North American Native American Cultural Areas

There were no highly advanced Native American civilizations in North America north of the Central Valley of Mexico. We are not sure why this was. There were many diffierent Native American cultures in North America. The about 200 tribes of North America also exhibited varying forms of cultural development. Here the environment appears to have been a major factor in cultural development. Some Native American cultures were quite similar. Others significantly different. Anthropologists generally group the various tribes in about 10 culture groups, corresponding to geographic and cultural areas. The degree to which these Native American people adopted lifestyles base on enviromental conditions can clearly be seen in the cultural groupings. The Artic Eskimoan and northwestern coast tribes are the most destinclty Asiatic probably being the most recent migrants. They have little in common with other Native Americans.

Eastern Woodland Area

Geographically the Eastern Woodland area is a broad belt on either side of the Great Lakes, extending to the Atlantic Ocean. Excepting the extreme western and northern borders, the entire area was forested. These are the tribes encountrered by the French and the eralier English colonists. Most of the tribes in this area exhibited similarity in clothing, folklore, certain religious concepts, social, political, and ceremonial organiation, and art. The tribes were characterized by clan organization, and higly developed religious concepts. This group made much more use of wild rice than tribes in other areas. Unlike the Plains tribes, the Eastern Woodland tribes did not aquire horses to any extent. The Iroquois Nation (Six Nations Confederacy or the Haudenosaunee Confederacy). They were the most highly organized and dominated a huge area. Thev best known tribe of the Iriquois is the Mohawk, keepers of the Eastern Door. Other Eastern Woodland tribes included the Algonquian, Fox, Kickapoo, Menominee, Ojibwa, Ottawa, Potawatami, Sauk, and others. The Ojibwa today are particularly important. It is unclear just when these tribes first came in contact with Europeans. The Vikings seems to have been the first Europeans. There may also have been contacts with Europeans fishing the Grand Banks. Early accounts suggest what is now New England was well populated and that the Native Americans there pursued a mixture of agriculture and hunting/fishing which varied depending on te available resources. The different tribes had a network of alliances in competition with each ther. The competition between the tribes as in Mexico and South America proed a critical weakness which allowed the small struggling Plymouth Colony to survive and become establishd. Native Americans appeared to have been healthier and better nourished than Europeans. English settlement did not begin until the 17th century because the Native Americans were strong enough to prevent settlement. Most of the tribes were anililated by the European colonists and their diseases to which they had no immunity. As this happened primsrily before the 19th century invention of photography, there is no photographic record of these tribes. The Federal Government ordered most of the the survivoirs removed west of the Mississippi. The Mowhawk Sr. Regis Reservation was one of the few survivors. The Penobscot were another. An issue with the Eastern Woodland tribes is that many over time were pushed west on to the Great Plains. One of these tribes was the Meskwaki who inhabited southern Ontario near the Great Lakes.

Southeastern Area

This areas includes the southeastern Umited States south of Virginia and extending into eastern Texas. The Spanish were the first to encounter Native Americans in the Southeast after Pomce de Leon discovered Florida (1513). Spanish settlement of Florida was rather limited. This changed when the English arrived in Virginia (1607). English settlers began arriving in large numbers. Cultural characteristics of Native Americans in the Southeast included intense agriculture, permanent villages, complex political organization, social grades and slavery, head deformation, good pottery, basic weaving, and the Busk or green corn ceremony. Some of the tribes built mounds and are often referred to as the mound builders. The supression of the Cherokee, whose people began building farms on the European model was one of the most outrageous examples of American Indian policies. Their removal was carried out despite a Supreme Court order and imortalized in the trail of tears. The principal tribes were Cherokee, Chikasaw, Choctaw, Caddo, and Seminole. A few of the lesser tribes are now extinct. The Seminole were a relatively modern creation and not ethically based, but an Amalgum of Southeastern tribes and escaped African slaves. Their heroic resistance to settlers and the U.S. Army is an important event in Native American history.


Figure 1.--An Artistic expression of a Native American boy. Note the characteristic hair band. The Indian pony was a European import. Wild heards developed from domesticated horses that escaped from the Spanish and thrived on the western plains. Horses were also obtained through trade on raids on Spanish settlements. The plains tribes developed into superb horsemen.

The Plains Tribes

Geographically the area inhabited by the Plains Tribes was the Great Plains--the emense grasslands occupying the heartland of North America. It was a realtively flat area of plains, rolling hills, and praries unbroken by forests west of the the Missisippi River. This was the range of the vast heards of bufalo (bison) which as based on grazing on the vasr grasslands. Summers on the Great Plains could be very hot and winters extended and cold. It is the plains tribes that have come to dominate modern imagery of Native Americans. It is the Plains Tribes that dominate movie depictions of Native Americans. The typical plains culture is characterized by bufalo hunting, the tepe, after the mid-16th century the domestication of the horse, the travois, the camp circle, a soldier police fraternity, the sun dance, and highly individualitic geometric art. The acquisition of horses from the Spanish was the most important in Native American life during modern times. Major tribes included the Blackfoot, Crow, Cheyene, Comanche, Gros Ventre, Kiowa, Pawnee,Sioux, Teton-Dakota, and several other smaller tribes. The Sioux were especuially important on the northern plains.


Figure 2.--The Hopi were one of the major trives in the Southwesern cultural area. This Hopi boy is awitimg the returm of the snake dancers.

Southwestern Area

This area comprised chiefly the states of Arizona, New Mexico and adjacent areas of Texas, California and northwestern Mexico. It is a warm, arid area, but adapted for some kinds of agriculture by many of the tribes. The historic (more recent) tribes comprise the true Pueblos, such as the Hopi, Zuñi, Taos, and Navaho, Apache, Walapai, Mohave, Yuma, and Pima as well as other tribes in northern Mexico. The largest tribe in the United States was the Navajo. The most war-like and difficult to control was the Apache. The south-western peoples comprise two distinct cultural groups, destinguished by the type of villages in which they lived--pueblo and non-pueblo, as well as other cultural characteristics. The pueblo peoples beside the destintive villages shared te use of the kiva (ceremonial house), kachina dances, altars, and sacred corn meal. tilling of the field and weaving of cloth by men rather than women, a clan system and ceremonies, and domestication of the turkey. The Hopi are one of the best known pueblo peoples and practice a distinctive dance, the snake dress, not practiced by other pueblo people. The non-pueblo tribes are much less uniform in culture. The main non-pueblo tribes, the Navaho, Apache, and Pima, were more nomadic than the pueblos, but all cultivated fields to varying degrees--the Apache the least and the Pima the most. The Apache began caring for sheep. Great variations were reported in baskert weaving and pottery. The social and political organization of the non-pueblos was much simplier and less sophisticated than the pueblos, more like the plains tribes. The Yuman were an important Southwestern language group. There were many small tribes, including the Paiute.

California Area

The California cultural area included the modern srate of California, except for the extreme south and north. The Naive American people there were characterized by surprising levels of language diversity and relatively large numbers of fairly small tribes. California culture is considered by many anthoropogists to be among the crudest cultural levels of all North American Native Americans. Pottery was practically unknown and agriculture was not practiced. The acorn was the diet staple, except along the coast where shellfish were harvested. Social organization was little more than the family unit. It is unclear why these tribes were so primitive. One might have thought that the Southwestern tribes surviving in arid, unproductive land would have been the most primitive. These tribes survived into the 19th century because the Spanish did not intesivekly settle California. They were descimted by the Americans that flooded into California beginning with the California gold rush (1849).

North Pacific Coast

This area comprished the coastal area from northern California to the Alaskan Peninsula on the western side of the Czscade Range. These tribes shared a range of commom cultural characteristics. They were accomplished canoists and fishermen. Wood working was higly developed, utilizing the resource of tis heavilt timbered area. Totem poles were characteriatic of the northern tribes. No pottery was made. Social organization was highly complex. Each clan or family had a body of tradition or ceremony, aspects of which were objectified in the form of crests carved upon totem poles or house fronts. Society consisted of chiefs, nobility, citizens, and slaves. More than elsewhere in North America, the sence of wealth was developed through extensive barter and forms of credit. A curious institution, the potlach was common in which the host, gebnerally a wealthy chief, gave away all valuables. Religious socities with complex rituals were common. The major tribes were the Tlinkit, Haida, Tsimshian, Kwakiult, Nootka, Bella Coola. Salish, and Chinook--after whom the salmon species is named.

Plateau Area

This Plateau or Great Basinn Area area comprises the highlands between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, essentially the area between the central plains and the Pacific Coast. It is now all or parts of Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. Some might add southern British Colombia. There is limited precipitation in the Plateau/Great Basin area which had a huge impact on the inhabitants and and cultures of the Native American people living there. People are believed to have begun settling in the Plateay era at an early point of Native American migration (12,000-9,000 BC). Virtually nothing is know of these people. The Fremont people are the first known people to inhabit the area. It dates to the the immediate pre-Colombian era (700-1300 AD). It was adjacent to and contemporaneous with, but different from the Anasazi culture to the south. They are among the ancestors of the modern tribes of the Southwest and Plateau area. Some may have migrated southward to join established Pueblo communities. Other may have been absorbed by Numic-speaking bands of hunter-gatherers moving into the region from the southwest about the time of Columbus' voyages. The modern tribes are largely descverned from these Numic tribes. The salmon of the Colombia River draining system was the diet staple for some of the more primitive tribes. Pottery was unknown, except to some of the southern-most tribes. Bakest work was highly developed. Cooking was by baskets and hot stones. An underground house was used in the north and bush shelters in the south. Social organization and ceremonies were relatively simple. Some of the major tribes were the Bannock, Nez Percé, Paiute, Shoshoni (often called the Snake), Ute, and Washoe. All these tribes but the Washoe spoke Numic languages. There was a substantial degree intermingling between the tribes which tended to live peacefully with each othr and end enjoyed a substantial degree of cultural similarity. Contact with Europeann-Americans occurred relatively late and in only small numbers. The first European to reach the area was Spanish Dominguez-Escalante Expedition (1776) and then the American Lewis and Clarke Expedition (1804-05). At this time, the Plateau tribes were expanding to the north and east and developing a horse-riding bufalo-hunting culture. These people, including the Bannock and Eastern Shoshone developed cultural traits of the Plains tribes. The Great Basin tribes thus maintain their religion and culture beyond the time frame of other tribes. They became and were leading proponents of 19th century cultural and religious renewals. The Ghost Dance was one such manifestation. The Mormons were the first settlers (1848). Th first Indian reservation began soon after by the time of the Civil war. The Goshute Reservation was created (1863).[2] The Feferal Government began an acculturation process which included sending children to Indian schools and gradually limiting the landbases and resources assigned to the reservations.

Mackensie Area

This area includes the Great Northwest east of the costal mountains or the interior of Alaska and northwestern Canada, domimated by the Mackensie River. Unlike the other areas, Native Americans in this area were of a single linguistic stock, Athapascan, passing under the general designation of Déné. The area includes both mountaneous and sub-Artic areas. The tribes depended on the migratory caribou for both meatvand skins which provided clothing and sheltwr. Tobogans, snowshoesm and bark canoes were in general use.

Arctic Areas

This area occupied by the Arctic tribes includes the extreme north of North America, encompasing both the United States (Alaska) and Canada as well as Greenland. The Arctic area is a relatively narrow strip along the entire coast from the Alaskan Peninsula to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Aleutian Islands, and all the inhabited Arctic Islands between Banks Land and Greenland inclusive. The Arcgtic tribes face the most histile environment of all the different Native American peoples. Much of the vast area is a treeless plain, called the Arctic tundra. It is essentially treeless and covered by smow for much of the year. The winters are long and very severe, with only a few hours of daylight. The Arctic coastline is broken and craggy and faces three oceans: the Pacific, the Arctic, and the Atlantic. Despite this, it is essentially a frozen desert. The people of the Arctic are united by not only climate, but also a single language family-- Inuit-Aleut. Several other terms are used to describe their language. It is part of American Arctic-Paleo-Siberian language stock, meaning that there elated dialects spoken in Siberia. This is of course futher evidence of the origins on Native Americans. It is occupied by tribes of the Eskimoan Stock, such as the Aleuts and Inuits. There are four basic cultural groupings. First, The Aleuts people on the western islands. Second, the Alaskan Inuit peoples dominated the western mainlsnd, essentially Alaska. The Mackenzie Inuit of the Yukon and Yuit of Siberia share many cultural attributes. Third the Central Inuit inhabit much of the central Arctic area of Canada. They include the Netsilik Inuit, Iglulik Inuit, Copper Inuit, Caribou Inuit, Southampton Inuit, Baffinland Inuit, and Labrador Inuit. Fourt, are the eastern or Greenland Inuit. This group includes the Polar Inuit, West Greenland Inuit, and East Greenland Inuit.






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Created: 10:58 PM 8/26/2006
Last updated: 11:22 PM 5/18/2015