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A Land Long Ago
Thousands of years ago, a frozen bridge joined Asia with North America. Research scientists surmise that sometime during the Ice Age—35,000 to 10,000 years ago—glaciers allowed the first people to traverse a 50-mile wide gap between Siberia and Alaska (that is now underwater and referred to as Beringia). It is most likely that these people were hunting the great mammoth, a huge elephant with long tusks, a shaggy fur collar and tons of fat, skin and protein.
Some of these people continued to move on from that crossing, perhaps chasing other animals such as the saber-toothed cat, short-faced bear or beavers the size of bears. They would eventually comprise some 300 tribes from the totem pole carvers of the Northwest to the California hunter-gatherers to the Great Plains buffalo hunters and others, numbering a million people by 1492 when Columbus claimed to “discover” the New World. This theory is based on evidence found in archeological digs.
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10 Cultures of Difference
Because these tribes made their way to very different areas in terms of climate, geological elements and food or other resources, they became experts in the appropriate subjects: farming, fishing, cliff dwelling and so on. Here is a list of the disparate 10 areas that anthropologists use to divide the people into North American tribes and cultures:
- Northwest: seafaring/woodworkers from Alaska to Northern California
- High Plateau: British Columbia and the Northwest, snow-capped mountain dwellers with alpine forests and sunlit valleys
- Great Basin: Nevada and Utah hardy survivors from mountaintops to the desert below
- California: Hunter-gatherers-traders, the West Coasters along the Pacific Ocean to Baja Mexico
- Arctic and Subarctic: Inuits from Siberia to Greenland
- Pacific Northwest: Totem tribes in forests and fjords—a narrow stretch of land between the ocean and coastal mountains
- Great Plains: Buffalo hunters west of the Mississippi to Rockies, from Canada to Mexico
- Southwest: Desert dwellers of Arizona, New Mexico and Northern Mexico
- Northeast: Woodland hunters of New England, Mid-Atlantic and the Great Lakes region
- Southeast: Village farmers of Florida and the Deep South
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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.
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Crafting & Creating
From the Iroquois Longhouse fashioned with a wooden frame covered in elm bark to the feathered headdress and bear-claw necklace of the Sauk Chief, nothing in nature went unused. Tree bark and plant materials were woven into capes, hair was styled with bear grease, furs and feathers were wardrobe staples.
Nez Perce tribes packed their meals in flat bags created with twisted and dyed cornhusks. Seashell money was kept in purses made from Elk antlers.
The Chumash people made ocean-going canoes from driftwood collected at the beach and sewed the planks with cord made from milkweed. Tar and pitch made it airtight.
The people of the Northeast used cedar ribs to make a birch-bark canoe, lacing the bark together with spruce roots and waterproofing with tree resin.
The Pueblo people made apartment houses from stones, mesa clay and wooden beams. Even windows were created using light-colored gypsum rock. They are also famous for Kachina dolls: small effigies believed to connect them with the spirit world they fashioned using turkey feathers for costumes, twigs for arms and yucca-leaf brushes for mineral paints.
Men favored buckskin breechcloths and long leggings. Ceremonial clothing was often decorated with beadwork and fabulous fringes and everyone wore moccasins.
The Navajo tribe were expert weavers who wove patterned blankets from wild mountain goat hair, sheep’s wool and the woven bark of the mulberry tree, often decorated with colored plant dyes and charcoal.
In the Pacific Northwest, totem poles created using cedar-log poles and carved to depict family legends, hierarchy and the story of a family stood in front of wooden houses. The fantastic designs show all sides of an animal, such as a thunderbird, raven, whale or bear.
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Peace Pipes and War
Intertribal warfare was common. The variances between languages as well as the way they acquired food, erected their homes and performed religious rituals may have contributed to the natural tendency to fight. The tribe battles were mostly local, small-scale conflicts based on rivalry or feuding, or for the revenge of killing one’s relatives or seizing captives. It was a sacred measure used to restore natural order of a given region. Their weapons fell into three general groups: those for striking, cutting and piercing. As defense, they often constructed body armor composed of wood, bone, ivory and animal hides.
When the Europeans arrived, their motives were for conquest, acquiring more territory, building up power and stealing gold. The white invaders brought five centuries of disease, massacre and forcible herding. Between 1614 and 1617, epidemics wiped out three-quarters of the Massachusett, many of whom had never seen a white person. Unfortunately, the same scenario was repeated in every region of the United States. The Native Americans were outnumbered and out armed—pushed to the edge of extinction.
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Some Tribe Names by Region
Woodlands in Northeast
Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, Oneida, Cayuga, Mohican and Tuscarora Nation
Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Tunica, Yuchi
Plains Buffalo Hunters
Once home to 30 tribes, Dakota, Blackfeet, Blood, Cheyenne, Comanche, Crow…
Desert Great Basin
Ute, Bannock, Paiute, Ute, Jicarilla and Washo
Nez Perce, Bannock, Cayuse, Shoshone, Walla Walla…
Apache, Navajo, Pima, Tohono O'odham; and Pueblo including their Hopis, Zuni and Cochiti peoples
Chumash, Yurok, Achomawi, Laguna
Nootka, Chinook, Coos, Makah
Inuit, Cree, Beaver, Innu
- Kopper, Philip. The Smithsonian Book of North American Indians. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1986. Book.
- Image Source: Shoshni Tipis - Wikimedia Commons
- Buller, Laura. Native Americans: An Inside Look At The Tribes and Traditions. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2001. Book.
- Nardo, Don. Early Native North Americans. New York: Gale, Lucent Books, 2008. Book.
- History Channel: Trail of Tears
- Native American Heritage Month