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Native Americans

Native American groups, clothing styles, indios, European explorers, Christopher Columbus

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Native Americans of North America, indigenous peoples of North America. Native Americans had lived throughout the continent for thousands of years before Europeans began exploring the “New World” in the 15th century.

Most scientists agree that the human history of North America began when the ancient ancestors of modern Native Americans made their way across a land bridge that once spanned the Bering Sea and connected northeastern Asia to North America. Scientists believe these people first migrated to the Americas more than 10,000 years ago, before the end of the last ice age. However, some Native Americans believe their ancestors originated in the Americas, citing gaps in the archaeological record and oral accounts of their origins that have been passed down through generations.

Native Americans excelled at using natural resources and adapting to the climates and terrains in which they lived. Over thousands of years distinct culture areas developed across North America. In the Northeast, for example, Native Americans used wood from the forests to build houses, canoes, and tools. Dense populations in the Pacific Northwest exploited the abundance of sea mammals and fish along the Pacific Coast. In the deserts of the Southwest, Native Americans grew corn and built multilevel, apartment-style dwellings from adobe, a sun-dried brick. In the Arctic, inhabitants adapted remarkably well to the harsh environment, becoming accomplished fishers and hunters.

Among the several hundred Native American groups that settled across North America, there existed, and still exist, many different ways of life and world views. Each group had distinctive social and political systems, clothing styles, shelters, foods, art forms, musical styles, languages, educational practices, and spiritual and philosophical beliefs. Nevertheless, Native American cultures share certain traits that are common to many indigenous peoples around the world, including strong ties to the land on which they live.

When European explorers and settlers began to arrive in the Americas in the 15th century, Native Americans found themselves faced with a new set of challenges. Some Native Americans learned to coexist with Europeans, setting up trade networks and adopting European technologies. Many more faced generations of upheaval and disruption as Europeans, and later Americans and Canadians, took Native American lands and tried to destroy their ways of life. During the 20th century, however, Native American populations and cultures experienced a resurgence. Today, Native Americans are working to reassert more control over their governments, economies, and cultures.

The indigenous peoples of North America are known by many terms. Most tribal peoples prefer to be identified by their tribal affiliation, such as Hopi, Onondaga, Mohawk, or Cherokee. The most common collective terms are Native American or American Indian. For many years, Indian was the most prevalent term. When Christopher Columbus and other European explorers arrived in the Americas, they thought they were in Asia, which the Spanish referred to as “the Indies.” They called the native peoples indios, as in the people of the Indies, later translated to Indian. However, some scholars believe the Europeans were not calling native peoples indios, but rather In Dios, meaning “Of God.”

The term Native American became popular in the United States in the 1960s, although some people believe it is too broad because it can refer to anyone born in the Americas, including Hawaiians and descendants of immigrants. In Canada, aboriginal people is a commonly used collective term. It refers to Indians, Métis (people of mixed indigenous and European ancestry), and Inuit. In the 1970s many Indians in Canada began calling their bands First Nations. When referring to the original inhabitants of the United States, this article uses Native Americans, American Indians, Indians, and native peoples interchangeably. When referring to the original inhabitants of Canada, the article generally uses aboriginal peoples, indigenous peoples, and native peoples.

This article divides its discussion of Native Americans into four main parts. The Culture Areas section examines Native American ways of life in ten different geographic regions. Traditional Way of Life looks at specific aspects of Native American life, such as food, clothing, and music. The History section describes the history of Native Americans in North America from the earliest times to the present day. Native Americans Today discusses contemporary life for indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada.


For younger readers

Birchfield, D. L., ed. The Encyclopedia of North American Indians. 11 vols. Marshall Cavendish, 1997. For middle school and high school readers.

Ciment, James. Scholastic Encyclopedia of the North American Indian. Scholastic, 1996. For readers in grades 4 and up.

Elish, Dan. The Trail of Tears: The Story of the Cherokee Removal. Benchmark, 2001. For readers in grades 5 to 9.

Kallen, Stuart A. Native American Chiefs and Warriors. Lucent, 1999. For middle school and high school readers.

Nardo, Don, ed. North American Indian Wars. Greenhaven, 1999. An anthology of essays for high school readers.

Pritzker, Barry M. Native-Americans: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture and Peoples. ABC-CLIO, 1998. For high school readers.

Sattler, Helen R. The Earliest Americans. Clarion, 1993. For middle school readers.

Sonnenborn, Liz. The New York Public Library Amazing Native American History: A Book of Answers for Kids. Wiley, 1999.

Terry, Michael Bad Hand. Daily Life in a Plains Indian Village: 1868. Clarion, 1999. For readers in grades 3 to 6.

Native Americans of North America

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. 30th ed. Holt, 2000. Highly acclaimed account of the white man's systematic destruction of Amerindian culture.

Hirschfelder, Arlene B. The Native American Almanac: A Portrait of Native America Today. Macmillan, 1998. A timely portrait of a re-awakened culture.

Josephy, Alan. 500 Nations: An Illustrated History of North American Indians. Knopf, 1994. Provides an extensively illustrated overview of native history and the politics of European conquest.

Oswalt, Wendell. This Land Was Theirs: A Study of Native Americans. 6th ed. Mayfield, 1998. A study of the changes in Native American life.

Pritzker, Barry M. A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture and Peoples. Oxford University Press, 2000. An informative reference that explodes many myths and deepens our understanding.

Waldman, Carl. Atlas of the North American Indian. Facts on File, 2000. Provides a thorough account of native history, illustrated with 122 maps.

Waldman, Carl. Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. Rev. ed. Facts on File, 1999. Illustrated presentation of 140 individual tribes.

Native American religions

Bonvillain, Nancy. Native American Religion. Chelsea House, 1996. An introduction to Native American religious beliefs and practices; appropriate for students.

Carmody, Denise, and John Carmody. Native American Religions: An Introduction. Paulist, 1993. Comprehensive work on Native American spirituality and religion.

Hausman, Gerald. Turtle Island Alphabet: A Lexicon of Native American Symbols and Culture. St. Martin's, 1992. This dictionary of Native American mythology and folklore includes terms, artifacts, and objects.

Lyon, William. Encyclopedia of Native American Healing. ABC-CLIO, 1996. An overview of Native American cultures, customs, and rituals of shamanic healing.

Rutledge, Don, and Rita Robinson. Center of the World: Native American Spirituality. Newcastle, 1992. Examines the foundations of Native American religious belief.

Native American Art

Berio, Janet C., and Ruth B. Phillips. Native North American Art. Oxford University Press, 1998. Introduction to the arts of Native Americans organized by culture region.

Broder, Patricia Janis. Earth Songs, Moon Dreams: Paintings for American Indian Women. St. Martin's, 1999. A survey of female artists and their work from across North America.

Dubin, Lois Sherr. North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment. Abrams, 1999. Traces the development of native jewelry from prehistory to the present.

Feest, Christian. Native Arts of North America. Thames & Hudson, 1980, 1992. Anthropological history of Native American arts and crafts.

Penney, David W. Art of the American Indian Frontier: A Portfolio. New Press, 1995. Documents the superb craftsmanship and artistry of the Woodlands and Plains Indians.

Rushing, W. Jackson. Native American Art in the Twentieth Century: Makers, Meanings and Histories. Routledge, 1999. A collection of essays by artists, critics, scholars, and curators on the impact of aboriginal art forms on North American society.

von Finckenstein, Maria, ed. Celebrating Inuit Art. Key Porter, 2000. A visual exhibition of Inuit art from the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

West, W. Richards. Treasures of the National Museum of the American Indians. Abbeville, 1996. A captivating overview of the Smithsonian's vast collection of native art.

Native American music and dance

Densmore, Frances. Teton Sioux Music and Culture. University of Nebraska Press, 1992. Originally published in 1918. Part of the 13-volume Da Capo Press music reprint series Music of the North American Indian (1972).

Heth, Charlotte, ed. Native American Dance: Ceremonies and Social Traditions. Smithsonian, 1992. A collection of essays and photographs depicting the ceremony of Native American dance.

Howard, James H., and Victoria L. Levine. Choctaw Music and Dance. University of Oklahoma Press, 1990. Details about Choctaw music, dance, instruments, and customs.

Meredith, Howard. Dancing on Common Ground: Tribal Cultures and Alliances on the Southern Plain. University Press of Kansas, 1995. A study of how the Plains people express their worldview through dance.

Native Americans

Birchfield, D. L., ed. The Encyclopedia of North American Indians. 11 vols. Marshall Cavendish, 1997. A comprehensive and thorough encyclopedia of Native American history and culture.

Champagne, Duane, ed. The Native North American Almanac. Gale, 1994. This reference work comprises a handbook, historical chronology, biographical dictionary, and directory.

Josephy, Alvin. 500 Nations: An Illustrated History of North American Indians. Knopf, 1994. This companion volume to the CBS television documentary provides an extensively illustrated overview of Native American history with a focus on the politics of European conquest.

Kopper, Phillip. The Smithsonian Book of the North American Indians: Before the Coming of the Europeans. Smithsonian, 1986. Extensively illustrated archaeological account focusing on the pre-European era.

Malinowski, Sharon, and others. The Gale Encyclopedia of North American Tribes. 4 vols. Gale , 1998. Information on 400 groups in 13 geographic regions.

Waldman, Carl. Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. Rev. ed. Facts on File, 1999. Illustrated presentation of 140 individual tribes.

Native American history

Axelrod, Alan. Chronicle of the Indian Wars: From Colonial Times to Wounded Knee. Koenecky, 1996. A comprehensive account of four centuries of conflict between whites and North American natives.

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. Holt, 1970, 1991. Western settlement from a Native American perspective.

Oswalt, Wendell. This Land Was Theirs: A Study of Native Americans. 6th ed. Mayfield, 1998. Changes in Native American life.

Thornton, Russell. American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492. University of Oklahoma Press, 1987. Causes of numerical decline.

Waldman, Carl. Who Was Who in Native American History: Indians and Non-Indians from Early Contacts Through 1900. Facts on File, 1990. Biographical essays of prominent North American natives and the non-natives who came in contact with them.

Native American politics

Deloria, Vine, Jr. Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence. Dell, 1974. Reprint, University of Texas Press, 1985. Legal and moral arguments for new and old tribal treaties of sovereignty.

Josephy, Alvin M., Jr., and others, eds. Red Power: The American Indians' Fight for Freedom. 2nd ed. University of Nebraska Press, 1999. Documents on the emergence of Native American militancy.

Matthiessen, Peter. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. Viking Penguin, 1991. Full account of the 1973 shootout at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

Prucha, Francis Paul. The Indians in American Society: From the Revolutionary War to the Present. University of California Press, 1985. A short survey of the history of Native American rights, self-determination, and governmental policies.

Smith, Paul Chaat, and Robert Allen Warrior. Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee. New Press, 1996. A detailed account of the events and politics of the American Indian Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.


Hirschfelder, Arlene, B.A., M.A.T. Freelance writer and author of Native Americans: A History in Pictures. Coauthor of Native Americans Today: Resources and Activities for Educators, Grades 4-8 and The Native American Almanac: A Portrait of Native America Today.

Blackhawk, Ned, B.A., M.A., Ph.D. Assistant professor of History and American Indian Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Author of The Shoshone.

Griffin-Pierce, Trudy, B.A., M.A., Ph.D. Adjunct Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Arizona. Author of Native Peoples of the Southwest,The Encyclopedia of Native America, and Native Americans: Enduring Cultures and Traditions.

Meltzer, David J., B.A., M.A., Ph.D. Professor of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University. Author of Search for the First Americans.

Waldman, Carl, B.A. Freelance writer and author of Atlas of the North American Indian, Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, and Biographical Dictionary of American Indian History to 1900.

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