Travel topics > Cultural attractions > Ethnic groups > Indigenous cultures of North America
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, such as the Eskimo or Inuit in Alaska, Northern Canada and Greenland and the Aleuts in the Aleutian Islands, inhabited less hospitable northern areas.
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.
- Inuit — Predominantly in Alaska, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Greenland.
- Northwest Coast — Along the coast of southern Alaska, British Columbia, Washington (state) and Oregon.
- Plateau — Southeastern British Columbia, eastern Washington (state).
- Great Basin — Nevada, Utah, southern Idaho and surrounding states.
- Southwestern — In the Southwestern United States and northern Mexico.
- Great Plains — In the Great Plains and northern Texas.
- Northeastern — In the Mid-Atlantic and eastern Canada.
- Southeastern — In the Southern United States.
- Mesoamerican — In Mexico and Central America.
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.
The Mesoamerican civilizations (Mayans, Aztecs, Toltecs) 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.
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.
- 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. 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 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.
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 abundant and solidly confirmed evidence.
- 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.
- 3 On Your Knees Cave (Prince of Wales Island, Southern Alaska). Has artifacts from about 8,000 BCE.
- 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. Based on DNA evidence, 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.
- 5 Áísínai’pi National Historic Site of Canada (Writing-on-Stone, Glyphs) (about 100 kilometres southeast of Lethbridge, Alberta), ☎ . Home to Siksika (Blackfoot) glyphs that date back as much as 9000 years.
- 6 Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Illinois. A UNESCO World Heritage Site with a fine museum. At its peak, around 1200 CE, a city of over 15,000.
- 7 Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa. Effigy mounds shaped like bears and birds.
- 8 Moundsville, West Virginia. Burial mounds from about 200 BCE.
- 9 Pipestone National Monument (Pipestone, Minnesota). Site of quarries for stone used in pipes and ornaments; these are still carved for the tourist trade.
Northwestern US and Western Canada
- 10 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.
- 11 Little Bighorn Battlefield (Custer's last stand) (near Crow Agency, Montana). Site of a major Indian victory over US cavalry in 1876.
- 12 Standing Rock. Center of controversy in 2016 as local Indians tried to block construction of a pipeline that threatened their water supply.
- 13 Whitman Mission (near Walla Walla, Washington).
- 14 Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (Estipah-skikikini-kots) (near Fort Macleod, Alberta), ☎ . This buffalo jump is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Native hunters would drive a whole herd over a cliff.
- 15 Anasazi Heritage Center (near Cortez, Colorado).
- 16 Aztec Ruins National Monument (near Aztec, New Mexico).
- 17 Bandelier National Monument (near Los Alamos, New Mexico).
- 18 Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Southwestern Colorado. Contains more than 6,000 archaeological sites, representing Ancestral Puebloan and other Native American cultures.
- 19 Copper Canyon (In the Mexican state of Chihuahua).
- 20 Hovenweep National Monument (near Cortez, Colorado).
- 21 Mesa Verde National Park (near Cortez, Colorado).
- Navajo Nation
- New Mexico Pueblos
- 22 Yucca House National Monument (near Cortez, Colorado).
- 23 Pecos National Historical Park (near Pecos, New Mexico).
Various native handicrafts are often sold in tourist areas of some cities, for example:
- Northwest coast Indian art in Vancouver or Seattle
- Inuit art in Ottawa (imported from Nunavut)
- Southwestern Indian items including fine silver and turquoise work in Santa Fe.
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