The Emergence of Tribes
Once they established permanent settlements, Native American
groups began to form what are known today as tribes. Different tribes
developed their own languages and social hierarchies, and distinct
religious beliefs and practices. Many tribes invented specialized tools
such as the bow and arrow, and mastered skills like pottery, weaving,
Tribes in neighboring geographic areas often maintained
contact with each other through trade and warfare. Through this
contact, an extensive trade network developed, spanning much of
the North and South American continent. However, the tribes remained distinct,
each adapting to its own particular geography. Modern day anthropologists
and archeologists categorize Native American tribes by geographic
Chinook, Haida, and other tribes spanned the Pacific coast
from Alaska to California, living primarily off the abundant fish.
The Northwest tribes built totem poles depicting supernatural creatures.
They were proficient in other arts as well.
Within California, tribes such as the Chumash and Pomo
lived in small villages of about one hundred people. They specialized
in processing acorns, which were one of the region’s many abundant
resources that allowed local tribes to proser.
In the early history of the Southwest, the dominant Anasazi
tribe—known for their elaborate cliff dwellings—mastered irrigation
and farming. By the civilization’s peak in the twelfth century,
some village populations topped 1,000. A system of roads connected many
of these villages, and it seems likely that Anasazi trade networks
extended as far as northern Mesoamerica, since archeologists have
found artifacts in Anasazi territory that could only have been produced
by civilizations in Mexico.
Yet around 1300 a.d., tens of thousands
of Anasazi people deserted their dwellings en masse, possibly due
to drought, warfare, or depletion of natural resources. They spread throughout
the Southwest, and their descendants, such as the Hopi and Zuni,
are known as Pueblo tribes. (Pueblo means “village” in Spanish,
and refers to both the people and the villages in which they lived.)
These Pueblo tribes, along with the Navajos and Apaches who migrated
from the north around the fourteenth century, farmed along rivers
using advanced irrigation techniques, foraged for food, and mined
turquoise for trade with Mexico.
Great Basin, Plateau
The Paiute, Shoshone, and Ute tribes made their home in
the Great Basin, between the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west
and the Rockies to the east. This land, too dry for farming, gave
rise to foraging bands who hunted small mammals and gathered seeds
and nuts. Other tribes inhabited the Plateau—a high, flat expanse
to the north of the Great Basin—and lived as food gatherers, picking
berries, seeds, and roots.
The Cheyenne, Sioux, and other tribes hunted in the Great
Plains, which extended from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi
River. The Plains were largely uninhabited before the arrival of
Columbus. When Europeans brought horses and guns into the Plains,
the tribes developed into powerful hunting groups.
The Iroquois tribes, known as the Five Nations, controlled
the Northeast. The Cherokee and other tribes inhabited the Southeast;
the Fox, Chee, and others lived around the Great Lakes; and the
Mississippian culture dominated the Mississippi flood plains. While
all these Eastern Woodlands tribes hunted, many were skilled in
agriculture, employing the “slash and burn” technique and crop rotation
to manage their land for food production. These tribes are also
known for their skill with crafts and their well-developed trading
Of these Eastern Woodlands tribes, the Mississippian tribes
in particular were skilled in small-scale architecture. Known as
“mound builders,” they built large platform mounds at the center
of their towns, which served as religious temples for ceremony or
burial, or as the homes of tribal leaders. Before the age of European
exploration, the Mississippian centers collapsed and the inhabitants
fled to establish small villages.
Some Native Americans formed rich and powerful civilizations
in Mesoamerica, south of the present-day United States. The ancient
Aztecs (centered near Mexico City) are known for their architecture,
which includes stone pyramids. The Maya of Central America are also
known for their architecture, as well as their advanced astronomy,
mathematics, calendar systems, and for developing their own form
of writing. The Incas, based in Peru, built an extensive network
of towns throughout the Andes.