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Indigenous cultures of North America

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The indigenous peoples of North America are the tribes and nations whose ancestors were already on the continent when European explorers and colonizers arrived.

The largest group are American Indians who arrived before 10,000 BC, inhabited most of the continent, and are closely related to the indigenous cultures of South America. In the US they are now usually called Native Americans and in Canada First Nations. Groups that arrived later settled in less hospitable northern areas, the Eskimo or Inuit in Alaska, Northern Canada and Greenland and the Aleuts in the Aleutian Islands. Further, there are the Métis people of Canada and the northern US who have a distinct culture of their own blending indigenous and European (French and Scottish) elements.

Native Hawaiians are from a very different culture and history and are not included in this guide. See Hawaii#History.

Understand[edit]

Cultural areas of North America at time of Spanish contact

There have been hundreds of indigenous nations and tribes. Many exist today, though often greatly reduced in numbers and territory, while others were wiped out by Europeans (in particular the Spanish, British, French), or the modern states which succeeded them (the U.S., Mexico, Canada, etc.), either from diseases brought from the Old World, by military conquest or for other reasons.

Anthropologists who study indigenous cultures tend to group them either according the similarities of their languages or by their geographic location. Language is useful in determining which groups are related to each other and how they migrated over time. For example, the relationships within the Uto-Aztecan language family suggests that the founders of the Aztec Empire were related to groups from thousands of kilometres to the north in the present-day United States, like the Utes. Geography is more useful is imagining how people go about their day to day lives: peoples living in a similar climate tend to have similar lifestyles based on harvesting the same natural resources. Here are some main cultural region, correlated with guides on Wikivoyage:

Peoples can and did move across these regional boundaries, often moving seasonally to access different resources at different times of the year, for example people from the Subarctic region spending part of the year on the Great Plains to hunt bison. Also there was extensive trade; the high-grade flint from the Niagara region has been found at pre-Columbian Hopi and Navaho sites in the U.S. Southwest, and obsidian from Yellowstone, Wyoming was traded as far away as the U.S. Gulf Coast a thousand years before Columbus.

The Mesoamericans, Southwestern, Southeastern, and Northeastern cultures were farmers, and these groups had large, complex societies with permanent settlements, specialized artisans and officials, and social hierarchy. The majority of people living in North America at the time of contact lived in these regions. The Mesoamerican civilizations (Mayans, Aztecs, Toltecs, Olmecs, etc.) were the earliest farmers, domesticating the "Three Sisters" of maize (corn), squash, and beans. Mesoamericans also had the the most urbanized societies, with a network of villages, towns, and even walled cities featuring large temples and palaces, and were the only ones in the New World to have writing. The Southwestern peoples eventually developed strains of the Three Sisters that could survive their their harsh, desert climate and build abode-walled villages, or in Spanish pueblos, and are often known as puebloans. The Southeastern peoples adopted the Three Sisters from the Mesoamericans and built large earth mounds and had relatively a few relatively large towns and cities, as well as many smaller villages. Northeastern cultures lived in small, fenced villages and practised a mixed lifestyle that combined shifting agriculture (the Three Sisters, as well as wild rice), with hunting and gathering.

Most of the rest continent was populated by hunter-gatherers. They were dependent on the North American wildlife for survival. They typically lived in portable dwellings (domed wigwams or hogans, conical teepees) so they could follow their principle game animals: bison on the plains, deer and moose in the subarctic, and so on. Their population densities were very low, especially in Subarctic. An exception to this were peoples of the North West Coast who despite not practising agriculture where able to live in hard-walled houses in relatively larger population densities due to the abundance of seafood available in their region.

Note that the island of Newfoudland, is excluded from this list since it's original indigenous population, the Beothuk, are extinct, but are believed to have followed a subarctic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Newfoundland was later re-settled by Mi'kmaq people from Nova Scotia.

Destinations[edit]

Natives live all over North America and some native artefacts can be found in many museums all over the continent.

Prehistoric sites[edit]

Artifacts have been found at a number of archeological sites dating back many thousands of years. The sites themselves are closed to visitors when excavations are under way, and visiting them at other times is likely to be a bad idea — not much to see and digging on your own would be a crime. However, nearby museums are often worth a visit and there may be opportunities for volunteer work on some sites.

Map of Indigenous cultures of North America
  • 1 On Your Knees Cave (Prince of Wales Island, Southern Alaska). Has artifacts from about 8,000 BCE. On Your Knees Cave (Q2023647) on Wikidata On Your Knees Cave on Wikipedia
  • 2 Sun River (Tanana River Valley, Interior Alaska). This site is from about 9,500 BCE and has the oldest human remains yet found in the Arctic. Its people are thought to have been descended from Ancient Beringians, the first group to cross the Bering Strait land bridge several thousand years earlier; DNA evidence suggests the Beringians were not closely related to later groups. Upward Sun River site (Q22058534) on Wikidata Upward Sun River site on Wikipedia
  • 8 Triquet Island (off the BC coast). Site of a village that appears to have been a refuge from the last ice age, 12,000 BCE or earlier. Triquet island (Q22525958) on Wikidata Triquet Island on Wikipedia
  • 9 Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (Estipah-skikikini-kots) (near Fort Macleod, Alberta), +1 403-553-2731. This buffalo jump is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Native hunters would drive a whole herd over a cliff. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (Q683110) on Wikidata Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump on Wikipedia
  • 10 Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village (Mitchell Site, Boehnen Museum, Thomsen Center Archeodome), Mitchell, +1 605 996-5473. The Boehnen Museum offers exhibits related to the thousand year old village. Included in the museum is a reconstructed lodge, next door the Thomsen Center Archeodome covers the on-going archeological dig and provides a teaching and research facility as well as some hands on activities upstairs.
  • 11 Áísínai’pi National Historic Site of Canada (Writing-on-Stone, Glyphs) (about 100 kilometres southeast of Lethbridge, Alberta), +1 403-647-2364. Home to Siksika (Blackfoot) glyphs that date back as much as 9,000 years. Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park (Q8038519) on Wikidata Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park on Wikipedia
  • 12 Majorville Medicine Wheel ("Canada's Stonehenge"). A sacred Blackfoot site dating back to about 3200 BCE. Majorville Cairn and Medicine Wheel (Q38528585) on Wikidata Majorville Cairn and Medicine Wheel site on Wikipedia
  • 13 Clovis Culture (near Clovis (New Mexico)). A site from around 11,000 BCE; many tools and one grave have been found at Blackwater Draw near Clovis. The people were stone age hunters and produced distinctive flint work called Clovis points. Clovis is the "type site" for the culture, first excavated around 1920. Clovis culture (Q3485378) on Wikidata Clovis culture on Wikipedia
  • 27 Sermermiut (near Ilulissat). 4,000-year-old settlement. Archeological excavations have shown the site being inhabited by the Saqqaq, Early Dorset and Thule cultures. Sermermiut (Q3957914) on Wikidata Sermermiut on Wikipedia
  • 28 Mantle Site, Wendat (Huron) Ancestral Village (Jean-Baptiste Lainé). Largest site associated with the Huron (Wendat) people yet found, discovered 2012. Mantle Site, Wendat (Huron) Ancestral Village (Q1891309) on Wikidata Mantle Site, Wendat (Huron) Ancestral Village on Wikipedia

Post-contact historic sites[edit]

  • 1 Wounded Knee. Site of a massacre of over 150 Indians, mainly Sioux, by US Cavalry in 1890. Also of an armed standoff between the American Indian Movement and various law enforcement agencies in 1973. Wounded Knee Massacre (Q108413) on Wikidata Wounded Knee Massacre on Wikipedia
  • 2 Little Bighorn Battlefield (Custer's last stand) (near Crow Agency, Montana). Site of a major Indian victory over US cavalry in 1876. Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (Q1865583) on Wikidata Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument on Wikipedia
  • 3 Chief Crazy Horse Memorial. Under construction in South Dakota. Crazy Horse was one of the leaders at Little Bighorn.
  • 4 Standing Rock. Center of controversy in 2016 as local Indians tried to block construction of a pipeline that threatened their water supply. Standing Rock Indian Reservation (Q3028848) on Wikidata Standing Rock Indian Reservation on Wikipedia
  • 5 Whitman Mission (near Walla Walla, Washington). Whitman Mission National Historic Site (Q3499361) on Wikidata Whitman Mission National Historic Site on Wikipedia
  • 6 Batoche National Historic Site, Rosthern, . The site of the historic Battle of Batoche during the Northwest Rebellion of 1885. The sites include a NWMP encampment, a church and rectory complex, and a farm home. Batoche (Q810869) on Wikidata Batoche, Saskatchewan on Wikipedia

Museums[edit]

Buy[edit]

Northwest Coast Art found far from its home region at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau (near Ottawa).
See also: Art and antiques shopping

Various native handicrafts are often sold in tourist areas of some cities, for example:

Native handicrafts are also sold on or near reserves; for example, the Navajo Nation has fine weavings and pottery.

Itineraries[edit]

  • Lewis and Clark Trail, route of a US government expedition to what is now Oregon, 1804-1806
  • Trail of Tears, route of a forced migration of Cherokee and others in which several thousand died
  • The Mohawk Trail, a scenic route in Massachusetts
  • Oregon Trail, a route of widespread settler colonization westward which had a severe impact on native communities on the trail

See also[edit]


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