Native Americans

Californian Region


Great Plains

Great Basin

Native Americans of the American West

General facts about the Indians of North America

The first settlers of Northamerica came to the continent about 30.000 years ago, during the last ice age, via the landbrigde from Russia to Alaska. They slowly moved south-eastwards, attracted by the warmer climate and forced by further settlers. By the end of the ice age, the large glaciers melted and Alaska could not be reached by other settlers anymore.
When the North American continent was discovered 1492, it was settled by over 1 Million Indians belonging to over 500 tribes. A tribe consisted of 12 up to 1000 people. Nearly all tribes spoke different languages and more than 30 language families were counted. One of the most famous is the Athapascan language family, spoken by the Navajo and Apache.

Communication between these tribes was not easy. Some tribes developed a hand sign language, especially typical of the Indians of the great plains, where each tribe had its own sign to identify the members.

Although alliances were seldom, trading was widespread, especially in the Californian region. It often came to wars between single tribes. The reasons were more often revenge than the need of resources like food. (2)

Because of their lifestyle (close to nature) the Indians are also categorized by considering the regions they inhabited, which nearly fit into the different nature conditions - the coast, desert lands and the grasslands of the great plains. (1)

From the book "Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes" (1)
Click on a region to learn more about the tribes of this certain region.

Californian Region

In the east bordered by the mountains as natural barriercoast to the west coastline down to Baja California (today Mexico). Although the region is relatively small, there lived many different tribes speaking languages of different language families. Like the Hokan (spoken by the tribes Pomo and Chumash) or the Uto-Aztecan (spoken by the so-called "Mission Indians"). The main tribes of the north were Yurok and Hoopa, the Maida and Wintun in central California and in the south Chumash and the Mission Indians.

The climate differs from north to south. While it rains enough in the northern part, the south is dry and partly desert. Northern California is covered by high forests. The mild climate provided enough wild eatable plants, so that in this region tobacco was the only cultivated crop found.
The Natives collected berries, nuts, seeds and roots. Acorn, the fruit of the oak tree, played a central role. Acorn was baked in bred or boiled in soup after a complicated procedure to reduce the bitter flavour. The Californian Indians also ate insects, and hunted rabbits with bow and arrow or traps. The coastal tribes were skilled in fishing with nets, spears and hooks. Besides fish they hunted sea lions and seals.
The typical housing was cone shaped. It was constructed with poles covered with grass or reeds, for a single family. Some of the houses were for communal or ceremonial issues.

Californian Indians were famous for basketry. Baskets were used for cooking, carrying and storing things. Trading was widespread. The Chumash Indians built plank canoes called "tomol". As medium of exchange they used money made of seashells, because of that they are also called "the ones who make shell bead money." (1)

The Southwest Region

The Southwest was the first western American region discovered by the whites. One of the first expeditions, lead by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and therefor called "The Coronado expedition", started 1540 in a Zuni pueblo, which was conquered by Coronado. (3)
This region covers the dry hot area, in the south-west of the United States, i.e. Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. A big part now belongs to northern Mexico. The major language families are the Athapascan language family spoken by the Navajo and Apache, the Uto-Aztecan family spoken by the Hopi and Yaqui and the Penutian Language family spoken by the Zuni tribe.
The climate is very hot and dry. The Colorado river delivers water for agriculture. The land is inhabited by small animals, reptiles and birds like the eagle. Because of the bad climatic conditions farming is necessary for enough food. Some tribes practice nomadic hunting.

A typical tribe for the southwest Indians are the Hopi.

They settled near the Grand Canyon River, depending on its water and natural springs for watering the crops.
Hopi is an abbreviation for their word Hopituh, meaning "peaceful ones". They were co-operative and willing to work together with others to improve their live. Despide their peacefulness they rebelled against Spanish religious control. Joining the Pueblo Rebellion in 1680, they destroyed Spanish missions on their land. After building new pueblos which were easier to defend the hopi remained independent, but they adopted Spanish rule.
Their houses were made of sandstone and had a flat roof. Underground chambers, called "kivas", were used for ceremonies.

The principal food is corn, and besides that corn beans, squash and vegetables like chilli peppers were cultivated. The Spanish Colonists brought fruits like apricots to the Hopi. Besides Farming, the Hopi collected wild plants for basked making baskets or medicine. Because of the limited water resources, the main task was to fetch water, in large ceramic containers.
The Hopi developed a ceremonial system to attract the rain, where individuals and the whole tribe had to play an active role. If everything was done correctly - it rained. (4)

The Plains or Great Plains

The territory of the Great Plains is extremely wide, limited by Texas in the South and Alberta (Canada) in the North, the Rocky Mountains in the West and the Mississippi River Valley in the East. The plain Indians are the most famous Indians tribes. They were often shown in movies, riding through the prairies on the backs of their horses, or mentioned in books. Another fact is that they retained their original lifestyle much longer than the Indians of other regions, so people tend to imagine an Indian as "Great Plains Indian", forgetting the great variety of the Indian tribes. The nature conditions were optimal for normadic hunting - mainly treeless grasslands with higher grass in the north and shorter in the south, because of less rain. Many Indians were forced by white settlers or gun armed Indians of the east to leave their villages. Some northern tribes retained farming the river valleys, but most of the other tribes adopted normadic lifestyle after reintroducing the horse during the 1500s to the Indians, brought from Europe by Spanish settlers. The grassland was the home of many wild animals like deers, wolves, antelopes, coyotes and most important the buffalos. Especially the buffalos made the Indians independent from farming, because the big animals offered enough meet for food. Horns and skin were used to produce tools and for clothing. The life was adapted to follow the buffalo through the plains. Portable Tepees made of poles and buffalo skin were used for shelter. For communicating and trading Plain Indians employed a shared sign language. Each tribe had its own sign, so other tribes could identify the Indian by the sign of the tribe. Many of the Indians were brave warriors. They had some intertribal "Military societies" - partly open and age grated, partly only for special warriors. (1)

The typical tribe for the Plains area are the Comanche Indians, called "Lords of the southern plains" . They were powerful and proud. Horses had been used since the late 1600s. It was seen as a sign of richness. Often the Comanches raided white settlements to steal horses. Comanche Indians were skilled horse riders. Boys and girls were trained to ride on horses from the age of 5 years on. The boys used their skills in warfare, the girls went hunting antelopes together with the boys. The ratio of Comanche tribe members to killed white people was higher than for any other tribe. They used to kill all people that entered their territory. During the 19th century they were involved in permanent struggles with white settlers. Through confederations with other tribes like the southern Cheyenne and the Arapahos, they lost the main influence in the territory to the whites. (1)

The great Basin

Surrounded by highlands the bowl shaped desert basin (Death Valley) covers the modern US States Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon. In former times the basin contained large lakes, the only remaining one is the big Salt Lake. All tribes of this region belong to the Uto-Aztecan Language family. The biggest tribes are Shoshone and Ute. Vegetation is spare, because of little rain. It grows small grass and deep rooting plants like sagebrush. The most common animal is the antelope. Other animals inhabiting the area are rabbits, snakes, mice and kangaroo rats. Because of the extreme weather conditions there is nearly no agriculture in the great basin. The Indians live from hunting the animals and collecting wild plants like roots and berries. Because they had to dig for roots and other food, they are often called Diggers by the whites. Their houses are cone shaped, framed by poles and covered with reeds and brush.

Most common for this area there the Shoshone.

The famous Indian woman Sacajawea was a Shoshone. She worked as a guide in the most important expeditions through the American West, the Lewis and Clark expedition, helping people to find the way and get shelter from hostile Indians.


After learing some facts about the Native Americans of the American West, we have to admit, that not all Indian tribes are equal. There is a great variety of tribes with different lifestyles and social stuctures. Some were peaceful and adopted values from the new settlers or even helped them, some fought for their rights.

1: Carl Waldman: Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, Facts on File, Hong Kong 1988
2: Wolfgang Lindig, Mark Münzel: Indianer - Kulturen und Geschichte der Indianer Nort-, Mittel- und Südamerikas, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, München 1976

3:New Perspectives on THE WEST. PBS. 22. January 2001 <>
4:American Indians and the Natural World. Carnegie museum of natural history. 22. January 2001 <>

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