Native American Cultures (2022)

Many thousands of years before Christopher Columbus’ ships landed in the Bahamas, a different group of people discovered America: the nomadic ancestors of modern Native Americans who hiked over a “land bridge” from Asia to what is now Alaska more than 12,000 years ago.

In fact, by the time European adventurers arrived in the 15th century A.D., scholars estimate that more than 50 million people were already living in the Americas. Of these, some 10 million lived in the area that would become the United States. As time passed, these migrants and their descendants pushed south and east, adapting as they went.

In order to keep track of these diverse groups, anthropologists and geographers have divided them into “culture areas,” or rough groupings of contiguous peoples who shared similar habitats and characteristics. Most scholars break North America—excluding present-day Mexico—into 10 separate culture areas: the Arctic, the Subarctic, the Northeast, the Southeast, the Plains, the Southwest, the Great Basin, California, the Northwest Coast and the Plateau.

Watch a collection of episodes about Native American history on HISTORY Vault

The Arctic

The Arctic culture area, a cold, flat, treeless region (actually a frozen desert) near the Arctic Circle in present-day Alaska, Canada and Greenland, was home to the Inuit and the Aleut. Both groups spoke, and continue to speak, dialects descended from what scholars call the Eskimo-Aleut language family.

Because it is such an inhospitable landscape, the Arctic’s population was comparatively small and scattered. Some of its peoples, especially the Inuit in the northern part of the region, were nomads, following seals, polar bears and other game as they migrated across the tundra. In the southern part of the region, the Aleut were a bit more settled, living in small fishing villages along the shore.

The Inuit and Aleut had a great deal in common. Many lived in dome-shaped houses made of sod or timber (or, in the North, ice blocks). They used seal and otter skins to make warm, weatherproof clothing, aerodynamic dogsleds and long, open fishing boats (kayaks in Inuit; baidarkas in Aleut).

By the time the United States purchased Alaska in 1867, decades of oppression and exposure to European diseases had taken their toll: The native population had dropped to just 2,500; the descendants of these survivors still make their home in the area today.

READ MORE: Native American History Timeline

The Subarctic

The Subarctic culture area, mostly composed of swampy, piney forests (taiga) and waterlogged tundra, stretched across much of inland Alaska and Canada. Scholars have divided the region’s people into two language groups: the Athabaskan speakers at its western end, among them the Tsattine (Beaver), Gwich’in (or Kuchin) and the Deg Xinag (formerly—and pejoratively—known as the Ingalik), and the Algonquian speakers at its eastern end, including the Cree, the Ojibwa and the Naskapi.

In the Subarctic, travel was difficult—toboggans, snowshoes and lightweight canoes were the primary means of transportation—and population was sparse. In general, the peoples of the Subarctic did not form large permanent settlements; instead, small family groups stuck together as they traipsed after herds of caribou. They lived in small, easy-to-move tents and lean-tos, and when it grew too cold to hunt they hunkered into underground dugouts.

The growth of the fur trade in the 17th and 18th centuries disrupted the Subarctic way of life—now, instead of hunting and gathering for subsistence, the Indians focused on supplying pelts to the European traders—and eventually led to the displacement and extermination of many of the region’s native communities.

The Northeast

The Northeast culture area, one of the first to have sustained contact with Europeans, stretched from present-day Canada’s Atlantic coast to North Carolina and inland to the Mississippi River valley. Its inhabitants were members of two main groups: Iroquoian speakers (these included the Cayuga, Oneida, Erie, Onondaga, Seneca and Tuscarora), most of whom lived along inland rivers and lakes in fortified, politically stable villages, and the more numerous Algonquian speakers (these included the Pequot, Fox, Shawnee, Wampanoag, Delaware and Menominee) who lived in small farming and fishing villages along the ocean. There, they grew crops like corn, beans and vegetables.

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Life in the Northeast culture area was already fraught with conflict—the Iroquoian groups tended to be rather aggressive and warlike, and bands and villages outside of their allied confederacies were never safe from their raids—and it grew more complicated when European colonizers arrived. Colonial wars repeatedly forced the region’s Indigenous people to take sides, pitting the Iroquois groups against their Algonquian neighbors. Meanwhile, as white settlement pressed westward, it eventually displaced both sets of Indigenous people from their lands.

The Southeast

The Southeast culture area, north of the Gulf of Mexico and south of the Northeast, was a humid, fertile agricultural region. Many of its natives were expert farmers—they grew staple crops like maize, beans, squash, tobacco and sunflower—who organized their lives around small ceremonial and market villages known as hamlets. Perhaps the most familiar of the Southeastern Indigenous peoples are the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole, sometimes called the Five Civilized Tribes, some of whom spoke a variant of the Muskogean language.

By the time the U.S. had won its independence from Britain, the Southeast culture area had already lost many of its native people to disease and displacement. In 1830, the federal Indian Removal Act compelled the relocation of what remained of the Five Civilized Tribes so that white settlers could have their land. Between 1830 and 1838, federal officials forced nearly 100,000 Indigenous people out of the southern states and into “Indian Territory” (later Oklahoma) west of the Mississippi. The Cherokee called this frequently deadly trek the Trail of Tears.

READ MORE: How Native Americans Struggled to Survive on the Trail of Tears

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The Plains

The Plains culture area comprises the vast prairie region between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, from present-day Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Before the arrival of European traders and explorers, its inhabitants—speakers of Siouan, Algonquian, Caddoan, Uto-Aztecan and Athabaskan languages—were relatively settled hunters and farmers. After European contact, and especially after Spanish colonists brought horses to the region in the 18th century, the peoples of the Great Plains became much more nomadic.

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Groups like the Crow, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Comanche and Arapaho used horses to pursue great herds of buffalo across the prairie. The most common dwelling for these hunters was the cone-shaped teepee, a bison-skin tent that could be folded up and carried anywhere. Plains Indians are also known for their elaborately feathered war bonnets.

As white traders and settlers moved west across the Plains region, they brought many damaging things with them: commercial goods, like knives and kettles, which Indigenous people came to depend on; guns; and disease. By the end of the 19th century, white sport hunters had nearly exterminated the area’s buffalo herds. With settlers encroaching on their lands and no way to make money, the Plains natives were forced onto government reservations.

READ MORE: How Horses Transformed Life for Plains Indians

The Southwest

The peoples of the Southwest culture area, a huge desert region in present-day Arizona and New Mexico (along with parts of Colorado, Utah, Texas and Mexico) developed two distinct ways of life.

Sedentary farmers such as the Hopi, the Zuni, the Yaqui and the Yuma grew crops like corn, beans and squash. Many lived in permanent settlements, known as pueblos, built of stone and adobe. These pueblos featured great multistory dwellings that resembled apartment houses. At their centers, many of these villages also had large ceremonial pit houses, or kivas.

Other Southwestern peoples, such as the Navajo and the Apache, were more nomadic. They survived by hunting, gathering and raiding their more established neighbors for their crops. Because these groups were always on the move, their homes were much less permanent than the pueblos. For instance, the Navajo fashioned their iconic eastward-facing round houses, known as hogans, out of materials like mud and bark.

By the time the southwestern territories became a part of the United States after the Mexican War, many of the region’s native people had already been killed. (Spanish colonists and missionaries had enslaved many of the Pueblo Indians, for example, working them to death on vast Spanish ranches known as encomiendas.) During the second half of the 19th century, the federal government resettled most of the region’s remaining natives onto reservations.

The Great Basin

The Great Basin culture area, an expansive bowl formed by the Rocky Mountains to the east, the Sierra Nevadas to the west, the Columbia Plateau to the north, and the Colorado Plateau to the south, was a barren wasteland of deserts, salt flats and brackish lakes. Its people, most of whom spoke Shoshonean or Uto-Aztecan dialects (the Bannock, Paiute and Ute, for example), foraged for roots, seeds and nuts and hunted snakes, lizards and small mammals. Because they were always on the move, they lived in compact, easy-to-build wikiups made of willow poles or saplings, leaves and brush. Their settlements and social groups were impermanent, and communal leadership (what little there was) was informal.

After European contact, some Great Basin groups got horses and formed equestrian hunting and raiding bands that were similar to the ones we associate with the Great Plains natives. After white prospectors discovered gold and silver in the region in the mid-19th century, most of the Great Basin’s people lost their land and, frequently, their lives.

California

Before European contact, the temperateCaliforniaarea had more people than any other North American landscape at the time, approximately 300,000 people in the mid-16th century. It's estimated that 100 different tribes and groups spoke more than 200 dialects. These languages were derived from the Penutian (the Maidu, Miwok and Yokuts), the Hokan (the Chumash, Pomo, Salinas and Shasta), the Uto-Aztecan (the Tubabulabal, Serrano and Kinatemuk) and the Athapaskan (the Hupa, among others). Many of the “Mission Indians” who were driven out of the Southwest by Spanish colonization also spoke Uto-Aztecan dialects.

Despite this great diversity, many native Californians lived very similar lives. They did not practice much agriculture. Instead, they organized themselves into small, family-based bands of hunter-gatherers known as tribelets. Inter-tribelet relationships, based on well-established systems of trade and common rights, were generally peaceful.

Spanish explorers infiltrated the California region in the middle of the 16th century. In 1769, the cleric Junipero Serra established a mission at San Diego, inaugurating a particularly brutal period in which forced labor, disease and assimilation nearly exterminated the culture area’s native population.

READ MORE:California's Little-Known Genocide

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The Northwest Coast

The Northwest Coast culture area, along the Pacific coast from British Columbia to the top of Northern California, has a mild climate and an abundance of natural resources. In particular, the ocean and the region’s rivers provided almost everything its people needed—salmon, especially, but also whales, sea otters, seals and fish and shellfish of all kinds. As a result, unlike many other hunter-gatherers who struggled to eke out a living and were forced to follow animal herds from place to place, the Indians of the Pacific Northwest were secure enough to build permanent villages that housed hundreds of people apiece.

Those villages operated according to a rigidly stratified social structure, more sophisticated than any outside of Mexico and Central America. A person’s status was determined by his closeness to the village’s chief and reinforced by the number of possessions—blankets, shells and skins, canoes and even slaves—he had at his disposal. (Goods like these played an important role in the potlatch, an elaborate gift-giving ceremony designed to affirm these class divisions.)

Prominent groups in the region included the Athapaskan Haida and Tlingit; the Penutian Chinook, Tsimshian and Coos; the Wakashan Kwakiutl and Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka); and the Salishan Coast Salish.

The Plateau

The Plateau culture area sat in the Columbia and Fraser river basins at the intersection of the Subarctic, the Plains, the Great Basin, the California and the Northwest Coast (present-day Idaho, Montana and eastern Oregon and Washington). Most of its people lived in small, peaceful villages along stream and riverbanks and survived by fishing for salmon and trout, hunting and gathering wild berries, roots and nuts.

In the southern Plateau region, the great majority spoke languages derived from the Penutian (the Klamath, Klikitat, Modoc, Nez Perce, Walla Walla and Yakima or Yakama). North of the Columbia River, most (the Skitswish (Coeur d’Alene), Salish (Flathead), Spokane and Columbia) spoke Salishan dialects.

In the 18th century, other native groups brought horses to the Plateau. The region’s inhabitants quickly integrated the animals into their economy, expanding the radius of their hunts and acting as traders and emissaries between the Northwest and the Plains.

In 1805, the explorers Lewis and Clark passed through the area, followed by increasing numbers of white settlers. By the end of the 19th century, most of the remaining members of Plateau tribes had been cleared from their lands and resettled in government reservations.

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FAQs

Native American Cultures? ›

Native American cultures across the United States are notable for their wide variety and diversity of lifestyles, regalia, art forms and beliefs. The culture of indigenous North America is usually defined by the concept of the Pre-Columbian culture area, namely a geographical region where shared cultural traits occur.

What are the different cultures of Native Americans? ›

Most scholars break North America—excluding present-day Mexico—into 10 separate culture areas: the Arctic, the Subarctic, the Northeast, the Southeast, the Plains, the Southwest, the Great Basin, California, the Northwest Coast and the Plateau.

How many different Native American cultures are there? ›

There are 574 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages in the United States, each with their own culture, language and history. Every tribe has unique traditions and distinct styles of housing, dress, and food.

What are the 7 Native American cultural regions? ›

Cultural Regions of the Indigenous American Population
  • The Arctic Cultural Region. ...
  • The Subarctic Cultural Region. ...
  • The Northeast Cultural Region. ...
  • The Northwest Coast Region. ...
  • The Southwest Cultural Region. ...
  • The Southeast Coast Region. ...
  • The Plateau Cultural Region.
Aug 14, 2022

Do Native Americans have a culture? ›

There is no single American Indian culture or language. American Indians are both individuals and members of a tribal group. For millennia, American Indians have shaped and been shaped by their culture and environment.

What do Native Americans call themselves? ›

The consensus, however, is that whenever possible, Native people prefer to be called by their specific tribal name. In the United States, Native American has been widely used but is falling out of favor with some groups, and the terms American Indian or Indigenous American are preferred by many Native people.

What makes Native American culture unique? ›

American Indian culture emphasizes harmony with nature, endurance of suffering, respect and non- interference toward others, a strong belief that man is inherently good and should be respected for his decisions. Such values make individuals and families in difficulty very reluctant to seek help.

What is the race of Native American? ›

The results support the general view that the ancestry of the American Indian is predominantly Mongoloid. Using 30,000 years as the separation time between the American Indian and Mongoloid, the divergence time between the three major races of man was estimated to be 33,000-92,000 years.

What is the oldest Native American tribe? ›

The Hopi Indians are the oldest Native American tribe in the World.

What defines native culture? ›

1 relating or belonging to a person or thing by virtue of conditions existing at the time of birth. a native language.

What are the 6 major Native American tribes? ›

Tribal groupTotalAmerican Indian/Alaska Native alone
Cherokee729,533299,862
Navajo298,197275,991
Latin American Indian1180,940106,204
Choctaw158,77496,901
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What was the biggest Indian tribe? ›

11, 2021. The Navajo Nation has by far the largest land mass of any Native American tribe in the country. Now, it's boasting the largest enrolled population, too.

What are the 6 Native American tribes? ›

The resulting confederacy, whose governing Great Council of 50 peace chiefs, or sachems (hodiyahnehsonh), still meets in a longhouse, is made up of six nations: the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora.

What are the beliefs of Native American? ›

Early European explorers describe individual Native American tribes and even small bands as each having their own religious practices. Theology may be monotheistic, polytheistic, henotheistic, animistic, shamanistic, pantheistic or any combination thereof, among others.

What cultural features did most Native American groups share? ›

What were three common cultural characteristics shared by most Native American? Most of them believe in the Great Spirit . All living bodies came from this spirit. Political power were spread among local chiefs.

What is the culture of Cherokee? ›

Cherokee culture encompasses our longstanding traditions of language, spirituality, food, storytelling and many forms of art, both practical and beautiful. However, just like our people, Cherokee culture is not static or frozen in time, but is ever-evolving.

How do you respect Native American culture? ›

5 ways to honor Native Americans during National Native American Heritage Month
  1. Visit a reservation or museum. ...
  2. Attend or host an educational event. ...
  3. 'Decolonize' your Thanksgiving dinner. ...
  4. Read the work of Native American authors. ...
  5. Support native-owned businesses and charities.
Nov 4, 2019

Where does Native American DNA come from? ›

Previous genetic work had suggested the ancestors of Native Americans split from Siberians and East Asians about 25,000 years ago, perhaps when they entered the now mostly drowned landmass of Beringia, which bridged the Russian Far East and North America.

Where did Native American culture come from? ›

The ancestors of living Native Americans arrived in what is now the United States at least 15,000 years ago, possibly much earlier, from Asia via Beringia. A vast variety of peoples, societies and cultures subsequently developed.

Why Native Americans are called Indians? ›

American Indians - Native Americans

The term "Indian," in reference to the original inhabitants of the American continent, is said to derive from Christopher Columbus, a 15th century boat-person. Some say he used the term because he was convinced he had arrived in "the Indies" (Asia), his intended destination.

What language do Native Americans speak? ›

The Navajo language, for instance, is the most spoken Native American language today, with nearly 170,000 speakers. The next most common is Yupik, at 19,750, which is spoken in Alaska. However, the majority of Native Americans today speak only English.

Do Native Americans show up in DNA? ›

DNA was not inherited from Native American ancestor

The most common reason that someone with Native American ancestry does not see this on their Ancestry DNA results is that they did not inherited any Native American DNA. This can happen even if the ancestor really was Native American.

Can a white person join a Native American tribe? ›

Every tribe has its own membership criteria; some go on blood quantum, others on descent, but whatever the criteria for "percentage Indian" it is the tribe's enrollment office that has final say on whether a person may be a member. Anyone can claim Indian heritage, but only the tribe can grant official membership.

What are the 5 races? ›

OMB requires that race data be collectd for a minimum of five groups: White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. OMB permits the Census Bureau to also use a sixth category - Some Other Race.

Which tribe has the oldest DNA? ›

His haplogroup is part of MtDNA B2, which originated in Arizona about 17,000 years ago. That group is one of four major Native American groups that spread across the continent.
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CookieDurationDescription
ppviewtimer1 dayNo description available.
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What Native American tribes no longer exist? ›

Pages in category "Extinct Native American tribes"
  • Accokeek tribe.
  • Accomac people.
  • Androscoggin people.
  • Annamessex.
  • Apalachee.
  • Appomattoc.
  • Assateague people.

Are Aztecs Native American? ›

The Aztecs were the Native American people who dominated northern Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century. A nomadic culture, the Aztecs eventually settled on several small islands in Lake Texcoco where, in 1325, they founded the town of Tenochtitlan, modern-day Mexico City.

What is the race of Native American? ›

The results support the general view that the ancestry of the American Indian is predominantly Mongoloid. Using 30,000 years as the separation time between the American Indian and Mongoloid, the divergence time between the three major races of man was estimated to be 33,000-92,000 years.

What cultural features did most Native American groups share? ›

What were three common cultural characteristics shared by most Native American? Most of them believe in the Great Spirit . All living bodies came from this spirit. Political power were spread among local chiefs.

Why did Native American cultures differ across North America? ›

Many different groups of Native Americans, with distinct cultures based on their resource allocation and climate, inhabited the western region of North America. Hunting, gathering, and fishing supplied most of the food for indigenous people throughout the West, especially along the Columbia and Colorado Rivers.

What is the difference between Native American tribes? ›

There is no distinct difference between an Indian tribe and an Indian nation. Before America was settled by Europeans, each tribe was self-governed and operated as a separate nation — with separate leadership, customs, laws, and lifestyles. From time to time, various tribes waged war against each other.

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