group of indigenous cultural ethnic groups inhabiting North America
Travel topics > Cultural attractions > 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 and the indigenous cultures of Mesoamerica. 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.

United States historical travel topics:
Indigenous nationsPre-Civil WarCivil WarOld WestIndustrializationPostwar
African-American historyMexican American historyPresidents

Understand edit

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 and 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 to 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 in 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:

 
Totem poles in Vancouver's Stanley Park

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.

The island of Newfoundland is excluded from this list, since its 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.

Destinations edit

Natives live all over North America and some native artifacts can be found in many museums all over the continent.

Some indigenous cultures have their own articles here, with their own lists of sites.

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 edit

One ancient culture has left artifacts in several countries:

 
A Clovis point
  • 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 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. There is a museum at Blackwater Draw.
    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 quite 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.
       

Canada edit

  • 2 Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park (Áísínai’pi National Historic Site of Canada) (about 100 km southeast of Lethbridge, Alberta). Home to Siksika (Blackfoot) glyphs that date back as far as 9,000 years.    
  • 3 Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (Estipah-skikikini-kots) (near Fort Macleod, Alberta). 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 Brooks in southern Alberta). A sacred Blackfoot site dating back to about 3200 BCE.    
  • 5 Triquet Island (off the British Columbia coast, near Bella Bella). Site of a village that appears to have been a refuge from the last ice age, about 12,000 BCE.    

Mexico edit

There is evidence that the oldest known human settlements in North America are at a site outside Puebla, Mexico.

  • 6 Hueyatlaco. Archaeologists are debating the age of this site, where tools and animal remains were found indicating that humans hunted mammoths and other extinct animal species. The archeologist who headed the excavation team argues for 23,000 - 21,800 BCE, making it roughly twice as old as Clovis culture. Others contend that the site is over 200,000 years old.    

People first developed agriculture and settled near their crops sometime after 12,000 BCE. Historians debate who was first; the main candidates are Mexico, Ancient China and the Fertile Crescent. Certainly the new lifestyle was well established in all those places, each with different crops, by 7,000 BCE.

  • 7 Boca de Potrerillos, Nuevo León. Estimated to have been settled around 8900 BC, 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 BC.    
  • 8 Tehuacán Valley, Puebla. Area where archaeologists found 9000-year-old evidence of corn domestication. Believed by some experts to have been the place where Mesoamerican civilizations began.
  • 9 Caves at Mitla and Yagul, Oaxaca (state). The caves Mitla significantly predate the Zapotec culture and show evidence of human domestication of the three sisters 10,000 years ago (making it older than Tehuacan). A   UNESCO World Heritage Site.  

United States of America edit

  • 10 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.    
  • 11 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.    
  • 12 On Your Knees Cave (Prince of Wales Island, Southern Alaska). Has artifacts from about 8,000 BCE.    
  • 13 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 edit

 
Map of Indigenous cultures of North America

Canada edit

  • 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.    

Greenland edit

  • 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. Part of the Ilulissat Icefjord   UNESCO World Heritage Site.    

Guatemala edit

Honduras edit

Mexico edit

See also: Indigenous cultures of Mesoamerica

United States of America edit

Post-contact historic sites edit

Canada edit

  • 1 Batoche National Historic Site (Rosthern, Saskatchewan). 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 edit

  • 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 Whitman Mission (Whitman Mission National Historic Site) (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.    
  • 6 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.    

Museums edit

Canada edit

Mexico edit

  • 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), Mexico City. 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.
  • 13 Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico City. This excellent four-story museum sheds light on the Aztec culture as it showcases the many artifacts found on the Templo Mayor site. Highlights include the Coyolxauhqui disc.  
  • 14 Museo Antropologia de Xalapa (MAX), Xalapa, Veracruz (state). Regional anthropology museum on the campus of the University of Veracruz, general exhibits about indigenous cultures of Mexico with some of the best artifacts and exhibits on the Olmec and Huastec cultures.

United States of America edit

Buy edit

 
Northwest Coast Art at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau (near Ottawa).
See also: Art and antiques shopping

Various native handicrafts are often sold in tourist areas of some cities, for example:

Native handicrafts are also sold on or near reserves; for example, the Navajo Nation has fine weavings and pottery.

Pipestone National Monument has pipes and other stone carvings, and some of the museums listed above sell replicas of items in their collections.

Itineraries edit

  • 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

Respect edit

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.

If you need to refer to race, Native American is now the preferred term for referring to people indigenous to the contiguous United States, though American Indian is usually acceptable too, while First Nations is the preferred term for the non-Inuit indigenous people of Canada. The Inuit of northern Canada do not identify as "First Nations" and consider themselves to be a separate people. Similarly, the indigenous people of Alaska often do not identify as "Native American"; just stick to the term Alaska Native instead.

The term "Red Indian" used to be common for referring to Native Americans, but it is now considered a racist slur and should be avoided. Similarly, the term "Eskimo" was once commonly used to refer to the Inuit and Alaska Natives, but is now regarded as a racist term.

See also edit


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