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Pre-Columbian Native American Civilizations

Katie Mantooth, Clint Hughes
  • Author
    Katie Mantooth

    Katie Mantooth is a writer who lives in Indianapolis, IN. She graduated from Marian University with a Bachelors in English. During her time at Marian, she worked at the Writing Center on campus where she helped run the social media and tutor at the collegiate level.

  • Instructor
    Clint Hughes

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

Understand pre-Columbian Native American civilizations. Learn about tribes’ cultures and facts about those who lived in America before the Europeans arrived. Updated: 01/07/2022

Table of Contents


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.


Native American Beadwork


Northeastern Tribes

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.

Southeastern Tribes

There are five main tribes considered to be southeastern Native American tribes during the pre-Columbian era. There are:

  • Choctaw
  • Cherokee
  • Chickasaw
  • Creek
  • Seminole

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

Southwestern tribes lived in what is now the dry, cavernous canyons of New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. The main tribes were:

  • Pueblo
  • Mogollon
  • Hopi
  • Hohokam
  • Apache
  • Navajo
  • Quechan
  • Havasupai
  • Mojave
  • Anasazi

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)

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Frequently Asked Questions

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.

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