Native Americans

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the cultural achievements, lifestyles, religious practices, and customs among Native American peoples
  • Explain the location and environmental adaptations made by some Native populations

North American Indians

With few exceptions, the North American Native cultures were much more widely dispersed than the Mayan, Aztec, and Incan societies, and did not have their population size or organized social structures. Although the cultivation of corn had made its way north, many Indians still practiced hunting and gathering. Horses, first introduced by the Spanish, allowed the Plains Indians to more easily follow and hunt the huge herds of bison. A few societies had developed into relatively complex forms, but they were already in decline at the time of Christopher Columbus’s arrival.

North America’s Indigenous peoples shared some broad traits. Spiritual practices, understandings of property, and kinship networks differed markedly from European arrangements. Most Native Americans did not neatly distinguish between the natural and the supernatural. Spiritual power permeated their world and was both tangible and accessible. It could be appealed to and harnessed. Kinship bound most Native North American people together. Many Native cultures understood ancestry as matrilineal: family and clan identity proceeded along the female line, through mothers and daughters, rather than fathers and sons. Fathers, for instance, would often join mothers’ extended families and sometimes even a mother’s brothers would take a more direct role in child-raising than biological fathers. Mothers could therefore often wield enormous influence at local levels and men’s identities and influence often depended on their relationships to women. Native American culture meanwhile generally afforded greater sexual and marital freedom than European cultures did. Women often chose their husbands, and divorce often was a relatively simple and straightforward process. Moreover, most Native peoples’ notions of property rights differed markedly from Europeans’ notions of property. Native Americans generally felt a personal ownership of tools, weapons, or other items that were actively used, and this same rule applied to land and crops. Groups and individuals exploited particular pieces of land, and used violence or negotiation to exclude others. But the right to the use of land did not imply the right to its permanent possession.

Native Americans had many ways of communicating, including graphic ones, and some of these artistic and communicative technologies are still used today. For example, Algonkian-speaking Ojibwes used birch-bark scrolls to record medical treatments, recipes, songs, stories, and more. Other Eastern Woodland peoples wove plant fibers, embroidered skins with porcupine quills, and modeled the earth to make sites of complex ceremonial meaning. On the plains, artisans wove buffalo hair and painted on buffalo skins. In the Pacific Northwest weavers wove goat hair into soft textiles with particular patterns. Maya, Zapotec, and Nahua ancestors in Mesoamerica painted their histories on plant-derived textiles and carved them into stone. In the Andes, Inca recorders noted information in the form of knotted strings, or quipu.


Click through this interactive to learn more about the Indigenous people who lived on the American continent long before the settlement of European colonists.

Puebloan People

Cliff dwellings carved out and into the side of a canyon.

Figure 1. Native peoples in the Southwest began constructing these highly defensible cliff dwellings in 1190 CE and continued expanding and refurbishing them until 1260 CE before abandoning them around 1300 CE.

Two thousand years ago, some of the largest culture groups in North America were the Puebloan groups, centered in the current-day Greater Southwest (the southwestern U.S. and northwestern Mexico), the Mississippian groups located along the Great River and its Woodland tributaries, and the Mesoamerican groups of the areas now known as central Mexico and the Yucatan. Previous developments in agricultural technology enabled the explosive growth of the large early societies, such as those in Tenochtitlan in the Central Mexican Valley, Cahokia along the Mississippi River, and in the desert oasis areas of the Greater Southwest.

Chaco Canyon in northern New Mexico was home to ancestral Puebloan people between 900 and 1300 CE. As many as 15,000 people lived in the Chaco Canyon complex in present-day New Mexico. The Spanish first gave these people the name “Pueblo,” which means “town” or “village,” because they lived in settlements of permanent stone-and-mud buildings with thatched roofs. Like present-day apartment houses, these buildings had multiple stories, each with multiple rooms. The three main groups of the Pueblo people were the Mogollon, Hohokam, and Anasazi.

The Mogollon thrived in the Mimbres Valley (present-day New Mexico) from about 150 BCE to 1450 CE. They developed a distinctive artistic style for painting bowls with finely drawn geometric figures and wildlife, especially birds, in black on a white background. Beginning about 600 CE, the Hohokam built an extensive irrigation system of canals to irrigate the desert and grow fields of corn, beans, and squash. By 1300, their crop yields were supporting the most highly populated settlements in the southwest. The Hohokam decorated pottery with a red-on-buff design and made jewelry of turquoise. In the high desert of New Mexico, the Anasazi, whose name means “ancient enemy” or “ancient ones,” carved homes from steep cliffs accessed by ladders or ropes that could be pulled in at night or in case of enemy attack.

Rise and Decline of the Puebloan People

Sophisticated agricultural practices, extensive trading networks, and even the domestication of animals like turkeys allowed the population to swell. Massive residential structures, built from sandstone blocks and lumber carried across great distances, housed hundreds of Puebloan people. One single building, Pueblo Bonito, stretched over two acres and rose five stories. Its 600 rooms were decorated with copper bells, turquoise decorations, and bright macaws. Homes like those at Pueblo Bonito included a small, dugout room, called a kiva, which played an important role in a variety of ceremonies and served as an important center for Puebloan life and culture. Puebloan spirituality was tied both to the earth and to the heavens, as generations carefully charted the stars and designed homes in line with the path of the sun and moon.

The Puebloan people of Chaco Canyon faced several ecological challenges, including deforestation and over-irrigation, which ultimately caused this community to collapse and its people to disperse to smaller settlements. An extreme fifty-year drought began in 1130; shortly thereafter, Chaco Canyon was deserted. New groups filled this land, including the Apache and Navajo, both of whom adopted several Puebloan customs. The same drought that plagued the Pueblo also likely affected the Mississippian peoples of the American Midwest and South. The Mississippians developed one of the largest civilizations north of modern-day Mexico.


Roughly one thousand years ago, the largest Mississippian settlement, Cahokia, located just east of present-day St. Louis, peaked at a population of between 10,000 and 30,000. It rivaled contemporary European cities in size. No American city, in fact, would match Cahokia’s peak population levels until after the American Revolution. The city itself spanned 2,000 acres and centered around Monks Mound, a large earthen hill that rose ten stories and was larger at its base than the great pyramids of Egypt. As with many of the peoples who lived in the Woodlands, life and death in Cahokia were linked to the movement of the stars, sun, and moon, and their ceremonial earthwork structures reflect these important organizing forces.

The society of the Cahokia people was politically organized around the concept of chiefdom, a hierarchical, clan-based system that endowed leaders with both secular and sacred authority. The size of the city and the extent of its influence suggests that the city relied on a number of lesser chiefdoms under the authority of a paramount leader. Social stratification was partly preserved through frequent warfare. War captives would be enslaved, and these captives formed an important part of the economy in the North American southeast. Native American slavery was not based on holding people as property. Instead, Native Americans understood enslaved people as those who lacked kinship networks. Slavery, then, was not always a permanent condition. Adoption or marriage could enable an enslaved person to become a member of the community and to enter a kinship network. Very often, a former slave could become a fully integrated member of the community. Slavery and captive trading became an important way that many Native communities regrew and gained or maintained power.

A bird's eye view of Cahokia. There are dozens of houses surrounding a wall that encloses more houses and a pyramid.

Figure 2. Cahokia, by Bill Iseminger. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Cahokia Trade and “Big Bang”

North American communities were connected through complex kin, political, and cultural relationships and sustained by long-distance trading routes. The Mississippi River served as a particularly important artery, but all of the continent’s waterways were vital to transportation and communication. From its position near the Mississippi, Illinois, and Missouri Rivers, which created networks that stretched from the Great Lakes to the American Southeast, Cahokia became a key trading center. Archaeologists can identify materials, like seashells, that traveled over a thousand miles to reach the center of this civilization. 3,500 years ago, the community at what is now Poverty Point, Louisiana, had access to copper from present-day Canada and flint from modern-day Indiana. Sheets of Mica found at the sacred Woodland Serpent Mound site near the Ohio River came from the Allegheny Mountains, and obsidian from nearby earthworks came from Mexico. Turquoise from the Greater Southwest was used at Teotihuacan 1200 years ago.

Around the year 1050, Cahokia experienced what one archeologist has called a “big bang,” which included “a virtually instantaneous and pervasive shift in all things political, social, and ideological.” The population grew almost 500 percent in only one generation, and new groups of peoples were absorbed into the city and its supporting communities. By 1300, the once-powerful city had undergone a series of strains that led to its collapse. Scholars previously pointed to ecological disaster or slow depopulation through emigration, but new research instead emphasizes mounting warfare, or internal political tensions. Environmental explanations suggest that population growth placed too great a burden on the arable land. Others suggest the demand for fuel and building materials led to deforestation, erosion, and or an extended drought. Recent evidence suggests that political turmoil among the ruling elite and threats from external enemies, as evidenced in the remains of defensive stockades, may explain the end of the once-sprawling civilization.

A map shows the locations of the Southwest (Pueblo) cultures, the Southeast cultures, and the Eastern Woodland tribes, as well as the ancient city of Cahokia.

Figure 3. This map indicates the locations of the three Pueblo cultures the major Eastern Woodland Indian tribes, and the tribes of the Southeast, as well as the location of the ancient city of Cahokia.

The Eastern Woodlands

Encouraged by the wealth found by the Spanish in the settled civilizations to the south, fifteenth- and sixteenth-century English, Dutch, and French explorers expected to discover the same in North America. What they found instead were small, disparate communities, many already ravaged by European diseases brought by the Spanish and transmitted among the Natives. Rather than gold and silver, there was an abundance of land, and with it came all the timber and fur that land could produce.

In the Eastern Woodlands, many Native American societies lived in smaller dispersed communities in order to take advantage of the rich soils and abundant rivers and streams. The Lenapes, also known as Delawares, farmed the bottomlands throughout the Hudson and Delaware River watersheds in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. Their hundreds of settlements, stretching from southern Massachusetts through Delaware, were loosely bound together by oral histories, ceremonial traditions, consensus-based political organization, kinship networks, and a shared clan system.

Societal Structure of the Eastern Woodlands

Society was organized along matrilineal lines. When marriage occurred between clans, a married man would join the clan of his wife. Lenape women extended authority over marriages, households, agricultural production, and may even have played a significant part in determining the selection of a regional tribal leader, a chief called the sachem. Dispersed authority, small settlements, and kin-based organization contributed to the long-lasting stability and resilience of Lenape communities. One or more sachems governed Lenape communities by the consent of their people. Unlike the hierarchical organization of many Mississippian cultures, Lenape sachems acquired their authority by demonstrating wisdom and experience. Communities and their leaders gathered together in times of council or for ceremonial purposes. Sachems spoke for their people in larger councils that included men, women, and elders. The Lenape experienced occasional tensions with other Indigenous groups like the Iroquois to the north or Susquehannock to the south, but the lack of defensive fortifications near Lenape communities leads archeologists to believe that the Lenapes avoided large-scale warfare.

The continued longevity of Lenape societies, which began centuries before European contact, was also due to their skills as farmers and fishers. Along with the “Three Sisters,” Lenape women planted tobacco, sunflowers, and gourds. They harvested fruits and nuts from trees and also cultivated numerous medicinal plants which they used with great proficiency. The Lenapes organized their communities to take advantage of growing seasons and also the migration patterns of animals and fowl that were a part of their diet. During planting and harvesting seasons, Lenapes gathered together in larger groups to coordinate their labor and take advantage of local abundance. As proficient fishers, they organized seasonal fish camps to net shellfish and catch shad, a type of herring common to the North Atlantic coast. Lenapes wove nets, baskets, mats, and a variety of household materials from the readily available rushes found along the streams, rivers, and coasts. They made their homes in some of the most fertile and abundant lands in the Eastern Woodlands and used their skills to create a stable and prosperous civilization. The first Dutch and Swedish settlers who encountered the Lenapes in the seventeenth century recognized Lenape prosperity and quickly sought their friendship. Their lives came to depend on it.

Most Native Americans living east of the Mississippi lived in small autonomous clans or tribal units, each group adapted to the specific environment in which it lived. Though they shared common traits, these groups were by no means unified, and warfare among tribes was common as they sought to increase their hunting and fishing areas.

An elaborately carved and painted mask.

Figure 4. Intricately carved masks, like the Crooked Beak of Heaven Mask, used natural elements like animals to represent supernatural forces during ceremonial dances and festivals. 19th century brooked beak of heaven mask from the Kwakwaka’wakw (Pacific NW).

The Pacific Northwest

In the Pacific Northwest, the Kwakwaka’wakw, Tlingits, Haidas, and hundreds of other peoples, speaking dozens of languages, thrived due to the moderate climate, lush forests, and many rivers. The peoples of this region depended upon salmon for survival and valued it accordingly. Images of salmon decorated totem poles, baskets, canoes, oars, and other tools. The fish was treated with spiritual respect and its image represented prosperity, life, and renewal. Sustainable harvesting practices ensured the survival of salmon populations. The Coast Salish people and several others celebrated the First Salmon Ceremony when the first migrating salmon was spotted each season. Elders closely observed the size of the salmon run and would delay harvesting to ensure that a sufficient number survived to spawn and return in the future. Men commonly used nets, hooks, and other small tools to capture salmon as they migrated upriver to spawn. Massive cedar canoes, as long as fifty feet and carrying as many as twenty men, also enabled extensive fishing expeditions in the Pacific Ocean, where skilled fishermen caught halibut, sturgeon, and other fish, sometimes hauling thousands of pounds in a single canoe.

Food surpluses enabled significant population growth, and the Pacific Northwest became one of the most densely populated regions of North America. The combination of population density and food surplus created a unique social organization centered around an elaborate feast called a potlatch. These potlatches celebrated births and weddings and also demonstrated social status. A party would last for days and the host would demonstrate his wealth and power by feeding and entertaining guests with food, artwork, and performances. The more the host gave away, the more prestige and power they had within the group. Some men saved for decades to host an extravagant potlach that would in turn give him greater respect and power within the community.

Many peoples of the Pacific Northwest built finely detailed plank houses out of the region’s abundant cedar trees. The 500-foot-long Suquamish Oleman House (or Old Man House), for instance, rested on the banks of Puget Sound in present-day Washington state. Giant cedar trees were also carved and painted in the shape of animals or other figures to tell stories and express identities. These totem poles became the most recognizable artistic form of the Pacific Northwest, but peoples also carved masks, and other wooden items, such as hand drums and rattles, out of the great trees of the region.

Despite commonalities, Native cultures varied greatly. The New World was marked by diversity and contrast. By the time Europeans were poised to cross the Atlantic, Native Americans spoke hundreds of languages and lived in keeping with the hemisphere’s many climates and regional ecosystems. Some lived in cities, others in small rural bands. Some migrated seasonally, others settled permanently. All Native peoples had long histories and well-formed, unique cultures that had developed over millennia. But the arrival of the Europeans changed everything.

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Timeline Review

Click on the right side of interactive to go to the next event on the timeline. It is not required to view all of the videos linked on the timeline, but you can watch them if you’re interested in learning more.

Review Question

What were the major differences between the societies of the Aztec, Inca, and Maya and the Indians of North America?


chiefdom: a hierarchical, clan-based system that endowed leaders with both secular and sacred authority

matrilineal: an understanding of kinship where family and clan identity proceed along the female line, through mothers and daughters, rather than fathers and sons

potlatch: an elaborate, celebratory feast common to Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest during which the host would gain prestige by giving away as many valued things as possible

sachem: a regional, high-ranking chief of the Eastern Woodlands who was selected from within the tribe