Early Native American Cultures in North America

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The North American continent was home to millions of people before the arrival of Europeans, leading to the development of many unique cultures and lifestyles. In this lesson we'll explore a few prominent nations across the continent.

North American Native American Cultures

When Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic in 1492, he bumped into modern-day Cuba and found people living there. As the Spanish made their way into Mexico, they found people there too. In fact, it seems that the entire hemisphere was populated by the time Europeans arrived. No duh. Across the American continents, people created distinct cultures over thousands of years, generating one of the most linguistically and culturally diverse areas in the entire world. Even within North America alone, Amerindian peoples, those of cultures indigenous to the Americas, developed a multitude of lifestyles and societies to cope with different environments. From Alaska to Florida, Amerindian peoples were as diverse and distinct as the Germans and Japanese, but all found ways to make it in North America.


People of the North

There were literally hundreds of Amerindian cultures across North America, each unique, but we can start by organizing them geographically. Let's start in the northernmost parts of the continent. Although this frigid region has been inhabited continuously for at least 4,000 years, the cultural group to dominate the area are the Inuit. Inuit is a broad term to encompass a wide group of people who speak an Inuktitut based language that spread from Siberia through Alaska and Canada into Greenland. This group arrived relatively late, around 1050 CE, which to many explains why they ended up in the harshest environment in North America; everywhere else was taken. The Inuit were hunters, moving seasonally between hunting camps, who relied on domesticated dogs and even were known for hunting whales. There are eight main ethnic groups of Inuit people still living mostly in modern-day Canada.

The Inuit learned how to live in a very harsh environment

People of the West

Moving south along the Pacific Coast, the next region we'll discuss is the western shore of modern-day British Columbia. Based around the islands of Haida Gwaii. During a period of glaciation roughly 12,000 years ago, sea levels dropped making these islands accessible, and they were inhabited by the ancestors of the Haida people. Not surprisingly, these people became excellent sailors, developing canoes that could sail over open ocean, and Haida culture eventually expanded roughly from modern Alaska down through British Columbia. They were a warring society, and developed sophisticated techniques for both trading and fighting over open waters.

Haida canoes could hold up to 60 people

As we move a bit further south, we'll end up in modern US Pacific Northwest. One of the dominant cultural groups from this area is the Chinook, who originated around the Columbus River. The Chinook were sailors and fishers whose relationships with other Amerindian cultures were generally defined by trade. The Chinook preferred to avoid war, instead resolving conflicts through the maintenance of trade relations, to which they brought canoes and dried fish that were an important source of protein for people all across the region.

People of the Southwest

Our next stop across North America is in the modern American Southwest, previously Northern Mexico and before that home to a diverse set of Amerindian cultures. One of these groups was the Navajo. For centuries, the Navajo were primarily nomadic, moving seasonally and trading with other settled societies of the region. Eventually, however, the Navajo decided to take on farming, adopting the practice from the Pueblo people, and developed permanent settlements. The Navajo were highly-admired craftspeople, noted for their pottery and weaving skills which they frequently traded with other Amerindian nations. To this day, the Navajo are the second-largest federally recognized tribe in the United States and are working to preserve their language through Navajo language colleges and schools.

So, who were these Pueblo people that taught the Navajo to farm? Well, Navajo is a Spanish term, first applied to any Amerindian society that built permanent towns, but for the most part we call these people the Hopi. The Hopi are descendants of the ancestral Pueblo people, amongst the first people in North America to develop year-round agriculture. They relied heavily on trade, selling their crops to nomadic peoples who brought them meat from the plains.

The Hopi were one of the truly settled societies in North America

These nomadic people of the Southwest who both traded with and fought with the Navajo and Hopi were the Apache. The Apache are linguistically related to the Navajo, and evidence suggests that both groups came from somewhere in Northwestern Canada around 1200 CE. The Apache were firmly dedicated to a nomadic lifestyle, split between hunting and warfare, which was intensified after the introduction of horses in the 17th and 18th centuries.

People of the Plains

Of course, the Southwest wasn't the only place with nomadic societies. The Great Plains, which were not great for agriculture before the invention of the steel plow, was home to abundant natural wildlife and diverse people that hunted them. One of these groups was the Comanche, whose territory bordered the Southwest and the Plains. The Comanche were always a dominant warring society, but after the introduction of the horse they became the indisputable masters of the plains. Of the many nations to use the horse, only the Comanche learned to breed horses, domesticate them, and fight from horseback. They were the dominant horse culture of North America for about 200 years, and a constant terror to both the cavalries of the United States and Mexico.

Of course, we can't talk about Plains cultures without discussing the Sioux people, who traditionally lived around the current US-Canada border. There were three main subgroups of Sioux cultures, the Eastern Dakota, Western Dakota, and Lakota. All of the Sioux cultures were at least seasonally nomadic and relied on hunting, generally following the bison around the Plains. They too adopted the horse and used it to great effect, particularly in hunting, although they preferred to trade or steal horses from rivals rather than breed them.

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