AIS 100: Introduction to American Indian Studies


IV. Native American People

       Traditional cultures are organized by the culture/geographic areas and refers to Native American cultures before non Indian contact. Some interpret this as pre-Columbian (AD 1492), but in many cases contact could be much later. Many Inuit groups did not come into contact until 1880s or even the 1920s. The reconstruction of these traditional cultures is speculative and based on Native American accounts and Euro American ethnographies done after contact. Native Americans related to the natural world of America for thousands of years and they developed a very intimate connection over a long time based on a greater desire to embrace nature rather than fight nature as the Europeans had. However, it must be understood  that the traditional world of Native American was not a wilderness and had been altered considerably by hunting, burning, and farming. As one Native American comedian, Charlie Hill, quipped, 'America did not get wild until the White man came'.

We will discuss each culture area's unique characteristics and then provide a link to a specific case study.

A. The Far North

      1. Arctic: [Case Study: Quebec Inuit]

           The Arctic is a virtual cold ,treeless (tundra) environment that required the people to use the land and sea ice to provide subsistence. The people are Native Americans but are not called American Indian.  There is no doubt that the people of the Arctic came here from Asia/Siberia 7-9,000 years ago. They include the Yupik and Inuit who were called the Eskimo (an Algonkian word meaning 'eaters of raw meat'); and the Aleuts. The Yupik and Inuit include about 17 groups/languages that lived in Siberia, northern Alaska, northern Canada, and Greenland.  Most of the Inuit groups hunted and gathered on the land in the summer, living in sod or skin houses, and struck out across the sea ice in dog sleds in the winter where they had to find the right kind of snow to build igloos. On the sea ice they hunted seal through breathing holes or musk ox. Yupik peoples fished and hunted in the fall and winter, both on land and in the Bering Sea. The Aleuts lived on the Aleutian peninsula and islands, living in stone or sod houses, hunting/fishing and gathering sea mammals, birds, and shellfish.

The Native Americans of the Arctic all speak languages that are of the Paleo-Siberian phyla.


      2. Subarctic

           The Subarctic is mostly made up of a relatively flat terrain with an  expansive boreal forest and glacial lakes. The people were hunters and gatherers (H&G), but are considered American Indians. In the western regions the people were Na-Dene (N. Athabascan) speakers and in the eastern regions were Macro-Algonkian  speakers. Some of the Athabscans are in Alaska, but most of this area is part of Canada. The biggest changes for these people came with impact of the Hudson's Bay Fur Company.

 B. Far West

       1. Plateau

            The Plateau is an intermountain region between the Cascades and Rocky Mountains with a varied environments ranging from semi-arid to lush mountain meadows. Running through both of these environments is two great river systems the Fraser River in British Columbia, Canada and the Columbia-Snake River in Washington/Idaho/Oregon, USA that provided many species of salmon. The people hunted and gathered (H&G) other food resources, especially roots/bulbs like camus (Camassia sp.). By the 1750's some of these intermountain fishing people like the Yakima and Nez Perce had acquired horses and between fishing runs traveled over the Rocky Mts. to hunt bison in the Plains. Unlike other Plains Indians, the Plateau people did not want to abandon their fishing so they returned to their homes along the great rivers, fished again and spent the winters in their milder Plateau homeland. To cross the Rocky Mountains every summer the Plateau people developed a tough horse from N. African desert horses brought by the Spanish into today's Appaloosa breed.

        2. Northwest Coast: [Case Study-Kwakiutl]

             At the end of the Pleistocene the Northwest Coast changed from glacial tundra to coniferous forest and became one of the richest environments on the planet. This environment has mountains blocking the temperate rains (70 -250 inches/annum) and converting the thin strip of land from the Oregon coast to Alaska into a virtual temperate rainforest.  Again, the rivers come through the mountains to the sea for salmon and other species to run. The combination of the rich cedar forests, rivers and the sea provided a spectacular array of food and material once you developed the techniques to harvest those resources. This is a hunting and gathering (H&G) subsistence base but so rich that the people had large populations living on the beach at the mouth of rivers with social hierarchies more typical of horticulturalists. The American Indian people produced an elaborate material culture that took advantage of the great cedar trees to create  houses, canoes, boxes, utensils, masks, and most dramatic, the totem poles.

    3. Basin

               The Basin is basically a high desert with alkaline soils and rivers running into the middle into salty or dry lakes. During the summer it took 150 sq. mi. to support one human adult. This area was not conducive to horticulture, in fact the people had experimented with CBS (am. corn, beans and squash) in prehistoric times. However, as the Basin became increasingly arid the people (Aztec-Tanoan; Shoshoni, Paiute, Ute) were able to refine their ability harvest a wide variety of nuts and seeds, like pine nuts. The people also developed communal hunting techniques for jack rabbits and pronghorn antelope that they drove into nets.

As in the Plateau, some of the Basin people acquired horses after 1750 and increased their mobility for trade and migrated into the Plains to hunt Bison.


   4.. California

          California has unique but highly varied environments. It is the only state that is roughly designated as a culture area. Northern California has ancient ( pre-Pleistocene) redwood forests with some salmon running rivers (possibly as far south as the Salinas River), while Southern California has semi-arid environments with sagebrush and chapparal. Yet, unique and common to most areas of California is riparian oak (both perennial, live, and deciduous) groves that provided the one common staple to most of California, the acorn. California Indian people were hunters and gatherers (H&G), but gathered more vegetable foods, especially seeds, than hunting for game. Some of the people had riverine, lake, or coastal resources to augment their food supply but most of the people harvested the acorns and leeched out the tannic acid to produce a rich staple food made into cakes or gruel (called weewish in S. California). As in the Northwest Coast this wealth of resources produced cultures that were seasonal or sedentary, but with relatively dense populations, especially along coast and in the Great Central Valley (Sacramento V./San Jaoquin V.). Finally, California also had an extremely mild climate that attracted many American Indian groups thousands of years before the 'current rush'.

         Since we teach an entire course about California Indian people and culture we do not do a case study in our AIS 100 course. To learn about the Luiseno use of resources you might look at our Luiseno ethnobotany or Luiseno ethnozoology.


   C. Southwest: [Case Study-Hopi]

          The Southwest is a variable desert area with a number of features that was more conducive to farming CBS. The desert ranged from high altitude juniper scrub (2500' +) to lower altitude (< 2500') creosote scrub with huge cactus like the saguaro and organ pipe. The enrichment of soil by ancient volcanoes and summer tropical rains provided the right combination to support various strategies of irrigation and dry farming. There were three great Southwest traditions that became or influenced the modern day people in addition to the S. Athabascan migration that brought the Navajo (Dene) and Apache peoples. Here is a basic outline of the Southwest people and an approximation of their origins as revealed by language groups.. It must be remembered that these relationships are speculative and probably far more complex than shown.





Prehistoric Pueblo (Mogollon/Anasazi) Western Pueblo Hopi Uto-Aztecan
    Hano Tanoan (Tewa)
    Zuni Penutian ?
    Acoma, Laguna Keresan
  Eastern Pueblo Taos, Sandia, Picuris, Isletta Tanoan (Tiwa)
    Nambe, San Ildefonso, San Juan, Santa Clara, Tesuque Tanoan(Tewa)
    Jemez Tanoan(Towa)
Hohokam Pimans Akimel  O'odam (Pima), Tohono O'odam (Papago) Uto-Aztecan
Patayan (Hakataya) Yumans Cocopa, Mojave, Maricopa, Quechan (Yuma),

Havasupai, Yavapai, Walapai

Dene (AD 1000-1400) Navajo Navajo S. Athabascan
  Apache Jicarilla, Mescalero, Chiricahua, Western "

Map of Arizona and New Mexico Native American Groups

     D. Plains: [Case Study- Cheyenne]

           The Plains is a vast grassland that had various species of native bunch grasses (Gamma and Buffalo grass). From the Mississippi River to the Rockies the environment varied from 300'- 5500', with isolated environs along three major river systems; Missouri River, Arkansas River, Red River. The bison survived and flourished on these Plains and had reached a population of over 60 million head at the time Europeans arrived. The bison of  the Plains (Bison bison) was a grazer, while the bison of the Woodlands (Bison athabascae). The ancient people of the Plains were hunting the big game well past the end of the Pleistocene, but Eastern Woodland Archaic and Woodland farming (CBS) cultures moved out into the Plains up the great rivers at about 5500 years ago and continued well past European contact. Between 1650-1750 the horse will be returned to its place of origin as a domestic animal by the Spanish. As Indian people get horses, a bison-horse culture expands throughout the Southern and Northern Plains. This culture is based on pastoralism and many farming and hunting and gathering cultures already on the Plains and others moving to the Plains adopt a variation of the lifestyle. This Plains culture only lasts into the 1880's and is essentially replaced by Euro-American farmers and cowboys/cattlemen. However, most of the American public and world stereotype all Indians as the relatively short-lived Plain's culture. In actually there was considerable variation in the Plains and many cultures did not give up their traditional farming and only acquired small numbers of horses for trade and summer bison hunts; returning to their CBS harvest in the fall. Others like the Cheyenne and Lakota gave up their farming and became fully pastoral in lifestyle.

Many of the traditions like music/songs are distinguished even in modern Plains derived Pow-Wows as Northern  vs. Southern songs, drums and costumes.

E. Eastern Woodlands: [Case Study- Cherokee]

    The Eastern Woodlands is often divided into three to four different areas (Northeast, Great Lakes/Great Lakes & Prairie, Southeast). Yet CBS farming is common to the entire East (east of the Mississippi R.) while the woodland just varies from  semi-tropical cypress swamps in the south, to deciduous hardwoods in the central areas, and birch/ beech forest in the north. Conifers grow in various unique environments including Southern pine piedmonts, sandy pine barrens, and richer pine /fir in the north. The deciduous hardwoods produced some of the best temperate stands of walnut, cherry, hickory in the world, but have been virtually destroyed, even by the 1890's. Native Americans had a much bigger impact on this environment than European Americans realized and or wanted to admit. The concept in the East or anywhere in America of wilderness was and is absurd. We now know that Native American populations in the Eastern Woodlands were far greater than early projections.

     The CBS farming groups of the Eastern Woodlands were divided into two linguistic groups: Macro-Algonkian; and Macro-Siouan. The Macro-Algonkians were earliest, but it is not clear how long the Macro-Siouans were in the East and from where they came.

Since European Americans (especially the English) occupied the East longest, many traditions like hominey are derived from eastern Woodland cultures.

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Next: V. Contemporary Native America

Copyright S. J. Crouthamel