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North American Indians
It is not definitively known how or when the Native Americans first settled the Americas and the present-day United States. The prevailing theory proposes that people migrated from Eurasia across Beringia, a land bridge that connected Siberia to present-day Alaska during the Last Glacial Period, and then spread southward throughout the Americas over subsequent generations. Genetic evidence suggests at least three waves of migrants arrived from Asia.
Ethnographers commonly classify the indigenous peoples of North America into ten geographical regions with shared cultural traits, called cultural areas.
The ten cultural areas are as follows:
- Arctic, including Aleut, Inuit, and Yupik peoples
- Northeastern Woodlands
- Southeastern Woodlands
- Great Plains
- Great Basin
- Northwest Plateau
- Northwest Coast
There are so many fascinating North American indigenous cultures. We don’t have time to talk about them all, but we’ll a few highlights of some below.
The Inuit are a group of culturally similar indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada and Alaska (United States). Inuit are the descendants of what anthropologists call the Thule people, who emerged from western Alaska around 1000 CE.
Their first European contact was with the Vikings who settled in Greenland and explored the eastern Canadian coast. The sagas recorded meeting skrælingar, the common term Norse Greenlanders used for the Thule people, the ancestors to the modern Inuit.
There are also accounts from the Inuit peoples which describe interactions with the Norse:
“Soon the kayaker sent out his spear in good earnest, and killed him on the spot. When winter came, it was a general belief that the Kavdlunait would come and avenge the death of their countrymen.“
Kavdlunait (plural) was the Inuit word for foreigner or European, which is almost identical to the modern Greenlandic word for “Dane.”
The Inuit have traditionally been fishers and hunters. They still hunt whales, seal, polar bears, muskoxen, birds, and fish and at times other less commonly eaten animals such as the Arctic fox. The typical Inuit diet is high in protein and very high in fat – in their traditional diets, Inuit consumed an average of 75% of their daily energy intake from fat.
The Inuit used dog sleds for transportation and single-passenger seal skin boats (kayak).
During the winter, certain Inuit lived in a temporary shelter made from snow called an igloo, and during the few months of the year when temperatures were above freezing, they lived in tents, known as tupiq, made of animal skins supported by a frame of bones or wood.
Pacific Northwest Coast Indians
The Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast are composed of many nations and tribal affiliations, each with distinctive cultural and political identities. They share certain beliefs, traditions and practices, such as the centrality of salmon as a resource and spiritual symbol, and many cultivation and subsistence practices.
Prior to contact, and for a brief time after colonization, some of these groups regularly conducted war against each other through raids and attacks. Through warfare, they gathered captives for slavery.
The Pacific salmon in particular played a central role in the diet and culture of the Northwest, so much so that the Native Nations of the region define themselves as the Salmon People. The tribe would have to rely on the dried or smoked salmon over the winter, so the first fresh fish caught in the spring was welcomed with great ceremony.
Hunting, both on land and sea, was also an important source of food. At sea this involved hunting whales, sea lion, porpoise, seal and sea otter, while deer, moose and elk were pursued on land. The plentiful supply of all these animals meant that the tribes became prosperous.
Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest also used to eat a variety of fruit and berries. A favorite food was the salmonberry, which derives its name from the fact that it was traditionally eaten with salmon and salmon roe. Blackberries and evergreen huckleberries (which was eaten fresh or dried and made into cakes) were also popular.
Due to the abundance of natural resources and the affluence of most Northwest tribes, there was plenty of leisure time to create art. Totem poles were carved with symbols of figures. The carvings may symbolize or commemorate ancestors, cultural beliefs that recount familiar legends, clan lineages, or notable events.
Tribes also had what is called a potlatch – a highly complex event where people gather in order to commemorate a specific event (such as the raising of a totem pole or the appointment/election of a new chief). In the potlatch ceremony the chief would give highly elaborate gifts to visiting peoples in order to establish his power and prestige, and by accepting these gifts the visitors conveyed their approval of the chief. There were also great feasts and displays of conspicuous consumption, such as the burning of articles, or throwing things into the sea, purely as a display of the great wealth of the chief. Groups of dancers put on elaborate dances and ceremonies.
Some of the tribes in this area were the Tillamook, Chinook, Haida, Salish, and the Tlingit.
Plateau Indians lived in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada and the non-coastal regions of the United States Pacific Northwest states in parts of northern Idaho, western Montana, eastern Washington, Oregon, and northeastern California.
There are several distinguishing features that differentiate plateau culture from the surrounding native cultures. These include a high reliance on roots, such as biscuitroot and camas, as a food source, a high reliance on short duration salmon and eel runs.
Plateau peoples generally self-identified by their wintering village (which was usually along the shore of a lake or river), as opposed to a tribe.
Traditional Plateau cuisine include wild plants, fish, especially salmon, and game. Plateau peoples often had seasonal villages or encampment in different areas to take full advantage of the wild foods. Women gathered a large variety of edible vegetables and fruits, including Saskatoon berry, chokecherry, huckleberry, and wild strawberry.
Plateau housing included longhouses roofed with summer tule mats. Tule is a tall, tough reed that grows in marshy areas and is sometimes called bulrush.
For winter quarters, the people dug a pit a few feet into the ground and constructed a framework of poles over it, meeting in a peak above. They covered this with tule mats or tree bark. Earth was piled up around and partially over the structure to provide insulation.
Some of the groups that lived in this area are the Chinook, Nez Perce, Walla Walla, Coeur d’ Alene, Flathead, Spokane, and the Modoc.
Great Basin Indians
The “Great Basin” is a cultural classification of indigenous peoples of the Americas and a cultural region located between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, in what is now Nevada, and parts of Oregon, California, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah. There is very little precipitation in the Great Basin area which affected the lifestyles and cultures of the Indians living there.
Great Basin peoples were predominantly hunters and gatherers. “The Desert Culture” refers to the culture of the Great Basin tribes. This culture is characterized by the need for mobility to take advantage of seasonally available food supplies. The use of pottery was rare due to its weight, but intricate baskets were woven for containing water, cooking food, winnowing grass seeds and storage—including the storage of pine nuts.
The men hunted buffalo, antelope, elk, deer, bear, rabbit, sage hens, and beaver using arrows, spears and nets. They smoked and sun-dried the meat, and also ate it fresh. Women processed and stored the meat and gathered greens, berries, roots, yampa (a wild plant in the parsley family), pine nuts, yucca, and seeds.
Agriculture was not practiced and the tribes had no permanent settlements, although winter villages might be revisited winter after winter by the same group of families. In the summer, the largest group was usually the nuclear family due to the low density of food supplies.
Some of the tribes in this area were the Paiute, Shoshone, Ute, and Mono. The state of Utah is named after the Ute people.
The earliest people of the Great Plains mixed hunting and gathering wild plants. The cultures developed horticulture, then agriculture, as they settled in sedentary villages and towns. Maize, originally from Mesoamerica and spread north from the Southwest, became widespread in the Great Plains south around 700 CE.
The semi-sedentary, village-dwelling Plains Indians depended upon agriculture for a large share of their livelihood. Corn was the dominant crop, followed by squash and beans. Tobacco, sunflower, plums and other wild plants were also cultivated or gathered in the wild. Among the wild crops gathered the most important were probably berries to flavor pemmican and the Prairie Turnip.
Numerous Plains peoples hunted the American Bison (or buffalo) to make items used in everyday life, such as food, cups, decorations, crafting tools, knives, and clothing. The tribes followed the seasonal grazing and migration of the bison. The Plains Indians lived in tipis because they were easily disassembled and allowed the nomadic life of following game.
According to the Spaniards, the Querechos, a tribe of Plains Indians, lived “in tents made of the tanned skins of the cows (bison). They dry the flesh in the sun, cutting it thin like a leaf, and when dry they grind it like meal to keep it and make a sort of sea soup of it to eat. … They season it with fat, which they always try to secure when they kill a cow. They empty a large gut and fill it with blood, and carry this around the neck to drink when they are thirsty.“
Coronado, a Spanish explorer, described many common features of Plains Indians culture: skin tepees, travois pulled by dogs, Plains Indian Sign Language, and staple foods such as jerky and pemmican.
The Plains Indians found by Coronado had not yet obtained horses. People in the southwest began to acquire horses in the 16th century by trading or stealing them from Spanish colonists in New Mexico.
Some of the Plains tribes were the Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Comanche, Crow, Lakota, and the Pawnee.
The Pre-Columbian culture of the American Southwest and Northern Mexico evolved into three major archaeological culture areas, sometimes referred to as Oasisamerica:
The Ancestral Pueblo peoples, or Anasazi, culture had distinctive pottery and dwelling construction styles like the Great Kiva Plaza as pictured below. A kiva was a building used by Pueblo Indians for religious rites.
The Indians living at Chaco Canyon (see the map above) quarried sandstone blocks and hauled timber from great distances, assembling fifteen major complexes that remained the largest buildings ever built in North America until the 19th century.
Ancestral Puebloans also lived in large cliff-dwelling, multi-storied pueblo like this one that was built at Mesa Verde:
Some of the tribes in the Southwest were hunter-gatherers and were nomadic. Another type of housing was the wickiup, an 8-foot-tall (2.4 m) frame of wood held together with yucca fibers and covered in brush or the hogan, an earthen structure in the desert area that was good for cool keeping in the hot weather of northern Mexico.
Agriculture in the Southwest was based on the cultivation of maize, beans, squash and sunflower seeds. Foraging for wild foods also played a major role in the diet of Southwestern peoples. For example, the fruit and seeds of the Saguaro cactus were collected and eaten both fresh and dried, and made into preserves and drinks by some of the tribes. The agave plant was considered a vital food source, which was also useful to indigenous people in other ways. Agave hearts were roasted and relished for their sweetness, and dried agave was eaten during the winter months. The tough fibers of agave were also used in making baskets and mats.
Some tribes of the Southwest were the Anasazi, Apache, Hopi, Mojave, and the Zuni.
Indians of the Northeastern Woodlands
The characteristics of the Northeastern woodlands cultural area include the use of wigwams and longhouses for shelter and of wampum as a means of exchange. Wampum consisted of small beads made from quahog shells.
The birchbark canoe was first used by the Algonquin Indians and its use later spread to other tribes.
The main agricultural crops of the region were the Three Sisters : winter squash, maize (corn), and climbing beans. The three crops were normally planted together using a technique known as companion planting on flat-topped mounds of soil. The tall maize plants provide a structure for the beans to climb, while the beans provide nitrogen to the soil that benefits the other plants. Meanwhile, the squash spreads along the ground, blocking the sunlight to prevent weeds from growing and retaining moisture in the soil.
Native groups in the Northeast generally lived in villages of a few hundred people, living close to their crops. Generally men did the planting and harvesting, while women processed the crops. However, some settlements could be much bigger, such as Hochelaga (modern-day Montreal), which had a population of several thousand people.
The most important social group was the clan, which was often named after an animal such as turtle, bear, wolf or hawk. The totem animal concerned was considered sacred and had a special relationship with the members of the clan.
Some of the tribes were the Algonquin, Ojibwa, Iroquois, Mohawk, Seneca, Kickapoo, and the Wampanoag.
Indians of the Southeastern Woodlands
Indians of the Southeastern Woodlands lived in the present day states such as Tennessee, Louisianna, the Carolinas and down into Florida.
Most Southeastern peoples (except some of the coastal peoples) were highly agricultural, growing crops like maize, squash, and beans for food. They supplemented their diet with hunting, fishing, and gathering wild plants and fungi.
The oldest known art in the Americas is the Vero Beach bone found in present-day Florida. It is possibly a mammoth bone, etched with a profile of walking mammoth.
Long-nosed god maskettes are artifacts made from bone, copper and marine shells and are found in sites in this area as well as along the Mississippi and up into the Midwestern states.
Some of the tribes living in this area were the Natchez, Chickasaw, Seminole, Cherokee, Cadee, Roanoake, Creek, and Chocktaw.
Wrapping It Up
As I stated above, there are SO many fascinating indigenous North American native cultures that could easily fill up an entire book (and more!). I can’t possibly do them all justice. If you enjoy reading about Native Americans, you may want to check out some of the following books. Note: These books were written about Native Americans after European contact. They are also written for adults and may contain violence or sexual content.
Sacajawea by Anna Waldo
Panther in the Sky by James Alexander Thom
Tidewater by Libbie Hawker
Killing Crazy Horse by Bill O’Reilly
Sign-Talker by James Alexander Thom
The Taíno (also known as the Arawak) are a group of indigenous peoples of South America and of the Caribbean. Early Spanish explorers and administrators used the terms Arawak and Caribs to distinguish the peoples of the Caribbean, with Carib reserved for indigenous groups that they considered hostile and Arawak for groups that they considered friendly.
It’s believed that the Taíno migrated to the Caribbean from the Orinoco and Amazon rivers. A DNA study in 2018 from an ancient tooth determined that the Taíno have living descendants in Puerto Rico, and it indicated that most Puerto Ricans have a degree of Taíno ancestry.
Anthropologists found elaborate pottery, ringed villages, raised fields, large mounds, and evidence for regional trade networks that are all indicators of a complex culture.
Taíno society was divided into two classes: naborias (commoners) and nitaínos (nobles). They were governed by male chiefs known as caciques, who inherited their position through their mother’s noble line. (This was a matrilineal kinship system, with social status passed through the female lines.) Some Taíno practiced polygamy. Men, and sometimes women, might have two or three spouses. A few caciques had as many as 30 wives, related to their wealth and ability to support them.
Women lived in village groups containing their children. The men lived separately. Because of this Taíno women had extensive control over their lives, their co-villagers, and their bodies.
The Taíno women were highly skilled in agriculture. The people depended on it, but the men also fished and hunted. They used bows and arrows for hunting, and developed the use of poisons on their arrowheads.
Taíno women commonly wore their hair with bangs in front and longer in back, and they occasionally wore gold jewelry, paint, and/or shells. Taíno men and unmarried women did not usually wear clothes, and were naked. After marriage, women wore a small cotton apron.
The Taíno were the first New World peoples encountered by Christopher Columbus during his 1492 voyage.
Some words that they used, such as barbacoa (“barbecue”), hamaca (“hammock”), kanoa (“canoe”), tabaco (“tobacco”), yuca, batata (“sweet potato”), and juracán (“hurricane”), have been incorporated into Spanish and English.
The Kalinago, also known as the Caribs, are an indigenous people of the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean.
The Caribs had a reputation as warriors who raided neighboring islands. According to the Spanish conquistadors, they were cannibals who regularly ate roasted human flesh. The Island Carib word karibna meant “person”. It became the origin of the English “cannibal”.
The Caribs produced the silver products which Ponce de Leon (a Spanish explorer) found in Taíno communities. They were skilled boat builders and sailors, and they dominated the area due to their mastery of warfare.
The ‘Black Caribs’ were descended from a group of enslaved Africans who were marooned from shipwrecks of slave ships, as well as slaves who escaped there. They intermarried with the Carib and formed the last native culture to resist the British in the 1700’s.
The importance of the influence of the Olmec on the Maya may seem superficial, but it is quite important, as the Maya’s rise to sophistication was so fast and so complete that it almost defies explanation. After settling at the base of the Yucatán Peninsula around 1000 BCE, the lowland Maya learned how to deal with drought, feed tens of thousands of people, and organize politically—all before 250 BCE.
The Late Classic period was one of tremendous growth. The city of Tikal, in present day Guatemala, had reached a population of 80,000 by CE 750, while the population of its rival Calakmul reached 50,000. To support these large populations, the Late Classic Maya had almost a totally engineered landscape that included water management projects, flattened ridge tops, and terraced hillsides. The population was fairly dense in cities and in surrounding countryside. Their leaders had tombs built in their honor, imported luxury items like jade statues, feathers, cacao, and other items from the Mexican Highlands.
The Late Classic Maya also had an advanced numerical annotation system of dots and bars and used zero. Maya writing began as pictographs and blended into quite artistic symbolism. In addition to their more than seven hundred carved monuments, the Maya culture produced wooden carvings, incised jades, and pottery.
The Maya elite were literate, and developed a complex system of hieroglyphic writing. Theirs was the most advanced writing system in the pre-Columbian Americas.
As a part of their religion, the Maya practiced human sacrifice. The king was the supreme ruler and held a semi-divine status that made him the mediator between the mortal realm and that of the gods.
Teotihuacán, a Mayan city that arose around 100 CE, covered more than 20 square kilometers, had a marketplace, an administrative center and several different types of housing. Its largest buildings seem to have had both a functional and a spiritual use. The Pyramid of the Sun, the largest building in the city was built over a sacred cave likely connected with creation myths. By the fourth century CE, Teotihuacán had the modern equivalent of neighborhoods; new houses were laid out on a rough grid with many homes organized into apartment compounds.12 The dwellings were constructed of volcanic rock, mortar, and wood for the roofs. The compounds also had a system of underfloor drains. Many of the dwellings in these complexes are decorated with “polychrome wall murals” containing multiple religious themes and military themes, some depicting play or everyday life, while others being much more abstract.
To support its massive population, Teotihuacán needed to secure supplies and tribute from surrounding areas. Many neighboring areas were conquered through a combination of trade and military conquest. Force was used to secure trade routes to the south and thus have access to goods as diverse as cacao beans, tropical bird feathers, salt, medicinal herbs, and honey.
Teotihuacán was able to sustain impressive growth and expansion for more than five centuries, but ultimately its size and complexity seemingly contributed to its decline. At about 650 CE, roughly half of Teotihuacán’s public buildings and a number of temples, pyramids, and palaces were burned. Many were knocked down and torn apart as well. This does not seem to be the work of invaders, but instead internal and external groups who attacked declining symbols of power.
Years of population growth and demands on and from the elite came to a head with a period of prolonged drought in the early ninth century. Resulting famines and infighting caused population losses in Maya settlements nearing eighty-five percent and in many areas abandoned farmlands were retaken by the forest.
Although much reduced, a significant Maya presence remained until contact with the Spanish in the early 1500s and then the final Spanish conquest of the last Maya city of Nojpetén in 1697.
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