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Water Cooler: An overview of Indigenous North America

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 10, 2020

November is National American Heritage Month. Here are some facts to share with your families and friends about Native Americans today and prior to colonialism.

The 2020 U.S. Census Bureau reported the population of Native Americans in the United States at 6.79 million. Most 20th century scholars estimated that there were over 50 million Indigenous people in the Americas prior to European arrival, although some historians argue that the population was 100 million or more.

This large population spread across many different landscapes and ecosystems and fostered an amazing amount of cultural and linguistic diversity. Here is a general overview of the cultures in different regions across North America.

The Arctic region of North America, present-day Canada, Alaska and Greenland was home to the Aleut and Inuit people. Some of the people in this region were nomads, meaning they migrated from place to place to obtain resources, following populations of seals, polar bears and other game across the tundra. Nomadic lifestyle was prominent with the Inuit in the northern areas, whereas many of the Aleut were more settled as they lived in fishing villages along the shoreline.

In the subarctic areas are typically divided into two groups. In the western end are the Athabaskan speakers, including the Tsattine, Gwich’in and Deg Xinag people. On the eastern end were the Algonquian speakers, including the Cree, the Ojibwa and the Naskapi. The waterlogged tundra made travel more difficult, so people relied on canoes, toboggans and snowshoes to traverse the land. Most homes were made to be easily transportable so small family groups could follow herds of caribou. They also used underground dugouts when the weather became cold.

The Northeast culture area stretches from the Atlantic coast of Canada into North Carolina and the Mississippi River valley. Tribes such as the Cayuga, Oneida, Erie, Onondaga, Seneca and Tuscarora, Pequot, Fox, Shawnee, Wampanoag, Delaware and Menominee lived here. Tribes tended to live in established villages alongside rivers, lakes and coastlines, which allowed them to create established farming and fishing communities.

Extending south, just north of the Gulf of Mexico is the Southeastern culture area, including the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole. These tribes were expert farmers, taking advantage of the fertile and humid environment. Many grew staple crops such as tobacco, sunflour, maize, beans and squash.

The Plains culture area covers the prairie region between the Rocky Mountains and Mississippi River. Indigenous people here includes groups like the Crow, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Comanche and Arapaho. They were mostly hunting-farming cultures, known for hunting buffalo, gathering wild plants as well as raising crops. Introduction of horses in the 17th century radically changed their culture.

In the Southwest area, covering present-day New Mexico, Arizona and stretching into parts of Colorado, Utah, Texas and Mexico, had a blend of nomadic and sedentary tribes. Farmers such as the Hopi, the Zuni, the Yaqui and the Yuma lived in pueblos and cave dwellings. Hunter-gatherers like the Navajo and the Apache often lived in round houses, known as hogans.

The Great Basin was home to people who mostly spoke Shoshonean or Uto-Aztecan dialects, with the expansive area covering the Rocky Mountains to the Sierra Nevadas. Groups like the Bannock, Paiute and Ute were great foragers, experienced in finding roots, nuts, seeds, small mammals, lizards and snakes.

Present-day California was very diverse, with more than 100 tribes that spoke more than 200 languages, such as the Maidu, Miwok, Yokuts, Chumash, Pomo, Salinas, Shasta, Tubabulabal, Serrano and Kinatemuk. These mostly hunter-gatherer groups had large systems of trade and relational networks.

The Northwest Coast, stretching from Northern California into British Columbia, was abundant with natural resources and led to harvesting salmon, sea otters, fish, whales, shellfish and more. Groups in the region included Athapaskan Haida and Tlingit; the Penutian Chinook, Tsimshian and Coos; the Wakashan Kwakiutl and Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka); and the Salishan Coast Salish.

In the Plateau between the Columbia and Fraser river basins, most people lived in riverside villages, surviving on fishing and foraging wild berries, nuts and roots. This includes the Klamath, Klikitat, Modoc, Nez Perce, Walla Walla, Yakima (or Yakama), Skitswish (Coeur d’Alene), Salish (Flathead), Spokane and Columbia.

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