Native American Cultures

Native American tribes of the North American continent and the peoples of the Subarctic and Arctic have a long and rich history. Archaeologists, scientists who study past civilizations, believe that people have lived in North America from about 13,000 B.C.E. Our knowledge of Native American cultures begins with the first European contact in the tenth century C.E. between the Vikings and the Arctic Inuit, or Eskimo peoples, but becomes much more detailed in the early 1500s and 1600s when first the Spanish, then the French, the British, and the Dutch, began arriving on the shores of the continent. The Europeans set up trading centers from which our first documentation of Native American customs and costumes came. Traders would write about the native people they met and describe their clothing and lifestyles. More information came from missionaries who came to convert the natives to Christianity, and from white settlers who began establishing farms and towns across the continent.

The information gathered about Native Americans by Europeans is incomplete, however. Without a written language of their own, Native Americans offered oral histories of their peoples and practiced methods of producing garments, housing, weapons, and other necessities that had been passed on by their ancestors for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. These sources paint a picture of Native American life that differs greatly from one region of the continent to the next. Yet strikingly similar among natives is the common belief that humans must try to live in balance with their natural world, an idea that was quite foreign to whites.

Grouping native peoples by region

More than three hundred different tribes lived across North America. Each tribe had distinct cultures, clothing styles, social organization, and language dialects. Because similarities did exist between tribes living in similar regions, anthropologists, those who study cultures, often group tribes into regional categories. The regions most concentrated on are: the Southeast, the Northeast, the Plains, the Southwest, the Great Basin, the Plateau, California, the Northwest, the Subarctic, and the Arctic. The tribes of the Southeast lived in the modern-day states of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and parts of Texas. These tribes included the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Potomac, and Powhatan, among many others. The tribes of the Northeast lived in parts of Ontario and Quebec in Canada and in the modern-day states of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, and included the Sauk, Fox, Shawnee, and the Potawatomi tribes, among others. The Plains tribes ranged over the Great Plains of North America, an area stretching from the Mississippi River in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west and from Texas in the south into Canada in the north. Plains Indians included the Blackfoot, Crow, Dakota Sioux, Kiowa, Pawnee, and the Omaha, among others. The tribes of the Southwest lived in the deserts of modern-day Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. Peoples of the Southwest were the Apache, Hopi, Navajo, and Pueblo, among others. The Great Basin lay between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the present-day states of Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. Tribes of the Great Basin included the Shoshone, Northern and Southern Paiute, and Ute, among others. The Plateau runs from British Colombia, Canada, south to Washington and Oregon states between the Rocky Mountains and the Cascades. The Cayuse, Nez Perce, Palouse, and Yakima tribes lived on the Plateau. The tribes of California lived within the area now considered the state of California and included the Hupa, Pomo, Mojave, and Yuma tribes, among others. The tribes of the Northwest lived along the Pacific Northwest coast from the present-day state of Oregon in the south to Alaska in the north. The Northwest tribes included the Chinook, Haida, and Quinault, among others. The Subarctic is a region that includes the interior of Canada and Alaska. The Beaver, Chipewyan, Kolchan, and Mississauga tribes, among others, lived in the Subarctic. The Arctic is the coldest region and includes the land from Aleutian Island to Greenland. Eskimos have lived for thousands of years in the Arctic. Unlike the Native Americans living further south, the Eskimos are one people, not a group of separate tribes. Eskimos are organized into many different social and political groups, but they speak the same language and share the same culture.

Native American diversity

All parts of Native American life were affected by the climate and geography in which the Native Americans lived. The weather, the fertility of the soil, access to water, and the height of mountains all contributed to how a particular Indian tribe organized its social and political systems. Each was unique. Tribes lived by farming, fishing, hunting, gathering, and later, trading, depending on their particular region and amount of contact with others. The Arapaho of the Plains, for example, were nomads and built no permanent settlements. However, other tribes joined together to form larger, stronger groups. The Iroquois confederacy of the Northeast united six tribes to protect each other from war and invasion. Tribes and confederacies developed systems of social status, or rank, and their clothing and adornment reflected these systems. Generally, the higher a person's status was within the tribe, the more ornate their costume.

Native American tribes and Arctic peoples developed rich cultures that respected the land around them. For thousands of years Native Americans prospered on the North American continent, but the arrival of white Europeans changed everything. The changes to Native American life were devastating. Huge numbers of natives died from diseases introduced by Europeans. Between 1769 and 1869 diseases introduced by European traders, missionaries, and settlers decreased the native population of California from three hundred thousand to twenty thousand. In addition, Europeans' outlook on life was fundamentally different from that of Native Americans.

Blackfeet Indians wearing custom Native American clothing, including garments with detailed embroidery. Reproduced by permission of .
Europeans did not consider the balance of the natural world as carefully as did Native Americans and often exploited and pillaged the land rather than nourishing or sustaining it. Europeans' desire for goods from the North American continent created a system of trade that soon changed Native American lives forever. European traders encouraged the near destruction of many animals for their hides, including the beaver and the buffalo, leaving natives without the animals they once depended on for survival. Moreover, Native Americans could not continue to live in the same places. White settlers began building farms, ranches, and towns on land used by Native Americans. Whites pushed Indians off their land until, in the mid-1800s, the U.S. government demanded that all Native Americans live on reservations, land designated for Indian use. Decades of struggle between Native Americans and whites ensued. The result was the near destruction of Native American life and culture by the early twentieth century.

Native Americans today live very differently from their ancestors, but many continue to appreciate the traditions of their diverse ancestry. Although Native Americans no longer dress daily in the ways of their ancestors, they do continue to wear traditional clothing for ceremonial purposes.


Dubin, Lois Sherr. North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment: From Prehistory to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999.

NativeWeb. (accessed on July 31, 2003).

Paterek, Josephine. Encyclopedia of American Indian Costume. Denver, CO: ABC-CLIO, 1994.

Clothing of Native American Cultures
Headwear of Native American Cultures
Body Decorations of Native American Cultures
Footwear of Native American Cultures

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