Native Americans, peoples who are indigenous to the Americas. They also have been known as American Indians. The name Indian was first applied to them by Christopher Columbus, who believed mistakenly that the mainland and islands of America were part of the Indies, in Asia.

This article focuses on the peoples native to North America, Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America), and South America. The indigenous population at the time of European contact is estimated, the general physical characteristics of native American peoples are described, and a summary is given of what is known about their arrival and early prehistory in the Americas. The major culture areas of North, Central, and South America are discussed, and a survey follows of the traditional ways of life of Native Americans. Social and political organization are considered, as well as their food, clothing, and housing, their trade, religion, and warfare, and their crafts, visual arts, music, and dance. Finally, the history of Native Americans after European contact and their condition today in North and Latin America are examined.

Early Population

It is estimated that at the time of first European contact, North and South America was inhabited by more than 90 million people: about 10 million in America north of present-day Mexico; 30 million in Mexico; 11 million in Central America; 445,000 in the Caribbean islands; 30 million in the South American Andean region; and 9 million in the remainder of South America. These population figures are a rough estimate (some authorities cite much lower figures); exact figures are impossible to ascertain. When colonists began keeping records, the Native American populations had been drastically reduced by war, famine, forced labor, and epidemics of diseases introduced through contact with Europeans.

Physical Traits

Native Americans are physically most similar to Asian populations and appear to have descended from Asian peoples who migrated across the Bering land bridge during the Pleistocene epoch, also known as the Ice Age, beginning perhaps some 30,000 years ago. Like other peoples with Mongolian characteristics, Native Americans tend to have light brown skin, brown eyes, and dark, straight hair. They differ from Asians, however, in their characteristic blood types (see Races, Classification of). Because many Native Americans today have had one or more European-Americans or African-Americans among their ancestors, numerous people who are legally and culturally Native American may look fairer or darker than Mongolian peoples or may have markedly non-Mongolian facial features.

Over the thousands of years that indigenous peoples have lived in the Americas, they have developed into a great number of local populations, each differing somewhat from its neighbors. Some populations (such as those on the Great Plains of North America) tend to be tall and often heavy in build, whereas others (for example, many in the South American Andes and adjacent lowlands) tend to be short and broad chested; furthermore, every population includes persons who vary from the average. Some physical characteristics of Native American populations have been influenced by diet or by the environmental conditions of their societies. For example, the short stature of some native Guatemalans seems to result at least in part from diets poor in protein; the broad chests and large hearts and lungs of native Andeans represent an adaptation to the low-oxygen atmosphere of the high mountains they inhabit.

Earliest Migrations




Evidence indicates that the first peoples to migrate into the Americas, coming from northeastern Siberia into Alaska, were carrying stone tools and other equipment typical of the middle and end of the Paleolithic period (see Stone Age). These peoples probably lived in bands of about 100, fishing and hunting herd animals such as reindeer and mammoths. They probably used skin tents for shelter, and they must have tanned reindeer skins and sewn them into clothing similar to that made by the Inuit—parkas, trousers, boots, and mittens. These peoples probably were nomadic, moving camp at least several times each year to take advantage of seasonal sources of food. It is likely that they gathered each summer for a few weeks with other bands to celebrate religious ceremonies and to trade, compete in sports, gamble, and visit. At such gatherings, valuable information could be obtained about new sources of food or raw materials (such as stone for tools). Such news might have led families to move into new territory, eventually into Alaska and then farther south into the Americas.

Evidence for the earliest migrations into the Americas is scarce and usually not as clear as archaeologists would wish. Evidence from the comparative study of Native American languages, as well as analysis of some genetic materials, suggest that these earliest migrations may have taken place around 30,000 years ago. More direct evidence from archaeological sites places the date somewhat later. For example, in the Yukon, in what is now Canada, bone tools have been discovered that have been radiocarbon-dated to 22,000 BC. Campfire remains in the Valley of Mexico, in central Mexico, have been radiocarbon-dated to 21,000 BC, and a few chips of stone tools have been found near the hearths, indicating the presence of humans at that time. In a cave in the Andes Mountains of Peru, near Ayacucho, archaeologists have found stone tools and butchered animal bones that have been dated to 18,000 BC. A cave in Idaho, in the United States, contains similar evidence—stone tools and butchered bone—dated to 12,500 BC. In none of these sites do distinctive American styles characterize the artifacts (manufactured objects such as tools). Artifacts having the earliest distinctive American styles appeared about 11,000 BC and are known as Clovis stone blades.

Major Culture Areas


To understand how different peoples live and how their societies have developed, anthropologists find it convenient to group societies into culture areas. A culture area is first of all a geographical region; it has characteristic climate, land forms, and biological population—that is, fauna and flora. Humans who live in the region must adapt to its characteristics to obtain the necessities of life: No one can grow grain in the Arctic or hunt seals or whales in the desert, but people can survive in the Arctic by hunting seals, or in the desert by gathering foods such as cactus fruits. Each culture area, then, has certain natural resources as well as the potential for certain technologies. Humans in the culture area use many of its resources and develop technologies—and social organizations—to fit the area's physical potential and its hazards (such as winter cold). Neighboring peoples learn of one another's inventions and begin to use them. Thus, societies within a given culture area resemble one another and differ from those in other regions.

The Americas may be divided into many culture areas, and these divisions may be determined in different ways. Here, nine areas are used for North America, one for Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America), and four for South America.

North America

The culture areas of North America are the Southwest, the Eastern Woodlands, the Southeast, the Plains, the California-Intermountain region, the Plateau, the Subarctic, the Northwest Pacific Coast, and the Arctic.

The Southwest



The Southwestern culture area encompasses Arizona, New Mexico, southern Colorado, and adjacent northern Mexico (the states of Sonora and Chihuahua). It can be subdivided into three sectors: northern (Colorado, northern Arizona, northern New Mexico), with high, pleasant valleys and pine forests; southern (southern Arizona, southern New Mexico, adjacent Mexico), with deserts covered with cactus; and western (the Arizona-California border area), a smaller area with desert terrain cut by the valley of the lower Colorado River.

The first known inhabitants of the Southwest hunted mammoths and other game with Clovis-style spearpoints by about 9500 BC. As the Ice Age ended (about 8000 BC), mammoths became extinct. The people in the Southwest turned to hunting bison (known as buffalo in North America) and spent more time collecting wild plants for food. The climate gradually became warmer and drier, and a way of life—called the Archaic—developed from about 8000 BC to about 300 BC. Archaic peoples hunted mostly deer, small game, and birds, and they harvested fruits, nuts, and the seeds of wild plants, using stone slabs for grinding seeds into flour. About 3000 BC the Southwesterners learned to grow maize (also known as corn), which had been domesticated in Mexico, but for centuries it was only a minor food.

About 300 BC, some Mexicans whose culture was based on cultivating maize, beans, and squash in irrigated fields migrated to southern Arizona. These people, called the Hohokam, lived in towns in adobe-plastered houses built around public plazas. They were the ancestors of the present-day Pima and Tohono O'Odham (Papago), who preserve much of the Hohokam way of life.

The peoples of the northern sector of the Southwestern culture area, after centuries of trading with the Hohokam, had by AD 700 modified their life into what is called the Anasazi tradition. They grew maize, beans, and squash and lived in towns of terraced stone or in adobe apartment blocks built around central plazas; these blocks had blank walls facing the outside of the town, thereby protecting the people within. During the summer many families lived in small houses at their fields. After 1275 the northern sector suffered severe droughts, and many Anasazi farms and towns were abandoned; those along the Rio Grande, however, grew and expanded their irrigation systems. In 1540 Spanish explorers visited the descendants of the Anasazi, who are called the Pueblos. After 1598 the Spanish imposed their rule on the Pueblos, but in 1680 the Pueblos organized a rebellion that kept them free until 1692. Since that time, Pueblo towns have been dominated by Spanish, then Mexican, and finally United States government. The Pueblos attempted to preserve their culture: They continued their farming and, in some towns, secretly maintained their own governments and religion. Twenty-two Pueblo towns exist today. See also Acoma; Cliff Dweller; Hopi; Isleta; Laguna; Zuñi.

In the 1400s, hunters speaking an Athapaskan language—related to languages of Alaska and western Canada—appeared in the Southwest, having migrated southward along the western Great Plains. They raided Pueblo towns for food and—after slave markets were established by the Spanish—for captives to sell; from the Pueblos, they learned to farm, and from the Spanish, to raise sheep and horses. Today these peoples are the Navajo and the several tribes of Apache.

The western sector of the Southwest is inhabited by speakers of Yuman languages, including the isolated Havasupai, who farm on the floor of the Grand Canyon; and the Mojave, who live along the lower Colorado River. The Yuman-speaking peoples inhabit small villages of pole-and-thatch houses near their floodplain fields of maize, beans, and squash.

Eastern Woodlands



The Eastern Woodlands culture area consists of the temperate-climate regions of the eastern United States and Canada, from Minnesota and Ontario east to the Atlantic Ocean and south to North Carolina. Originally densely forested, this large region was first inhabited by hunters, including those who used Clovis spearpoints. About 7000 BC, with the warming climate, an Archaic culture developed. The peoples of this area became increasingly dependent on deer, nuts, and wild grains. By 3000 BC human populations in the Eastern Woodlands had reached cultural peaks that were not again achieved until after AD 1200. The cultivation of squash was learned from Mexicans, and in the Midwest sunflowers, amaranth, marsh elder, and goosefoot and related plants were also farmed. All of these were grown for their seeds, which—except for those of the sunflower—were usually ground into flour. Fishing and shellfish gathering increased, and off the coast of Maine the catch included swordfish. In the western Great Lakes area, copper was surface mined and made into blades and ornaments, and throughout the Eastern Woodlands, beautiful stones were carved into small sculptures.

After 1000 BC the climate became cooler and food resources scarcer, causing a population decline in the Atlantic part of the region. In the Midwest, however, groups of people organized into wide trading networks and began building large mound-covered tombs for their leaders and for use as centers for religious activities. These peoples, called the Hopewell, raised some maize, but were more dependent on Archaic foods. The Hopewell culture declined by about AD 400.

By 750 a new culture developed in the Midwest. Called the Mississippian culture, it was based on intensive maize agriculture, and its people built large towns with earth platforms, or mounds, supporting temples and rulers' residences. Across the Mississippi River from present-day St. Louis, Missouri, the Mississippians built the city of Cahokia, which may have had a population of 20,000. Cahokia contained hundreds of mounds. Its principal temple was built on the largest, a mound 30 m (100 ft) high and roughly about 110 m (about 360 ft) long and about 49 m (about 160 ft) wide (the largest such mound in North America, now part of Cahokia Mounds State Park, Illinois). During this time period, maize agriculture also became important in the Atlantic region, but no cities were built. See also Mound Builders.

The presence of Europeans in the Eastern Woodlands dates from at least AD 1000, when colonists from Iceland tried to settle Newfoundland. Throughout the 1500s, European fishers and whalers used the coast of Canada. European settlement of the region began in the 1600s. It was not strongly resisted, partly because terrible epidemics had spread among the Native Americans of this region through contact with European fishers and with Spanish explorers in the Southeast. By this time the Mississippian cities had also disappeared, probably as a consequence of the epidemics.

The Native American peoples of the Eastern Woodlands included the Iroquois and a number of Algonquian-speaking peoples, including the Lenape, also known as the Delaware; the Micmac; the Narragansett; the Shawnee; the Potawatomi; the Menominee; and the Illinois. Some Eastern Woodlands peoples moved west in the 19th century; others remain throughout the region, usually in their own small communities.

The Southeast


The Southeast culture area is the semitropical region north of the Gulf of Mexico and south of the Middle Atlantic-Midwest region; it extends from the Atlantic coast west to central Texas. Much of this land once consisted of pine forests, which the Native Americans of the region kept cleared of underbrush by yearly burnings, a form of livestock management that maintained high deer populations for hunting.

The early history of the Southeast is similar to that of adjacent areas. Cultivation of native plants was begun in the Late Archaic period, about 3000 BC, and there were large populations of humans in the area. In 1400 BC a town, called Poverty Point by archaeologists, was built near present-day Vicksburg, Mississippi. Like the Mississippian towns of 2000 years later, Poverty Point had a large public plaza and huge earth mounds that served as temple platforms or covered tombs.

The number of Native Americans in the Southeast remained high until European contact. Maize agriculture appeared about 500 BC. Towns continued to be built, and crafted items were widely traded. The first European explorer, the Spaniard Hernando de Soto, marched around the Southeast with his army between 1539 and 1542; epidemics introduced by the Spaniards killed thousands.

Southeastern peoples included the Cherokee, the Choctaw, the Chickasaw, the Creek, and the Seminole, known as the Five Civilized Tribes because they resembled European nations in organization and economy, and because they quickly incorporated desirable European imports (such as fruit trees) into their way of life. The Natchez, whose elaborate mound-building culture was destroyed by Europeans in the 18th century, were another famous Southeastern people.

The Plains





The North American Plains are the grasslands from central Canada south to Mexico and from the Midwest westward to the Rocky Mountains. Bison hunting was always the principal source of food in this culture area, until the wild bison herds were exterminated in the 1880s. Most of the Plains peoples lived in small nomadic bands that moved as the herds moved, driving them into corrals for slaughter. From AD 850 onward, along the Missouri River and other rivers of the central Plains, agricultural towns were also built.

The customs of the Plains peoples have become well known as the stereotyped "Indian" customs—the long feather headdress, the tepee (also spelled tipi), the ceremonial pipe, costumes, and dancing. These peoples and their customs became well known during the 19th century, when European-Americans invaded their lands and newspapers, magazines, and photography popularized the frontier.

Among early Plains peoples were the Blackfoot, who were bison hunters, and the Mandan and Hidatsa, who were Missouri River agriculturalists. As European colonists took over the Eastern Woodlands, many Midwest peoples moved onto the Plains, among them the Sioux, the Cheyenne, and the Arapaho. Earlier, about 1450, from the valleys west of the Rockies, some Shoshone and Comanche had begun moving onto the Plains. After 1630 these peoples took horses from Spanish ranches in New Mexico and traded them throughout the Plains. The culture of the Plains peoples of the time thus included elements from adjacent culture areas.

The California-Intermountain Area



The mountain ridges and valleys of Utah, Nevada, and California resemble one another in the pine forests of the mountains and the grasslands and marshes in the valleys. An Archaic way of life—hunting deer and mountain sheep, fishing, netting migratory birds, harvesting pine nuts and wild grains—developed by 8000 BC and persisted with no radical changes until about AD 1850. Villages were simple, with thatched houses, and in the warm months little clothing was worn. The technology of getting, processing, and storing food was sophisticated. Basketry was developed into a true art. On the California coast, people fished and hunted sea lions, dolphins, and other sea mammals from boats; the wealth of resources stimulated a well-regulated trade using shell money.

The Paiute, Ute, and Shoshone are the best-known peoples of the Intermountain Great Basin area; the tribes of California include the Klamath, the Modoc, and the Yurok in the north; the Pomo, Maidu, Miwok, Patwin, and Wintun in the central region; and the "mission tribes" in the south, whose European-given names were derived from those of the Spanish missions that sought to conquer them—for example, the Diegueño.

The Plateau Region



In Idaho, eastern Oregon and Washington, western Montana, and adjacent Canada, mountains are covered with evergreen forests and separated by grassy valleys. As in the Great Basin, the Archaic pattern of life persisted on the Plateau, but it was enriched by annual runs of salmon up the Columbia, Snake, Fraser, and tributary rivers, as well as by harvests of camas (western United States plants with edible bulbs) and other nutritious tubers and roots in the meadows. People lived in villages made up of sunken round houses in winter and camped in mat houses in summer. They dried quantities of salmon and camas for winter eating, and on the lower Columbia River, at the site of the present-day city of The Dalles, Oregon, the Wishram and Wasco peoples kept a market town where travelers from the Pacific Coast and the Plains could meet, trade, and buy dried food.

Plateau peoples include the Nez Percé, Walla Walla, Yakama, and Umatilla in the Sahaptian language family, the Flathead, Spokane, and Okanagon in the Salishan language family, and the Cayuse and Kootenai, or Kootenay in Canada (with no linguistic relatives).

The Subarctic


The Subarctic region comprises the major part of Canada, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean west to the mountains bordering the Pacific Ocean, and from the tundra south to within about 300 km (about 200 mi) of the United States border. The eastern half of this region was once heavily glaciated, and its soil and drainage are poor. No agriculture is possible in the Subarctic because summers are extremely short, and so the region's peoples lived by hunting moose and caribou (a North American reindeer) and by fishing. They were nomadic, sheltering themselves in tents or, in the west, sometimes in sunken round houses (as in the Plateau region). To move camp, they used canoes in summer and sleds in winter. Because of the limited food resources, Subarctic populations remained small; even the summer rendezvous at good fishing spots drew only hundreds, compared to the thousands of persons who gathered at seasonal rendezvous in the Great Lakes or Plains regions.

The peoples native to the eastern half of the Subarctic region are speakers of Algonquian languages; they include the Cree, Ojibwa (also known as the Chippewa), Montagnais, and Naskapi. In the western half live speakers of northern Athapaskan languages, including the Chipewyan, Beaver, Kutchin, Ingalik, Kaska, and Tanana. Many Subarctic peoples, although now settled in villages, still live by trapping, fishing, and hunting.

Northwest Pacific Coast



The west coast of North America, from southern Alaska to northern California, forms the Northwest Pacific Coast culture area. Bordered on the east by mountains, the habitable land is usually narrow, lying between the sea and the hills. The sea is rich in sea mammals and in fish, including salmon and halibut; on the land are mountain sheep and goats, elk, abundant berries, and edible roots and tubers similar to potatoes. These resources supported a dense population organized into large villages where people lived in wooden houses, often more than 30 m (100 ft) long. Each house contained an extended family, sometimes with slaves, and was managed by a chief. During the winter, villagers staged elaborate costumed religious dramas, and they also hosted people from neighboring villages at ceremonial feasts called potlatches, at which gifts were lavishly given. Trade was important, and it extended toward northern Asia, where iron for knives was obtained. The Northwest Pacific Coast is known for its magnificent wooden carvings.

Northwest Pacific Coast culture developed after 3000 BC, when sea levels stabilized and movements of salmon and sea mammals became regular. The basic pattern of life changed little, and over the centuries carving and other crafts gradually attained great sophistication and artistry. Tribes of the Northwest Pacific Coast include the Tlingit, Tsimshian, Haida, Kwakiutl, Nootka, Chinook, Salish, Makah, and Tillamook.

The Arctic




The Arctic culture area rings the coasts of Alaska and northern Canada. Because winters are long and dark, agriculture is impossible; people live by fishing and by hunting seal, caribou, and (in northern Alaska and eastern Canada), whale. Traditional summer houses were tents. Winter houses were round, well-insulated frame structures covered with skins and blocks of sod; in central Canada the winter houses often were made of blocks of ice. Populations were small because resources were so limited.

The Arctic was not inhabited until about 2000 BC, after glaciers finally melted in that region. In Alaska the Inuit and the Yuit (also known as Yupik) developed ingenious technology to deal with the difficult climate and meager economic resources. About AD 1000 bands of Alaskan Inuit migrated across Canada to Greenland; called the Thule culture, they appear to have absorbed an earlier people in eastern Canada and Greenland (the Dorset culture). These people are now often referred to as the Greenland Inuit. Because of this migration, traditional Inuit culture and language are similar from Alaska to Greenland. Living in southwestern Alaska (and the eastern end of Siberia) are the Yuit, who are related to the Inuit in culture and ancestry but whose language is slightly different. Distantly related to the Inuit and Yuit are the Aleuts, who since 6000 BC have remained in their homeland on the Aleutian Islands, fishing and hunting sea mammals. Like the Subarctic peoples but unlike most Native Americans, the Inuit, Yuit, and Aleut peoples today retain much of their ancient way of life because their culture areas are remote from cities and their lands cannot be farmed.





Impressive civilizations developed in Mexico and upper Central America after about 1400 BC. These civilizations originated from an Archaic hunting-and-gathering way of life that by 7000 BC included cultivation of small quantities of beans, squash, pumpkins, and maize. By 2000 BC Mexicans had come to depend on their planted fields of these crops, plus amaranth, avocado and other fruits, and chili peppers. Towns developed, and by 1400 BC the Olmec civilization boasted a capital with palaces, temples, and monuments built on a huge constructed platform about 50 m (about 165 ft) high and nearly 1.6 km (1 mi) long. The Olmec lived in the jungle of the east coast of Mexico; their trade routes extended hundreds of miles, both to Monte Albán in western Mexico (in what is now Oaxaca State) and to the Valley of Mexico in the central highlands. As the power of the Olmec declined (about 400 BC), the centers in the central highlands grew, and by the 1st century AD the largest city in pre-Columbian Mexico had developed to an urban size at Teotihuacán in the Valley of Mexico. Teotihuacán dominated Mexico for the first six centuries AD, trading with Monte Albán and with the Mayan kingdoms (see Maya) that had arisen in southwestern Mexico and conquering rivals as far south as the Valley of Guatemala. The capital city covered some 21 sq km (some 8 sq mi) with blocks of apartment houses, markets, many small factories, temples on platforms, and palaces covered with murals.

About AD 700 Teotihuacán suffered attacks that destroyed its power. Later in the same century many Mayan cities were abandoned, perhaps economically ruined when their trade with Teotihuacán ended. Other Mayan cities, mostly in northern Yucatán, were not so affected. By 1000 in central Mexico, a new power—the Toltec—began building an empire that extended into the Valley of Mexico and into Mayan territory (see Itzá). This empire collapsed in 1168. By 1433 the Valley of Mexico had regained domination over much of Mexico as a result of an alliance of three neighboring kingdoms. This alliance secured the homeland from which one king, Montezuma I of the Aztecs, began territorial conquests in the 1400s. The empire flourished until 1519, when a Spanish soldier, Hernán Cortés, landed in eastern Mexico and advanced with Mexican allies upon the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán. Internal strife and a smallpox epidemic weakened the Mexicans and helped Cortés conquer them in 1521.

At the time of these initial Spanish conquests the native peoples of Mexico included those in the domains of the Aztec Empire and of the powerful kingdoms of the Mixtec rulers in what is now Puebla State and the Tarascan in Michoacán State, and of the Zapotec in Oaxaca, the Tlaxcalan in Michoacán, the Otomí in Hidalgo, and the Totonac in Veracruz; the subjects of the remnants of the Mayan state of Mayapán in the Yucatán and of a number of smaller undestroyed Mayan states to the south; and many independent groups in the frontier regions, such as the Yaqui, Huichol, and Tarahumara in northern Mexico and the Pipil in the south. After the Spanish conquest—which took more than two centuries to reach throughout Mexico—most of the Native American peoples were forced to survive as peasants governed by the Spanish-Mexican upper class.

The culture area of Mesoamerica—Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, western Honduras, and western Nicaragua—was one of farming villages producing maize, beans, squash, amaranth, turkeys, and other foods, supporting large city markets where traders sold tools, cloth, and luxury goods imported over long land and sea trade routes. In the cities lived manufacturers and their workers, merchants, the wealthy class, and priests and scholars who recorded literary, historical, and scientific works in native-language hieroglyphic texts (astronomy was particularly advanced). Cities were adorned with sculptures and brilliant paintings, often depicting the Mesoamerican symbols of power and knowledge: the eagle, lord of the heavens; the jaguar, lord of the earth; and the rattlesnake, associated with wisdom, peace, and the arts of civilization.

South America

The culture areas of South America extend from lower Central America—eastern Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica—to the southern tip of South America. Four principal areas can be distinguished: northern South America, including the Caribbean and lower Central America; the central and southern Andes Mountains and adjacent Pacific coast; the Tropical Forest of eastern South America; and the tip and eastern portion of the narrow southern third of the continent, an area supporting only nomadic hunting-and-gathering peoples.

Northern South America and the Caribbean


The culture area of northern South America and the Caribbean includes jungle lowlands, grassy savannah plains, the northern Andes Mountains, some arid sections of western Ecuador, and the islands of the Caribbean. Given its geographical location, the region might seem to link the great civilizations of Mexico and Peru; but because land travel through the jungles and mountains of lower Central America is difficult, pre-Columbian contacts between Peru and Mexico took place mostly by sea, from Ecuador's Gulf of Guayaquil to western Mexican ports. The native peoples of northern South America and the Caribbean lived in small, independent states. Although they traded directly with Mexico and Peru by way of Ecuador, they were bypassed by the empires.

Finds of Clovislike spearpoints indicate the presence of hunters in the area by 9000 BC; other evidence suggests that people were in the northern region by 18,000 BC. The Archaic style of living continued from the time of the extinction of the mastodons and mammoths, in the Clovis period, until about 3000 BC. About this time, village dwellers developed the cultivation of maize in Ecuador, and of manioc (a tropical tuber) in Venezuela, and pottery making flourished. Also after this date, the Caribbean islands began to be settled. By 500 BC, in towns in some areas of northern South America, distinctive local styles had developed in sculpture and metalwork. Population growth and technological progress continued until the Spanish conquered the region; at that time the Chibcha kingdoms of Colombia were famous for their fine gold ornaments. Around the Caribbean, smaller groups such as the Mískito of Nicaragua, the Cuna of Panama, and the Arawak and Carib peoples of the Caribbean islands farmed and fished around their villages; the Carib also lived along the coast of Venezuela. These peoples lived a simpler life than did the peoples of the northern Andean states.

Central and Southern Andes

The lofty chain of the Andes Mountains that stretches down the western half of South America, together with the narrow coastal valleys between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean, were the home of the great civilizations of Native Americans in South America.

In recent years, excavation at the Monte Verde site in southern Chile has yielded unequivocal evidence of human occupation dating back to 11,000 BC. Excavations farther north, in Peru, show that by 7000 BC beans, including the lima bean, were cultivated, as were chili peppers. A few centuries later the domestication of llamas was begun. Guinea pigs were eventually raised for meat; cotton, potatoes, peanuts, and other foods gradually became part of Peruvian agriculture, and about 2000 BC maize was brought from the northern Andes. The peoples of the Pacific coast, from Chile through Peru into Ecuador, also made use of the rich sea life, which included many species of fish, as well as water birds, sea lions, dolphins, and shellfish.

After 2000 BC peoples in villages in several coastal valleys of central Peru organized to build great temples of stone and adobe on large platforms. After about 900 BC these temples appear to have served a new religion, centered in the mountain town of Chavín de Huántar. This religion had as its symbols the eagle, the jaguar, the snake (probably an anaconda), and the caiman (alligator), which seems to have represented water and the fertility of plants. These symbols are somewhat similar to those of the Mexican Olmec religion, but no definite link between the two cultures is known. After 300 BC Chavín influence—or possibly political power—declined. The Moche civilization then appeared on the northern coast of Peru, and the Nazca on the southern coast. In both, large irrigation projects, towns, and temples were constructed, and extensive trade was carried on, including the export of fine ceramics. The Moche depicted their daily life and their myths in paintings and in ceramic sculpture; they showed themselves as fearsome warriors and also made molded ceramic sculptures depicting homes with families, cultivated plants, fishers, and even lovers. They were also expert metalworkers.

By about AD 600 the Moche and Nazca cultures declined, and two new, powerful states appeared in Peru: Huari in the central mountains, and Tiahuanacu in the southern mountains at Lake Titicaca. Tiahuanacu seems to have been a great religious center, reviving symbols from the Chavín. These states lasted only a few centuries; after 1000, coastal states again became important, especially Chimú in the north, with its vast and magnificent adobe-brick capital city of Chanchan. All Peru was eventually conquered by a state that arose in the central mountains at Cuzco; this was the Quechua state, ruled by a people known as the Inca. The emperor of the Inca at the time, Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, began large-scale expansion of the empire in the 1400s; by 1525 Inca rule extended from Ecuador to Chile and Argentina. Civil war raged within the empire from 1525 to 1532. At its conclusion, the Spanish adventurer Francisco Pizarro landed in Peru and had little trouble conquering the war-wasted Inca Empire.

During this time the central and southern Andes were populated by farmers who raised a variety of crops. Local products, transported by llama caravans, were exported and traded between the coast, the mountains, and the eastern tropical jungle. The region's kingdoms were governed by administrators aided by soldiers and priests. Prehistoric Peru had the only great civilization known that did not use writing; but the Peruvians did use the abacus for arithmetic calculations, and they kept numerical records for government by means of abacuslike sets of knotted strings called quipus.

The Tropical Forest

The jungle lowlands of eastern South America seem to have been settled after 3000 BC, for archaeologists have not found evidence of any earlier peoples. Population was always relatively sparse, clustered along riverbanks where fish could be obtained and manioc and other crops planted. Various herbs and foods were cultivated, including hallucinogens for use in religious rituals; these were also exported to Peru. Although animals such as tapirs and monkeys were hunted, little game was supported by the jungle forests. No large towns existed—people lived in thatch houses in villages. Sometimes the whole village slept in hammocks, which were invented here. Little clothing was worn, because of the damp heat, but cotton cloth was woven, and the people ornamented themselves with painting. Among the many small groups of the Tropical Forest culture area are the Makiritare, the Yanomamo, the Mundurucu, the Tupinamba, the Shipibo, and the Cayapó. Speakers of Arawak and Carib languages—linguistic relatives of Caribbean peoples—also live in the northern Tropical Forest. Although Tropical Forest peoples retain much of their traditional way of life, today they suffer from diseases brought by Europeans and from destruction of their lands by ranchers, loggers, miners, and agribusiness corporations.

Southernmost South America

In Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile, farming peoples such as the Mapuche (see Araucanian) of Chile still live in villages and cultivate maize, potatoes, and grains. Although they once kept llamas, after the Spanish invasions they began to raise cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens, and used horses for herding and for warfare. Farther south, on the Pampas, agriculture was not suitable; people lived by hunting guanacos and rheas and, on the coasts, by fishing and gathering shellfish. In Tierra del Fuego evidence of this hunting-and-gathering life dates from 7000 BC. On the Pampas, hunting was transformed when the horse was obtained from the Spaniards after AD 1555. The Tehuelche pursued guanacos from horseback, and like the North American Plains peoples, once they had horses for transport, they enjoyed larger tepees as well as more clothing and other goods. Farthest south, around the Strait of Magellan, the Ona, Yahgan, and Alacaluf lacked the game animals of the Pampas; they survived principally on fish and shellfish, but also hunted seals and sea lions. Nomadic peoples, they lived in small wigwams covered with bark or sealskins. In spite of the cold, foggy climate, they wore little clothing. Life in Tierra del Fuego appears to have changed little over 9000 years, for no agriculture or herding is possible in the climate. The peoples native to this region suffered greatly from diseases brought by Europeans, and few survive today.

Traditional Way of Life

Among the elements of the traditional ways of life of Native Americans are their social and political organization, their economic and other activities, and their religions, languages, and art.

Social and Political Organization

Social organization among Native Americans, as among peoples throughout the world, is based largely on the family. Some Native American societies emphasize the economic cooperation of husband and wife, others that of adult brothers and sisters. As among various other peoples, men's work has been largely separate from women's work. Women usually took responsibility for the care of young children and the home, and for the cultivation of plants, while men frequently hunted, traveled for trade, or worked as laborers.

Native American societies also parallel societies elsewhere in that their size and complexity are affected by the economic potential of their environment. Accordingly, the smallest societies are found in regions that are poor in food resources. Examples include the Cree and the Athapaskan-language peoples of the Canadian Subarctic, the Paiute of the Nevada desert, and the Ona and Yahgan of Tierra del Fuego. Among these peoples, two or three couples and their children often lived together, hunting, fishing, gathering plant foods, and moving camp several times a year to take advantage of seasonal foods in different localities. During the season when food was most available, usually summer, these small groups would gather together, with several hundred people spending a few weeks in feasting, trading, and visiting. When agriculture is possible, communities have been larger, from one or two hundred to thousands of people. In most of what is now the United States, people lived in villages and formed a loosely organized alliance with nearby villages. The alliance and each village were governed by councils; village councils usually consisted of representatives from each family, and the alliance council was made up of representatives from the villages. The council selected a man or, in some areas (especially the North American Southeast), sometimes a woman to act as chief—that is, to preside over the council and act as principal liaison in dealing with other groups. Often the chief was selected from a family that trained its children for leadership. In many areas families in the villages were linked together in clans—that is, groups believed to be descended from one ancestral couple. Clans usually owned resources such as agricultural plots and fishing stations; they allotted these as needed to member families and protected their members. Similar societies became common in the Tropical Forest culture area of South America.

In pre-Columbian times in Mesoamerica and the Andes of South America, kingdoms that had hundreds of thousands of subjects and empires with millions of subjects were established. These societies were stratified, with a large lower class of farmers, miners, and craft workers; a middle class of merchants and officials; and an upper class of rulers who maintained armies and a priesthood. In many of these states, children were educated in formal schools; most children were trained to follow their parents' occupations, but talented youth might be selected for more suitable work. Citizens supported the state religion, although in the empires local religious observances were sometimes permitted to coexist with the state religion. War captives and debtors often became slaves. The Inca state in Peru was tightly organized and controlled, moving persons and even whole villages around the empire to meet its needs. In Mesoamerican kingdoms, on the other hand, clanlike local groups were generally allowed limited power.

On first encountering Native American societies, Europeans frequently did not understand their organization, which differed in various ways from European types of social organization; subsequently, the native organization was modified by the British or Spanish conquerors. In North America, Europeans failed to recognize the respect and power accorded to women of the Iroquois, Creek, and a number of other peoples. Among the Iroquois, for example, women made the final decisions in major areas of government. In California, Europeans who saw the local upper class living in thatch houses and wearing little clothing failed to understand that the region's native communities had different social classes and highly organized ownership of property. Many descriptions of indigenous societies were written after wars between Europeans and Native Americans and epidemics of diseases brought by Europeans had severely reduced native populations and disrupted their societies. Other accounts were written with a particular bias, to support an author's ideas of how humans ought to live. Thus, many false stereotypes of Native Americans and their societies became common.


Since at least 2000 BC, most Native Americans have lived by agriculture. Maize was the most common grain, but certain grainlike plants were also popular, notably amaranth in Mesoamerica and quinoa in the Andes. Several varieties of beans and squash were grown alongside maize; many varieties of potato were cultivated in the Andes; and manioc, a tropical tuber, was raised in the Tropical Forest area of South America. All these plants, as well as peanuts, chili peppers, cotton, cacao (chocolate), avocados, and many others, were domesticated and developed as crops by Native Americans.

Livestock was less important to Native Americans than to peoples on other continents. In the Andes guinea pigs were bred for meat and llamas for transport and meat, and in Mesoamerica turkeys were domesticated. Protein was often obtained from plants, especially beans. Maize-growing peoples obtained calcium by soaking maize in a lime solution as a step in preparing it to eat. Throughout the Americas additional protein was obtained from fish and game animals, especially deer. Outside Mesoamerica and the Andes, in many Native American communities game ranges were regularly burned to improve pasture, thereby maintaining favorable conditions for deer and, on the Plains, for bison. In Mesoamerica and Peru, land was too valuable to pasture animals; instead, land was cultivated, intensively irrigated, and, in mountain regions, terraced.

Hunting and fishing techniques were highly developed by Native Americans, particularly in regions not suited to agriculture. Traps of all kinds were common. Plains peoples relied on corrals hidden under bluffs or in ravines; herds of bison were driven into the corrals, where they were easily slaughtered. Inuit and Subarctic groups drove caribou into corrals, or they ambushed them in mountain passes or river fords. Guanacos were similarly hunted in the South American Pampas. Fish were usually taken in nets or weir traps (where a fence or enclosure is set in a waterway to catch fish), except in the Northwest Pacific Coast area, where tons of salmon could be speared at the river rapids.

Techniques of food preparation have varied according to the type of food and the culture area. In maize-growing regions, tortillas remain common, as does a similar flat bread of manioc flour in the Tropical Forest. Techniques of drying foods, including meats, have always been important. In pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica and the Andes, nobles indulged in elaborate feasts of richly prepared dishes.

Clothing and Adornment

In their traditional clothing Native Americans differed from Europeans in that they placed less importance on completely covering the body. The peoples of warm climates, in California and the Tropical Forest, for example, often did not bother with much clothing except at festivals; then they adorned themselves with flowers and paint, and often with intricate feather headdresses. In Mesoamerica and Peru, men wore a breechcloth and a cloak knotted over one shoulder, and women wore a skirt and a loose blouse; these garments were woven of cotton or, in Peru, sometimes of fine vicuña (a relative of the llama) wool. North American hunting peoples made garments of well-tanned deer, elk, or caribou skin; a common style was a tunic, longer for women than for men, with detachable sleeves and leggings. Northwest Pacific Coast peoples wore rain cloaks of woven cedar fiber. In the Arctic, the Inuit and Aleuts wore parkas, pants, and boots of caribou or, when needed, of waterproof fish skin. Except in Canada and Alaska, where parkas and coats were worn, Native Americans in cold weather usually wrapped themselves in robes, cloaks, or ponchos.

Housing and Construction

Modes of shelter, like food, show adaptation to environment. Some houses that appear simple, such as the Inuit iglu or the Florida Seminole chikee, are quite sophisticated: The iglu (Inuit for "house"), usually made of hide or sod over a wood or whalebone frame, is a dome with a sunken entrance that traps heat indoors but allows ventilation; the chikee, naturally air-conditioned, consists of a thatch roof over an open platform. The tepee of the Plains peoples constitutes efficient housing for people who must move camp to hunt; tepees are easily portable and quickly erected or taken down, and an inner liner hung from midway up the tepee allows ventilation without drafts, so that the enclosed space is comfortable even in winter.

Some peoples in cold climates that were well supplied with wood, such as the peoples of Tierra del Fuego and the Subarctic Athapaskan-language peoples, relied on windbreaks with good fires in front, rather than on tents. Many other peoples, including some Athapaskan tribes as well as Inuit, Californians, Intermountain peoples, and early Southwesterners, spent cold weather in dome-shaped houses that were sunk well into the ground for insulation. Plains farming peoples, including the Pawnee and Mandan, built aboveground dome houses insulated with earth applied over pole frames. The Navajo hogan, a round log-house banked with earth, is similar.

Mesoamerican and Andean peoples constructed buildings of stone and cement as well as of wood and adobe. Public buildings and the houses of the upper class were usually built on raised-earth platforms, with a large number of rooms arranged around atria and courtyards. In cities and in the Pueblo towns of the Southwest, multistoried apartment blocks were built.

Trade and Transportation

To all Native Americans, trade was an important economic activity. The early empire of Teotihuacán in Mexico was founded on the manufacture and export of blades of obsidian, a natural volcanic glass that made the best stone knives. Several centuries later, the Aztecs organized their conquests by sending merchants into other kingdoms to develop trade, act as spies, and help plan conquest if the foreign ruler failed to give favorable terms to Aztec trade. In the Inca Empire excellent highways were built over difficult mountain terrain in order to move quantities of local specialty products in pack trains of llamas. Trade was also conducted by sea along South America and around Mexico and the Caribbean. Much sea trade was carried in large sailing rafts or, in the Caribbean, in canoes made from huge logs. Trade goods in Mesoamerica and the Andes included foodstuffs, manufactured items such as cloth, knives, and pottery, and luxuries such as jewelry, brilliant tropical bird feathers, and chocolate. Both medicinal and hallucinogenic drugs were widely traded. Goods were bought and sold in large open markets in towns and cities.

Outside the kingdoms of Mesoamerica and the Andes, trade was often carried on by traveling parties who were received in each village by its chief, who supervised business as the people gathered around the trader. In many areas, including California and the Eastern Woodlands, small shells or shell beads—called wampum in the Eastern Woodlands—were used as money. Because traders carried their goods on their backs or in canoes, trade goods were usually relatively light, small items. Furs and bright-colored feathers were valued in trade nearly everywhere. In western North America dried salmon, fish oil, and fine baskets were major trade products, and in eastern North America expertly tanned deer hides, copper, catlinite pipe-bowl stone, pearls, and conch shells were widely traded.

Recreation and Entertainment

The games and other recreational activities of Native Americans have had much in common with those of peoples elsewhere. Children traditionally played with dolls and with miniature figures and implements, imitating adult activities; in groups they played tag, the one who was "it" often pretending to be a jaguar or similar animal. Youths and adults played games with balls—rubber balls in Mesoamerica and northern South America, hide or fiber balls elsewhere. The Mesoamerican ball game called tlatchtli was somewhat similar to basketball in that it was played in a rectangular court and had the goal of knocking a hard ball through a stone hoop high on the court wall; players, however, were not allowed to use their hands, but only body parts such as the hips and knees. In Mesoamerica these ball games often were seen as rituals of cosmic significance. Lacrosse was popular in the eastern region of North America and eventually was adopted by European settlers. In southern South America a game was played that resembled field hockey. Chunkey, a kind of bowling with a stone disk instead of a ball, was a favorite in the Midwest. Hoop-and-pole, in which players throw sticks at a rolling hoop, was played throughout most of the Americas.

Guessing games, with the players trying to guess where a token piece is hidden, continue to be popular among the Native Americans of North America, but are not common in South America; players usually sing and beat a rhythm, trying to confuse their opponents. In both North and South America games of chance using dice are still played, and the Aztecs of earlier times had a board game similar to the modern game of Parcheesi.

Competitions—in foot racing, wrestling, archery, and, after the Spanish invasions, horse racing—were generally popular, as were variants of snow snake, in which a smooth stick is slid along a course. Minor amusements that are still popular include cat's cradle, in which a symbolic string figure is constructed on the player's fingers, and the use of tops and swings.

Religion and Folklore




Native American religious beliefs and practices display great diversity. As among other peoples, educated and philosophical persons may hold beliefs that differ from those of most people living in the same community; this was also true in the past.

The Mexican and Andean nations, the peoples of the North American Southwest and Southeast, and some Northwest Pacific Coast peoples had full-time religious leaders as well as shrines or temple buildings. Peoples of other areas had part-time priests and generally lacked permanent temples. Part-time priests and shamans (faith healers, who often also used medicinal plants to cure) learned to conduct ceremonies by apprenticing themselves to older practitioners; in the larger nations priests were trained in schools attached to the temples. In some regions religious leaders formed fraternal orders to train initiates and share knowledge; examples include the Ojibwa of the Eastern Woodlands and the Pawnee of the Plains.

Most Native Americans believe that in the universe there exists an Almighty—a spiritual force that is the source of all life. The Almighty of Native American belief is not pictured as a man in the sky; rather, it is believed to be formless and to exist throughout the universe. The sun is viewed as a manifestation of the power of the Almighty, and Europeans often thought Native Americans were worshipping the sun, when, in fact, they were addressing prayers to the Almighty, of which the sun was a sign and symbol.

In many areas of the Americas, the Almighty was recognized in several aspects: as light and life-power, focused in the sun; as fertility and strength, centered in the earth; as wisdom and the power of earthly rulers, observed in creatures such as the jaguar, the bear, or snakes. In most places in the Americas, religious devotees enhanced their ability to perceive aspects of the Almighty, sometimes by using hallucinogenic plants (see Peyotism), or sometimes by fasting and singing prayers until they achieved a spiritual vision. In northern and western North America, most boys and many girls were sent out alone to fast and pray until they thought they saw a spirit that promised to help them achieve the power to succeed in adult life. Shamans among the Inuit, along the Northwest Coast, in South America, and in some other areas went into trances, believing that their souls could then battle evil spirits or search the earth for the wandering souls of sick patients.

Most Native American peoples have myths in which a time is described when the earth was not as it now appears, and during which it became transformed by the actions of legendary persons, or animals who spoke with humans. Unlike many Europeans, Native Americans tend not to consider humans entirely different from animals and plants; instead, they often believe that other beings are like humans and that all are dependent on the life-giving power of the Almighty. Some Native American myths, such as the myth of Lone Man (of the Plains people known as the Mandan), describe a wise leader who teaches the arts of life to the people; others, such as the California-Intermountain myths about Coyote, describe foolishly clever antics.

Native Americans generally have shown less interest in an afterlife than have Christians. Native Americans have traditionally tended to assume that the souls of the dead go to another part of the universe, where they have a pleasant existence carrying on everyday activities. Souls of unhappy or evil persons might stay around their former homes, causing misfortunes. Many Native American peoples have celebrated an annual memorial service for deceased relatives; in Latin America this observance later became fused with the Christian All Souls' Day.

Both private prayer and public rituals are common among Native Americans. Individuals regularly give thanks to the Almighty; communities gather for symbolic dances, processions, and feasts. The Sun Dance of the Plains peoples is an annual summer assembly at which a thousand or more people meet to fast and pray together, praising and beseeching the blessings of the Almighty. The Pueblos of the Southwest, like the Iroquois of the Eastern Woodlands, continue to observe a yearly cycle of festivals: In spring they pray for good crops; in autumn they celebrate the harvests (for an example of a recurring festival, see Snake Dance). Various tribes used certain ritual objects (such as the long-stemmed pipe used by priests in North America to blow tobacco-smoke incense) to symbolize the power of the Almighty; when displayed, these objects reminded people to cease quarrels and remember moral obligations.

The folktales of Native Americans, as well as their myths, frequently express ideas about the nature of humans, other creatures, and the universe. Among the Mexican nations, detailed historical records are maintained; elsewhere, in general, no sharp distinction was drawn between history and legend. Many Native American folktales are fables, pointing out a moral; others are simply exciting or amusing stories. Translations of Native American stories and myths—like descriptions of native religious beliefs and ceremonies—seldom capture the full Native American meaning; a nonnative reader is rarely aware of the background of ideas that native listeners bring to a story or ceremony.


The common stereotype that Native Americans were extremely warlike arose because, when Europeans first came into contact with them, the Native Americans were usually defending their homelands, either against European invaders or against other native peoples supported by European invaders. Archaeological evidence of fortifications, destroyed towns, and people killed in battle indicates, however, that wars between Native American groups did take place before the European invasions.

Most Native Americans fought in small groups, relying on surprise to give them victory. The large nations of Mexico and Peru sometimes relied on surprise attacks by armies, but their soldiers also fought in disciplined ranks. The Aztecs fought formal battles called "flower wars" with neighboring peoples; the purpose was to capture men for sacrifice (the Aztecs believed that the sun would weaken if it were not fed with human blood). Other native peoples, including many in present United States territory, conducted war raids to obtain captives, but these captives were used as slaves, rather than as victims for sacrifice. Some Native American battles were fought for revenge. The most common cause of war between Native American groups was probably to defend or enlarge tribal territory.

Before the Spanish colonizations, warfare was conducted on foot or from canoes. Both the Mexican and the Andean nations, as well as smaller Native American groups, employed hand-to-hand combat with clubs, battle-axes, and daggers, as well as close-range combat with javelins hurled with great force from spear-thrower boards (known as atlatls). Bows and arrows were used in attacks, and fire arrows were used against thatched-house villages. When the Spanish brought riding horses to the New World, native peoples in both North and South America developed techniques of raiding from horseback.


About a thousand distinct languages are presently spoken by native peoples in North and South America, and hundreds more have become extinct since first European contact. In many areas, among them the Intermountain and Plateau regions of North America, people often spoke not only their native language but also the languages of groups with whom they had frequent contact. In various cases one language served as a common language for a multilingual region; examples include Tucano (western Amazon area) and Quechua (Andean region). Some regions had a traders' language or pidgin, a simplified language or mixture of several languages, helpful to traders of different native languages; among these were Chinook Jargon (Pacific Coast, North America), Mobilian (United States, Southeast), and lingua geral (Brazil). Linguists have grouped many of the Native American languages into roughly 180 families, but many other languages have no known relatives; scholars differ in proposing more distant relationships among families. Grammatical traits, sound systems, and word formation often vary from family to family, but families in a given region often influence one another. See Native American Languages.

Crafts and the Arts

Distinctive craft needs and artistic styles characterize each culture area of the Americas. Nearly all the major technologies known in Europe, Asia, and Africa in the 16th century were known also to Native Americans before European contact, but these technologies were not always used in the same way. For example, although the Andean nations had superb metallurgists, they made few metal tools (people used stone tools for most tasks); instead they applied their skills to creating magnificent ornaments. In architecture, the Maya built a few true (known as keystone) arches, but for roofing their buildings, Mayan architects preferred not the true arch but the narrow corbeled vault. See also Pre-Columbian Art and Architecture.



The earliest American art known to archaeologists is flint knapping, or the chipping of stone. Between about 9000 and 6000 BC, stone spear and dart points of sharp beauty, such as the Folsom and Eden points, were produced with great skill. Although flint knapping eventually declined somewhat in other culture areas, in Mesoamerica the art of chipping flint and, especially, obsidian continued to be highly prized. In the Late Archaic period, after 3000 BC, the pecking and grinding (rather than chipping) of stone developed into art. In the region that is now the eastern United States lovely small sculptures, particularly of birds, were made as weights for spear-thrower boards. Between about 1500 and 400 BC in Mesoamerica, the Olmec made small ornaments of semiprecious stones, as well as fine naturalistic and in-the-round stone sculptures that were close to or larger than life size. Jade was a favorite stone of the Olmec, and it continued to be carved throughout Mesoamerican prehistory. Northwest Coast Haida carvings in argillite and recent Inuit soapstone carvings are examples of the continuing expression of Native American art through stone.

In architecture, the pre-Hispanic Andean nations developed stone masonry to a high degree, fitting smoothed stone blocks together so expertly that no mortar was needed for walls that have stood for more than a thousand years. The Mesoamerican peoples also built in stone, and they preferred to cover their buildings in stucco plaster and adorn them with murals.



The earliest pottery in the Americas was made about 3500 BC. By 2000 BC several known styles of ceramics had emerged, and in the wares of the following centuries everyday cooking pottery can be distinguished from fine serving pieces. Among outstanding styles are the Mayan vessels painted with scenes of royalty and mythology; the molded vessels of the Moche culture of Peru, reproducing objects and scenes from daily life as well as images from mythology; and the pottery of the Pueblos of the Southwest culture area, painted in geometric or stylized naturalistic designs. See Pottery.



Ever since its beginnings as an Archaic-period art form in the Americas (by about 8000 BC or perhaps earlier), basketry continued to develop, reaching its finest levels of achievement in western North America. There, baskets became a true art form, prized as objects of wealth when of highest quality. In most parts of the Americas several basketry techniques were known, among them weaving, twining, and coiling; decorative techniques included embroidery and the use of bright feathers, shells, and beads.



Throughout the Americas weaving of one kind or another was practiced, but the craft reached its highest development in the Andean nations. In ancient South America twining seems to have been in use earlier than true weaving, and this early technique continued in use in both North and South America for bags, belts, and other items. Almost as widespread as twining was the use of the backstrap loom, in which the tension on the threads is maintained as the weaver leans against a strap attached to the lower ends of the warp threads (the upper ends are attached to a hanging bar). On this simple loom a skilled weaver can make extremely fine, although narrow, textiles. Heddle looms appeared in Peru after about 2000 BC, allowing wider cloth to be woven (a heddle is a mechanism that raises and lowers the warp threads in the pattern required). Peruvian weavers, using cotton as well as llama and vicuña wool, produced some of the finest textiles known, from filmy gauzes to double-faced brocades. Into their fabrics Native American weavers sometimes wove feathers or ornaments of precious metal, shell, or beads. The Aztec emperor and the Inca wore cloaks completely covered by brilliant feathers of rare birds, or by gold. See also Needlework.



In North America, in the upper Midwest, copper had been beaten into knives, awls, and other tools in the Late Archaic period (around 2000 BC), and since that time it had been used for small tools and ornaments. The use of copper in this region, however, was not true metallurgy, because the metal was hammered from pure deposits rather than smelted from ore. The earliest metallurgy in the Americas was practiced in Peru about 900 BC, and this technology spread into Mesoamerica, probably from South America, after about AD 900. Over the intervening centuries a variety of techniques developed, among them alloying, gilding, casting, the lost-wax process, soldering, and filigree work. Iron was never smelted, but bronze came into use after about AD 1000. Thus, copper and, much later, bronze were the metals used when metal tools were made; more effort, however, was put into developing the working of precious metals—gold and silver—than into making tools.

The best-known recent Native American metalwork is that of Navajo and Hopi silversmiths; their craft began when they adopted Mexican silver-working techniques in the mid-19th century.

Work in Other Materials



Among hunting peoples leather was used extensively for clothing, tents, shields, and containers (quivers, baby carriers, food storage, sheaths, ritual paraphernalia). In North America leather clothing was often embroidered with dyed porcupine quills. After European trade began, quill embroidery gave way to decoration with glass beads. Native Americans in eastern North America copied embroidery designs of the French, and they substituted silk threads for quills and moose hair.

Wood carving was a widespread craft among Native Americans. The peoples of the Northwest Pacific Coast developed a truly distinctive art style in their wood carvings, with variations from tribe to tribe; the most famous examples of this style are its totem poles, tall logs carved and painted to represent the noted ancestors of a clan and figures from mythology.

Bark was employed in several Native American crafts. In northeastern North America it was used for roofing, canoes, and containers; along the Northwest Coast, shredded cedar bark was woven into rain capes and ornaments; in South America bark was beaten in a felting process into a kind of cloth; and in Mexico bark pulp was made into paper.

Among Southwestern peoples such as the Navajo, Pueblo, and Yumans, pollen, pulverized charcoal and sandstone, and other colored powdery materials are distributed over a ground of sand to create symbolic sand paintings that are used in healing rites and then destroyed (see Music and Dance, below). In the 20th century a number of Native American artists in Canada and the United States have adopted tempera, watercolor, and oil painting, using both traditional imagery and modern Western styles. The peoples of the Northwest Coast and the Inuit have also adapted traditional pictorial styles to printmaking.

Music and Dance



In North America six distinctive musical styles or regions have been recognized: Inuit and Northwest Coast; California and nearby Arizona; the Great Basin; Athapaskan; Plains and Pueblo; and Eastern Woodland. The music of northern Mexico has much in common with that of western Arizona; farther south, however, in the regions of the Mesoamerican and Andean civilizations, complex musical cultures existed. Little information has been preserved about the music of these civilizations, and whatever remains of the original styles survived the Spanish conquest principally in the form of highly complex and varied blends of native and assimilated Spanish elements. Elsewhere in South America the music of the native peoples, like that of North America, was relatively insulated from nonnative influence; the South American music, however, has been less extensively studied than that of North America.

Instruments and Vocal Styles

Among the persisting native musical styles of the Americas, singing is the dominant form of musical expression, with instrumental music serving primarily as rhythmic accompaniment. Exceptions occur, notably the North American love songs played by men on flutes. The native peoples of South America tend to use a softer singing voice than those of North America, whereas a tense vocal production is characteristic east of the Rocky Mountains.

Throughout the Americas the principal instruments have been drums and rattles (shaken in the hand or worn on the body), as well as flutes and whistles. In Mesoamerica and the Andes, greater variety exists. Besides rattles and drums, the pre-Hispanic ensembles of the Aztecs are known to have included double and triple flutes; trumpets played in harmony in pairs; rasps; and the slit-drum (known as the teponaztli, a resonant, carved hollowed log struck with a stick). In Panama and the Andes, panpipes continue to be played in harmony. Instruments have often had ritual or religious significance; among some Brazilian tribes, for example, women must not view the men's flutes. In North America the tambourinelike frame drum, and in South America the maraca rattle, were frequently played by shamans.

Inuit and Northwest Pacific Coast



The Inuit and the peoples of the Northwest Pacific Coast use more complex rhythms than are common elsewhere in North America, and on the Northwest Pacific Coast, songs may have more complex musical forms and may use exceptionally small melodic intervals (a semitone or smaller). Northwest Pacific Coast dance dramas are lengthy, elaborate productions with magnificent costumes and tricky props, and the songs for these dramas are carefully taught and rehearsed. Inuit dance and costumes are simpler, possibly because their communities are smaller, and the dances often feature men using the forceful movements of harpooning while women sing accompaniment.

California and the Great Basin



The singing of the Native Americans of California and the Great Basin is produced by a more relaxed throat than that of other North American musical areas. The melodies and texts, however, are like those found elsewhere in North America in that the songs are short (although they may be repeated or combined into series) and the texts are often brief sentences. Such texts tend to refer to myths, events, or emotions, rather than telling stories, and sections of text may alternate with song sections sung to meaningless syllables. Listeners must know the background to appreciate the poetry and meaning of a song. Both social dances and costumed ritual dances are found in the Great Basin and in California, where they are more elaborate. Some California (and western Arizona, particularly Yuman) music is characterized by a rise in pitch in the middle section of a song. Songs of the Great Basin often have a structure consisting of paired phrases.

Athapaskan Music


The music of the Athapaskan peoples—those of northwestern Canada and Alaska as well as the Navajo and Apache of the Southwest—is characterized by melodies that have a wide range and an arc-shaped contour, and by frequent changes in meter; falsetto singing is prized. Costumed ritual dances are unusual except among the Apache, who, like the Navajo, have been influenced by the Pueblos. Much Navajo music belongs to healing rituals designed to restore patients to harmony by seating them in beautiful sand paintings while they listen to poetic songs.

Plains and Pueblo Music



The music of the Great Plains is the best known of the Native American styles of North America and is the source of the musical styles heard at present-day powwows (social gatherings, often intertribal, featuring Native American dancing). Singing is in a tense, pulsating, forceful style; men's voices are preferred, although a high range and falsetto are valued. Melodic ranges are wide, and the typical melodic contour is terrace-shaped—beginning high, and descending as the song progresses. Plains music is often produced by a group of men sitting around a large double-headed drum, singing in unison and drumming with drumsticks (at powwows, the group itself is called a drum). In Plains dancing, men usually dance solo with bent body (several may dance at once, independently), but there are also ritual dances with symbolic steps and social round dances for couples. The Pueblos add some lower-voiced music; they make more use of chorus, and they perform elaborate costumed ritual dances (often with clowns that entertain between serious dances).

Eastern Woodland Styles


Eastern Woodland music resembles Plains music, but it tends to have narrower melodic ranges, and Eastern singing makes use of polyphony (multipart music) as well as forms that are antiphonal (with alternating choruses) and responsorial (with alternating solo and chorus). Dances include men's solos, as well as ritual dances and social round dances. In the Stomp Dance of the Southeast, a snakelike line of dancers follows a leader who calls out in song and is answered by the followers.

Mexico and the Andes


Almost no archaeological evidence exists for prehistoric music in the Americas; all that is known from pre-Hispanic civilizations is a few preserved instruments (such as panpipes and ocarinas in Peru) and painted or carved scenes of musicians and dancers. In Mexico and Peru at the point of European contact, the nobles and the temple personnel maintained professional performers. In Mexico officials organized rituals for each month, with hundreds of richly costumed, carefully rehearsed dancers and musicians. Responsorial singing was practiced; sophisticated scales and chords were apparently used, and compositions seem to have been formally structured, with variety in melody and in combinations of meters. Secular dramas with professional actors were also produced, and bards composed epics. The harps, fiddles, and guitars found in the Native American music of present-day Mexico and Peru were adopted from the Spanish.

Other South American Areas


Elsewhere in South America, indigenous music was relatively unaffected by European music. The pentatonic (five-note) scale of the Incas spread to some other regions, but earlier scales of three or four notes also survived. Polyphonic singing, characterized by various voices and melodies, developed in some areas, notably in Patagonia. Flutes are still sometimes played in harmony, and the music of some Tropical Forest peoples is often a complex combination of voices, percussion, and flutes.

See also Anthropology; Archaeology.

European Contact and Impact

As early Europeans first stepped ashore in what they considered the "New World"—whether in San Salvador (West Indies), Roanoke Island (North Carolina), or Chaleur Bay (New Brunswick)—they usually were welcomed by the peoples indigenous to the Americas. Native Americans seemed to regard their lighter-complexioned visitors as something of a marvel, not only for their dress, beards, and winged ships but even more for their technology—steel knives and swords, fire-belching arquebus (a portable firearm of the 15th and 16th centuries) and cannon, mirrors, hawkbells and earrings, copper and brass kettles, and other items unusual to the way of life of Native Americans.

Initial Reaction to Europeans

Nonetheless, Native Americans soon recognized that the Europeans themselves were very human. Indeed, early records show that 16th- and 17th-century Native Americans very often regarded Europeans as rather despicable specimens. White Europeans, for instance, were frequently accused of being stingy with their wealth and avaricious in their insatiable desire for beaver furs and deer hides. Likewise, Native Americans were surprised at European intolerance for native religious beliefs, sexual and marital arrangements, eating habits, and other customs. At the same time, Native Americans became perplexed when Europeans built permanent structures of wood and stone, thus precluding movement. Even village- and town-dwelling Native Americans were used to relocating when local game, fish, and especially firewood gave out.

To many Native Americans, the Europeans appeared to be oblivious to the rhythms and spirit of nature. Nature to the Europeans seemed to be an obstacle, even an enemy. It was also a commodity: A forest was so many board feet of timber, a beaver colony so many pelts, a herd of buffalo so many robes and tongues. Some Europeans perceived the Native Americans themselves as a resource—souls ripe for religious conversion, or a plentiful supply of labor. Europeans, in sum, were regarded as somewhat mechanical—soulless creatures who wielded ingenious tools and weapons to accomplish their ends.

Relations with the Colonial Powers

"We came here to serve God, and also to get rich," announced a member of the entourage of Spanish explorer and conqueror Hernán Cortés. Both agendas of 16th-century Spaniards, the commercial and the religious, needed the Native Americans themselves in order to be successful. The Spanish conquistadors and other adventurers wanted the land and labor of the Native Americans; the priests and friars laid claim to their souls. Ultimately, both programs were destructive to many indigenous peoples of the Americas. The first robbed them of their freedom and, in many cases, their lives; the second deprived them of their culture.

Contrary to many stereotypes, however, many 16th-century Spaniards agonized over the ethics of conquest. Important Spanish jurists and humanists argued at length over the legality of depriving the Native Americans of their land and coercing them to submit to Spanish authority. For the Native Americans, however, these ethical debates did little good.

The situation for Native Americans was considerably less destructive in Canada, where French commercial interests centered on the fur trade. Many of the indigenous peoples were vital suppliers of beaver, otter, muskrat, mink, and other valuable pelts. It would have been ruinous for the French to have mistreated such useful business partners. It was also unnecessary, as the lure of trade goods was sufficient incentive for the native hunters to transport the pelts to Montréal, Trois-Rivières, and Québec.

Another factor favoring the relative independence of the indigenous peoples of Canada was the French need for allies in their wars with the British—both to the south, in the thirteen colonies, and to the north, on the shores of Hudson Bay. Both the French and British employed Native Americans as auxiliaries in their wars.

While the French tended to regard the indigenous peoples as equals and intermarriage as acceptable, the English were not so inclined. English scorn for Native Americans no doubt derived in large measure from the tensions and friction generated by the English desire to acquire more and more land. Unlike the French in Canada, the English settled the Atlantic seaboard of the present-day United States on a relatively massive scale, and in the process displaced many more Native Americans. Moreover, Native Americans were not considered nearly as important to the English economy as they were to the French. The result was that the English generally viewed them as an obstacle to progress and a nuisance—except when war with France threatened; at such times the English attempted to purchase the support or neutrality of the indigenous peoples with outlays of gifts.

The Ravages of Disease

In 1492 the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and Andean South America were among the most densely populated regions of the hemisphere. Yet, within a span of several generations, each experienced a cataclysmic population decline. The culprit, to a large extent, was microbial infection: European-brought diseases such as smallpox, pulmonary ailments, and gastrointestinal disorders, all of which had been unknown in the Americas during the pre-Columbian period. Native Americans were immunologically vulnerable to this invisible conqueror.

The destruction was especially visible in Latin America, where great masses of susceptible individuals were congregated in cities such as Tenochtitlán and Cuzco, not to mention the innumerable towns and villages dotting the countryside. More than anything else, it was the appalling magnitude of these deaths from disease that prompted the vigorous Spanish debate over the morality of conquest.

As the indigenous population in the Caribbean plummeted, Spaniards resorted to slave raids on the mainland of what is now Florida to bolster the work force. When the time came that this, too, proved insufficient, they took to importing West Africans to work the cane fields and silver mines.

Those Native Americans who did survive were often assigned, as an entire village or community to a planter or mine operator to whom they would owe all their services. The encomienda system, as it came to be known, amounted to virtual slavery. This, too, broke the spirit and health of the indigenous peoples, making them all the more vulnerable to the diseases brought by the Europeans.

Death from microbial infection was probably not as extensive in the Canadian forest, where most of the indigenous peoples lived as migratory hunter-gatherers. Village farmers, such as the Huron north of Lake Ontario, did, however, suffer serious depopulation in waves of epidemics that may have been triggered by Jesuit priests and their lay assistants, who had established missions in the area.

Wars and Enforced Migrations

Without a doubt, the indigenous peoples of Canada suffered fewer dislocations than did the indigenous peoples of Latin or English America. This can be partly explained by the nature of the fur trade, which militated against settlement; the idea was to maintain the wilderness so that fur-bearing animals would continue to flourish. Furthermore, French settlement in Canada was restricted to a thin line of seigneuries (large tracts of land) and villages along the banks of the Saint Lawrence and lower Ottawa rivers. This demographic and commercial legacy continues to be felt in present-day Canada, where numerous indigenous groups may be found living in a more or less traditional manner, at least for part of the year.

In contrast, English-Native American relations in the 17th and 18th centuries were marked by a series of particularly vicious wars won by the English. The English exercised the mandate of victory to insist that the Native Americans submit to English sovereignty and either confine their activities to strictly delimited tracts of land near areas of English settlement or move out beyond the frontier.

Disease was also a grim factor in the American colonies, where the majority of the Eastern Woodlands people lived as village farmers. Severely affected by smallpox and war and harassed by settlers, many of the peoples indigenous to the eastern coastal areas gathered together their remnants and sought refuge west of the Appalachians.

Relations with the United States



One of the problems confronting the young United States was what to do with Native American peoples, particularly those in the Old Northwest (today called the Midwest) and South. The Treaty of Paris (1783), which formally ended the American Revolution, had made no mention of the country's indigenous peoples, reflecting Great Britain's ambiguous jurisdiction over them. The United States would have to chart its own course, which it did in Article I, Section 8, of its Constitution: "The Congress shall have Power … To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes." This was the law from which more than 200 years of federal legislation and programs would derive.

In the closing years of the 18th century, many of these "new" Americans were migrating in search of land across the Alleghenies and the Blue Ridge into the Ohio Valley, Kentucky, and Tennessee—areas where various Native American nations were still intact and strong. Once there, many of these migrants squatted on Native American land, with the predictable result: war. A series of battles culminated in 1794 in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in northwestern Ohio, won by the forces of American General Anthony Wayne; it was followed, a year later, by the forced Treaty of Greenville, establishing a definite boundary between what was designated "Indian Territory" and white settlement.

The Trade and Intercourse Acts


These were difficult years for the fledgling government of the United States. Dominated by easterners, who were far removed from the brutality and anxieties of the trans-Appalachian frontier, the Congress of the United States was interested in pursuing a just and humane policy toward Native Americans. This was the rationale behind the passage of the Trade and Intercourse Acts, a series of programs at the turn of the century aimed at reducing fraud and other abuses in commerce with Native Americans. In practice, Congress sought to extinguish Native American titles to lands through peaceful negotiation before white settlement.

However, Washington policymakers and eastern humanitarians could not control the frontier. To many frontier dwellers in Kentucky or Ohio, the indigenous peoples needed to be exterminated. Providence, they believed, had ordained that Anglo-Saxon stock should push west until it could go no farther. It was "progress" to dispossess the Native Americans of their land, which in the eyes of these new settlers had lain idle for millennia. The settlers would break the soil and use it.

Native Americans were thus regarded as an anachronism—irreclaimable "children of the forest" by some, particularly those west of the Appalachians, and redeemable "savages" by many eastern philanthropists and humanitarians. It was the latter group, which included President Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809), that sought to incorporate the indigenous peoples into the mainstream of U.S. society by means of an ambitious, largely church-operated educational program. The goal was to convey the virtues of the independent yeoman farmer to the tribespeople, in the hope that they would emulate them. By the 1820s, however, even the staunchest defenders of this program were admitting defeat.

The Removal Act





The Indian Removal Act was passed in May 1830; it empowered the president of the United States to move eastern Native Americans west of the Mississippi, to what was then "Indian Territory" (now essentially Oklahoma). Although it was supposed to be voluntary, removal became mandatory whenever the federal government felt it necessary. The memory of these brutal forced marches of Native Americans, sometimes in the dead of winter, remained vivid for years to come in the minds of those who survived. To many in the North, where support for the removal idea was at best tepid, the Indian Removal Act represented another outrage committed by slaveholding southerners. Removal would be another wedge separating the North from the South.

By midcentury, as it became clear that U.S. expansion was going to claim the trans-Mississippi West as well, the removal concept was further refined into the concept of "reservations." As wagon trains clattered west along the Oregon, Santa Fe, Mormon, and California trails, entering the American Great Plains, United States government officials concluded that the vast, unspecified tracts of "Indian Territory" would have to be more sharply defined as reservations. And when resident peoples sought to thwart that westward expansion, the same Washington officials decided that these peoples were to be rounded up by the U.S. Army and restricted to these reservations by force. That, in essence, was the point of the Plains Indian Wars, which raged during the last half of the 19th century, ending with the slaughter of Sioux men, women, and children, as well as the soldiers of the U.S. 7th Cavalry, at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on December 29, 1890.

The Allotment Act


By 1890 Americans had migrated all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The frontier era had ended. Well before that date, however, it had become clear to many that a new policy had to be adopted toward Native Americans, whose dwindling numbers seemed to threaten extinction. Congress began moving in this direction in 1871, when it unilaterally decided to abandon the treaty process and legislate on the behalf of Native Americans. Whereas a century before they had functioned as sovereign nations, Native Americans were now wards of the United States government.

The new plan to rescue Native Americans from extinction called for an aggressive assault on tribalism by parceling out communally owned reservation land on a severalty (individual) basis. The plan, called the Dawes Act (or General Allotment Act), went into effect in 1887. Hundreds of thousands of acres remaining after the individual 160-acre allotments had been made were then sold at bargain prices to land-hungry or land-speculating whites.

This allotment, designed to absorb the Native Americans into the society of the United States, turned out to be a monumental disaster. In addition to losing their "surplus" tribal land, many Native Americans families lost their allotted land as well, despite the government's 25-year period of trusteeship. The poorest of the nation's poor—many of them now landless and the majority still resisting assimilation—Native Americans reached their lowest population numbers shortly after the turn of the 20th century. In June 1924 the U.S. Congress granted these original Americans United States citizenship.

Stereotypes of Native Americans

Many other cultures, such many people of the United States, have failed to grasp the complexity of Native American culture and society, and as a result Native Americans were often dismissed as juvenile and superstitious—in other words, as "primitive." The "primitive Indian," supposedly equipped with a rudimentary technology and a child's mind, is surely the most fundamental and ancient of stereotypes of Native Americans. Those Native Americans who were perceived to be courageous and wise and selfless were dubbed noble "savages." By the early 19th century, however, these "noble savages" seemed to have disappeared, as James Fenimore Cooper reminded readers in The Last of the Mohicans (1826). All that was left, or so it seemed to many white settlers, was the stereotype of the disheveled, snake-eyed, beggarly survivor who hung around the frontier outpost—the "drunken Indian". By the end of the century even the "drunken Indian" seemed on the verge of extinction. Far from vanishing, however, the "Indian" eventually turned up in movies as a breechclothed Plains warrior. Finally, in the 1960s, as the Hollywood cliché faded, the Indian emerged as the model ecologist, hero of the ecology and counterculture movement. Flattering or unflattering, the images are all caricatures which fail to acknowledge the depth and diversity of Native American cultures.

Native Americans in Contemporary Society


The Native American population in the United States has increased steadily in the 20th century; by 1990 the number of Native Americans, including Aleuts and Inuits, was almost two million, or 0.8 percent of the total U.S. population. Slightly more than one-third of these people live on reservations; about half live in urban areas, often near the reservations. The U.S. government holds about 23 million hectares (56 million acres) in trust for 314 federally recognized tribes and groups in the form of reservations, pueblos, rancherias, and trust lands. There are 278 reservations in 35 states. The largest reservation is the Navajo (mostly in Arizona), with nearly 6.4 million hectares (16 million acres) and over 140,000 people; the smallest is the state reservation of Golden Hill in Connecticut, with 0.1 hectare (0.25 acre) and 6 people. In Alaska there are 48 additional tribal groups and the situation is different (see Self-determination below).

Tribal Sovereignty

The basic distinction that sets Native Americans apart from other groups of people in the United States is their historic existence as self-governing peoples, whose nationhood preceded that of the United States. As nations, they signed treaties with colonial authorities and later with the U.S. government, and today, on what remains of their former lands, they continue to function as separate governments within the federal framework.

The United States has long acknowledged a special "government-to-government" relationship with the recognized Native American groups and with the Alaskan Native Villages. Also, the United States government is deemed to have a trust relationship with Native American people which means that the United States, in return for vast tracts of Native American lands, assumed contractual and statutory responsibilities to protect remaining Native American lands and to promote the health, welfare, and education of Native Americans.

20th-Century U.S. Policies

In practice, the United States government, as trustee, has subjected Native Americans to bewildering policy switches, often without their consent, as new theories have gained the support of the federal government.

The Indian Reorganization Act

The passage of the Indian Reorganization Act (1934) signaled the end of the "Allotment Era," which started with the Dawes Act of 1887 and during which it had been hoped that Native Americans could be coaxed or coerced to abandon their traditional tribal ways and to assimilate into the society of the United States. Great emphasis was placed on the need to "civilize" and to teach Christianity to Native Americans. To this end, young Native American children were sent to distant government- or church-run boarding schools, often thousands of miles from the "detrimental" influences of their home reservations.

With the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, United States policy took a dramatic swing and acknowledged the continuing force and value of Native American tribal existence. The "Indian New Deal," ushered in by the reform-minded Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier, put an end to further allotment of lands. Native American tribes were encouraged to organize governments under the terms of the Indian Reorganization Act and to adopt constitutions and by-laws, subject to the approval of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The act further provided for the reacquisition of tribal lands and established preferential hiring of Native Americans within the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Native American tribes were authorized to set up business corporations for economic development, and a credit program was established to back tribal and individual enterprises.

The Termination Period

Implementation of the Indian Reorganization Act slowed considerably after the United States entered World War II in 1941, and after the war ended in 1945 a new policy was formulated—that of terminating federal trust responsibility to Native American tribes. Whereas earlier the assimilationists had envisioned a time when tribal entities and reservations would disappear because of assimilation, the proponents of termination decided the time had come to legislate them out of existence. Arguing that Native Americans should be treated exactly as all other citizens, the United States Congress resolved in 1953 to work toward the withdrawal of all federal support and responsibility for Native American affairs.

In the next two decades—the termination period—United States federal services were withdrawn from about 11,500 Native Americans, and federal trust protection removed from 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres). The land was often sold and the proceeds divided among tribal members. A few years after their termination in 1961, the Menominees of Wisconsin, the largest tribe so treated, were almost totally dependent on welfare.

In 1970 United States President Richard M. Nixon officially repudiated termination as a policy. The need to reevaluate United States government policy toward Native Americans once again became evident, as Native American activists staged public protests—first with the occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay from 1969 to 1971, then with the occupation in 1972 of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., and subsequently with the 71-day armed siege at Wounded Knee in 1973 (see Sioux).


In the 1970s, Native American demands for greater authority over their own lives and reservations led to a new federal policy encouraging self-determination. Still in effect, this policy in many ways reflects the earlier goals of the Indian Reorganization Act; its most significant feature is the emphasis on tribal administration of federal programs for Native Americans, including health, education, and welfare, law enforcement, and housing.

Native American tribes have increasingly resorted to federal court actions to test the extent of their jurisdiction on reservations and to assert long-ignored treaty rights to land, water, and off-reservation hunting and fishing. Congressional efforts have also led to the return of many Native American religious sites to tribal possession, including the sacred Blue Lake of the Taos Pueblo.

The Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act of 1971 resolved long unsettled claims of that state's Inuit and Aleut population, with a cash settlement of $962 million and 16 million hectares (40 million acres) of land. The act established 12 Native Regional Corporations and more than 200 Native Village Corporations to manage the land and money. Many observers fear that this act might eventually result in the loss of much land to nonnatives, as did the Allotment Act of 1887. In 1988 the United States Congress passed amendments to correct flaws in the act, thus diminishing the risk that most corporations and their land will be controlled by nonnatives. The amendments do not address native sovereignty or subsistence rights. Sections of the native community continue to be concerned as to whether the amendments adequately protect long-term control of the land.

Many tribes in the eastern United States initiated land claims in the 1970s, based on an obscure law from 1790, and in 1980 the United States Congress agreed to a settlement providing three Maine tribes with 120,000 hectares (300,000 acres) and a $27 million trust fund. The U.S. government also established a procedure whereby tribes not recognized as such could petition for review of their nontribal status.

Native North Americans Today

Statistics of health, education, unemployment rates, and income levels continue to show Native Americans as disadvantaged compared to the general population of North America. In the 1980s U.S. government policies have led to budget cuts for social and welfare services on the reservations. However, according to the United States Census Bureau, the Native American population in the United States rose more than 20 percent between 1980 and 1990. Pride in Native American heritage has survived as well. On many reservations, tribal languages and religious ceremonies are enjoying renewed vigor. Traditional arts and crafts, such as Pueblo pottery and Navajo weaving, continue to be practiced, and some contemporary Native American artists of North America, such as Fritz Scholder and R. C. Gorman, have successfully adapted European styles to their paintings and prints of Native American subjects. The strength of the Native American narrative tradition can be felt in the poetry and novels of the Native American writer N. Scott Momaday, who won a Pulitzer Prize in fiction for his House Made of Dawn (1969). Other prestigious contemporary Native American writers of North America include Vine Deloria, best known for his indictment of U.S. policy toward Native Americans in Custer Died for Your Sins (1969) and Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties (1974); novelists James Welch and Leslie Marmon Silko; and William Least Heat-Moon, author of the widely popular Blue Highways: A Journey into America (1983), an account of his travels in the United States.

Native Americans of Latin America

The Native American population of Latin America is estimated at 26.3 million, of whom 24 million live in Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru. Generally classified as campesinos (peasants) by the governments of the countries in which they live, the vast majority live in extreme poverty in remote rural areas where they eke out a living from the land. Native American campesinos make up 55 percent of the total population of Bolivia and Guatemala. In all of Latin America, only Uruguay has no remaining indigenous population.

Only 1.5 percent of the total Native American population of Latin America is designated as tribal, mainly in Brazil, Colombia, Panama, Paraguay, and Venezuela. Many of the tribal groups live in the remote jungle environment of the Amazon Basin, where they subsist by hunting, fishing, and gathering manioc and other roots. Current Brazilian expansion into the Amazon, however, threatens the physical and cultural survival of the Amazon tribes, as diseases brought by outsiders decimate the indigenous populations, and mineral exploration and highway construction destroy tribal hunting grounds.

The largest unacculturated Brazilian tribe today is the Yanomamo, numbering more than 16,000 people, for whom the Brazilian government plans to create a special park where they may be protected. Anthropologists estimate, however, that the Yanomamo would need at least 6.4 million hectares (16 million acres) in order to continue their traditional life-style.

The total indigenous population of Latin America includes slightly more than 400 different Native American groups, with their own languages or dialects. Like the Native Americans of North America, they live in vast extremes of climate and conditions, ranging from the Amazon jungle to the heights of the Andes, where one group, on Lake Titicaca, subsists on artificial islands of floating reeds.


Contributed by:

Sandra L. Cadwalader