By Tim Lambert
The First Native Americans
North America is, of course a diverse continent with many different climates and ecological zones. So Native American lifestyles and cultures were different to suit local conditions. Cultures also varied over time.
Native American history is divided into 3 great eras. The first, before 1,000 BC is known as the Archaic Period. The second from 1,000 BC to 1,500 AD is known as the Formative Period. After 1500 AD Native Americans came into contact with Europeans
The first Native Americans hunted mammoths, mastodons, and giant sloths. Later, when the climate warmed they hunted deer and bison. For hunting, they used spears and bows and arrows.
Native Americans of the Southwest and Southeast
In Southwest North America agriculture began about 2,500 BC. At that time the people of the Southwest also began making pottery. About 1,500 BC farming spread to the Southeast. Later farming also spread to the Northeast.
In the dry Southwest Native Americans created towns called pueblos. Buildings were made of stone or adobe brick. Other people in the Southwest made huts of wooden poles laid horizontally with adobe roofs.
The people grew maize, squash, and beans. The Spanish introduced sheep and their wool was woven into cloth. The Spanish also introduced horses into the Southwest. In the Southeast too, the main crop was corn. Native Americans of that region also grew tobacco and gourds were used as bowls.
The people of the Southeast wore deerskin clothes and their houses were made with a frame of wooden poles with thatched roofs and mud walls. The Native Americans of the Southeast were also skilled potters and they were enthusiastic lacrosse players.
In the Southeast, the Mississippian culture flourished from 1,000 AD to 1,500 AD. They built flat-topped earth mounds with temples on top. The Mississippians also created towns.
Native Americans of the Northeast and Northwest
In the Northeast Native Americans also grew crops of maize, squash, and beans. They used hoes made of wood and bone. They also hunted and fished and they gathered wild rice. Bowls and spoons were made from wood.
In the Northeast, people wore clothes made of skin sometimes decorated with dyed porcupine quills of beads made from shells (which they called wampum). They lived in houses made with wooden frames overlaid with bark. The Native Americans of the Northeast also made canoes from the bark.
In parts of North America farming was not possible. So in California Native Americans lived by hunting and fishing and gathering seeds like acorns. In the Great Basin (stretching across Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming and Colorado food was scarce so people hunted animals like rabbits and ducks. They collected nuts and berries.
In the Northwest, food was more easily available. Native Americans did not farm but the sea and rivers had abundant fish. They lived in houses made of cedar planks. The Native Americans of the Northwest are also famous for their wooden memorials called totem poles, which told the stories of families. In the Northeast, people held feasts at which the hosts gave away many gifts. That was called a potlatch.
The Plains Native Americans
On the Great Plains, Native Americans lived by hunting bison. Before horses were introduced in the 1500s they hunted them by approaching disguised as wolves. Sometimes whole herds of bison were stampeded over a cliff.
The bison provided food. The meat was often dried in the sun or over a fire. Sometimes it was mixed with dried berries to make a food called pemmican. Bison skins provided clothes and they were also wrapped over a frame of wooden poles to make a tipi.
Nomadic tribes transported goods on a travois, an A-shaped frame of spruce poles tied with rawhide. The travois was pulled by dogs of horses.
Native Americans of the Sub-Arctic and Arctic
In the Sub-Arctic in what is now, Canada people lived by hunting, fishing, and gathering berries. They mainly relied on caribou for food and clothing. They wore snowshoes and pulled goods along on toboggans.
Further north in the Arctic the Inuit lived by hunting whales, walruses, seals, and caribou. They used sleds pulled by dogs. They also made boats of animal skins, canoes called kayaks, and boats called umiaks, which were used for hunting whales.
Last revised 2021