The Indigenous Peoples of North America: Part 7 – The Southwest


The most distinguishing feature of this region has to be the Pueblo adobe apartment complexes with multiple stories and numerous rooms. These were built with baked bricks of clay and straw and were not held together by mortar. This complex is in Taos, New Mexico.

We now come to one of the more familiar Native American cultural areas in my series with the Southwest. You’ve probably seen stuff from this region since it’s been depicted in westerns and that you’ve might’ve seen an adobe house or a Hopi woman with traditional Padme Amidala buns. Then there are the Apache leader Geronimo who you’ve probably heard of. Like their Great Basin neighbors, the native peoples of the Southwest lived in a land that was dominated by a rocky desert. Yet, unlike the Great Basin, many of these people usually led sedentary lives and even farmed. Not that it was easy, because it wasn’t, especially without irrigation. But we know a lot about these pre-contact Native Americans better than those in other regions because they left an extensive amount of archaeology, particularly the adobe houses and villages which still stand. Not only that, but despite being among the first Native Americans groups to deal with European influence (such as the Spanish in the 1500s), but have shown a remarkable tenacity to retain their land, religion, institutions, languages, and aesthetic traditions while facing vigorous efforts over the centuries to eradicate indigenous culture as well as the people themselves. Today Southwest Indian identity remains relatively strong perhaps to a greater degree than Native Americans in most regions (like California). Today, much of the Native American population in the US is concentrated in this area with one of today’s most populous tribes being the Navajo. Of course, the fact that many Indians in the region were farmers and among the more settled probably worked in their favor as well as the fact that these cultures managed to integrate European innovations within their culture like domestic animals, silversmithing, wool and textiles, wheat and other crops, metal tools, and firearms. That and the fact the Pueblos managed to kick the Spanish out of the region for 12 years starting in 1680, leading them to moderate their demands. By the way, these Indians were also under a mission system during Spanish rule like their California counterparts. But that doesn’t change the fact that initial Spanish contact in the region wiped out 75-80% of the Southwest pre-contact population by the mid-17th century (mostly be European diseases). Or the fact Southwest saw more conflict between Native Americans and the US government than any other Indian region. The famous among them being the Apache Wars which spanned from 1849-1886 and is best remembered for numerous raids in both US and Mexico being led by Geronimo. Another famous Apache was Cochise who led a small warrior band that terrorized anyone who entered their territory as well as fought a bloody war with the US. Oh, and the fact, Native American archaeology and antiquities tend to face a lot of ethical dilemmas in general. So this isn’t a region to trifle with.


The Ancestral Pueblo peoples are known for their cliff dwelling villages like the famous Cliff Palace of Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. This part of the Mesa Verde was built and inhabited between at about the 12th-13th centuries with as many as 22,000 living there. However, while they’re said to disappear by the late 13th century, it’s more likely that they simply made a mass exodus to Arizona and New Mexico due to environmental instability as well as economic and social unrest (as evidence of violence and cannibalism have been documented). Their descendants still live there today as the Pueblo.

Location: Spans from the American Southwest to northern Mexico covering Arizona, New Mexico, and western Texas as well as Mexican states Chihuahua, California, and Sonora.

First Peoples: Outside Mesoamerica, it’s one of the longest continuous inhabited region on the continent. The first people are said to come to the area between 23,000 B.C.E. and 10,000 B.C.E. and were originally hunter gatherers before gradually making the transition to agriculture at around 4,000 years ago to 500. The region would be dominated by 5 major groups such as the sandstone cliff dwelling Ancestral Pueblo of Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, the Mongollon of the Colorado Plateau known for using irrigation and some of the best pottery north of Mexico, the Hohokam known for their extensive irrigation canal system as well as large villages and towns, the Hakataya known for their semi-nomadic villages and small scale agriculture, and the Southern Athapaskans (early Apache) who settled abandoned Anasazi and Mongollon villages between 1200 and 1500.

Environment: Mostly hot and arid desert with dry, rocky land and cactus with canyons, bluffs, rock formations, caves, and plateaus. Has some forests, grasslands, and few river valleys at higher elevations. Experiences little rain but mild to cool winters.


Unlike a lot of Native American cultures, the Pueblo primarily survived on an agricultural subsistence. Yet, this wouldn’t be possible in a desert environment without some kind of water management, particularly irrigation. Nevertheless, unlike how corn is grown today, the Southwest Native Americans grew theirs in clumps instead of the standard rows.

Subsistence: Primarily agricultural subsistence with techniques including canal irrigation, trincheras, lithic much, and floodplain cultivation. Though some tribes like the Apache hunter-gatherers while the Navajo was somewhere in between. Crops planted consisted of corn, squash, beans, pumpkins, fruit, melons, and sunflower seeds. People living near rivers also fished. Gathered cacti, mescal, screwbeans, mesquite, and grasses. Hunted deer, mountain sheep, buffalo, wild turkey, pronghorn, and small mammals. Those with limited food access usually raided, traded, or received agricultural products as gifts


While the Pueblo lived in massive adobe complexes, the Navajo lived in clay houses called hogans that could be round, conical, multi-sided, or square. They could also have internal posts as well as be covered in stone or wood such as this one.

Housing: Depended on availability of natural resources in a location, the tribe, and whether the dwelling was temporary or permanent. Farming tribes lived in houses with numerous rooms and stories made from adobe brick (made from clay and straw) and stone that could be built next to each other in villages often at strategic defense positions. These also had flat roofs. Used bone and wood ladders to reach higher buildings or rooms. Also constructed canals, aqueducts, reservoirs, dikes, and dams. They also had ceremonial pits that were called kivas as well as water wells. The Navajo built clay roundhouses sometimes outfitted by logs called hogans as well as underground homes, summer shelters, sweat houses. Brush shelters, teepees, and wickiups were commonly used among the Apache.


There’s probably nothing that distinguishes the Hopi more from the other Southwest Pueblo than the trademark “squash blossom” buns worn by their unmarried women indicating their eligibility for courtship. Since the Hopi live in a matrilineal clan system, this practice is understandable. Still, Padme Amidala wore this hairstyle in at least one of the Star Wars prequels.

Clothing: Due to the climate, the Pueblo usually didn’t wear much. Though some tribes often made woven cotton clothes for colder weather. Men wore breechcloths, leggings, and ponchos while women wore blanket dresses and robes in these communities. Clothing can be decorated with flowers or feathers. Adorned themselves with turquoise jewelry believed to promote prosperity, health, and happiness. Often wore their hair long. All wore moccasins, however. Apaches usually wore clothing made from animal skins (particularly bison) or whatever else they could get their hands on.


Even before contact with the Europeans, the Apaches had already established themselves in the Southwest region as traders and raiders. After European contact, they gained a reputation as one of the most hostile groups in the region. Seen here is the legendary leader Geronimo with his half-brother, brother-in-law, and son.

Transportation: The Apaches used dogs to carry their stuff on travois (according to Francisco Coronado in 1541). Recent estimates state that these dogs may have pulled loads up to 50 pounds on long trips at rates as high as 2 or 3 miles per hour.

Society: Primarily sedentary save for tribes like the nomadic Apache and Navajo. Yet, even among the farming Pueblo tribes, there was a certain degree of mobility since growing food often required using many different environmental niches. Was a place of large scale trade between Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache groups. Devised complex systems of exchange to ensure, without risk to their independence and basic egalitarianism that each community received. Though localized raiding and plundering was a common occurrence (by the Apache raiding Pueblo villages), there were few organized wars. Of course, Apache raiding was done by small parties with specific economic targets while wars with large parties were usually to achieve retribution (but both could be quite violent on their victims). Pueblo villages had specialized offices for unique responsibilities required by their lifestyle and environment. One tribe had a chief, a war priest, and hunting chief. Some even had specialized shamans. Pueblo communities also held lands in common with village decisions requiring unanimous consent of all adult men (though women held an influential voice, too). They also had planned villages composed of large terraced buildings with many rooms. The largest of these is said to contain 700 rooms in 5 stories and may have housed as many as 1000 people. Apaches and Navajos resided in extended family units usually consisting of parents, unmarried children, their married daughters, and their families as well as relied on kinship networks. Local Apache groups and bands were headed by a male chief who was chosen due to his effectiveness and influence. He was only as strong as he was evaluated to be, no one was obligated to follow him, and his office wasn’t hereditary.


While Pueblo marriage and lineage patterns differed among various tribes, this was not the same with the Apache. Apache women lived within the same clan their entire lives as well as inherited the family property.

Family Structure: Pueblo tribes had differing marriage practices as well as lines of descent. Apaches and Navajo practiced matrilineal descent and matrilocal, exogamous marriages. Apache men practiced varying degrees of avoidance of his wife’s close relatives while women generally inherited and owned property. Men generally hunted, fished, fought, and farmed while women took care children, kept house, made clothes, and cooked. A Hopi baby would be named until 20 days after it was born when being held from a cliff by the women at their father’s clan at dawn (like in the Lion King). Though they’d also bear gifts. A Hopi child could be given over 40 names though it’s up to the parents to decide which one to use. They can also change their names if they decide to become members of the Kachina society or after a major life event.


Another major aspect of Pueblo Native American culture are the Kachina dancers during their religious ceremonies, particularly among the Hopi and the Zuni. These dancers are masked men meant to represent spiritual beings. The Hopi also have Kachina clowns, too.

Practices: Basketry, Kachina dolls, animism, shamanism, prayer sticks, ceramics, dancing, music, sandpaintings, katsina dances, masks, textile weaving, tobacco, murals, beadwork, storytelling, pictographs, lunar calendars, and intricate blankets.

Tools and Weapons: Bows and arrows, spears, knives, grinding stone and receptacle, spindles and looms, hoes and rakes, pump drills, axes, clubs, dibble sticks, and adzes.

Notable Tribes: Pueblo, Apache, Navajo, Pima, Mojave, Tewa, Tiwa, Towa, Zuni, Quechan, Manso, La Junta, Coahuiltecan, Comecrudo, Cocopa, Karankawa, Maricopa, Mamulique, Hopi, Yavapapi, Solano, Toboso, Quems, Tamique, Tompiro, Walalpai, Yaqui, Papagos, Solano, O’odham, Mayo, Opata, Seri, Taos, and Keres.


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