps, or buttons, were dried and chewed or brewed into tea. First
used in Mexico and along the Rio Grande, peyote use later spread onto the Great Plains and
into Canada. In the late 1800s the Kiowa and Comanche were among the first tribes to adopt
the Peyote religion, or Peyotism. In 1918 the Peyote religion was formally incorporated as the
Native American Church, which regards peyote as sacred and uses it in religious ceremonies
and rituals. Church doctrine stresses brotherly love, family responsibility, self-reliance, and
abstinence from alcohol.
K4 European Influences
Beginning in the 16th century European missionaries tried to convert Native Americans to
various forms of Christianity. Often these missionaries created a major division within a tribe,
between those who had converted to Christianity and those who held to their traditional
beliefs. As tribes across North America became decimated by disease, alcoholism, warfare,
and as they lost more and more of their land to Europeans, they began to lose hope. Native
Americans called prophets by Europeans began to emerge, promising a return to previous
conditions, before whites had destroyed their way of life, if followers performed specific
rituals. For example, in the 1890s the Ghost Dance spread across the Plains, based on the
vision of a Paiute prophet and shaman named Wovoka. He preached that performance of the
dance would lead to the resurrection of dead relatives, the restoration of Indian lands, and
the disappearance of whites. Sidestepping around a large circle for hours at a time, dancers
went into a trance that was believed to transport them to an afterworld free of European
influence, and where their departed relatives lived. Euro-Americans regarded the ritual with
suspicion and alarm, and the government’s attempt to suppress it led to the massacre of
Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in December 1890.
See also Native American Religions.
L Music and Dance
Music played an important role in Native American life before and after European contact,
from spontaneous songs created by individuals as they went about their daily tasks to
ritualized music performed as part of a large ceremony. Social and ceremonial dances were
always performed to musical accompaniment, which usually featured drumming. Music was a
part of Indian life from birth until death; tribal creation stories were often told to musical
accompaniment, and songs memorialized the lives of individuals who had recently died.
Indispensable to religion, music also had a place in social life, warfare, subsistence activities,
Today, traditional music and dance are still integral to Native American life and rituals. One of
the best-known rituals is the powwow, an intertribal social gathering that features Native
American music, dancing, and arts and crafts. In addition to public performances, music and
dance are a common part of everyday rituals. Work songs ease daily tasks, and women sing
lullabies to their babies. There are also songs for lovemaking, boasting, and ridicule. Special
songs exist for gambling and other games. Dancing, with instrumental and vocal
accompaniment, is an important part of many cultural and social activities. Headdresses,
masks, and costumes, as well as face and body painting, are essential parts of ceremonial
L1 Traditional Instruments
In North America before European contact, singing was the dominant form of musical
expression, with instrumental music serving primarily as rhythmic accompaniment. Some
exceptions occurred. For example, young men on the Great Plains courted their sweethearts
by playing songs on the flute. While wind and percussion instruments were used, stringed
instruments were unknown, with the possible exception of hunting bows used as rhythm
instruments; the Apache fiddle was developed after European contact. Musical instruments
included a variety of drums, rattles, flutes, and whistles. Handheld rattles, filled with pebbles
or fruit seeds, were made of wood, baskets, gourds, rawhide, bark, clay, turtle shells, and
other materials. Other rattles were worn on the body or clothing of dancers and were made
of cocoons, deer hooves, turtle shells, seashells, and other materials. Other, less commonly
used instruments included rasps (a notched stick played by rubbing another stick against its
notches), bullroarers (a flat, oblong stick suspended by a string, producing a whirring sound
when spun around), and clapping sticks.
L2 Musical Forms
North American Indian music has a wide variety of forms, ranging from simple short songs
repeated many times to lengthy song cycles that take days to perform with little, if any,
repetition. Nearly all songs consist of only a single melody, and harmony is absent. The most
common melodic patterns conform to a pentatonic (five-tone) scale or consist of chains of
major and minor thirds. Rhythms are relatively complex, and song texts frequently consist
entirely or partly of meaningless syllables known as vocables.
L3 Dance Styles
Three major regional styles of Native American group dancing exist. The first region includes
most of the Southwest and eastern North America north to Labrador. Native American
dancers in this region form an open-ended circle and proceed counterclockwise, facing
forward or sometimes toward a person in the center, and usually stomp with the right foot,
followed by the left foot pulling up beside it. Dancers in the second region—the Plains and
much of the Great Basin and Plateau—tend to move clockwise in a closed circle, facing the
center, dancing with a light-footed step and dynamic body movements, characterized by arm
waving and leaping. The third region comprises the western parts of the Plains, Great Basin,
and Plateau, as well as the Navajo (Diné) and Apache in the Southwest. In these areas,
dancing is usually in single lines or in parallel lines that face each other, with the two lines
alternately meeting and receding. All three styles of dancing are found in California.
In the Arctic, the Inuit sing with considerable vocal tension and rhythmic pulsations on
longer notes. Their songs tend to be slow in tempo, with asymmetrical, complex rhythms.
Music serves primarily religious purposes, with shamans delivering incantations for health,
success in hunting, and good weather. Canadian Inuit women engage in rhythmic throat
singing, made up of both breathing sounds and voiced sounds, as part of a game in which two
women trade off sounds until one of them becomes exhausted or begins to laugh. Inuit
dances often feature men using the forceful movements of harpooning while women sing
L5 Northwest Coast
The vocal style of the Northwest Coast shows a more complex rhythmical pattern than that
of the Arctic and a wider range of intonation and richness. In the elaborate winter ceremonies
of many Northwest Coast peoples, an individual dances alone, singing a personal song around
a central fire, where he or she is soon accompanied by a group of musicians. The individual
then enters a trancelike state and imitates the actions of the spirit who possesses him or her.
Northwest Coast dance dramas are lengthy, elaborate productions with magnificent
costumes and complicated props; songs for these dramas are carefully taught and rehearsed.
L6 Great Basin
Some of the simplest indigenous musical styles in North America come from groups of the
Great Basin and California-Oregon border. The singing technique is smooth, without vocal
pulsation or tension. Many songs are performed without percussive accompaniment. The
Great Basin style features narrow melodic ranges, frequent returns to the tonic (first note of
the scale), paired phrases (a line repeated twice in a song), and a limited set of rhythmic
patterns. Music is used for religious and nonreligious purposes, including animal tales,
gambling songs, and lullabies.
As in the Great Basin, singing in the California region features a smooth, relaxed vocal
technique. California music is often characterized by a rise in pitch in the middle section of a
song. Song lyrics refer to myths, events, or emotions rather than telling a story, and often
alternate with vocables, or meaningless syllables. Singing is an important part of the
Mourning Ceremony of River Yuman tribes along the California-Arizona border. Held at the
time of death, the ceremony features the singing of song cycles with 50 to 200 songs in each
cycle; the ceremony lasts several days and nights.
L8 Great Plains
The music of the Great Plains is the best-known style of Native American music. The Plains
style infuses much of the music of present-day powwows. Singing is in a tense, pulsating,
forceful style. The leader usually starts the song as high as he can, often using falsetto, and
the chorus answers him. Together, they sing the melody, letting their voices descend
throughout the middle and last sections of the song, coming to rest on the lowest or next to
lowest note. Plains music is usually produced by a group of men who sit around a large
double-headed drum, singing in unison and drumming with drumsticks. At powwows, this
group of men is known as “the drum.” Most Plains music is functional and is used for religious
purposes, warfare, healing ceremonies, gambling, the vision quest, and serenading. In Plains
dancing, men commonly dance solo with bent body (several may dance at once,
independently), but there are also ritual group dances and social dances known as round
dances for couples.
The Southwest has three principal musical styles: Pueblo, O’Odham (Pima-Papago), and
Navajo styles. The Pueblo musical style is the most complex in North America and features
rhythmic accompaniments that range from steady beats to definite rhythmic designs
coordinated with those of the melody. Although much more complex and of greater range,
Pueblo melodies and vocal technique are similar to those of the Plains. Many Pueblo ritual
dances feature elaborately costumed dancers, who perform on the plaza in the center of each
Pueblo village. Clowns often perform as social commentary between dances, and some
clowns, seated at a drum, provide musical accompaniment for dancers. O’Odham musical
style, a combination of Pueblo and California-Yuman traits, features a smooth, relaxed
singing technique and comparatively simple rhythms and melodic patterns.
While a great part of Navajo ritual music has been influenced by the Pueblo Indians, the
basic Navajo musical style, as well as that of the various Apache tribes, comes from their
ancestral roots, the Athapaskan-speaking peoples of northwestern Canada and Alaska. The
Athapaskan musical style is characterized by melodies that have a wide range and an
arc-shaped contour, and by frequent changes in meter. The ability to sing in a falsetto voice
is highly respected. The Navajo distinguish between personal songs used for pleasure and
deeply sacred chants that may be sung only in the appropriate ceremonial context. Navajo
chants, often conducted in response to an illness, may last from three to nine nights and
combine music and ritual designed to restore mental and physical balance.
L10 Northeast and Southeast
Native American music in the Northeast and Southeast resembles Plains music, but its
melodic ranges tend to be narrower. Singing in these areas often uses polyphony (several,
independent melodies) and antiphony (call-and-response singing). Dance forms include
men’s solos, as well as ritual dances and social dances in the form of round dances. One of the
most popular dances in the Southeast is the Stomp Dance, which features a snakelike line of
dancers that follow a leader who calls out in song and is answered by his followers.
M Arts and Crafts
Native Americans did not create art for its own sake, for the purpose of contemplation. No
Native American language has a word for “art” because objects were created to be both
beautiful and useful. If the object was intended for use at a special occasion, the crafter would
lavish special attention and care on it, decorating it more elaborately to make it appropriate
to the spirit of the celebration. Yet even everyday utilitarian objects reflected artistry. Some
of the best-known and most highly prized Native American art forms include Navajo blankets,
California basketry, Pueblo pottery, and wooden painted and carved masks from the
For a more detailed discussion of Native American art in North America, including
contemporary art, see Native American Art.
Stonework provides some of the earliest evidence for occupation of North America. As early
as 11,500 years ago, people of the Clovis culture (named for an archaeological site near
Clovis, New Mexico) made finely crafted spearpoints, knives, and skin scrapers from rock.
Clovis hunters used bones to chip off flakes from a larger rock, which were then reworked and
sharpened into blades. People of another ancient American culture, the Folsom culture
(named for a site near Folsom, New Mexico) were masters of making small, finely flaked
spearpoints from flint, with fluting (channels) along the entire length of each face.
The Adena culture of the Ohio Valley, which took form around 3,000 years ago and lasted for
more than a millennium, made finely carved stone pipes that were placed with the dead in
gigantic burial mounds. The Hopewell, a slightly later group, also sculpted soft stones, such
as catlinite, into figurines of toads, falcons, and other animals. They carved ceremonial
blades from obsidian and shaped delicate figures, such as birds’ claws, from mica.
When archaeologists find pottery, they know that the peoples who created it probably lived in
permanent villages because it is so difficult to transport without breakage; most nomadic
peoples relied on basketry and animal-hide receptacles. Pottery making probably spread
north and northeast from Mesoamerica. By 1500 , Indians in eastern North America were
making pottery, and by 1000 BC pottery making was widespread in this area. Pottery making
reached the Southwest by 300 BC. The earliest Southwestern pottery consisted of plain brown
vessels or vessels covered by a red slip (a mixture of clay, mineral pigments, and water used
as a decorative layer). Painted pottery appeared in this region as early as 100 BC.
In addition to being used for cooking, pottery was also used for water jars, food storage,
dishes, incense burners, and burial urns. North American potters used three major
techniques: coiling, molding, and modeling. To make a coiled pot, the potter, usually a
woman, shaped the base of the pot with her hands and built up the sides by adding ropelike
pieces of clay, made by rolling lumps of clay between her palms. She fused the contact point
between new coils and old ones. To mold and flatten the clay, she might also slap a paddle on
the outside of the pot against an anvil held inside the inner surface of the pot. In the molding
technique, the potter shaped the clay around a previously constructed mold, such as a fired
pot. In modeling, the sides of the pot were constructed from slablike sections of clay that
were patted into place with the hands rather than built up through coiling. To fire the pots,
they were turned upside down and set on a low platform over a fire. Because pots could
shatter or become discolored if exposed directly to the fire, they were covered with large
potsherds (pieces of broken pottery) for protection. The potsherds were then covered with
animal dung, a slow-burning fuel that helped to distribute the heat evenly.
Some of the most outstanding pottery in North America was made in the Southwest by
various Pueblo tribes. The Hopi made elegantly proportioned bowls sometimes covered inside
and outside with bold curving patterns that alternate with finely painted parallel lines. The
distinctive style of Acoma potters featured heart-shaped pots with unusually thin but strong
walls. Their work was highly decorated with geometric or representational designs executed
with great artistry. Today, Pueblo tribes continue to make exquisite pottery with traditional
See also Pottery.
Basketry in North America originated as early as 7500 BC. The Anasazi of the Southwest were
among the early cultures that practiced this craft. By AD 400, they were weaving
extraordinarily long nets for trapping small animals and making yucca fibers into large sacks
and bags. The Anasazi were so skilled at basketry that the earliest Anasazi period is known as
the Basket Maker phase. This phase began between 500 BC and 100 BC and lasted until about
By the time of European contact, nearly all Native American peoples wove baskets. Created
in a wide range of forms, baskets were used primarily to gather, prepare, and store food.
Some baskets were covered with resin or pitch so they could hold water. Basketry techniques
were also used to make floor and house coverings, mattresses, clothing, and fishing traps.
Materials included strips of wood or bark, roots, reeds, canes, vines, and grasses. Finished
baskets were often decorated with embroidery and bright feathers, shells, or beads.
Native Americans used three basic methods of weaving baskets: twining, coiling, and plaiting.
In twining, two or more horizontal strands (called wefts) are twined around each other as
they are woven in and out of a set of vertical strands (called warps). In plaiting, three or more
flexible fibers, usually taken from flat-leaved plants, are braided. In coiling, thin strips of
plant matter are wrapped tightly in a bundle and coiled into a continuous spiral.
Some of the most prized baskets in the world were made by California Indians, who regarded
finely made baskets as objects of wealth. The Pomo decorated their coiled gift baskets with
strings of shells and yellow, black, and red feathers from several kinds of birds. The Aleut of
the Arctic, the Tlingit and Haida of the Northwest Coast, and Virginia Algonquians wove
twined baskets upside down, with the basket suspended from a stake. The Siouan peoples of
the Plains and the central Algonquians used a similar technique to make twined bison-hair
bags. Both examples are considered to be a transition between basketry and true weaving.
Even more advanced was the suspension of warps in a linear arrangement from a cord or bar,
a technique used by the Algonquian tribes of the Northeast.
Archaeological evidence indicates that weaving was highly developed centuries before the
first Europeans arrived. Woven textiles included clothing, bags, belts, footgear, hats,
blankets, and mats. The earliest textiles were made of native cotton, yucca, and other plant
fibers as well as human and animal hair. After the Spanish introduced sheep and goats, wool
became a popular weaving material. Most groups wove textiles using simple finger-weaving
techniques, such as knitting, crocheting, plaiting, looping, and twining. Indians of the
Northwest Coast, Plateau, and Southwest used spindle whorls to help them spin thread.
The true loom was known only in the Southwest. It consisted of a fixed rectangular frame,
two horizontal crossbars to which both ends of the warp threads were attached, and heddles,
or mechanisms for raising and lowering the warp thread in the pattern required. Pueblo kivas
(sacred ceremonial chambers) and homes have holes for the insertion of the weaving bars
used in the vertical or upright version of the loom. Among Pueblo peoples, men were usually
the weavers, but among the Navajo (Diné), who probably learned weaving from the Pueblo
peoples, the women did the weaving. Navajo weaving soon surpassed that of the Pueblo, and
Navajo blankets (and later, rugs) became valued trade items.
For more information on Native American clothing, see the Clothing and Adornment section
earlier in this article.
True metallurgy, which involves smelting metal from ore, was unknown north of present-day
Mexico. But as early as 7,000 years ago, people of the Old Copper Culture in the Great Lakes
area hammered deposits of pure copper into a variety of tools and ornaments, including
knives, axes, awls (sharp, pointed tools used for punching holes in leather or wood),
bracelets, rings, and pendants. Some scholars believe that the copper may have been heated
to the point where some of the brittleness produced by pounding it was eliminated, a process
known as annealing. The peoples of the Hopewell culture, which flourished from about 200 BC
to AD 400 in much of eastern North America, also mined copper from the Great Lakes region.
The finest metalworkers of their time, they traded copper and copper tools over great
distances. In the Southwest, archaeologists have found prehistoric copper bells produced
through an advanced casting process known as the lost-wax technique. Dating from as early
as AD 900, these bells are believed to have been obtained in trade from Mexico rather than
On the Northwest Coast, Indians made large copper plates with stylized designs, which
became highly valued objects and symbols of chiefly prestige. The Polar Inuit, the
northernmost people in the world, hammered meteoric iron into spearpoints and knives.
After European contact, Native Americans living in coastal areas occasionally scavenged
timbers from European shipwrecks for their iron bolts and nails, which they worked by cold
In the mid-1800s the Navajo adopted Spanish metalworking techniques and began
producing silver jewelry and bridle ornaments. Other Southwestern peoples learned from the
Navajo and today, the Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi produce three-fourths of the Indian jewelry in
North America. Historically, the three styles are quite different. Navajo silver workers use
cast or handworked silver that supports moderately large turquoise settings. Zuni jewelry
features more intricate patterns of many small turquoise, coral, and jet settings, with silver
primarily used as a framing. Hopi silverwork is known for its overlay technique with little, if
In traditional Native American cultures, paintings were not created purely for aesthetic
appreciation. In the Southwest, Pueblo peoples painted sacred imagery on the interior walls
of kivas, their permanent ceremonial structures. The Blackfeet and other Plains Indians
painted sacred imagery on their tipis and rawhide shields for protection from their enemies.
The Pueblo, Navajo, Apache, and O’Odham (Papago and Pima) peoples made sand paintings
for use in healing rites. These paintings, which portrayed sacred beings and events, were
created by spreading pollen, pulverized charcoal and sandstone, and other colored materials
over a ground of sand. The images were then destroyed as part of the ceremony. Some
Native American ceremonies included body painting.
Images used for ceremonial purposes usually had to conform to a certain form for the ritual
to be effective; there was little, if any, room for creativity. In contrast, secular art forms, such
as painted pottery, provided an outlet for the creative use of pattern. Paints and dyes were
made from plant and mineral pigments; after European contact, commercial dyes and paints
were often used. In the 20th century many Native American artists in Canada and the United
States adopted tempera, watercolor, and oil painting, using both traditional imagery and
modern Western styles. The Inuit and the peoples of the Northwest Coast have adapted their
traditional pictorial styles to printmaking.
Woodcarving was a widespread craft among Native Americans in nearly every region. The
peoples of the Northwest Coast developed a distinctive style that took three-dimensional
form in their painted and carved ceremonial canoes and in the magnificent totem poles that
towered over their immense cedar houses. Totem poles, which were actually family crests,
depicted the spiritual ancestors of a clan and figures from mythology. Northwest Indians also
carved human, animal, and mythical masks and figures for use as props in their complex
winter dramas, as well as elaborate serving vessels for potlatch feasts.
M8 Work in Other Materials
Leather was used extensively for clothing, tipis, shields, containers, quivers, cradleboard
covers, food vessels, sheaths, and ritual paraphernalia. In many areas, leather clothing was
often decorated with porcupine quills dyed with mineral or vegetable-derived colors and used
in combination with undyed quills to create dazzling patterns. After Europeans introduced
manufactured glass beads, beadwork replaced quillwork. (However, the number of quill
workers increased dramatically in the 20th century.) Native Americans in eastern North
America were inspired by embroidery designs of the French, and they substituted silk threads
for their previous designs of quills and moose hair.
The bark of the white birch tree provided a versatile material for the Algonquians of the
western Great Lakes area. They used birchbark to construct maneuverable canoes, durable
wigwams, cooking pots, dishes, needle cases, winnowing trays, and leak-proof containers for
maple syrup and water. Ojibwa women also created birchbark cutouts as patterns for
beadwork designs on moccasins. Men used birchbark to make pictographic scrolls that
recorded the imagery, songs, and teachings of the sacred Medewiwin, or Grand Medicine
Other materials, such as bone, horn, antlers, tusks, seashells, and feathers, were also used
to make tools, weapons, and ornaments. The Yurok and Hupa of California carved and
decorated distinctive spoons made of elk antlers, while the Tlingit of the Northwest Coast
carved bowls of mountain sheep horn that they shaped like animals or birds. The Iroquois and
Algonquians of the Northeast were known for their wampum, white and purple beads made
from whelk and quahog shells. The Hohokam, a prehistoric people in southern Arizona, used
acid to etch designs into shells. Most groups used feathers for ceremonial dress and objects.
The Pomo of California also used feathers from quails and woodpeckers to adorn their
spectacular ceremonial baskets.
Trudy Griffin-Pierce contributed the Traditional Way of Life section of this article.
The history of native North America begins with native peoples and their stories of origin,
often called creation stories. These stories are part of a Native American oral tradition that
predates European contact and extends back for countless generations. Creation and origin
stories tell of how the world was made and how particular groups of people came into being.
They tell of how animals, humans, and the natural world were created, and they offer
important instructions and lessons for living. Passed down from generation to generation,
these stories express the collective wisdom of particular Native American peoples. They are
also often very funny and provide wonderful forms of entertainment, particularly during
summer evenings and winter months when families exchange stories and help educate young
people in the ways of their ancestors.
All Native American traditions are specific to particular peoples and places. In the Southwest,
the creation story of the Navajo (Diné), tells of how people emerged into this world from
several lower worlds where different beings existed with First Man and First Woman.
Gradually moving through these different worlds, First Man and First Woman emerged into
the beautiful lands of the Navajo, known as Dinétah.
Among the Iroquois of the Northeast, stories record when a league of peace between various
Iroquois nations formed. The Iroquois peoples once lived in a time of terrible war. Nations
fought and killed each other, and relatives constantly attempted to avenge the death of their
family members. After the death of his family, one Onondaga chief, Hiawatha, became so
stricken with grief that he wandered lost in the forests until he met a foreign and powerful
man. This man, often simply known as the Peacemaker, helped Hiawatha mourn his lost
family and eased his pain through rituals and words of condolence. Together, Hiawatha and
the Peacemaker visited all the Iroquois nations and united them based on these new
principles of peace, not war. These seeds of peace grew over time and helped build the
Iroquois Confederacy. Today, the confederacy is one of the oldest political bodies in North
America, centuries older than the governments of Canada or the United States.
Other native groups have less specific origin stories. Among many groups in the West,
powerful trickster characters, such as Coyote and Raven, have mystical powers that helped
create and order the universe. These tricksters teach lessons through their own mistakes.
Shoshone peoples in California and Nevada, for example, have creation stories in which
Coyote and Raven possess human characteristics, particularly human limitations such as
greed and lust. The mishaps of Coyote and Raven often lead to unforeseen and hilarious
outcomes, including the creation of the natural world. One Shoshone tale tells of how Raven
stole and then populated the world with pine nuts, one of the Shoshone’s most important and
Such creation stories are central to native communities. They help give meaning to the world
and explain the place of native peoples within it. In addition to creation stories, Native
Americans rely on other oral traditions to pass down their histories and worldviews.
Understanding oral traditions is central to understanding Native American history, but it also
presents unique challenges. Because oral traditions often went undocumented or were
hidden from nonnative peoples, historians have often assumed that Indians did not have
history, that they were timeless peoples who did not keep documents or records of their
Historians have made many mistakes about Native American history, and only recently have
many of those errors been corrected. Historians, for example, once believed that Indians
were minor or unimportant actors in American and Canadian history. They generally saw
Indians as either obstacles in the making of North American history or as quaint, romantic
relics of a bygone era. Both views are racist and limiting. Native Americans remain central
actors in North American history, and their histories, like all histories, reveal the widest array
of human attributes. By studying Native American history, we can more clearly see the
making of Canadian and American history as well as the many complicated ways that diverse
Native Americans have skillfully negotiated centuries of often terrible changes.
A Early Cultures in North America
Scholars hotly debate when and how the first peoples—the ancestors of today’s Native
Americans—arrived in the Americas. What is clear, however, is that Native Americans have
lived in North America for countless generations and thousands and thousands of years. Such
extended, deep connections to the land strongly link Native Americans to the American
landscape. Most Native Americans insist that their ties to the land extend beyond the reach of
memory and that nonnative peoples should recognize and respect such ties.
Native Americans are part of the larger history of human evolution, but scholars are not
entirely sure how they fit into the chronology. According to archaeologists, the first peoples
migrated to the Americas via a land bridge that connected North America and Asia during the
last ice age, which ended 10,000 years ago. Estimates vary widely for precisely when these
peoples arrived. Some claim that they arrived before 15,000 years ago while others believe
that they arrived tens of thousands of years earlier. Although such claims are inconclusive,
archaeologists have found evidence of habitation throughout the Americas that dates back
many thousands of years. Some Native Americans dispute the theory that the first Americans
migrated from Asia. They argue that Native Americans originated in the Americas, pointing to
their creation stories as evidence. For more information about the populating of the Americas,
see Migration to the Americas.
Most archaeologists believe that the first Native Americans—often known as Paleo-Indians to
non-Indian scholars—were hunter-gatherers who developed technologies and practices
suited to hunting and fishing. These peoples used flint-chipped spear and arrow points to
catch big and small game, and fishing nets and weirs (fences or enclosures set in waterways)
to harvest fish. In using these and other devices, these early societies left behind material
traces of their cultures. Their tools, food waste, and even at times buried ancestors provide
clues about the nature of their lives.
At Folsom, New Mexico, archaeologists in 1926 and 1927 excavated one of the most
important archaeological sites in North America, containing bison bones and stone
spearpoints dating from about 11,000 years ago. Similar spearpoints, often known as Folsom
points, were found in other places in North America, revealing that early Native Americans
traded technologies across great distances. In 1933 at Clovis, New Mexico, archaeologists
found further and older evidence of the prevalence of Indian hunting and trading. The stone
spearpoints found at this site, known as Clovis points, were made by people who appeared in
North America about 11,500 years ago. Clovis points have been found throughout the United
States, Canada, and Mexico, suggesting that early Native American populations were linked
in trade thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans.
Archaeologists believe that these early peoples refined their methods for hunting North
America’s big game animals. Hunting mammoths, mastodons, and bison on foot, these early
Americans developed stronger and more reliable spearpoints for killing large animals. In fact,
archaeologists have experimented with these early weapons and have concluded that when
used properly these projectiles could bring down today’s African elephants—the largest land
mammals in the world.
Following large herds, Native American groups on the Great Plains also increasingly used
other hunting techniques. At Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in Alberta, Canada,
archaeologists believe they have unearthed the largest and oldest buffalo drive site in North
America, dating back more than 5,500 years. Indian hunters killed buffalo by confining them
on top of the surrounding cliffs and then frightening them and driving them over the edge.
Such skillful hunting methods conserved human energy and allowed for large group
interactions, particularly during the processing of such large animals. These buffalo kills also
increased trade links in the Great Plains through the exchange of buffalo meat.
Additional archaeological sites have revealed examples of other social and economic
practices from these distant eras. In the Great Basin, in caves around the Lahontan Basin in
Nevada, archaeologists have uncovered one of the oldest mummified skeleton burials in the
world. Estimated at more than 9,000 years old, the site reveals that Native Americans
honored and respected their dead and were deeply concerned about the condition and
treatment of their bodies after death. As with Clovis points, however, such remains provide
only faint glimpses into the material conditions of these earlier eras. Scholars can only
speculate as to the social or cultural meanings of such practices.
Along the Pacific Coast, archaeologists have found evidence that Native Americans from
Alaska to California developed economies centered on fishing more than 7,000 years ago.
Using nets, fishing ladders, weirs, boats, hooks, and spears, Native Americans annually
harvested massive quantities of salmon, their staple food. After waiting for the salmon to
return from the ocean to spawn, Native American fishermen and their families gathered
annually and collected millions of pounds of this prized resource. At The Dalles, Oregon, and
its surrounding areas along the Columbia River Gorge, archaeologists have uncovered an
enormous number of fish bones. As Indian traditions still recount, this prime fishing location
remained central to Northwest peoples for thousands of years. Native American fishing
declined at The Dalles only in the late 1930s, when the U.S. government built dams that
flooded critical areas along the river.
Besides hunting, gathering, and fishing, early Native Americans also constructed towns, built
irrigation systems, and harvested crops. Throughout the eastern United States, Native
Americans built communities that were home to thousands of people. The Adena culture of
the Ohio River Valley maintained large villages as well as earthen burial mounds that honored
their ancestors. Declining around AD 200, Adena communities were later replaced by the
Hopewell culture, which flourished from 200 BC to AD 400 in the same area.
Along the Mississippi River, people of the Mississippian culture designed what is believed to
have been the largest pre-Columbian city north of Mexico. At Cahokia, outside modern-day St.
Louis, Missouri, Mississippian peoples built large earthen burial and temple mounds and
harvested thousands of acres of crops, particularly the “three sisters,” as maize (corn), beans,
and squash came to be known. Nestled near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi
rivers, Cahokia may have been inhabited by as many as 20,000 people at its peak between
1100 and 1200, although some estimates are nearly twice that number. It is believed that the
Mississippian culture declined after the early 16th century.
North America before European contact was a diverse and interconnected world. Native
peoples inhabited almost every corner of the continent. They lived in intimate familiarity with
their environments, with different economies, beliefs, and practices. Far from being a “virgin
land” or “wilderness,” as Europeans often believed, native North America was a vibrant,
dynamic world of diverse peoples, languages, and cultures. Scholars estimate that between
2 million and 18 million people inhabited North America north of present-day Mexico at the
time of European contact. An estimated 40 million to 90 million Native Americans lived
throughout the Americas. These numbers, however, quickly declined as a result of European
diseases and warfare against Native Americans.
B First Contact with Europeans, 1500s
Although isolated Scandinavian explorers and traders established short-lived settlements in
Greenland and eastern Canada around AD 1000, European advances into the Western
Hemisphere did not fully begin until the late 1400s when Christopher Columbus set off from
Spain in search of a westward route to Asia. Before that time, North America remained almost
entirely isolated from the rest of the world’s population. Such isolation proved to be the
primary factor in Europe’s successful advance into the Americas. Lacking immunities to
common European diseases, Native Americans were susceptible to influenza, chicken pox,
smallpox, measles, and other diseases. The results were devasting for Native American
communities throughout the Americas.
B1 European Diseases
Beginning in 1492, Columbus’s voyages to the New World, as Europeans soon called the
Americas, initiated the first waves of epidemics for Native Americans. The Taíno (also known
as the Island Arawak) and the Island Carib of the Caribbean were the first Native Americans
to be nearly exterminated by European contact.
As Spanish conquistadores (conquerors) explored the Americas, Native American
communities suffered. In the American Southeast, many large, densely populated Indian
villages soon disintegrated following Spanish contact. Their concentrated communities and
the humid, temperate climates created ripe and deadly conditions for disease. Scholars
estimate that nearly 90 percent of some pre-contact Southeastern populations were gone by
1600. Similar population declines occurred throughout the Northeast, along the St. Lawrence
River, and in the mid-Atlantic and coastal regions. In the arid Southwest, Spanish diseases
were not as traumatic as elsewhere. But, generally, as Europeans encountered native
populations, death and disease ensued.
B2 European Colonization
Once begun, Spanish expansion accelerated with each passing year. Initially believing he
had found Asia (what the Spanish referred to as “the Indies”), Columbus labeled all Native
Americans as “Indians.” After his first 1492 expedition, Columbus returned the next year with
five times as many ships, more than 1,000 Spanish settlers, and many more animals,
particularly domesticated European horses, cattle, and pigs, none of which existed in the
Western Hemisphere. Such animals and settlers were intended to transform Native American
lands and turn Indian villages into Spanish-speaking, Christian communities. With these
efforts, Spain began to colonize its newly claimed territory. Throughout the Americas, Spain
and, later, other European powers violently took possession of Native American lands and
turned them into outposts for their empires.
With first contact, Native Americans and Europeans formed opinions about one another.
Europeans first viewed Indians as either barbaric or noble savages—people who lived either
according to no rules or to the noble rules of nature. Some Indians initially viewed Spanish
colonizers as liberators from existing oppressive Native American regimes, such as the Aztec
and Inca. These divisions between Indian tribes were crucial to Spain’s many conquests.
Other Native Americans did not passively accept Spanish rule. Many violently resisted. Others
turned to each other as well as to the newly transplanted European religions for solace.
In the American Southwest and Southeast, Native Americans developed creative ways of
resisting and adapting to Spanish intrusion. Some groups that encountered Spanish
explorers and colonizers directed the Spanish away from their communities, telling Spanish
explorers such as Francisco Vásquez de Coronado that the gold and wealth they sought was
further away in their enemies’ lands. In the Southwest, Pueblo peoples fought Spanish
colonization until the late 1500s, when Spanish soldiers laid siege to Pueblo villages. The
Pueblo continued to resist throughout the 1600s, which led to an uprising, known as the
Pueblo Revolt of 1680, which drove the Spanish from the region for more than a decade.
In Spanish Florida, Timucua Indians became incorporated into the Spanish colony there. In
return for accepting limited forms of Christianity, the Timucua received protections from the
Spanish that surrounding Indians did not receive. Living within Spanish colonies protected
some Indians from the most horrific forms of Spanish colonization, particularly slavery. The
profitable mines of northern Mexico continuously hungered for Indian labor, and the Spanish
enslaved many Southwestern Native Americans to work in Mexican mines.
Spanish colonization quickly compelled other European powers to join in the scramble for
Native American lands. Followed by the French, Dutch, and then English, Spain’s American
conquests transformed Europe in countless ways. Spain not only imported European crops
and animals to the Americas, it also began exporting Native American crops, resources, and
products to Europe. Such exchanges quickly revolutionized both Europe and the Americas.
Throughout Spain’s American empire, millions of Native Americans labored for distant and
unknown monarchs, digging enormous amounts of rock and precious metals. They also
cultivated agricultural crops and manufactured goods for colonial rulers while tending
Spanish herds. Native American crops such as tomatoes, beans, potatoes, and chocolate
became staples in all European countries, while gold and silver mined by Native Americans
transformed European economies. Native Americans, in sum, helped initiate the rise of
Europe’s great empires.
C Early Relations and Trade, 1500s to 1700s
Following the Spanish, the French, Dutch, and English began to colonize North America.
These colonization efforts, however, varied between as well as within each European empire.
It is best, then, to think of colonial North America as linked but separate regions with varied
economies and different relationships between Europeans and Native Americans.
C1 Relations with French and Dutch
France’s earliest explorations in North America followed two main rivers in the East, the
Mississippi and St. Lawrence. Along the St. Lawrence, French explorers such as Jacques
Cartier established trading and political relations with different Iroquois and Algonquian
peoples. Cartier ventured inland as far as the Iroquois town of Hochelaga (the present site of
Montréal) in 1535. Seeking food, furs, and hides from Native Americans, the French traded
manufactured goods such as firearms, blankets, metal, and cloth. As the French and Iroquois
each vied for supremacy over the emerging fur trade in the 1600s, relations between the two
sides quickly deteriorated and the French aligned themselves with the Algonquian.
Trading became the primary form of economic exchange throughout New France, as France’s
North American empire was known by 1608. It stretched from the mouth of the St. Lawrence
River on the Atlantic Ocean, past the French settlements of Québec City and Montréal, into
the Great Lakes, and down the Mississippi River, eventually reaching present-day New
Orleans. Throughout this large area, diverse Native Americans and French peoples
intermixed and laid the foundation for a new, hybrid society.
Below the St. Lawrence and along the Hudson River, Iroquois and southern Algonquian
groups encountered traders and settlers from The Netherlands. Beginning in 1624, the Dutch
established prominent trading centers such as New Amsterdam (later New York City) and Fort
Orange (later Albany, New York) in a colony they called New Netherland. At these trading
centers, the Mohawk and the four other nations of the Iroquois Confederacy (Onondaga,
Cayuga, Oneida, and Seneca) quickly consolidated control over the fur trade with the Dutch.
These five nations expanded their territories at the expense of other groups, driving away
rivals such as the Mahicans.
The Iroquois enlarged their territories not only to gain access to their rivals’ fur supplies,
particularly beaver pelts, but also to ensure their own political survival. Native Americans
who successfully integrated themselves into European trading spheres gained indispensable
access to European trade goods, including guns, metals, and cloth. Those who did not
Throughout northeastern North America, Native Americans competed with each other as well
as with Europeans for access to natural resources, while permitting the establishment of
small European trading settlements. A tenuous but ultimately enduring coexistence
developed between the Iroquois and Dutch settlers in New Netherland and between the
Algonquian and French settlers in New France that revolved around trade, particularly the fur
C2 Relations with English
Many English newcomers to North America, like their French, Dutch, and Spanish
predecessors, had similar motivations to trade and profit. However, many other English
newcomers did not; they wanted to find new lands to settle and to build new lives for
themselves. This difference separated the English from the other European colonial powers in
Following the Protestant Reformation in the early 1500s, England was home to competing
religious sects and groups. One group of people who followed the tenets of Puritanism and
were known as Puritans decided to leave England and Europe altogether to establish a new
society in North America. They had limited intentions of coexisting with Native Americans and
adapting themselves to Native American ways because they intended to live according to
their strict interpretations of Christian theology. In 1620 a group of Puritans, also known as
Pilgrims, established the Plymouth colony. They soon came into bitter conflict with Native
Americans in New England.
Although their initial survival depended upon Native American hospitality, particularly gifts
and food, Puritan leaders soon demanded too much of local Native Americans, including the
Pequot. The Pequot resisted Puritan land invasions and in the 1630s fought a bitter war for
survival. In one battle at Mystic River in 1637 Puritan soldiers and their Native American allies
surrounded and exterminated an entire Pequot town of several hundred people. Interpreting
Pequot misfortune as a sign of divine favor, Puritan leaders expanded their influence,
conquering much of New England throughout the 1600s. From 1675 to 1676 they fought King
Philip’s War against the Wampanoag and other Native American groups. After winning that
war, Puritan control over the Massachusetts colony was secured, and additional Puritan
villages sprouted up throughout the region.
Other English colonies were established throughout eastern North America, including
Jamestown in Virginia in 1607 and colonies in the Carolinas in the 1640s. These mid- and
southern Atlantic colonies soon resembled the Spanish and French colonies in the West Indies
where servile, or indentured, labor (and increasingly African American slave labor) provided
the basis for plantation economies. In Virginia and the Carolinas, English landlords secured
land from local Native Americans through treaties or just took the land through royal charters
or land grants. They then began planting crops for export to Europe. Such crops included
tobacco in Virginia and rice, indigo, and tobacco in the Carolinas. In both regions, Native
Americans initially entered into trading relations with the English and enjoyed the economic
opportunities provided by the fur and deerskin trade.
Increasingly, however, as in New England, English settlers wanted more Native American
land, and they often forced treaties upon starving Native American groups in exchange for
European goods. As native lands became English ranches, farms, and plantations, Native
Americans were often plunged into a state of dependency and despair because they no longer
could support themselves by growing their own food. Losing lands along the coastal Atlantic,
landless Indians often migrated into the interior of North America or violently resisted further
English encroachment. The English won a series of brutal wars against the Powhatan
Confederacy in Virginia in the mid-1600s and later in 1715 against the Yamasee in the
Carolinas. These wars initiated the demise of these once powerful Native American groups.
Throughout North America, Native Americans witnessed the introduction of radically new
technologies and ways of life. Foreigners from distant lands arrived in their homelands. They
came in strange vessels, carried strange items, spoke strange languages, and often acted
violently towards native communities. Native American worlds quickly became turned upside
down, as North America became “new worlds for all,” as one historian has argued. Such new
and revolutionary developments brought unprecedented changes to Native American
societies and created fundamentally different ways of living for all peoples within as well as
outside of European colonies.
D Middle Ground, 1600s to 1700s
Following the arrival of Europeans in North America, Native Americans suffered from
diseases, increased intertribal warfare, and the effects of European settlement. Such
challenging developments did not, however, cause the demise of native power and autonomy.
On the contrary, European exploration and colonization of North America, while devastating
for many, increased the power and influence of other Indian groups. Often aligned through
trade, diplomacy, and alliances, Native Americans throughout the 17th and 18th centuries
controlled the vast majority of territory throughout what is now the United States and Canada.
Native Americans remained, then, central to the history of these periods.
Some scholars characterize some areas of North America in the period after European
contact and before complete Euro-American domination as a “middle ground,” a time when
neither Native Americans nor Europeans were the supreme rulers of a given territory and
when the ties between Indians and whites were stronger than their differences. While more
of a general concept than an actual historic region or period, such middle grounds existed
throughout portions of North America in the 1600s and 1700s.
D1 New France
New France best embodies the concept of a middle ground. As the French expanded
throughout the interior of North America, French traders and, later, Catholic missionaries
relied upon native guides and hospitality for survival. Algonquian-speaking peoples, including
the Ojibwa (Chippewa), Ottawa, Fox, and Cree, understood the lands and customs of eastern
North America far better than any French person. In addition to trade, the French and Native
Americans developed ties that included intermarriage, shared forms of entertainment, and
religious worship. French traders and Indian women had children, and their mixed-blood
offspring became known as the Métis. The French and Native Americans also formed military
and political alliances. Throughout the Great Lakes region, French and Algonquian
communities all feared the Iroquois, and together they helped drive the Iroquois out of the
western Great Lakes in the late 1600s. Such shared forms of living characterized French
colonization in North America and reveal how Indians adapted to and used European
colonialism for their own purposes. In many parts of New France, distinctions between Native
Americans and Europeans did not even exist.
D2 Changing Lifeways
The effects of such alliances and intermixture soon spread outside of New France. To the
north and west of New France, French as well as Indian fur traders traded with numerous
Native American groups from the Northern Plains. This trade not only spread new
technologies, but also forever transformed these interior portions of North America.
In the far western Great Lakes in the 1600s and early 1700s, French-aligned Ojibwa
communities increasingly traded with different Siouan-speaking peoples, including the
Lakota (Teton) and Dakota (Santee). The Ojibwa passed along French guns, ammunition,
metals, and other technologies. Armed with new and superior forms of weaponry, the Lakota
and Dakota Sioux quickly consolidated control over the headwaters of the Mississippi River
and began dominating the lands of their enemies, particularly the sedentary villages of the
Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara along the Missouri River. As European diseases devastated
concentrated village peoples, more nomadic groups in the center of the continent began
gaining supremacy. Their power and mobility was aided greatly by the spread of new tools
and technologies from the Southern Plains and Southwest, including the horse.
The horse revolutionized the lives of Native Americans in much of the West during the 1600s.
Domesticated horses first arrived in North America with the Spanish in the 1500s.
Widespread horse trading between Native Americans began in the Southwest in the early
1600s, when sedentary Pueblo groups began stealing horses from Spanish herds and trading
them to surrounding nomadic peoples such as the Navajo and Apache. As northern peoples
incorporated horses into their societies, they increasingly raided Spanish colonies.
Navajo, Apache, Ute, Comanche, and other northern peoples all reoriented their economies
and their territorial movements around the horse. The Apache, for example, became among
the most adept horse traders and raiders in human history. Arriving in New Mexico to both
trade and raid, these northern peoples limited the expansion of Spanish settlement
throughout New Mexico and Texas while plunging the region into centuries of constant
upheaval. Trading, raiding, and stealing horses not only from the Spanish but also each other,
Plains and mountain peoples throughout the West increased the spread of the horse in all
directions. They exchanged horses to more distant Native Americans for other trade goods,
including French and English guns, ammunition, alcohol, metals, cloth, and jewelry.
By 1700 most of North America remained outside the sphere of European control, but
increasingly within the sphere of European influence. East of the Mississippi, European
colonial regimes controlled settlements along the Atlantic and throughout major river sheds.
Within these colonies, Native Americans and Europeans encountered one another, initially
regarded each as alien, but often over time constructed shared forms of living that minimized
their differences. In New France, New Netherland, and even portions of New England and
Virginia, survival necessitated coexistence and cooperation.
Throughout much of Canada and west of the Mississippi, however, European colonization
had yet to unfold. Few Europeans knew of the diversity and sophisticated cultures of the
peoples who inhabited these lands. Most Native American languages, beliefs, and practices
remained outside the realm of European knowledge. The areas of present-day California and
the Pacific Northwest, for example, still retained the most concentrated Native American
populations and included thousands of distinct, though interconnected, communities. Within
the next century and a half, however, European influences and conflicts would forever
reshape most of North America.
E Conflicts and Wars, 1700s to 1815
From 1700 to 1815 most of eastern North America became incorporated into European
spheres of control and, eventually, into the newly formed United States. As European
empires competed for land, resources, and allies, Native Americans found themselves in a
tightening circle. Thousands of British settlers and African slaves arrived each year during the
1700s, accelerating the demand for Native American land. Native Americans, often in alliance
with rival European powers, resisted such expansion, and throughout the 18th century they
participated in a series of wars between the European empires. By the end of these contests,
all but one of Europe’s empires—Britain--had given up its claims to eastern North America.
Ultimately, Britain and the United States vied with each other and with their Native American
allies for control of North America.
Native American warriors provided the majority of combatants during this century of war.
These conflicts were not only between rival Europeans but also between competing Native
American powers. Native Americans fought each other not only for specific resources, such as
furs, but also to achieve supremacy over territories, trade networks, and even European
E1 Conflicts in the Northeast
After 1701 a balance of power emerged in northeastern North America in which some powers
competed for supremacy, while others sought to maintain the status quo. The balance of
power included three principal groups: New France and its Algonquian allies; the British
colonies, including New York, New England, and Virginia; and the Iroquois Confederacy and
its Native American allies.
The Iroquois in particular tried to maintain balance between the French and British.
Receiving gifts and favors from both, the Iroquois followed a path of neutrality during a series
of wars between the French and British, refusing to side with either but threatening to fight
whenever their interests became compromised. After siding with the English in King William’s
War (1689-1697) and suffering devastating losses, the Iroquois pursued a policy of neutrality
through Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713), King George’s War (1744-1748), and the French
and Indian War (1754-1763). Fearing that Iroquois power might tip the scales in favor of
their rivals, both British and French leaders heeded the threats of the powerful Iroquois.
E2 Conflicts in the Southeast
Native Americans in the Southeast also attempted to play European rivals off one another.
With Spanish Florida to the south, French Louisiana to the west, and the British Carolinas to
the east, the Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Cherokee—who later became known with the
Seminole as the Five Civilized Tribes—leveraged favors from Spanish, French, and British
officials. Dominating the interior portions of the Southeast, these groups competed with each
other for resources, particularly deerskins, captives, and food, which they traded for
European goods. Such competition increasingly brought bloodshed. Just as the Spanish,
French, and British attempted to enlist Native Americans to fight in their wars, Native
Americans tried to recruit European support, especially in the form of guns and ammunition,
for their intertribal conflicts.
However, such dependency on European powers ultimately proved disastrous for many
Native American groups. As Britain drove France, and later Spain, from the region,
southeastern Native Americans soon lacked rival European nations to play off one another.
They quickly became isolated with only limited resources to offer land-hungry British settlers.
E3 Three Pivotal Wars
Three pivotal conflicts in the second half of the 1700s and in the first decades of the 1800s
eroded the balance of power in North America. These conflicts were the French and Indian
War, the American Revolution (1775-1783), and the War of 1812 (1812-1815). At the end of
these conflicts, the survival of Native Americans became squarely linked to the British in the
territory of Canada and to the Americans in the United States.
The first critical stage came during the French and Indian War between France and Britain.
Unlike any of the previous conflicts between the French and British, this contest consumed far
more resources and was fought literally around the world—in Europe, North America, Asia,
and on the high seas. (It was known as the Seven Years’ War in Europe.) The conflict began
in the Ohio River Valley backcountry with clashes between British settlers and French and
Indian forces, and it left few regions of New France and British North America untouched.
From eastern Canada, down the St. Lawrence and Hudson rivers, into the Great Lakes and
along the Ohio River, Native Americans and French forces clashed with British forces and their
Indian allies. Framing the conflict as a struggle for the future control of North America, Britain
and France deployed thousands of men, hundreds of ships, and many other resources. With
mastery of the seas and a much larger fighting force on the ground, Britain and its Native
American allies outlasted the more experienced French and Native American forces. At the
Treaty of Paris in 1763, France ceded its North American empire to Britain, and New France
was no more. At the end of the war, France effectively abandoned hundreds of thousands of
Native American allies as well as thousands of Métis and French settlers.
After Britain defeated France, Algonquian leaders throughout the former region of New
France demanded that British officials recognize and honor the rights and customs that they
had forged in more than a century of relations with the French. If the British failed, for
example, to supply Native Americans with gifts, particularly ammunition, it was more than
insulting; it threatened their survival. Essentially trying to force their new British rulers to
adopt the roles of their former French allies and to reassert Native American autonomy,
Native American leaders, under such commanders as the Ottawa chief Pontiac, went to war
against the British in the early 1760s.
However, Britain did not want another war, and its leaders knew that they could not continue
to fight Native Americans in the forests of former New France. British officials consequently
began respecting Native American demands and even began protecting Native American
lands from settlers. In the Royal Proclamation of 1763, Britain set aside land west of the
Appalachian Mountains for Native Americans and prohibited the expansion of settlements
With this move, British rulers angered the 13 British colonies along the Atlantic Ocean, which
coveted Native American lands in the interior. Long accustomed to subjugating Native
Americans through trade and warfare, the colonists wanted to turn more Native American
homelands into farms and slave plantations. Colonists protested British land policies and the
taxes that Britain levied to repay its debts from the wars. The colonists soon began imagining
a future without British rulers. Such imaginings became the spark for the American
When the American Revolution began, many Native Americans initially tried to stay outside
of what appeared to them to be an internal dispute between family members. However, many
quickly realized the stakes of the struggle and aligned themselves with the British. Having
struggled to get the British to recognize their rights, the Algonquians, for example, bitterly
resisted the colonists’ efforts to become independent. So, too, did the Iroquois, who similarly
understood that the colonists coveted Native American lands for development. Iroquois and
Algonquian homelands became critical battlegrounds during the war, as many revolutionary
generals invaded Native American territories. George Washington, George Rogers Clark, and
John Sullivan all became renowned fighters of Indians. Sullivan and Clark inflicted terrible
damage on Native American communities, burning crops, destroying towns, and displacing
women, children, and the elderly.
After the colonists defeated the British in 1783, most Native Americans had little energy or
resources left to fight the United States alone because much of the fighting had taken place
on their homelands. The Iroquois, whose mighty confederacy had controlled so many lands,
now became increasingly disunited. They granted enormous land cessions to the new
republic, which became their primary form of appeasement.
The Algonquians still fought the Americans in continuous wars throughout the 1790s and into
the 1800s, culminating in the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain. As tens of
thousands of settlers rushed west after the American Revolution, the Shawnee, Fox, and
other Algonquian groups united into powerful confederacies. With British support, the vastly
outnumbered Native Americans repelled several U.S. invasions. When Britain negotiated
peace with the United States in 1815 and Spain later transferred Florida to the United States,
Native Americans east of the Mississippi no longer had any European powers to whom to turn.
The young American nation now claimed, by right of conquest and cession, much of the
former lands of Spain, France, and Britain. How to deal with the hundreds of thousands of
Native Americans throughout these regions now preoccupied the highest levels of U.S.
F Removal Trends, 1815 to 1870
For Native Americans, the century following the independence of the United States brought
even greater changes than the previous century of war. No Native American, European, or
U.S. leader could have predicted that in the century following independence, the United
States would control its own empire from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The United States
was founded as a land of liberty, where individuals had inherent rights and could participate
in a democracy. Such rights, however, did not extend to all of the nation’s peoples, including
Native Americans, who were not viewed by the U.S. government as citizens, and often not
even as human beings.
Early leaders, such as Thomas Jefferson, generally saw Native Americans in two contrasting
ways. Native Americans could either assimilate and choose to live within the United States
like “civilized” Americans or the government would remove them to the recently established
Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. There was essentially no option for Native
Americans to continue to live in their homelands as distinct peoples. As the United States
expanded, the opportunities for Native Americans to live autonomous and independent lives
declined ever further.
F1 United States
In the Northeast, after military resistance was no longer feasible, many Native Americans
found alternative ways of surviving. Many incorporated Christian teachings into their own
cultures and began adapting to the new economic realities of American life by becoming
farmers, hunters, or traders. Among the Seneca of the Iroquois Confederacy, religious
leaders such as Handsome Lake fused Iroquois and Christian spiritual values and called upon
their followers to adopt aspects of American economic practices and gender roles. Handsome
Lake, for example, instructed Seneca men to farm, which was traditionally a women’s activity,
and to allow missionaries among them. Such adaptation enabled the Seneca and other
Iroquois groups to survive in New York and eastern Canada, although they continued, often
clandestinely, many traditional political, religious, and social practices.
Although some Native Americans made efforts to assimilate to various degrees, other Native
Americans resisted those attempts, and American settlers increasingly pressured the U.S.
government to drive Native Americans from their lands. Following the Louisiana Purchase in
1803, when the United States purchased a vast region west of the Mississippi from France,
President Thomas Jefferson suddenly had a huge area of land on which to push Native
Americans. Moving Native Americans west became the primary goal of the U.S. government
for the next two generations. In 1824 the Bureau of Indian Affairs was established within the
Department of War to oversee relations with Native Americans, and federal Indian agents
were appointed to deal with tribes. In 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian
Removal Act, which authorized the removal of eastern tribes to lands west of the Mississippi.
Indian removal became a death knell for both native and nonnative peoples committed to
peaceful coexistence. In regions such as the Ohio River Valley and Great Lakes where Native
Americans and Europeans had lived together for generations, U.S. policies now called for
Indian families to leave their homelands. When nations such as the Sac (Sauk) under Black
Hawk resisted in the 1830s, the U.S. Army fought them to defeat.
When the state of Georgia tried to take Cherokee lands, the Cherokee insisted that the state
had no jurisdiction over its lands because the Cherokee, like the United States, was a nation
and thus not subject to state authority. In the 1830s the Supreme Court of the United States
clarified the legal status of Native Americans in a series of cases. In one ruling, Worcester v.
Georgia (1832), Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that Native Americans were members of
distinct, sovereign nations within the United States who did not fall under state authority but
solely under the jurisdiction of the federal government. The Constitution of the United States,
Marshall reasoned, always considered Native Americans as nations, and the Congress of the
United States had related with them accordingly through treaties—the “supreme law of the
land.” Such landmark rulings institutionalized relations between Native Americans and the
U.S. government and created the “government-to-government” framework that remains the
backbone of federal Indian law. (Under that framework, the U.S. government recognizes
Native American tribes as sovereign nations and negotiates with them as one government to
another.) Unfortunately for the Cherokee and other Native Americans supposedly protected
by treaties, the federal government did not enforce the treaties and increasingly deprived
them of their legal and constitutional rights.
President Jackson even went so far as to ignore Marshall’s rulings, in direct violation of the
Constitution, which states that the Supreme Court can override presidential and
congressional power. He refused to use federal power to prevent states from removing Native
Americans from their lands. The federal government then used the army to remove
thousands of Cherokee, who were marched at gunpoint about 1,285 km (about 800 mi) from
Georgia to the Indian Territory during 1838 and 1839 along what became known as the Trail
of Tears. Thousands died along the way due to malnutrition, disease, and violence.
The lands west of the Mississippi were not, however, the empty lands that U.S. policymakers
believed them to be. Powerful Native American nations, such as the Comanche, Pawnee,
Kiowa, and Lakota Sioux, controlled much of the Northern and Southern Plains. Recently
removed Native Americans from the East often had little in common with these Plains peoples,
and conflicts sometimes ensued. Some eastern groups, such as the Delaware (Lenni Lenape),
became intermediaries in the West, serving as guides, traders, and translators for white
trappers and explorers. By the mid-19th century, after the United States had won the
Mexican War (1846-1848) and acquired the northern half of Mexico, few Native Americans in
North America outside of British Canada could remain independent of U.S. control. The United
States now claimed much of the continent and was no longer content with driving Native
Americans west to Indian Territory.
F2 British Canada
In British Canada, indigenous peoples faced different challenges. After the War of 1812,
Britain still claimed Canada, and Indians continued to interact with British officials, settlers,
and traders, as well as the French who remained. During the 1800s Indians such as the Cree
continued to exchange furs with British traders and trading companies, including the
Hudson’s Bay Company in western and northern regions. In eastern Canada, Indians such as
the Mi’kmaq (Micmac) and Iroquois faced increasing pressures for their land from British
settlers. This pressure came especially from Loyalists, colonists who had supported Britain in
the American Revolution and then flocked by the tens of thousands north to British Canada.
However, British land policies mandated that Indians could only cede their lands to the
British government. So settlers pressured British officials to remove Indians from the fertile
farmlands in southern Ontario and Québec and to create land reserves for Indians away from
European settlements. Pressures for removal in Canada paled in comparison to those in the
United States, but important treaties, including an 1850 agreement with the Ojibwa,
instituted important land cessions and provisions. These treaties generally stated that the
government would provide annual payments to Indians in return for Indian land. The
government then moved the Indians onto land reserves. These treaties formalized legal
relations between Indians and the British government. After Canada achieved
self-government in 1867, however, relations between the new government and Indians
would become, as in the United States, severely tested.
G Wars and Treaties, 1850s to 1900s
The process of removal effectively emptied much of eastern North America of Native
Americans, especially in the Deep South and Midwest. The American Civil War (1861-1865)
fundamentally transformed U.S. society and accelerated its expansion into Native American
homelands. American industry and technologies, for example, dramatically increased after
the war, and much of the continent became linked through commerce and railroads. As in the
first half of the century, Native Americans bitterly resisted such expansion, often fighting
against overwhelming odds. By the end of the century, however, no region of the West
remained outside of the U.S. government and economy, and Native Americans were confined
to newly created reservations.
G1 Influx of White Settlers
As the United States acquired millions of acres of fertile farmland along the Pacific Coast and
in the Great Plains and the Southwest, Native Americans became increasingly displaced and
dispossessed. Mining, forestry, and other extractive industries depleted resources on which
Native Americans depended. In California, white settlers dispossessed Native Americans from
both valley and mountain territories. The Gold Rush of 1849 devastated the Miwok, Maidu,
Pomo, and other Native Americans in northern California, who witnessed the invasion of
hundreds of thousands of non-Indians. In order to survive, many Native Americans
participated in mining enterprises as domestics, laborers, and miners. White violence against
Native Americans in California quickly created bitter relations. White men routinely raped
Indian women, and when Native Americans retaliated, whites escalated the violence.
California went from being one of the most populous regions of Native America to being one
of the least populous, as violence, disease, and impoverishment reduced California’s Indian
population from nearly 250,000 in 1700 to less than 5,000 by 1900.
White migrants who rushed to California and the Oregon Territory also came into conflict
with Native Americans as they traveled across the country. Westward pioneer routes such as
the Oregon and Overland trails followed Native American trails and bisected many Native
American hunting, grazing, and gathering territories. Whites often killed food supplies such
as buffalo and elk and moved thousands of cattle, sheep, and horses along grasslands and
waterways on which Native Americans depended. The Pawnee in Nebraska, for example,
began taxing white migrants for passage through Pawnee lands and for consuming Pawnee
resources. Pawnee taxes became a form of compensation for lost property.
Confident that their occupation of Native American lands was divinely ordained—a
19th-century ideology known as Manifest Destiny—white settlers increasingly fought the
Pawnee and other Native Americans for their land and resources. The fighting compelled the
federal government to use the U.S. Army to ensure white security. In the mid-19th century
the army became one of the primary instruments of federal Indian policy.
Since Native Americans were unwilling to leave their homelands, the government developed
new policies for resolving conflicts between white settlers and Native Americans. Whereas
early 19th-century treaties aimed primarily at removing Native Americans from their lands in
the East, in the West Army officials negotiated so-called peace treaties that attempted to
ensure peaceful relations between Native Americans and whites by creating bounded Native
American territories called reservations from which white settlers were prohibited. As in the
first part of the century, however, the government repeatedly dishonored and violated these
agreements. From Minnesota to Arizona, Native Americans committed to treaties they
believed would ensure their survival and protection. When whites violated these agreements,
Native Americans retaliated.
G2 Indian Wars
The western conflicts in the United States between Native Americans and whites from 1850
to 1880 are known as the Indian Wars, and, like all wars, originated from a series of betrayals,
attacks, and broken promises. The most extensive conflicts generally included the most
powerful and populous Native American nations: the Comanche and Kiowa, among others, in
the Southern Plains; the Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, Shoshone, and Blackfeet, among others, in
the Northern Plains; the Apache and Navajo, among others, in the Southwest; the Ute,
Shoshone, Bannock, and Paiute in the Great Basin; and the Nez Perce, Spokane, and Yakama
in the Northwest. These and other Native American nations resisted white expansion and
fought brutal campaigns for their survival. Mescalero and Chiricahua Apache, for example,
waged guerrilla wars throughout New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Mexico for more than a
generation. Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho leaders united to drive non-Indians out of their
grazing and hunting lands. Many Native American leaders, such as Sitting Bull and Chief
Joseph, migrated or tried to migrate to Canada to escape U.S. settlers and soldiers.
In all these conflicts, Native American men and women defended not only lands and
resources but also their ways of life. Most Native Americans remained deeply and spiritually
attached to their homelands, and seeing them converted to white ranches or farms
threatened their deepest convictions. Warfare was also culturally sanctioned and respected
among most Native Americans. Men honored their families and communities by defending
them, and women helped men prepare for battle. The military defeat of so many Native
American nations and their subsequent confinement to reservations became, then, more
than military, political, or economic defeats; they represented fundamental threats to the
fabric of Native American life. And, as they had for countless generations, Native Americans
struggled to adapt to their changing and often hostile new environments.
Initially, the U.S. government meant reservations to be protected enclaves, territories where
Native Americans could live away from the destructive influences of white settlers. At the
treaties of Medicine Lodge (1867) and Fort Laramie (1868), for example, the U.S.
government negotiated enormous land cessions with Northern and Southern Plains peoples,
respectively. In an attempt to clear a large central corridor through the continent, the
government recognized extensive Comanche and Sioux land claims and created large
reservations for these powerful Plains peoples. Like early Navajo and Ute treaty lands, these
reservations were vast and included millions of acres, and Native American leaders such as
Red Cloud believed that their fights with the U.S. Army were now over.
To Native Americans’ misfortune, however, white settlers and prospectors continued to
demand Indian lands, even in federally protected reservations. After the discovery of gold in
the Black Hills in the 1870s, miners rushed into the Great Sioux Reservation while the federal
government stood idly by. Enraged Sioux leaders such as Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull
decided to leave the reservation altogether and moved onto the Plains. There they defeated
U.S. Cavalry forces under George Armstrong Custer in the summer of 1876 at the Battle of
the Little Bighorn. Stunned at their defeat, U.S. Army leaders began a relentless campaign to
subjugate the Sioux and to confine them on smaller reservations in South Dakota. Stationing
military forces within reservation lands, the army continued to harass Sioux families. In 1890
U.S. Cavalry forces exacted revenge for Custer’s defeat at Wounded Knee, killing more than
300 Sioux men, women, and children, the great majority of whom were unarmed bystanders.
G3 New Canadian Government
In the last decades of the 19th century, the new Canadian government began establishing its
dominance over native peoples. From its creation in 1867, Canada faced regional and ethnic
divisions, and indigenous peoples often found themselves in the middle of such divides. One
group of indigenous people, the French-speaking Métis, struggled with the Canadian
government to protect the land on which they lived, known as the Red River settlement. It
was part of Rupert’s Land, a territory that had been chartered to the Hudson’s Bay Company
(HBC) in 1670. When the HBC prepared to sell Rupert’s Land to the Canadian government in
1869, the Métis bitterly resisted for fear of losing their land rights. Under the astute
leadership of Louis Riel, Métis groups along the Red River in 1870 forced the Canadian
government to recognize their rights to the Red River settlement and to allow for the
admission of a new western province, Manitoba, that included it. Other indigenous peoples,
however, were less successful in getting their rights and territories recognized, and the new
Canadian government devised new, undemocratic methods for dealing with its so-called
In the 1870s the Canadian government began negotiating a series of treaties with Indians,
known as the numbered treaties. With these treaties, the Canadian government gained title
to many Indian lands west of Ontario. In return the Indians received land reserves,
compensation, and federal assistance such as schools, farming tools, livestock, and seed. The
Canadian government had witnessed the Indian Wars in the United States and wanted to
avoid similar fighting in Canada. The government thus negotiated these treaties before large
numbers of settlers moved west. The treaties, however, still allowed the Canadian
government to exert control over many aspects of Indian life.
This control was increased in 1876 when the Canadian Parliament passed the Indian Act. As
in the United States, the Canadian government declared that Indians were under the
jurisdiction of the federal government and that the federal government alone had the
authority to determine the rights, conditions, and so-called status of Indians. The act defined
who was an Indian, using a person’s lifestyle and heritage as the primary criteria. The
government had complete discretion over who was designated an Indian. For example, the
act targeted Indian men and women differently. Indian men and their wives (irrespective of
their race) were considered Indian, while Indian women who married non-Indian men were
no longer considered Indian. The Indian Act gave the Canadian government the legal
structures for determining Indian affairs and for regulating Indian individuals and
communities. The Indian Act and the numbered treaties established an elaborate structure of
federal control over Indians.
H Coercive Assimilation, 1900s to 1960s
Throughout both their histories, the U.S. and Canadian governments have used their
dealings with Native Americans to increase federal power. During removal and the Indian
Wars, the U.S. government, especially the federal army, grew not only in manpower but also
in bureaucracy. Provisioning federal troops, supplying them, and establishing the governing
agencies for Native Americans increased the size and power of the national government.
Similarly in Canada, the Indian Act and the numbered treaties created large governing
agencies. Such bureaucracies—known eventually in the United States as the Bureau of Indian
Affairs (BIA) and as the Department of Indian Affairs (later the Department of Indian Affairs
and Northern Development, or DIAND) in Canada—exerted powerful influences over the
everyday lives of Native Americans, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Beginning mainly in the 1880s in the United States and shortly thereafter in Canada, these
government agencies instituted programs that aimed to reconfigure the fabric of Native
American life. Known as the assimilation campaigns, these policies attempted to transform
Native Americans into “citizens” by stripping them of their lands, cultures, languages,
religions, and other markers of their ethnic identity. Assimilation brought continued
challenges to Native Americans, many of whom had only recently been confined to
reservations and reserves.
For many Native Americans, such cultural attacks were as painful and difficult as the
previous generations of war. Native American communities lost their children, who were sent
to U.S. boarding schools and Canadian residential schools where families were prohibited
from visiting and children were punished for speaking their languages. Some Native
American religious rituals, such as the Ghost Dance and Sun Dance, were outlawed. Native
American men were forced to abandon previous forms of economic subsistence, such as
buffalo hunting, for the distant hope of becoming farmers. Many communities were resettled
onto reservation lands in the least desirable and fertile parts of their former territories.
Everywhere, government control and surveillance of Native American life increased.
The bitter irony of so many of these coercive policies was that those who developed them
believed they were acting in the best interests of Native Americans. Many of America’s
leading religious leaders and progressive reformers helped lead this assault to “kill the Indian,
but save the man.” Senator Henry Dawes, for example, sincerely believed that he was
helping Native Americans when he sponsored the Dawes Severalty Act, or the General
Allotment Act of 1887. That act divided Native American reservations, which were owned
communally, into separate plots of land owned by individual tribal members. Supporters
thought the act would “civilize” Native Americans by making them ranchers and farmers and
But the results were disastrous. Allotting land to individuals who could sell it, the Dawes Act
effectively continued the process of taking away Native American land by making remaining
reservation lands available to white settlement and corporate development. Tens of millions
of acres of reservation lands passed into the hands of non-Native Americans. Large
reservations, such as the Ute and Blackfeet reservations that in 1880 were sizable portions of
Colorado and Montana, became by 1900 shadows of their former selves.
Surviving the cultural, economic, and religious assaults of assimilation taxed many Native
American communities. Many groups successfully navigated these challenges by reshaping
government policies to meet tribal needs. The Northern Arapaho in Wyoming, for example,
molded their existing age-based political structures to include new reservation leadership
positions. The Crow in Montana similarly fought to have Crow leaders in charge of key
reservation political positions; Robert Yellowtail, for example, became in 1934 the first Crow
superintendent, the leading political officer on the reservation.
Such instances of successful political adaptation, however, by no means typified these early
decades of reservation life. Reservations in the United States and reserves in Canada became
notoriously corrupt. Government officials sometimes sold food intended for starving Native
American families to outsiders or withheld it to punish recalcitrant individuals. Reservation
superintendents often rewarded their friends and punished their enemies. Such routine
abuses of power permeated all levels of federal Indian policy in both countries, and Native
Americans developed a deep distrust and resentment towards these authoritarian regimes
By the 1920s most U.S. reservations remained impoverished and ruled by non-Native
Americans. While many Native American students had learned English and some had become
lawyers, doctors, and teachers, the campaign of assimilation had failed to erode the fabric of
Native American life. On the contrary, Native American communities continued to live
according to traditional values and practiced the customs they deemed most important. They
resisted assimilation by keeping their languages and cultures alive and used the educational
systems intended to destroy their culture to better their circumstances. They instilled in their
children the seeds of self-determination and sovereignty. They also created pan-Indian
political networks and religions, such as the Native American Church.
Recognizing its failure, the U.S. government slowly abandoned its assimilation policies and
granted universal citizenship to Native Americans in 1924. It also instituted dramatic political
reforms in the 1930s under BIA Commissioner John Collier. Known as the Indian New Deal,
these reforms included several landmark policies, particularly the Indian Reorganization Act
(IRA) of 1934. This act attempted to reverse the destructive effects of assimilation by
providing greater control to Native Americans over the political, economic, and social policies
that affected their lives. Not all Native Americans accepted Collier’s reforms, particularly the
Navajo nation, but many benefited from the federal government’s attempts to undo
generations of neglect and discrimination.
Canadian Indian affairs followed similar assimilation designs. Indian dances and ceremonies,
such as the potlatch of the Northwest Coast peoples, were outlawed. Indian movements were
heavily policed through a notorious pass system in which individuals had to have a pass to
leave their reserves. As in the United States, Canadian officials used the idea that Indians
needed to be helped and protected to justify their discrimination, as land and economic and
political control remained firmly in the hands of nonnative peoples. Canada did not extend
voting rights to northern Inuit peoples until the 1950s and to Status Indians (Indians who are
officially registered by the federal government) until 1960. However, native peoples in
Canada resisted assimilation in similar ways to Indians in the United States. They created
national political leagues and new forms of cultural expression in art, literature, and
I Self-Determination, 1960s to Present
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Native Americans resisted assimilation in many
ways. Many groups molded their economies and cultures to their changing environments,
while others adopted new ways for new situations. As Native Americans both resisted and
adapted to the changes in their lives, they began to forge modern nations within the borders
of the United States and Canada. They established unique forms of self-government unlike
any other North American peoples.
After World War II (1939-1945), subsequent government administrations halted Collier’s
reforms and returned to assimilation goals. From 1950 to the 1970s, during what is known as
the Termination Period, federal Indian policy attempted to terminate the federal recognition
of Indian tribes in order to end federal responsibility for them. The government also
encouraged Native Americans to relocate from reservations to cities in order to facilitate their
assimilation. Known as the Employment Assistance Program or the Voluntary Relocation
Program, it offered one-way bus tickets and temporary low-cost housing for Native
Americans who agreed to move to urban areas.
More than 100,000 Native Americans relocated to U.S cities, but they did not disappear.
They developed and maintained their Native American identities within cities. Large urban
Indian communities developed in many U.S. cities, particularly in Los Angeles and Oakland,
California; Chicago, Illinois; Denver, Colorado; and Minneapolis, Minnesota. In Canada a
similar migration took place as indigenous peoples moved to urban areas mostly beginning in
the 1970s. Indigenous populations grew in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Edmonton, Alberta;
Vancouver, British Columbia; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; and Toronto, Ontario.
In these cities, Native Americans intermixed and formed new political associations. The
American Indian Movement (AIM) developed amidst such conditions. Founded in Minneapolis,
Minnesota, in 1968, AIM became a pan-Indian political action network that resisted and
challenged federal Indian policy while calling attention to the conditions and plight of Native
Americans both on and off reservations. AIM became part of the larger Red Power movement,
which emphasized developing pride in one’s Native American heritage, sustaining traditional
Native American cultures and lands, and supporting Ntive American rights. Native Americans
increasingly called attention to instances where the U.S. government violated Indian
constitutional and treaty rights. Native Americans began insisting that their communities
receive the guarantees outlined in treaties and by the Supreme Court.
Countless Native Americans, including activists, lawyers, and leaders, worked hard and
organized themselves to bring attention to their causes. To protest federal Indian policy and
the conditions of Native Americans, AIM and other activists staged a series of high-profile
demonstrations during the late 1960s and 1970s. These included the occupation of Alcatraz
Island in San Francisco Bay from 1969 to 1971, the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs
building in Washington, D.C., in 1972, and the takeover of the town of Wounded Knee in
South Dakota in 1973. The latter resulted in a 71-day standoff with the U.S. government.
With these and other demonstrations, activists brought the plight and concerns of Native
Americans to the highest levels of national government.
Such attention and concerted effort brought dramatic results. Beginning in the 1970s, the
U.S. government rescinded termination and passed a series of reforms, including the Indian
Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (1975). This act embraced the notion of
Native American self-government and created mechanisms for returning political autonomy
to tribal governments. The government also passed similar reforms allowing more Native
American control in Indian education and health services, among other areas.
Since these reforms, tribal communities have gained increased economic power. Tribal
governments have insisted that because their status as sovereign nations places them
outside of state jurisdiction, they can maintain and develop industries such as gambling and
selling tobacco products free of state interference. Winning a series of legal and political
battles, many tribal communities have used their treaty rights to form lucrative gaming and
tourist businesses. The Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, for example, operates a successful
casino, convention center, and hotel facility and is one of the largest employers in Green Bay.
Economic development has brought many tribes the revenue to develop museums, schools,
and health programs for their tribal members. These opportunities do not, however, exist for
most reservations, several of which remain among the nation’s most impoverished counties.
Many Native Americans hope that the forms of sovereignty now secured will enable tribal
governments and communities to work together to address the health, educational, and
social problems that still plague many communities.
Culturally, Native Americans withstood the assaults of assimilation and rose to meet the
challenges of the 20th century. Taking pride in their unique cultures and histories, Native
Americans began exploring new forms of cultural expression and awareness. Native
American artists revisited sophisticated artistic traditions. Native Americans also became
authors and gained larger and larger audiences; thousands became educators, doctors,
scholars, and lawyers. Throughout Indian country, a renaissance bloomed, as Native
Americans increased their forms of cultural pride.
Canadian indigenous groups also achieved greater political awareness and constitutional
rights. The Canadian Parliament amended the Indian Act a number of times beginning in
1951 to reduce government involvement in Indian activities. The federal government also
commissioned reports on the state of Canada’s indigenous population in the 1950s and 1960s.
With this increased attention, indigenous leaders astutely navigated provincial and national
levels of government and brought increased public awareness to indigenous affairs.
As Canadians have attempted to address the cultural and legal rights of French Canadians,
for example, indigenous groups have insisted that their land claims and treaty rights receive
equal consideration. In 1990 Elijah Harper, an Ojibwa-Cree member of the Manitoba
legislature, gained international attention when he stalled the passage of the Meech Lake
Accord, a national accord to recognize French Canada as a distinct society. Harper, along with
many other indigenous peoples, objected to the accord because it had no mention of
That same year, Mohawk activists seized control of the roads and bridges into their two
reserves outside of Montréal during the dramatic Oka Crisis. The Mohawk were protesting the
construction of a golf course on land that they claimed. Thousands of Canadian soldiers were
deployed against the Mohawk for nearly three months. Such actions generated increased
national resolve for settling indigenous land claims disputes. Throughout the 1990s
indigenous groups won important land settlements, including the establishment of new
reserves and even a northern Inuit territory, Nunavut, which was created in 1999.
When the 20th century began, Native American populations of North America were at an
all-time low. Only about 250,000 Indians in the United States and 100,000 in Canada had
survived the generations of war, disease, violence, and oppression that followed European
contact and American and Canadian colonialism. A century later, more than 2 million Native
Americans live in the United States and more than 1 million live in Canada. Inheriting legacies
of survival and adaptation, modern Native Americans stand poised to ensure that their
communities and cultures will flourish in the 21st century.
Ned Blackhawk contributed the History section of this article.
VII NATIVE AMERICANS TODAY
At the turn of the 20th century, many people believed that Native Americans would
assimilate into mainstream society and disappear as unique peoples. But native communities
in both the United States and Canada survived disastrous assimilation efforts. Instead of
disappearing, they revitalized tribal governments, created modern economies, attained legal
rights, and revived cultural traditions and ceremonies that had nearly died out. They
combined aspects of their traditional cultures with contemporary life without sacrificing the
core of their identity.
Despite their resiliency, however, Native Americans faced serious economic, health, and
educational problems at the beginning of the 21st century. Many U.S. and Canadian
indigenous peoples lived in poverty. Unemployment and school dropout rates were high, and
rates of alcoholism and suicide for Native Americans were far above those for the general
population in both countries. But as a testament to the cultural and economic renewal taking
place, many indigenous peoples were leaving cities and returning to their homelands. They
went back for jobs, to attend tribal colleges, or to participate in long-dormant ceremonies.
A1a United States
Getting an accurate count of the number of Native Americans in the United States can be
difficult. In both the United States and Canada, many Native Americans mistrust federal
government representatives and withhold information or refuse to fill out census forms. With
the 2000 census, the U.S. Census Bureau made efforts to do a better job of counting Native
Americans than it did in the 1990 census. In that census, Native Americans were
undercounted by as much as 12.5 percent, the highest of any ethnic group. Besides working
with tribal governments, the Census Bureau developed culturally specific television and
newspaper advertisements and posters to encourage Native Americans to take part in the
The 2000 census was the first in which Americans could select more than one race and ethnic
identity. This was an important change for Native Americans because they have mixed
intertribally for thousands of years and interracially for the last 500 years. On the 2000
census form, Native Americans could select “American Indian and Alaska Native only” or
“American Indian and Alaska Native” and at least one other race. They were also given a
space for tribal affiliation.
According to the 2000 census, about 2.5 million people in the United States reported they
were Native Americans. Some 1.5 million others reported they were Native American plus
another race, typically white. The two figures together represented a 26 percent increase
over the 1990 census figures. Overall, Native American people accounted for about 1 percent
of the total U.S. population.
At the time of the census, California had the largest concentration of Native Americans
(314,000), followed by Oklahoma (263,000), Arizona (261,000), New Mexico (166,000),
Washington State (105,000), and Alaska (101,352). Nearly 50 percent of Native Americans
lived in the West, 29 percent in the South, 17 percent in the Midwest, and 6 percent in the
Northeast. The Native American population was a young and growing population: Thirty-nine
percent of its population was under 20 years of age, compared with 29 percent of the nation’s
Since 1982 the Canadian census has categorized aboriginal people as North American Indian,
Métis (people of mixed European and aboriginal ancestry), and Inuit. The census also asks
every Canadian, including aboriginal people, to which ethnic or cultural group a person’s
ancestors belonged. In 1996 Statistics Canada, the national agency that takes the census,
included an additional question for aboriginal people: “Is this person an aboriginal person,
that is, North American Indian, Métis, or Inuit?”That is, does this individual identify as an
The 1996 census reported there were 1,170,190 people with aboriginal ancestry in Canada,
making up about 3 percent of Canada’s inhabitants. Some 867,225 reported North American
Indian ancestry; 220,740 reported Métis; and 49,845 Inuit. Counts based on identity went
down from the overall number: 554,000 identified as North American Indian, 210,000 as
Métis, and 41,000 as Inuit. About 6,400 people were counted more than once because they
claimed to be members of more than one aboriginal group. But Statistics Canada admitted its
census did not catch everyone; forms were not completed on more than 75 Indian reserves.
In 1996 aboriginal people lived across Canada in every province and territory. More than four
out of every five aboriginal people lived west of Québec. About 63 percent of all aboriginal
people lived in the four western provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British
Columbia. Ontario had 18 percent of Canada’s aboriginal people and more North American
Indians than any other province. Almost two-thirds of Canada’s total Métis population lived in
the three Prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, with Alberta having the
largest Métis population. In 1996 Northwest Territories had the largest Inuit population.
In Canada the federal government officially determines who is an Indian for its purposes
through the Indian Act, a law first passed in 1876 and amended several times since. The act
defines who is an Indian and determines who can be registered in the Indian Register
maintained by Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND),
also called Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). For the federal government to grant
Indian status, a person generally has to be a member of an aboriginal band that was granted
a reserve or government funds or negotiated a treaty with the government. These people are
referred to as Status Indians, and the Indian Act applies only to them. Status Indians are
eligible for federal benefits. The Indian Act does not cover Inuit, Métis, and non-Status
Indians, people with Indian ancestry who are not on the official register.
A2 Tribes and Bands
A2a United States
Tribes in the United States set up their own membership criteria. A person is permitted
membership in only one tribe, and becoming a member of a particular tribe requires
complying with its membership rules. Most tribes rely in part on blood quantum, or how much
Native American blood a person has, for membership. The amount of blood quantum required
varies. At one end of the spectrum is the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, which accepts
anyone who can trace his or her ancestry back to the Dawes Commission of Final Rolls, a
government document that compiled the names of tribal members between 1899 and 1906.
At the other end is the Ute of Utah, who require five-eighths minimum blood quantum for
membership. Generally, tribes require one-fourth minimum blood quantum for enrollment.
The whole notion of blood quantum is controversial within the Native American community.
Many children and grandchildren of tribal citizens do not have the required amount of blood
quantum to qualify for enrollment because their parents or earlier ancestors married outside
their tribe. There are also Indians whose families have been part of Indian communities for
generations but do not have the official records required for tribal membership.
Tribes fall into one of two categories: federally or state recognized. Federally recognized
tribes are nations that have a special, legal relationship with the U.S. government. This
relationship recognizes that tribes have certain rights of self-government and are entitled to
participate in specific federal Indian programs. The federal government has the right to
determine tribal membership for federal purposes, such as who can receive federal funds.
Most Native Americans in the United States belong to federally recognized tribes. There are
more than 550 such tribes, including more than 220 village groups in Alaska. The tribes vary
enormously in size. At the time of the 2000 census, the only tribes with more than 100,000
people were the Cherokee, Navajo (Diné), Sioux, and Chippewa. Most tribes had populations
of less than 10,000, and several California tribal bands had only two to three members.
Tribes that want to be recognized by the federal government go through an administrative
process prescribed by the Branch of Acknowledgment and Research (BAR) of the Bureau of
Indian Affairs (BIA), an agency of the U.S. government that is part of the Department of the
Interior. The BAR requires petitioners, or entities, to meet seven mandatory criteria for
federal recognition. Entities must (1) prove they have been identified by reliable external
sources on a continuous basis since 1900; (2) prove continuous community; (3) prove
continuous political authority from historical times to the present day; (4) submit
membership criteria; (5) prove that current members descend from historic tribes; (6) prove
members are not members of another federally recognized tribe; and (7) prove Congress did
not terminate its relationship with the tribe. Once an Indian tribe receives federal
acknowledgment, it is eligible to receive BIA services.
Approximately 30 U.S. Indian tribes and groups without federal recognition are state
recognized. This means the states administer programs for tribes such as the Paucatuck
Eastern Pequot of Connecticut and the Shinnecock of New York. State-recognized tribes do
not have relations with the BIA or participate in the programs it operates.
According to the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND), there are
about 600 bands in Canada. (In Canada, the term band generally corresponds to the term
tribe in the United States.) A band is made up of Indian people who are registered as
members of that group. Many bands prefer to be known as First Nations.
Before the Canadian Parliament amended the Indian Act in 1985, the federal government
controlled the membership lists of bands. When it granted Indian status to a person, it would
also add that person to a First Nation’s membership list. The 1985 amendment gave First
Nations the option of defining their own membership. About 250 First Nations have opted to
control their own memberships; Indian people seeking to join those First Nations must apply
directly to them for membership. First Nations that control their membership can grant it to
both Status and non-Status Indians. About 40 percent of the aboriginal population in Canada
belongs to First Nations.
According to DIAND, the largest First Nations bands in 2001 were the Mohawk of Akwesasne
in Ontario (9,500), the Blood of Alberta (9,051), the Mohawk of Kahnawake in Québec
(8,888), and the Saddle Lake in Alberta (7,648). Only 10 percent of the bands had a
population of 2,000 people or more, and 6 percent had populations of less than 100.
Because First Nations are legal-administrative bodies recognized by the Canadian
government, they are eligible for funding from DIAND. DIAND distributes monies to First
Nations for social services such as housing, postsecondary education, community economic
development, business enterprises, health care, and youth programs. Inuit living in
recognized Inuit communities may also be eligible for some federal benefits.
A3 Native Americans on Reservations and Reserves
A3a United States
In the United States, an Indian reservation generally refers to land that the U.S. government
set aside for a tribe after the tribe relinquished its other land areas to the United States
through treaties. Congressional acts, executive orders, and administrative acts have also
created reservations. The federal government holds the reservation lands in trust, and the
lands are reserved for Native American use. As trustee, the government is supposed to
ensure that the land is properly managed and is not lost to its Native American owners. In
California and Nevada, Indian reservations are often referred to as rancherias or colonies.
Indian lands also take other forms, including pueblos, Indian trust land outside of a
reservation, and Alaska Native villages.
In the United States, approximately 275 Indian land areas are administered as federal Indian
reservations. The largest is the Navajo Reservation, which has about 6.5 million hectares (16
million acres) of land in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Many of the smaller reservations
have less than 400 hectares (1,000 acres), and some California rancherias have less than one
acre. In 1990 less than half of the Native American population lived on Indian lands, most of
which are west of the Mississippi River. But many people who do not live on reservations
return to them often to participate in family and tribal life; some Native Americans go back to
reservations to retire. Indeed, in the 1990s, many Native Americans went back to
reservations to stay. The overall Indian population has been growing on or near reservations
in North and South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, and Kansas.
Native Americans who live on reservations benefit from federal programs that provide
housing, health care, education, and funds for economic development. But these programs
are inadequate. In 1990 half of all Native Americans on reservations were living below the
poverty level. Faced with substandard education, joblessness, poor health care, and houses
without plumbing, electricity, or telephones, many Native Americans have been forced to
leave reservations in search of jobs in the surrounding areas or in cities.
In Canada, reserves are lands set aside by the Canadian government for First Nations.
Beginning in the 1870s the Canadian government negotiated treaties and agreements with
First Nations that took away most of the Indians’ lands in exchange for reserves,
compensation, and promises of future assistance. Today, these reserves are where First
Nations communities try to keep alive kinship ties, Indian languages, and shared values,
beliefs, and rituals.
According to DIAND, Canada has approximately 2,670 reserves. Usually bands are identified
with a specific reserve, but many bands have rights to more than one reserve within a
province or territory. There are reserves in every province and territory; more than half are
located in British Columbia.
Some reserves cover several thousand acres, but numerous reserves are small, both in land
area and population. Many are located in rural or remote areas, and some are accessible only
by air. Several reserves, however, are located in or adjacent to Canadian cities. Some
examples are the Musqueam Reserve in Vancouver, British Columbia; the Membertou
Reserve in Sydney, Nova Scotia; and Kahnawake Reserve near Montréal, Québec. The three
largest reserves are the Blood and Siksika Indian Reserves in Alberta and the Moosomin
Reserve in Saskatchewan.
According to DIAND, 58 percent of Status Indians lived on a reserve in 2000. Any Status
Indian who is also a band member may live on a reserve. Some bands also allow band
members who are non-Status Indians to live on their reserves. First Nations may enact
residency bylaws that regulate who can live on reserves. Under certain conditions, they may
allow other people to live on the reserves. These include people who lease land from a band,
common-law spouses of Indians who have homes on reserves, and clergy serving reserve
The residents of reserves have specific privileges, including the right to vote in most band
elections. Indians registered with the band do not pay federal or provincial sales taxes on
personal and real property on a reserve. If a First Nation receives money from a land claims
settlement or from royalties for natural resources, reserve residents may have a right to a
share of that money. About 100 First Nations have rich natural resources such as timber, oil,
Canadian reserve conditions resemble those of the United States. Poverty, unemployment,
substandard housing, poor health care, and family breakdown have driven people from
reserves to urban centers where they have better opportunities to find jobs.
A4 Native Americans in Urban Areas
A4a United States
During World War II (1939-1945), some Indians left reservations and headed to cities,
where they worked in defense-related factories. After the war, however, many Indians
returned to reservations and surrounding rural areas, where they faced hard times because
there were few jobs. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) took notice of the lack of opportunities
on reservations, and it sought to break up reservation life. In the early 1950s it launched a
massive program to relocate reservation Indians to urban centers. The BIA’s Employment
Assistance Program (also known as the Voluntary Relocation Program) promoted the idea
that reservations had too many people. The program offered one-way bus tickets, temporary
low-cost housing, and new clothes to Indians who agreed to leave the reservations and
resettle in urban areas.
Many Indians went to cities and stayed, and more continued to migrate despite the end of
the relocation policy in 1960. Soon, Indian populations in cities exceeded those of some
reservations. According to the 1990 census, more than half of all Native Americans lived in
cities. Large urban areas such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, California; Oklahoma City,
Oklahoma; Chicago, Illinois; and Seattle, Washington, have become home to great numbers
of Indians from many different tribes.
Once in urban areas, Native Americans more commonly married people from other tribes,
and the children from these unions sometimes did not qualify for enrollment in either tribe.
For some people, this led to the decline of their tribal cultures and identities. However, urban
Indian groups soon developed communities with their own history, culture, and concerns,
and these communities replaced individual tribal identities for some people.
Urban Indian communities organized Indian centers in dozens of cities. These organizations
helped all Indian people, whether or not they were enrolled in a tribe or federally recognized.
They focused on their Indian, rather than tribal, identities. Today, Indian centers sponsor
powwows and other events that provide opportunities to perpetuate traditional Native
American music, dance, and other cultural activities for their multitribal populations. Centers
also find jobs for people and run health clinics, daycare programs, soup kitchens, gift shops,
and art galleries.
During the 1990s Indian people in cities began to reconnect with their tribes, and as a result
urban Indian communities have experienced a renewed focus on tribes. Because the majority
of Indian people now live in cities, tribal governments have been forced to become more
sensitive to their urban membership. Wisconsin’s Ho-Chunk Nation (formerly known as the
Winnebago) opened offices in Chicago, Illinois, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s
Oneida Indian Nation opened an office in Milwaukee as well.
In most cases, tribal members must return to the reservation to register their votes in
reservation elections. But recently, a number of tribes developed absentee ballots so city
dwellers can vote. Some tribal members running for office have begun to campaign in cities
as well as on the reservations. Some tribes have also given support to urban Indian
communities. The Oneida Indian Nation gave grants to Chicago Indian organizations. Several
rural southern California tribes helped sponsor an intertribal music festival organized by an
Indian center in Los Angeles County.
Since the 1970s Canada’s aboriginal population has become increasingly urbanized. People
have moved away from reserves because of substandard housing or lack of housing, as well
as the need for more jobs and better educational opportunities and health care. About half of
Canadians with aboriginal ancestry now live in cities. Urbanization of the Indian population is
especially apparent in Canada’s major Western cities.
The 1996 census showed that one out of five aboriginals lived in seven of the country’s 25
census metropolitan areas, six of which are in western Canada. Winnipeg, Manitoba, had the
most aboriginal people followed by Edmonton, Alberta; Vancouver, British Columbia;
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; Toronto, Ontario; Calgary, Alberta; and Regina, Saskatchewan.
Once in cities, aboriginal people face many challenges. They must adjust to an environment
dominated by nonaboriginal cultures and unfamiliar practices. Maintaining their specific
identities is difficult. People lose touch with their relatives, languages, and homelands. City
school curriculums largely ignore aboriginal cultures and languages. Some indigenous
peoples assimilate and blend into cities, getting decent educations and higher-paying jobs
and living longer. But others who do not become part of the urban middle class suffer from
poverty, routine violence, and substance abuse.
Canadian government policy has paid little attention to urban aboriginal peoples. Up until
1982, when the Constitution of Canada was amended to define “Aboriginal Peoples of
Canada” as Indian, Inuit, and Métis people, the Métis, who are largely urban, were not even
included in federal policy. However, the federal government does provide some support for
the Office of the Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians, a division of the
federal government, and for Friendship Centers, which provide a variety of programs for
urban Indians. Provincial and municipal governments treat aboriginal people in urban areas
as part of the general population.
Aboriginal people have tried to remedy their problems in cities across Canada. With
inadequate or no funding, they are managing and staffing housing projects, childcare
agencies, educational institutions, and street patrols. Friendship Centers located in cities
across Canada aim to improve the quality of life for aboriginal people living in or passing
through urban areas. They provide a range of services and programs including housing,
education, employment, recreation, training, and cultural programs. The Ontario-based
National Association of Friendship Centers, which does advocacy and lobbying work, focuses
on urban youth issues such as suicide, homelessness, education, and jobs.
B Government and Political Activism
B1 Native American Governments
B1a United States
Long before Europeans came to North America, Native Americans were independent and
self-governing. They had their own political and legal systems, which varied greatly from
group to group. After tribes became subject to U.S. authority, they lost much of their political
power. Many tribes entered into treaties with the federal government that acknowledged the
right of the tribe to retain self-government while placing it under the “protection” of the
United States. Today, Native American tribes are considered “domestic dependent” nations
with limited sovereignty under the jurisdiction of the U.S. government. The government has
a “trust responsibility” to Native Americans—that is, a legal obligation to protect Indian land,
resources, and rights of self-government. Native Americans born in the United States are full
citizens of the United States.
Two federal agencies, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Indian Health Service (IHS),
administer programs primarily for members of federally recognized tribes who live on or near
reservations. Members of federally recognized tribes who do not live on reservations have
limited relations with the BIA and the IHS.
On reservations, the tribal government serves as the local governing authority. Tribes are
free to choose and operate their own forms of government. They decide what kind of
government best fits their needs depending on their cultural, historical, and religious
traditions. Most tribal governments are elected. Some tribes opt for written tribal
constitutions patterned after the U.S. Constitution as the foundation for their governments;
others have rejected written constitutions.
Governing bodies are generally referred to as tribal councils. The presiding officer is often
called the chairman or chairwoman, although some tribes use other titles, such as principal
chief, president, or governor. Tribal councils have the power to represent the tribe in
negotiations with the federal, state, and local governments. Tribal governments determine
tribal membership for activities such as voting, and they make laws to regulate aspects of
everyday life such as marriage, divorce, and child adoptions. They also levy taxes, pass tribal
ordinances, regulate property under tribal jurisdiction, maintain law and order among their
members, and punish and jail lawbreakers.
Tribally operated courts vary from highly formalized ones modeled after U.S. courts to less
formal bodies designed for the informal resolution of disputes. In some New Mexico pueblos,
the tribal council serves as the tribal court, and in other tribes the tribal council serves as the
tribal court of appeals. Court proceedings may occasionally take place in a Native American
language. Tribal courts largely deal with divorce, child custody problems, civil disputes
between Native American citizens, and minor crimes such as violations of fishing regulations.
Although states have the right to regulate all persons and activities within their borders,
Indian reservations are a major exception. As a result, relations between states and tribes
are often strained. Indian lands are immune from town and county taxes and state property
taxes. States resent the fact that reservation Indians are not subject to state taxes and
regulation. Tribes resent state attempts to tax and regulate them and actively guard their
sovereignty against state encroachments. Nevertheless, some state governments and tribes
have taken positive steps to deal with issues of joint concern.
At the time of the Confederation of Canada, the Constitution Act of 1867 gave the federal
government legislative authority over “Indians and lands reserved for Indians.” The federal
government carried out its broad mandate over Indians and their lands through the Indian
Act of 1876 and its amendments, the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern
Development Act of 1967, and numerous other statutes and legal obligations arising from the
Constitution Act. Native people born in Canada are full citizens of Canada.
The Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND), also called Indian and
Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), has primary responsibility for meeting the federal
government’s constitutional, treaty, political, and legal responsibilities to First Nations and
Inuit. Many of DIAND’s programs and services—including housing, education, and economic
and social development—are targeted at Status Indians who live on reserves. The vast
majority of programs and services are delivered in partnership with First Nations, who
directly administer roughly 85 percent of the funds. For the most part, DIAND programs do
not cover Métis and non-Status Indians who do not live on reserves. These peoples receive
minimal monies for their political organizations and few programs to address their special
First Nations in Canada have their own governing band councils, usually consisting of one or
more chiefs and several councilors. With few exceptions, band members elect the chief and
councilors. However, some band councils have rejected the elective system because it
conflicts with the traditional Indian hereditary system of governing.
While the federal government allowed for the creation of First Nation governments to
manage federal funds and the bands’ land, First Nations have pressured the government for
more self-government. Under a federal policy developed in 1995, aboriginal groups began to
have the right to negotiate for self-government in areas such as government structure, land
management, health care, child welfare, education, housing, and economic development.
Negotiations take place between the aboriginal groups, the federal government, and, in areas
affecting its jurisdiction and interests, the relevant provincial or territorial government.
The federal government considers aboriginal peoples who do not live on reserves the
responsibility of the provincial and territorial governments. While provinces and territories
have, for the most part, accepted this responsibility, it took time for them to contribute
funding to meet the immense needs of aboriginal peoples.
In 1993 Inuit leaders reached a land claim agreement with the Canadian government to
provide a separate territory for the Inuit people. This agreement split off the eastern part of
the Northwest Territories into the Territory of Nunavut in 1999. This territory, which is equal
to about a fifth of Canada, became the first large political unit in North America with an
indigenous majority. Nunavut’s nonpartisan government is open to every resident. However,
because the Inuit make up 85 percent of the population, they essentially govern the territory.
The Métis struggle for the right of self-government. Two-thirds of self-identified Métis live in
Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. The Métis generally remain under provincial
jurisdiction except for eight Métis communities in Alberta that are somewhat like Indian
reserves and are governed by elected councils. Pursuing their goals in part through the courts
and federal negotiations, the Métis seek to increase their land base, establish local
government on this land base, and have the right to self-government off the land base.
B2 Political Activism and Organizations
B2a United States
During the 20th and 21st centuries Native Americans in the United States have promoted
their interests and resisted oppressive federal polices by becoming politically active. In the
1960s and 1970s the Red Power movement swept through reservations and cities where
Native Americans lived. This movement emphasized fighting for Native American rights,
developing pride in one’s Indian heritage, and sustaining traditional Native American cultures
and lands. Indian activists used direct-action techniques, such as protests, occupations,
mass demonstrations, and marches, to fight discrimination and political oppression and to
demand their lawful rights. Native Americans also worked to increase their sovereignty. They
wanted the right to use and preserve sacred lands and sites, to control the education of their
children, to develop their own natural resources, and to establish an economic base.
Since the 1970s Indian tribes and hundreds of lawyers have also fought legal battles in
courts and legislatures. They have worked to protect what is left of their lands, or to reclaim
land previously lost, and to practice their religions without intrusive regulation by
Since the late 1980s some tribes have profited from gaming operations, which have allowed
them to make big financial contributions to political campaigns at state and national levels.
Congress and state legislatures now hear Native American concerns. Tribes have hired
high-priced lobbyists and public relations firms to win influence and to try to defeat political
candidates who do not support Native American issues. Tribes are also becoming players in
national and state politics. American Indians represent significant swing votes in states with
concentrated Indian populations, such as Arizona, California, Nevada, Oklahoma, and North
Today, there are many Native American organizations that work to influence policymakers at
all levels of government. Some organizations are national and broad, while others focus on
particular issues, such as health care, education, or the arts. Founded in 1944, the National
Congress of American Indians (NCAI) is the oldest and largest tribal government organization
in the United States. More than 250 tribal governments from every region in the country
belong to NCAI. The organization educates tribes, lawmakers, and the public about legislative
threats to Indian sovereignty and keeps its members informed about congressional actions
that could prove potentially damaging to tribes.
In 1970 the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) was founded. This nonprofit Indian law firm
provides legal representation and technical assistance to Indian tribes, organizations, and
individuals nationwide. NARF aims to preserve tribal existence and protect tribal natural
resources such as land, water, minerals, and wild game. It also promotes human rights and
educates the public about Indian rights, laws, and issues.
Founded in 1977, the Seventh Generation Fund (SGF) supports native community-based
projects with small grants, advocacy, leadership training, technical assistance, and financial
management. SGF work focuses on traditional economies, alternative energy, and the
preservation of sacred sites and traditional spiritual practices. United South and Eastern
Tribes, Inc. (USET), a regional organization with more than 20 member tribes, is dedicated to
improving the capabilities of tribal governments and assisting member tribes in dealing with
Native Americans have increasingly become a presence in national politics and events. The
only Native American in Congress is Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Republican from
Colorado and a chief of the Northern Cheyenne tribe. Campbell became a senator in 1993. He
was the main champion for the Omnibus Indian Advancement Act (2000), a compilation of
various pieces of legislation relating to Native Americans, including laws to grant recognition
to several tribes and to compensate tribes for land loss.
Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe from Montana, has dedicated herself to
encouraging Native Americans to achieve economic self-sufficiency. She helped the Blackfeet
National Bank gets its charter in the late 1980s after the only local bank in Browning, Montana,
the reservation capital, failed. She also helped start the Native American Bancorporation Co.,
the first nationwide American Indian bank. In 1996 she filed a class action lawsuit on behalf
of hundreds of Native Americans accusing the U.S. government of longtime mismanagement
of individual Indian trust funds. A U.S. district court ruled that the government breached its
trust duties, and a federal appeals court upheld the ruling.
John Eagleshield, a member of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, became director of the Native
American Rights Fund in 1977. A leading force in Indian law and policy, Eagleshield has been
called upon to serve on special commissions and committees that are assigned to develop
state, regional, and national Indian policy. Winona LaDuke, a member of the White Earth
Chippewa of Minnesota, is a nationally and internationally acclaimed activist and
environmentalist who twice ran as vice president of the United States with Green Party
candidate Ralph Nader. She also began the White Earth Land Recovery Project, a
reservation-based nonprofit organization that works to recover Indian land.
Wilma Mankiller, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma from 1985 until 1995, is
renowned for serving her tribe and fighting to protect the rights of all Native Americans. She
revitalized her tribe by reducing Cherokee infant mortality, improving health and education,
and promoting Cherokee business interests. For her achievements as chief, in 1998 she was
awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.
Canadian aboriginal political activism changed dramatically during the 20th century. Until
1953 it was illegal for Status Indians to raise funds to form political organizations. In 1969 the
Canadian government proposed abolishing special rights for Indians in a document known as
the White Paper on Indian Policy. The paper also called for phasing out treaties and
eliminating DIAND. Indians across Canada protested and formed organizations at the
provincial, territorial, and national levels to oppose the White Paper policy. These new
organizations then began the struggle for Indian land rights.
Aboriginal people in Canada are represented by four political organizations of general scope,
each of which represents a distinct community. In addition to these national organizations,
there are dozens of provincial and territorial associations.
The main organization representing almost all Status Indians in Canada is the Assembly of
First Nations. It was formed in 1982 as a national lobbying organization for more than 600
First Nations. The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP), formed in 1971, represents the
interests nationally of off-reserve Indian and Métis people, regardless of status under the
Indian Act. The Métis National Council (MNC), established in 1983, is the national
representative of the Métis peoples. The MNC seeks the right to establish self-government on
a Métis land base as well as the right to self-governing institutions off a land base. The Inuit
Tapirisat of Canada, established in 1971, represents the Inuit throughout Canada. As the
national voice for Inuit people, it aims to enable Inuit to fully exercise their rights within
Canadian society, including their right for greater self-government.
For decades, numerous aboriginal people have influenced Canadian policies and politics. One
of the most influential is John Amagoalik, a major champion and leading voice for Inuit
political rights. He spent 25 years negotiating the formation of Nunavut. In the 1980s he was
president of Inuit Tapirisat Canada, which honored him in 1994 for his notable contribution to
Inuit political rights.
In the 1990s Matthew Coon Come, grand chief of the Council of Cree of Northern Québec,
was the principal leader of the successful effort by the Cree to stop development of a
hydroelectric project in northern Québec. Coon Come put together a strong coalition of
environmental, human rights, and indigenous organizations to oppose the project, and
Hydro-Québec was forced to scale back the project in 1994. In 2000 Coon Come was elected
national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
George Erasmus has been a central figure in aboriginal politics since the 1970s. He was
elected national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in 1985 and cochaired the Royal
Commission on Aboriginal Peoples from 1991 to 1996. That commission issued a report
detailing the conditions of aboriginal peoples. The report prompted an apology by the
government of Canada and led to a new federal action plan to change how the government
deals with Canada’s aboriginal peoples.
Ojibwa-Cree Elijah Harper, Manitoba’s lone Indian legislator, made history in 1990 when he
blocked passage in the Manitoba legislature of the long-debated Meech Lake Accord, a
constitutional agreement that would have given the largely French province of Québec special
status as a “distinct society.” To Harper, the accord was “the ultimate racist act” because it
recognized only two founding nations in Canada, English and French, and two official
languages, and ignored aboriginal people. Harper successfully stalled the accord, which
required passage by all ten provincial legislatures.
B3 Land Claims
B3a United States
In 1946 the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Claims Commission Act (ICC). The act created
a judicial body expressly to resolve the more than 600 Indian land claims that had
accumulated over the previous 150 years. Prior to the ICC, Congress prohibited Indians from
making land or monetary claims against the federal government, unless it passed special acts
to allow them. Early on, the ICC commissioners determined that they would only make
monetary awards to Indian claimants and would not return the title to the land. They made
awards worth the market value of the land on the date the United States acquired it. Once
Indian tribes accepted money for the land, they had to forgo forever any further claims to
land. While most Indians accepted their monetary awards, a small number did not. The Sioux
tribes in South Dakota, who won a claims suit over the Black Hills, refused to accept the $105
million awarded them in 1974 and continued to demand the return of federal lands. The U.S.
Supreme Court upheld the suit in 1980, and the award, in a government account, has
continued to earn interest since that time.
The ICC took years to resolve claims; appeals to the Supreme Court tacked on more time.
Because investigating and ruling on claims was a slow and tedious process, Congress
repeatedly extended the ICC’s tenure. It finally expired in 1978. The ICC did not decide in
favor of all land claims. It ruled 342 as valid and dismissed at least 200.
Despite the ICC’s insistence on awarding monetary claims only, a few tribes have been
successful in having land restored to them through congressional legislation. These claims
hinged on the use of land for traditional religious activities. In 1970 Congress restored the
Blue Lake (19,425 hectares/48,000 acres) in New Mexico to Taos Pueblo. In 1972 it returned
a 8,000-hectare (21,000-acre) parcel of Mount Adams in Washington to the Yakama, and in
1984 it restored the sacred area of Kolhu/wala:wa (4,000 hectares/10,000 acres) in Arizona
to Zuni Pueblo. In 2000 Congress returned to the Santo Domingo Pueblo of New Mexico an
area of 1,900 hectares (4,600 acres) that included shrines and other religious sites
considered sacred by the Pueblo.
In the late 20th century Native Americans turned to courts to reclaim lost land. Tribes also
tried to regain homelands through other means, including working with the Bureau of Indian
Affairs (BIA) to return federal lands to tribal trust (land held in trust by the federal
government that is reserved for Indian use), and buying land with revenue from tribal
enterprises, including gaming. They have also tried to negotiate with landowners on
reservation borders to will or deed land back to the tribe and to find sponsors to purchase land
and give it back to the tribe.
Tribes stand to gain a great deal if they can reclaim their lands. Lands are immune from town
and county taxes as well as state property taxes. When lands fall under tribal governments’
civil and criminal jurisdiction, tribes can levy their own taxes on nontribal businesses and
enforce land-use regulations, building codes, and criminal statutes. Tribes can also gain
approval to establish casinos on the land.
In Canada, aboriginal people pursue land claims that the government recognizes in two
broad classes: comprehensive and specific. A comprehensive land claim is based on the
recognition that there are continuing aboriginal rights to lands and natural resources. This
kind of claim comes up in parts of Canada where Indians have not previously signed a treaty
with the government. Comprehensive land claims can include land title, fishing and trapping
rights, and financial compensation. Provinces and territories participate in these land claim
negotiations because the land and most resources are under provincial and territorial control.
Specific land claims deal with specific grievances that First Nations may have regarding the
fulfillment of existing treaties. Specific claims also cover grievances relating to administration
of First Nations lands and assets under the Indian Act.
In settling land claims, Indians can receive the right to self-government, large cash
payments, and control over their natural resources. They also can win the right to preserve
traditional activities such as hunting and fishing and to gain compensation from agreements
in which the government grants mining or timber rights to companies. At the same time, the
government may ask them to obey national laws, including strict environmental regulations.
They also forfeit any rights to future land claims and may no longer be exempt from paying
In British Columbia, there are more outstanding comprehensive claims by First Nations than
in the rest of Canada combined. More than 40 Indian bands in British Columbia have made
land claims that, if granted in their entirety, would cover most of the province, including the
city of Vancouver. One First Nation, the Nisga’a of British Columbia, successfully negotiated
a comprehensive treaty with the federal and provincial governments. In 2000 the Nisga’a
gained title to an area more than half the size of Rhode Island as well as the right to govern
Until the late 1960s the use of courts was a comparatively new thing for aboriginal people in
Canada. Unlike the United States, which had built up a huge body of Native American case
law, Canadian aboriginals did not use the courts very much. But since the late 1960s, they
have forced the Canadian courts to recognize a wide range of aboriginal rights pertaining to
land they have occupied since long before Europeans ever set foot on the continent.
In the early 1970s the Québec government decided to build a huge hydroelectric project,
known as the James Bay Project, on traditional Cree hunting grounds. The Cree went to
Québec Superior Court in 1972 seeking an injunction to halt construction. In a landmark
decision, the Court found in favor of the Cree, ordering work on the project to be stopped and
Québec to cease trespassing on Cree lands. Although a higher court overturned the judgment,
all sides determined that negotiation was better than more litigation. The result, the James
Bay and Northern Québec Agreement of 1975, was an elaborate agreement. In return for
large financial compensation and the right of self-government, the Cree and Inuit
surrendered their claims to the territory. They received lands for their exclusive use and other
lands with exclusive hunting, fishing, and trapping rights.
C Economic Issues
C1 United States
By any statistical standard, Native Americans living on reservations in the United States
occupy the lowest rung on the economic ladder. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs
(BIA), at least half of the reservation population lives below the poverty line, surviving on
welfare checks, food stamps, and Medicaid. On reservations across the United States, Native
Americans live in rundown and overcrowded trailers and shacks. For many, central heating,
piped water, and indoor toilets are luxuries. In 1990 the Indian Health Service (IHS) reported
that 43 percent of Indian children younger than five years old lived in poverty. In 1995 more
than 20 percent of Native American reservation households had annual incomes below
$5,000, compared with 6 percent for the overall U.S. population. Only 8 percent of
reservation households had annual incomes greater than $35,000, compared with 18 percent
for the overall U.S. population.
People living on reservations have the highest rates of unemployment in the United
States—up to 70 percent or more on some reservations. On South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian
Reservation, home to the Lakota peoples, unemployment rates hovered around 80 percent in
1999. Some of the most commonly cited reasons for high unemployment among Native
Americans are lack of education, discrimination, and the scarcity of jobs and industry on and
near reservations. Non-Indian businesses are reluctant to locate on reservations because of
misperceptions about tribal governments, cultural factors, and a lack of infrastructure such
as roads, sewage systems, and industrial parks. Tribal councils may also lack the business
experience necessary to oversee business operations.
Many Indians move to cities in search of better schooling, improved housing, and
higher-paying jobs. For Indians with job skills or a good education, urban areas offer more
opportunities. Native Americans in cities have lower unemployment rates than those who live
on reservations. While urban areas provide better opportunities for some, moving to these
locations often entails other costs. Native Americans in cities do not always improve their
standard of living because housing, food, clothing, and health care are more expensive in
Native Americans on reservations depend heavily on federal and tribal governments for jobs.
The BIA and IHS employ workers in law enforcement, road construction, logging, and health
care. Tribal governments create jobs in tourist enterprises and manufacturing plants. But
many tribal leaders say more jobs are needed to solve the severe problems of unemployment
Many Indians see self-employment as a viable way to increase employment opportunities,
and the number of Indian-owned, reservation-based businesses increased during the late
20th century. Native Americans own everything from construction companies, food stores,
and manufacturing plants to printing presses, restaurants, and trucking companies.
Native Americans have also tried to reach out to other businesses in the United States. The
Native American Business Alliance, founded by Native Americans, has fostered relationships
leading to contracts between companies owned by Indians and corporations such as Toyota
Motor Corporation, Honda Motor Co., Ltd., and The Walt Disney Company. There are also
numerous regional and state American Indian chambers of commerce that cultivate
economic opportunities among industry, corporations, tribes, and Indian-owned businesses.
Since the mid-1960s the U.S. government has tried to revitalize reservation economies.
Although the government helped fund or build roads, sewage systems, and industrial parks to
attract new businesses to reservations, relatively few industries have located permanently on
them. Since 1965 the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development
Administration (EDA) has provided close to $1 billion in financial assistance to Indian tribes
and organizations for economic and community development. Other federal programs that
assist Native American economic development include the Small Business Administration’s
Office of Native American Affairs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development
Program, and the Rural Empowerment Zone/Enterprise Community Program.
Across the country reservations with few other economic opportunities have turned to
gaming operations such as casinos as a means to economic independence. In 1988 Congress
passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which allowed Native American tribes to negotiate
with states for gaming compacts. Since then tribal nations with gaming compacts have
established a $7.4-billion-a-year industry that has created an estimated 200,000 jobs. The
jobs are in reservation-based Indian casinos, hotels, and restaurants and other positions
indirectly tied to gaming. Tribal gaming operations are regulated at four levels: by the tribal
government, by the state government, by the National Indian Gaming Commission, and by
federal government agencies such as the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of
Investigation (FBI), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the Bureau of Indian Affairs
In 2001 about one-third of federally recognized tribes owned a total of about 300 casinos in
29 states. Of these, only a few Native American communities have reaped large profits.
Highly publicized tribal casinos such as the Mashantucket Pequots Tribal Nation’s Foxwoods
Resort Casino in Connecticut and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community’s Mystic
Lake Casino in Minnesota have created the impression that all Indian casinos are wildly
successful. But they are not. Many casinos are marginal operations. In truth, the majority of
American Indians have benefited little from the explosion of Indian gaming. Only an
estimated 25 percent of the jobs from the gaming industry are held by Native Americans.
Native Americans who have benefited from gaming operations have the capital to provide
childcare programs, housing, roads, scholarships, health clinics, and water systems for their
people. Revenues also fund tribal law enforcement and fire fighting and other services. New
jobs have lured Native Americans back to their reservations, but many people work for low
wages as cashiers, waitresses, and hotel workers. In actuality, casinos have just scratched
the surface of the economic problems confronting reservations.
Some tribes have turned to cultural tourism to generate revenues and diversify their
economies. According to the Western American Indian Chamber of Commerce in Denver,
Colorado, as many as 75 percent of federally recognized tribes are involved in tourism or are
making plans to be. Many tribes have built tourist attractions such as shops on their
reservations. They have also started touring companies and marketed their attractions at
tourist trade shows internationally. The intertribal Arizona American Indian Tourism
Association, created in 1994 to promote tourism among the state’s tribes, is one of several
state organizations working to increase tourism. Powwows and festivals, most of which are
west of the Mississippi, have drawn increasing numbers of visitors in recent years.
Many tribes and individual Native Americans possess land with natural resources such as
water, timber, oil, gas, coal, and other minerals. If these resources were developed, they
would provide a significant source of wealth. The Department of the Interior holds these
natural resources in trust, and the BIA and other federal agencies collect fees from those who
use them on behalf of tribes and individual Native Americans. In the 1990s there were
disclosures that the federal government had mismanaged some of these natural resources,
such as agreeing to substandard leasing deals for Native American timber, oil, natural gas,
and minerals. Often, Native Americans were never informed who had leased their land, for
what purpose, how much the lease was for, or how long the lease was to run. In addition,
individual Indians did not receive what was owed them.
In recent years tribes have recognized the need to manage their own resources. Unshackling
themselves from layers of federal bureaucracy, they are developing, or choosing not to
develop, their lands. Great debates take place among Native Americans over whether and
how to develop natural resources. Those tribes planning to develop natural resource have
endorsed intensive use that can net millions of dollars for tribes and individuals. They have
renegotiated coal leases, made oil and gas agreements joint ventures, and included
provisions for tribal employment, training, and scholarships. Other tribes who have resisted
developing the land argue that commercial exploitation of resources clashes with their
Aboriginal people in Canada, on and off reserves, also occupy the lowest rung on the
economic ladder. Their income, unemployment rates, education levels, and skills remain
below that of the general population. Problems are especially acute on reserves, most of
which are far from population or industrial centers. Opportunities for commercial or industrial
employment are rare. On many reserves, chronic unemployment rates can run to 75 percent
Double-digit jobless rates—combined with hunger, poverty, and inadequate housing—force
people to move to cities where more jobs are available. But the low education levels of
aboriginal peoples and discrimination against them combine to limit job opportunities.
Unemployment rates for urban aboriginal people are double that of nonaboriginals.
Aboriginal businesses have been emerging across Canada. In a 1996 government survey,
20,000 aboriginal people said they owned a business, 70 percent of which were full-time
operations. Almost 60 percent of them are located on or near reserves. Businesses tend to be
small with one employee besides the owner. Operations range from video stores and gas
stations to commercial fishing ventures, publishing companies, and radio stations. Some
indigenous peoples have also formed cooperatives where they sell artwork, carvings, and
A growing interest in aboriginal peoples has encouraged First Nations, like U.S. tribes, to
develop business and job opportunities in tourism. Indeed, tourism has become one of the
major tools in economic development. It brings money into communities and is generally
environmentally friendly. Cree and Inuit community-based tours have brought tourists from
all over the world to see their landscapes and experience their ways of life. However, small
entrepreneurs still face many challenges setting up tourist businesses. Getting a business
started is expensive, and it takes time to develop a clientele. Also they often do not have
enough money to advertise. In fact, First Nations are now turning to the Internet to promote
The federal and provincial governments have tried to address some aboriginal economic
problems. They grant subsidies, which provide something of a cushion, preventing total
economic collapse among Indians on reserves and in cities. Subsidies include welfare,
pensions, unemployment insurance, and family allowances. A Canadian government agency,
Aboriginal Business Canada, has provided financial and other support to more than 5,000
aboriginal-owned firms. Provinces such as Saskatchewan and Alberta have also developed
plans to assist urban aboriginal people to find jobs and childcare, and individual bands help
members start businesses. National organizations such as the Assembly of First Nations,
Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, and the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples all try to help develop
economic opportunities as well.
Settling land claims is a necessary step toward economic independence for First Nations
because it gives them a secure and stable land base and greater control over natural
resources. If bands can manage their natural resources, they will have a more equitable
share in the wealth of their lands. They can also help their communities become more
economically self-sufficient. Without control over natural resources, aboriginal people are
locked out of economic activities taking place in their own backyard.
D Social Issues
D1a United States
For generations, federal and state governments have controlled the formal education of
Native American children nationwide. Of the 600,000 Native American elementary and
secondary schoolchildren in the United States, about 75 percent attend public schools, even
on Indian reservations. Less than 10 percent of the student population attends BIA-operated
elementary and secondary schools. Private, parochial, and tribally run schools serve the
remaining Native American students.
In general, federal and state control of education has been disastrous for American Indian
students in the United States. For the most part, public schools have been unable to address
the needs of Indian communities because Indian educational programs are chronically
underfunded. There are few Native American teachers, little parental involvement, and the
curriculum lacks a Native American viewpoint. In the public schools, Native American
students have the highest dropout rate of any racial or ethnic group—36 percent in 1990.
College graduation rates for Native Americans are also low. In 1995 Native American
students accounted for less than 1 percent of all students in higher education. The majority
of these students attended two-year institutions rather than four-year schools. Also that year,
the graduation rate for Native Americans at a group of more than 300 colleges and
universities was only 37 percent, the lowest among major ethnic minority groups. In addition
to educational and economic hurdles, many social barriers have prevented Native American
students from attending college. Cultural and language differences as well as the geographic
isolation of most reservations have often inhibited student access to or persistence in
After a history of compulsory Western methods of learning, attempts to eradicate tribal
cultures, and high dropout rates for Native Americans, Indian educational leaders wanted to
rethink Native American education. They built on the success of the self-determination
movement of the 1960s to explore other ways of educating Native Americans. Since that time
Indian communities have had a growing voice in and control over the education of their
children. In 1966 the Navajo Nation created Rough Rock Demonstration School, a highly
successful Indian-controlled elementary school located on the reservation. It has an
all-Indian school board, classes in Navajo and English, and a community-developed
curriculum. By the 2000 school year, 65 percent of BIA-funded schools were controlled by
tribes or tribal organizations in the United States.
Native American educators have also recognized the importance of postsecondary education
and its ability to strengthen reservations and tribal cultures. Federal legislation in the 1970s
provided funds to help develop postsecondary educational institutions for Native Americans.
In 1968 the Navajo Nation created the first tribally controlled college, now called Diné College.
Other tribal colleges quickly developed. Most are located on remote reservations and have a
relatively small, predominantly Native American student population. All began as two-year
institutions and have open admissions policies. In 2001 most tribal colleges were fully
For more than 300 years, the dominant Euro-Canadian society educated aboriginal peoples
in Canada. However, a new era in education began in 1972, when the National Indian
Brotherhood published a policy paper entitled “Indian Control of Indian Education.” This
paper led aboriginal people to take greater control of their children’s schooling. Since then,
Indian-controlled education has played a major role in revitalizing Indian cultures. It ensures
that Indian values, identity, languages, and traditions are passed to younger generations.
Education is a provincial and territorial responsibility. The federal government also provides
funds for schools in the territories and on Indian reserves. Status Indians on reserves may
attend elementary and secondary schools operated by First Nations or federal schools
operated by the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND). Status
Indians off reserves can attend provincially administered schools. Territorial governments
provide educational services for Status Indians and Inuit in the Yukon, the Northwest
Territories, and Nunavut. DIAND also provides financial assistance, through First Nations
councils and other authorities, to eligible Status Indian students enrolled in, or accepted to,
eligible postsecondary educational programs.
During the 1999-2000 school year, there were more than 480 reserve-controlled schools, up
from 53 in 1975. That same school year, 60 percent of Indians who lived on reserves
attended elementary and secondary schools run by bands, 37 percent attended provincial
schools, 2 percent attended private schools, and 1 percent attended schools run by the
federal government. The Nisga’a Indians of British Columbia were one of the first bands, in
1974, to take charge of a separate Indian school district that emphasized a bicultural,
bilingual curriculum. In 1975 the James Bay Cree assumed control of schools on their reserve.
A Cree school board controls a substantial budget and provides services to the students. It
has implemented a Cree-oriented curriculum and in-service training for Cree teachers.
The new era in Indian education has also led to an increase in Indian curricular materials in
the public schools. Federal and provincial governments have financed curriculum
development, special education programs for indigenous peoples, and teacher training in
Indian languages. Increasingly, many of the country’s public schools have added learning
materials written from an Indian perspective to the curriculum. In some provinces, teachers
can take courses in aboriginal studies at the university level; these courses count as credit for
subjects they can later teach.
The new emphasis on Indian education at elementary and high school levels has been
matched at the postsecondary level. Enrollment by Status Indians and Inuit at universities
and colleges has dramatically increased from 60 students in 1960 to an estimated 27,000 in
2000-2001. According to DIAND, the rate of graduation is 13 percent. In 1976 a First
Nations-controlled university-college, the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, opened.
Its mission has been to “preserve, protect, and interpret the history, language, culture, and
artistic heritage of First Nations.” Nicola Valley Institute of Technology in British Columbia
and the Six Nations Polytechnic in Ontario also provide culturally relevant educations for
Canada’s aboriginal population.
Despite these successes, much remains to be done. In a 2001 report on the education of
Indian children on reserves, a federal auditor gave DIAND a failing grade. Only 37 percent of
aboriginal students graduated from high school in 1996. More aboriginal teachers are also
needed in the classrooms. In provincial public schools, only about 1 percent of the educators
are aboriginal. Almost three-quarters of these teachers are in special education programs
where aboriginal students are overrepresented.
D2 Physical and Mental Health
D2a United States
Over the past century the general health condition of Native Americans in the United States
has undergone great changes. In the early and mid-1900s they were struck by repeated and
severe epidemics of measles, influenza, whooping cough, and diphtheria. Tuberculosis
became the greatest killer of all. Otitis media, an infection of the inner ear often causing
hearing loss, was especially prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s.
By the late 20th century these infectious diseases were brought under control by a
combination of immunizations, new medications, and a better standard of living. However,
Native Americans developed other problems that evolved in response to the effects of rapid
cultural change. Mental disorders, alcoholism, and domestic violence became widespread in
the 1980s and 1990s. In 1988, according to the Indian Health Service (IHS), Native American
deaths due to alcoholism were more than four times greater than those reported for the
general population. Suicide rates among American Indians were 77 percent higher than the
national average in 1998, and suicides are generally clustered among youth ages 15 to 34.
Diabetes, a growing epidemic, occurs at significantly higher rates in the Indian community
than in the non-Indian community. In 1996 Native Americans were 2.8 times as likely to be
diagnosed with diabetes as whites of similar age. The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) have become a growing threat to Native
Americans, who comprise 6 percent of all new HIV infections in the United States, although
they only represent about 1 percent of the U.S. population. The five-year survival rate for
Native Americans with all cancers is the poorest for all ethnic groups.
The delivery of health services to Native Americans is unique. The Indian Health Service
(IHS), an agency of the Public Health Service within the Department of Health and Human
Services, has administered the principal federal health programs to Native Americans since
1955. The IHS has 12 area offices throughout the United States. These offices serve either
regional areas or states with large Indian populations such as California and Oklahoma. The
IHS provides direct health-care services through IHS facilities such as hospitals and clinics.
For services that an IHS facility cannot provide, such as organ transplants or open-heart
surgery, the IHS contracts with a non-IHS facility.
Any member of a federally recognized tribe may obtain care at an IHS hospital or clinic. For
contract care, a member of a federally recognized tribe can receive services within certain
geographical boundaries, which map to the IHS area offices. For example, Indians who live in
California can receive contract care from facilities in California that have a contract with the
IHS but not from contract facilities in Arizona. Due to a limited budget, IHS facilities do not
meet all the health-care needs of Native Americans. Not all reservations or communities have
medical clinics or hospitals, and those that do often have small and outdated facilities.
In urban areas, Native Americans have limited access to the IHS system because there are
few IHS facilities there. Although more than half of all Native Americans live in cities, only a
small portion of the IHS budget is used to fund urban health-care centers. Since Congress
passed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act in 1976, urban health-care services have
been expanded to include direct medical, alcohol, mental health, and HIV/AIDS services as
well as disease prevention services. However, urban health centers still do not have sufficient
funding to address all the health-care needs of urban Native Americans.
Today, some tribes have begun to operate their own health-care facilities with funding from
the IHS. When tribes handle their own health programs, they can limit the use of their
facilities to only their tribal members if they choose. Tribes usually welcome members who
live in cities but transportation to reservations can be an obstacle. As tribes gain more federal
funding, urban areas have received even less funding.
Because of a lack of money to pay good salaries, doctors, nurses, and pharmacists are
leaving clinics on Indian reservations in droves. Job vacancies, low pay, and a high rate of
worker turnover in Indian health-care facilities have eroded the quality of health care. In
1998 there were 74 doctors for every 100,000 Native Americans in the United States,
compared to 242 per 100,000 in the general population.
Long-term continuity in health care is rare in the Indian community. Doctors who come to
reservations usually do not stay for more than two or three years, and Native Americans
rarely see Indian doctors. Many elderly Indian people delay or avoid seeking IHS medical help
because of language and cultural barriers. Few health-care professionals speak Native
There is a vital need for Native Americans in the health and medical fields. Recently, the U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services has partnered with some tribal colleges to recruit,
train, and retain Native Americans in the public health and medical professions.
By any measure, health issues are one of the most pressing concerns in aboriginal
communities in Canada. The prevalence of diabetes among First Nations is at epidemic levels,
at least three times greater than the national average, with high rates occurring in all age
groups. The rates of diabetes are higher on-reserve than off-reserve. An aboriginal peoples
survey showed that Métis also have diabetes at rates above nonaboriginal people. They also
have less access to health services compared to the general population. Diabetes rates are
also increasing among Inuit, who have the lowest access to health-care services. This
increase is due to the rise of risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity in some Inuit
Statistics show that AIDS cases among aboriginal people in Canada rose steadily from 1984
to 1996, when aboriginal people constituted 5.6 percent of all AIDS cases for which the
ethnicity of the patient was known. A higher proportion of aboriginal people are diagnosed
with AIDS at less than 30 years of age than nonaboriginal people. Aboriginal people who
travel between cities and rural reserve communities are a factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Tuberculosis (TB) still strikes aboriginal people in Canada. A combination of malnutrition,
confinement on crowded reservations with poor sanitation, and lack of immunity to the TB
bacterium create conditions for the epidemic. Incidences of TB leveled off in the 1980s, but
aboriginal Canadians living on reserves were still ten times more likely to have TB than
nonaboriginal Canadians in 1990.
No national studies provide information about the prevalence or incidence of family domestic
violence in aboriginal communities. However, several provincial and regional studies have
grim findings. One 1997 Health Canada study of some northern aboriginal communities
reported that between 75 percent and 90 percent of women were battered. The study found
that 40 percent of children in these communities had been physically abused by a family
member. A 1991 study by Aboriginal Nurses Association of Canada found alcohol and
substance abuse and economic problems are factors in much of the family violence.
Other physical health issues that affect aboriginal peoples in Canada are poverty and suicide.
According to a report by First Nations leader Matthew Coon Come, six out of every ten
aboriginal preschoolers live in dire poverty. Aboriginal babies are more than twice as likely to
die at birth than nonaboriginal babies. Grinding poverty, hopelessness, and despair have led
some Indian youths to commit suicide at higher rates than the overall Canadian population.
Health services for First Nations are the responsibility of provincial, territorial, and federal
governments. The provinces and territories provide or pay for physician and hospital services
that are covered under their health insurance plans. The federal government provides
treatment and public health services to First Nations that are not included under provincial
and territorial plans, such as prescription drugs, dental services, eyeglasses, and medical
transportation in remote areas.
In 1979 Canada’s new Indian Health Policy recognized the need for increased involvement of
aboriginal people in the health-care system. Indeed, the federal government supports the
transfer of control of health programs to First Nations and Inuit organizations. It funds
services through contract arrangements. Community-centered health-care systems such as
the Cree Regional Board of Health, Labrador Inuit Health Commission, and Blood Tribe
Department of Health service the special needs of their communities. Aboriginal
organizations such as the Assembly of First Nations have worked with Health Canada on
strategies for eliminating TB on reserves. Inuit Tapirisat Canada has initiatives concerning
HIV/AIDS and mental health as well as a cancer information project.
Despite aboriginal involvement, major challenges still exist to solving the aboriginal health
crisis in Canada. Federal funding does not come close to addressing aboriginal physical and
mental health needs. Thousands of aboriginal health-care workers need to be trained, and
doctors who set up practices in remote regions need to be retained.
E Arts and Culture
In the United States and Canada, Native American cultures are reaffirming their identities by
combining aspects of their ancient traditional ways with 21st-century mainstream culture.
Native Americans, like any other peoples, live in apartment buildings, shop at malls, and surf
the Internet. They also dress in traditional clothes, speak their own languages, and practice
their own religions. Native ceremonial practices such as Haida potlatches, Lakota Sun Dances,
and Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) thanksgiving rites coexist with satellite dishes and cell
Despite a long history of persecution and suppression by the U.S. and Canadian
governments, hundreds of indigenous religious traditions have endured in North America.
Ancient traditional religions of the Pueblo and Iroquois (Haudenosaunee), for example,
survive and remain strong, while other Native Americans practice Christianity exclusively.
Some Native Americans pray in church and attend Indian healing ceremonies, finding that
both traditions offer comfort. Still others follow the Peyote religion, which attracts followers
from many U.S. tribes.
Native Americans in both the United States and Canada have a long tradition of transmitting
religious ceremonies and ideas through traditional stories. There is no written sacred book
like the Bible, although some North American Indians keep records with sacred symbols
written on wooden sticks or woven into wampum belts. Native North American storytellers
have kept alive spiritual and cultural traditions by telling stories that pass on a wide range of
teachings about a people’s creation, moral behavior, laws, and survival skills.
Tribes have also worked to protect important religious items. In the United States, tribes
have been outraged by the desecration and looting of Indian graves. They have demanded
the return of skeletal remains, burial goods, and other sacred objects taken from them. For
many years, Native Americans fought to reclaim ancestral remains and sacred objects
despite tremendous opposition by some museum directors and curators, state historical
societies, physical anthropologists, archaeologists, and National Park Service officials who
wanted to study them. Native American protest efforts paid off in 1990 when the U.S.
government enacted the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
NAGPRA protects Indian gravesites from looting and sets up legal procedures for Indians to
reclaim artifacts of religious or ceremonial importance. Reclaiming skeletal bones, totem
poles, masks, wampum belts, medicine bundles (collections of objects believed to heal
disease and ward off ghosts), and other objects from museums has inspired tribes to revive
old ceremonies and tribal traditions. In Canada, the Cultural Property Export and Import Act,
a federal law passed in 1977, protects aboriginal cultural property, including sacred objects
and human remains.
In the past, a community’s elders passed on Native American languages to the young. As
Native American communities have become more dispersed, however, this natural process
has been disrupted, and hundreds of spoken languages have died out. Of the more than 300
original languages in North America, only 150 are still spoken, and less than 50 are widely
spoken. Some of the most widely spoken languages include Yupik and Inuit-Inupiaq (Eskimo),
Navajo, Ojibwa (Chippewa), O’Odham (Papago and Pima), Cherokee, and Choctaw. A 1990
Canadian House of Commons report stated that 43 of Canada’s 53 indigenous languages
were on the verge of extinction. Only three languages—Cree, Ojibway, and Inuktitut—were
believed to be strong enough to survive.
Many Native American communities in the United States and Canada have sought to
revitalize their languages before elderly speakers die. Without languages, ceremonies cannot
continue, children cannot communicate with their grandparents, and adults cannot voice
prayers. On many reservations and reserves, Native Americans are preserving and
revitalizing languages through classroom and online instruction and radio shows
broadcasting in languages such as Inuktitut, Lakota, Mi’kmaq (Micmac), and Navajo.
Native North Americans have long defined and shaped their own art forms. Today, Native
American artists create with clay, animal hides, and grasses as well as with computers,
camcorders, and welding equipment. They produce quillwork, ceramics, baskets, jewelry,
and other traditional art forms as well as contemporary beaded baseball hats and steel
sculptures. Many Native American artists produce work that has a clear connection to their
forebears but incorporates Western techniques and styles. Other artists create works that
reflect upheavals that have decimated Native American societies.
In the United States, there are countless Native American artists. A few prominent artists
during the second half of the 20th century included Arthur D. Amiotte (Oglala Lakota), who
was influenced by the traditional artistic legacy of the Lakota, and Harry Fonseca (Maidu),
who created a series of works placing coyote figures in contemporary settings. Peter Jemison
(Cattaraugus Seneca) used mixed media in his work, and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith
(Salish/Cree/Shoshone) created abstract landscapes using ancient pictographs as inspiration.
Kay WalkingStick (Cherokee/Winnebago) often painted two sections—a landscape and an
abstract image—in one work, while Emmi Whitehorse (Navajo) used large canvases to
explore nature. Important sculptors included Allan Houser (Apache), who produced sculpture
in stone, wood, and bronze, and Truman Lowe (Winnebago) who sculpted out of natural
materials such as wood and leather.
Canada also had many noteworthy aboriginal artists in the second half of the 20th century.
Carl Beam (Ojibwa) juxtaposed images from Western and Native American history in his art.
Robert Davidson and Dorothy Grant, both Haida, worked together; he created designs for her
clothing. Faye Heavyshield (Blood), a sculptor, combined elements from her Blood and
boarding school upbringing. Alex Janvier (Dene) blended stylized abstract renderings of
natural forms with traditional Plains arts, and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun
(Cowichan-Okanagan) used his work to address his Indian heritage along with a broader
range of concerns such as controversial political issues.
Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a steady increase in contemporary
Native American music. Native American musicians combined their ancient chants and
instruments with folk, rock, reggae, country, New Age, or rap to convey their messages.
Saxophonist Jim Pepper (Creek/Kaw) developed a unique mix of jazz and tribal music, while
members of the Canadian band Kashtin (“tornado” in the Innu language) blended folk-rock
and Cajun. Singers such as Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree) protested against government
mistreatment of indigenous peoples. Harold Littlebird (Pueblo), Joanne Shenandoah (Oneida),
and John Trudell (Santee Dakota) became important U.S. recording artists in the 1980s and
Native North Americans have a rich history of expressing cultural heritage through
performance. In traditional societies, most celebrations, whether sacred or social, involved
music and dance. Native Americans have continued to express themselves through
traditional music and dance performances. They also have adopted Western forms of
performance including ballet and modern dance. Renowned troupes such as the Native
American Dance Theater in the United States and the Chinook Winds Aboriginal Dance
Program in Canada stage dramatic dance performances.
When Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969 for his novel
House Made of Dawn (1968), the acclaim he received helped draw attention to Native
American literature. Since that time, scores of Native North American people have published
works. Drawing much of their power from the oral tradition, many Native American writers
use their own tribal worldviews as the vehicle to present modern themes about Native
American cultural experiences and struggles. Writers in the United States such as Linda
Hogan (Chickasaw), Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo), and James Welch (Blackfeet/Gros
Ventre) explored the power of traditional beliefs and the despair of living in two worlds. They
and others wrote about Native Americans struggling with alcoholism, dams that flood
traditional fishing grounds, and tourists who invade sacred sites. The Lone Ranger and Tonto
Fistfight in Heaven (1993), one of the works by world-renowned poet and novelist Sherman
Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d’Alene), formed the basis of his screenplay for Smoke Signals (1998),
a movie he also produced. Native Americans such as Hanay Geiogamah (Kiowa/Delaware)
also used plays to delve into indigenous issues.
In Canada, Jeannette Armstrong (Okanagan) explored the social obstacles and racial
stigmas that indigenous peoples in Canada face in Slash (1985). Thomas King (Cherokee)
wrote works that combined humor with commentary about the stereotypes indigenous
peoples fight against. Alootook Ipellie was the first Inuit writer to have his collection of short
stories, Arctic Dreams and Nightmares (1993), published. Lee Maracle (Métis) presented
strong perspectives on cultural autonomy. Playwrights such as Tomson Highway (Cree)
produced works that also explored indigenous issues.
Although a handful of Indian filmmakers were already making documentaries in the United
States and Canada, in the 1970s hundreds of Native Americans began producing, directing,
and acting in independent film and video. Since 1991, festivals organized by Native
Americans have resulted in wider opportunities for Native American film and video artists.
These artists include Victor Masayesva, Jr. (Hopi), Sandra Osawa (Makah), and Beverly
Singer (Tewa-Navajo) in the United States, and Alanis Obomsawin (Abenaki) and David
Poisey (Inuit) in Canada.
Hundreds of Native North American peoples have survived an onslaught of government
policies and wars dedicated to destroying them. What sustained them were traditional family
and clan relationships, kinship with homelands, religious ceremonies, ancient stories
connecting older and younger generations, and shared traditions that maintained each tribe’s
Native Americans have also revived some cultural practices that were at risk of disappearing.
In a revival of a Northwest Coast Indian tradition, totem poles are again being raised in Haida
villages on Canada’s Queen Charlotte Islands as well as at Alaska’s Metlakatla reservation,
home to the Tsimshian. The Intertribal Bison Cooperative, an association of more than 40
tribes, has restored bison to Indian lands. The Wampanoag of Aquinnah, Massachusetts, are
working with linguists to restore their Algonquian language. Across North America,
giveaways and potlatches, once forbidden, are again taking place. Modern powwows
exemplify active Native American resistance to cultural annihilation. They are not so much a
performance for an audience as they are a way of sharing, reinforcing, and expressing
Despite efforts to stamp out Native American cultures, many have survived and even been
revived. Although they still face many economic and social challenges, Native Americans
continue to survive and flourish by maintaining their distinct cultures.
Arlene Hirschfelder contributed the Introduction and Native Americans Today section of this
David J. Meltzer