group of indigenous cultural ethnic groups inhabiting North America
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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. In the US they are now usually called Native Americans and in Canada First Nations. 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


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 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:

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 BCEEdit

  • 1 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.    
  • 2 On Your Knees Cave (Prince of Wales Island, Southern Alaska). Has artifacts from about 8,000 BCE.    
  • 3 Triquet Island (off the BC coast). Site of a village that appears to have been a refuge from the last ice age, about 12,000 BCE.    
A Clovis point
  • 4 Clovis Culture (near Clovis (New Mexico)). A site from around 11,000 BCE; many tools and one grave have been found at Blackwater Draw near Clovis. The people were stone age hunters and produced distinctive flint work called Clovis points. Clovis is the "type site" for the culture, first excavated around 1920, but there are many other sites in various parts of the US, Mexico, Central America and even Venezuela. DNA evidence shows a close relation between the Clovis people and later groups in both American continents.
    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 — was held by many archeologists in the 20th century. That notion is considered oversimplified now, mainly because excavations from Alaska to Chile have turned up evidence of pre-Clovis humans. 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.
  • 5 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 and publishing its exact location would be illegal.    
  • 6 Áísínai’pi National Historic Site of Canada (Writing-on-Stone, Glyphs) (about 100 kilometres southeast of Lethbridge, Alberta), +1 403-647-2364. Home to Siksika (Blackfoot) glyphs that date back as much as 9,000 years.    
  • 7 Majorville Medicine Wheel ("Canada's Stonehenge") (Near Bassano in southern Alberta). A sacred Blackfoot site dating back to about 3200 BCE.    
  • 8 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.    
  • 9 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.    

3000 BCE to contactEdit

Map of Indigenous cultures of North America
  • 3 Moundsville, West Virginia. Burial mounds from about 200 BCE.    
  • 4 Pipestone National Monument (Pipestone, Minnesota). Site of quarries for stone used in pipes and ornaments; these are still carved for the tourist trade.    
  • 5 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.    
  • 6 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.
  • 20 Sermermiut (near Ilulissat). 4,000-year-old settlement. Archeological excavations have shown the site being inhabited by the Saqqaq, Early Dorset and Thule cultures.    
  • 21 Mantle Site, Wendat (Huron) Ancestral Village (Jean-Baptiste Lainé). Largest site associated with the Huron (Wendat) people yet found, discovered 2012.    
  • 22 Turtle Mound (south of New Smyrna Beach). 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.    

Post-contact historic sitesEdit

  • 1 Little Bighorn Battlefield (Custer's last stand) (near Crow Agency, Montana). Site of a major Indian victory over US cavalry in 1876.    
  • 2 Chief Crazy Horse Memorial. Under construction in South Dakota. Crazy Horse was one of the leaders at Little Bighorn.    
  • 3 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.    
  • 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 (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 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.    



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.


  • Lewis and Clark Trail, route of a US government expedition to what is now Oregon, 1804-1806
  • Trail of Tears, route of a forced migration of Cherokee and others in which several thousand died
  • The 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

See alsoEdit

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