Native Americans in North America had an enormous range of customs prior to the coming of Europeans. Their ancestors had first migrated into North America from Asia more than 10,000 years ago, hunting the huge herds of giant ice age mammals.
As they spread throughout the continent, Native Americans adapted to take advantage of local resources and to cope with the local climate and geography. Community organization ranged from nomadic family units in the harsh deserts and the frigid Arctic, to elaborate city-states in the Temple Mound culture of the Southeast.
The Southwest Region
A common way to study Native North Americans is to group them according to geographic region. The Southwest region includes the upper Rio Grande River westward to the Colorado River.
This is a hot, arid, and rugged area with limited plant and animal life. Paradoxically, a culture of permanent villages began developing 3,000 years ago, using farming to provide a steady food supply where little was available naturally.
Influenced by the farming practices of Central America, Southwest people developed sophisticated irrigation systems and refined plant strains. They also developed permanent villages, the most striking of which are the large apartment-like pueblos.
These clusters of rectangular rooms stacked one upon another could include 500 and more rooms. Some of these agricultural tribes are the Pima, Zuni, Hopi, and Tewa. The Apache and Navajo entered the region later as nomadic hunter-gatherers. Over time they began to adopt some of the cultural practices of the Pueblo tribes.
The Southeast Region
The tribes of Southeast North America also practiced extensive agriculture. Their land, however, was more bountiful because of greater rainfall and richer soils, which allowed them to continue to combine hunting and foraging with organized farming.
Mound-building cultures began developing about 3,000 years ago and spread inland from the Gulf of Mexico and up the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys. These were also likely influenced by the city-states of Central America, as evidenced by the farming practices, the shape of the temple mounds, and a cultural obsession with death.
By 1600 c.e. these mound-cities were largely gone, likely decimated by European diseases. The Natchez of the lower Mississippi River were the one mound-city people to survive into the 1700s. One hereditary leader ruled them, the Great Sun.
The center of their city was the large temple mound, which hosted the religious ceremonies and where the nobility had dwellings. Artisans, farmers, and other citizens lived in small structures spread around the temple mound. The Natchez reported to French colonizers that as many as 500 city-states had once existed, ruled by Great Suns.
Most of the people in the Southeast, however, lived in smaller, semi-permanent villages. Linguistic and agricultural patterns point to many of these tribes, such as the Muskogee, Choctaw, and Cherokee, as being the descendants of earlier mound-building cultures.
The Northeast Region
The Northeast includes the area of the Ohio River, New England, the Great Lakes, and the St. Lawrence River. It was also a region of dense forests similar to the Southeast but with a colder climate and shorter growing season. Northeastern Indians practiced a similar combination of agriculture and hunting-foraging, but the mound-city culture was not common here.
The tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy along the St. Lawrence established permanent villages of arched-roofed longhouses surrounded by log stockades. An extended family would live in one longhouse, which could extend for several hundred feet. The main food crops were the Three Sisters of corn, squash, and beans.
Most of the other tribes in the Northeast were of the Algonquin language group. The peoples of the Atlantic coast often had palisaded villages similar to the Iroquois and also formed cooperative unions, including the Abnaki Confederacy and the Powhatan Confederacy.
Among the Great Lakes tribes fishing formed a significant part of the diet. The Indians in the western Great Lakes tended to a more mobile culture, building smaller, semi-permanent villages of dome-shaped wigwams.
The Great Plains
The Great Plains were more arid than the Southeast and Northeast, with vast grasslands and with trees mostly restricted to river valleys. Indians here evolved a lifestyle of farming and foraging along the river valleys. Horses had become extinct in North America along with many other large ice age mammals but by 1600 were being reintroduced through contact with the Spaniards.
Over the next 200 years this would lead to a revolution, as many tribes would use the horse to once again become nomadic hunters, relying on the herds of buffalo. Eventually, the tribes of the new horse culture would live side by side with other tribes, such as the Mandan, who remained village dwellers in the river valleys.
The Great Basin, to the west of the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains, is a harsh, arid land. Rainfall is sparse, and the few rivers flow into salty, alkaline lakes and sinks, unfit to drink.
The people here, mainly of the related Ute, Paiute, and Shoshone tribes, lived in nomadic family groups, foraging for desert plants and shrubs and hunting small game. Families would often gather together for communal hunts, then scatter to forage again.
To the north of the Great Basin is the elevated Plateau region, including the upper Columbia River and upper Fraser River. While still dry the Plateau region is not as harsh as the Great Basin. The rivers supported huge runs of salmon that were the staple food.
The people also hunted other large game such as deer and elk, as well as gathering edible plants. Some of the tribes in the south of this region included the Klamath, the Modoc, and the Nez Perce. Northern tribes were mainly of the Salish language group.
California and The Pacific Northwest
California and the Pacific Northwest were both rich, bountiful regions. Most of California gets enough rainfall in the winter months to support abundant vegetation.
The numerous rivers supported many varieties of fish and shellfish, and game was plentiful. The Pacific Ocean provided a wealth of plant life, fish, seals, and other aquatic mammals. With year-round mild temperatures the tribes here lived a rich life with little adaptation from that of their ancestors.
California has areas of large oak savannas, and many tribes relied on ground acorn meal as a staple. The rugged terrain of the region combined with the rich natural resources encouraged the development of numerous independent communities, and, as a result, there were more than 100 distinct language dialects spoken in California.
As one travels from California along the Pacific Ocean to the Northwest Coast, rainfall gradually increases, with some areas near Puget Sound classified as true rain forests.
The Northwest Coast’s temperate and extremely wet climate produces a profusion of plant life and giant trees, and the region supports one of the great fisheries of the world. The Indians here built plank houses of cedar and developed a life of permanent villages without resorting to agriculture.
One notable community practice was the potlatch, where a family or individual would mark a significant event by hosting a big feast and holding an elaborate giveaway of gifts and belongings to the rest of the village. The only plant cultivated in the region was the ubiquitous tobacco.
The Sub-Arctic Region
To the north, stretching from east to west across the continent is the Sub-Arctic region. The region experiences cold winters and a short growing season that prohibits agriculture. The region is largely forested with pine, spruce, and fir.
The people here relied on hunting (especially caribou), fishing, and trapping. They were nomadic and built simple lean-tos and tipis. The Cree were widespread here, from the eastern shore of Hudson Bay to the northern Great Plains.
The Arctic is the northernmost fringe of the continent, a rolling plain of moss and lichen. The soil never thaws out. Winters are harsh, with little daylight, and winds can rage because of the lack of trees and relatively flat landscape.
Despite these extreme conditions the Native people developed a rich culture. The Aleut and Inuit (or Eskimos) lived from Greenland to Alaska and into eastern Siberia. They were relatively late migrants to North America, coming across from Asia as recently as 3,000 years ago.
The people of the Arctic lived in nomadic family units relying on hunting and fishing. Sea mammals and caribou were the primary game. The people developed ingenious clothing, warm and watertight, to allow them to handle the elements, such as lightweight raincoats made from the stomachs and bladders of walrus and seals.
They extensively ornamented their clothing and implements and practiced community ceremonies with music and dancing. Double-pitched brush lean-tos were used along the Alaskan coasts, and the famous domed snow igloos were common in the north-central Arctic.
Native communities throughout North America had a sense of kinship with the elements of their universe and showed an enormous respect for the plants, animals, and the land in their ceremonies and their practices. For the most part they lived with minimal impact on their environment. The mound culture, with its ruling Great Sun, nobility, and social castes, is in some ways an aberration.
Most Native communities were egalitarian, and the individuals, notoriously independent. Father LeJeune, a French missionary on the St. Lawrence River, observed in 1634 that Indians would not "endure in the least those who seem desirous of assuming superiority over others".
This egalitarianism and the ways that Native communities managed the interactions and disputes between their nations through the Iroquois Confederacy would later provide an inspiration for the United States Constitution.