Food & Family
Families were valued no matter the tribe and everyone worked together to provide the basics of daily life: food, clothing, shelter. Relatives often lived together—even extended families with uncles, aunts and grandparents—to help raise the children and teach the tribal ways, mostly by watching and helping. Boys went through ceremonies to prepare for adult roles and girls were tested on the ways of a woman’s workday.
During the day they would hunt, barter, fish, play, gather and create wares, make clothes, baskets and weapons, go to sleep and do it all again the next day. Animals were killed with bows and arrows, clubs, spears and small blowguns. Fish were caught with spears, nets, woven traps, hooks and lines or even by hand. Birds and small prey were driven into traps.
Every part of the animal, bird or fish was used. Hides and buckskin were used for clothing, boats and tepees. Bones were used to make weapons or spoons. Hair was braided into rope. Hooves were melted for glue. Porcupine quills became decorations and needles. Tendons were dried to make string. Tails became whips. Horns and teeth decorated clothing, functioned as sounding horns or served as vessels to carry tobacco and such.
The first farmers grew tomatoes, peppers, melon, sweet potatoes, corn, beans, squash and tobacco. Bulbs, seeds, grains, berries and nuts, including roots, tubers, and water were foraged or mined in season. According to the book Native Americans, "Experts guess that more than half of the foods eaten all over the world today were first domesticated by Native Americans."
Faith & Culture
When Christopher Columbus landed in Hispaniola, the tribes he met were friendly, willing to share and were open with their lifestyle and bounty. Columbus often wrote that he thought they were heathens for lack of clothing and postulated that they needed religion.
While there was no single religion, the tribes in all the different regions throughout North America had a passionate link with the spirit world that was ever-present in their lives. The centerpiece for this religion was concentrated in the gifts of nature and they celebrated and attempted to live in harmony with the Earth. They gave over a strong spirit-respect to the things that helped them to survive. They had rain spirits in the desert region, buffalo spirits for the Great Plains people and guardian spirits that helped the youth to become men or women, among others. One particular ritual for the “coming of age" of young men was to have them set off on their own, without provisions or sleep, until they saw a guardian spirit.
The tribes’ people often gathered in sacred places to perform ceremonies steeped in ritual, and were led by a priest. For example, harvest was a time to renew connections with the spirit world and was celebrated with music, dance and song. Wooden clappers, pebble-filled rattles and animal-skin stretched drums provided the musical background. People in the Southeast had the yearly Green Corn Festival, marking the late summer ripening of this crop. Many foods and seasons were commemorated with similar feasts, festivals and rituals.
Each tribe also had shamans—a word that means, “He who knows"—and they were respected for wisdom and deep thinking. The shaman often interpreted dreams, tended to the injured and helped to “cure" a patient’s body, giving them the name “medicine men" by the Europeans who were privy to their herbal remedies and cures. While the new white arrivals tried to convert them to Christianity, the Native Americans clung to their traditional beliefs.