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Native American Information in Pre-colonial America

written by: P. Andrew Powe • edited by: Noreen Gunnell • updated: 9/11/2012

A basic overview of Native American culture and society aimed at children. Children need to understand that there were other groups living in the America's before Europeans came. Their lifestyles were as diverse as the climate of the continents was in the Americas.

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    First Nation People and Societies

    Native Americans are the original inhabitants of the Americas. Scientists believe that Paleo-Americans crossed the Bering Sea over an ice bridge during the last Ice Age. It was believed that they were following large herd animals which had originally crossed into North America. Over the next 10,000 years the native people covered all parts of the western hemisphere.

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    Basic Beliefs and Practices

    Native Americans did not have a belief in God as did Europeans. They believed in a Great Spirit figure. The great spirit created all the things in the world and appointed the natives as the caretakers of the land. native Americans held a deep respect of the natural world. They believed that only what is needed should be taken. There was no hunting in excess and many tribes changed their hunting lands from season to season. Agriculture was practiced on a small-scale and the majority of Natives were hunter gatherers. This means that they hunted animals for food and would gather berries and root vegetables from the nearby countryside.

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    Native Americans of the Northeast Woodlands

    The basic society of the northeastern woodlands was small-scale farming supplemented with gathering berries and hunting. This included territory North of the Ohio River to the Great lakes and west to the Mississippi River. The natives of this region did not live in tepees but lived in long houses. These wooden long houses would hold thirty or forty people. These homes generally held the extended family. That is aunt, uncles and grandparents of one family group. Several groups comprised a tribe. These were warm in the winter which was a plus because of the cold temperatures. They were not nomadic and generally remained in their selected areas for several years. It was also home of the Iroquois Confederation. This was a group of 6 tribes that worked together to maintain harmony. These tribes where the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora. They lived around Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. As you moved closer to the Mississippi River the Longhouse would be replaced by the Tee pee as the main home since tribes like the Pawnee and Illini tended to be more nomadic than their eastern counterparts.

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    Native Americans of the Delaware Tribe Used as Scouts

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    Natives Americans of the Southeast

    The native people of the southeast did not live in longhouses. In the Southeast, which comprises the area from the Atlantic Seaboard to the Mississippi River and south of the Ohio River, people lived in wigwams which were constructed of branches and generally held the immediate family including the grandparents. These were not nomadic people and tended to stay in one area for extended periods of time. They were hunter gatherers who also practiced basic agriculture for certain crops such as maize. Two of the most famous tribes of this region where the Seminole and the Cherokee. The Cherokee had also created a written language.

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    Native Americans of the Plains

    The largest group of the Plains was the Sioux. They lived in the areas that are now the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and Montana. They were a nomadic people traveling throughout the year. They were following the buffalo herds that were plentiful in the plains. Their entire life revolved around the buffalo. They would hunt them on horses after these were introduced by the Spanish in the 1500's. They used bow and arrows for some of their hunting. Normally they would locate the herd and then drive members of the heard off of a cliff edge. The Sioux used every part of the buffalo. The bones made utensils and the hides were used to construct their tepees. The tee pee was the primary living quarters since they could be put up and taken down swiftly. This allowed them to move as soon as the herds started to migrate again.

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    Natives Americans of the American Southwest

    There are two distinct groups and living examples of the natives of the southwest. The Pueblo created huge mud buildings that had individual apartments for each family. They cultivated maize and hunted small animals for food. because of the harsh weather they were tied to the weather patterns and felt that failed crops were because of disfavor with the Great Spirit.

    The other primary groups were the Apache and Comanche tribes. These were warlike groups that were hunter-gatherers and lived in portable homes so they could move regularly. They also supplied themselves by raiding other tribes and taken food and horses. They were almost always in conflict with another tribe.

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    Native Americans of Central and South America

    There were three large civilizations that grew and controlled most of the activities of the region. These three primary tribes were the Inca, the Mayan and the Aztecs. All three of these built huge empires and mined gold and silver. They were all destroyed by the Spanish when Europeans came to the Western Hemisphere. These tribes practiced human sacrifice. The individuals that were captured during a battle were the ones that were sacrificed to the gods. They created metallurgy primarily working with gold and silver.

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    Native Americans of the West Coast

    Natives of the pacific Northwest and the pacific coast lived by fishing and gathering. There was a bounty of food available for them and because of this they had a very complicated society. If less energy is used to locate and find food the tribes created a very complicated mythology or system of stories to explain things. They smoked fish to preserve it and this provided a food source through the winter months. Totem poles were common in the Pacific Northwest and represented heroes or images of animals that were worshipped.

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    Native Americans of the Arctic

    The Inuit are natives that lived in the arctic regions. They are typically referred to as Eskimos. They lived in igloos or small homes made of branches. If they were on the ice shelf they used the snow to create igloos; if they were in a wooded area they used the branches to create housing. They were hunter-gatherers living off of seal, moose or elk. Many of them were also fisherman who smoked salmon for the long winter months. Because of the harsh weather their clothing was made from seal and other animal hides.


  • Image: Delaware Indians by Florida Center for Instructional Technology under CCBY 2.0
  • Nies, Judith. "Native American History: A Chronology of a Culture's Vast Achievements and Their Links to World Events". Nallantine Books, 1996.
  • Duval, Kathleen. "The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent". University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.
  • Waldman, Carl and Braun, Molly. "Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes". Checkmark Books, 2006.