When Christopher Columbus arrived in America, millions of American Indians lived here. Each tribe had its own culture, traditions, and even language, but tribes living near each other were similar because of their environment. They built similar shelters and ate similar foods. Anthropologists have divided Indian tribes into culture areas – specific geographic regions with similar climates and resources.
Northeast Woodlands: Two groups of Indians lived in New England and the area around the Great Lakes. The groups were divided by the languages they spoke: the Algonquian tribes, including the Huron, the Narragansett, and the Powhatan; and the Iroquois group, a powerful and often war-like group, including the Mohawk, Oneida, and Seneca tribes. These tribes built wooden homes, hunted, and farmed. They were among the first tribes impacted by European settlers.
Southeast Woodlands: The Creek, Choctaw, Seminole, Chicksaw, and Wichita tribes lived in the area around the Gulf of Mexico, including Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. Most tribes here spoke one of the Muskogean language dialects. They farmed, hunted, and gathered wild foods. They lived in homes made from wood and mud.
Great Plains: The Great Plains region lies west of Mississippi and runs from Canada to Texas, taking in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Texas. Tribes here, such as the Sioux, Cheyenne, Comanche, Arapaho, Blackfoot, and Pawnee tribes, relied on buffalo for all their needs. The entire tribe helped during a buffalo hunt. Children yelled and beat spears together to drive the buffalo off cliffs. The men waited below to kill the animals. Women came with scrapers and knives to butcher the animals. Nothing was wasted. The meat was a main food source; hides made clothing and teepees. Bones and sinews were used for tools, weapons, and even thread.
Southwest: The Pueblo tribes, including the Hopi, Zuni, and Acoma tribes, adapted well to the dry climate found in Arizona, New Mexico, and southern Colorado. These tribes lived in homes made of stone or adobe. They built canals to water corn, beans and squash crops. They were gifted artisans, creating beautiful pottery and weavings. Apache and Navajo tribes migrated to the area in the 15th century.
Far West: Northern Utah is now green with irrigated fields and orchards, but it was previously a barren desert. Southern Utah, Nevada, and parts of California are still dry, bare areas. Here, the Shoshone, Ute, and other tribes survived by hunting rabbits, squirrels, and snakes. They became skilled basket weavers.
Northwest Coast: The west coast, including Northern California, Oregon, and Washington, is a region rich in natural resources. The people here, including the Chinook, Tlingit, and Kwakiutl Indians, had no need to grow crops, but lived off the bounty of the land. They fished for salmon and hunted deer and caribou. They gathered berries, mushrooms, and other plants. They made wooden canoes and homes. They wore clothing made from pounded bark.
Visit the History Channel to watch a video about the buffalo’s role in Native American culture.