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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.


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 and French), either from diseases brought from the Old World, by military conquest or for other reasons. Here are some main categories, based on geographic locations.

None of these areas were entirely independent, though the tribes were generally quite distinct. There was extensive trade; the high-grade flint from the Niagara region has been found at pre-Columbian Hopi and Navaho sites, and obsidian from Yellowstone was traded as far away as the US Gulf Coast a thousand years before Columbus.

While especially the Mesoamericans and eastern cultures were farmers, most of the continent was populated by hunter-gatherers. They were dependent on the North American wildlife for survival.

There are a group of people in Cuba called the Taino people who are descendants of the indigenous Cubans. However, most Cubans are Hispanic.


The Mesoamerican civilizations (Mayans, Aztecs, Toltecs, Olmecs, etc.) were the main urban societies, and the only ones in the New World to have writing.


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 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, but several other sites have since been found. This culture was quite widespread; Clovis artefacts have been found as far east as Ohio and as far south as Venezuela. DNA tests show a close relation to modern Native Americans and some experts think the Clovis people were the ancestors of all the later groups, but this is disputed.

    Clovis serves as a sort of benchmark for archaeologists; everyone in the field accepts the notion that this culture was widespread well before 10,000 BCE. Several teams digging in locations from Alaska to Chile have found evidence of even earlier humans, but Clovis is the earliest culture for which there is solidly confirmed evidence at multiple sites.
    Clovis culture (Q3485378) on Wikidata Clovis culture on Wikipedia
  • 2 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
  • 3 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
  • 4 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
  • 5 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
  • 6 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

Eastern US[edit]

Northwestern US and Western Canada[edit]

  • 12 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
  • 13 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
  • 14 Chief Crazy Horse Memorial. Under construction in South Dakota. Crazy Horse was one of the leaders at Little Bighorn.
  • 15 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
  • 16 Whitman Mission (near Walla Walla, Washington). Whitman Mission National Historic Site (Q3499361) on Wikidata Whitman Mission National Historic Site on Wikipedia
  • 17 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

Southwest US and Northern Mexico[edit]


  • 32 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


  • 1 Royal Alberta Museum. Royal Alberta Museum (Q2170950) on Wikidata Royal Alberta Museum on Wikipedia
  • 2 Royal British Columbia Museum. Royal British Columbia Museum (Q1542695) on Wikidata Royal British Columbia Museum on Wikipedia
  • 3 Blackfoot Crossing. Blackfoot Crossing (Q4922852) on Wikidata Blackfoot Crossing on Wikipedia
  • Batoche National Historic Site.
  • 4 National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C./National Mall, toll-free: +1 866 400-6624. 10AM-5:30PM daily. This museum displays the cultural traditions of the Native peoples of North, Central, and South America. It focuses on 20th century and present day culture much more than pre-Columbian and colonial periods. The exhibits can be fascinating, but are not as grandiose as those of other Smithsonian museums in DC. Perhaps the most important attraction is the gorgeous building itself, designed by famous Native Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal of Blackfoot descent, echoing the ancient stone formations of the American Southwest, and surrounded by manifestations both metaphorical and literal of natural North American landscapes. National Museum of the American Indian (Q1075141) on Wikidata National Museum of the American Indian on Wikipedia


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.


  • 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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