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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, such as the Eskimo or Inuit in Alaska, Northern Canada and Greenland and the Aleuts in the Aleutian Islands, inhabited less hospitable northern areas.


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; for example, the high-grade flint from the Niagara region has been found at pre-Columbian Hopi and Navaho sites.

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.

Prehistoric sites[edit]

Artifacts have been found at a number of archeological sites dating back before 10,000 BCE. 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. They were stone age hunters and produced distintive 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 archeologists. Several teams digging in locations from Canada to Chile have found evidence of even earlier humans, but Clovis is the earliest widespread culture with solidly confirmed evidence that everyone in the field accepts.

  • 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 on Wikipedia Triquet island (Q22525958) on Wikidata
  • Truly ancient inhabitants? (near San Diego). One paper claims to have found evidence of hominids using stone tools and hunting mammoths in California around 130,000 BCE. It is not clear what species of hominid was involved; one press report headed their story "Neanderthals in California?".

    The authors and the journal (Nature) are quite respectable, but these findings are highly controversial.

Eastern US[edit]

Northwest US[edit]

  • 7 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.
  • 8 Little Bighorn Battlefield (Custer's last stand) (near Crow Agency, Montana). Site of a major Indian victory over US cavalry in 1876.
  • 9 Standing Rock. Center of controversy in 2016 as local Indians tried to block construction of a pipeline that threatened their water supply.
  • 10 Whitman Mission (near Walla Walla, Washington).

Southwest US and Northern Mexico[edit]


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
  • 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

See also[edit]

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