North America

Native Americans

Early American hunter-gatherersEarly American hunter-gatherers People first settled in North America between 35,000 and 15,000 years ago (the date is uncertain). During the Ice Ages, the sea level was lower than it is today. It was possible to walk from northeastern Siberia to Alaska. Hunters followed their prey—mammoth, deer and other animals—from Asia into this new land. Over the years, people spread out to all parts of the Americas. Where game was plentiful, in forests and on the Great Plains, Native Americans (sometimes also called American Indians or Amerindians) continued to live by hunting. In some places, they turned to farming the land.

Hunters and fishermen

Using spears to hunt deerUsing spears to hunt deerAs the climate became warmer after the end of the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago, trees began to grow once more, forming dense forests. Hunters turned to hunting forest animals, such as deer. Like the people of the Middle East and elsewhere, the Native American hunters invented and used spear-throwers. The women gathered berries and nuts while the men hunted with spears, or fished with nets in the rivers and lakes. They fished from the shore and, in deeper water, from canoes, made by hollowing out tree trunks.

A map of Native American landsA map of Native American lands


The Native Americans of North America lived in groups, called tribes. At the time of the arrival of Europeans there were about 300 different tribes, each with its own form of government, language, religious beliefs and culture. The way of life of a tribe depended largely on the environment in which it lived. The Inuit of the frozen Arctic hunted seals for food. They used the sealskins to make shelters, boats and clothing. But in the hot, dry southwest region of North America, the Pueblo peoples built houses from dried mud, called adobe. Water was scarce, so they developed special techniques for finding it, often tapping water supplies deep beneath the ground.

Adobe dwellings of the Taos PuebloAdobe dwellings of the Taos Pueblo

An Algonquin village of eastern CanadaAn Algonquin village of eastern Canada

Daily life

Wherever a tribe lived, daily life centred around providing the necessities of life—food and shelter. The main crops grown by Native Americans included maize, squashes and beans. Some tribes developed rotational farming, in which land was left to rest every 5–10 years so that over-farming did not harm the soil. Many tribes were nomadic (wandering) and they lived by hunting animals such as buffalo and game, or by gathering berries, roots and other wild plants.Plains Indians lived in tents called tipis.Plains Indians lived in tents called tipis.
Shelters varied widely from tribe to tribe. Nomadic tribes built movable shelters. Great Plains tribes (of the modern Midwestern USA), for example, lived in tipis. These were cone-shaped tents made from buffalo skin stretched over a wooden frame. They were carried on a sledge called a travois, pulled by dogs or horses.

Religion played an important part in the life of all Native Americans. They believed in a powerful spirit world which influenced the lives of humans. Ceremonies might involve dancing, songs, smoking a sacred pipe of tobacco and prayer.

Driving buffalo into a corralDriving buffalo into a corral

Buffalo hunters

Buffalo provided the Great Plains tribes, such as the Sioux, Cheyenne and Comanche, with most of their food. The animals' skins, fur and bones were useful for making clothes, tipis, weapons and tools. As soon as lookouts spotted a herd of buffalo, the hunters began to stalk them. Carefully herding the animals along valleys, they slowly drove them towards a strong wooden enclosure, called a corral, that they had already built. As the buffalo approached the corral, the hunters ran towards them, shouting, waving skins and prodding them with flint-tipped spears to make the buffalo run into the corral.

Replica of 19th-century totem poleReplica of 19th-century totem pole

Totem poles

The peoples who lived in the coastal regions of the northwest had a more settled lifestyle than many other groups. The ocean and great rivers gave a constant supply of fish, seals, otters, whales and shellfish, so there was no need to travel in search of buffalo or other game. These peoples built permanent villages housing hundreds. From the early 19th century, some peoples of the northwest—including the Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian—carved totem poles. 

Before 1800, carvings were usually limited to small house posts. From the start of the 19th century, better tools and more leisure time meant that craftspeople could devote themselves to carving great free-standing monuments. The poles were made from large trees, mostly western red cedar, and were up to 18 metres (60 feet) tall. The carvings showed family stories, animals and historical events. The word “totem” comes from the Algonquian word dodaem, meaning “family group”—the poles were symbols of the family or clan. The carving of totem poles had mostly died out by the end of the 19th century, but it was revived in the late 20th century.

Reconstruction of a Cherokee villageReconstruction of a Cherokee village

Cherokee farmers

The southeastern region of the modern-day USA offered good farmland and plentiful rain. Before the arrival of Europeans, the Cherokee lived in the area of modern Georgia and North and South Carolina. They were expert farmers, growing crops such as maize, squash, beans and tobacco. The Cherokee lived in villages, with homes made of wooden frames, while mud and grass filled in the walls. Markets and ceremonies took place in the centre of the village.

Stickball in the 19th centuryStickball in the 19th century

The most important Cherokee ceremony was the Green Corn Ceremony, when people thanked the spirits for a good maize harvest. They danced, prayed, fasted, feasted and played stickball. Stickball was similar to modern lacrosse, but the ball was carried and thrown with two sticks rather than one. The ball was made of a rock covered with animal hide. Only men played, and they were allowed to hit their opponents with their sticks. Versions of stickball were played by many other tribes of eastern North America. 

The arrival of Europeans

Attack on a homestead by Plains IndiansAttack on a homestead by Plains IndiansWhen the first Europeans arrived in North America in the 16th century, they found the land occupied by tribes of Native Americans. The Native Americans’ lives were changed for ever. Imported diseases spread like wildfire through the local peoples, killing millions. Many more were killed in land disputes with the European colonists.

Sioux horsemenSioux horsemen


The Spanish settlers brought horses, which had been extinct in the Americas. Horses quickly became prized possessions among Native Americans, particularly among the Great Plains tribes. Horses allowed them to travel great distances at high speed and to hunt buffalo with greater success. A man on horseback could now gallop alongside a running buffalo, wielding his spear or bow and arrow with deadly accuracy. Hunting on horse­back also made herding buffalo into corrals, or driving them over cliffs, easier for the hunters.

The Native Americans traded, stole and bred horses. This sometimes led to fighting between tribes when parties of Indians raided one another’s camps. Some tribes, such as the Sioux, became famous for their particularly swift, fierce and ruthless attacks. 

A Cherokee woman who walked the Trail of TearsA Cherokee woman who walked the Trail of Tears

Trail of Tears

During the 19th century, European settlers poured into the United States of America and the country expanded westwards. At first, the American government set aside some areas of land for the Native Americans, known as “reservations”. Then, in 1830, the government passed the Indian Removal Act which gave it the right to force Native Americans to move from their homelands on to land in the West that the European settlers did not want. In the southeast, for example, the Cherokee were forced off their lands by government troops and made to walk thousands of kilometres to reservations in the West. Thousands died, and this journey became known as “The Trail of Tears”.


American Indian Wars

English colonists fighting the Tuscarora peopleEnglish colonists fighting the Tuscarora peopleMost Native Americans did not want to move from their traditional homelands, and fought bitterly against American government troops. This conflict, which was at its most intense from the 1850s (when large numbers of Europeans started to settle in the American West) until around 1890, is known today as the American Indian Wars. The Native Americans of the Plains also attacked the settlers who moved into their territories. But their old ways of life were destroyed when European hunters almost completely wiped out the herds of buffalo that lived on the Great Plains. Sometimes, however, there were Native American victories over the army: for example, at the Battle of Little Bighorn (1876), when Sioux warriors defeated General Custer’s troops.

Consultant: Philip Parker

Totems (from the Algonquian word "dodaem" meaning “family group”) are sculptures carved out of tall trees by native peoples of the Pacific Coast of northwestern North America. The world’s tallest totem pole is 53 m (173 ft) tall and was carved in Alert Bay, Canada, in the 1960s.

Only 0.9% of the population of the USA identify themselves as being purely Native American. A further 0.7% identify themselves as being Native American in combination with one or more other races.

The ancient Native American city of Cahokia (in modern Illinois) was one of the largest cities in the world at its peak in AD 1250, when it had 20,000–30,000 inhabitants. North America would not boast another city of that size until the 1800s.

In 1817, the Cherokee became the first Native Americans recognized as US citizens, with equal rights to other citizens. It was not until 1924 and the Indian Citizenship Act that all Native Americans of the USA were recognized as citizens.

The earliest manmade construction in the Americas is at Watson Brake in Louisiana. The oval group of earth mounds dates from 3500 BC and was built by Native Americans who lived by hunting animals and gathering plants.

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