Early American Cultures
The first group we’re going to look at is the Algonquians. This group was one of the most widely dispersed groups of Native Americans before European settlement. They originally could be found along the Eastern Seaboard as well as in much of modern-day Canada and in the region around the Great Lakes. Many of the Algonquian tribes obtained their food largely through hunting and fishing, while some also grew corn, beans, and squash. In the area that became known as New England, the Algonquians organized themselves into temporary villages, which could segment into smaller units and move around.
In these mobile villages, they built pretty versatile housing, which is one of the things they are most known for. When the weather was warm, they built wigwams, which were portable huts that had buckskin doors. When winter came, they switched to longhouses, which were sturdier and larger than the wigwams and allowed different clans to reside together. They would move these villages to different areas depending on the season and availability of food. For example, during the springtime, the northern Algonquians would leave their winter locations and build villages near coastal locations and waterfalls to catch seafood over a period of several months. They stored food in underground structures close to their villages so they could have supplies ready according to the needs of the season. These northern Algonquians were eventually able to fuel the fur trade that exploded with European settlers, trading pelts they gained through hunting for European goods.
In the southern part of New England and farther down the Eastern Seaboard, the Algonquian tribes had a lot more options besides hunting and gathering. They relied heavily on what’s known as slash-and-burn agriculture. They would clear and burn a forested area, grow one or two years’ worth of corn, beans, and squash, then move on to a different area. A division of labor began to emerge in the villages, with women tasked with agriculture and men with fishing and hunting.
Bordering the northern Algonquian settlements on the Eastern Seaboard were the Iroquois, a name given to a confederacy of five Native-American tribes: the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. This grouping was significant in that it was a participatory democracy, regarded as one of the oldest of its kind. The Iroquois were warlike, conquering territory from other tribes and absorbing some people from those tribes into their own as a result. They were famous for use of polished shell beads known as wampum, which they actually didn’t trade as money but instead used to commemorate important events and bestow honor.
Iroquois women had their own particular rights. They held authority over property, farms, and horses; they chose their own method of work; they had the right to retain their dwellings in the event of a divorce; and they had full authority in the education of Iroquois children. In Iroquois government, women even had say as to whom would be selected to represent the confederation. Their method of democratic governance caught the eye of Benjamin Franklin, who invited an Iroquois delegation to Albany, New York, to explain their system of government to a group of colonists in 1754.
When it came to gathering food, the Iroquois were versatile. They engaged in farming, hunting, gathering, and fishing, and also incorporated corn, beans, and squash into their diets. Religiously, the Iroquois had a broadly monotheistic tradition that predated the introduction of Christianity to North America.
Out farther west into the central part of North America known as the Great Plains, lived a group of tribes known as the “Plains Tribes”. This included the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Comanche. By the 18th and 19th centuries, the Plains tribes located in the western Great Plains had largely developed into wandering horse-riding groups that hunted buffalo for food. The group in the eastern Great Plains hunted buffalo as well, but resided in villages, utilized agriculture, and traded on a large scale.
Though they were generally pretty spread out, the Plains tribes would ritualistically gather together in ceremonies where they would resolve disputes, make political decisions, and lay out war plans. While they were out hunting buffalo, they built and resided in teepees, which were made of buffalo hide and, later, canvas, held together by wooden poles.
The southwestern part of the United States is where the Pueblo tribes lived. They resided in villages of multi-storied buildings made of adobe, stone, and other components. Including groups such as the Zuni, Hopi, and Acume, the Pueblo largely utilized agriculture and organized themselves around tightly knit family clans. Known to be skilled weavers, they made their clothes out of woven textiles, natural fibers, and animal hides.
In the realm of religion, the Pueblo celebrated the various seasonal cycles through elaborate ceremonies, typically featuring dances along with singing and drumming. Some of these traditional Pueblo religious dances were, and still are, public and open to non-members of a Pueblo tribe. Remarkably, several original Pueblo villages are still inhabited, including Taos Pueblo in New Mexico. This village dates back to the 11th century, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the US.
To the north of the Pueblo and to the west of the Plains tribes were the so-called Pacific-Coast Tribes, including the Tlingit, Chinook, Salish, and Nez Perce. They were arranged on the Pacific coasts of the US and Canada, covering territory all the way from southern Alaska down to northern California. Salmon was centrally important to them as a food item and spiritual symbol. When not fishing, they used advanced agricultural practices to grow food, including digging and tilling, fertilizing, and habitat creation. These tribes were among the wealthiest of the original inhabitants of North America, benefiting from their large food stores and reliable shelter. They used cedar wood for their longhouses as well as their 50-foot-long canoes, which could hold up to 20 soldiers and 10,000 pounds of fish. Men were responsible for hunting and fishing, while women wove baskets and mats, made clothing, collected berries, and cleaned the houses.
Though these people did not invent the totem pole, it held special significance as a storytelling device in their villages. A major cultural practice was the potlatch, in which Pacific-Coast tribespeople gathered to celebrate a particular event. This could be the unveiling of a totem pole, the selection of a new chief, or an individual’s coming of age, among other events. It was a way for the hosting chief to put his wealth on display and thereby enhance his reputation.
In the frigid, far-northern reaches of the continent were the Northern Tribes, consisting of the Aleut and the Inuit. The Aleut, who were the original inhabitants of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, relied on hunting and fishing. The people were known for their artistic traditions, often distinguishing themselves through body piercings and tattoos. They also developed a rich tradition of ivory and wood carving, becoming known for the chagudax, or wooden hunting visor. Their other arts included the sewing of waterproof parkas made of seal gut and the weaving of baskets made of sea-lyme grass.
As for the Inuit, they were dispersed over a wide geographic area mainly within the Arctic Circle, stretching from the eastern part of Siberia across the northern parts of Alaska and Canada and into Greenland. Like the Aleut, they built their economy mainly on hunting and fishing, using buoyant seal skin-covered boats to hunt sea animals. The design of these boats was so effective that Europeans and Americans copied it, including the name, qajaq, which became kayak. The Inuit also greatly valued dogs and relied on the dogsled as a primary means of land transportation. Their religion was a form of animism, holding that the world contains many spirits and other supernatural forces.
Currently, there are over five million native Americans in the United States who descended from these tribes, 22% of which still live in reservations across the country.
That’s all for this review of the Major Native American Tribes! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!