Throughout the United States, there are 566 Native American and Alaska Native tribes that are recognized by the federal government. Each tribe has its own unique culture, its own cuisine, its own housing style and its own dress. While tribes that are recognized by the federal government vary in population size and location, each is considered a sovereign nation. Each of these nations has its own distinct relationship with the United States.
Plagued by disease and war, much of the Native American population was wiped out by European explorers. But today, Native culture is experiencing a renaissance, with tribes celebrating their traditions and ways.
Before Europeans arrived in the Americas, Native American tribes were self-governing, and they had been living this way for hundreds of years. Each tribe developed its own methods for teaching their youth and governing their own communities.
Their methods of self-governance were so effective that the U.S. government’s roots can be found in the principles shared by the Iroquois Confederacy.
Unfortunately, Europeans shattered many tribes in their conquest to take over land and resources. Native Americans were forced to relocate from their homelands as a result. Warfare, disease and broken treaties ripped Native communities apart. Many were completely wiped out.
The horrific “Indian Wars” of the 18th and 19th centuries and attacks on Native culture from the U.S. government caused many tribes to lose their lands. Most Native Americans were forced to relocate from the land of their ancestors, where they had been living for hundreds of years, to reservations.
Reservation lands are just a fraction of the size of the lands and natural resources that were stolen from the Native community.
Tribes were split, many forced to integrate with enemy tribes, and moved to reservations that were far from their sacred lands and homes.
Until 1978, Native Americans were prohibited from practicing their ceremonies and religion. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act once again allowed the Native community to practice their traditions, ceremonies and rituals. In 1994, the law was amended to allow the use of peyote during ceremonies. Until 1990, many tribes lost complete control of their human remains and ceremonial items.
The Boarding School Era, which lasted from the 1800s through the middle 1900s, forced Native children from their homes. The U.S. government forced children from Native communities into Christian boarding schools, oftentimes hundreds of miles from their families. Children faced harsh punishment for speaking their language or practicing their traditions. It wasn’t uncommon for kids to die from disease or malnourishment. Those who managed to survive were completely disconnected for their ways and their families.
Many descendants of Natives lost their language and traditions as a result of the Boarding School Era.
Today, many tribes are reviving their cultures and their way of living. Language and ceremony are at the heart of the renaissance. Many tribes are creating programs to teach their languages and dialects. Radio stations are broadcasting in Native languages, powwows are being held across the country, and ceremonies are returning.
When European colonists first arrived in “The New World,” there were nearly 12 million Native Americans living in what is now the United States. Divided into more than a thousand different tribes, Native Americans have a rich, diversified culture that is still very much alive today.
Tribes and their cultures varied depending on the region of the country.
The northeast consisted of two primary groups: Iroquoian speakers (Oneida, Cayuga, Onondaga, Erie, Tuscarora and Seneca), and Algonquian speakers (Fox, Pequot, Wampanoag, Shawnee, Menominee and Delaware).
Groups in this region lived in small fishing and farming villages along the coast. They grew crops like vegetables, corn and beans.
The southeast consisted of several well-known indigenous tribes, including the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw and Seminole. These groups were known as the Five Civilized Tribes, and they each spoke a variation of the Muskogean language.
The plains region stretched from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River, and consisted of the Algonquian, Siouan, Uto-Aztecan, Caddoan and Athabaskan speakers. After Europeans settled in the region, groups like the Blackfeet, Crow, Comanche, Cheyenne and Arapaho became nomadic.
The southwest region included New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Texas, Colorado and parts of Mexico. The peoples in this region had two very distinct ways of life.
The Zuni, Hopi, Yuma and Yaqui were sedentary farmers that grew crops and lived in permanent settlements with kivas, or ceremonial pit houses, at the center of the village.
The Apache, Navajo and other similar tribes were more nomadic. They hunted, gathered and raided established neighbors for their crops.
It’s believed that present-day California had more people before European contact than any other area, with an estimated population of 300,000 in the 16th century. There were believed to be over 100 tribes and groups that spoke over 200 dialects in the region.
Despite the complex linguistic landscape, most of the peoples living in this region lived similar lives, with family-based groups of hunters-gatherers.
Dancing is an integral part of the Native American culture and their rituals and ceremonies.
Dances and religious ceremonies are often centered on The Great Spirit, believed by many Native Americans to be the creator of life, or the supreme being. Other Native American traditions, beliefs and religions were based on the culture of shamanism, under which the Shaman or Medicine Man of the tribe served as a medium between the spirit world and the visible world. It is believed that Shamans and Medicine Men had the power to heal the sick, see the future and control the hunt.
Rituals, dances and ceremonies were performed to appease The Great Spirit or the spirits of their ancestors.
Festivals and ceremonies include chanting, singing and dancing. The clothing worn by both the males and females of the tribes were extraordinarily detailed. Some were adorned with furs and feathers, others with color beads and metallic baubles.
Some of the most famous Native American dances include: Deer Dance, Pipe Dance, Rain Dance, Dog Dance, Scalp Dance, Hopi Snake Dance, Green Corn Dance, Sun Dance, War Dance, Ghost Dance, Hoop Dance, Doll Dance and Buffalo Dance.
Boats were a common form of travel for Native Americans, and there were several different types of boats used by Native communities. The style used was largely dependent on the tribe. We’re going to take a closer look at the types of boats used, and their purpose.
Canoes were the most common type of boat used by Native Americans, but this style of boat was also widely used in Central America, South America and the Caribbean.
There were numerous canoe styles used by the Native Americans, and tribes could even recognize one another by the profile of the canoe. But there were three general types used by the Native community:
The simplest canoe type is the dugout. Like its name suggests, this boat is made out of hollowed-out wooden logs. Oftentimes, these boats were incredibly simple, with logs being only minimally adapted from their log shape.
Some tribes, especially those in the northwest coast, created more advanced dugout canoes, with intricate wood carvings. These tribes also used special bending techniques that created unique shapes to make the boats quicker.
Plank boats were far less common, and typically only found in the west. These boats were made of cedar wood planks that were “stitched” together. While these boats had a more complex construction, they were very similar to dugout canoes that were more popular with their neighboring tribes.
Bark canoes were common in the Northeast woodlands are and the Great Lakes. These lightweight boats were made of either elm or birch bark and stretched over a wooden frame.
Canoes are still used today, and inspired many modern self-propelled boats. Paddles or sticks were used to propel these boats through the water. If you’ve ever been canoeing, kayaking or even one of the best rowing machines available, you have a good understanding of how Native Americans would navigate the waters.
Although rarely used, sailboats were used by some Native Americans, mainly by tribes in southern Florida. The Ais and Calusa used these boats.
Native sailboats were far more common in South America and Mexico.
Sails were often made from plant fibers and reds, and required very little rigging. They weren’t used for tacking, but rather just for wind sailing.
Sometimes referred to as coracles or round boats, bull boats were often used by tribes in the plains to transport goods down rivers.
Interestingly, these boats had a bowl-shaped frame made of wood. And as you might have guessed, the exterior of the boat was covered in buffalo skin. The furry side faced outward. Some tribes attached the bison’s tail to the hide, and used the tail as a strap to drag the boat up to the shore.
Because of their round shape, bull boats were difficult to steer and were incredibly slow-moving. But they were easy to build and could carry a lot of weight. Some were able to hold up to half a ton of weight. Its sturdy design made it ideal for the purpose of transporting goods.
Surprisingly, these boats were incredibly light. In fact, they could be carried on your back with ease.
More often than not, Native women built these boats and were the ones responsible for paddling them. Many Native Americans would bring these boats on hunting trips, and ferry their catch home.
Authentic Native American boats are rarely used today, although modern canoes are still popular. Most boats built using Native ways are designed for ceremonial use only.
When European explorers first landed on the shores of North America, they mistakenly believed that they had landed in India, hence they began incorrectly calling the indigenous peoples Indians.
Unfortunately, the name stuck, and many people still refer to Native Americans as Indians to this day. While there are a select few Native Americans that refer to themselves as Indians, most prefer to use their tribal names.
While Native American is still the preferred term, it’s just as misleading as the term Indian. Both insinuate a homogeneous population when in fact, there were thousands of tribes at the time European explorers came to the Americas. Many of those tribes did not share a common language and had their own cultures. Some tribes were constantly at war with one another. It is likely for this reason that many indigenous peoples of the Americas prefer to use their tribal names, such as Sioux or Lakota or Apache.
As a general rule of thumb, it’s best to ask whether it’s okay to refer to a Native American as Indian so as to avoid offending the person.
When Europeans first came to the Americas, Native American tribes were found in all corners of the country.
Eventually, the Europeans moved westward, pushing the native peoples out of their homeland. Advanced technology and superior numbers prevailed, and the remaining natives were moved onto what is known as Indian reservations.
There are hundreds of reservations across the United States, and unfortunately, many of the natives that live there today are living in poverty. Some tribes have profited off of the natural resources on their lands and are wealthy. Other reservations run thriving tourist businesses.
While many Native Americans still live on reservations today, not all do. There are a great many that have chosen to integrate into America’s dominant culture.
Visiting a reservation is a great way to learn more about the Native American culture. Not all reservations are open to the public, but those that are typically offer a wealth of information. From museums to hotels, cultural exhibits and more, there’s a lot to experience and explore. Some tribes also allow the public to join in on their ceremonies and dances.
Please note that not all reservations are open to the public and many still wish to preserve their culture and privacy of their homes. There are tribes that also prohibit outsiders from joining in on their dances and ceremonies, so please respect their privacy and wishes.
If you cannot visit a reservation, you may be able to attend a powwow. Most powwows are open to the public, and often include ceremonial dancing, drumming, singing and tribes adorned in their native dress.
When attending a powwow or visiting a reservation, remember to be respectful of name preferences. Some may prefer to be called Native Americans and others by their tribal name. If you are unsure, Native American is the most appropriate term to use.
Native American life was a lot different than working a 9 – 5 job, running to the nearest restaurant and ending the day watching television on the couch. Life as a Native American changed for men, women and children.
To get a clear picture of the daily life of Native Americans, we need to look at it from three perspectives:
The men began their lives with the name of an elder or ancestor. Later in life, their name would change that described a heroic act in their lives. Boys were focused on fighting and horsemanship, so they had little time for girls.
Being tough and brave was essential for men.
Men may join battles, which would consume their lives. The guardian spirit caused men to leave their tribe at the age of 17 in search of the spirit. Upon returning home, he would be ready for battle or would be sent out to hunt for his tribe and family.
Days or weeks would be spent on trying to find herds.
Men would report back to the tribe and then have to go and kill the buffalo if asked. Animals were sacred, and only the number of animals needed to eat were killed.
Women held a very important role in their society. Women would pitch tipis, move tipis if the tribe was relocating, and they were in charge of tanning hides, too. Skinning buffalo and pray was the job of the women, and they coo
Gathering was the job of women. The women in a tribe would collect berries, nuts and other consumables while the men were hunting.
When the women weren’t working, they would engage in a game of “shinny,” which is a lot like field hockey.
Women were so vital to the tribe that without them, the tribe would cease to exist.
Children had different roles, depending on the tribe they were part of at birth. Children that were part of the Plains Native tribes were cared for by their parents, and they were never beaten. Strength was vital to the tribe, and crying was not acceptable.
Babies may even have been moved to another location if they cried and wouldn’t stop.
The issue with this practice is that opposing tribes may hear the cries and locate the baby and their respective tribe. Children would eventually be taught in the ways of their tribe and their beliefs.
Rituals would be taught to children, too.
Children copied their parents often to learn how to live and perform daily activities. Boys would be seen on toy horses. Girls would be seen making tipis and played with dolls made out of the skin of deer.
Boys would go out to find their spirit animals between the age of 14 – 17. Much of a boy’s younger years were spent training for hunts and battle.
Rituals and religion were also a major part of life, with tribes honoring their ancestors often and holding big ceremonies when the entire tribe was able to gather together.