The Indigenous Peoples of North America: Part 10 – The Southeastern Woodlands

A coastal Safety Harbor village at the time of Spanish contact.

The Calusa people of Florida were among the earliest people to have contact with Europeans with the 1513 landing of Spanish explorer and conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon. While initial encounters between whites and Native Americans tend to be initially friendly, this wasn’t one of those times since the Calusa knew about what went on in the Caribbean from native refugees and kept driving the Spanish out each time eventually resulting in de Leon’s death in 1521, which didn’t end their hostility to whites though which lasted for a couple more centuries. And it didn’t help they were being subjected to European diseases and slaving raids. Today the Calusa tribe has been considered extinct since the 18th century.

Finally, we come to the Southeastern Woodlands, a region situated from the Mississippi River to the East Coast and from the Ohio River to the Gulf Coast. In this region, contact with the Europeans began in the early 16th century with Juan Ponce de Leon landing in what is now Florida in his hopeless quest to seek the Fountain of Youth. He never found it but he ended up discovering a land that would become a haven for Cuban refugees, rich retirees, major theme parks, astronauts, and outright nutbags. But it’s said that news of Columbus’s 1492 arrival and the effects of such event on the offshore native people such as massive death, mistreatment, and enslavement before Ponce de Leon’s arrival. At any rate, by 1519, these Indian Floridians knew enough to fear the non-native intruders. Yet despite efforts to protect themselves, many of these Indians suffered violence and death from non-native depredation and disease. As European presence became more regular and permanent after the mid-to late 16th century, the Southeastern Woodlands Native Americans were drawn into increased trade with the Spanish and later the British and French who arrived in the 17th century. At the same time the Indians continued to die from disease and were increasingly forced to deal with problems like factionalism, fraud, land grabbing, and alcohol. Aspects of traditional culture like clan and political structure began to break down as overall conflict increased. Though there was a thriving regional deerskin trade by the mid-18th century, many Indians started raising cattle as the deer disappeared. Indians also participated in the regional slave trade where they were buyers, sellers, as well as victims (some even accepted African Americans into their ranks like the Seminoles). Yet, despite that the larger, so-called civilized tribes had adopted a very similar lifestyle to their non-native neighbors such as slave based agriculture, literacy, Anglo-style government and laws, and to some extent Christianity, native land loss accelerated to the point they were almost completely dispossessed in the late 1830s. This was the famous Trail of Tears in which tens of thousands of Southeastern Native Americans were evicted from their homelands and relocated to reservations in Oklahoma with significant numbers dying in transit or shortly after their arrival. Yet, there was a number of Seminole Indians who resisted removal by hiding out in the Everglades. Today most “southeast” Indians live in Oklahoma while traditional culture is preserved in varying ways and to different degrees.

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Like their Northeastern Woodlands counterparts, the Southeastern Woodlands was also dominated by the mound building cultures consisting of the Adena, the Hopewell, and the Mississippian. This is painting depicting a Mississippian mound village in Louisiana.

Location: East of the Mississippi and south of the Ohio that spans to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.

First Peoples: First inhabited at around 11,000 years ago either by people from the north or west. But they were mostly hunter-gatherers who lived in family bands. Most groups adopted large scale agriculture by 900. Adena (800 B.C.E.-200) and Hopewell peoples (300 B.C.E.-700) resided in the area in permanent villages with mound burials, earthworks, copper ornaments, extensive agriculture, and stamped pottery. Most tribes at this time lived in matrilineal clans in opposing red and white divisions to counter centralized power. Tribes were often loose aggregations of these clans. And such membership often established one’s role or position in rituals and society. Mississippian societies were highly centralized and hierarchically ranked as well as led by powerful if not absolute chiefs. Members of elite classes received tribute in goods and services from common people. Their cities were palisaded urban centers with ceremonial centers and populations of up to tens of thousands of people. They also built large mounds up to 300 acres as well as had fields that were several square miles in area.

Environment: Often humid with river valleys, forests, mountains, grasslands, saltmarshes, lagoons, and swamps. High precipitation. Experiences hot summers and mild winters.

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Like their Northeastern Woodlands neighbors, most of the Southeastern Woodlands tribes practiced some form of agriculture. While corn was the main crop, they also grew squash, beans, pumpkins, sunflowers, fruit, potatoes, and tomatoes.

Subsistence: Primarily hunter, gatherer, fisher, as well as agricultural subsistence. Grew corn, beans, squash, potatoes, sunflowers, yams, tomatoes, fruit, and pumpkins. Gathered nuts, acorns, persimmons, wild rice, fruit, and mushrooms. Hunted deer, raccoons, opossums, beaver, eagles, otters, squirrels, rabbits, turkeys, bear, buffalo, elk, and wild hogs. Also fished.

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The standard Southeastern Indian dwelling was the wattle and daub house. It consisted of pole frames covered with branches and vines and plastered by a layer of clay. Kind of looks like something you’d see from the Smurfs.

Housing: This region had several different types of homes depending on location, tribe, and availability of natural resources. The classic dwelling was made from pole frames covered with branches and vines as well as plastered by a layer of clay. This is known as a wattle and daub house. Summer houses were usually rectangular with gabled, thatched roofs like the chickee. Circular winter “town” houses could be plastered inside and out with animal skins, bamboo, bark, woven mats, and palm leaves may also be used in outer construction. Some of these homes could even have two stories. There were even house like storage structures in addition to these homes. Large towns would have huge town houses with up to several hundred seats used for conducting rituals or business. Sweat houses were also common. Then you have the Caddo people who lived in the “beehive” thatched grass houses.

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Due to humid weather during the warmer months, Southeastern Woodlands Native Americans usually didn’t wear months. Both sexes also had a lot of body paint and tattoos.

Clothing: Most wore very little in the warmer months. Clothing was mainly made from tanned deerskin though inner bark was used to make hairnets and some textiles. Bear and buffalo robes were worn in the winter as well as ornate feather mantles or cloaks. Men wore breechcloths, shirts, leggings, shawls, or cloaks. Women usually wore short skirts, as well as tunics or mantles. Moccasins were mainly worn for travel. Ornamentation was made from shells, copper, pearls, and beads. Tattooing was widespread and body paint was used for special occasions. A lot of male warriors shaved their heads.

Transportation: Had bark and wooden canoes, preferably made from cypress. Though pine, poplar, and other wood canoes also existed.

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Southeastern Woodland warfare often took a great deal of ritual preparation and during such conflicts, warriors would often leave distinguishing signs to show who committed the violent deeds. Scalping was considered high war honors. Most war were usually over clan revenge.

Society: Primarily sedentary and semi-nomadic, though nomadic at the coast. Estimated to have as many as 150,000 people before European contact. Had vast trading networks, though most exchanges took place along kin networks and related families. Villages and towns were often at river valleys whenever possible which can consist of a social and ceremonial center as well as houses strung out for miles. Many tribes had some degree of social stratification and chiefs married women from allied and subject tribes to strengthen ties. Clan vengeance was a primary motivation for war. But warfare often took a great deal of ritual preparation and warriors often left a distinguishing sign to show who committed the violent deeds. Prisoners were usually tortured and sold into slavery. Scalping was common and constituted war honors. War chiefs often led war parties. Later societies could consist of large confederacies.

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Southeastern Woodland Indians were well known to practice exogamous marriage and matrilineal descent. Incest taboos were strictly enforced while inter-clan marriage was banned.

Family Structure: Practiced exogamous marriage and matrilineal descent. Observed strict incest taboos as well as marriage within a clan. Yet, polygamy was practiced among chiefs and wealthier men who could afford it. Men hunted, fished, fought, built houses, and sometimes farmed while women tended to housework, reared children, cooked, and made clothes.

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From 1817-1842, the Florida Seminoles and their escaped slave allies put up a major resistance against the US Army which led the US to acquire Florida and Andrew Jackson serve as its first governor for a time. However, no Seminole resistance was better known than that of Osceola’s in the 1830s who led devastating guerrilla tactics against US troops even when vastly outnumbered before his 1837 capture and death. A few hundred Seminoles managed to stay hiding in the Everglades where their descendants reside to this day.

Practices: Wood carving, animism, shamanism, pottery, basketry, Green Corn festival, moundbuilding, Southern Ceremonial Complex, tobacco, music, dance, gambling, stickball, chunkey, metalwork, weaving, lacrosse, controlled burning, pictographs, and beadwork.

Tools and Weapons: Bows and arrows, spears, axes, adzes, clubs, fish hooks and line, nets, blow guns and darts, rope, spear throwers, grinding stones, stone pestles, flint hoes, and weirs.

Notable Tribes: Cherokee, Natchez, Choctaw, Caddo, Biloxi, Creek, Apalachee, Arawak, Seminole, Atakapa, Bayougoula, Chacato, Calusa, Chickasaw, Croatan, Timucua, Coharie, Mayaca, Mobila, Mocoso, Yazoo, Uzita, Waccamaw, Mayami, Mikasuki, Sewee, Sissipaw, Tequesta, Santee, Roanoke, Pacara, Pensacola, Quinipissa, Tocobaga, Yamassee, Winyaw, Jaega, Koasati, Machapunga, Mataumbe, Eno, Chisca, Chowanoc, Cusabo, Chitimacha, Cape Fear, Chakchiuma, Catawba, Calusa, Ais, Powhatan, Quapaw, Tonkawa, Karankawa, Cofitachiqui, Mosopelea, and Avoyel.

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The Indigenous Peoples of North America: Part 9 – The Northeastern Woodlands

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The Iroquois League was an association of 5 (later 6) linguistically related Northeast Woodland tribes consisting of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora peoples. Established between the 12th and 15th centuries, the League ruled on disputes and displace their raiding tradition except when it came to their rivals. Their political cohesion made the Iroquois one of the strongest forces in 17th and 18th century northeastern North America. Played both the French and British in the fur trade as well as sided with the latter during the French and Indian War. Was severely weakened after the American Revolution.

While the Great Plains tribes are the Native Americans you tend to see in western movies, the Northeastern Woodlands tribes are the ones you see in anything relating to early American history, particularly when it applies to Jamestown, Massachusetts Pilgrims, or the French and Indian War. Stretching from southeast Canada and east of the Mississippi River to the East coast and extending south to the Ohio River, these tribes were among the first Native Americans to have contact with Europeans than anyone else which were the Vikings who visited coastal areas from Newfoundland all the way to Cape Cod. However, they didn’t stay long and left little permanent influence. Yet, English and French settlers who arrived in the 1600s introduced these Indians to the beaver fur trade and infectious European diseases (sometimes via smallpox blankets). Sure relations were friendly at first, but they quickly deteriorated in some areas such as in 17th century Massachusetts Bay where they went from the first Thanksgiving to all out King Philip’s War in only a few decades. Yet, initial rounds of European diseases resulted in some tribes losing as much as 95% of their population alone in the early 17th century even before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth (Squanto’s village being one of them). Growing European fur demand led to the New World becoming a center of colonial competitiveness between Britain and France which would eventually culminate into the French and Indian War. Intrusion and eventual domination of the fur trade led to systemic breakdown among these tribes including decline in native arts and material culture, relocation to trading centers even by risking famine, increased social stratification and personal ownership, alcoholism, STDs, increased inter-tribal warfare, increased pressure to convert to Christianity, and eventually Indian removal. By the mid-19th century, many Indian groups in this region had simply disappeared and most of those remaining had been militarily defeated and largely resettled on reservations, some of which were far from home like Oklahoma. On the other hand, there are more Indians in this region today than many people realize. Although they’re mostly acculturated many proudly maintain an Indian identity while Native Americans in both the US and Canada continue struggling for recognition, land, economic development, and sovereignty.

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At its peak in the 13th century, the Mississippian city of Cahokia is estimated to have a population of 40,000 which wouldn’t be surpassed by any US city until the late 18th century. This city was said to have covered 6 square miles and included about 120 human mounds in a variety of shapes, sizes, and functions. But it would soon be abandoned by 1300 and little is known about those who lived there. Today the Cahokia Mounds is considered the largest and most complex archaeological site north of the great Pre-Columbian cities of Mexico.

Location: East of the Mississippi River spanning from south central Canada to the East Coast and Ohio River as well as encompassing the Great Lakes.

First Peoples: Region has been inhabited for at least 12,000 years with the first residents said to come from the Southwest. However, while the archaic period began in 6000 B.C.E., most cultures didn’t become fully established until 3,000 years later due to a dramatically changing environment. The Adena culture from 800 B.C.E. to 200 flourished around Kentucky and Ohio who were known as the agricultural and pottery producing Mound Builders (since they either cremated or buried their dead in mounds). They also used copper tools and red ochre in burial customs. Then there’s the northern Hopewell culture of the Great Lakes from 300 B.C.E. to 700 who also built mounds through their dead as well as performed other complex funerary rituals. Also had stamped pottery, metal work, weaving, large population centers, and vast trade networks. Alongside them is the Mississippian from 700-1500 which was characterized by intensive agriculture, fine pottery, distinctive art themes, stockaded villages, and flat-topped pyramid mounds. Sites from the Mississippian culture include Cahokia near St. Louis whose influence extended as far north as Wisconsin as well as Fort Ancient and Monongahela Woodland in the Ohio Valley. It’s speculative whether the tribes in the Ohio and Illinois Valleys as well as the Great Lakes are descended by their prehistoric counterparts who were gone by the mid-17th century due to warfare and fast-moving epidemics. It was later said to be repopulated by historic tribes from other locations.

Environment: Has many variations in climate, landscape, and natural resources. Much of it thick deciduous and conifer forest, mountains, and wetlands with an abundance in rivers, lakes, and ocean. Flat forests and prairies predominate in the far western areas. Experiences cold winter with deep snows and is often hot and humid in the summer. High precipitation all year round.

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Northeastern Woodlands Native Americans greatly relied on agriculture, growing crops consisting of corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and wild rice. Out of all of these, corn was their most important food above all.

Subsistence: Primarily hunter, gatherer, and fishing subsistence, agriculture, and everything in between. Crops were corn, beans, pumpkins, wild rice, sunflowers, and squash. Hunted deer, raccoon, fox, muskrat, rabbit, wolf, elk, turkey, turtles, bear, squirrel, beaver, moose, and caribou. Yet, they also hunted for whale and seals as well as fished. Gathered maple sap, honey, berries, roots, nuts, and fresh greens.

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The standard dwelling for the Iroquois was the longhouse which was made from bent saplings and covered with bark. Longhouses could be up to 20 feet wide and 200 feet long as well as divided into 6-8 two room sections, each housing a family and sharing a fire.

Housing: Algonquin peoples mostly built birch bark domed wigwams with woven mat covered walls and floors. Each usually housed one family. Summer wigwams usually tended to be smaller while structures like menstrual huts, sweat houses, and temporary brush shelters were also built. Iroquois usually built wooden longhouses that were 20 feet wide and up 200 feet long (though most were less than 100 feet) made of bark pieces over a sapling frame with vaulted roofs. These were divided into 6-8 two room sections, each housing one family and sharing a fire.

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Northeastern Native Americans tended to wear a lot of jewelry and body paint, especially the men. In fact, while most Native American men wore their hair long, Northeastern Woodlands men tended to wear mohawks with feathers in them.

Clothing: People in the region mostly wore very little during the summer. Clothing was mostly made from deerskin and other animals. Often tanned. Generally consisted of breechcloths, skirts, leggings, and moccasins. Fur robes were worn in the winter. Women usually wore overdresses and tunics. Clothes were often decorated with softened and dyed porcupine quills and/or paint. Some groups even had fringed outfits. Adornments could consist of stone and shell jewelry, tattoos, and body paint. Shaved heads and mohawks were common among some Algonquin tribes as well as feathers in hair.

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Northeastern Woodlands Native Americans often traveled on river by canoe often made from bark, animal hides, or wood. Canoe styles often depended on water conditions.

Transportation: Algonquins used swift and light birch bark canoes while the Iroquois used canoes made from elm. Small ones were used for rivers while larger ones that could fit up to 10 people were used for lakes. Most were framed with cedar and trimmed with maple. Bark was sewn on with spruce roots and caulked with pine pitch or spruce resin. Dugout canoes were used as well. Styles were also based on water conditions.

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Northeastern Woodlands was a place of violent and frequent tribal warfare that villages tended to have fortifications of dirt and fencing even before European contact (since it was a reason why the Iroquois League existed in the first place). Ritualized torture and cannibalism were both practiced.

Society: Primarily nomadic, sedentary, and everything in between. Pre-contact population density varied. But it’s possible that as many as 2 million might’ve resided there but this is a rough estimate. Increased social stratification existed but not to the extent than in the Pacific Northwest Coast or the Southeast (though they did practice slavery). Some tribes were even part of mass confederacies later on such as the Iroquois, the Powhatan, and the Illinois. Among the Iroquois, male chiefs were elected by clan leaders who were usually female. Village councils often acted in unanimity and some chiefs were stronger than others. Western tribes often had warrior organizations to perform policing activities and some women even held some formal political power such as in the Miami, Shawnee, and Potawatomi. Nevertheless, inter-tribal warfare was harsh and frequent resulting in villages being heavily fortified by fencing and reinforced with dirt. Iroquois even revered war. Ritualized torture was common among the Iroquois while cannibalism and human sacrifice existed as well. Though most captives were frequently adopted into the tribe making up for population losses. Trade was mostly localized.

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Since descent and inheritance was matrilineal, Iroquois women often owned most of the family property even after marriage and kept the children if they divorced. An Iroquois woman can initiate divorce by telling her husband to leave the dwelling with his stuff. Iroquois women were also clan leaders who chose chiefs as well. Also, during marriage, an Iroquois man resided with his wife’s family.

Family Structure: Matrilineal descent among the Iroquois while Algonquins could have either this or bilateral. Bilateral or patrilineal among those near the Great Lakes and Ohio River. Men hunted, fished, and fought, while women made pottery, made clothes, looked after children, farmed, gathered, and other housework. Iroquois women owned property that stayed within their possession even after marriage and kept the kids if they separated. Married couples often resided with the wife’s family. Some Algonquin chiefs, shamans, and other wealthy men were allowed to have more than one wife if they could afford it.

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Lacrosse perhaps originated in 1100 and was played as a ceremonial ritual by the Northeastern Woodlands Native Americans. Teams could consist between 100-1,000 men on a field that could span 1,600 feet to 1.9 miles long. Games were said to last from sunup to sundown 2-3 days straight or longer. Also, it was a rather violent bloodsport where players actually got severely injured or killed.

Practices: Animism, shamanism, dreamcatchers, peace pipes, wampum, storytelling, tobacco, war paint, pottery, basketry, beadwork, metalwork, masks, vision quests, Midewiwin, Green Corn festival, music, dance, feast of the dead, medicine dances, lacrosse, birch bark scrolls, and pictographs.

Tools and Weapons: Bows and arrows, harpoons, fish hooks and line, clubs, tomahawks, nets, hemp and basswood bags, wooden bowls and utensils, snowshoes, knives, hoes, rakes, grind sticks and stones, snares, and spears.

Notable Tribes: Iroquois, Algonquin, Mohawk, Huron, Objiwe, Abenaki, Beothuk, Miami, Massachusett, Menominee, Erie, Ho-Chunk, Patuxent, Mahican, Anishinaabeg, Monacan, Narragansett, Illinois, Mitchiganmea, Fox, Sauk, Kickapoo, Mingo, Delaware, Wampanoag, Susquehannock, Tauxenent, Tunxis, Quinnipac, Shawnee, Cayuga, Seneca, Tuscarora, Ottawa, Tutelo, Oneida, Powhatan, Podunk, Pequot, Mohegan, and Penobscot.

The Indigenous Peoples of North America: Part 8 – The Great Plains

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When it comes to Native Americans in popular media, no culture area is so widely recognized as those in the Great Plains. Because Plains Indians tend to be in so many western movies, so many people tend to get the wrong impression that Plains culture was the standard way of life for North American Indians in general (save for those in the Arctic).

Out of all the indigenous peoples of North America, no culture region has been depicted in popular media more than the Native Americans from the Great Plains. Stretching from south central Canada to southeastern Texas and mostly situated between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River, this region has given us tribes that have forever been ingrained in the popular perception of Native Americans for good or ill. Let’s just say in western movies, you’re bound to either see a Plains Indian or a Native American dressed as one perhaps due to how widespread Plains culture was or how lazy the screenwriters were in their research. Some aspects that distinguish Plains culture are teepees, dependence on bison, chiefs wearing war bonnets, as well as horses. Plains Indians in movies may or may not use guns. However, such descriptions don’t apply to all the Plains tribes. Not to mention, the Plains tribes didn’t acquire horses via trade and/or raid networks with the Southwestern and Great Basin tribes. But once they got a hold of these animals, the Plains Indians integrated them in their daily lives, developed a reputation for their equestrian skill, and led to the origin of the mustang. The Plains Indians also traded guns with English and French fur trappers in the areas as well (though they were always in short supply so they still depended on bows and arrows). However, while these European imports improved their lives drastically as well as helped them expand territory, they came at a very high cost in the form of European diseases. Not only that, but their dependence on bison would later come back to bite them later in the 19th century with American westward expansion, the Transcontinental Railroad, the rise of the cattle industry, and Indian Wars. At this time, the US federal government set initiatives permitting bison market hunting in order to weaken the Plains Indians and pressure them to either move onto the reservations or starve. This resulted in the bison being hunted to almost extinction. Another major change since European contact was their growing importance on warfare not against whites but also among each other both as livelihood and a sport. Yet, when Plains Indians fought each other, casualties were usually light, attacks were usually ambushes and hit and runs, success was based on quantity pertaining to horses and other property, and highest military honors were for “counting coup” consisting of touching a live enemy.

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The Great Plains gets its name for being mostly vat flat grassland with rolling hills and valleys. However, while some areas in this region are perfectly suitable for agriculture (such as near the Mississippi), some areas aren’t (but most of it is great for ranching making it ideal bison country). Also prone to dramatic weather events like tornadoes, blizzards, and severe thunderstorms.

Location: Between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River that spans from south central Canada to southern Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.

First Peoples: It’s said that the first inhabitants of this region moved there between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago. The first millennium consisted of tribes with vast trading networks and complex religious practices. But as the region grew drier and less hospitable the nomadic bands slowly followed game and water eastward until by perhaps 1200 when the area was virtually empty. However, the region gradually repopulated due to a moderation of weather conditions as well as a severe drought in the Southwest.

Environment: Mostly flat grassland with many rolling hills and valleys, though not very rugged. Summers are very hot and winters are very cold. Trees are only found by rivers and other bodies of water. Average precipitation is low though there are higher levels in the east. Dramatic weather events such as blizzards, tornadoes, and severe thunderstorms are regular occurrences.

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The Plains Indians main source of survival was the buffalo which they used for everything. This diagram from the South Dakota State Historical Society illustrates which part of the animal was used for what.

Subsistence: Primarily hunter and gatherer subsistence though some practiced agriculture as well but didn’t use irrigation. Buffalo was the primary game food source which was hunted by men surrounding the animals and herding them off a cliff into confined spaces. Also hunted other animals like elk, antelope, porcupine, prairie dogs, mountain sheep, prairie chickens, eagles, cougars, wolves, beaver, bear, and deer. More agrarian tribes in the east planted crops like corn, squash, sunflowers, plums, pemmican, prairie turnip, and other wild plants. Gathered nuts, gooseberries, chokecherries, and onions. Some even fished.

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Not all Plains tribes lived in teepees nor did all teepee dwelling tribes live in the Plains. However, the fact so many Plains Indians lived in these things has led many people to mistake the teepee as a standard Native American housing unit.

Housing: Mostly lived in teepees made from animal skins and poles. Each teepee could have 6-18 buffalo skins sewn together and stretched over a frame of poles. The average teepee was about 14 feet high and 14 feet in diameter and held between 5 to 8 people. Had an adjustable smoke hole at the top for ventilation. Less nomadic tribes also retained permanent earth lodges along rivers that could be square, rectangular, or beehive shaped. Each of these could hold up to 40 or more people.

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The warbonnet is perhaps the most iconic Native American headdress from the Great Plains. It was a worn by men in the tribe who’ve earned a great place of respect after completing so many eagle feathers for their deeds. Such feather earning deeds might include courageous acts in battle but also political and diplomatic gains or acts that have helped the community prosper. They were also worn by the tribe’s chosen political and spiritual leaders like Chief Sitting Bull pictured here. However, expect controversy whenever you see a non-native wearing one of these as a culturally appropriated fashion accessory, which many of today’s Plains Indians consider offensive to their culture. This especially goes for sports team mascots.

Clothing: Mostly made from deer, mountain sheep, and buffalo skin. Women wore a 2-piece  dress with optional sleeves. During colder weather, they wore leggings, moccasins, and buffalo robes. Men wore breechcloths and moccasins as well as a deerskin shirt, leggings, and a buffalo robe in winter. Garments decorated with fringe and quill work may reflect war honors. Wore necklaces and earrings made from bone, shell hair, or feathers, as well as tattoos. Important figures would wear elaborate feather headdresses and buffalo hats.War bonnets were sometimes worn into battle by men who’ve earned a place of great respect for the tribe as well as political and spiritual leaders.

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When moving camp, Plains Indians would often load their belongings onto a wooden frame structure known as a travois. While pre-contact Plains tribes often used dogs, they would later pulled by horses by the 19th century. This picture is of a modern travois. Note the dog would’ve been attached to something much bigger and made to drag a much heavier load.

Transportation: Used a buffalo skin and pole travois sled to carry their belongings which was pulled by dogs.

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Most of the nomadic Plains tribes tend to bands comprised of no more than 30 people at a time, mainly extended family members. Several hundred of these groups congregated together would form a tribe. And they only got together during the summer to hunt, trade, socialize, make war, raid, and perform religious ceremonies.

Society: Primarily nomadic though some could be semi-nomadic or sedentary all year round. Were not especially warlike (though this would change with European contact, but this is about pre-contact culture here. Also, some practiced ritualized torture). Shamans were said to have some degree of political and spiritual power. Trade was not as well developed there though there was a degree of sign language communication. The most fundamental unit was the extended family which could consist of up to 30 people. Bands and villages variable constituency were composed of up to several hundred people or related families, formed the tribe. Some of the more settled tribes also recognized clans and/or dual divisions. Bands only came together during the summer, uniting under much more centralized political leadership to hunt, socialize, trade, raid, make war, and perform religious ceremonies. During this time, camp police and other elite warrior societies kept order and punished offenders, especially during the hunt. During the winter, bands often separated back into their constituent families in the winter. Band or kin group chiefs were generally older men but the position was more of an honorific than authoritative. Open societies were age graded and could be entered by anyone of the proper age who could purchase admission. Social order was maintained by peer pressure.

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While Plains women didn’t wield as much political or social power as their men, they did hold enormous power in the domestic sphere. Since Plains practiced matrilineal descent, wives owned almost all the marital property and had sole custody of the kids in a divorce that she could initiate by throwing her husband’s belongings out of the teepee. By the way, frontiersman Kit Carson’s Cheyenne wife Making Out Road divorced him this way.

Family Structure: Primarily matrilineal descent. Men hunted and fought while women tanned hides, tended crops, gathered wild foods, cooked, made clothing as well as took down and erected teepees. Women had right to divorce by throwing her husband’s things out of the teepee as well as had custody of the children as well as owned the home. Though they weren’t as engaged in public political life as the coastal tribes, women still participated in advisory roles and through women’s societies. Dead were either buried in tree scaffolds or in the ground (which they cursed before burial in case someone disturbed it, just kidding).

7 Corps of Discovery at a Knife River Village, Vernon W Erickson

It’s worth noting that not all of the Great Plains tribes lived like those you’ve seen in westerns. For instance, the Mandan lived in permanent villages, built round earth houses like these, and farmed. They’re best known as one of the tribes encountered during the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Practices: Animism, shamanism, storytelling, medicine bags, Great Spirit, vision quests, Sun Dance, dancing music, tobacco, incense burning, skin painting, stone pipes, common sign language, and beadwork.

Tools and Weapons: Spears, knives, bows and arrows, and clubs. Buffalo horn spoons and cups. Buffalo tail whips and buffalo water containers. Buffalo bone awls, hoes, and other tools. Buffalo sinew bowstrings and thread. Buffalo skull altars and buffalo hoof rattles.

Notable Tribes: Sioux, Comanche, Kiowa, Arapaho, Pawnee, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Cree, Crow, Iowa, Kaw, Escanjaques, Mandan, Metis, Omaha, Osage, Otoe, Dakota, Lakota, Ponca, Quapaw, Nakoda, Teyas, Tonkawa, Waco, Wichita, Tsuu T’ina, Arikara, Missouria, Gros Ventre, Hidasta, Assiniboine, and Saulteaux.

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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Indigenous Peoples of North America: Part 6 – California

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The California mission system was one in which the Spanish used to colonize the Native Americans under their control. Whatever Father Junipero Serra’s intentions, the California mission system ended up to be one of forced labor, exploitation, disease, fatalities, and cultural genocide. However, they weren’t the only agents responsible with the mass genocide pertaining to the California tribes in the 19th century in which 90% of them were wiped out. But what you can’t dispute is that they had pretty nice architecture which became popular with the publication of Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona (which was intended to expose the cultural genocide).

Before the contact of Europeans and Saint Junipero Serra’s Spanish missionary system of forced indigenous labor, assimilation, and cultural genocide, California was home to the largest population of Native Americans and the most distinct tribes of any US state and the highest population density north of Mexico. Over 150 of them are said to have US federal recognition to date. They even had 500 distinct sub-tribes or groups on top of that. And before European contact, native Californians spoke 300 dialects of approximately 100 distinct languages. Of course, when the Spanish came with their missionary system, all the ecological disruption, forced labor exploitation, and introduction of Spanish diseases took care of all that that population was reduced by 90% during the 19th century from 200,000 to 15,000. Still, most of the havoc was unintentional save for the assimilation and forced labor part. But those Spanish missions started a tradition by which we know California today, one in which white people cause a lot of ecological disruption as well as exploit minorities even when they think they’re helping. Also, displacing people who’ve resided in their hometown longer than you have with either guns, germs, or steel or simply raising their property values. Nevertheless, the most common language of the Native Californians was Valley Girl speak as well as took part in rituals like surfing, playing Beach Boys music, and disrupting the private lives of celebrities. Okay, I’m kidding about that. In reality, California’s diversity in climate, topography, and wildlife was part of why these Native American communities thrived in this place. Now even the state’s ecology is under threat due to climate change, drought, wildfires, earthquakes, and what not. Basically if an area in California isn’t made a state or national park, there’s not much protection going for it before it’s turned into some shopping mall. Yet, despite all the bad things that have happened to these California tribes, their descendants still live in the state today. Just don’t mention the canonization of Father Junipero Serra as a good idea. Just don’t.

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Pre-contact California had a diverse environment including the coastal beach communities, the tall redwood forests, high mountain ranges, and southern deserts. Yet, most of these people were hunter-gatherers as well as had acorns as their primary food.

Location: Most of the state of California.

First Peoples: Evidence of human occupation in this region dates to 17,000 B.C.E. Early Southern California peoples include the La Jolla and Pauma Complexes each dating 6050 B.C.E. to 1000 B.C.E. The earliest inhabitants hunted with darts powered by throwing sticks at large game and resided in either open air dwellings or caves. Yet, from 9000 B.C.E., people from this region gradually started to depend on seed collection for food as well. Around 3000 B.C.E., the Windmiller culture flourished in the Sacramento Valley where they were known for fine craftsmanship, charmstones, and burying their dead face down facing west.

Environment: Has a wide variety of climates and geographical features, rivaling any other area of comparable dimensions. Mostly a mild temperate climate with coastline, rivers, and lakes. Features range from high mountain ranges, oak and conifer forests, mixed forest grasslands, vast grasslands, coastal plains, to long semiarid deserts in southern region. Precipitation is higher in the north than the south while forests can be susceptible to wild fires. Earthquakes and floods also occur.

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Despite that California had a region of great abundance, a lot of the Native Americans in the area mostly lived in a hunter-gatherer existence. Here are some Native Californians who just caught a deer.

Subsistence: Mainly hunter, gatherer, and fisher subsistence since there was a local abundance of food. Yet, some did practice a form of low density “wild” agriculture and “fire stick” farming. And it’s known that these Indians practiced various forms of forest gardening. Hunted animals like deer, elk, rabbits, sheep, squirrels, chipmunks, quail, mountain sheep, and bear as well as seals and sea otters. Fished for trout, salmon, mollusks, and shellfish. Occasionally ate insects as well as gathered mushrooms, roots, nuts, and seaweed. Acorns were said to be a main staple of food there as well as ground into flour to make mush or bread.

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California native housing depended on location, season, climate, available resources, and whether it was for temporary or permanent use. This straw wigwam house is known as a kicha.

Housing: Depends on the location, season, available resources, climate, and whether it was for temporary or permanent use. Ocean area tribes tended to build grass mat houses. Those in the northwest forest areas built cedar or redwood plank houses. Central tribes lived in subterranean round pit houses. Southern tribes could build conical homes of tule or croton and whalebone structures on the coast.

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Since it was mostly warm and mild, the Native Californians typically wore very little clothing, save in winter in the colder areas. These women and girls are wearing grass and bead skirts with basket hats and lots of jewelry over their bras (the only article not part of the traditional outfit but necessary).

Clothing: People in this region mostly wore very little. Yet, those who lived in colder areas would wear skins and furs during the winter.

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The coastal Native California tribes fished from redwood dugout and plank canoes. Southern tribes had double paddled oars called “tomols” which were made by a secretive craftsman guild. These could hold up to a dozen people and hundreds of pounds to trade goods.

Transportation: Northwestern tribes used dugout canoes from redwoods for fishing. Southern tribes had gracefully planked canoes with double paddle oars called “tomols” and made by a secretive craftsmen guild. These could carry hundreds of pounds in trade goods and up to a dozen passengers.

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The California cultural region had an extensive trail system though trading was limited to friendly visits and religious ceremonies. Yet, some tribes had relatively rigid class systems perpetuated by custom and marriage as well as based on wealth and private property.

Society: Before European contact, this region had the highest Native American density north of present-day Mexico. It’s estimated that approximately 300,000 Indians might’ve lived there. Yet, these people tended to live a rather isolated existence due to the landscape. Lifestyle tends to vary according to climate and topography but it’s best that the vast majority of these Indians were semi-nomadic at best. Most common form of political organization was the tribelet which was a cluster of satellite villages around one or more permanent villages. It’s said that 500 of these groups existed where they shared a language, culture, and history. Each one could contain from 50-500 people on average and most were related through the male line. Now the tribelet was presided by a chief controlling economic resources and activity, settling conflicts, and organizing events. The chief was generally very wealthy and greatly respected. Some of these tribelets also had specialized occupations like craftspeople as well as minor officials like assistant chief, messenger, and dance manager. Some tribes had a relatively rigid closed class system perpetuated by marriage and custom as well as based on wealth and private property. Sometimes they even kept slaves. More nomadic groups tended to have greater social and gender equality. An extensive and continuous trail system in the region made trading in the region possible usually on friendly visits and ceremonies. Organized warfare was rare. Reasons for conflict ranged from physical offenses such as murder and rape to trespassing, sorcery, or a simple insult. Surprise attacks were preferred in regards to fighting while pitched battles were generally avoided and casualty rates were low. Also armed conflicts were relatively brief and quickly resolved as well as both parties being compensated.

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Unlike a lot of the native cultural regions, most California native family structures were mostly patrilineal. Nevertheless, polygyny was said to be practiced among chiefs, shamans, and other wealthy men who could afford more than one wife, which was less unusual.

Family Structure: Mostly patrilineal descent. Marriages usually took place when the couple was at least in their late teens or early 20s. Northern group chiefs, shamans, and other wealthy men could have more than one wife. Men usually hunted and fished while women cooked, gathered, did housework, and looked after children.

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Of course, we’re all too familiar with the fact that so many Native American tribes have their own dance rituals and the California region is no exception. Here is a picture of Ohlone Indians from the Mission of San Jose dancing in ceremonial regalia. Perhaps these images tell us that maybe the missionaries weren’t as much bent on cultural genocide as we thought, at least as long as they do such rituals to commemorate saint days or Christian holidays. Then again, the Spanish missions were pretty horrific and did result in cultural genocide in California.

Practices: Controlled burning, sophisticated forest gardening, basketry, animism, shamanism, psychoactive drugs, pottery, bead work, rock art, secret religious societies, tobacco, hoop and pole, hand game, cat’s cradle, music, dance, lacrosse, dice, athletic contests, and storytelling.

Tools and Weapons: Milling stones, bows and arrows, elkhorn wedges, spears, knives, nets, weirs, scrapers, hammers, and fish hooks and line. Normally made of stone, bone, obsidian, wood, grass, shell, and other materials.

Notable Tribes: Shasta, Maidu, Miwok, Mojave, Pomo, Chumash, Serrano, Wappo, Yurok, Karok, Hupa, Wintu, Yana, Kato, Wiyot, Cocopah, Juaneno, Chemehuevi, Yuki, Wailaki, Salinan, Sinkyone, Tolowa, Tataviam, Whilkut, Quechan, Modoc, Nisenan, Nomlaki, Panamint, Patwin, Mattole, Luiseno, Kawaiisu, Kitanemuk, Konkow, Klamath, Chilula, Cahuilla, Ohlone, Cupeno, Diegueno, Esselen, Kashaya, Atsuegewi, Achumawi, Shoshoni, and Nongatl.

The Indigenous Peoples of North America: Part 5 – The Great Basin

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One of the more famous Native Americans from the Great Basin is none other than the Shoshone Sacagawea herself. Between 1804 to 1806, she served as a guide and interpreter for the Lewis and Clark Expedition where she traveled thousands of miles to the Pacific Ocean along with her husband Toussaint Charbonneau and their infant son Jean Baptiste. She is said to have died from an illness in 1812.

Between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada is an area known as the Great Basin which is mostly a high and rocky desert land encompassing states like Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, California, Arizona, Utah, Oregon, and New Mexico. However, since they lived in a region that was so inhospitable, they were among the last groups to encounter European influence due to nobody wanting to live there. Sure there was Sacagawea, but she wouldn’t have served as a guide for Lewis and Clark if she wasn’t kidnapped by Hidasta Indians first. Nevertheless, the first white people who settled in this area were the Mormons in Utah starting in 1847 since there were no other white people around. Notice how I put emphasis on the word “white.” Since the Great Basin tribes didn’t have to worry much about white people displacing them until Mormon arrival, they have maintained stronger cultural and linguistic ties to their heritage than a lot of Native Americans in the lower 48. During the 19th century, they were leading proponents of cultural and religious renewals such as the Ghost Dance as well as introducing peyote to the world (to the glory of stoners everywhere for that “Rocky Mountain High”). You might see these people in westerns, by the way even though you might not be aware of it.

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Most of the Great Basin consists primarily of high arid desert though few rivers and bountiful lakes do exist (but are dependent on mountain snow for water). It’s a very inhospitable environment, which explains why these Native Americans in this region were among the last to deal with white settlers. Ironically, this is where Las Vegas is located.

Location: Between the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada covering southern Oregon and Idaho, part of Montana, Nevada, eastern California, western Wyoming and Colorado, and most of Utah.

First Peoples: Original peoples might’ve arrived as early as 12,000 years ago possibly arriving from the south. Great Basin Desert Archaic Period was between 9000 B.C.E. to 400 while the Fremont Culture came around 1-1300 who were hunter gatherers as well as agriculturalists. Numic speakers were said to arrive as early as the 11th century and are the ancestors of the Western Shosone as well as the Northern and Southern Paiute tribes. Aside from the Fremont culture, very little of their lifestyle has changed (from a pre-contact standpoint).

Environment: Mostly high elevation consisting high mountains, deep canyons as well as bountiful lakes along with few rivers and streams dependent on mountain snow (which is a major reason this area is threatened by climate change and has experienced drought). And most of these rivers in the region usually disappear into the sand. Lowest valleys are 3,000-6,000 feet above sea level while the mountain ranges can be about 8,000-12,000 feet. Climate is variable with summers with temperatures rising over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and winters with temperatures falling to 20 below zero. Rainfall can vary dramatically from year to year. But at lower elevations, evaporation is generally high while precipitation is generally low. Can be a barren wasteland of desert, salt flats, and brackish lakes. Definitely not a place hospitable to human habitation and it’s no wonder that it was the last part of the US lower 48 to be explored and settled by whites.

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Despite mostly living in the desert with little precipitation, Native Americans in the Great Basin had a more plant based diet. Here we see a group of Great Basin women gathering wild rice from their canoes.

Subsistence: Mostly hunter-gatherer subsistence though some do engage in agriculture yet not to viable level of subsistence. Lived on roots, nuts, seeds, cactus, berries, wild rice, insects, as well as small game and birds. Hunted bison, deer, elk, antelope, and sheep as well as fished. Some groups grew corn, beans, and squash but only in a limited capacity and not without irrigation. Had a mostly plant based diet.

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The standard winter dwelling for the Great Basin Native Americans was the wikiup. This was a conical 10 feet high and 10-15 feet in diameter house made from brush, bark, grass and/or tule over pinion and/or juniper pole frames. Sometimes these were covered in skins.

Housing: Season and location often determined type of shelter. Brush windbreaks were commonly built during the warm weather. Winter houses were typically conical wikiups at about 10 feet high and 10-15 feet in diameter as well as built of brush, bark, grass, and/or tule over pinion and/or juniper pole frames. Some northern groups covered these houses with skins. Doorways generally faced east. Caves were also used along with log and earthen hogans and even teepees.

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While the Great Basin Native Americans wore buckskin outfits during the winter, they wore very little or next to nothing during the summer. Mostly because even high desert summers could be unbearably hot.

Clothing: People in this region usually wore very little except in the coldest weather. In winter, men and women wore fur or twined bark breechcloths, moccasins, and leggings. Women often wore twined sagebrush bark or willow hats and long gowns. Clothing also included fur robes and rabbit skin blankets worn as capes.

Transportation: I guess these people usually walked. Though some tribes might’ve made canoes from animal skins and other materials.

Society: Mostly nomadic with mostly decentralized social and economic organization. Largest estimated population is said to be about 50,000-60,000. Basic unit was the camp or extended family that was autonomous and self-governing by consensus with the oldest male being the most influential. Bands tended to be small with the largest desert bands having no more than 30 and other areas with up to 100. And they were usually near water sources as well as have fluid membership. Yet, they’d also have links through blood relationships, marriage relationships, adoptions, and friendships. In regions of greater productivity, some related family clusters would form semipermanent winter villages where they could share information about resources, observe ceremonies, share mythological tales, and trade. Headmen usually presided over these winter villages where they delivered speeches on and coordinated subsistence activities. But such authority was tenuous among the egalitarian Shoshone. Trade was frequently practiced that the first regional trade routes appeared as early as 5000 B.C.E. and the region was part of a major network.

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Unlike many Native American culture areas, there was no set family or marriage structure among the Great Basin peoples. Post marital residence simply depended on the available food supplies and divorce usually happened with one partner returning to their parents (which happened frequently). Polygamy, cousin marriage, and marrying a dead spouse’s siblings for recently widowed also existed. Not to mention, children were put to work as soon as they were old enough while elderly who couldn’t keep up with the group were simply put to pasture.

Family Structure: Family camps usually consisted of parents, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins. Men mainly hunted while women cooked, gathered plants, made clothes, and looked after children. However, men and women were seen as equals and were free to engage in sexual exploration leading to a trial marriage. There was instruction on abortion and contraception. And divorce was simply a matter of one partner returning to their parental camp (which happened frequently). Northern Paiute and Shoshone tribes practiced fraternal polyandry where a woman would marry set of brothers. Yet, there were some instances of polyandry involving male cousins or men not related to each other at all. Sororal polygyny also existed. Cross cousin marriages weren’t uncommon among these people either as well as the practice of widows and widowers marrying their dead spouse’s sibling. There was no set pattern for postmarital residence with availability of food supplies being the determining factor. Children were put to work as soon as they were old enough to help. As for death rites, this might either consist of the individual being buried with their possessions or the possessions destroyed. Old people who couldn’t keep up with the group or could no longer produce their share of the food supply were occasionally abandoned.

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Great Basin basketry is one of the best known out of the North American indigenous. One Nevada Washoe woman named Dat So La Lee would become celebrated for her craftmanship during the “basket craze” of the early 20th century.

Practices: Animism, shamanism, dance, music, Ghost Dance, Bear Dance, peyote, basketry, pruning, controlled burning, pottery, storytelling, rock art, Sun Dance, and petroglyphs.

Tools and Weapons: Nets, traps, snares, flaked stone knives, bows and arrows, fish hook and line, basket traps, harpoons, weirs, digging sticks, drills, clubs, seed grinding slabs and handstones, and spears.

Notable Tribes: Paiute, Shoshone, Ute, Bannock, Coso, Kawaiisu, Mono, Goshute, Timbisha, and Washo.

The Indigenous Peoples of North America: Part 4 – The Northwest Plateau

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Known as “Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt” in his native Nez Perce tongue, Chief Joseph led his Wallowa Nez Perce band during their most tumultuous period in their contemporary history. Basically, they were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands in the Wallowa Valley and relocated to the significantly reduced reservation in Lapwai, Idaho by the US federal government. The usual series of events culminated in episodes of violence led by Ned Perce resisting removal, including Joseph’s band and their Palouse tribe allies who attempted to seek political asylum in Canada. The US Army pursued them for over 1170 miles fighting retreat which would become known as the Nez Perce War. Though such resistance won him great fame and admiration, Chief Joseph would later surrender after a devastating 5 day battle in freezing conditions with no food or blankets as well as leaving the major Nez Perce leaders dead. By this time, 150 of his followers were either dead or wounded.

Between the Subarctic and Northwest Coast regions, you’ll find a small interior cultural area known as the Northwest Plateau. This region is situated in the interior of British Columbia as well as the non-coastal ranges of Washington state and Oregon with some of Idaho, Montana, and California. Topographically, you’ll find it between the Cascades and the Rockies. Nevertheless, this is an area with a very cold but semiarid climate which makes it nowhere near suitable for agriculture. However, it’s also home to 5 major volcanoes as well as 27 known to be active, which may good for soil content but not a place you’d want to live. Still, you don’t really hear much about this region except maybe when it comes to Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce. But it’s not a happy tale to tell. Yet, famed Native American author Sherman Alexie also hails from this region, too, and he’s perhaps the best known native literary figure to date. Not surprisingly these Northwest Plateau tribes tended to move around a lot following various food sources. But they also lived in a prime trading location and often exchanged goods with other tribes. Oh, and they also were prolific basket weavers, relying on many local fibrous plants to make them.

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The Northwest Plateau may have its share of plants and waterways. But its generally rough terrain, high elevation, and semiarid but cold climate don’t make it ideal for a sedentary agricultural lifestyle. Is also home to a lot of volcanoes, including Mount Saint Helens.

Location: Area between the Cascade, Sierra Nevada, and Rocky Mountains that covers central and southern British Columbia, northern Idaho, western Montana, eastern Washington state, eastern Oregon, and northeastern California.

First Peoples: Region has been continuously inhabited for 10,000 years and save for the grinding stone and the bow and arrow, way of life remained mostly unchanged until the 18th century.

Environment: Consists of rivers, lakes, mountainous evergreen forests, and grassy valleys in the Canadian area with heavy rainfall. The US area is semiarid. Though summers are hot, winters are long and cold. Elevation ranges from 5,000 feet to 14,000 feet and is home to 27 active volcanoes as well as Mount St. Helens.

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Like their Pacific Northwest neighbors, salmon consisted of a major part of the Northwest Plateau peoples’ diet. In eh summer, Pacific salmon would swim up river, leading the men to trap the fish. Once caught the salmon would be smoked on a fire, stored underground, or boiled in hot water for oil.

Subsistence: Hunter, gatherer, and fisher subsistence. Fish were a main staple in their diets (particularly salmon) along with roots and berries. Also hunted deer, elk, caribou, antelope, mountain sheep, bear, rabbit, squirrels, marmot, beaver, raccoon, porcupine, and other small game. Another major staple were Camas lily bulbs which were dug up (though the white ones are known to be poisonous).

Pit-House

The primary winter dwelling for the Northwest Plateau people was the pit house. These would consist of hole being dug into the ground with an earthen roof over a wooden frame. Entrance way was through a wooden ladder.

Housing: Pit houses were primary winter residences that were mostly built below ground with an entry via ladder on the roof that could either be flat or domed shaped. Several families lived in these houses while the chief’s could be twice as large. And these pit houses during the winter could sometimes be connected with tunnels. For summer shelter, some would reside in teepees, especially if they lived near the Plains. But unlike their Plains neighbors, they mostly used bulrush reed mat floors. Another shelter was the Tule mat lodge that were essentially large, oblong shaped teepees and constructed with the same materials. Lean-tos would also be constructed from poles and tule brush mats and were very temporary. Sweat lodges were built from grass and earth covering a wooden frame. Those who lived around the Lower Columbia lived in plank longhouses that could be 20-60 feet long and 14-20 feet wide (with each village there consisting about 5-20). These were built over a pit that was 4-5 feet deep and roughly the same size as the dwelling.

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While clothing among the Northwest Plateau Native Americans can consist of the standard buckskin, braids, and beads you’d associate with native culture, the women were also known to wear the distinguishing basket hats. Also, both sexes had braided pigtails (or at least the women).

Clothing: Generally made from bark, grass, animal skins, and fur. Men and women wore breechcloth aprons, ponchos, and moccasins. Men wore shirts while women donned dresses or skirts. Men donned fur leggings in winter while women’s were of hemp. Ornaments were made from shell and bone while beads were derived from soapstone. Clothes were also painted. Headdresses were used to represent a person’s status within the community with the most elaborate being made from feathers and beads. Women were also well known for wearing basket hats. Sometimes the leaders wore feather headdresses. Both sexes left their hair long, sometimes in two braids.

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Pre-contact Northwest Plateau transportation was mainly by canoe if not on foot. These would be made from bark, dugout wood, or animal skins. Once horses were introduce, people in this region would use them, too.

Transportation: Water transport consisted of dugout, animal skin, and bark canoes.

Society: Largest estimated pre-contact population is said to be around 50,000. Primarily nomadic with most groups following regular migratory routes to obtain foods at their greatest productivity to both meet immediate need, build surplus for winter, and trade (the largest being at the Dalles and Celilo Falls, at the head of the Columbian Gorge). Villages were politically autonomous and village chief authority lay more in their ability to persuade and adjudicate than in their power to make rules and enforce decisions. Both men and women can be chiefs of many bands though family chiefdoms were usually inherited. Specialized leaders like salmon and war chiefs only exercised leadership on special occasions. Only the far western groups practiced hereditary slavery and a caste system like the Chinook with the upper castes practicing social isolation. However, there was always a reluctance to engage in warfare.

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Plateau area Chinook tribes were known to head bind their own children’s heads to create a pointed appearance. However, contrary to popular belief, the Flatheads were called such by their neighbors because they didn’t practice this.

Family Structure: Most people married outside their own village and many of these marriage networks survived after a spouse’s death as widows and widowers often married their spouse’s sibling afterwards. Men hunted, fished, as well as had a greater voice in politics, diplomacy, and military affairs. Women, meanwhile cooked, gathered plants, and tended to young children. However, both men and women were considered socially and economically equal in every way. Some Chinook Indians in the area were known for subjecting their kids to cranial deformation. Lower Columbia tribes buried their dead in raised canoes with all their worldly possessions and never spoke of the deceased again by name for fear of summoning a ghost. Boys from 5-10 were subject to a whipping ceremony in order to prevent sickness during the winter months.

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The Northwest Plateau is well known of their art in fine beadwork, carvings, quillwork, and basketry. Like Native Americans from other cultural areas, such art was part of their every day lives.

Practices: Grass baskets, animism, shamanism, bone carving, controlled burning, vision quests, music, dance, rock painting, weaving, quillwork, and beadwork.

Tools and Weapons: Cordage, nets, bow and arrow, spears, clubs, rawhide and wooden slat armor, weirs, deadfall traps, slings, fish hooks and lines, pestles, snowshoes, a variety of knives, and mauls. Tule bulrush was used by these people for almost everything from mats, bedding, nets, rope, house coverings, flooring, and corpse shrouds. Coiled baskets of spruce and cedar root were used for household utensils, water and burden containers, cooking vessels, drinking cups, cradles, and numerous other purposes.

Notable Tribes: Chinook, Interior Salish, Nez Perce, Walla Walla, Yakama, Cayuse, Spokane, Kalapuya, Flathead, Kalispel, Nicola, Nlaka’pamux, Methow, Molala, Palus, Upper Cowlitz, Umatilla, Okanagan, Sanpoli, Wenatchi, Kutenai, Tenino, Fort Klamath, Chelan, Entiat, and Coeur d’Alene.