Culture Areas of North America
<> The culture areas
of North America are
the Eastern Woodlands
the California-Intermountain region
the Northwest Pacific Coast
The Eastern Woodlands culture temperate-climate regions of the eastern
United States and Canada, from Minnesota and Ontario east to the Atlantic
Ocean and south to North Carolina.
This land was, at one time, a forest.
When the eastern north american land was densely forested, it was first
inhabited by hunters, including those who used what is called Clovis spearpoints.
About 7000 BC the climate began to get warmer. During this time an Archaic
The peoples of this area became increasingly dependent on deer, nuts,
and wild grains.
By 3000 BC human populations in the Eastern Woodlands reached cultural
peaks that do not appear to be reached again until after 1200 AD.
The cultivation of squash was first learned in Mexico.
In the Midwest sunflowers, amaranth, marsh elder, and goosefoot and related
plants were also farmed.
All of these were grown for their seeds, which-except for those of the
sunflower-were usually ground into flour.
Fishing and shellfish gathering also became a major food source.
In the western Great Lakes area, copper was surface mined and made into
blades and ornaments, and throughout the Eastern Woodlands, beautiful
stones were carved into small sculptures.
In the Midwest, however, beginning in around 200 BC groups of people organized
into wide trading networks and began building large mound-covered tombs
for their leaders and for use as centers for religious activities.
These peoples, called the Hopewell, raised some maize, but were more dependent
on types of foods also used during the Archaic period.
The Hopewell culture declined sometime after about AD 400.
By 750 a new culture developed in the Midwest.
Called the Mississippian culture, it was based on intensive maize agriculture,
and its people built large towns with earth platforms, or mounds, supporting
temples and rulers' residences.
Across the Mississippi River from present-day St. Louis, Missouri, the
Mississippians built the city of Cahokia, which may have had a population
Cahokia contained hundreds of mounds.
Its principal temple was built on the largest, a mound 30 m (100 ft) high
and roughly about 110 m (about 360 ft) long and about 49 m (about 160
ft) wide (the largest such mound in North America, now part of Cahokia
Mounds State Park, Illinois).
The presence of Europeans in the Eastern Woodlands dates from at least
AD 1000, when colonists from Iceland tried to settle Newfoundland.
Throughout the 1500s, European fishers and whalers used the coast of Canada.
European settlement of the region began in the 1600s. It was not strongly
resisted, partly because terrible epidemics had spread among the Native
Americans of this region through contact with European fishers and with
Spanish explorers in the Southeast.
By this time the Mississippian cities had also disappeared, probably as
a consequence of the epidemics.
The Native American peoples of the Eastern Woodlands included the Iroquois
and a number of Algonquian-speaking peoples, including the Lenape, also
known as the Delaware; the Micmac; the Narragansett; the Shawnee; the
Potawatomi; the Menominee; and the Illinois.
Many Native American tribes of the Southeast culture region engaged in
warfare as a major activity.
Warriors tatooed their bodies with artwork signifying brave deeds, and
battles were often waged for personal or tribal glorification.
The Southeast culture area is the semitropical region north of the Gulf
of Mexico and south of the Middle Atlantic-Midwest region; it extends
from the Atlantic coast west to central Texas. Much of this land once
consisted of pine forests, which the Native Americans of the region kept
cleared of underbrush by yearly burnings, a form of wildlife management
that maintained high deer populations for hunting. The early history of
the Southeast is similar to that of adjacent areas. Cultivation of native
plants was begun in the Late Archaic period, about 3000 BC, and there
were large populations of humans in the area. In 1400 BC a town, called
Poverty Point by archaeologists, was built near present-day Vicksburg,
Mississippi. Like the Mississippian towns of 2000 years later, Poverty
Point had a large public plaza and huge earth mounds that served as temple
platforms or covered tombs. The number of Native Americans in the Southeast
remained high until European contact. Maize agriculture appeared about
Towns continued to be built, and crafted
items were widely traded. The first European explorer, the Spaniard Hernando
de Soto, marched around the Southeast with his army between 1539 and 1542;
epidemics introduced by the Spaniards killed thousands. Southeastern peoples
included the Cherokee, the Choctaw, the Chickasaw, the Creek, and the
Seminole, known as the Five Civilized Tribes because they resembled European
nations in organization and economy, and because they quickly incorporated
desirable European imports (such as fruit trees) into their way of life.
The Natchez, whose elaborate mound-building culture was destroyed by Europeans
in the 18th century, were another famous Southeastern people.
North American Plains Culture developed around the grasslands from central
Canada south to Mexico and from the Midwest westward to the Rocky Mountains.
Bison hunting was always the principal source of food in this culture
area, until the wild bison herds were exterminated in the 1880s.
Most of the Plains peoples lived in small nomadic bands that moved as
the herds moved, driving them into corrals for slaughter.
From AD 850 onward, along the Missouri River and other rivers of the central
Plains, agricultural towns were also built.
Among early Plains peoples were the Blackfoot, who were bison hunters,
and the Mandan and Hidatsa, who were Missouri River agriculturalists.
As European colonists took over the Eastern Woodlands, many Midwest peoples
moved onto the Plains, among them the Sioux, the Cheyenne, and the Arapaho.
Earlier, about 1450, from the valleys west of the Rockies, some Shoshone
and Comanche had begun moving onto the Plains.
After 1630 these peoples took horses from Spanish ranches in New Mexico
and traded them throughout the Plains.
The culture of the Plains peoples of the time thus included elements from
adjacent culture areas.
The Southwestern culture area is Arizona, New Mexico, southern Colorado,
and adjacent northern Mexico (the states of Sonora and Chihuahua). It
can be subdivided into three sectors: northern (Colorado, northern Arizona,
northern New Mexico), with high, pleasant valleys and pine forests; southern
(southern Arizona, southern New Mexico, adjacent Mexico), with deserts
covered with cactus; and western (the Arizona-California border area),
a smaller area with desert terrain cut by the valley of the lower Colorado
The first known inhabitants of the Southwest hunted mammoths and other
game with Clovis-style spearpoints by about 9500 BC.
Remember that the timeline for animals and people in North American is
continually being pushed further and further back. This means current
dates are potentially not accurate, with the actualy dates being much
As the Ice Age ended (about 8000 BC), mammoths became extinct. The people
in the Southwest turned to hunting bison (known as buffalo in North America)
and spent more time collecting wild plants for food. The climate gradually
became warmer and drier, and a way of life-called the Archaic-developed
from about 8000 BC to about 300 BC. Archaic peoples hunted mostly deer,
small game, and birds, and they harvested fruits, nuts, and the seeds
of wild plants, using stone slabs for grinding seeds into flour. About
3000 BC the Southwesterners learned to grow maize (also known as corn),
which had been domesticated in Mexico, but for centuries it was only a
In northern New Mexico's Chaco Canyon, Pueblo Bonito spreads over more
than three acres. The formation of the dwellings is shaped like a D. The
dwellings, which date from around the 10th century, may have housed up
to 1000 residents.
About 300 BC, some Mexicans whose culture was based on cultivating maize,
beans, and squash in irrigated fields migrated to southern Arizona. These
people, called the Hohokam, lived in towns in adobe-plastered houses built
around public plazas. They were the ancestors of the present-day Pima
and Tohono O'Odham (Papago), who preserve much of the Hohokam way of life.
The peoples of the northern sector of the Southwestern culture area, after
centuries of trading with the Hohokam, had by AD 700 modified their life
into what is called the Anasazi tradition. They grew maize, beans, and
squash and lived in towns of terraced stone or in adobe apartment blocks
built around central plazas; these blocks had blank walls facing the outside
of the town, thereby protecting the people within. During the summer many
families lived in small houses at their fields.After 1275 the northern
sector suffered severe droughts, and many Anasazi farms and towns were
abandoned; those along the Río Grande, however, grew and expanded their
irrigation systems. In 1540 Spanish explorers visited the descendants
of the Anasazi, who are called the Pueblos. After 1598 the Spanish imposed
their rule on the Pueblos, but in 1680 the Pueblos organized a rebellion
that kept them free until 1692. Since that time, Pueblo towns have been
dominated by Spanish, then Mexican, and finally United States government.
The Pueblos attempted to preserve their culture: They continued their
farming and, in some towns, secretly maintained their own governments
and religion. Twenty-two Pueblo towns exist today. See also Acoma Pueblo;
Cliff Dweller; Hopi; Isleta; Laguna; Zuñi.
In the 1400s, hunters speaking an Athapaskan language-related to languages
of Alaska and western Canada-appeared in the Southwest, having migrated
southward along the western Great Plains. They raided Pueblo towns for
food and-after slave markets were established by the Spanish-for captives
to sell; from the Pueblos, they learned to farm, and from the Spanish,
to raise sheep and horses. Today these peoples are the Navajo and the
several tribes of Apache.
The Snake dance is a ritual performed in North America by the Snake and
Antelope societies of the Hopi. There are many stages to this ritual,
including fasting and preparing the altars. Four days are spent collecting
50 to 60 snakes. On the 16th day of the festival, performers catch snakes
in their teeth and dance. The day after the ceremony the snakes are returned
to their natural environment to spread the word that the Hopi are in harmony
with the spiritual and natural world.
The western sector of the Southwest is inhabited by speakers of Yuman
languages, including the isolated Havasupai, who farm on the floor of
the Grand Canyon; and the Mojave, who live along the lower Colorado River.
The Yuman-speaking peoples inhabit small villages of pole-and-thatch houses
near their floodplain fields of maize, beans, and squash.
Masks play an important role in the culture of many Native American communities,
including that of the Iroquois. This "false-face" mask is made of wood
carved from a living tree, but the Iroquois are also known for their cornhusk
The California-Intermountain Area Native Americans in the California-Intermountain
region relied on a wealth of natural resources for sustenance and trade.
Along the Pacific Coast, they hunted fish and sea mammals, including sea
lions and dolphins. In the interior, they hunted deer and other wildlife,
as well as harvested wild nuts and grains. The Native Americans of this
region also established a monetary system, using shells for currency,
which facilitated trade among their various communities.
The mountain ridges and valleys of Utah, Nevada, and California resemble
one another in the pine forests of the mountains and the grasslands and
marshes in the valleys.
An Archaic way of life-hunting deer and mountain sheep, fishing, netting
birds, harvesting pine nuts and wild grains-developed by 8000 BC and persisted
with no radical changes until about AD 1850. Villages were simple, with
thatched houses, and in the warm months little clothing was worn. The
technology of getting, processing, and storing food was sophisticated.
Basketry was developed into a true art. On the California coast, people
fished and hunted sea lions, dolphins, and other sea mammals from boats;
the wealth of resources stimulated a well-regulated trade using shell
The Paiute, Ute, and Shoshone are the
best-known peoples of the Intermountain Great Basin area; the tribes of
California include the Klamath, the Modoc, and the Yurok in the north;
the Pomo, Maidu, Miwok, Patwin, and Wintun in the central region; and
the "mission tribes" in the south, whose European-given names were derived
from those of the Spanish missions that sought to conquer them-for example,
the Diegueño. F The Plateau Region The Plateau people in northwestern
North America hunted deer and small game, while gathering fruits and nuts
from wild plants in the region.
They also supplemented their diet from
the region's rich salmon runs. Most salmon were caught in the Columbia
and Snake rivers. The Native Americans dried the fish, preserving it as
a staple for trade and winter consumption. In Idaho, eastern Oregon and
Washington, western Montana, and adjacent Canada, mountains are covered
with evergreen forests and separated by grassy valleys. As in the Great
Basin, the Archaic pattern of life persisted on the Plateau, but it was
enriched by annual runs of salmon up the Columbia, Snake, Fraser, and
tributary rivers, as well as by harvests of camas (western United States
plants with edible bulbs) and other nutritious tubers and roots in the
meadows. People lived in villages made up of sunken round houses in winter
and camped in mat houses in summer. They dried quantities of salmon and
camas for winter eating, and on the lower Columbia River, at the site
of the present-day city of The Dalles, Oregon, the Wishram and Wasco peoples
kept a market town where travelers from the Pacific Coast and the Plains
could meet, trade, and buy dried food.
This bag is an example of the Plateau
beadwork done by the Yakama during the early 20th century. It is brown
velvet with cotton and wool trade cloth, buckskin, and glass beads. The
two horses depicted are an Appaloosa and a pinto. The bag was used to
carry the bones used in a Native American gambling game called slahal,
the bone, or stick, game. In slahal two teams of players drum and chant
while the leader of one team guesses in which hand the leader of the other
team has hidden the marked bone. Ray Fowler/Thomas Burke Memorial Washington
State Museum Plateau peoples include the Nez Perce, Walla Walla, Yakama,
and Umatilla in the Sahaptian language family, the Flathead, Spokane,
and Okanagon in the Salishan language family, and the Cayuse and Kootenai,
or Kootenay in Canada (with no linguistic relatives). G The Subarctic
The harsh climate of North America's Subarctic region, which covers most
of Canada, inhibited population growth. Agriculture was impossible due
to short summers and extended annual freeze periods.
Native American communities survived
as nomads, hunting moose and caribou and fishing for needed food and living
resources. The Subarctic region comprises the major part of Canada, stretching
from the Atlantic Ocean west to the mountains bordering the Pacific Ocean,
and from the tundra south to within about 300 km (about 200 mi) of the
United States border. The eastern half of this region was once heavily
glaciated, and its soil and drainage are poor. No agriculture is possible
in the Subarctic because summers are extremely short, and so the region's
peoples lived by hunting moose and caribou (a North American reindeer)
and by fishing. They were nomadic, sheltering themselves in tents or,
in the west, sometimes in sunken round houses (as in the Plateau region).
To move camp, they used canoes in summer and sleds in winter. Because
of the limited food resources, Subarctic populations remained small; even
the summer rendezvous at good fishing spots drew only hundreds, compared
to the thousands of persons who gathered at seasonal rendezvous in the
Great Lakes or Plains regions.
The peoples native to the eastern half
of the Subarctic region are speakers of Algonquian languages; they include
the Cree, Ojibwa (also known as the Chippewa), Montagnais, and Naskapi.
In the western half live speakers of northern Athapaskan languages, including
the Chipewyan, Beaver, Kutchin, Ingalik, Kaska, and Tanana. Many Subarctic
peoples, although now settled in villages, still live by trapping, fishing,
and hunting. H Northwest Pacific Coast The west coast of North America,
from southern Alaska to northern California, forms the Northwest Pacific
Coast culture area. Bordered on the east by mountains, the habitable land
is usually narrow, lying between the sea and the hills.
The sea is rich in sea mammals and
in fish, including salmon and halibut; on the land
are mountain sheep and goats, elk, abundant berries, and edible roots
and tubers similar to potatoes. These resources supported a dense population
organized into large villages where people lived in wooden houses, often
more than 30 m (100 ft) long. Each house contained an extended family,
sometimes with slaves, and was managed by a chief. During the winter,
villagers staged elaborate costumed religious dramas, and they also hosted
people from neighboring villages at ceremonial feasts called potlatches,
at which gifts were lavishly given. Trade was important, and it extended
toward northern Asia, where iron for knives was obtained.
The Northwest Pacific Coast is known
for its magnificent wooden carvings. Northwest Pacific Coast culture developed
after 3000 BC, when sea levels stabilized and movements of salmon and
sea mammals became regular. The basic pattern of life changed little,
and over the centuries carving and other crafts gradually attained great
sophistication and artistry. Tribes of the Northwest Pacific Coast include
the Tlingit, Tsimshian, Haida, Kwakiutl, Nootka, Chinook, Salish, Makah,
I The Arctic The Arctic culture area
rings the coasts of Alaska and northern Canada. Because winters are long
and dark, agriculture is impossible; people live by fishing and by hunting
seal, caribou, and (in northern Alaska and eastern Canada), whale. Traditional
summer houses were tents. Winter houses were round, well-insulated frame
structures covered with skins and blocks of sod; in central Canada the
winter houses often were made of blocks of ice. Populations were small
because resources were so limited. The Arctic was not inhabited until
about 2000 BC, after glaciers finally melted in that region. In Alaska
the Inuit and the Yuit (also known as Yupik) developed ingenious technology
to deal with the difficult climate and meager economic resources.
About AD 1000 bands of Alaskan Inuit
migrated across Canada to Greenland; called
the Thule culture, they appear to have absorbed an earlier people in eastern
Canada and Greenland (the Dorset culture). These people are now often
referred to as the Greenland Inuit. Because of this migration, traditional
Inuit culture and language are similar from Alaska to Greenland. Living
in southwestern Alaska (and the eastern end of Siberia) are the Yuit,
who are related to the Inuit in culture and ancestry but whose language
is slightly different. Distantly related to the Inuit and Yuit are the
Aleuts, who since 6000 BC have remained in their homeland on the Aleutian
Islands, fishing and hunting sea mammals.
Like the Subarctic peoples but unlike
most Native Americans, the Inuit, Yuit, and Aleut peoples today retain
much of their ancient way of life because their culture areas are remote
from cities and their lands cannot be farmed.