Indigenous cultures of North America
The indigenous peoples of North America are the tribes and nations whose ancestors were already on the continent when European explorers and colonizers arrived.
The largest group are American Indians who arrived before 10,000 BC, inhabited most of the continent, and are closely related to the indigenous cultures of South America. In the US they are now usually called Native Americans, in Canada First Nations, and in Mexico Indigenas. Groups that arrived later settled in less hospitable northern areas, the Eskimo or Inuit in Alaska, Northern Canada and Greenland and the Aleuts in the Aleutian Islands. Further, there are the Métis people of Canada and the northern US who have a distinct culture of their own blending indigenous and European (French and Scottish) elements.
Native Hawaiians are from a quite different culture and history and are not included in this guide. See Hawaii#History.
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There have been hundreds of indigenous nations and tribes. Many exist today, though often greatly reduced in numbers and territory, while others were wiped out by Europeans (in particular the Spanish, British, French), or the modern states which succeeded them (the U.S., Mexico, Canada, etc.), either from diseases brought from the Old World, by military conquest, genocides, or for other reasons.
Anthropologists who study indigenous cultures tend to group them either according the similarities of their languages or by their geographic location. Language is useful in determining which groups are related to each other and how they migrated over time. For example, the relationships within the Uto-Aztecan language family suggest that the founders of the Aztec Empire were related to groups from thousands of kilometres to the north in the present-day United States, like the Utes.
Geography is more useful is imagining how people go about their day to day lives: peoples living in a similar climate tend to have similar lifestyles based on harvesting the same natural resources. Here are some main cultural regions, correlated with guides on Wikivoyage:
- Arctic — the entire Arctic Ocean coast of Canada and Alaska, plus parts of Alaska's Pacific coast and of Greenland.
- Subarctic — the entire Boreal forest region
- Northwest Coast — the Pacific coast from the Alaska Panhandle to Northern California
- Plateau — inland areas in BC and Washington, plus most of Idaho
- California — part of Baja California (state) and most of the U.S. state of California
- Great Basin — Nevada, Utah, Southwestern Idaho.
- Southwestern — In the entire Southwestern United States (Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah) and all the states of northern Mexico.
- Great Plains — the Canadian Prairies and the entire Great Plains region of the US plus parts of some adjacent states.
- Northeastern — in Canada, all of the Maritime Provinces plus large parts of Ontario and Quebec. In the US, all of New England and the Mid-Atlantic region
- Southeastern — Basically synonymous with the Southern United States as used on Wikivoyage plus Florida.
- Mesoamerican — All of the regions of Mexico (except the far north) and much of Central America
- Isthmo-Colombian Area — Includes the southern parts of Central America (eastern El Salvador, eastern Honduras, Caribbean Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama) and the northernmost portion of South America (northwest Colombia)
- Caribbean — on the Caribbean islands
People could and did move across these regional boundaries, often moving seasonally to access different resources at different times of the year, for example people from the Subarctic region spending part of the year on the Great Plains to hunt bison. Also there was extensive trade; the high-grade flint from the Niagara region has been found at pre-Columbian Hopi and Navaho sites in the U.S. Southwest, and obsidian from Yellowstone, Wyoming was traded as far away as the U.S. Gulf Coast a thousand years before Columbus.
The Mesoamericans, Southwestern, Southeastern, and Northeastern cultures were farmers, and these groups had large, complex societies with permanent settlements, specialized artisans and officials, and social hierarchy. The majority of people living in North America at the time of contact lived in these regions.
- The Mesoamerican civilizations (Mayans, Aztecs, Toltecs, Olmecs, etc.) were the earliest farmers, domesticating the "Three Sisters" of maize (corn), squash, and beans. Mesoamericans also had the most urbanized societies, with a network of villages, towns, and even walled cities featuring large temples and palaces, and were the only ones in the New World to have writing.
- The Southwestern peoples eventually developed strains of the Three Sisters that could survive their harsh, desert climate and built abode-walled villages, or in Spanish pueblos, and are often known as puebloans.
- The Southeastern peoples adopted the Three Sisters from the Mesoamericans and built large earth mounds and had a few relatively large towns and cities, as well as many smaller villages.
- Northeastern cultures lived in small, fenced villages and practised a mixed lifestyle that combined shifting agriculture (the Three Sisters, as well as wild rice), with hunting and gathering.
Most of the rest of the continent was populated by hunter-gatherers. They were dependent on the North American wildlife for survival. They typically lived in portable dwellings (domed wigwams or hogans, conical teepees) so they could follow their principle game animals: bison on the plains, deer and moose in the subarctic, and so on. Their population densities were very low, especially in the Subarctic.
An exception to this were peoples of the North West Coast who despite not practising agriculture were able to live in hard-walled houses in relatively larger population densities due to the abundance of seafood, especially salmon, available in their region. Only two cultures in history have developed elaborate artistic traditions before cities or agriculture; the other were the Ainu of Japan, who also relied heavily on salmon.
Note that the island of Newfoundland, is excluded from this list since it's original indigenous population, the Beothuk, are extinct, but are believed to have followed a subarctic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Newfoundland was later re-settled by Mi'kmaq people from Nova Scotia.
Natives live all over North America and some native artifacts can be found in many museums all over the continent.
Artifacts have been found at a number of archeological sites, some dating back many thousands of years. The sites themselves are typically closed to visitors when excavations are under way, and visiting them at other times is likely to be a bad idea — not much to see and digging on your own would be a crime. However, nearby museums are often worth a visit and there may be opportunities for volunteer work on some sites.
Before 3000 BCE
One ancient culture has left artifacts in several countries:
- 1 Clovis Culture (Llano) (near Clovis, New Mexico). A site from around 11,000 BCE; many tools and one grave have been found at Blackwater Draw near Clovis. Clovis is the "type site" for the culture, first excavated around 1920, but there are over 100 other sites in various parts of the US, Mexico, and Central America plus a few as far away as Nova Scotia and Venezuela. The people were stone age hunter-gatherers and produced distinctive flint work called Clovis points.
Many archeologists in the 20th century accepted the "Clovis First" hypothesis, that the Clovis people were descended from the first migrants across the Bering land bridge and were the ancestors of all later groups. That notion is considered oversimplified now, mainly because excavations from Alaska to Chile have turned up evidence of pre-Clovis humans. The DNA evidence shows a close relation between the Clovis people and later groups in both American continents, but it also suggests that the full story is considerably more complicated.
However the Clovis people remain important in any version of the history; in the Americas, theirs is both by far the most widespread of known cultures in their time period and by far the oldest culture for which there is undisputed evidence from multiple sites.
- 2 Áísínai’pi National Historic Site of Canada (Writing-on-Stone, Glyphs) (about 100 km southeast of Lethbridge, Alberta), ☏ +1 403-647-2364. Home to Siksika (Blackfoot) glyphs that date back as much as 9,000 years.
- 3 Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (Estipah-skikikini-kots) (near Fort Macleod, Alberta), ☏ +1 403-553-2731. Blackfoot hunters would drive a whole herd over a cliff; the site was used for at least 5,500 years. This buffalo jump is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has a Museum of Blackfoot Culture.
- 4 Majorville Medicine Wheel ("Canada's Stonehenge") (near Bassano in southern Alberta). A sacred Blackfoot site dating back to about 3200 BCE.
- 5 Triquet Island (off the British Columbia coast). Site of a village that appears to have been a refuge from the last ice age, about 12,000 BCE.
- 6 Boca de Potrerillos, Nuevo León, Mexico (40 km northwest of Monterrey on MEX 53 to Mina, then 14 km to site entrance). Estimated to have been settled around 8900 BCE, excavations show the site was in use for as much as 8000 years. Thousands of petroglyphs can be seen. Excavations discovered about 20 ovens dating from 6960 BCE.
United States of America
- 7 Buttermilk Creek Complex (Deborah L Friedkin site) (near Austin, Texas). This site has the oldest weapons yet discovered in North America, spear points from about 13,500 BCE, making it one of only a handful of confirmed pre-Clovis sites. Another part of the Friedkin site has artifacts from later cultures, including Clovis.
- 8 Lamoka Site, New York (near Tyrone). Dating to around 3500 BCE, the Lamoka Site provides the first clear evidence of a hunter-gatherer culture in the northeastern United States. Co-ordinates used for the map are for the town and are approximate; the actual site is protected, so we do not know its exact location and if we did publishing it would be illegal.
- 9 On Your Knees Cave (Prince of Wales Island, Southern Alaska). Has artifacts from about 8,000 BCE.
- 10 Sun River (Tanana River Valley, Interior Alaska). This site is from about 9,500 BCE and has the oldest human remains yet found in the Arctic. Its people are thought to have been descended from Ancient Beringians, the first group to cross the Bering Strait land bridge several thousand years earlier; DNA evidence suggests they were not closely related to later groups.
3000 BCE to contact
- 1 Mantle Site, Wendat (Huron) Ancestral Village (Jean-Baptiste Lainé in Whitchurch-Stouffville, Ontario). Largest site associated with the Huron (Wendat) people yet found, discovered 2012.
- 2 Sermermiut (near Ilulissat, Greenland). 4,000-year-old settlement. Archeological excavations have shown the site being inhabited by the Saqqaq, Early Dorset and Thule cultures.
- 3 Chichén Itzá, Yucatán. – Yucatan's largest and most famous ancient Maya ruins. Dates from around 600 CE.
- 4 Teotihuacan, Mexico City. Largest pre-colombian city in the Americas, established about 100 BCE and estimated to have been a city of 125,000 at its peak around 1 CE to 500 CE. Known for its two major pyramids: Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.
United States of America
- 5 Aztec Ruins National Monument (near Aztec, New Mexico).
- 6 Bandelier National Monument (near Los Alamos, New Mexico).
- 7 Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Illinois. A UNESCO World Heritage Site with a fine museum. At its peak, around 1200 CE, a city of over 15,000.
- 8 Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Southwestern Colorado. Contains more than 6,000 archaeological sites, representing Ancestral Puebloan and other Native American cultures.
- 9 Copper Canyon (In the Mexican state of Chihuahua).
- 10 Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa. Effigy mounds shaped like bears and birds. Built by several tribes between about 600 and 1250 CE.
- 11 Great Serpent Mound (Ohio). The largest earthworks serpent in the world at over a quarter mile or 400 m. Its origin is controversial; some experts say it was built by the Adena culture around 320 BCE and others say by the Fort culture about 1070 CE. There are several other ancient earthworks in the region; see Ohio prehistoric sites.
- 12 Hovenweep National Monument (near Cortez, Colorado).
- 13 Mesa Verde National Park (near Cortez, Colorado). A UNESCO World Heritage Site world heritage site.
- 14 Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village (Mitchell Site, Boehnen Museum, Thomsen Center Archeodome), Mitchell, South Dakota, ☏ +1 605 996-5473. The Boehnen Museum offers exhibits related to the thousand year old village. Included in the museum is a reconstructed lodge, next door the Thomsen Center Archeodome covers the on-going archeological dig and provides a teaching and research facility as well as some hands on activities upstairs.
- 15 Moundsville, West Virginia. Burial mounds from about 200 BCE.
- 16 (northeastern Arizona and smaller portions of other nearby states).
- 17 Canyon de Chelly National Monument.
- 18 Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
- 19 Four Corners Monument and Tribal Park (where Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona meet).
- 20 . While there are the remnants of Native American dwellings in this Navajo Tribal Park, it is best-known for its rock formations and film-making history.
- 21 Pecos National Historical Park (near Pecos, New Mexico).
- 22 Pipestone National Monument (Pipestone, Minnesota). Site of quarries for stone used in pipes and ornaments; these are still carved for the tourist trade.
- 23 Turtle Mound (south of New Smyrna Beach, Florida). A hill made of shells that was built by Native Americans around 1000 BCE. It may have been as high as 75 ft (23 m) before mining reduced its height by one-third.
- 24 Yucca House National Monument (near Cortez, Colorado).
Post-contact historic sites
- 1 Batoche National Historic Site (Rosthern, Saskatchewan), [email protected]. The site of the historic Battle of Batoche during the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, Métis versus the Canadian government's Northwest Mounted Police. The sites include a NWMP encampment, a church and rectory complex, and a farm home.
United States of America
- 2 Chief Crazy Horse Memorial. Under construction in South Dakota. Crazy Horse was one of the leaders at Little Bighorn.
- 3 Little Bighorn Battlefield (Custer's last stand) (near Crow Agency, Montana). Site of a major Indian victory over US cavalry in 1876.
- 4 Standing Rock. Center of controversy in 2016 as local Indians tried to block construction of a pipeline that threatened their water supply.
- 5 Wounded Knee. Site of a massacre of over 150 Indians, mainly Sioux, by US Cavalry in 1890. Also of an armed standoff between the American Indian Movement and various law enforcement agencies in 1973.
- 6 Whitman Mission (near Walla Walla, Washington). A stop on the Oregon Trail, in the territory of the Cayuse tribe. The missionaries were blamed for a measles outbreak that killed about half the tribe; some whites were massacred and others taken hostage. This resulted in a war, which of course the Indians lost.
- 1 Blackfoot Crossing, Siksika reservation (off the trans-Canada highway, east of Calgary in Southern Alberta). This is the location of a prehistoric site ("earth-lodge village"), a modern historic site (Treaty 7 signing site and grave of Poundmaker), and a museum and interpretive centre.
- 2 Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum, Banff, Alberta, ☏ +1 403-762-2388, [email protected]. Housed in a reproduction of a fur trading post, this museum focuses on the history of the First Nations in the Banff area.
- 3 Fort Edmonton Park, Edmonton/South, Alberta, ☏ +1 780-496-8787. A new "Indigenous Peoples Experience" is scheduled to open in May of 2021.
- 4 Glenbow Museum, Calgary/City Centre, ☏ +1 403-268-4100. Western Canada's largest museum, with over 93,000 ft² (8,600 m2) of exhibition space on three floors. "Indigenous Cultures" is one of the largest permanent exhibits.
- 5 Métis Crossing, Kalyna Country, Alberta, ☏ +1 (780) 656-2229, [email protected]. A Métis Nation-owned-and-operated historic site, campground, and rental venue.
- 6 Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, ☏ +1 867 873-7551. The territorial museum and archives of the Northwest Territories.
- 7 Royal Alberta Museum, 9810 103a Avenue NW, Edmonton, Alberta, ☏ +1 825-468-6000. Includes a collection of 18,000 objects of indigenous origin.
- 8 Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria, British Columbia, ☏ +1 250-356-7226, toll-free: +1-888-447-7977. Includes a collection has more than 14,000 indigenous objects from throughout the province.
- 9 Wanuskewin Heritage Park, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, ☏ +1 306-931-6767. Wanuskewin is an international visitor site to learn about 6,000 years of First Nations culture. Also has a gift shop and restaurant.
- 10 UBC Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver/UBC-Point Grey, British Columbia, ☏ +1 604-822-5087, fax: +1 604-822-2974. Devoted to world cultures, but with an emphasis on the First Nations of the Northwest Coast. Includes a splendid collection of totem poles, a mind-boggling array of artifacts from around the world, and a number of changing exhibits.
- 11 Museo Indígena (Instituto Nacional de los Pueblos Indígenas), Mexico City. Mexico's first museum dedicated to living indigenous cultures (as opposed to archaeological relics).
- 12 National Anthropological Museum (Museo Nacional de Antropologia), Av Paseo de la Reforma y Calzada Gandhi s/n, Mexico City (Metro Auditorio station). One of the largest and most extensive anthropology museums in the world. Enormous complex with permanent exhibits on the cultures of Aztecs, Mayan, Toltec, Olmec and many other indigenous cultures. Allow several hours to a full day to see everything. M$75.
United States of America
- 13 Anasazi Heritage Center (near Cortez, Colorado).
- 14 Center for Western Studies, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, ☏ +1 605-274-4007. More than 200 collections dedicated to preserving and interpreting the history and cultures of the Northern Plains.
- 15 National Anthropological Museum (Museo Nacional de Antropologia), Av Paseo de la Reforma y Calzada Gandhi s/n, Mexico City (Metro Auditorio station). One of the largest and most extensive anthropology museums in the world. Enormous complex with permanent exhibits on the cultures of Aztecs, Mayan, Toltec, Olmec and many other indigenous cultures. Allow several hours to a full day to see everything. M$75.
- 16 National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C./National Mall, toll-free: +1 866 400-6624. 10AM-5:30PM daily. This museum displays the cultural traditions of the Native peoples of North, Central, and South America. It focuses on 20th century and present day culture much more than pre-Columbian and colonial periods. The exhibits can be fascinating, but are not as grandiose as those of other Smithsonian museums in DC. Perhaps the most important attraction is the gorgeous building itself, designed by famous Native Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal of Blackfoot descent, echoing the ancient stone formations of the American Southwest, and surrounded by manifestations both metaphorical and literal of natural North American landscapes.
- 17 Tatanka: Story of the Bison, Deadwood, South Dakota, ☏ +1 605 584-5678, [email protected]. Tatanka explores the history of the North American buffalo, which at one time had a population in excess of 30 million, but by the close of the 19th century the bison population was estimated at only 1,000.
- See also: Art and antiques shopping
Various native handicrafts are often sold in tourist areas of some cities, for example:
- Northwest coast Indian art in Vancouver or Seattle
- Inuit art in Ottawa and Montreal (imported from Nunavut)
- Southwestern Indian items including fine silver and turquoise work in Santa Fe.
Native handicrafts are also sold on or near reserves; for example, the Navajo Nation has fine weavings and pottery.
- Lewis and Clark Trail, route of a US government expedition to what is now Oregon, 1804-1806
- Mohawk Trail, a scenic route in Massachusetts
- Oregon Trail, a route of widespread settler colonization westward which had a severe impact on native communities on the trail
- Santa Fe Trail, another major route for settlers
- Trail of Tears, route of a forced migration of Cherokee and others in which several thousand died
Due to a long history of discrimination and ill-treatment, and at times even genocides, there still exists a fair bit of mistrust between indigenous people and the white majority in the United States and Canada. While the indigenous people now have equal rights with the white majority on paper, much discrimination continues to exist informally, and indigenous people are still in general economically disadvantaged relative to their white counterparts. The issues are complex and sensitive; visitors should consider avoiding political discussions and, if they do get involved in one, do much more listening than talking.
Avoid saying that Christopher Columbus (or the Vikings) discovered America, as this is highly disrespectful; the ancestors of the indigenous people were here millennia before any European set foot on American soil. Cf. the Native American leader who on meeting the Pope in the Vatican declared this land his, as he was the one to first set foot there.
- Age of Discovery
- Early United States history
- Old West
- American Civil War
- New Mexico Pueblos
- Ohio prehistoric sites
- Indigenous cultures of South America
- Indigenous Australian culture
- Maori culture
- Minority cultures of Russia