Native American Cultures of the North America

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Native American Cultures of the North America

After the last Ice Age ended and the glaciers of North America retreated, vegetation and forests returned to the land. When temperatures warmed up, lakes and rivers formed. Native Americans were able to expand the area where they could live. Over thousands of years, Native Americans moved to these new lands and adapted to new environments. Very different cultures of Native Americans formed based on the environment of the region they had to adapt to.

Native Americans adapted to their environments by using what each environment had to offer. With these adaptations, Native Americans developed a way of life (culture). Their culture was affected by geographic factors:

  • Climate and what shelter (housing) was needed to survive,

  • Temperature and availability of water which affected the ability to collect wild plants or to grow crops.

  • Availability of animals for hunting, fishing or domestication.

  • Availability of other natural resources for building tools, weapon, shelters, and clothing (wood, plants, mud, stone, leather).

  • Proximity to other tribes and competition or cooperation with other neighboring tribes. Opportunity to raid (attack) other tribes or cooperate with other tribes for self-defense (alliance) or to trade goods.

  • Proximity of rivers or accessible trails for communication, trade and cooperation with other tribes.

Native Americans in the far north hunted herds of sea and land animals.

Native Americans in the Eastern Woodlands had forests they could use for hunting as well as for gathering wild roots, fruits and berries.

Native Americans on the plains could farm as well as follow and hunt buffalo.

Native Americans in the Coastal Northwest could use the rivers for salmon and other fish, and also use the plentiful wood from the thick forests.

Native Americans in the southwest had to adapt to very harsh desert environment by following animal herds or settling near sources of water for farming.

The Northern Area

The Northern area, also known as the Subarctic, covered most of Canada. The cold environment prevented farming. Hunting, gathering, and activities such as trapping and fishing were common in this area. Nomadic hunters moved with the season from forest to tundra following herds of caribou as they migrated. Other food was provided by small animals, berries, and edible roots. Not only food but clothing and even some shelter (caribou-skin tents) came from the caribou. Since the deep snow was hard to walk through, these natives made snowshoes. Caribou skins also were used to make nets and bags. Hunters sometimes made temporary houses out of snow and ice.

The Eastern Woodlands Area

The Eastern Woodlands area covered the eastern part of the United States (roughly from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River, and included the Great Lakes.) This area is deciduous forest area with trees and rich soil. These tribes were largely deer hunters and farmers. The women tended small plots of corn, squash, and beans. Their diet of deer meat was supplemented by other animals, as well as fish (caught with hook, spear, and net), and shellfish. Cooking was done in containers made of wood and bark or simple pottery. The Eastern Woodland tribes made use of the many trees and rivers found there. The birch bark canoe was widely used in this area for fishing and transportation. Eastern woodlands tribes made homes of wood and tree bark called wigwams and longhouses. Clothing was usually made of deerskins.

The Plains Area

The Plains area included the grasslands between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. This area is dry with few trees but the soil is fertile. There were two different types of Native Americans in the plains, sedentary and nomadic. The sedentary tribes first settled along the river valleys. These people were farmers and lived in permanent villages of dome-shaped earth lodges surrounded by dirt walls. They raised corn, squash, and beans. The nomads moved about with their goods on small sleds pulled by dogs.  Nomads had a difficult life hunting the huge herds of buffalo. Since hunting these large animals on foot was difficult they usually drove them into enclosures or rounded them up by setting grass fires. Nomads supplemented their diet by trading meat and skins for the corn of the agricultural tribes. They preserved food by pounding and drying meat to make jerky. Clothing was made from buffalo hides and deerskins.

The Northwest Coast Area

The Northwest Coast area extended along the Pacific coast from southern Alaska to northern California. This area is thickly wooded with a temperate climate and heavy rainfall. The Northwest area supported a large Native American population. Salmon was the staple food, supplemented by sea mammals (seals and sea lions) and land mammals (deer, elk, and bears.) Food such as berries and other wild fruit were gathered from the forests. The Native Americans of this area used wood to build their houses and had huge cedar-planked and carved dugout canoes. Some of these canoes were even taken out onto the ocean. Winter villages were permanent and some groups had totem poles carved with animal decorations. These tribes had woven robes, furs, and basket hats as well as wooden armor and helmets for battle.

The Southwest Area

The Southwest area was mostly desert. Life for these tribes changed greatly over time. Earlier people hunted with a spear thrower but later learned from Mexican tribes how to farm beans and squash. Since trees were not easily available, mud was used to make pottery and homes. These earlier tribes lived in pit homes, which were partly underground and were lined with slabs of stone. Later people lived in large, layered houses set on ledges of cliffs or canyons for protection. These later tribes developed more advanced farming using irrigation. They farmed corn, beans, squash, cotton, and tobacco. Animals such as rabbits were hunted with a wooden throwing stick. These tribes wove cloth from the cotton they farmed. Farm goods and cloth were traded with the nomadic tribes to the north in exchange for buffalo meat. Native American Food did Native Americans get food for their families in the days before supermarkets?

There were four basic ways for people in ancient societies to find food: hunting and fishinggatheringfarming, and raising domesticated animals. Native Americans did all these things, but the first three were much more common. There were not many domesticated animals in North America before Europeans arrived-- only turkeys, ducks, and dogs, and most tribes did not eat dog meat (although some did.) In South America, llamas and guinea pigs were also raised by some tribes for their meat. 

The other three food sources were much more important to Native American life. Most tribes used two or three of these food-gathering techniques at once to get a varied diet. Every American Indian tribe that we know of took part in hunting and fishing to get fresh meat to eat. The Inuit (Eskimos) and some Indian tribes of the far north relied almost entirely on hunting and fishing to survive. Some Native Americans were primarily big game hunters, migrating frequently to follow herds of bison or caribou. The Blackfoot and Sioux are two examples of big game hunting tribes. In tribes like these, large groups of Native Americans usually worked together to drive large animals into an ambush, a man-made pit, or over a cliff, sometimes setting controlled fires or building fences to cut off their escape. In other tribes, such as the Chippewa or Creek, each individual Native American hunter would stalk deer, rabbits or other game, or set snares or traps for them. In fishing tribes, Native American fishermen would either catch fish and hunt marine mammals from their canoes, or else set fish nets and wooden traps for them. The Tlingit and Salish are two examples of Northwest Indian tribes who got most of their meat through fishing. Native hunting and fishing weapons varied from tribe to tribe but the most common ones were bows and arrows, spears, harpoons, fish-hooks, and blowguns. 

Farming was another very important source of American Indian food materials. Native agriculture was most advanced in what is now the southern United States, Mexico, and the Andean region of South America. Native Americans from those areas used special farming techniques like irrigation, terracing, crop rotation, and planting windbreaks to improve their farms, and they usually harvested enough crops to dry and store for the winter. Some examples of southern Native American tribes who were expert farmers included the HopiNavajo, and Cherokee tribes. Other tribes further to the north planted crops in garden plots in their villages but did not harvest enough to last the winter, so they would split up into hunting camps during that time instead. Examples of northern tribes who farmed this way included the Lenape and Iroquois tribes. Besides food crops, Native American farmers often grew cotton, hemp, tobacco, and medicinal plants. 

Gathering is a general term for collecting food that grows wild in the environment. Sometimes this is a very basic sort of task, such as picking blueberries from a bush. Other times gathering can be complicated and requires special tools and training, such as tapping trees for maple syrup or grinding and leaching acorns into edible flour. The kinds of wild foods gathered by an Indian tribe and the tools they needed to do it with varied a lot depending on where the tribe lived. Usually Native Americans gathered wild foods in addition to hunting, fishing, or farming. were some typical Native American foods?

The most important Native American food crop was Indian corn (also known as maize, which comes from the Taino Indian name for the plant.) The majority of American Indian tribes grew at least some corn, and even tribes that did not grow corn themselves often traded with neighbors for it. Other important American Indian crops included beans, squash, pumpkins, sunflowers, wild rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, peanuts, avocados, papayas, and chocolate. 

Whether they were farming tribes or not, most Native American tribes had very meat-heavy diets. Favorite meats included buffalo, elk, caribou, deer, and rabbit; salmon and other fish; ducks, geese, turkeys and other birds; clams and other shellfish; and marine mammals like seals or even whales. But almost any animal who lived in the Americas in ancient times was sometimes added to the menu, even animals you might not think of as food like porcupines, monkeys, or snakes. Many Native American tribes had strong beliefs against wasting food, so if they killed an animal for any other reason, they would often try to eat it. 

Other foods that could be found naturally in the Americas and were often eaten by American Indians included eggs, honey, maple syrup and sugar, salt, nuts (including peanuts, pine nuts, cashews, hickory nuts, and acorns,) fruit (including cranberries, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, chokecherries, wild plums, and persimmons), and a wide variety of beans, roots, and greens.
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