Ivy Roberts has taught undergraduate-level film studies for over 9 years. She has a PhD in Media, Art and Text from Virginia Commonwealth University and a BA in film production from Marlboro College. She also has a certificate in teaching online from UMGC and non-profit marketing and fundraising from UC Davis.
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).
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.
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.
When Homesteaders moved west in the late nineteenth century, installed barbed wire fencing and began to farm the land, native wild game was decimated. Consequently, this had a detrimental effect on the Native American tribes as well. The buffalo were restricted to certain areas, and the Native Americans of the Plains were sequestered to reservations. Western Expansion, the principle associated with the belief that Europeans had a God-given responsibility to take ownership of the North American continent, devastated the Plains Indians.
Native Americans of the Northeast
Northeast tribes are as diverse as the region is wide. Iroquois, Algonquin, and Mohicans make up some of the many tribes that live in the American Northeast. They made their home in the dense, forested areas and mountains stretching from Quebec to North Carolina and inland to the Mississippi. Tribes of the Northeast subsisted off the land as hunters and gatherers.
They were the first to make contact with Europeans, passing along to us such words as tomahawk, papoose, and powwow. Northeastern tribes lived in tipis, conical houses erected from wood and covered in animal skins, and wigwams, domed dwellings covered in grass or bark. The Northern Iroquois lived in the area now known as New York State. They made homes called longhouses similar to the Navajo hogans: long, vaulted halls.
While Native American tribes of North America are as culturally diverse as they are dispersed across the continent, they all have one thing in common: their spiritual and cultural connection to the land. Depending on the region, tribespeople developed social, economic, and cultural systems tied closely to the natural environment. The Hopi Snake Dance, for example, speaks to the importance of water resources and reptile species to the tribes of the southwest. As a consequence of Westward Expansion and homesteading, Native American tribes of the Great Plains faced similar consequences as the wild game that once roamed the open countryside. Native American culture has volumes to teach modern society about the importance of stewardship and sustainability.
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