Eric Mayer, Instructor


Native Americans, peoples who are indigenous to the Americas. They also have been known as American Indians.

The name Indian was first applied to them by Christopher Columbus, who believed mistakenly that the mainland and islands of America were part of the Indies, in Asia.

These lectures focuse on the peoples native to North America, Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America), and South America.

The indigenous population at the time of European contact is estimated, the general physical characteristics of native American peoples are described, and a summary is given of what is known about their arrival and early prehistory in the Americas.

The major culture areas of North, Central, and South America are discussed, and a survey follows of the traditional ways of life of Native Americans.

Social and political organization are considered, as well as their food, clothing, and housing, their trade, religion, and warfare, and their crafts, visual arts, music, and dance.

Finally, the history of Native Americans after European contact and their condition today in North and Latin America are examined.

Early Population

It is estimated that at the time of first European contact, North and South America was inhabited by more than 90 million people:

about 10 million in America north of present-day Mexico;

30 million in Mexico; 11 million in Central America; 445,000 in the Caribbean islands;

30 million in the South American Andean region; and 9 million in the remainder of South America.

These population figures are a rough estimate (some authorities cite much lower figures); exact figures are impossible to ascertain.

When colonists began keeping records, the Native American populations had been drastically reduced by war, famine, forced labor, and epidemics of diseases introduced through contact with Europeans.

Physical Traits

Native Americans are physically most similar to Asian populations and appear to have descended from Asian peoples who migrated across the Bering land bridge during the Pleistocene epoch, also known as the Ice Age, beginning perhaps some 30,000 years ago.

Like other peoples with Mongolian characteristics, Native Americans tend to have light brown skin, brown eyes, and dark, straight hair.

They differ from Asians, however, in their characteristic blood types (see RACES, CLASSIFICATION OF).

Because many Native Americans today have had one or more European-Americans or African-Americans among their ancestors, numerous people who are legally and culturally Native American may look fairer or darker than Mongolian peoples or may have markedly non-Mongolian facial features.

Over the thousands of years that indigenous peoples have lived in the Americas, they have developed into a great number of local populations,

each differing somewhat from its neighbors.

Some populations (such as those on the Great Plains of North America) tend to be tall and often heavy in build, whereas others (for example, many in the South American Andes and adjacent lowlands) tend to be short and broad chested;

furthermore, every population includes persons who vary from the average.

Some physical characteristics of Native American populations have been influenced by diet or by the environmental conditions of their societies.

For example, the short stature of some native Guatemalans seems to result at least in part from diets poor in protein;

the broad chests and large hearts and lungs of native Andeans represent an adaptation to the low-oxygen atmosphere of the high mountains they inhabit.

Earliest Migrations

Evidence indicates that the first peoples to migrate into the Americas, coming from northeastern Siberia into Alaska, were carrying stone tools and other equipment typical of the middle and end of the Paleolithic period (see STONE AGE).

These peoples probably lived in bands of about 100, fishing and hunting herd animals such as reindeer and mammoths.

They probably used skin tents for shelter, and they must have tanned reindeer skins and sewn them into clothing similar to that made by the Inuit—parkas, trousers, boots, and mittens.

These peoples probably were nomadic, moving camp at least several times each year to take advantage of seasonal sources of food.

It is likely that they gathered each summer for a few weeks with other bands to celebrate religious ceremonies and to trade, compete in sports, gamble, and visit.

At such gatherings, valuable information could be obtained about new sources of food or raw materials (such as stone for tools).

Such news might have led families to move into new territory, eventually into Alaska and then farther south into the Americas.

Evidence for the earliest migrations into the Americas is scarce and usually not as clear as archaeologists would wish.

Evidence from the comparative study of Native American languages, as well as analysis of some genetic materials, suggest that these earliest migrations may have taken place around 30,000 years ago.

More direct evidence from archaeological sites places the date somewhat later.

For example, in the Yukon, in what is now Canada, bone tools have been discovered that have been radiocarbon-dated to 22,000 BC.

Campfire remains in the Valley of Mexico, in central Mexico, have been radiocarbon-dated to 21,000 BC, and a few chips of stone tools have been found near the hearths, indicating the presence of humans at that time.

In a cave in the Andes Mountains of Peru, near Ayacucho, archaeologists have found stone tools and butchered animal bones that have been dated to 18,000 BC.

A cave in Idaho, in the United States, contains similar evidence—stone tools and butchered bone—dated to 12,500 BC.

In none of these sites do distinctive American styles characterize the artifacts (manufactured objects such as tools).

Artifacts having the earliest distinctive American styles appeared about 11,000 BC and are known as Clovis stone blades.

Major Culture Areas

To understand how different peoples live and how their societies have developed, anthropologists find it convenient to group societies into culture areas.

A culture area is first of all a geographical region; it has characteristic climate, land forms, and biological population—that is, fauna and flora.

Humans who live in the region must adapt to its characteristics to obtain the necessities of life:

No one can grow grain in the Arctic or hunt seals or whales in the desert, but people can survive in the Arctic by hunting seals, or in the desert by gathering foods such as cactus fruits.

Each culture area, then, has certain natural resources as well as the potential for certain technologies.

Humans in the culture area use many of its resources and develop technologies—and social organizations—to fit the area’s physical potential and its hazards (such as winter cold).

Neighboring peoples learn of one another’s inventions and begin to use them.

Thus, societies within a given culture area resemble one another and differ from those in other regions.

The Americas may be divided into many culture areas, and these divisions may be determined in different ways.

Here, nine areas are used for North America, one for Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America), and four for South America.

North America

The culture areas of North America are the Southwest, the Eastern Woodlands, the Southeast, the Plains, the California-Intermountain region, the Plateau, the Subarctic, the Northwest Pacific Coast, and the Arctic.

The Southwest

The Southwestern culture area encompasses Arizona, New Mexico, southern Colorado, and adjacent northern Mexico (the states of Sonora and Chihuahua).

It can be subdivided into three sectors: northern (Colorado, northern Arizona, northern New Mexico), with high, pleasant valleys and pine forests;

southern (southern Arizona, southern New Mexico, adjacent Mexico), with deserts covered with cactus;

and western (the Arizona-California border area), a smaller area with desert terrain cut by the valley of the lower Colorado River.


The first known inhabitants of the Southwest hunted mammoths and other game with Clovis-style spearpoints by about 9500 BC.

As the Ice Age ended (about 8000 BC), mammoths became extinct.

The people in the Southwest turned to hunting bison (known as buffalo in North America) and spent more time collecting wild plants for food.

The climate gradually became warmer and drier, and a way of life—called the Archaic—developed from about 8000 BC to about 300 BC.

Archaic peoples hunted mostly deer, small game, and birds, and they harvested fruits, nuts, and the seeds of wild plants, using stone slabs for grinding seeds into flour.

About 3000 BC the Southwesterners learned to grow maize (also known as corn), which had been domesticated in Mexico, but for centuries it was only a minor food.

About 300 BC, some Mexicans whose culture was based on cultivating maize, beans, and squash in irrigated fields migrated to southern Arizona.

These people, called the Hohokam, lived in towns in adobe-plastered houses built around public plazas.

They were the ancestors of the present-day Pima and Papago, who preserve much of the Hohokam way of life.

The peoples of the northern sector of the Southwestern culture area, after centuries of trading with the Hohokam, had by AD 700 modified their life into what is called the Anasazi tradition.

They grew maize, beans, and squash and lived in towns of terraced stone or in adobe apartment blocks built around central plazas;

these blocks had blank walls facing the outside of the town, thereby protecting the people within.

During the summer many families lived in small houses at their fields.

After 1275 the northern sector suffered severe droughts, and many Anasazi farms and towns were abandoned;

those along the Rio Grande, however, grew and expanded their irrigation systems.

In 1540 Spanish explorers visited the descendants of the Anasazi, who are called the Pueblos.

After 1598 the Spanish imposed their rule on the Pueblos, but in 1680 the Pueblos organized a rebellion that kept them free until 1692.

Since that time, Pueblo towns have been dominated by Spanish, then Mexican, and finally United States government.

The Pueblos attempted to preserve their culture:

They continued their farming and, in some towns, secretly maintained their own governments and religion.

Twenty-two Pueblo towns exist today.


In the 1400s, hunters speaking an Athabascan language—related to languages of Alaska and western Canada—appeared in the Southwest, having migrated southward along the western Great Plains.

They raided Pueblo towns for food and—after slave markets were established by the Spanish—for captives to sell;

from the Pueblos, they learned to farm, and from the Spanish, to raise sheep and horses.

Today these peoples are the Navajo and the several tribes of Apache.

The western sector of the Southwest is inhabited by speakers of Yuman languages, including the isolated Havasupai, who farm on the floor of the

Grand Canyon; and the Mojave, who live along the lower Colorado River.

The Yuman-speaking peoples inhabit small villages of pole-and-thatch houses near their floodplain fields of maize, beans, and squash.

Eastern Woodlands

The Eastern Woodlands culture area consists of the temperate-climate regions of the eastern United States and Canada, from Minnesota and Ontario east to the Atlantic Ocean and south to North Carolina.

Originally densely forested, this large region was first inhabited by hunters, including those who used Clovis spearpoints.

About 7000 BC, with the warming climate, an Archaic culture developed.

The peoples of this area became increasingly dependent on deer, nuts, and wild grains.

By 3000 BC human populations in the Eastern Woodlands had reached cultural peaks that were not again achieved until after AD 1200.

The cultivation of squash was learned from Mexicans, and in the Midwest sunflowers, amaranth, marsh elder, and goosefoot and related plants were also farmed.

All of these were grown for their seeds, which—except for those of the sunflower—were usually ground into flour.

Fishing and shellfish gathering increased, and off the coast of Maine the catch included swordfish.

In the western Great Lakes area, copper was surface mined and made into blades and ornaments, and throughout the Eastern Woodlands, beautiful stones were carved into small sculptures.

After 1000 BC the climate became cooler and food resources scarcer, causing a population decline in the Atlantic part of the region.

In the Midwest, however, populations of organized into wide trading networks and began building large mound-covered tombs for their leaders and for use as centers for religious activities.

These peoples, called the Hopewell, raised some maize, but were more dependent on Archaic foods. The Hopewell culture declined by about AD 400.

By 750 a new culture developed in the Midwest. Called the Mississippian culture, it was based on intensive maize agriculture, and its people built large towns with earth platforms, or mounds, supporting temples and rulers’ residences.

Across the Mississippi River from present-day Saint Louis, Missouri, the Mississippians built the city of Cahokia, which may have had a population of 50,000.

Cahokia contained hundreds of mounds. Its principal temple was built on the largest, a mound 30 m (100 ft) high and roughly about 110 m (about 360 ft) long and about 49 m (about 160 ft) wide (the largest such mound in North America, now part of Cahokia Mounds State Park, Illinois).

During this time period, maize agriculture also became important in the Atlantic region, but no cities were built. See also MOUND BUILDERS.

The presence of Europeans in the Eastern Woodlands dates from at least AD 1000, when colonists from Iceland tried to settle Newfoundland.

Throughout the 1500s, European fishers and whalers used the coast of Canada.

European settlement of the region began in the 1600s.

It was not strongly resisted, partly because terrible epidemics had spread among the Native Americans of this region through contact with European fishers and with Spanish explorers in the Southeast.

By this time the Mississippian cities had also disappeared, probably as a consequence of the epidemics.

The Native American peoples of the Eastern Woodlands included the Iroquois and a number of Algonquian-speaking peoples, including the Lenape, also known as the Delaware; the Micmac; the Narragansett; the Shawnee; the Potawatomi; the Menominee; and the Illinois.

Some Eastern Woodlands peoples moved west in the 19th century; others remain throughout the region, usually in their own small communities.

The Southeast

The Southeast culture area is the semitropical region north of the Gulf of Mexico and south of the Middle Atlantic-Midwest region; it extends from the Atlantic coast west to central Texas.

Much of this land once consisted of pine forests, which the Native Americans of the region kept cleared of underbrush by yearly burnings, a form of livestock management that maintained high deer populations for hunting.

The early history of the Southeast is similar to that of adjacent areas.

Cultivation of native plants was begun in the Late Archaic period, about 3000 BC, and there were large populations of humans in the area.

In 1400 BC a town, called Poverty Point by archaeologists, was built near present-day Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Like the Mississippian towns of 2000 years later, Poverty Point had a large public plaza and huge earth mounds that served as temple platforms or covered tombs.

The number of Native Americans in the Southeast remained high until European contact. Maize agriculture appeared about 500 BC.

Towns continued to be built, and crafted items were widely traded.

The first European explorer, the Spaniard Hernando de Soto, marched around the Southeast with his army between 1539 and 1542;

epidemics introduced by the Spaniards killed thousands.

Southeastern peoples included the Cherokee, the Choctaw, the Chickasaw, the Creek, and the Seminole, known as the Five Civilized Tribes

because they resembled European nations in organization and economy, and because they quickly incorporated desirable European imports (such as fruit trees) into their way of life. T

The Natchez, whose elaborate mound-building culture was destroyed by Europeans in the 18th century, were another famous Southeastern people.

The Plains

The North American Plains are the grasslands from central Canada south to Mexico and from the Midwest westward to the Rocky Mountains.

Bison hunting was always the principal source of food in this culture area, until the wild bison herds were exterminated in the 1880s.

Most of the Plains peoples lived in small nomadic bands that moved as the herds moved, driving them into corrals for slaughter.

From AD 850 onward, along the Missouri River and other rivers of the central Plains, agricultural towns were also built.

The customs of the Plains peoples have become well known as the stereotyped "Indian" customs—

the long feather headdress, the tepee (also spelled tipi), the ceremonial pipe, costumes, and dancing.

These peoples and their customs became well known during the 19th century, when European-Americans invaded their lands and newspapers, magazines, and photography popularized the frontier.

Among early Plains peoples were the Blackfoot, who were bison hunters, and the Mandan and Hidatsa, who were Missouri River agriculturalists.

As European colonists took over the Eastern Woodlands, many Midwest peoples moved onto the Plains, among them the Sioux, the Cheyenne, and the Arapaho.

Earlier, about 1450, from the valleys west of the Rockies, some Shoshone and Comanche had begun moving onto the Plains.

After 1630 these peoples took horses from Spanish ranches in New Mexico and traded them throughout the Plains.

The culture of the Plains peoples of the time thus included elements from adjacent culture areas.

The California-Intermountain Area

The mountain ridges and valleys of Utah, Nevada, and California resemble one another in the pine forests of the mountains and the grasslands and marshes in the valleys.

An Archaic way of life—hunting deer and mountain sheep, fishing, netting migratory birds, harvesting pine nuts and wild grains—developed by 8000 BC and persisted with no radical changes until about AD 1850.

Villages were simple, with thatched houses, and in the warm months little clothing was worn.

The technology of getting, processing, and storing food was sophisticated.

Basketry was developed into a true art.

On the California coast, people fished and hunted sea lions, dolphins, and other sea mammals from boats;

the wealth of resources stimulated a well-regulated trade using shell money.

The Paiute, Ute, and Shoshone are the best-known peoples of the Intermountain Great Basin area;

the tribes of California include the Klamath, the Modoc, and the Yurok in the north;

the Pomo, Maidu, Miwok, Patwin, and Wintun in the central region;

and the "mission tribes" in the south, whose European-given names were derived from those of the Spanish missions that sought to conquer them—for example, the Diegueño.

The Plateau Region

In Idaho, eastern Oregon and Washington, western Montana, and adjacent Canada, mountains are covered with evergreen forests and separated by grassy valleys.

As in the Great Basin, the Archaic pattern of life persisted on the Plateau, but it was enriched by annual runs of salmon up the Columbia, Snake, Fraser, and tributary rivers,

as well as by harvests of camas (western United States plants with edible bulbs) and other nutritious tubers and roots in the meadows.

People lived in villages made up of sunken round houses in winter and camped in mat houses in summer.

They dried quantities of salmon and camas for winter eating, and on the lower Columbia River, at the site of the present-day city of The Dalles, Oregon, the Wishram and Wasco peoples kept a market town where travelers from the Pacific Coast and the Plains could meet, trade, and buy dried food.

Plateau peoples include the Nez Perce, Wallawalla, Yakima, and Umatilla in the Sahaptian language family, the Flathead, Spokane, and Okanagon in the Salishan language family, and the Cayuse and Kutenai (with no linguistic relatives).

The Subarctic

The Subarctic region comprises the major part of Canada, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean west to the mountains bordering the Pacific Ocean, and from the tundra south to within about 300 km (about 200 mi) of the United States border.

The eastern half of this region was once heavily glaciated, and its soil and drainage are poor.

No agriculture is possible in the Subarctic because summers are extremely short, and so the region’s peoples lived by hunting moose and caribou (a North American reindeer) and by fishing.

They were nomadic, sheltering themselves in tents or, in the west, sometimes in sunken round houses (as in the Plateau region).

To move camp, they used canoes in summer and sleds in winter.

Because of the limited food resources, Subarctic populations remained small;

even the summer rendezvous at good fishing spots drew only hundreds, compared to the thousands of persons who gathered at seasonal rendezvous in the Great Lakes or Plains regions.

The peoples native to the eastern half of the Subarctic region are speakers of Algonquian languages;

they include the Cree, Ojibwa (also known as the Chippewa), Montagnais, and Naskapi.

In the western half live speakers of northern Athabascan languages, including the Chipewyan, Beaver, Kutchin, Ingalik, Kaska, and Tanana. Many Subarctic peoples, although now settled in villages, still live by trapping, fishing, and hunting.

Northwest Pacific Coast

The west coast of North America, from southern Alaska to northern California, forms the Northwest Pacific Coast culture area.

Bordered on the east by mountains, the habitable land is usually narrow, lying between the sea and the hills.

The sea is rich in sea mammals and in fish, including salmon and halibut; on the land are mountain sheep and goats, elk, abundant berries, and edible roots and tubers similar to potatoes.

These resources supported a dense population organized into large villages where people lived in wooden houses, often more than 30 m (100 ft) long.

Each house contained an extended family, sometimes with slaves, and was managed by a chief.

During the winter, villagers staged elaborate costumed religious dramas, and they also hosted people from neighboring villages at ceremonial feasts called potlatches, at which gifts were lavishly given.

Trade was important, and it extended toward northern Asia, where iron for knives was obtained.

The Northwest Pacific Coast is known for its magnificent wooden carvings.

Northwest Pacific Coast culture developed after 3000 BC, when sea levels stabilized and movements of salmon and sea mammals became regular.

The basic pattern of life changed little, and over the centuries carving and other crafts gradually attained great sophistication and artistry.

Tribes of the Northwest Pacific Coast include the Tlingit, Tsimshian, Haida, Kwakiutl, Nootka, Chinook, Salish, Makah, and Tillamook.

The Arctic

The Arctic culture area rings the coasts of Alaska and northern Canada.

Because winters are long and dark, agriculture is impossible; people live by fishing and by hunting seal, caribou, and (in northern Alaska and eastern Canada), whale.

Traditional summer houses were tents.

Winter houses were round, well-insulated frame structures covered with skins and blocks of sod; in central Canada the winter houses often were made of blocks of ice.

Populations were small because resources were so limited.

The Arctic was not inhabited until about 2000 BC, after glaciers finally melted in that region.

In Alaska the Inuit and the Yuit (also known as Yupik) developed ingenious technology to deal with the difficult climate and meager economic resources.

About AD 1000 bands of Alaskan Inuit migrated across Canada to Greenland;

called the Thule culture, they appear to have absorbed an earlier people in eastern Canada and Greenland (the Dorset culture).

These people are now often referred to as the Greenland Inuit.

Because of this migration, traditional Inuit culture and language are similar from Alaska to Greenland.

Living in southwestern Alaska (and the eastern end of Siberia) are the Yuit, who are related to the Inuit in culture and ancestry but whose language is slightly different.

Distantly related to the Inuit and Yuit are the Aleuts, who since 6000 BC have remained in their homeland on the Aleutian Islands, fishing and hunting sea mammals.

Like the Subarctic peoples but unlike most Native Americans, the Inuit, Yuit, and Aleut peoples today retain much of their ancient way of life because their culture areas are remote from cities and their lands cannot be farmed.

Traditional Way of Life

Among the elements of the traditional ways of life of Native Americans are their social and political organization, their economic and other activities, and their religions, languages, and art.

Social and Political Organization

Social organization among Native Americans, as among peoples throughout the world, is based largely on the family.

Some Native American societies emphasize the economic cooperation of husband and wife, others that of adult brothers and sisters.

As among various other peoples, men’s work has been largely separate from women’s work.

Women usually took responsibility for the care of young children and the home, and for the cultivation of plants, while men frequently hunted, traveled for trade, or worked as laborers.

Native American societies also parallel societies elsewhere in that their size and complexity are affected by the economic potential of their environment.

Accordingly, the smallest societies are found in regions that are poor in food resources.

Examples include the Cree and the Athabascan-language peoples of the Canadian Subarctic, the Paiute of the Nevada desert, and the Ona and Yahgan of Tierra del Fuego.

Among these peoples, two or three couples and their children often lived together, hunting, fishing, gathering plant foods, and moving camp several times a year to take advantage of seasonal foods in different localities.

During the season when food was most available, usually summer, these small groups would gather together, with several hundred people spending a few weeks in feasting, trading, and visiting.

When agriculture is possible, communities have been larger, from one or two hundred to thousands of people.

In most of what is now the United States, people lived in villages and formed a loosely organized alliance with nearby villages.

The alliance and each village were governed by councils; village councils usually consisted of representatives from each family, and the alliance council was made up of representatives from the villages.

The council selected a man or, in some areas (especially the North American Southeast), sometimes a woman to act as chief—that is, to preside over the council and act as principal liaison in dealing with other groups.

Often the chief was selected from a family that trained its children for leadership. In many areas families in the villages were linked together in clans—that is, groups believed to be descended from one ancestral couple.

Clans usually owned resources such as agricultural plots and fishing stations; they allotted these as needed to member families and protected their members.

Similar societies became common in the Tropical Forest culture area of South America.

On first encountering Native American societies, Europeans frequently did not understand their organization, which differed in various ways from European types of social organization;

subsequently, the native organization was modified by the British or Spanish conquerors.

In North America, Europeans failed to recognize the respect and power accorded to women of the Iroquois, Creek, and a number of other peoples.

Among the Iroquois, for example, women made the final decisions in major areas of government.

In California, Europeans who saw the local upper class living in thatch houses and wearing little clothing failed to understand that the region’s native communities had different social classes and highly organized ownership of property.

Many descriptions of indigenous societies were written after wars between Europeans and Native Americans and epidemics of diseases brought by Europeans had severely reduced native populations and disrupted their societies.

Other accounts were written with a particular bias, to support an author’s ideas of how humans ought to live.

Thus, many false stereotypes of Native Americans and their societies became common.


Since at least 2000 BC, most Native Americans have lived by agriculture.

Maize was the most common grain, but certain grainlike plants were also popular, notably amaranth in Mesoamerica and quinoa in the Andes.

Several varieties of beans and squash were grown alongside maize; many varieties of potato were cultivated in the Andes; and manioc, a tropical tuber, was raised in the Tropical Forest area of South America. All these plants, as well as peanuts, chili peppers, cotton, cacao (chocolate), avocados, and many others, were domesticated and developed as crops by Native Americans.

Maize-growing peoples obtained calcium by soaking maize in a lime solution as a step in preparing it to eat.

Throughout the Americas additional protein was obtained from fish and game animals, especially deer.

Outside Mesoamerica and the Andes, in many Native American communities game ranges were regularly burned to improve pasture, thereby maintaining favorable conditions for deer and, on the Plains, for bison.

Hunting and fishing techniques were highly developed by Native Americans, particularly in regions not suited to agriculture.

Traps of all kinds were common.

Plains peoples relied on corrals hidden under bluffs or in ravines; herds of bison were driven into the corrals, where they were easily slaughtered.

Inuit and Subarctic groups drove caribou into corrals, or they ambushed them in mountain passes or river fords.

Fish were usually taken in nets or weir traps (where a fence or enclosure is set in a waterway to catch fish), except in the Northwest Pacific Coast area, where tons of salmon could be speared at the river rapids.

Techniques of food preparation have varied according to the type of food and the culture area.

In maize-growing regions, tortillas remain common, as does a similar flat bread of manioc flour in the Tropical Forest.

Techniques of drying foods, including meats, have always been important. In pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica and the Andes, nobles indulged in elaborate feasts of richly prepared dishes.

Clothing and Adornment

In their traditional clothing Native Americans differed from Europeans in that they placed less importance on completely covering the body.

The peoples of warm climates, in California and the Tropical Forest, for example, often did not bother with much clothing except at festivals;

then they adorned themselves with flowers and paint, and often with intricate feather headdresses.

North American hunting peoples made garments of well-tanned deer, elk, or caribou skin;

a common style was a tunic, longer for women than for men, with detachable sleeves and leggings.

Northwest Pacific Coast peoples wore rain cloaks of woven cedar fiber.

In the Arctic, the Inuit and Aleuts wore parkas, pants, and boots of caribou or, when needed, of waterproof fish skin.

Except in Canada and Alaska, where parkas and coats were worn, Native Americans in cold weather usually wrapped themselves in robes, cloaks, or ponchos.

Housing and Construction

Modes of shelter, like food, show adaptation to environment. Some houses that appear simple, such as the Inuit iglu or the Florida Seminole chikee, are quite sophisticated:

The iglu (Inuit for "house"), usually made of hide or sod over a wood or whalebone frame, is a dome with a sunken entrance that traps heat indoors but allows ventilation;

the chikee, naturally air-conditioned, consists of a thatch roof over an open platform.

The tepee of the Plains peoples constitutes efficient housing for people who must move camp to hunt;

tepees are easily portable and quickly erected or taken down, and an inner liner hung from midway up the tepee allows ventilation without drafts, so that the enclosed space is comfortable even in winter.

trade was often carried on by traveling parties who were received in each village by its chief, who supervised business as the people gathered around the trader.

In many areas, including California and the Eastern Woodlands, small shells or shell beads—called wampum in the Eastern Woodlands—were used as money.

Because traders carried their goods on their backs or in canoes, trade goods were usually relatively light, small items.

Furs and bright-colored feathers were valued in trade nearly everywhere.

In western North America dried salmon, fish oil, and fine baskets were major trade products,

and in eastern North America expertly tanned deer hides, copper, catlinite pipe-bowl stone, pearls, and conch shells were widely traded.

Recreation and Entertainment

The games and other recreational activities of Native Americans have had much in common with those of peoples elsewhere.

Children traditionally played with dolls and with miniature figures and implements, imitating adult activities;

in groups they played tag, the one who was "it" often pretending to be a jaguar or similar animal.

Youths and adults played games with balls—rubber balls in Mesoamerica and northern South America, hide or fiber balls elsewhere.

Lacrosse was popular in the eastern region of North America and eventually was adopted by European settlers.

Chunkey, a kind of bowling with a stone disk instead of a ball, was a favorite in the Midwest.

Hoop-and-pole, in which players throw sticks at a rolling hoop, was played throughout most of the Americas.

Guessing games, with the players trying to guess where a token piece is hidden, continue to be popular among the Native Americans of North America, players usually sing and beat a rhythm, trying to confuse their opponents.

In both North and South America games of chance using dice are still played, and the Aztecs of earlier times had a board game similar to the modern game of Parcheesi.

Competitions—in foot racing, wrestling, archery, and, after the Spanish invasions, horse racing—were generally popular, as were variants of snow snake, in which a smooth stick is slid along a course.

Minor amusements that are still popular include cat’s cradle, in which a symbolic string figure is constructed on the player’s fingers, and the use of tops and swings.

Religion and Folklore

Native American religious beliefs and practices display great diversity.

As among other peoples, educated and philosophical persons may hold beliefs that differ from those of most people living in the same community; this was also true in the past.

The Mexican and Andean nations, the peoples of the North American Southwest and Southeast, and some Northwest Pacific Coast peoples had full-time religious leaders as well as shrines or temple buildings.

Peoples of other areas had part-time priests and generally lacked permanent temples.

Part-time priests and shamans (faith healers, who often also used medicinal plants to cure) learned to conduct ceremonies by apprenticing themselves to older practitioners;

in the larger nations priests were trained in schools attached to the temples.

In some regions religious leaders formed fraternal orders to train initiates and share knowledge;

examples include the Ojibwa of the Eastern Woodlands and the Pawnee of the Plains.

Most Native Americans believe that in the universe there exists an Almighty—a spiritual force that is the source of all life.

The Almighty of Native American belief is not pictured as a man in the sky;

rather, it is believed to be formless and to exist throughout the universe.

The sun is viewed as a manifestation of the power of the Almighty,

and Europeans often thought Native Americans were worshipping the sun,

when, in fact, they were addressing prayers to the Almighty, of which the sun was a sign and symbol.

In many areas of the Americas, the Almighty was recognized in several aspects:

as light and life-power, focused in the sun;

as fertility and strength, centered in the earth;

as wisdom and the power of earthly rulers, observed in creatures such as the jaguar, the bear, or snakes.

In most places in the Americas, religious devotees enhanced their ability to perceive aspects of the Almighty, sometimes by using hallucinogenic plants (see PEYOTISM),

or sometimes by fasting and singing prayers until they achieved a spiritual vision.

In northern and western North America, most boys and many girls were sent out alone to fast and pray until they thought they saw a spirit that promised to help them achieve the power to succeed in adult life.

Shamans among the Inuit, along the Northwest Coast, in South America, and in some other areas went into trances, believing that their souls could then battle evil spirits or search the earth for the wandering souls of sick patients.

Most Native American peoples have myths in which a time is described when the earth was not as it now appears, and during which it became transformed by the actions of legendary persons, or animals who spoke with humans.

Unlike many Europeans, Native Americans tend not to consider humans entirely different from animals and plants;

instead, they often believe that other beings are like humans and that all are dependent on the life-giving power of the Almighty.

Some Native American myths, such as the myth of Lone Man (of the Plains people known as the Mandan), describe a wise leader who teaches the arts of life to the people;

others, such as the California-Intermountain myths about Coyote, describe foolishly clever antics.

Native Americans generally have shown less interest in an afterlife than have Christians.

Native Americans have traditionally tended to assume that the souls of the dead go to another part of the universe, where they have a pleasant existence carrying on everyday activities.

Souls of unhappy or evil persons might stay around their former homes, causing misfortunes.

Many Native American peoples have celebrated an annual memorial service for deceased relatives;

in Latin America this observance later became fused with the Christian All Souls’ Day.

Both private prayer and public rituals are common among Native Americans.

Individuals regularly give thanks to the Almighty; communities gather for symbolic dances, processions, and feasts.

The Sun Dance of the Plains peoples is an annual summer assembly at which a thousand or more people meet to fast and pray together,

praising and beseeching the blessings of the Almighty.

The Pueblos of the Southwest, like the Iroquois of the Eastern Woodlands, continue to observe a yearly cycle of festivals:

In spring they pray for good crops;

in autumn they celebrate the harvests (for an example of a recurring festival, see SNAKE DANCE).

Various tribes used certain ritual objects (such as the long-stemmed pipe used by priests in North America to blow tobacco-smoke incense) to symbolize the power of the Almighty;

when displayed, these objects reminded people to cease quarrels and remember moral obligations.

The folktales of Native Americans, as well as their myths, frequently express ideas about the nature of humans, other creatures, and the universe.

Among the Mexican nations, detailed historical records are maintained;

elsewhere, in general, no sharp distinction was drawn between history and legend.

Many Native American folktales are fables, pointing out a moral; others are simply exciting or amusing stories.

Translations of Native American stories and myths—like descriptions of native religious beliefs and ceremonies—seldom capture the full Native American meaning;

a nonnative reader is rarely aware of the background of ideas that native listeners bring to a story or ceremony.


The common stereotype that Native Americans were extremely warlike arose because, when Europeans first came into contact with them, the Native Americans were usually defending their homelands,

either against European invaders or against other native peoples supported by European invaders.

Archaeological evidence of fortifications, destroyed towns, and people killed in battle indicates,

however, that wars between Native American groups did take place before the European invasions.

Most Native Americans fought in small groups, relying on surprise to give them victory.

The large nations of Mexico and Peru sometimes relied on surprise attacks by armies, but their soldiers also fought in disciplined ranks.

The Aztecs fought formal battles called "flower wars" with neighboring peoples; the purpose was to capture men for sacrifice (the Aztecs believed that the sun would weaken if it were not fed with human blood).

Other native peoples, including many in present United States territory, conducted war raids to obtain captives, but these captives were used as slaves, rather than as victims for sacrifice.

Some Native American battles were fought for revenge.

The most common cause of war between Native American groups was probably to defend or enlarge tribal territory.

Before the Spanish colonizations, warfare was conducted on foot or from canoes.

Both the Mexican and the Andean nations, as well as smaller Native American groups, employed hand-to-hand combat with clubs, battle-axes, and daggers, as well as close-range combat with javelins hurled with great force from spear-thrower boards (known as atlatls).

Bows and arrows were used in attacks, and fire arrows were used against thatched-house villages.

When the Spanish brought riding horses to the New World, native peoples in both North and South America developed techniques of raiding from horseback.


About a thousand distinct languages are presently spoken by native peoples in North and South America, and hundreds more have become extinct since first European contact.

In many areas, among them the Intermountain and Plateau regions of North America, people often spoke not only their native language but also the languages of groups with whom they had frequent contact.

Some regions had a traders’ language or pidgin, a simplified language or mixture of several languages, helpful to traders of different native languages;

among these were Chinook Jargon (Pacific Coast, North America),

Mobilian (United States, Southeast), and lingua geral (Brazil).

Linguists have grouped many of the Native American languages into roughly 180 families, but many other languages have no known relatives;

scholars differ in proposing more distant relationships among families.

Grammatical traits, sound systems, and word formation often vary from family to family, but families in a given region often influence one another. See NATIVE AMERICAN LANGUAGES.

Crafts and the Arts

Distinctive craft needs and artistic styles characterize each culture area of the Americas.