*** native Americans North America

Native Americans: North America

native Americans
Figure 1.--Hopi children pose prior to dancing in a ceremonial. Note the gender differences. The boys wear handwoven kilts of fine wool and cotton. Their fringed sashes and kilts are bordered with red, black and green designs pertaining to water or rain. The boys carry gourd rattles and decorated feather shafts. Their thick soled moccasins have the calf length uppers common to the Hopi. The girl dancer wears a black woolen dress trimmed with silver chonchos. Her hand woven sash or girdle is in tones of red, gray, black and white. She has a liquid silver coral and turquoise necklace over the floral silk fringed shawl that drapes across one shoulder. She carries two eagle feathers in each hand. Her head piece or "Tablita" depicts a butterfly with flowers and rain symbols.

The natives of both North and South America exibit a great variety of lingusistic, anatomical, and cultural characteristics. The discussion of these diverse peoples must thus proceeded by groups and subgroupings. The most advanced civilizations were those developing in Mexico, Central America, and South America. The civilizations in North America were primarily hunter-gather civilizations, but some were engaged in settled agriculture. Native Americans have in the United States been traditionally referred to as Indians or in Europe as Red Indians. It refers to the pre-Colombian peoples of the Americas. Many tribes no longer exist and about them little is known. Considearble anthropoligal work, however, exists on many tribes of North America. Native Americans are credited with the development of some key agricultural crops, corn and potatos as well as tobacco, cacao (chocolate), peanuts, beans, squashes, pumkins, sunflowers, gourds, cotton, and others were among 25 major crops cultivated by native Americans. Interestingly, it was the potato introduced into Europe after the discovery of the America that made posible the explosive growth of European populations after the 16th century. Native Americans, in part because of the horendous treatment by white Americans as well as the exposure to European diseases, now comprise only a small part of the Americam mosaic. It is a rich, colorful traition, no matter how small. Native American dress is showcased atvpowwows and other gatherings held annually throughout America.

Native American People

The natives of both North and South America exibit a great variety of lingusistic, anatomical, and cultural characteristics. The discussion of these diverse peoples must thus proceeded by groups and subgroupings. The most advanced civilizations were those developing in Mexico, Central America, and South America. The civilizations in North America were primarily hunter-gather civilizations, but some were engaged in settled agriculture. The popular idea that all Native Americans are more or less alike has long been dispelled by intensice ethonological investigation which has discovered as many differences as similarities among tribes, those that are not contiguous exhibiting pronounced variations.


Native Americans have in the United States been traditionally referred to as Indians or in Europe as Red Indians. It refers to the pre-Colombian peoples of the Americas. Many tribes no longer exist and about them little is known. Considearble anthropoligal work, however, exists on many tribes of North America. The name Indian, indio in Spanish was first applied by Colombus to the native peoples he encountered in his journey of exploration. He mistakingly believed he had encounteted the outlying coasts of Asia. Today in America the term "Indian" has generally passed from common use. Some wonder why is there is so much resistance to the term. The word evolved from the term "Los Indios", meaning the people of the Indies, when Columbus thought he had landed there. He hadn't, and they weren't, but the word has stuck throughout the centuries. "The First Peoples" or "Indigenous Peoples" is really accurate; "Original Americans" is acceptable, but most people have now become accustomed to "Native Americans", or "American Indian". It's more respectful of an ancient race which is, after all, one of the four races of man: Black, White, Yellow and Red. It is important to remember our geography, and realize that The Americas stretch from the Sub-Artic to the tip of South America, and that "America" is far more than just "The United States of America". All of America is the home of the Native American, and a Pow Wow is one event where you may see Natives from North, Central and South America gathered in one place with a common purpose - the celebration of their heritage.

Native American Culture

The Native American culture inn North America was extremely diverse. They were despite the different levels of civilization, all stone-age people, although the more advanced civilizations in Meso-America were beginning to work with metal. None had yet made the discovery of the wheel. Here isolation was a major impediment to technological advance. The lack of large mammals another major cdisadvantage. While all the different people were still technologically in the stone age, there were huge differces between the different people. Many lived as hunter-gatering people existing at the edge of survival. Some of these people were extremely primitive such as the tribes in the Southwest living in near desert areas. Often they had been driven into areas with few resources by more powerful tribes. Other tribes settled in more bountiful regions and had begun to practice agriculture to varying levels using crops in many cases developed by the more advanced people of Meso-America. Often gthey had mixed ecinonomis combining agricylture and huntingds with avaryinbg degrees of settlement. Some of the best established images of North American culture come from the Plains, but this was a development after Europeans brought horses to the New World. The advanced civilizations achieved impressive accomolishments. Native Americans are credited with the development of some key agricultural crops, corn as well as tobacco, cacao (chocolate), peanuts, beans, squashes, pumkins, sunflowers, gourds, cotton, and others were among 25 major crops cultivated by native Americans. Interestingly, it was the potato developed in South America and introduced into Europe after the discovery of the America that made posible the explosive growth of European populations after the 16th century. Corn today is the single most important agricultural crop. Seed selection , careful manuring and cultivation, ans irrigation had been develooed in certain areas. On the other hand native Americans were weak in domestication of animals, largely because of the limited numbr of suitable animals occurrung naturally. The dog was the only extensively domesticated throughout the Americas. They were also weak in navigation. Capable canoists they never developed sails. While true bronze had been develooed by the Incas, Native Americans as a whole made little progress with metalurgy. Many tribes were skilled at fashioning flint and stone tools and weapons. A few tribes displayed high skill in ornamental silver work, in polishing and setting precious stones, Sophisticated archetecture in North America developed only in the advanced civilizations of Meoamericva. The spectacular ruins of the Valley of Mexico and in Mayan south testify to the archetectural achievements, but strangely never conceived of the true arch. Baskerty in the north and textiles in the south reached a state of artistic perfection.


We are not entirely sure about differences as to how Native American boys and girls dressed. This of course varied from tribe to tribe. Generally speaking girls wore dress and skirts outfits like their mothers. Leggings wre also worn in some tribs, but we are not yet sure how common this was. The length, design, decoration, and material for these skirts and dresses varied from tribe to tribe. Tribes differed as to whether women covered their breasts which was also a sesonal matter, especially in the North. . Shirt-like governments were optional and were often treated rather like coats. We also notice tunics or mantles in public as well as one-piece dresses. Cheyenne women, for example, wore buckskin dresses. Boys wore loin cloths or breechcloths. These were long rectangular piece of hide or cloth tucked over a belt. This in part reflected weaving technology. Rectangular weaving was much easier than more complicated patterns. Men and oldr boys might wear leggings in colder weather. Some tribes wore kilt-like garments, but we believe these were mostly the eastern tribes. It is interesting that Native American and Europeans arrived at this same convention independently. Of course Europeans when they first arrived in the Americas had not yet developed pants. Younger children did not wear any clothing during the warm summer weather. We believe this wa more common for boys than girls. We are also unsure just how hair styles varied by gender. gain this is complicaed by tribal differences. The coming of Europeans affected dress trends. It introdiced new garments as well as forced many tribes together, promoting exganges among tribes.

Native American tribes
Figure 2.--This photograph shows a Quilcene boy taken by Edward Sheriff Curtis in 1913. Note the braidded hair.


Anatomically modern Native Americans generally resemble Mongolian and Siberian tribes evidence of the migration over a land bridge that existed between Siberia and Alaska. The culture of those original Asian peoples was very primitive at the time, without domestic animals other than the dog. This explains the lack of cultural similarity between Native Americans and modern Asian people. These migrations occurred in sucessive migrations spanning thousands of years and eventually peopling the Americas to the tip of Patagonia. Neat anthropological explanations of the origins of Native Americans have come into question during recent years. Recent anthropolical discoveries have found the remains of Native Americans remains that bear no resemblence to modern Native Americans. These remains have been dated at 9,000-13,000 years old at scattered western locations. They are referred to as Kennewick Man after a discovery onear the banks of the Colombia River in Washington in 1996. Other discoveries have been made in locations as diverse as a south Florida sink hole and a cave in Brazil's cebtral plateau. Kennewick Man's skull features do not fit any known population, lending credence to the theory that there were many migrations to North America from various points of origin. Other ancient remains shiw afinities with native Australians, Aftrican bushmen, Polynesians, medieval Scandinavians, and Ainu from northern Japan, as well as central, southern, and southeast Asians.

Advanced Civilizations

Many Native Americans never evolved beyond the hunter-gather stage. Others civilizations developed sedentary agricultre. The first evidence of settled habitation is first noted in modern Mexico during the Archaic period 5000-1500 BC. Here we note corn cultivation, pottery and stone tools. The first sophisticated civilization in Meso-America was the rise of the Olmecs around 1500 BC - 300 AD during what is known as the Pre-Classical period. The Olmecs settled on the Gulf of Mexico Coast of central Mexico. Very little information has, however, been learned about them as is the case of other early Meso-American civilizatons. Many archeologists believe that it is the Olmecs that developed many of the characteristics features of Meso-American cultures, including sophisticated calendars and hieroglyphic writing. Archeologists have not definitively developed the relationship between the Olmec culture and the Maya and other Meso-American peoples. Notably high civilization in the Americas is not associatyed with major river valleys as was the case in Asia and Africa. It was in the Andean and Meso American culltural areas that agriculture, weaving, metal working, painted pottery, and other technological developments occurred and spread to other areas. The three best known of these agricultural civilizations (Maya, Aztec, and Inca) were contemperaneous with Medieval Europe. These civilizations are well known because they are the civilizations that the Spanish encountered. The three great civilizations were brought to am abrupt end in the early 15th century by Spanish Conquistadores. While we can admire the achievements of these advanced Native American civilizations. it must be remembered that cut off from Europe and Asia that they were still essentially stone age peoples, in part explaining why they fell so easily to small European military forces.

North America Cultural Areas

There were no highly advanced Native American civilizations in Noth America north of the Central Valley of Mexico. I am not sure why this was. There were many diffierent Native american cultures in North America. The about 200 tribes of North America also exhibited varying forms of cultural development. Here the environment appears to have been a major factor in cultural development. Some Native American cultures were quite similar. Others significantly different. Anthropologists generally group the various tribes in about 10 culture groups, corresponding to geographic and cultural areas. The Artic Eskimoan and northwestern coast tribes are the mosy destinclty Asiatic probably being the most recent migrants. They have little in common with other Native Americans.

Historical Experience

The Native-American tribes of North Anerica include a bewildering number of tribes encompassing a wide range of linguistic and cultural groups. The inefficency of fire arms when European settlement began in the 17th century put the European settlers and Native Ameican tribes on relatively equal footing. The major grouping along the North Atlantic coast was the Iriquoi Confederacy. As Europeans manufactured more lethal fire arms and as more Europeans arrived, the balance of power shifted in favor of the Europeans. Native American tribes hoped to play off the French and Ehglish, but after the defeat of the French in the French and Indian Wars this was no longer possible. The British Crown attempted to restrict colonial encroachment into Native American lands, but the victory of the Americans in the American Revolution significantly impaired the situation of the Native Americans. The Louis and Clark expedition (1803-04) provided the United States a look at the Plains (Cheynene, Nez-Pierce, Blackfoot and many others) and North-westerm Tribes at the turn of the 19th century. At first the focus was on Kentucky and the Ohio Territory. The victories of Mad Anthony Wayne at Fallen Timbers and Harrison at Horseshoe Bend doomed the Native American position in the Northwest Territory. Andrew Jackson's victories over the Creeks in the south doomed the Native American position in the South. The Cherokee adopted a novel strategy, adopting many European cultural patterns. The State of Georgia was, however, intent on expekling them which lead to the Trail of Tears. Small numbers of Seminoles held out in the Everglades for several decades. For a while the Planes Tribes were able to maintain their position. This changed dramatically with the six-shooter and repeating rifle. The Civil War delayed the inveitable, but the U.S. Calvalry after the Civil War soon drove the Planes Tribes onto reservations. The last tribe to be pacified was the Apache in the Southwest.

North American Tribes

We do not yet have a great deal of information on individual tribes, but our list of tribes is gradually expanding. We will list the various tribes we have information on alphabetically. he Iriquois Confederation was the most important Native American group the early European colonists encountered. The story of the Cherokee is probanly the most tragic. The Cheyene dominated the Great Plains. The Navajo were the most important tibe in the Southwest. The Apache proved the most difficult to pacify. The Piute were an importan tribal group in the Great Basin and would be primarily included in the Califotrnia cultural area. The Sioux were especuially important on the northern plains. Another important Plains tribe was the Cheyenne. The Aleuts inhabited the Aleutian Islands separating the North Pacific and Bearing Sea. The Yuman were an important Southwestern language group.


Native American people have many destinctive traditional dress and fashion styles. Tribes could be identified by these clothing fashions, hair styles, and personal ornamentation. The most destinctive aspect of Native American fashion was probably headdress whih inclide hair styling and ornamentation. The breechcloths or loin cloth was a clothing stape among Native American men. This is a long rectangular piece of hide or cloth which has tucked over a belt, allowing the flaps fell down both in front and behind. This was so common in large measure because weaving technology was so primitive and more complicated garments required extensive labor. Leather leggings were also common, especially during cold seasonal weather. Another common garment was a short kilt-like garment. Again the reason for this was in large measure a result of weaving technology. Like the breechcloth, the kilt was a fairly simple garment to weave. The short was not a common market. Many Native American peoples did not even have shirts. The Plains warriors did wear shorts, buckskin war shirts which were highly decorated. The decorations were highly variable. Common decorations were animal tails, fur, and destinctive, intricate quill and beadwork. Native American women often wore skirts and sometimes leggings. This varied widely from tribe to tribe. The length, design, and material of these skirted garments varied considerably among tribes. There were shirt-loke garments for women, but this varies substantially anomg tribes. Some Native American women wore no such garmdent. Others had them, but wore more in the nature of coats. A commomn approach in many tribes was a kind of tunic garment which might be described as a long shirt. Another option was a long dress. Footwear was more uniform. Most Native Americans wore a soft shoe called a moccasin. While the basic moccasin was a Native American standard, the decoration of the footwear was highly individualistic. Another type of footwear was the mukluk, a heavier boot-like garment. Another common garment was the cloak which was common in cold weather. Again this was a very simple garment reflecting weaving and sewing technology. The more northerly tribes needed a warmer garmer than a simple cloak. The northern people developed the parka--perhaps the most destibctive of all Native American garments. The arrival of Europeans caused major clothing and fashion changes. The Eastern tribes were displaced west causing previously isolated tribes to come into contact with each other. The result was ciltural borricings. And of course there was borrowing from the Europeans. A HBC reader notes, "Young native American children, at least during the summer often did not wear clothing. As far as I can tell in available drawings and photographs, older native American boys when dressed, were oufitted in much the same way as their fathers. I do not notice age-specific clothing. That is cerainly the ompression I got from the Fleming and Luskey book."

Ethnic Regalia

A Native American dancer's clothing is Regalia--not a costume in the sence of a pretend outfit. It is a prized possession. Some regalia has been handed down through the generations, and is priceless. When a dancer decides to "come out" in a particular style, the regalia reflects the spirit and customs of the people being honored. This is no small decision, and a "coming out" ceremony for a new dancer is cause for a great celebration. The regalia is handmade, usually by the dancer, friends and family, and every article has special meaning. It takes years to collect the items until the regalia is complete, and this involves no small expense. Powwow visistors should take care to not ever touch a dancer's regalia without permission. The regalia is an expression of spirit, and has been prayed over and blessed. Honor it, the person wearing it, and the living history it represents. A HBC reader, L. Deer, has contacted us to stress the following, "Just in case you didnt know. It's very offensive to Native Americans to call thier outfits 'costumes'. A costume is something you dress up in to pretend to be someone your not. Native outfits, or regalia, are very sacred and traditional to native peoples. It's a disgrace to them for people to say that thier traditional clothing is 'costumes'. To the white man, it may look like a costume, but to all native americans it is our sacred traditional regalia, with very spiritual values and meanings." HBC in writing this page had generally avoided the term costume for the reasons expressed and after receiving the above message has replaced the use of the word costume. We stress, however, that the word "costume" as a kind of pretend dress for movies and theatrical productions or for children is not the principal meaning of the word in the English language. Our American College Dictionary defines costume as "the style of dress, including ornaments and the way of wearing the hair, esp. that peculiar to a nation, class, or period."

Ethnic Events

The principal modern Native American ethnic event is the Powwow. A Native American Pow Wow is a wonderful experience, but little information is available to the general public on this ancient custom. Powwows are a very important part of Native American cultures. Some do not attend these celebrations, but to those that do, it is a big part of their lives. The contemporary Native American Powwow show case the colorful regalia worn by tribal members, a testament to the authentic pride and spirituality of today's Native Americans. Powwos all heald throughout America, but the largest are in the western states with the largest Native American populations. American Indian dancers and singers, representing more than 700 tribes from Canada and the United States may participate socially and competitivelyin a powwow,. The trading of intercultural traditions and crafts is an experience for all who attend. A North American Powwow is an experience for all people, Indian and non-Indian. To see the colorful dancing and regalia and to hear the songs becomes an enlightening and emotional happening--for everyone! Powwows have changed significantly in recent years. With the growing popularity of Pow Wows, many communities are getting involved by hosting major events which last as long as a week. Some of these celebrations have made for powwows with many new aspects. Rodeos featuring Native contestants. There is a "Navajo Nation Rodeo Cowboys' Association", an "All-Indian Rodeo Cowboys' Association", and an "All Indian Rodeo Association of Oklahoma", among others. Mountain Man camps featuring demonstrations of blacksmithing, carpentry, tool making, gunsmithing and other skills of the 18th and 19th centuries. The men and women who take part in these exhibits dress in authentic clothing of the era they are portraying. It's quite an educational step backward in time; especially for children of all ages. Competitions and games which include Native-style horse racing, stickball, la crosse, foot races, bow and arrow competitions, and other ancient fun events. Storytellers who share timeless Native myths and legends with all interested people. Demonstrations and classes on beadwork, hide tanning, cooking, finger weaving, and the making of Native crafts. Carnival rides, clowns and other amusements for children.

Indin lore
Figure 5.--American Cubs and Scouts once gave considerable attention to Indian lore, although it has since declined in popularity.

Indian Lore

American boys once wanted to dress up in Native American garb for play. I'm not sure just went this started. It seems to have developed over after the end of the Indian Wars in the West. I first note children, almost always boys, in Native American costumes at the turn of the 20th century. We see both photographs of boys in play costumes and advertisements for play costumes in the big mail order catalogs. We do not see many formal portraits as we see in Europe of ethnic outfits. The American photographs are nearly all family snapshots. Interestingly dressing up like this for play was also popular in Europe. The American game seems to have been orimary cowboys and Indians. In Europe the children seem to have played Red Indian without the cowboy component. All of this declined in popularity after World War II. I'm not sure just why. British Cubbing drew heavily from Baden Powell's African experiences and Kippling's jungle lore. Ernest Thompson Seaton, or "Black Wolf," was an award winning wildlife illustrator and naturalist who was also a spell-binding storyteller and lecturer, a best selling author of animal stories, expert with Native American Sign language and early supporter of the political, cultural and spiritual rights of First Peoples. He played a major role in the development of the American Boy Scout movement, writing the first American handbook and serving as Chief Scout. An early colaboration with Baden-Powell soured after the founder of Scouting apparently stole many of his ideas and cpncepts. Seaton promoted the naturalist and native American approach to Scouting, but lost out to thoise who want a more militarist approach. He devoted much of his energy to the Woodcraft movement in America. He was a major influence on both Baden Powell and the Amerivan youth movement, incliding the Boy Scouts. American Cubbing which was not officially initiated until the 1930s drew from that foundation. Seaton played a key role in its formation. American Cubbing and Scouting once gave considerable attention to Indian lore and culture, including Indian dance. The activities conducted, however, varied greatly in the accuracy of the dance and costuming.

Native American Children

Serveral interesting books havde been published on Native American children. Rowlandsan's account includes specific information about how her mistress treats her children, or how children behave. The Oatman narrative might also have information (and be more sympathetic to the Native American way of life).

Captive Children

There is an interesting body of literature in colonial America about European children kidnapped by Native Americans. Some were held for ransome. Others were adopted by the tribal communities. There were even cases of adults, although this was more rare. One such incident, was made into a film--"A Man Called Horse". Another film specifically about a captured boy based on an actual true-life experience is "Wind River". The interesting aspect of these accounts is that the European children and women found it easier to adapt than Native American children in Colonial society. Several factors were at play here. Boys adapted easily to the oudoor life style and lack of harsh discipline characteristic of European scociety. Girls found women had higher social status in Native American than colonial society. In addition, once thgey had chikldren, they understood that their children would never be fully accepted by their families and colonial society in general. While many captive Europeans opted to stay with their adopted Native American families, it was rare that Native American children did nit try to escape back to their tribe if the opportunity presented itself.


When we think about archery and America we of course first think about Native Americans. Native Americans apparently had flint weapns such as spear points and arrowheads when they arrived in North America. The Clovis Point in fact was for years at the center of the effort by Anthropolgists to understand Native Americans. Bows and arrows were used for both hunting and warfare. They continued to be an eddective weapon until the mid-19th century. Rifles gave white people a militay advantage, but before the Civil War it was not as great as might be imagined. Native Americans could actually fire bows more rapidly than soldiers with rifles could load and shoot. It was more the larger population of whites that gave them the advantage. With the appearance of first the Colt-45 revolver and the Winchester repeating rifle that gave white the overwealming military advantage.

Personal Experiences


Native Americans have attended various schools in American. The most common were schools established on reservations. I don't know a great deal about these schools. Some were establised by missionaries. Others were established by the Federal Government. They were run for years by the Federal Governments Bureau of Indian Affairs. Boarding schools were also established which took Indian children from their parents and attempted to educate them to accept the the cultural values of main-stram America. The great Jim Thorpe attended one of these schools. Native American children also attended regular public schools when they lived off the reservation. I believe there may have been some segregated Native Amercan schools, but have few detils at this time.

Federal Policy

There is no doubt that Native Americans were treated dredfully by Europeans. This often meant genocide or wars tht bordered on genocide. In addition, European diseases substantially reduced the Native American population. This is the historical record. Native Americans had land and European settlers wanted that land. A factor here is that Native Americans were a hunter gathering people which only lighly used the resources. The Europeans possessed higher technology capable of nore intensively utilizing the resources and supporting larger populations. Modern values would not condone this, but values in the 19th century did. Another factor here is that Native Americans themselves piursued similar policie, driving weaker tribes into less productive areas. Federal Indian policy in the late-19th century was to support the Native Americans in various ways with food and clothing. The extent of this aid varied. In some cases it was fradulently diverted. The Government also pursued a policy of cultural assimilation. This included requiring the children to attend schools, often distant boarding schools. One author calls this cultural genocide. [Churchill] It is true that the goal was cultural change. Cultural genocide seems rhetorical overkill. The Government was not trying to extinguish all aspects of the culture, but obviously a hunter-gather life style condened Native Americans to a life of abject poverty. Only if they learned English abnd developed modern job skills and business could they live comfortable lives. Another issue is the Federal Assistabce itself. No other ethnic group nin Amnerica has received more assistance than Native Americans per capita in the 20th century. And today Native Americans are the poorest erhnic group. Now I supose that one might argue that the fact that they were hinter-gathers when they first encountered Europeans is a factor, but after nearly two centuries on the reservation and extensive Federal aid, one has to question Federal policy. Some observers beliece thatv the continuing Federal aid has created a cultural of dependency that has undermined the ability of Native Americans to prosper in modern America. Interestingly, one of the the most prosperous Native American tribes is the Lumni in North Carolina. Niotablt the Federal Government neither recognizes them as a Native American tribe or offers assistance.


Churchill, Ward.

Paula Richardson Fleming and Judith Luskey. The North American Indians in Early Photographs (Harper & Row, New York, 1986).


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Created: September 7, 1998
Last updated: 11:01 PM 11/13/2013