North American Indians

North American Indians

A long time ago North America was very different from the way it is today. People made their own homes, food, and clothing from the plants and animals they found around them. The first Americans descended from cave men in Asia. They were the first people to live in North America, that is why they are called Native Americans. These people have lived in North America for thousands of years, and there are still Indian communities today.

There is a misconception that all American Indian groups lived in tepees, and hunted buffalo with bow and arrow. This generalisation is far from the truth. North America is a huge landmass with many different types of terrain. A tribe from one area did things differently to a tribe from another area, while tribes based in the same geographical vicinity tended to have a similar culture to each other. Many different Indian groups lived in North America. Each group had its own language and customs. (A custom is the special way a group of people does something).

Several groups of Indians often shared the same culture. (A culture is the way of life of a group of people. The language you speak, the clothes you wear, the food you eat, and the religion you believe in are all part of your culture). Indian groups that shared the same culture had the same way of finding food and building houses. They depended on the same natural resources and used them in the same way.


For example, the Plains Indians shared the same land, dressed the same way, spoke the same language, hunted for food, and practiced religion in the same way. That is why they are considered to be their own culture group.

CultureHomesFoodClothingInteresting facts
Northwest cultureWooden lodgesSalmon and other fishMade of tree barkTotem poles potlatch ceremony
California – Intermountain cultureWickiupsAcorns, fish and shellfishMade of animal skinsBasket making
Southwest CultureAdobe apartment buildingsCorn, beans, squashMade of cotton fibresPottery, basketmaking, Kachina dolls
Plains cultureTepeesBuffaloMade of buffalo hidesWar bonnets
Eastern Woodland culturelonghouses, wigwamsDeer, rabbit, squirrel, berriesMade from hides of small animalsWampum, weaving

Each culture area had their unique type of home. Indians used the natural resources around them to make their homes. Below are different types of Indian homes and descriptions of each.

The Indians in the Northwest Culture lived in wooden lodges. These were rectangular buildings that each held several families. These buildings were built using a wooden frame. The frame was then covered with pieces of bark sewn together or wooden planks, or boards. The inside of the building had a pit in the middle of it with a fire for cooking. The families would share the fireplace in the middle. Outside of each wooden lodge was a totem pole. The totem pole was considered a very important part of the lodge. Some lodges even had totem poles decorated on the inside beams of their homes. Each lodge had a different totem pole.

The Indians of the California-Intermountain Culture lived in circular homes of arched poles covered with brush and mat. This type of home was used for a short time when the Indians were hunting. This type of home was called a wickiup or thatch home.

The Indians of the Southwest Culture lived in apartment-style buildings. These buildings were made of adobe, clay and vegetables dried in the sun. This type of home was especially good for areas that had very little rainfall and a hot desert climate. Many families lived in each apartment. As families grew, rooms were added on top of the rooms that were already there.

The tepee was the home of the Plains Indians. The frame of the tepee was made of long wooden poles pointed together and fastened at the top. The bottoms were spread out to form a circle. This was covered with animal skins which fastened to the ground. These Indians would often paint decorations on the outside of the tepee. The Plains Indians would have a fireplace inside the tepee. This form of home could quickly be taken down when the Plains Indians moved to follow the buffalo.

The homes of the Eastern Woodland Indians were called longhouses. Like the homes of the Northwest Culture, these were rectangular homes with barrel shaped roofs. As their name states, these homes were very long. The outsides of these homes were made of wooden frames with bark sewn together to cover them. Families shared these homes also. The insides had a long hallway with rooms for each family on each side. There were low platforms for the families to sleep on, and higher platforms for storing goods, baskets, and pelts.


Northwest Indians – this culture as mentioned above, had a totem pole outside each home. A totem pole was a tall, carved cedar log painted and decorated. The totem pole of a family might have animals, birds, and religious spirits carved on them. The totem pole told a story of the history of the family. You could tell a family’s importance by looking at their totem pole.

Another way a family showed its importance was to have a potlatch ceremony – this was a “party” given by important members of the village. But instead of the guests bringing gifts to the family, the family gave gifts to the guests. Sometimes the family would give away almost everything they owned. The potlatch was a way of showing off their wealth and importance.

The California Indians lived in a culture where food was plentiful and the land was rich. They were hunters and gatherers. They gathered nuts, seeds, berries, roots, bulbs, and tubers. Deer, rabbits, and game birds provided meat for these Indians. Fish also provided food for these Indians. Acorns were a very important part of the Californian Indian diet. In the fall they would harvest the acorns from oak trees. Gathering was mostly done by the women, but the men and boys would climb the tree and shake the branches so the nuts would fall. The acorns were dried, shelled, and pounded into flour. The flour was then put into a round hole in the sand. Hot water was poured into it to rinse out the acid. This was boiled in a basket using hot rocks because the basket could not be put over the fire without burning it. This paste was very healthy for the Indians. It could be dried and eaten raw, boiled as porridge, or mixed with water and served as soup.

The Intermountain Culture, also known as the Great Basin, was found between California and the Rocky Mountains. This land was mostly desert land. The land itself contained large hills, some as much as a mile high with valleys in between. In some of these valleys an oasis could be found. In the desert-like environment food was hard to find so they had to constantly move in order to find food. Because of this, their homes were temporary structures. Men had to hunt long and hard just to find a rabbit or two. Lots of times the hunters would lose the rabbit to another of its enemies–the coyote. The Indians would not kill the coyote because they believed it to have special powers.

The Plains Indians culture group is well-known for the importance of the buffalo, their religious ceremonies, the use of the tepee, and their war-path customs. Four important tribes in this culture include the Dakota, Cheyenne, Sioux, and Comanche. The buffalo was the most important natural resource of the Plains Indians, it provided them with all their basic needs: food, clothing and shelter. The Plains Indian Culture followed the buffalo migration of the buffalo. Because of the constant moving of the tribe, they needed a form of shelter that could be quickly and easily put together and taken down – the tepee. The long poles of the tepee were dragged behind the horse and used to carry the belongings of the Indians when they moved their village.

This was called a travois. The Plains Indians believed in many gods. They believed the gods showed themselves in the form of the sun, moon, stars, and anything that was strong or strange, such as an animal, person, or even an odd-shaped stone. The way the Indian men received this power of the gods was from visions. Indians who received many visions became known as medicine men. These men were said to be able to see the future and cure diseases.

Powwows were one of the Plains Indian ceremonies. A powwow was a celebration or prayer to the Great Spirit. The way for a Plains Indian warrior to earn respect was through battle. Warfare consisted of short raids by small groups to capture horses or kill enemies. A warrior who killed an enemy brought home his scalp to prove it. Warriors would trim their pants and shirts with scalps to show their success. Indians would keep count of how many enemies they had killed by adding a feather to their headdresses or war bonnets. A war bonnet was a head piece worn by certain Indians. The feathers on it represented acts of bravery.

The Southwest Culture was very different from the Plains Culture. The climate of the Southwest is very dry. Much of the land is a desert. Water was a precious natural resource in this culture. The Indians in this culture had strict rules about the use of water. Even the very young children were taught to be careful with the water they used.

There were very few animals in the desert, so the Indians could not depend on hunting to find food. They had to find other ways to get food. They became farmers. Some important Southwest Culture tribes are the Anasazi, Hopi, Pueblo, and Navajo. The Anasazi built their homes into the side of mesa (cliffs). The buildings that the Anasazi lived in looked like large apartment buildings. These buildings had over 200 rooms, and more than 400 people lived there. They had square windows but no doors. The Anasazi entered their homes by climbing a ladder and going through a hole in the roof. They could then bring the ladders inside their homes to keep out unwanted visitors. They lived at the bottom of the cliff, but farmed on the top. The Anasazi grew corn, beans, and squash. They also tamed wild turkeys for meat. They used their feathers to make their blankets and clothing warmer. When it rained, the Anasazi stored the water in ditches. These had gates that could be raised and lowered to water the crops in the fields. The Hopi relied on prayer and rain dances to provide enough rain for their crops, they used wooden Kachina dolls to talk to their gods. The Kachinas were Hopi spirits. Hopi dancers would dress like the Kachinas to dance and sing for rain.

The Indians in the Eastern Woodland Culture lived in the forests, in villages near a lake or stream. They lived in wigwams and longhouses and were farmers. The Iroquois, Cherokee, and Mound Builders were important Woodland tribes. The Iroquois built log walls all around their villages. The wall had only one opening which they could quickly close if their enemies came near. Wampum was very important to this culture. Belts and necklaces were made from Wampum beads. The beads were actually white and purple shells. Wampum was used as money between the white man and the Indians. Wampum belts were made into pictures as a form of communication between tribes.

While there are some similarities between the various Native American Indian cultures, there are also vast differences.

Another Through the Ages article coming soon…