Imagine arriving at the edge of an unexplored land. There are no roads or trails or buildings of any kind. A vast, untracked wilderness extends beyond you for thousands of miles. Wherever you go, your footprints will be the first.
This was the world encountered by the first Americans, the ancestors of today’s Native Americans, or Indians. They arrived in North America more than 10,000 years ago. Before long, they had spread out across the Americas.
THE FIRST AMERICANS
Scholars believe the first Americans got to North America by walking from Asia. Back then, a strip of land connected Alaska in North America to Siberia in Asia.
Groups of people walked across this strip, possibly hunting mammoth and other big game. Other early settlers may have paddled down the west coast of North America in animal-skin boats.
LIVING OFF THE LAND
All across North America, from forests to deserts to grassy plains, Native Americans learned to live off the land. They made their clothes, homes, and tools out of what they found. The materials at hand also shaped their arts and crafts.
Native Americans harvested fruits, nuts, and the seeds of wild plants. In California, Indians ground acorns into a meal and baked it into cakes. In the Northwest, they gathered plants with starchy roots, such as bitterroot and wild carrots.
Native Americans fished along coasts and waterways. In the Northwest, they caught salmon in traps and nets. Some Northwest groups hunted whales. They paddled out to sea in large, carved-out logs called dugout canoes, and speared whales with harpoons.
Native Americans hunted animals of all sizes, from rabbits and turtles to elk and caribou. In the icy Arctic, they hunted seals and walruses.
The grassy Great Plains of central North America supported huge herds of buffalo. Horse-mounted hunters armed with spears and bows and arrows attacked the buffalo at great speeds. Buffalo meat was eaten raw, roasted, or dried under the sun to make jerky.
Many Native Americans were expert farmers. In fact, Native Americans gave the world some of its most popular food crops. They developed maize (corn), tomatoes, avocados, squashes, chili peppers, a variety of beans, and many other foods.
In the Northeast, the Iroquois raised maize, beans, and squash. They called these crops the Three Sisters. They planted them together on small hills. Corn stalks supported the vines of bean plants while the large-leafed squash plants blocked weed growth.
Farming among North American Indians reached its highest level in the deserts of the Southwest. There, even in the driest areas, Native Americans grew enough maize and other crops to support permanent villages with large populations.
Native Americans built homes of many kinds, depending on the weather, materials available, and way of life. People who moved from place to place in search of food made temporary homes, or homes they could take apart and move. People who lived in one place for a long time, such as farmers, built sturdier homes.
Buffalo-hunting tribes on the Great Plains built movable homes, called tipis, out of animal hides. In the Arctic, the Inuit people built igloos, domed homes made from blocks of snow. Igloos offered surprising warmth and protection from the wind.
Farming people in the treeless Southwest made homes from sun-dried bricks called adobe. Their dwellings, called pueblos, were like apartment buildings, with many homes stacked together.
In the forests of the Northeast, groups of families lived together in long wooden homes called longhouses. They covered their longhouses with sheets of elm bark. Along the wet and woodsy Northwest coast, people built large, square plank houses. These log-framed homes were covered with wide planks of cedar to keep out the frequent rains.
Native Americans made their clothing from available materials. Farming people often made clothing from plant fibers. Hunting tribes made clothes from animal skins and furs. They decorated their clothes with dyes, beads, and fringes made from animal hair.
In hot climates, Indians wore little clothing. In cold climates, such as the Arctic, people wore clothes specially made to keep them warm. They sewed caribou hides into warm, hooded coats called parkas. They made fur-lined sealskin boots called mukluks.
ARTS AND CRAFTS
Native Americans created many objects of great beauty. Everyday items, such as woven blankets, baskets, or pottery were made to be useful and pleasing to look at.
The people of California wove baskets of all sizes from reeds, grasses, and tree bark. Some groups, such as the Pomo people, decorated their baskets with dyes, shells, and feathers.
In the Southwest, pottery reached a high art form. The Pueblo people made bowls, cups, and platters from coiled strips of clay. They painted them with beautiful patterns.
Northwest Coast peoples were master woodworkers. They shaped giant wood plank houses, totem poles, and dugout canoes. They made wood chests, boxes, ceremonial masks, and spoons carved with bird and animal designs.
NATIVE AMERICAN RELIGIONS
Although Native American religions were very different, most tribes shared certain religious ideas. They saw nature as filled with spirits. Supernatural power filled all natural objects, from living creatures to things like thunder, mountains, rivers, and rocks.
Most tribes had religious leaders called shamans. Shamans sought to tap the supernatural power for the good of the tribe. They used their skills to try to cure illness, improve harvests, cause rain to fall, or lead hunters to game animals.
THE COMING OF THE EUROPEANS
European settlers first arrived in eastern North America in the 1500s and 1600s. They brought much hardship to Native Americans. They exposed Native Americans to European diseases, which swept the continent. Many Native Americans died from these diseases before they even saw the newcomers.
Native Americans traded with European settlers. They exchanged animal furs for European goods such as steel pots, steel axes, guns, and brightly colored cloth.
Soon, the settlers started clearing land for farms. Native Americans had used these lands for hunting. Wars between settlers and Indians broke out.
HOW NATIVE AMERICANS RESPONDED
Many Native Americans fled west, away from the Europeans. Some Indians moved onto the Great Plains and learned to ride horses, an animal brought to North America by Europeans. Tribes that stayed in the East faced warfare with settlers.
In the early 1800s, the United States government began forcing Indians to move west. Many groups were uprooted and wiped out. To encourage Indians to move, the U.S government promised them all the land west of the Mississippi River.
The government soon broke its promise. Settlers began moving west and claiming Indian lands. The U.S. Army built forts on the plains to protect settlers from Indian raids. By the late 1800s, the government had ordered all Indians onto areas of land called reservations. Native Americans resisted fiercely. But in the end they were defeated.
NATIVE AMERICANS TODAY
In the United States, about 2.5 million people now call themselves Native Americans. Canada has more than 1 million Indians. The native people of Canada are called First Nations people.
Today, most Native Americans live in cities. Their life is similar to that of other American citizens. Other Native Americans in the United States live on some 275 reservations.
Across North America, Native American groups have tried to maintain some of their traditions. They practice traditional art forms, attend traditional religious ceremonies, such as powwows, and speak their native languages. In this way, Native American groups keep their distinct cultures alive.