People lived in North America long before the arrival of Christopher Columbus and the Europeans. These people and cultures are called Native American Indians.
The first people to live in a land are called the indigenous people. This means they were the original settlers. The Native Americans, also known as American Indians, are the indigenous peoples and cultures of the North American continent (today's United States and Canada).
There were hundreds of tribes throughout the United States when Columbus first arrived. Many of them are well known such as the Cherokee, Apache, and the Navajo. Small tribes often made up part of larger tribes or communities and they largely lived in peace with each other.
Top 10 facts
- The religious leader of each Native American tribe was called the shaman or medicine man.
- Some Native Americans were nomadic (did not live in one place, but travelled between seasons), some were semi-nomadic, and others were static (remained in the same place).
- The groups of Native American tribes spoke different languages. It is estimated that there were many languages spoken in around 600 different dialects.
- Religions and beliefs were very important to the Native American way of life. Animism is a commonly shared belief amongst American Indian tribes. It is based on the spiritual belief that everything, living, natural or inanimate and has a soul or spirit
- It is better to avoid using the term "Red Indian", as this name originally referred to a specific tribe, the Beothuks, who painted their bodies and faces with red ochre, so it may cause confusion if you use it to refer to all Native Americans.
- According to recent census reports, there are about 2 million Native Americans in the United States and 1 million in Canada today.
- Festivals and ceremonies were very important to Native American culture and were closely linked to religion and beliefs. It was usual to hold ceremonies and rituals to worship and pacify the spirits; the festivals and ceremonies would include chanting, singing and dancing.
- Native American totem poles are large trees carved with figures representing faiths and beliefs. The carvings, colours and symbols on a totem pole have spiritual meanings and significance.
- Today, there are over 500 recognised tribes in the United States alone.
- Music and dance were important parts of the Native American culture. Songs were sung at important religious rituals, but were also part of everyday life. They believed that music was the language of the spirits.
Did you know?
- European settlers to America brought with them diseases to which the Native Americans had no resistance. These diseases killed millions of Native Americans and resulted in a huge population decline.
- Europeans also brought many animals to the Americas which the indigenous people had never seen, including cattle, sheep, pigs and horses. Horses had been hunted to extinction by the early settlers of the Americas thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. The reintroduction of the horse by the Europeans had an incredible impact on the American Indians. They learned to use horses for travel, hunting, and warfare.
- There were several very famous Native Americans:
- Pocahontas (1595-1617) – She was made famous by the Disney film about her friendship with the early American settlers of Jamestown, Virginia. Her 1614 marriage to settler John Rolfe was the first marriage between a Native American and non-native in American history.
- Sitting Bull (1831-1890) – He was perhaps the most famous Native American Indian ever. This Sioux warrior is famed for his victory over the United States Army, led by General Custer, at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
- Geronimo (1829-1909) – He was a famous Apache military and spiritual leader. For several decades he fought Mexican and United States forces who were trying to take over Apache territory.
- Crazy Horse (1840-1877) – He was a great Sioux warrior and a leader in the Great Sioux War of 1876.
- The most important Native American food crop was corn, or what they called maize. Other important American Indian crops included squash, potatoes, wild rice, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, pumpkins, sunflowers, peanuts, peppers, chocolate, and avocados. Native American tribes also had diets that included a lot of meat. These meats were: elk, buffalo, caribou, rabbit, deer, salmon, fish, ducks, turkeys, geese, pheasant, shellfish and other marine animals like whales and seal. Porcupines and snakes were also hunted as food.
- Native Americans also ate honey, eggs, maple syrup, nuts, salt, pine nuts, cranberries, blueberries, raspberries, acorns, root vegetables and greens. Native American cooking tended to be simple. Most Native Americans preferred to eat their food very fresh, without many spices.
Look through the gallery and see if you can find the following:
- A Native American family
- Traditional tepees
- Some Native Americans lived in longhouses
- Native Americans learned to use horses
- Pocahontas and John Rolfe didn’t really look like the Disney characters!
- Where Native American tribes lived
- Traditional clothing was highly decorated
Many thousands of years ago, late in the Ice Age, people living in present-day India journeyed from Asia into Alaska. Their descendants explored along the west coast of North America, and as early as 13,000 years ago, they had covered both continents, reaching all the way to the southern tip of South America.
It is not exactly known when the first Native Americans arrived in North America, but some archaeologists (scientists who study the remains of past human lives) believe it might have been as long as 40,000 years ago.
Native Americans lived throughout North and South America. In the United States there were Native Americans in Alaska, Hawaii, and the mainland of the United States. Different tribes and cultures lived in different areas. The Native Americans were grouped into tribes or nations usually based on the area they lived in and their culture such as their religion, customs, and language. Sometimes smaller tribes were part of a bigger tribe or nation. As far as historians can tell, these tribes were fairly peaceful prior to the arrival of Columbus and the Europeans.
The Native Americans did not write down or record their history, so we have to find out about them in other ways. Today, archaeologists are able to learn a lot about past cultures when they discover artefacts such as tools and weapons. Much of what we know comes from the written accounts of the first Europeans to arrive. We can also learn from traditions and stories that have been passed down within the tribes from generation to generation.
Native Americans lived in a wide variety of homes. Different tribes and peoples built different types of homes. The kinds of homes they lived in depended on the materials that they had available where they lived and their lifestyle.
Some tribes were nomads. This meant that the entire tribe would travel from place to place. This was common for tribes living in the Great Plains where they hunted buffalo for food. The tribe would follow the large buffalo herds as they roamed the plains. These tribes built homes that were easy to move and build. They were called tepees. Other tribes lived in one place for a long time. This was because they had water and food nearby. These tribes built more permanent homes like pueblos or longhouses.
Native Americans made their clothing from animal hides. Usually, they used the hides of the animals they hunted for food. Many tribes such as the Cherokee and Iroquois used deerskin, while the Plains Indians, who were bison hunters, used buffalo skin and the Inuit from Alaska used seal or caribou skin. Some tribes learned how to make clothing from plants or weaving thread. These included the Navajo and Apache, who learned how to make woven blankets and tunics. All of their clothes were made by hand, and the women would generally make the clothes. Often, the clothing would be decorated. The Native Americans would use feathers, animal fur such as ermine or rabbit, porcupine quills, and, after the Europeans arrived, glass beads to decorate their clothes.
All Native American people were very spiritual and they had many religious customs and rituals. They also had many gods. They believed in a special relationship with nature. For most, the Sun was the supreme god. They worshiped the sun because they needed it to grow their crops. They also needed rain, so many had a Rain god. Other elements in nature were also worshipped. Most tribes believed in the power of their dreams as they were considered to be revelations made by the gods. Most had an important religious leader which some called shaman, or medicine man.
Today, some of the descendants of the original American Indians live on areas of land called reservations. These areas are set aside specifically for Native Americans. This helps to protect their heritage and culture. However, only around 30% of people of Native American origin live on reservations. The rest live outside the reservations just like anyone else.
Words to know:
census - an official count of a population carried out at set intervals
communities - groups of people who live in the same area, or the area in which they live
culture - the beliefs, customs, practices, and social behaviour of a particular nation or people
decline - to decrease in number, amount, value, or quality
descendants - a person, animal, or plant related to one that lived in the past
extinction - the gradual process by which a group of related organisms dies out
heritage - something that passes from one generation to the next in a social group, e.g. a way of life or traditional culture
inanimate - not alive
indigenous - originating in and naturally living, growing, or occurring in a region or country
nomadic - a member of a people who move seasonally from place to place to search for food and water or pasture for their livestock
pacify - to bring peace to an area, people, or situation, often by using military force to end conflict or unrest
population - all of the people who inhabit an area, region, or country
rituals - the observance of actions or procedures in a set, ordered, and ceremonial way
static - without movement, staying still
tribes - societies or divisions of a society whose members have ancestry, customs, beliefs, and leadership in common
Just for fun...
- Read traditional Native American stories
- Play online games with a Native American theme
- Make an American Indian armband from Hama beads
- Make your own dream-catcher
- Construct your own (non-lethal!) tomahawk
- Identify Native American arctic artefacts
- Dress a Native American virtual paper doll
- Design your own tipi or longhouse
- Make a paper canoe like the ones used by Northwest Coast Indian people
- Look at 300 Native American rock art paintings and complete a Canyon Mission
- Create a shark totem pole
- Make a Hopi Kachina doll
- Tell a story with Native American pictures
- Make your own teepee with step-by-step instructions from Hobbycraft
Children's books about Native Americans
Find out more:
- All about Native Americans
- Find out more about totem poles
- Discover more about the role of the buffalo in the lives of the American Indians of the northern Plains
- See a slideshow about the first Thanksgiving feast, held in 1621 by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag
- Information about the different types of Native American homes
- Information and reconstructions of Iroquois longhouses, village life and agriculture
- How Native Americans harvested and used maple syrup
- Listen to Native American storytellers
- Information about Chumash myths and games
- Watch Inuit creation stories
- Find out more about Pocahontas and play Powhatan Princess
- Native American traditions of the Pacific North Coast: weaving
- Download a beautiful free activity pack called Moundbuilders, produced to celebrate Native American Heritage Month
- Find out how different Native American communities have traditionally looked after their land
- Hear a native American language from the Pacific Northwest area spoken
- The Pueblo Indians of New Mexico have been living near the Rio Grande River for more than 600 years; find out more about their pueblo pots
- Culture and language stories from native American communities around the Great Lakes
- Examine a Sioux Warrior shirt and beaded child’s moccasins to find out more about what life used to be like for native Americans
See for yourself
- Look through images of Native American life and artefacts
- Find out more about life in Navajo America
- Cahokia Mounds is the largest pre-European settlement in North America. Watch an animated video about life in Cahokia, City of the Sun
- The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC offers wonderful resources about Native American traditions and history. Explore the collections online and play Infinity of Nations: Culture quest