Native Americans


Native Americans, or American Indians, were the first people to live in the New World. They had been living there long before the first Europeans arrived.

In 1492, Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to find a shorter and faster route to India.When he landed on an island near the American coast he thought he had reached India, so he called the people he met there Indians.

Many historians think that the first Indians came to the American continent from Asia over 20,000 years ago. At that time it was very cold and ice covered most of the northern part of our world. Indian tribes wandered across the Bering Strait and spread down to the southern part of South America.

Indians lived in different ways and had different cultures that depended on the climate and their surroundings.

Tribes from Asia came across the Bering Strait and spread to all parts of the Americas

Arrival of Europeans

The arrival of the Europeans in the New World was the beginning of the end of Indian life. Many settlers thought they were superior to the Indians and tried to force them to take on their way of life.

Land became the main problem between the Europeans and Native Americans. Settlers wanted land for farming and mining. As time went on, more and more Indians were forced off their land as new settlers arrived and travelled west.

At first, settlers and Indians were friendly towards each other but when they started to protect their land fighting broke out.

In 1830, a law was passed that allowed the government to move Indian tribes to the land west of the Mississippi.

When gold was found in California in the 1850s settlers rushed west as quickly as possible and destroyed the land that the Indians depended on for hunting and fishing.

At the beginning of the 20th century the American government started putting Indian tribes on reservations in the western part of the United States. Later on, American Indians were allowed to vote and the government tried to integrate them into society.

Family Life

Native Americans concentrated on the important things in life: getting food, making clothes and building houses.


Indians ate many different kinds of food. Those who lived on the plains of the Central United States ate the meat of buffalo. The Pueblos of the south-western part lived on corn, beans and squash. Natives in Alaska and Canada were fishers and hunted deer and other wild animals in the forests. Most of them ate berries and collected nuts.

Indians cooked their food in ovens that they made with hot stones. They preserved meat by smoking or drying it in the sun.

Squash is a kind of pumpkin
Image:Chiswick ChapCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Marriage and Children

Many Native Americans married at an early age – girls between 13 and 15, boys between 15 and 20. In some Indian tribes, parents chose husbands and wives for their children. Some Indian tribes allowed men to have more than one wife. After a man died his wife often lived with his brother’s family.

Most Indian families were small because many children died at birth or at an early age. When boys got older they were tested for their strength and bravery. Many had to live alone in the wilderness for a long time.

In many areas, Indians lived in big families called clans. These clans were a group of relatives who had one common ancestor.

Native American family in the 19th century
Image : National Gallery of Art, CC0,
via Wikimedia Commons


Many Indians made clothes from animal skins and furs. Buffalo skin and rabbit fur were especially popular. They also used bird feathers to decorate their heads.

Indians of the tropical regions only wore simple skirts. Some tribes wore no clothes at all.

Feather headdress

Image:2121.15.01 Native American style feather headdress «Santee Sioux Warrior» (front view)” by ‘4 Colors’ Gallery of Plains Indian Warrior Art
is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 .

Houses and Homes

Indians built many different types of homes because they lived in different climates and didn’t have the same building materials. Some groups built large houses with many rooms where many families could stay together, others had small dwellings in which only very few people lived.

The Inuit of Canada built snow houses during the winter and in summer they lived in tents made of animal hides.

In some parts of America, Indians built wigwams that were covered with leaves. Some tribes built houses into the earth that they covered with leaves and grass.

Indians of in the Great Plains built tepees made of buffalo skin. The Pueblo Indians of the south-western part of America used sun-dried bricks to make houses.

Brick houses of the Pueblo tribe in the southwestern US
Image:I, Luca GaluzziCC BY-SA 2.5,
via Wikimedia Commons

Teepee made of animal skin
Image: John C. H. Grabill, Public domain,
via Wikimedia Commons

Arts and Crafts

Native Americans worked in many arts and crafts. They created beautiful pottery, made baskets to carry food and wove cloth into blankets and rugs.

Indians also painted their pottery with colourful patterns. Some made wall paintings of important ceremonies or everyday life.

Government and Warfare


Families and whole clans joined together to form tribes. Hundreds of tribes lived in America when Columbus arrived in 1492. Each tribe lived in its own area, shared the same language and had its own religion. The leader of the tribe was called a chief. Decisions were made at meetings of the tribal council. Members were important people of many different families.


Indians often fought against other tribes because it was sometimes the only way to settle disputes.

The bow and arrow was the most common weapon of the Indians. Some tribes put poison on the arrowheads. Many Indians fought with spears and tomahawks.

When an Indian defeated his enemy he often took his scalp as a prize to show to others. Killing an enemy tribesman often made a warrior famous and respected.

When white people came to North America, Indians bought guns and other new weapons from them.

Weapons of North American Indians


Indians did not have one single religion, but they did have many beliefs. They believed in a mysterious force in nature and in spirits that were higher than human beings and influenced their lives.

People depended on them when they searched for food or when people were ill. Some tribes believed in one or many gods – special spirits that were more powerful than others.

Shamans were religious people who had close contacts with spirits. They were often medicine men and treated sick people in a family. They set broken bones and used plants to cure certain diseases. When helping the ill they often moved around their bodies and sang songs.

Many ceremonies were held to help Indians get enough food. The Plains Indians thought that the buffalo dance would help them hunt buffalo. Some tribes held harvest festivals and organised rain dances where they prayed to gods for enough rain.

Music accompanied Native Americans through everyday life. Many tribes sang to the rhythm of rattles and drums. Some tribes used flutes and whistles.

Cultural Regions

Cultural regions of Native Americans

The Arctic and Subarctic

Arctic and Subarctic inhabitants probably came to Alaska and Canada from northern Siberia about 10,000 years ago. They are also called Inuit.

They got food by hunting deer and sea mammals like seals and whales. Houses were made of animal skin or wood that came from nearby forests.

Indians travelled mostly across the lakes and rivers of the Arctic. They used toboggans and snowshoes to travel when the lakes and rivers were frozen.

Inuit family in their traditional clothing
Image:Ansgar WalkCC BY-SA 3.0,
via Wikimedia Commons

The Northeast

These Indians lived between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Coast and as far west as the Mississippi.

They were the first to make contact with European settlers. At first the two groups were very friendly. Indians taught white people how to plant corn. In 1621, the Indians and the first pilgrims even had their first Thanksgiving ceremony together. But later on, fighting broke out between settlers and Indians when the white people started to move west and take away their land.

Native Americans and settlers take part in Thanksgiving feast
Image: Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, Public domain,
via Wikimedia Commons

The Southeast

This region extends from the Ohio River to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Atlantic to the Mississippi. Indians lived in an area with mild winters and warm summers. Because there was enough rainfall, many tribes grew corn.

Women had much power in these tribes. Some of them even were allowed to take part in war councils.

Religion played an important role in the lives of the south-eastern Indians. They honoured their ancestors and when a person died many objects were put into his grave. Many Indian groups worshipped the sun.

The Plains

The Plains stretch from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains and from Canada to Mexico. Few Indians lived there before the arrival of the Europeans.

When the first Spaniards brought the horse to North America, the life of the Plains Indians changed. On horseback they could follow buffalo herds more quickly and buffalo meat became their main food. It was roasted over a fire and the skin was used to make clothes and tepees. Bones were used to make horns and other tools.

When white settlers came and also started hunting buffalo, the great animals of the Plains almost disappeared. Many Indians were driven away and the white settlers turned the land into cattle farms and ranches .

Plains Indians chasing buffalo over a cliff
Image:Alfred Jacob Miller, Public domain,
via Wikimedia Commons

The Mountain Region

This region covers the highest parts of North America. Settlers came to the Rocky Mountain region when gold and other minerals were discovered in the second half of the 19th century. Miners poured in and drove the Indians off their land.

The first white people who made contact with the mountain tribes were the explorers Lewis and Clark. Fur traders followed . Today many Indians live on reservations.

The Southwest

This dry part of North America stretches from southern California to central Mexico.

Many famous tribes lived here. The Pueblos were among the most highly developed. They lived in villages and were mostly farmers. They planted corn and beans and raised turkeys. The Pueblo Indians built large houses called cliff dwellings. They had many stories and were made of stone. People usually entered the houses through the roof. They climbed up a ladder that could be removed when an enemy attacked. The Pueblo were a peaceful tribe who only fought when they were attacked.

The Apache and Navajo Indians were fierce fighters. They often raided the Pueblo and searched for their food and other goods.

The first Europeans to come here were the Spanish. They tried to convert Indians to Christianity but mostly failed.

Native Americans Today

About 5 million Native Americans live in the USA today, or 1.6% of the total population. The biggest tribes are the Cherokee, Chippewa, Navajo and Sioux. About a fifth of of all Native Americans in the US live on reservations. The rest live in cities or towns.

Indian culture is still preserved on reservations. Here, they practice old traditions. However, they are worried that their traditions will disappear because more and more of them are being integrated into society.

Today, Native Americans are better off than they were at the beginning of the 20th century. They get better education; many go to high school and college. Many Native Americans work as lawyers, doctors or have other important jobs, like working for government companies.

Some tribes get money from tourism or selling handicrafts. In 1988 the government allowed casinos and other gambling operations on reservations. Other tribes earn money from taxes on oil or gas that is produced on their land.

Even though life has improved , Native Americans still face many problems in today’s America. Unemployment on reservations is about 50%. The income of an Indian family is much lower than that of a white family. Most Native Americans are badly paid and are unskilled workers. Suicide rates are also higher than in other places. Some of them try to reduce their problems by drinking alcohol and taking drugs.

Population of Native Americans in % of the overall population
Source :



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