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Pre-Columbian Civilization: North American Indians Before Europeans

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Instructor: Clint Hughes

Clint has taught History, Government, Speech Communications, and Drama. He has his master's degree in Instructional Design and Technology.

Watch this video for an overview of the cultural groups of Native American people as they lived at the time of first contact with Europeans. Some of these groupings, like the tribes of the plains, changed so much due to the addition of European influences, such as horses, that there is only conjecture as to how exactly they lived before European contact. Updated: 08/28/2021

Pre-Columbian Civilization: A Vast Land with Many Peoples

First, we have to recognize that this is a U.S. History course—to give complete details of the many nations that existed in what is today the U.S. is far beyond our scope. To give you an idea of the diverse cultures that inhabited the land before Europeans arrived, we'll be discussing the cultural groups of Native American members, not in all of North America, but instead just those within the Lower 48. We'll be looking at the following cultural groups: Northeast, Southeast, Southwest, Northwest Coast, and Great Plains.

There are a few more groupings, but this is a manageable list that should illustrate how unique these different groups are.

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  • 0:05 A Vast Land with Many People
  • 0:45 Tribes of the Northeast
  • 2:19 Tribes of the Southeast
  • 3:15 Tribes of the Southwest
  • 5:29 Tribes of the Northwest Coast
  • 6:16 Tribes of the Great Plains
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The Tribes of the Northeast

These are the tribes that encountered the Pilgrims. Remember, Columbus never even touched the shores of what is today the U.S., so these people are completely different from those who were first encountered by the early explorers.

The tribes of the Northeast lived in the territory from the Atlantic shores to the Mississippi Valley and from the Great Lakes to as far south as the Cumberland River in Tennessee. The people in this group include the Iroquois and Algonquian citizens. These tribes relied on each other for a very long time for trade but also spent a great deal of time as warring enemies.

Depiction of Native Americans belonging to Northeast tribes
Northeast Tribe Images

The Northeast tribes cleared forests to plant crops and used the lumber to build homes and make tools. The women of many of these tribes did all of the work with crops, while the men primarily hunted and fished.

An interesting note on the Iroquois tribe's social structure is that it was matrilineal. This means when a couple married, the man joined the woman's family. After marriage, the man was no longer considered a part of his birth family.

The Iroquois League is quite famous because it is believed that the coming together of the 13 colonies was based on this coming together of this group consisting of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and the Mohawk tribes. The League of the Iroquois was feared by all other tribes of the region.

The Tribes of the Southeast

The Southeast cultural group stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Trinity River in what is today Texas and from the Gulf of Mexico north as far as points in modern-day Missouri, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

The tribes in this group included the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole. These are the people who would be referred to by white people as ''the Five Civilized Tribes.'' They were given this title because many of them decided to adopt the customs of the colonists. They are also the people who later were victims of the forced relocation known as the Trail of Tears.

The Southeastern tribes settled in river valleys. They were first and foremost farmers with hunting and fishing coming in second as their source of sustenance. They lived in various styles of houses like in the pictures here. They included thatched roofs and various styles for the sides. This picture is of a house with plaster sides on a river cane frame. The Cherokee members call this type of home an asi.

A typical dwelling for the Southwestern Navajo
Southwest Indian Tribe Homes

The Tribes of the Southwest

Many people have interesting, or should I say very incorrect, images of the people of the Southwestern tribes. This is because in old movies oftentimes these tribes were shown, but the imagery often used to represent them was more drawn from that of the tribes of the Plains. Many films show an Apache member happily standing next to a tepee… this could not be farther from accurate!

The Southwest cultural group territory goes from the south of present-day Utah and Colorado down through Arizona and New Mexico. This includes parts of Texas, California, and Oklahoma and continues into Mexico. These tribes all have the dry climate binding them together.

Two basic lifestyles developed in the region: farming and nomadic. Agriculture north of Mexico reached its highest level of development in the Southwest. Examples of farming, or agrarian, people include the Hopi, Zuni, and many other tribes. The nomadic groups include tribes such as the Apache, Navajo, and others.

Agrarian tribes like the Hopi and Zuni developed desert farming techniques that did not require irrigation. They relied on the little natural moisture the area does provide by using specific planting techniques and getting the crops in early in the season. They traditionally grew corn, beans, and squash. For meat, they also farmed turkeys and did some hunting.

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