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Knowing the First Americans

Updated on September 10, 2015

Eastern Woodlands and Southeast Tribes

The Eastern Woodland tribes lived in what we now call the Northeast. To eat, these people grew crops, hunted wild animals, and caught fish. Many families lived together in the same building called a longhouse. A village might have 50 or more longhouses, each one stretching from 50 to 100 feet long.

In the late 1500s, Hiawatha brought five tribes of Eastern Woodland Indians together. The five tribes—Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida, and Cayuga—formed the Iroquois League. Hiawatha wanted the League to stop Indians of the five tribes from killing each other. But the League was not really peaceful. It was so strong that it wiped out many other tribes. When the Europeans arrived, the Iroquois ruled a vast area from the Atlantic Ocean westward to the Mississippi River.

The area ruled by the Iroquois League did not include the Southeast. The Indians of the Southeast were also farmers, and they hunted and fished, too. When the Europeans arrived, many of these tribes tried to copy the ways of the white people. The Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, Cherokees, and Seminoles came to be called the “Five Civilized Tribes.” The Cherokees even had a written alphabet and put out their own newspaper!

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Tribes of the Great Plains

The Great Plains area stretches from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. Here lived the Plains Indians. These people lived in tepees made from buffalo hide. Buffalo also gave them their food, their clothing, and other things they needed to live.

Many tribes lived on the Great Plains. The Mandans and Pawnees lived in settled villages where women grew crops while men hunted buffalo. Further west were tribes that did not live in settled villages and did not farm. The Dakotas, Crows, and Cheyenne followed the buffalo herds all year long.

Life for the Plains Indians changed greatly when the Europeans arrived. The Spanish brought horses with them to Mexico. Some of these horses escaped and created wild herds in the Great Plains. The Plains Indians captured these wild animals and learned to be expert riders. Horses made it much easier for them to hunt buffalo.

The Plains Indians got something else from the Europeans: guns. With horses and guns, the Indians of the Great Plains were able to fight to protect their lands for many years. Only when the buffalo herds were wiped out in the late of 1800s were they forced to give up and move to special areas called reservations.

Tribes of the Southwest and the Pacific Coast

The Southwest is mostly a desert region. Indians here lived by growing crops of corn, squash, and beans. They had to use water carefully.

The two major tribes of the Southwest were the Pueblo and the Navajo. The Pueblo Indians lived in towns. The Spanish word for town is Pueblo. The towns were made up of buildings, some several stories tall. Many Pueblo towns were built on top of steep hills. The people were peaceful, and their towns gave the Pueblo Indians protection from enemies.

The Navajo learned from the Pueblo people how to farm. The Navajo did not live in towns made up of large buildings. They lived in villages of dome-shaped huts called hogans. Navajo families moved from one Hogan to another. In addition to farming, the Navajo gathered wild foods and hunted animals.

The natives of California had a fairly easy life. They lived in simple houses and fed themselves by gathering wild foods—mostly acorns—rather than growing crops on farms.

Along the Pacific Coast, from what is now northern California all the way up to Alaska, were Native Americans that were skilled in fishing. They caught salmon and other ocean fish, sometimes by sailing out to sea in large canoes. These people lived in well-made wooden houses. They were experts at carving wood, including beautiful totem poles.

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