Pre-Columbian Native American Civilizations
Pre-Columbian Native Americans
It's hard to imagine a time before the United States was a major world power. In fact, it's hard to imagine a time when America wasn't touched and influenced by New England settlers so long ago. Before the first explorer reached American soil, famously by Christopher Columbus in 1492, America was a land owned, harvested and cultivated by the Native American peoples. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, there are 574 nationally recognized Native American tribes. However, during the Pre-Columbian era, there were thought to be over 1,000 Native American civilizations, all residing within what we would consider the United States today. Pre-Columbian means before the influence of European or other cultures. Most of these groups were peaceful hunter-gatherer groups, but there were some variations based on geographical location. When studying these Pre-Columbian civilizations, they are generally grouped into North Eastern Tribes, North Western Tribes, Southwestern Tribes, Southeastern Tribes, and finally Great Plains Tribes. Native Americans built the basis on which this beautiful country was built. Their beliefs, morals, farming techniques, culture, fashion and religion shaped the history of the United States and continues to shape the culture Americans live in today. Without the structure that the Native Americans built, the United States that most love and live in today would not exist. Refer to the following subsections for a further break-down of these groups and their significances.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, there are 25 federally recognized North-Eastern Native American tribes. These are:
- Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians
- Cayuga Nation
- Chickahominy Indian Tribe
- Chickahominy Tribe Eastern Division
- Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians
- Mashantucket Pequot Tribe
- Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe
- Mohegan Tribe of Indians
- Monacan Indian Nation
- Nansemond Indian Tribe
- Narragansett Indian Tribe
- Oneida Indian Nation
- Onondaga Nation
- Pamunkey Indian Tribe
- Passamaquoddy at Indian Township
- Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik
- Penobscot Indian Nation
- Rappahannock Tribe
- Seneca Nation of Indians
- St. Regis Mohawk Tribe
- Shinnecock Indian Nation
- Tonawanda Band of Senecas
- Tuscarora Nation
- Upper Mattaponi Tribe
- Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head
While there are currently 25 recognized tribes, during the pre-Columbian era, there were estimated to be many more. The Northeastern Tribes are considered to be any tribes who were living from the East Coast to the Mississippi River and as far south as North Carolina. This area was mainly composed of temperate forests, wetlands, and coastal zones. There were three main language groups in the Northeast areas- Algonquian, Iroquoian, and Siouan. All of the tribes in the Northeast area spoke either one or a mix of these languages. These groups were mainly agrarian, or agricultural, cultivating the land and farming skills which they would later pass on to European Settlers. They were a fairly peaceful group of tribes, honoring coalitions such as the Iroquois confederacy which was the largest coalition of tribes sharing a language and common law, but they were also known for their brutal warfare and could be ruthless if needed. However, if a member of the tribe was murdered unjustly, then revenge would be taken in the form of the death of the murderer. Socially, the Iroquois had a matrilineal society, meaning that the mother was considered the head of the household. When an Iroquois man married an Iroquois woman, he would join her and her family rather than vice versa as is generally seen in ancient societies. Often times, tribes of 100 or more people would live together in longhouses made of bark until summer, when they would migrate closer to bodies of water and live in wigwams. They are famed for their beautiful beadwork and basket making, which is still prized today. They were also skilled hunters and would trade furs for food and meat amongst tribes.
There are five main tribes considered to be southeastern Native American tribes during the pre-Columbian era. There are:
These tribes were considered the five "civilized" tribes as they were the most assimilated into European society and had the most advanced economic systems. Since these groups lived in the southern area stretching from the Mississippi River to the southeast coast, they enjoyed some of the most fertile lands in the Americas. Because of this, they were skilled farmers like their northern counterparts. They were most known for farming corn, beans, tobacco and sunflowers. Like the Northeastern tribes, they were also skilled bead workers and basket-makers, particularly the Cherokee women who still use weave-patterns passed down through hundreds of generations. They were also skilled bow hunters and fishermen, often hunting deer and catfish for protein. They were also skilled at making pottery and arrowheads, which are still collected today. The southeast tribes were mainly mound-civilizations, living in huts made of mud and bark atop large dirt mounds, and were the first to utilize the "chiefdom" social system where social status was determined by proximity to the chief himself.
Southwestern tribes lived in what is now the dry, cavernous canyons of New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. The main tribes were:
The southwest tribes are known for their unique housing- multi-story sandstone buildings cut into the sides of canyons- and their unique irrigation methods. The Ancient Pueblo people began the tradition of carving intricate sandstone housing into the sides of canyons, but it was carried on by the Hopi who created structures that were sometimes five stories high! Since most of the Southwest area was arid, or desertous, and the tribes were mainly agrarian, the southwestern tribes created irrigation systems by digging trenches to collect rainwater which would cover and water crops such as corn or beans. The Hopi tribes are mainly credited with these systems, but the Hohokams created one of the largest irrigation systems to date. Due to the climate, these tribes also tended to be nomadic, meaning they moved around according to the seasons and the needs of their people.
Northwest Coast Tribes
The Northwestern tribes come from an area ranging from Alaska down to the Northern California coast. There were over 70 tribes in this area, but they are often grouped into four main linguistic provinces:
- The Northern Province (Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and the Haida)
- The Wakashan Province (Kwakiutl, the Bella Coola, and the Nuu-chah-nulth)
- The Coast Salish-Chinook Province (Makah, Chinook, Tillamook, and the Siuslaw)
- The Northwestern California Province (Athabaskan-speaking Tututni-Tolowa, the Karok, Yurok, Wiyot, and Hupa)
These tribes, due to their proximity to the ocean, were mainly fishing and gathering tribes, but they had unique and complex cultures. The tribes were known for their huge boats created from cedar or spruce trees that could hold up to 30 people and were used to hunt otters, salmon and even occasionally whales! Many of the Northwestern Coastal tribes used totem poles to show status or to honor ancestors. Many tribes still practice this form of art today. The Chinook and Tillamook civilizations, which were from modern-day Oregon, were two of the most advanced Native American societies to exist during the pre-Columbian era because they had settled into permanent villages rather than remaining nomadic. Because of their location permanence, they were able to assign groups to jobs based on skill as well as develop a complex belief system and culture. Because these tribes were wealthy and flourishing, they often held potlatches, which were lavish feasts where chiefs often gave away or destroyed valuables as a sign of wealth and prestige.
Great Plains Tribes
The Great Plains Tribes lived in the interior plains of North America. These tribes were:
- Gros Ventre
- Plains Apache
- Plains Cree
- Plains Ojibwe
- Santee Dakota
- Yankton Dakota
The Great Plains tribes were mainly nomadic, following buffalo herds for hunting and food. They were among the first societies on this continent to master horse-back riding in order to hunt better and move faster. The plains Native Americans used all parts of the buffalo so that nothing went to waste. They would eat the meat and use the skin and organs to create shelter, clothing and even storage bags. The bones were used for tools or jewelry. Occasionally, some of the tribes participated in agriculture but they were mainly gatherers. Many of the tribes that lived in this area, such as the Sioux Indian Tribe actually originated in the Mississippi river valley and migrated to the plains for food and climate opportunities. The name "Sioux" was actually given to them by their enemies, but they traditionally call themselves the Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota people.
While Native American societies flourished before colonization, that all changed with the entrance of European settlers in 1492 and then later with the first Settlement in the 16th Century. European colonization can be defined as a time when Europeans came to America and settled on the land, imposing themselves on the Natives who lived there already. European culture was vastly different than Native American culture and due to this, Europeans often called the Natives "savages" casting them in a negative light. Almost immediately, there was warfare between the two groups as the Europeans attempted to assimilate the Natives into European culture as well as lay claim to their land. However, there are also many accounts of settlers and Natives trading with each other for fur, food, or weapons. Unfortunately, these settlers brought viruses and germs with them that were unfamiliar to the Native Americans and they proved to be deadly to nearly 90% of the Native population between 1492 and 1600. Deaths of Native Americans due to these germs were estimated to be 55 million.
During the Pre-Columbian era, meaning the time before European colonization, Native Americans thrived all over North America. Their beliefs, culture, knowledge and history is still relevant to our society today. They can be divided by geographical area into subsections such as Northwestern Coastal, Southwest, Northeast, Southeast, and the Great Plains. The Northwestern Coastal Native Americans were skilled fisherman and artists, creating many beautiful totem poles that still exist today. They were among the first natives to create permanent civilizations and often held potlatches, which were lavish feasts as a show of wealth and prestige by the chief. The Southwest Native Americans were a nomadic people who created intricate irrigation systems in order to farm. They are famed for their sandstone architecture which is often carved into the side of canyons. The Northeastern Tribes were mainly agrarian as well and migrated with the change in seasons. They also often hunted deer. The Southeastern Tribes were often referred to as the "Civilized tribes" as they were the most interested in participating in European economy and culture. However, they had a rich culture and were famed for their beadwork and basket-weaving as well as their pottery and beautiful arrowheads. The Great Plains Natives were a nomadic group, following herds of buffalo for food and supplies. They were also skilled horseback-riders. Unfortunately, this period of growth and cultivation came to an end with the entrance of European colonizers in the 16th century. Europeans brought germs and diseases which Native Americans did not have the immunity to fight and by 1600, it is estimated that 90% of the Native population had died. However, there are still many thriving tribes that still exist in North America today.
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
What was pre Columbian Native American life like?
Pre-Columbian American life was mainly agrarian, focused on farming and hunting. It was naturalistic and the people were often nomadic, moving with the seasons and food.
What does pre Columbian refer to?
Pre-Columbian refers to a time before European influence. Before 1492 when Columbus landed in North America, it is believed that no Europeans had been in the Americas, so this period is referred to as pre-Columbian.
Who settled in America first?
Native Americans settled and lived in America first. While it is unclear exactly when Native Americans moved onto the North American Continent, they were the first people to settle there.
Register to view this lesson
Unlock Your Education
See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com
Become a Study.com member and start learning now.Become a Member
Already a member? Log InBack
Resources created by teachers for teachers
I would definitely recommend Study.com to my colleagues. It’s like a teacher waved a magic wand and did the work for me. I feel like it’s a lifeline.