The Emergence of Tribes
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, and basketry.
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 area.
Northwest Coast
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.
Eastern Woodlands
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 networks.
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.
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