Native American Tribes: Names & Cultures

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

In this lesson, we will encounter Native American tribes and cultures from the Northeast, Great Plains, and Southwest regions. The lesson explores cultural differences between tribes of each major region.

What Insights Can Native American Cultures Offer Today?

Native American cultures can be found at all corners of North America, and across most of the territories in between. Because the bond between human and nature is so strong, each tribe developed a unique political, social, economic, and symbolic identity based firmly in its connection to the landscape and tied to the region they call home. For example, snakes have an important place in southwestern cultures. Buffalo lived on the plains and bears in the northeast. Aspects of each of these animals can be found in their mythology, dress, and economic life. Chief Robbie Dick of the Cree Indians in Great Whale, Quebec, succinctly states, 'It's very hard to explain to white people what we mean by 'Land is part of our life. We're like rocks and trees' ' (Land and Native American Cultures, Smithsonian Center for Folklife).

Regions of indigenous peoples of North America
map

In this lesson, we will focus on the Native American tribes in the Southwest, Great Plains and Northeast regions of the United States. Of course, Native American tribes populated other parts of the continent as well. The Inuit and Eskimo live in Alaska and northern Canada. Dispersed tribes can also be found in the Pacific Northwest, California, and the Great Basin west of the Rockies. The Seminoles make the southeast their home.

As with the distinct cultures of the desert, plains, and mountain regions, each tribe has at least one thing in common: an intimate bond with their natural environment. And this is one thing that is increasingly getting lost in today's technological environment. As such, all Native American cultures have important lessons to teach about sustainability, the practice of taking only as much as the natural environment can give, and stewardship, the responsible protection and maintenance of the land. Further, for those who don't have a Native American background, learning about these cultures can encourage you to go outside your comfort zone and see the world in new ways. The Native American reverence for nature will open your eyes to a different way of living.

Tribes of the Southwest

The southwestern region of North America is home to many Native American tribes. Pueblo, Navajo, and Hopi tribes all call this region home. The region encompasses what is now Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of southern Texas. The Pueblo tribe takes their name from the types of homes in which they reside: strong structures made of stone and clay. The Navajo have traditionally lived in huts called hogans, made from tree bark and grass. In addition to their unique southwestern dwellings, these tribes are also admired for their pottery and textile art works.

The Hopi Snake Dance is an ancient religious ritual that underscores the culture's intimate bond between the people and this desert landscape. Scholars believe that it was originally a water ceremony, as snakes are symbolic of the bodies of water they are found near. In modern times it is practiced as a rain ceremony. Portrayed in the photograph below, the dancers each hold a live snake, wear ceremonial clothing, and dance in a circle. Pueblo houses can be seen in the background.

A line of dancing braves in the Hopi Snake Dance Ceremony at its height, Oraibi, Arizona, 1898
dance

Great Plains Tribes

The Cheyenne, Comanche, and Sioux are just three of many tribes that made their home on the Great Plains. Before the encroachment of Western farmers and ranchers, these nomadic tribes were hunters and warriors who relied on herds of buffalo, elk, and deer for their way of life. In addition to making leather hides for clothing and eating the meat, these tribes incorporated the animals into their rituals and stories.

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