Ancient Civilizations of North America

The geographical-cultural regions of North America: General perspective.

  • Inuit; in Alaska, northern Canada and the ice floes, and Greenland. The coasts of Alaska (A1), the Canadian coasts in the north (A2) and the island of Greenland, considered to be part of America (A3) fit within the boundaries of this cultural area.
  • Subarctic Area; it is the largest out of all of them, and the toughest in regard to its continental nature. It includes the Yukon and the territories of the northeast. Hunting and fishing are the resources which can be made use of in some way. The Canadian Shield (B1), the Northern Rockies (B2), the western Athabaskan subarctic area and the eastern subarctic or Algonquin (B4).
  • Southeastern strip of Alaska and its coast, with forests and oceanic tendencies.
  • California. Southern California is more dry, but is also included. It has a great quantity of Mediterranean resources; it is reminiscent of the Boreal Forest. It is the most populated area, and although no agriculture existed, there were a great deal of resources. They were excellent in basket making, as they did not know other things.
  • Interior plateau, Columbia River basin, and the mountainous regions. It includes the northern zone, Canada and meridional area of the United States (E1 and E2). Here we find the “Nez Percé.”
  • Great Basin of the Rockies; including Death Valley, inhabited by desert cultures and nomadic family groups; the Shoshones and Utes are included.
  • Nevada, Arizona, Mexico, Sonora and Sinaloa, with ancient mesas and hills witnesses have seen a thousand times in the cinema. They are very complex areas, with ruins of the Mogollon tribes, Anasazi, “Pueblo Indians” and others, all very complex, of which are left remains and ruins of their settlements, guides to astronomical rituals, etc. Such are those in Chaco Canyon, and those of the Hopi Indians. They had a strong cultural resistance, and even today many continue living there in a similar way. In Mesa Verde we find stone villages, constructed based on limestone areas, located under ledges and adjacent to limestone mesas, or in the style of cellars in order to take advantage of the coolness in the summer and as a hiding place in the winter. Here ceramics are known, and those of great quality. Here also are the Navajos, and the Apache (Mescaleros, Tontos, Jicarillas, and others).

Ancient Civilizations of North America


Ancients civilizations North America
Ancients civilizations North America

The Arctic

Definition of the area.- Geography.

The Arctic area was inhabited in nearly all of its totality. However, we only find one linguistic type.

The Arctic area refers to the zone above the polar circle; but this area can be defined by means of the isotherm of 10ºC in July. This isotherm marks the permafrost line (which does not permit forest growth). It is the limit of the tundra. This is a varied region in which is included Greenland, the northeastern extreme of Asia and the north of North America.

We distinguish three areas:

  • Subarea of the western arctic of Alaska.
  • Central Canadian arctic, which is the model we will use.
  • Greenland.

Their common factors are:

Their latitude, which produces 6 months of night and another 6 of day.

Very cold temperatures, which vary. In the east it is colder, owing to the cold currents which come down from the Arctic. On the western coast the warm Pacific currents smooth out the temperatures. The most extreme temperatures occur in the interior of the continent. In general they are below zero all year.

The ice floes, which are the cap of the frozen sea. The continental ice fields are in addition very irregular regarding terrain.

The central zone is whipped by winds and blizzards, in addition to fog when there is no wind.

Precipitation is minimal; the blizzards lift snow. The occidental zone is more humid.

The Arctic ecosystem

The Arctic ecosystem is unstable and young. It is only 10,000 years old- The Würm glacial stage, the last glacial period, ended 18,000 years ago. It can be divided into two subsystems.

Marine subsystem: In the marine subsystem are found cetaceans and pinnipeds, in addition to polar bears. But these animals are really very few, as the majority limit their activity to a seasonal and locational context. Many are migratory animals, and because of this the Homo Sapiens had to prepare themselves in order to find them. In addition, the rate of reproduction is very low and unstable, and the nutritional chain is very short (plankton- whale; plankton- fish- seal- bear). If, for example, the cold temperature of the water failed, there would not be plankton; and everything would go under. Because of this the most important resource is the hunting of marine mammals, although not everyone could hunt all the animals.

Terrestrial subsystem: There are many freshwater rivers with fishing, which all the Eskimos do. For them it is the primary resource; large fish which reach as much as 50 kg; salmon, sturgeon, etc. Almost all of the mammals are migratory and seasonal; the caribou search for moss and run from insects. The muskox lives in the Arctic all year. They live in community with the arctic partridge. On the ground there are in addition more animals with fur which were the cause of the entrance of the white man (arctic fox). They were hunted by the Inuit to decorate their dress.

The Inuit developed an enormous capacity for making use of things, in a permanent mobility. It is the most extreme case of hunter-gatherers; they were almost purely hunters. And they do not have nutritional deficits.

The language

The language was unified in Eskimo-Aleut. In the present they are separated into Eskimo and Aleut. Aleut is used in the Aleutian Islands. Eskimo can be differentiated into Yupik (5 languages in Alaska) and Inuit-Inupiaq, a chain of dialects spoken on all the islands and coasts as far as Greenland.

The inhabitants of the north-central zone of Canada are Inuit. Inuktitut is the common language which they all use, although it is a derivation of the ancient dialects in a modern language. Their physical type is of short stature, with a thick torso, fat in the cheeks, epicanthic folds, flat faces and broad noses. They have an elevated basal metabolism, and are capable of eating a great deal in only one sitting. They do not tend to suffer from cardiovascular nor dental problems, even though they did use them a lot.

In the present many physical problems derived from being sedentary have appeared.

Prehistory of the area

It is known well, a product of the last migration from Asia, and different colonizations, from Alaska towards Greenland. The last one from Siberia to Alaska was in 3000 B.C. In 2000 B.C., they crossed the whole arctic towards Greenland. They are known as Paleoeskimos. They show few similarities with the other Indians, and many with the Siberians. The climate at this time was more mild and there was less ice; they were not familiar with boats, nor sophisticated harpoons, nor sled dogs, nor did they live in houses made of skins. Their encampments were small, occupied very few days in the year, in familial groups.

Between 500 B.C. and 1000 A.D. the Dorset culture is established in the area. The area becomes colder, and the hunting grounds are extended. The populations are larger, the houses are more inhabited and semi-subterranean, of stone and turf. In them many animal remains are found. Stone lamps appear at this time, invented for ice houses, or igloos. They have abundant art made in ivory.

They decorated all their everyday objects. Towards 1000 A.D., they disappear.

A new migration from Alaska pushed these people. As there were more rivers in Alaska, canoes were invented (kayaks and umiaks). These new inhabitants would also bring technical innovations like the dismountable hunting harpoon. They were warriors and great ceramicists. Around 1000 the sea warms up, and there is more population; they emigrate in this manner to Greenland.

Between 160 and 1850 the small ice age is produced, which obligated the adaptation of the people of the Arctic, and their retirement from the coast. This group, called Thule, stays in this way relegated to history.

Subsistence in a glacial environment

The model of seasonal hunting.

Inuit civilization
Inuit civilization

The inhabitants find themselves obligated to continually move from one place to another. The Inuit mobility is great: they change houses six times a year. In the Bering Strait, however, they could stay in the same place for nine months. The model of the social nucleus is fluctuating according to the cycle of annual settlement. They meet in the ice floes, next to the hunting places (breathing holes of seals, hunting by waiting). This hunt can be done even during the long periods of darkness of the winter. Winter is critical because of hunger, because of which the proximity of companions is searched out. In March or April they separate in extended families. This dispersion was done for the time of hunting by stalking.

When the ice cap disappears (July) hunting can be done by kayak and canoe, especially for walruses.

When the summer came, the Inuit would abandon the ice and constructed tents of seal skin, and moved on to fishing with harpoons. They could reduce themselves to nuclear families.

In the summer there are eggs in their diet, and other animals. It is at this time that the great reunions happen in conjunction with the summer camps. Together the caribous are hunted, in diverse manners. These animals provide the skins for dress. The seal gives food and fat, and fuel for the stone lamps.

The use of many different weapons to hunt a multitude of different animals is to be highlighted.

The reunions were very productive on all levels. Once winter arrived, they built interconnected semi-subterranean houses. Mobility is continuous among all the arctic groups.

Settlement and dwellings

In Greenland, houses of stone are maintained. They are found semi-excavated on the ground, covered with ribs, turf, and skins. Some are very complex for various families. The houses were not private. The family that found it, used it, as private property of dwellings did not exist. The houses were not private in any way. The igloo, or ice house, had a round floor, a dome which started from a spiral model, with excavated entrances. In the interior ice furnishings were built to take advantage of the heat of the upper part. They were interconnected by means of galleries. The “Kashyn” are very large ceremonial houses, used in the winter for various families to meet.

Igloos could be covered with skins. Inside an igloo, it could be 8 or 10ºC.

The Inuit dress is made up of parkas of caribou skins (warm) and/or seal skin (impermeable) and trousers made of the same material. They have two sets, one with the hair facing inward and the other with the hair facing outward. Clothing was always decorated which permits the identification of the affiliation of the owner. They also used stockings, over which they wore hide boots and sandals on top. They do not wear snowshoes, as the surface on which they walk is not snow, but ice. These snowshoes are from the Boreal zone. The skin of the arctic fox was used only as a decoration, but when the fur trade began, they hunted them in abundance to sell them.



It should be highlighted that the Inuit increased the ability to overcome the environment by virtue of elaborate tools.

One of the principal tools was the stone lamp, known throughout the Arctic. It serves to heat ice houses. In this lamp seal blubber is burned; it gives light and heat, and does not produce smoke. It can be used for cooking.

They sewed impermeable diving suits, in order to avoid getting wet if they fell in the water, which they put on underneath the rest of their clothing when they went in kayaks. These kayaks were extremely elaborate instruments of hunting and travel. They were constructed of whale bone and skins, with pins outside to tie things to; in the interior nothing fits. They were for one person, but during the Russian domination they were built with two or three places. The umiak or open canoe was for springtime transportation and movement. All their weapons for hunting were specialized for one concrete type of animal. Short bows, made of whale bone, harpoons with a removable head, of multiple facets: double, triple, serrated, large, hooks, etc. They also used javelins, slings and dart throwers, and propellants made of bone. To hunt birds they used small lariats, with stones covered with leather.

The sled is exclusively arctic, pulled by dogs or by women. It can be made of nearly any material. They are all flexible, to accommodate them to the formations of ice floes. The dogs have a hierarchical behavior, in their position for the sled. The dogs are positioned in a fan.

Division of labor

The division of labor was fundamental, by sex. The couple was the basic unit of functionality. She sewed and cooked, and the husband hunted for the family, supplying the basic materials the rest of the family needs. The woman, in addition, is dedicated to caring for the clothing, for example, chewing the boots of the family to soften them for the morning. The children went inside the mother’s coat until they could go alone. Weaning was done by means of the previous chewing by a family member, usually the mother, of the food which was then given to the child.

The man provides and the woman procures the instruments.

Arctic Society: The Inuit family.

 Kinship and social structure

There are patrilineal tendencies in filial relationship and descent, the family being the father, the mother, the sons and their wives. There was not much to inherit, but this type of heredity was maintained. The extended families would in turn group with other families, reuniting in winter and summer. There are bands, macro-bands, groups and nuclear families, although the system was very flexible. There is an absence of formal leadership, and there are only temporary leaders by virtue of charisma and prestige, or chosen by the rest.

Betrothals were made from childhood, without any romanticism, only functionalism, and there was no matrimonial ritual. The marriage could separate before having children. Among the ancient Inuit there was polygyny, provided that the man could maintain more than one family. The most able hunters were prestigious and could give and share much more. It was thus even to the point that they could have a group of followers. In time of crisis polyandry could exist, although it was less durable.

The death of the man was frequent, and the rule was to remarry to give continuity to the nuclear family. Widows went so far as to commit suicide if they could not remarry.

The ideal was to have many relatives, real or fictional. Adoption was very standard, the children themselves being the ones who chose where to go. There is no tension between the father and the adoptive son. What matters is that the child be well taken care of, and there is no consecration of the biological family.

There were games in the open air or in houses. The boys and girls were coached from the time they were young in their roles as men and women. In the open air they had competitions of weapons, ability, ball games, hide-and-seek, blind man’s bluff, etc. In the houses there were games of cords and knots, jacks, etc

Giving birth was normal, although the woman usually did it alone or assisted by another woman. During birth an adequate name of a relative or recently deceased friend was searched for. Until 8 years old, children were left to do whatever they wanted to. Starting then, they were taught the norms of etiquette, the relationships of care and respect between men and women, which transcended the familial nucleus. The difference of age was important in the rank of a person in the family. There was a distancing between boys and girls, and a special relationship between people with the same name (namesakes).

Arctic civilizations
Arctic civilizations

The system of “partners.”

The system of “partners” was very common. From childhood two men would cooperate in the hunt. If one hunted, a ritual part corresponded to the other; they sang and danced together, they could interchange wives and couples, when circumstances did not permit mobility, like pregnancy; this was considered a solution of a practical character. The infanticide of daughters and the suicide of elders occurred when food could not be assured. The elders helped themselves to die when they realized that they could not serve the family.

 Leadership and social control

The systems of social control were based on the mockery and derision of friends and family, the “what will the neighbors say of me?”.

When there was a quarrel between two people, public duels were produced between the two challengers, whether they were of song, dances, or blows, which were all institutionalized.

The public confession of someone in the family exonerated the guilt of a crime or quarrel.

Inuit Ideology And Art

Worldview and myths

The Inuit had a very strong animistic base; everything for them has a supernatural part called “inua.” The supernatural entities can be good, bad, guardians, etc. The majority of supernatural entities were dangerous. The personification of some supernatural beings was common, in the way of divinities. The most important was Sedna nuliayuk, a lady who lived in the depths of the sea, owner of all the animals and things of the sea. Her creation is based on a myth: Two ogres had an enormously hungry daughter, who even ate their feet. The parents, fed up, put her in an umiak and pushed it out to sea. But she grabbed the gunwale and the parents cut off her fingers from which all the marine animals arose.

Other peoples had the baby Sila, who guided the winds.

The Sun is feminine, and the Moon masculine, two siblings who chase each other. Some stars are also personified.

The Inuit cosmogony is based on stories, narrations, and myths with an ethical sense. There is no cycle of origin, there is not a creation. The primordial age continues there, in a supernatural world. The diverse spirits exchange skins by means of veils. There are giants who interact with the animals of their size (whales, bears) and dwarfs who do it with small animals. The giants are strong, and the dwarfs do not have strength.

The behaviors from the stories transmit ideas and ways of life: it regards fixing things, but if these become too complicated, there is a certain conformism.

The spirits are not believed in, they are feared.

Observances and taboos

Within this vision, every Inuit had a series of taboos and observances, and amulets in order to not irritate the inua. A respectful treatment is given to the catch of the hunt. Fresh water is given to seals after death. Caribou skins cannot be sewed when seals are hunted, nor can their meat be put together… In such a manner the terrestrial things like the marine cannot be put together.

The first important hunt of the boy (a seal) was carved up by the mother, and it was consumed by everyone except the boy, who was smeared with the blood of the prey.


Shamans could get a hold of supernatural components, in the search for their vision. The intermediary shaman (Siberian denomination) in the Arctic was called “angakoq.” They were seers, witch doctors, the last resource when the Inuit could not deal with something. The angakoq can be a man or a woman, although the men were always more numerous. They had the capacity to handle and access the inua. The angakoq could search for vision through dreams, delirium or sickness. The external help they used was primarily not eating, self-torture, cold, and isolation. There was no veto to becoming a shaman. A vision was had, and another shaman taught them to transcend, using an esoteric language only able to be translated by other shamans. They taught themselves tricks of illusion and ventriloquy (to create a propitiatory ambiance). They could achieve clairvoyance regarding predictions of meteorological weather, cure, and transcend.

Shamans existed in all communities, and those who were full time specialists were maintained by others. When facing a great crisis it was the figure of the shaman who fixed things. Some were very feared, and could become dictators, who subdued communities through fear. The most powerful were men, who could overstep their power. Some who were especially maleficent could be expelled from their communities, which assumed being condemned to death.

The Inuit facing death

North American ancient civilizations
North American ancient civilizations

In the Inuit society, death had a period of mourning, which expelled the ghost from the place of death. The dead was bound up and covered, and was never taken out through the door, so that the ghost would not know how to return. The body was even burned. The primary period of mourning lasted 4 days- the number 4 is sacred in all of North America. The memory of the dead lasted a year, until the return to the place of death the next year.

For them the human being has three souls or inua:

  1. The first is lost upon becoming sick, and is recuperated upon recovery.
  2. Another is lost in death, and is directed to the underworld. This underworld is located in the sky, which for the Inuit is found above their heads in the manner of a dome.
  3. A third soul- the ghost is associated with the name, character, and personality of the deceased. This inua should be scared away from the house. It is lost with the last breath.

The Inuit make their graves with stones or ice.

Artists and traditional art

Inuit art- or arctic without more, and also the Yupik- was ceremonial, in the way of masks, suits, costumes, etc. In the central area, things were much more simple.

Artistic objects were varied:

  • Oratory was very important; knowing how to properly speak was a must.
  • Song and dance, always in a context which transmits information based on a sentiment.
  • Elaboration and ornamentation of garments, which identified the social groups, like glass beads and paintings.
  • Works in stone and ivory, made by the men and shamans, as ideas, stories, and amulets. They were striking and demanded by the first explorers. They make bears, oxen, canoes, kayaks… also as toys. The latter were made for sale to westerners, and are by and for sale, which is also a source of income for the Inuit. They are commercialized by means of cooperatives; there are in addition artists to the west who live by it, and others who sell from time to time. There are shops and individual variations, and also recordings and lithographs, introduced by the westerners, which are cheaper and more productive, and well accepted.
  • Tattoos and paintings are widely diffused. Painting is to demonstrate transitory states, from the tate of enthusiasm for war, mourning, etc. Tattoos were made with needle and thread, and were made on the face, hands, and wrists, indicating a state and an appearance. For women, it indicated the predisposition to marry, with drawings on the forehead, the cheeks, and the chin.

Processes of Change in the Arctic

The first contacts

The process of change in the Arctic is similar to that produced in all of North America. It can be divided into three differentiated stages.

  1. Period of exploration.
  2. Period of commerce.
  3. Period of colonization. This last stage can be subdivided into: Commerce, Army and Church.

During the First stage of exploration, 400 years ago, scientific maritime expeditions were conducted in the Labrador, in search of the Northern passage, which is found frozen, in addition to commercial and mining explorations. There were sporadic contacts with the Inuit, with light exchanges of goods. It is in this era that the first sicknesses are introduced. In America at this time there were no defenses against the European sicknesses.

The period of commercial hunting

In the Second stage, in the 19th and 20th Centuries (1900-1930), abundant trading posts were made use of for the hunting of the white fox, very desired by the European elites. The Hudson Bay Company (HBC) put permanent posts in the Eastern and Central Arctic. Each hunter would trap the foxes and deliver them in exchange for renting the traps and other goods. The fox is hunted in winter, but by reason of being an animal of the interior, the vital cycle of the Inuit was left disrupted. The Inuit, in addition were left indebted and ended up ruined by disrupting their cycle, even being able to die of starvation in many cases.

The confrontation with the Canadian Mounted Police followed all this. Later the missionaries arrived: Anglicans, Protestants… who would put the Inuit language in written form; this is of enormous importance, as in the present the Inuit use this writing to spread their traditions. In the central area the Roman Catholics were the most active. Boarding schools did not work in the Arctic, not so in the rest of North America, where they became authentic acculturation camps.

The Great Depression

With the Great Depression and the Second World War, the economy based on the hunting of furs sinks, and the commercial posts abandon their positions. This introduced great famines. After the Second World War, the U.S. Military bases helped the Inuit, who could work. In this way the fur trade was repaired, and in the present some continue trapping.

The Inuit in the present

In the Central Arctic the Inuit have introduced themselves in Canada. They have resisted intrusion, maintaining a great deal of their culture without assimilating themselves.

In the present they have changed: they are Canadians, and they are Inuit. They have developed as an ethnic group and have their own territory and laws. Recovery has happened since 1950, currently being some 150,000 individuals, many more than in the past.

The Inuit have realized a process of becoming sedentary in locations. In the 50s they established themselves in small coastal villages, and in the 80s, 70% lived in permanent settlements of 50 inhabitants. Their houses are of the western style, with schools, outpatient clinics, law and order. The Inuit suffer in their body the establishment of western foods and customs: they are fat, they have cavities and diabetes, and heart diseases previously unknown to their people.

They utilize western technological elements, but also harpoons, sleds, snowmobiles, airplanes, seaplanes, motorboats…

They have a high level of unemployment, with a social assistance which especially covers children- which causes the growth of the birth rate- and the state offers them temporary jobs. Among them the cooperatives of commercial arts, stone sculptures and engravings, which are sold far from the Arctic, have great success, and constitute and important source of income. These cooperatives maintain “denominations of origin.” In great part they are made up of part-time artists, and when they have money available they go out to hunt. Well know artists also exist, who can earn a great deal of money. Some of their works tell stories (of the giant, of the old woman-wolf, of the dwarf…)

Inuit Life North America
Inuit Life North America

Political achievements

The Inuit do not have intermediaries to speak with the central government of Canada, and they do it directly. In addition, the climate that reigns in the Northwest Territories helps their isolation. In the Canadian provinces (Alberta, British Columbia…) the natives are a minority, not like in the Arctic, where some 80% are indigenous, and the whites are scarce and live in cities.

In the 60s they did not have representation in Parliament, but little by little they organized themselves in electoral districts, gaining representatives in the parliament of Ottawa. This has been possible because of the homogenization of the Inuktitut language, which has become an identity link. They have 22 native representatives. In the 70s, the Inuit Tapirisat was organized, the conference in which the reconfiguration of the Northwest Territory in two: the Northwest Territory itself and Nunavut (our land), desired by 85% or northerners. However, in the provinces it is looked down on. Nunavut is a territory in which rights would be recognized for the peoples of the Arctic: that they are different peoples, with nations and institutions, with preferential rights to lands and resources of fishing, hunting, and exploitation of lands.

In 1992 a referendum was made. Since 1999, Canada has three Nunavut territories, granting to their inhabitants powers and rights, although they are not a territory for the Inuit (for example, they lack their own justice system).

The Inuit are the people who have most achieved relating themselves without assimilating themselves to the western world, owing to two key factors: the use of a common language, and the rigorous nature of the climate in which they live.

Adaptation to change

Towards the end of the present century, the Inuit have begun to form private organizations to defend their interests. These organizations have influenced, for example, the resolution on the land claims. The Inuit Circumpolar Conference, founded in 1977, meets every three years and provides for the Inuit of Greenland and North America a meeting place for debating common problems, pressuring in favor of Inuit representation in planning for economic development and promoting the conservation of the environment.

Ancient Civilizations of the Pacific

On this coast, the cultural models change from the Inuit in Alaska, towards the south. The cultural aspects are very variable owing to the distinct types of habitats. It is a very silhouetted coastline with fjords, islands, and bays, which correspond to 24,000 km of coasts. Forests are very abundant due to the high precipitation.


The geographical environment in which it is situated is of great importance, constituting itself facing the sea, which is the principal source of resources. There are abundant fjords and estuaries, which make the search for passages difficult. The vegetation is so abundant that certain spruces have acclimatized themselves to the sand and salt of the beach. Fog is a climatic constant, and abundant rivers and freshwater lakes exist.

The Columbia River is the major basin which drains from the American continent into the Pacific, although the Fraser, Nass, and Skeena rivers are also very important in the area. The control of rivers and springs was basic for the search for resources. Some groups lived on pirating.

Environment and resources

The arboreal mantle is very striking: conifers, “hemlock” conifers of enormous size, spruces, cypresses, marcescent trees, of rapid growth in the style of poles. The trees are of great height, and are used in the present for the logging and paper industries. It can be considered a temperate rainforest, with very weak floors easily washable by the great amount of precipitation.

In this region a very important vegetable harvest was produced, as there are many types of wild fruits (or forest fruits) with up to 40 distinct varieties. There are also lilaceous bulbs in the meridional latitudes, with which trading was done; the “camas” or sweet onion is famous. The growth of some plants was provided for by means of burning and agroecology. A multitude of ferns of variable size live in the area.

The “red cedar” of the cypress family- they are not cedars- of vertical grain and extremely durable wood, especially with the humidity there is, makes up the base of construction, dress, and multiple utilities even to the point of being called the “tree of life.” From it they made tools as well.

In the rivers there are 5 different types of salmon, with different habits, which swim up the rivers at different times- autumn, spring- and some are fished for in the sea. Some are large and oily, others are lean and able to be stored. It is the primary resource in nearly all of the northeast coast. The sturgeon is also a significant resource, as well as the halibut, a species of bream, which is a resource of the open sea and weighs as much as 300-400 kg. The eulachon, candle fish, or “hooligan,” is a species of anadromous smelt with high fat, it was used as the raw material for grease and oil, for which it was traded along the grease trails. A great quantity of scorpionfish type rock fish are utilized.

Marine mammals constitute another important resource; pinnipeds and otters, different types of whales, belugas, and orcas. These last were a mythical and recognizable animal. The sea otter is an animal enormously valuable for its skin, which in addition to covering, is impermeable. They were drivers of colonization.

The land animals utilized are the deer, caribou, grizzly bears (the 2nd carnivore) and the black bear. Hunting on land was always a complementary activity.

Marine birds produced eggs and meat resources. Also the Canadian goose.

The collection of seafood in the intertidal zones was a common activity, in which mollusks, bivalves, crustaceans, and echinoderms of great size were collected.

There are very dangerous red tides, which eliminate life and could provoke famines.

Octopus and other similar animals are also eaten.

The area hardly has any snakes, but does have flies, black flies, and mosquitoes, in addition to lice.

Pumas are known and feared. They have large areas of distribution.

Natural and cultural regions

There is an enormous incidence of wood as a raw material: from canoes to art, and a particular use of the environmental resources like fishing. The hierarchical social classes of the northwest coast occurs in a hunter-gatherer economy (fishers). The art is emblematic and is used as a sign of identity.

This peculiar formation of rivers and vegetation gives rise to

  1. Interior coast of little depth, beaches and intertidal zones, with many resources. The waters are protected from the sea, and an enormous abundance of basic resources is found.
  2. Open coast, very rough, with access to the marine mammals.

The denominations are of a linguistic type, and lack a political sense, as they were expansionist and warlike groups.

Ancient civilizations Pacific Northwest
Ancient civilizations Pacific Northwest

Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Nishga, Gitksan, Haisla, Kwakiutl, Nuuchahnutl on Vancouver Island, Makah, the northernmost people of the coast of the U.S.

Towards the north, there is a series of tribes with similar languages, among the Chinook. These gave rise to the Chinook jargon, which is a mix of many languages, including Spanish and French.

In the northern zone, the Tlingit, Haida, and Haisla were those who best adapted to the traditional way of life in the Pacific Northwest. Towards the south, the progressive changes begin.

In the central area were those who spoke Wakashan, and the meridional zone would be the coast of Washington and Oregon.

The Settlements of the Pacific Coast

It is difficult to reconstruct the original model of settlements. Records can be found in the the diaries of the first Spanish explorers. According to these sources, they were permanent settlements on the beach, with wooden houses oriented to the sea. They were usually decorated, some made on posts, and they did not have chimneys, only one opening in the way of a door. The settlements consisted of 6-8 houses in a line, with the principal, largest house in the center. They used a plank platform for a pier. They were communal houses, with a noble lineage which lived completely inside. The plebeians and slaves also lived inside. The largest houses could fit as many as 500 people. Each family occupied its space with an established order. Some towns could become depopulated, when the people went away, taking the planks with them to make temporary settlements in the spring and summer.

The dwellings, characteristics and styles

The house was made of cedar wood, by means of a fixed structure covered with planks or boards, fitted or mounted in different ways, according to the different tribes. The roof planks were loose, and could be moved or taken out so that smoke would not accumulate. The interior had floorboards, and on occasions the floors were excavated in order to use it for storage, in the style of a central well covered over with boards where normal life could go on. Inside there were small houses separated by folding screens. In some cases one entered through felled posts.

The houses of the south were more simple, smaller, and less decorated.

Houses were profusely decorated. The posts were made of felled cedar, although they are from the colonial era. The facade of the house was painted, and they went even further and painted the symbol of the family or of the proprietary lineage. The beams were also carved.

Each settlement had an indeterminate number of houses. In front and behind existed a useful space and an area for public activities. Among the Haida it was customary to construct a small house in the style of a rubbish heap in the area behind. All the houses had an alignment with respect to that of the chief.

Technology: the importance of wood

Their technology was based on wood, especially cedar, although they also had many other trees with distinct uses. The shape of their adzes was always of the same style. The entrance of iron totally changed the material culture. All the men were consummate carpenters. The trunk was excavated with patience, organization, and stone. The trunks were separated with wedges in order to take out planks. They made wooden boxes, as they knew neither glass nor ceramics. The joints were different and sealed, they were made by bending planks and they were able to make cases, backpacks, buckets, oil cans, etc…

The cedar, the tree of life

From the red cedar fibers from the bark were also taken. All of the women were weavers and basket makers. From this interior bark they extracted the necessary threads. They were packed, folded, moved, and softened by means of bark crushers, and finally the soft fibers were used for almost everything that could be imagined, so much so that it was used for napkins, and as toilet paper. From each strip of bark, three smaller strips were taken. The looms did not stretch the fibers. Over the strips the woman wove, achieving cloaks and dresses, which were the only clothing, although some tribes like the Tlingit also used hides. They did not use stockings nor moccasins. Blankets could be painted, and the women wore skirts in addition. With the bark they made objects and ceremonial coverings, masks, hats… There were also baskets braided from wide strips, or of dyed fibers, bedding, table linens, and interwoven baskets with a stronger body, based on stronger roots. There was an enormous variety in types of fabric stitching.

Social Organization of the Pacific Northwest Tribes

Hierarchical organization

The peoples of the Northwest Coast maintained a complex social organization, based on the privileges of the nobility.

The noble lineages had rights to the exploitation of resources, and in ceremonies they carried out more important roles.

A second-class nobility also existed, of free citizens, and a group of plebeians, who were free people who could not exploit resources and acted as the workforce. They sold cheap to the chiefs, but if they were not in agreement with them, they could always leave with another, sharing the house.

One last rank existed, that of the slaves, people who were the property of the chiefs. They could only marry other slaves, and their children were also slaves. They tended to be prisoners of war, although a slave trade existed and they could come from very far away. It was up to the tribe to attempt to rescue the prisoners within one year. Among the Tlingit, up to one third were slaves. It was a symbol of power, and their sacrifice in ceremonies was permitted, to demonstrate the power of the master. They could also be liberated, and they lived in the house of the chief.

There was a very rigid control of social mobility, which could only change by means of war.

Sociopolitical organization

The tribes were divided into five principal families: Haida, Tlingit, the Tlingit clans, Tsimshian-Gitksan and Tsimshian-Niska.

  • The Haida had two subdivisions or halves: Eagle – “Got” and Raven – “Hoya.”
  • The Tlingit in two halves were composed of Raven – “Yehl” and Wolf – “Goch” (or Eagle – “Chak”).
  • The twelve Tlingit clans were the Frog, the Goose, the Owl, the Raven, the Salmon, the Sea Lion, the Razorbill, the Bear, the Eagle, the Dogfish, the Orca, and the Wolf.
  • The Tsimshian- Gitksan were divided in four clans: Frog, Eagle, Wolf, and Fireweed.
  • The central and southern Tsimshian-Niska were divided in the same way into Raven, Eagle, Wolf, and Salmon.

Systems of affiliation and kinship

Descent was matrilineal. The system only functioned among the noble families, with the idea of avoiding the dispersal of resources, according to the attached diagram of kinship.

The sisters of the mother are equally considered mothers, and are referred to thus, like the brothers of the father are fathers. The sons of these fathers and mothers (2ºs) are brothers and sisters of ego.

Ego should marry the oldest daughter of the maternal uncle in order to be chief, as she is of a different lineage. And his brother marries the second daughter of the maternal uncle, etc. If this has happened in all the generations, the system makes a zigzag in which the resources of both lineages are maintained. In this way it is matrilineal and matrilocal. In other tribes, some chiefs were bilateral in lineages, giving equally to the son and the nephew.

Oregon tribes
Oregon tribes

The noble women had deformations in the lips, made by means of inserted plates. The powerful chiefs wore tattoos. Some took people with them who were spokesmen.


War was very common between these tribes, from small scale incursions to the extermination of certain groups. They kept heads, and made palisades in their territories. The Eyak, for example, were destroyed by the Tlingit. They were by no means peaceful, and used distinct types of defensive armament- armor made of splints over thick leather shirts, helmets and neck guards- and offensive- bows and daggers. Their aspect was impressive, as their shirts were made of moose leather, and their armor could be packed in boxes. Greaves, cuffs, and very thick wooden helms with painted and carved animal shapes, with hair and feathers, were very common. The most common hand to hand weapons were of hammer or pick type, very heavy and elaborate. They also used swords- whalebone clubs.

The motivations for war were varied. The most frequent excuses were revenges, returning offenses… but at the heart of it what was being looked for was lands or properties.

These tribes launched attacks against people from very far away. The Chinook very frequently attacked the coasts of Washington and Oregon. Hunger threatened all these tribes, and this was the basis for attacking another people, to get the necessary resources, or territories which would offer these resources.

Wars tended to be started by the secondary nobility, in order to progress. There were chiefs of second rank, dedicated solely to war, and to the armies, with professional soldiers.

War implied preparation and secret rituals on the part of the leader of the war, training of the soldiers, tactics, maneuvering… Surprise attacks at night were always preferred. Houses offered protection for those being attacked. The return implied the cutting off of heads in the settlements, and their exhibition.

System of Beliefs on the Pacific Northwest


The base for the beliefs of these tribes was animism, the idea that everything has a vital component or soul. In this way, the animistic idea is that which was dominant.

They conceived of the earth as a platform over which there is a vault, from which the stars hang. Those who had a clearer vision were the Haida. According to them, two earths existed: Haida Weii and the rest of the lands. The Earth was supported on a supernatural being, being a copper box from which an enormous post rises, which is linked with a cosmic tree, and by means of mythical cords, is linked to the posts of the families. When the post moves, earthquakes are produced.

It was an extremely simple vision of the world, although there was a preoccupation with the order of things.

– The sacred mineral was copper.

– The sacred plant was the red cedar.

– Among the animals, they conceived of a life parallel to humans, with their chiefs and settlements, which once a year dress themselves with their furs, making themselves available to be hunted. In the sea, the chief is the orca; on the ground it is the grizzly bear, and in the air the chief is the eagle. The chiefs control the movement of the other species, and man should thank these chiefs for their work.

There existed a complex of necessity for a protector or guardian being. Their search was realized by means of a vision obtained through suffering, as they were not familiar with hallucinogens. Through suffering the supernatural beings are searched for, who belong to a series of lineages.

There existed more abstract and in-concrete personifications: of the Moon, the Sun, the Thunderbird (which produces lightning and thunder when it bats its wings) and of other mythological animals.

General myths and “private” myths

In these tribes there were two types of myths. On one hand, those which explained things, and on the other those which were the property of a concrete lineage, private myths which were limited in their knowledge. The representations could be static, and they were narrated.

The Raven is the most important supernatural being (Raven/Crow). It is called the transformer, the trickster, as it transforms and changes the world. It is a being which acts in an inadvertent manner.

In the beginning of time, there was no light, as an old man had it closed up in several boxes. The Raven, eager to see the light, came up with a plan. The old man had a son who took water from the river. The Raven, transformed into water, is drunk by the woman, who became pregnant. In this way the Raven entered the house of the old man.

Among the private myths, one of the most known revolves around the mother bear. The Thunderbird, which feeds on whales, is, among these, the principal chief.

General rites

In all of the northwest coast the role of shamans existed; they were healers who cured sicknesses such as the loss of the soul. They wore a bone carved in the shape of the “hunter of souls” hung around the neck. They were charged with restoring order. Especially powerful shamans existed, who were at the side of some chiefs and really produced a great deal of fear. They did not cut their hair, and had to maintain a sexual abstinence and fast. There were various degrees among the shamans; there were the simple healers, but those who provided for the hunt and changed the weather were the most distinguished.

Hunting had an important magical and mystical component.

Rites were generally a representation or dramatization of a myth.

The first catches in gathering, fishing, and hunting were ritually celebrated. The first specimen captured was treated with solemnity, and was surrounded by ceremony. Its supernatural part would pass on that it had been treated with respect. It was taken to the settlement, cooked, and eaten by all.

Birth was a dangerous occurrence. Father and mother were shut in with fresh food. The umbilical cord was dried and kept. Once the child abandoned the cradle, the cord was burned or hidden in a place where it could not be misused.

The rites among the monarchy or of the first menstruation were more extensive. The higher the rank of the girl in the nobility, the longer it took. It was associated with impurity, and she was shut it and could not touch anything, nor wash, or be touched; she was taught in the labors of her rank. When the rite was finished, purification was made, accompanied by a great feast.

Funerary rites

When someone died it was considered that they entered another plane, which would end in the new reincarnation. In the the settlement of the beyond they would be warmed by the fire of their cremation, and would be nourished by the food of the pyre. This idea was important, to such a point that the funerary pyre and the cradle were referred to in the same way. The underworld had, like the earth, social hierarchies, and one’s own ancestors legitimized the lineage, and one had to regard them with an attitude of respect. Only the men had the right to be buried. The mortuary rites were carried out to stop the cadaver from returning. Half of their clan was dedicated solely to the task of grieving, and the other half nourished and prepared the cadaver. The body was exhibited with its objects. The cadaver was taken out through a side wall, it was burned and the remains were put into a box, placed in a monument or totem. The Haida put the body in a box, and this in a garbage dump in the rear of the house of the lineage to which the deceased belonged. The feast of incineration was very important. The rites and ceremonies were carried out inside the house itself.

Secret societies and the Winter Ceremonial

The Winter Ceremonial is that over which the greatest number of rituals were applied, generally linked to secret societies, which varied from people to people, even in number. On the hierarchical scale, the chief could visit the rest of the ceremonies, but his days were exclusive.

The potlatch: Critical vision

A Potlatch (from Chinook for “gift,” “give”), was a ceremonial distribution in which a person who occupied a prestigious position offered certain obsequies to their rival. The potlatch was practiced by some indigenous American peoples of the cultural region of the Northwest Coast of the Pacific in the United States, like the Kwakiutl and the Nootka. The ceremony of the potlatch was celebrated on occasions like weddings or the occurrence of a death in the family of the host. The ritual was initiated with a dance, the banquet, and speeches. Then the host distributed the gifts, in general in the form of blankets of fur or beaten and woven cedar bark, and later would proceed to demonstrate before their guests their economic and social superiority. For the Kwakiutl, the highest value of the gifts were the “coppers,” which replaced a determined number of blankets. A greater the number of blankets and coppers accumulated was a symbol of greater prestige and power. Those invited who had received gifts were obligated to later celebrate an analogous feast and to offer these same goods but multiplied, with the purpose of showing their superiority. The possessor of a position who disdained his rivals by breaking a copper or throwing it into the sea, would get an even greater and irrefutable prestige.

The problem is that the first studies were based on proceedings from the 19th Century, and not even the word is the traditional one. Its basic function was to validate the prestige of the one who gave. One could inherit, but without the ceremony it was not socially accepted. One could only turn to the ceremonial invitation to make public the prerogatives of the lineage. In the same ceremony there were various donors, but the plebeians were excluded from the system. Able artisans or slaves could even negotiate their prestige. In societies with strong dispersion, they had in addition an important component as a reunion to meet relatives. The gifts always exceeded the necessities of the one who received it. On occasions they were understood as a payment of services. After the appearance of trade with the westerners in the 19th Century, demands for new rights took place, already influenced by the colonials.

During the ceremony elaborate hats were worn, and dress was based on cloaks. The accompaniment was only made by hitting planks or small tambourines or drums which ring to the sound of the dance of the characters.

The Heraldic Art of the Pacific Northwest

Anything in traditional life was susceptible to being represented. The emblematic art represented the family shields, and symbols with which the families identified.

The structuring of traditional art. The artists

The majority of the emblems are animals, whether real or invented. They utilize three types of representation in their visions:

  • Distortion of figures
  • Adaptation of the lineage to the support: the animal should adapt itself anatomically to the post or element.
  • The emblems are distributed over the length of the object.

By means of drawing the following are also expressed:

  • The primary, with reticle, united, with thickening and spacing of the lines, of curvilinear shape.
  • The secondary is red.
  • The tertiary is colored in blue-green.
  • The quaternary is made to the rabbet, and is normally left unpainted.
Ancient civilizations in North America art
Ancient civilizations in North America art

It is a series of preestablished designs which are in play. In addition, templates are used. These works are nearly exclusive to the north.

Within the iconography, drawings, engravings, and masks are made.

The Orca is represented considerably in the present, and the Orca of the Vancouver Museum is famous.

The osprey (also the falcon and the thunderbird with an enormous beak) can be represented double-headed on blankets. They also use buttons.

The raven as a supernatural being is represented with the sun on its head or in its mouth, capping off posts, in stone mortars, and raven masks.

The wolf (above all in the south-central zone) is the most important in this area, represented by masks.

The Thunderbird is represented with an enormous beak and a spiral on the head.

Sisiutl is a monstrous being with one body and two heads, which floats in the water and on its body has another head of a dragon. It is represented on all kinds of objects.

The beaver is easily identified by its incisor teeth, the tail, and a pole or stick, represented on masks, posts, bowls, engravings, paintings, crates, trunks, and on cold coppers used for relative value in potlatches.

The feature of the totem (better said “heraldic post”) can make up true forests of posts. It is not an aboriginal object, but one that appeared in the 19th Century, when they gained access to iron objects and immediately could make them larger and larger. The idea of a “funerary post” also existed. In the present loads of them are made, in gardens of houses, on the old access posts, on beams… On the heraldic posts, always free-standing, they are a symbol of emblems and privileges, myths, claims for titles… and they have undergone a great technical improvement with iron. Now they are a tourist attraction. These poles are a series of sculptures- vertical emblems starting with a tree, being symmetrical figures. They were painted and when they were made, they had feasts for raising poles, which, once erected, were not touched nor restored. The most repeated emblems are bears, orcas, beavers, frog-men, woodpeckers…

Art and social organization

At later dates poles are raised in more central zones. The post was imagined in order to be forgotten, and that it should rot in the forest (this is its end). Now even banks, indigenous institutions, cemeteries, deconsecrated churches, and parks have poles. The different chiefs compete among themselves for who can raise the tallest pole, copying the originals.

Processes of Change on the Pacific Northwest

Spain was the country which sent the first expeditions which could return (the Russians arrived first, but did not return). In 1774 contact was established with the Haida in the archipelago of Queen Charlotte. James Cook also arrived in 1778.

The period of acculturation

From 1774 until 1848 can be considered this period, during the time of the fur trade. In the beginning trading was done only from boats, and later a series of trading posts was established. In general the relationships were symmetrical, as the natives chose trade and cultural changes. The principal exchange was that of furs for iron instruments, and later weapons and alcohol. A technological improvement was also produced in relation to steel instruments. This produced a social change. Some peoples became intermediaries, changing their political organization, beginning federations, unions of settlements… (politically, networks are created). Otters quickly die out, and the tribes had to look for other things: in 1825, the Haida begin to cultivate potatoes in order to supply the explorers, when they had never done it before. They also made schools, and a growth in the quantity and quality of potlatches was produced.

The period of ethnocide

Diseases razed the coasts. In 1835 only a third of the aboriginal population was left, for three primary reasons: diseases, alcohol, and firearms.

During 70 years there would be no active colonization (until 1850). In 1848, after the war between the U.S. and Mexico and with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, the southern border of the U.S. was established, and the trading posts in the arctic closed.

From 1850 onward, active colonization happened, with the intention of staying there to life: The native becomes something uncomfortable and annoying, which should disappear. Thus began the period of ethnocide.

In 1858, British Columbia achieved political ownership without any treaty with the Indians. In the United States, in Washington and Oregon it did not take much to erase the natives, deceiving them with accords and treaties.

In 1871 British Columbia became a part of Canada and the Indians would come to depend on the federal and provincial government. Canada would maintain the relationship with Great Britain, and this legal tradition would be positive for the Indians. The metropolises were consistent with the natives, in opposition to independence. The Indians of the northwest coast refused to sign treaties, and the legality of the ownership of the lands was questioned from England.

The current stage

Due to diseases, alcohol, weapons, bombardments, and hunger, only 4% of the natives survived. The policy of Reservations and Internment produced an enormous acculturation. The native culture was prohibited, and they were pressured in all senses of the word. In 1922 the aboriginal culture touched bottom. At the last potlatch, in which 400 Indians participated, 84 people were detained, 22 of whom were jailed. Legal assistance for the Indians was prohibited.

But they did not disappear; in the present they are organized and are legally defending themselves. Their population is growing, and now they are the same in number as they were before the arrival of the westerners.

In 1947 they were permitted to move, and they began to use legal weapons; in 1951 the anti-cultural law was suspended. In 1960 there were 14 native organizations.

The first demands were their lands, since 1987 the seized pieces are being returned to the native cultural centers.

The current situation is very hopeful, as a change for the better is being produced through the law, anthropology, and art.

During the years of the 50s multiple museums and universities began to work with artists, carvers, and anthropologists together with the bands. However, they continue to be in the background, and in some cases languages and cultures have been lost.

Ancient Civilizations of the Plains

Definition of the area

The area of the plains comprehends a cultural region in the prairies which carpet the central plains of North America. It includes in this way from Saskatchewan in Canada to the north of Mexico.

The typical model will be the western, of hunters. The most striking and rapid change which occurred was the introduction of the horse, which radically changed the way of life, based on agriculture, to the model of full-time bison hunters. This also modified the culture, social organization, system of beliefs, etc.

Environment and resources

This area is characterized by an enormous extension of flat or undulating land, over which in the era of the traditional inhabitants, an herbaceous pasture extended like a green ocean. It is found crisscrossed by a vast fluvial system whose most important courses are the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, and Illinois. The masses of hot air from the Gulf of Mexico and those of cool air coming from Canada join in a violent way, provoking tornadoes. Precipitation is abundant, reducing in equal measure as we move towards the north and the west. The temperature is high in summer, and the winters are rigorous, as a consequent of the continental nature.

The area of the plains comprehends a vast quantity of animals which make use of the grasses: horses, bison, prairie dogs, rabbits, hares, partridges and other steppe birds, polecats, wolves, and a wide gamut of insects among which termites and ants stand out.

It is a place where different cultures have lived, there being classical antecedents who tell us of two differentiated cultural areas: the prairies and the plains, with a similar but not equal ecology.

The area of the plains is the most extensive, flat and without mountainous barriers, where the only vegetation are forests called Gallery forests. The leafiness of these forests varies depending on the latitude.

The area of the prairies knew developed agriculture since the traditional era; in the zones farther to the west, hunting predominated.

Prehistory of the area

The area was inhabited since around 14,000 years ago. The PaleoIndians were tribes of hunters which attacked the enormous animals which lived there: elephants, bison, and other representatives of the megafauna of the time. For this they made use of natural hunting grounds, cliffs, and probably an ancestral knowledge of the fauna. Sites have been found with leptolithic industry and there are very old cultural traces. These Pleistocene hunters lived in the meridional areas, as there was ice in the northern areas. With the arrival of the glacial period their ways of life change. From 5500 B.C. until the Christian era an archaic period is spoken of, characterized by an adaptation to a greater variety of resources and diversification of the economy. This economy changed into a mixed type. Diverse types of adaptations to the environment existed as a function of the regional differences; it is the case of the eastern plains, with a smoother climate, and the western plains, with a very accused index of continental nature.

The original inhabitants of the plains

After the prehistoric inhabitants we can consider the period which goes from the beginning of the Christian era until the year 1000. We may denominate it “Eastern Forests in the prairies.” The cultural influence of the inhabitants of the forest had repercussions on the eastern prairies, making the base of the peoples agricultural-sedentary. Their mixed hunting-gathering-agriculture economy permitted them to adapt to this new environment. Three diagnostic cultural features would appear: burial in tombs, the manufacture of ceramics (which appears for the first time), and the intensive agriculture of corn and beans.

Ancient tribes of the plains
Ancient tribes of the plains

Beginning in 1000-1850 the period of the settlements of the prairies is spoken of, a model of settlement and subsistence based on houses made of earth in fortified settlements on the banks of rivers. These defenses were made by means of palisades of tree trunks, and were owing to the warlike character of their neighbors. Their model of life would last until the arrival of French traders. With the arrival of the horse they began to intensively hunt bison.

1- The peoples who were always bison hunters (Bison bison bison – Bison bison athabascae) were family groups who met together to trade in “fairs.” The Blackfeet, Sarcee, Assiniboine, and Cree were of the plains. Upon finding themselves far apart, the peoples of the north were not all destroyed. With the arrival of the horse, their life experienced an important advance. Hunting bison in the winter was done in search of furs to wear, and in the summer to get meat.

2- The hunters with an agricultural past were found to the west, and were pushed by civilization. The Lakota Sioux and the Cheyennes saw how in only two generations their way of life went from cultivation to hunting, abandoning the settlements and formal leaders; they even changed their beliefs and ideology. For example, the Black Hills were sacred to them, but did not have a direct historical relation with these peoples.

3- The peripheral farmers cultivated potatoes, corn, sunflowers and beans. They were the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara. They continued to be agricultural peoples until their destruction by the white man. In the case of the Cheyennes, their history is very well known; it regards northeastern Algonquins of the plains, auto-denominated Tsitsistas. Their place of origin is the western zone of the Great Lakes where they lived in small settlements of Elm wood. They cultivated wild rice from canoes, a basic food which complimented game of all kinds. In 1650 they were pushed out from there by other peoples. In 1700 they found themselves in the plains, until they settled near the Cheyenne River. Settled in the northern plains, and near other agricultural peoples, they assimilated to these. By 1780 they had horses, although they had not changed their traditional cultural way of life. The Sioux attacked them and the epidemics of smallpox decimated them in their unhygienic houses. The Cheyennes of 1820 were already nomadic horsemen dedicated to the intensive hunting of bison. But the traditional agricultural peoples did not change their way of life, as commerce in their sedentary towns was the basis of their life (they were the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara).

Linguistic divisions

All the tribes included in a linguistic family spoke related languages which were structurally similar among themselves, but they were not at all intelligible between them. However, the sub-tribes or bands which made up each tribe spoke dialects which were mutually comprehensible.

  • Algonquins: North and South Cheyenne, Suhtai, Arapaho, Gros Ventre (Atsina), Blackfoot, Cree of the plains and of the north, Ojibwa of the plains, Piegan, and Blood.
  • Siouan: “Sioux,” Assiniboine, Teton, Crow, Santee and Yankton.
  • Athabaskan: Sarcee, Kiowa-Apache.
  • Uto-Aztecan: Shoshone, Comanche, Wind River and Northern.
  • Kiowan: only includes the Kiowa.

The agricultural tribes, whose civilization in the prairies was at least contemporary if not earlier than that of the pedestrian hunters, lived in settlements along the tributaries of the Missouri river, and were members of the Siouan or Caddoan language families.

  • Siouan: Mandan, Hidatsa, Iowa, Otoe, Missouria, Kansa, Winnebago, Omaha, Ponca, Osage y Quapaw.
  • Caddoan: Arikara, Wichita, Pawnee and Kitsai tribes.

The Farmers of the Prairies

Settlements and villages

The horsemen of the prairies were also part-time farmers. The model of settlement in a fortified village is characteristic of farmers. They were found situated near the forests, but with fields for cultivation near a river. They had palisades of tree trunks and a trench. Some settlements could have 120 houses with 30 people per house. These houses could be called earthen. They were made up of 4 poles crossed by another 4, with more surrounding them. Inside the house lived different related families, in addition to the horses.

Technology and art

These tribes were familiar with ceramic: it was very crude, made by hand, and it was used for water or grain. The production of these ceramics was the work of the women. They always decorated them by means of impressions in the clay. Their dress was of leather and bison skins, with high leggings connected to the loincloth for riding.


They had a strict division of labor. The men were warriors and hunters, and the women were in charge of the vegetables, the skins, and the offspring. They cultivated short cycle corn, of rapid growth, blue red, purple, multi-color, etc. The women were the owners of the farming lands, and those who arranged the harvest: squash, beans, corn… in addition to ceremonial tobacco.

Social organization

They were organized in matrilineal and matrilocal clans as the basic unit of work. They had, in addition, a complex socio-ceremonial organization, with something much like social classes. Those who possessed the lands also had access to the political and religious offices. Also, the offices as well as the lands were hereditary, although validated by means of gifts.


The system of beliefs of the hunting, gathering, and farming peoples of the plains was based on animism. For them the shadow was the reflection of the soul in communion with the Sun. Dreams had a great symbolic significance, as they formed part of the intentions of the soul of the dreamer. The personality was the soul reflected in the person. If death caught them by surprise inside their earthen house, these three slats joined and formed the ghost. The realization of death ceremonies during four days had as its object the expulsion of this ghost. The deceased was placed in different ways; in the open air, buried, or encased in a tree.

They myths of origin are alike between tribes, giving different names to the same protagonists. They are forces of nature personified which give answers to facts that were not understood otherwise.

All the peoples had a “sacred bundle,” where one’s well being rested. It was a skin filled with a series of objects. It was cared for by a group of men, who preserved it all year. On a special date the bundle was opened, its interior rearranged and restored, and everything was exhibited in the settlement, for the tranquility of the settlement. In its interior there were disparate things, like corn cobs, desiccated animals, bones… these packets were called “mothers,” indicating the reverential sense which they had. The horse peoples also had these bundles, although filled with arrows and amulets. The majority of ceremonies were personal, although there were those which were spectacular and flashy like nothing else. The most known is the ceremony of the Sun dance. It’s antecedent must be looked for in the Mandan Okipe. It could last 12 days. It consisted of a self-torture by means of hanging in the communal house. It regarded an offering of pain and blood, very prestigious for the dancer, which would benefit the tribe. The pectorals pierced with a peg for each one, this peg was tied to a cord, and this to the ceiling. They danced until from the pulling or from the hanging, the flesh surrendered and the dancer fell to the floor. These ceremonies of self-torture were a way of reaching a “vision,” for lack of other drugs.

The Historic Horsemen of the Plains

The common features of all the historic horsemen were:

1- Bison-horse pairing. From the bison they used everything necessary to live; in fact the bison was represented as a white buffalo calf mother. Firearms were only repeaters, as those which were breech-loading or muzzle-loading were difficult to manage on horseback, and very slow. Each hunter recognized their kill by the arrows, but shared the meat among all of them. The value of sharing was at the base of the ethics of the plains, along with valor, pain, and resistance.

2- Division of labor. The men hunted everything, collected eggs, fish, etc. The women also collected food on the plains, and medicinal plants. The basic diet was salted or boiled meat, or in any case, dried. The Indian jerky was pemmican, dried meat, ground and mixed with berries and fat; it was put in cases and pouches, and it was very nutritious. The women made clothes and sewed the tents.

3- The tepee of bison leather. It was wider than it was long, made with four poles and a raised center. The upper flaps were used to open or close the chimney. Its cover could be painted with the owner’s exploits in war and the hunt. The tepee was the property of the woman, who made and assembled it.

Ancient civilizations plains
Ancient civilizations plains

The introduction of the horse and other western features

The riding horse was introduced by the Spanish in 1542; in 1603 the Spanish colonized the Bravo River, situating ranches along its course. The first horses were stolen from these haciendas, and called by the indigenous people “dog of the gods” or “large dog.” Later horses were traded, and the Indians spread them among the tribes, conscious of their utility. There were two routes penetrable by horses; the first directed towards the Rockies, and the second and more important, towards the plains.

At the end of the 18th Century there were already fairs for trading horses. In 750 all the peoples of the plains had adopted the horse. The bison were thus easier to hunt, and they could be followed in their migration. They could carry cargo,- and not like the dogs used until then-, a lot of cargo. The Indians also used horses as beasts of burden to move their houses. For this they installed a travois or sled – two poles joined at the end and set over the horse’s back – and they could thus carry the largest tents and food. Certain peripheral peoples also abandoned their farmlands (Dakota and Cheyenne).

Clothing changed with the arrival of the horse, as the leggings had to be adapted to riding.

Technology and art

Clothing on the plains was based on buffalo or antelope hides, very decorated, with strips, sleeves, and claws. Also, leggings adapted to riding horseback, leg coverings up to the groin, also decorated. The loincloth was a simple affair. The woman wore a long hide tunic, cured and cut (before), with a bodice from which the skins hung; short leggings in the case of the woman. All garments were decorated by their owners with all manner of objects, of the most diverse kinds. Dolls with clothes were made so that the girls would learn to care for babies. The moccasins were basic, and varied from one people to another. They were of leather, but each tribe used different types depending on where they habitually walked. An Indian was not naked as long as he was wearing his loincloth and his moccasins.

The bison was hunted on foot, by means of cliffs or corrals, until the arrival of the horse.

The Tepee

Tent made of animal skins in conical form used as a dwelling by the peoples of the Great Plains in the center of North America. The tepee was made of a frame composed of three large wooden poles in the form of a tripod, covered with buffalo hide (see Bison) –sometimes they used as many as 20 specimens – which were cured, sewed, and stretched to form a closed circular space. The exteriors could be decorated with geometric designs. The tepees tended to measure 3m high by 4.5m in diameter. Its access was realized in the form of an opening situated in the lower part, covered by a hanging flap. On the earthen floor pieces of hide are placed to keep out the cold, and the upper extreme, specifically the space where the poles extended, was used to regulate the exit of smoke from their fires.

Easy to fold and transport, the tepee was the ideal dwelling for the nomadic tribes which depended on buffalo hunting to survive, like the Sioux, Apache, Comanche, or Crow.

War. Political Structure

The political structure of the Sioux nation and the fires of the seven councils.

The Great Lakota group arrived at the prairies as a nation or political group call The Fires of the Seven Councils, and was made up of sub-tribes or divisions: the western groups or Teton Sioux, whose dialect was Lakota, the eastern division or Santee, who spoke Dakota, and the northern group or Yankton, who spoke an equal mix of Nakota and Dakota dialects. This powerful tribe underwent a dramatic social and cultural transformation. The structure of clans and elected chiefs gave way to groupings of bands consisting of “tiyospaye” or communities of extended families of bilateral descent. All trace of unilateral descent disappeared while they transformed towards the bilateral system of the nomadic hunters. The chiefs of the old times lost their influence and the distinguished warriors assumed the roles of leadership. Around 1730 the Sioux chiefs had been deposed of their authority and were no more than the heads of groups of relatives.

The seven fires of the Council were:

  • Western- Teton Lakota. One representative.
  • Eastern- Santee Dakota. Four representatives: Sisseton, Mdewakanton, Wahpeton, Wakpekute.
  • Northern- Yankton Nakota. Two representatives: Yankton and Yanktonai.

The Religion of the Hunters of the Plains


The Indians of the plains had little conviction in the gods, which were represented as something very vague and far-off. There was personification of supernatural beings, and of natural phenomena.

The Sun was the most important being whom they invoked and prayed to. The ancestors were taken heavily into account and respected. Thunder, Venus as the star of the morning, and other planets and phenomena like tornadoes were very feared and were personified.

Wakan Tanka in Lakota was the supreme and primary spirit. Among the Cheyenne it was known as Manitú. The Power (Wakan) or supernatural being over all that exists. It can be considered a kind of animism, in which Wakan is present in everything which seems strange or outside of the normal. All beings share in Wakan, but some have it very present, as may be the case of a child which speaks or walks early, or the best hunter.

The imploring of a vision

Among them the search for a vision had enormous importance. Their entreaty became something compulsive, by means of dreams, pain, or unconsciousness. It was searched for through withdrawal or by remaining standing without moving for days. Reiterated visions are had as protection, in the style of a guardian angel. Thus the Wakan beings of each person could be from a bear or raven, to a mosquito; these beings protect and care for the person. The interpretation was made by holy men and women, who guided and mentored those who searched for visions. Sitting Bull was one of these mentors, a sacred leader. The protector spirit or guardian angel was found in direct relation to the person, instigating them to make their own sacred pouch. This pouch contained the objects which seemed fitting to them, from skins to small bones, stones… It was worn on them at all times, considered to be a powerful amulet inspired by the protector spirit, who in addition taught them a song and dance by means of which they could be contacted.

The importance of the ritual

The individual ritual was prepared and directed for nearly every action which was to be completed.

The number four had a sacred nature in all of North America. There were four primary beings: Sun, Earth, Fire, and Water; there were also four ages in people: Baby, Child, Man, Elder. Prayers were made facing the four cardinal points. The circle also had a sacred nature, represented in the shape of the tepee and of the camps.

The sacred pipe was a portable altar. Smoking and offering smoke was a ritual previous to any other. The bowl was made of Catlinite, red rock which is found in a rocky area of Minnesota. There any member of any tribe could go without being bothered. It was a place of refuge for the Indians of the prairies. The mouthpieces were different, and the pipes were long and decorated. They smoked tobacco and other herbs. Tobacco was considered sacred, and it was traded with from very far away. According the their beliefs, the White Buffalo Calf Woman taught them to smoke the pipe. The was offered to all those present at a ritual.

Particular ceremonies

The ceremony of Purification in the Sauna-Cabin (a widespread custom on the other hand) was a therapeutic ritual which was used for the elimination of toxins from the body. The cabin had 12-16 poles with skins, and the heat was obtained by means of hot stones put into water. The women did it alone after the first menstruation and after marrying. During joint ceremonies, all who could fit entered. The exit was oriented to the east. Inside the cabin were the four basic elements.

After death, the ghost was to be driven away by means of mourning. In some peoples the elders requested how they wanted their body and belongings to be treated. Among the Comanches, an invalid was abandoned to their fate because evil spirits were very present- thus there was one less mouth to feed-. The mourning ceremonies lasted four days and were very striking; they cried, pulled their hair cut their fingers, wounded themselves… The cadavers were washed, perfumed, dressed, and covered with furs. If the death had occurred in the interior of a house, the exit was not shown to the ghost, but instead the body was taken out the other side. The cadaver could be put in trees, in fissures, in palls, under ground, covered with stones, etc. The favorite horse was sacrificed, and the weapons were left to the men, and the sewing boxes to the women. The great leaders were buried with their entire tepee. T

The great “tribal” ceremonies

The “Holy Men” like Sitting Bull were shamans, doctors, diviners, guides in visions, religious specialists. The basic characteristics of all the tribes of the plains were the horse-buffalo pairing, the tepee, the warrior society, and the Sun Dance. This dance was the most important ceremony for the plains. The Sun Dance basically consists of an offering of of pain and blood to the Sun. It was done in the summer, at a time in which all the tribes met, being the most important social event; it gave identity to the whole nation. All the bands of the same language met together. It regarded a sacrifice and test of valor, but it was done for the prosperity of all. Its origin is not known. During four days the pavilion was prepared, and during another four the ritual was done, in which the ceremony of blood was done at the culmination. The last ceremony was the perforation of the chest. The whole ritual had a sponsor who designated the roles and how everything should be developed. Among the Cheyenne it was a prayer or renovation for the well being of the whole nation.

The ceremony of the “erect horns” was the first and the mythical origin is recorded as the time when there were not yet any buffalo. The myth of origin is represented by means of the raising of a pavilion on the part of the warriors of the tribe of the sponsor. The warriors “hunted” a large tree, and they ceremonially placed it as the base of the pavilion. The structure was covered with hides provided by the chiefs, and hundreds of sacred objects were placed inside. The idea was to unite the world with the Sun. The dance was done around the post and on occasions the perforated the chest, dancing while tethered; if it was desired, it ended by hanging, until the flesh gave out. They also hung up buffalo skulls, pieces of wood, etc. The dance was accompanied by whistles of eagle bone and drums.

Another ceremony persistent among the Cheyenne was that of the sacred arrows, which alternated every two years with that of the Sun. These four arrows in the sacred pouch, whose ritualization came from their agricultural past, were bound to attack and defense. The ceremony was done in three tepees; one for the dance, another to keep the arrows, and another to keep the offerings of the tribe. The arrows were exhibited for the peace of mind of the tribe.

The Natives of the Plains in the Present

The period of forced assimilation

Beginning in 1850 the whites began to enter the plains in a very important way, and their colonization was a thing of few years. The process was very rough and bloody, as the plains were very attractive for cultivation by the colonists. In ten years, the Lakota went from being the masters of the plains to staying on reservations or being in poverty. This cultural collapse was perpetrated by the policy of the U.S. to create reservations where they had the indigenous nomads under control. With the reservations treaties were made that were never fulfilled. These treaties, some made by means of executive orders, went against the nomadic life of the plains, which was based on the search for buffalo. Colonization was produced by way of laws, colonies, and the army. The conquest of the west looks alike in Argentina (in this case towards the south). The Indian problem pitted the nomadic tribes against the colonists regarding territory. The system of Reservations which impassable borders was applied. The treaties were systematically violated. The Indian Agents on the Reservations were the mediators between the army and the natives. The system of private property was impressed upon them. In 1887 the Act of Possession was created, by which the Reservations were split up and delivered to Indian families. As this was foreign to the native culture, and the Indians did not farm nor make use of the delivered lands, the government appropriated them and sold them to the whites.

Between 1850 and 1900 the entire culture of the plains had been erased.

The laws of forceful assimilation were the provision of the government on the reservations, in the style of democratic and representative constitutions. Until the 70s they were directed by governments foreign to the traditional native governments; there was corruption, bribery, assassination…

At the beginning of 1950 the reserves tried to stay with state governments and not the federals as these were subjective and worse. The policies of relocation were to bring social improvements by sending the Indians to cities to avoid alcohol and unemployment. The opposite effect was produced, although later the movements of revitalization would appear in the cities.

The “spirit dance.

Ancient indians North America
Ancient indians North America

The dance of the spirit-ghost-specter was a religious activity of a millenarian messianic nature, which arose with the destruction of the plains Indians. A preacher announced the return of the bison to the plains in 1889, the resurrection of the fallen warriors, the end of injustice with the Indians and the disappearance of the white man during the spring of 1890. The shaman Wovoka, following the doctrine began in 1870 in the plains, had a vision. After a sickness which nearly cost him his life, God himself explained the Ghost Dance to him, through which all the Indians, living and dead, would be reunited in Paradise, with the bison and without whites. It was a peaceful movement whose doctrine went on adjusting. In the dance, all the members dance. It regarded a religious reunification which scared the politicians, as it offered the Indians something in common with which to unite. During an attempt to do this dance the massacre at Wounded Knee took place. A military detachment attacked a convoy of Lakota Indian families with cannons as they headed away from their reservation. For four days the tens of corpses were left in the snow. Later they were put on a train and buried in a large group grave; children, women, and elders died. The police on the reservation believed that the chief Sitting Bull was the instigator of an imminent rebellion, and they killed him when he resisted being detained. His followers fled to the camp of chief Big Foot. The 7th Cavalry followed the Sioux and took them to a camp situated near Wounded Knee. On the 29th of December, 1890, a shot sounded inside the camp and the Army began to shoot. The soldiers killed some 200 Sioux, among them women, children, and unarmed men. Those who tried to escape the massacre were followed and murdered.

A second incident began on February 27, 1973, when armed followers belonging to the American Indian Movement (AIM) took Wounded Knee, demanding that the United States government look over the 371 treaties accorded in the past with Indian tribes. Federal Agents were sent to the place and during the gunfire two Indians were killed and people from both sides were wounded. The siege ended 70 days later, when they promised the Indians that they would study their complaints. After the encounter with representatives from the White House, the promise was forgotten.

The “Native American Church.”

Beginning in 1870 the religious appear on the reservations. By means of interns and schools, they had great acceptance. The conversions to Christianity were massive. The Native American Church, or cult of Peyote is based on the communion of peyote at meetings. Some Indians learned the use of peyote from Mexican Indians. They hated alcohol gambling, and debauchery. They had a familial and ethnic feeling; accommodated to the situation a syncretic ritualism was successfully produced. Peyote is taken dry or in an infusion. There is an organizer, and elements like water, fire, earth, and air are employed. It is very reminiscent of Christian communion, and it is carried out with songs, drums, and dances. The cult did not disappear, and in 1934 it was legalized, finding itself very widespread in the present.

Towards revitalization

At the end of the 19th Century there was total lack of control and disorganization of the Plains Indians. In the 60s and 70s the revitalizing movements began. In 1968 Nixon put an end to dependence, putting the most important services, education and health, under the control of the reservations. Religious liberty for the Indians was also given, permitting, for example, the use of feathers from protected sacred birds. The Act for the Well Being of Indian Children was also proclaimed, which put an end to the adoptions which the whites carried out in the reservation schools with hardly any paperwork.

The natives of the plains today

In spite of everything, the peoples of the prairies still continue to fight against injustices. They continue to be the lowest rung of the ladder in the U.S.

Indian demands are now made through AIM, the American Indian Movement, founded in Minneapolis in 1968. It is an activist organization with very striking operations, raising awareness through the communications media. In 1973 they closed themselves in at Wounded Knee, and the army sent tanks. The public then realized that they continue to exist. In the present day the natives have a wide fan of traditional cultural implication. Some are assimilated, although in the Northwest they still live in a very traditional manner. The reservations have been maintained by the Indians themselves for economic development. The capital comes from the federal government. They live in poverty, although some have incomes derived from renting their lands. The Reserves tend to be far away from areas of trade and employment. There are Reserves, like in Nebraska, where they put private businesses, stores, caravans, shoe stores- moccasins- and the tourism of Indians playing Indian.

Life on the Reserves continues. The Pow-Wow and the Giveaway are two feasts and social events, where traditional songs and dances mix, in the stile of celebrations with costumes. The Giveaway is a socio-religious event restricted to families, which consists of giving things to neighbors similar to a Potlatch. Today it is done for a birth, a wedding, and academic graduation… anything of importance in which gifts are given to people withing the circle of family and friends.

The destruction and recuperation of the native cultures of North America.

When America was discovered, little could the new colonists suspect the results of their arrival. The diseases which came from Europe razed the coasts in a short time, destroying the North American natives. The new diseases were typhus, smallpox, the different types of influenza, sexually transmitted diseases, and many others which spread rapidly among people who did not have defenses against the same. They hygienic conditions of the camps permitted the massive contagion on the local scale; nomadism and flight transmitted the plagues through the continent. Some tribes disappeared 15 years after the arrival of the white man.

After the diseases, the wars came. First among the generally weak indigenous resistance; later for the control of lands on the part of cities. Thousands of Indians fell in wars for which they never took a side. Later came extermination. The Indian was a problem, and was to be eliminated. Alcohol, for which they never had an adequate tolerance, made and still makes damages among them. Confinement and humiliation, trickery and avarice made them lose everything. The destruction of their way of life led them to a lamentable state, a genocide from which they will never recover.

In 1835 only a third of the aboriginal population remained, for three primary causes: diseases, alcohol, and firearms.

From 1850 onward, active colonization towards the plains occurs, with the intention of staying there to live: The native became something uncomfortable and annoying, which should disappear. Thus began the period of ethnocide. The process was very rough and bloody, as the plains were very attractive for farming by the colonists. In ten years, the Lakota went from being the lords of the plains to being on reservations or in poverty. This cultural collapse was perpetrated by the policy of the U.S. of creating reservations where they could have the indigenous nomads under control. With the reservations the treaties that were never fulfilled were made. These treaties, some made by means of executive orders, went against the nomadic life of the plains, which was based on the search for bison and nomadism. Colonization was produced by way of laws, colonists, and the army. The conquest of the west closely resembles the conquest of Southern Argentina. The Indian problem pitted the nomadic tribes against the colonists over lands. The system of Reserves with borders which could not be crossed was applied. The treaties were systematically violated. The Indian Agents of the the reservations were the mediators between the army and the natives. The system of private property was impressed on them. Everything possible was done to make them disappear, and lamentably, it was almost achieved.

Between 1850 and 1900 all of the culture of the plains had been erased.

The laws of forceful assimilation were the provision of the government on the reserves, in the style of democratic and representative constitutions. Until the 70s they were directed by governments foreign to the traditional native governments; there was corruption, bribery, assassinations…

At the beginning of 1950 the reservations tried to stay with state governments in stead of the federals as these were subjective and worse. The policies of relocation tried to bring social improvements through sending Indians to cities, in order to avoid alcohol and unemployment. The opposite effect was produced, although later the movements for revitalization would appear in the cities.

At the end of the 19th Century there was a total lack of control and disorganization among the Indians of the plains. In the 60s and 70s the revitalizing movements began. In 1968 Nixon put an end to dependence, putting the most important services, education and health under the charge of the reservations. Religious liberty for the Indians was also given, permitting, for example, the use of feathers from sacred protected birds. The Act for the Well Being of Indian Children was also proclaimed, which put an end to the adoptions which the whites carried out in the reservation schools with hardly any paperwork.

In the Central Arctic the Inuit have introduced themselves into Canada. They have resisted intrusion, maintaining a large part of their culture and hardly assimilating themselves. It is a nearly unique case in North America, although it cannot be taken as the counterpart of the other regions of the subcontinent.

But they have changed: they are Canadians, and they are Inuit. They have developed as an ethnicity and have their own territory and laws. Recuperation has occurred since 1950, they are now some 150,000 individuals, much more than in the past. The Inuit have carried out a process of becoming sedentary in towns. In the 50s they established themselves in small coastal towns, and in the 80s as much as 70% lived in permanent settlements of at least 50 inhabitants. Their houses are in the western style, with schools, outpatient clinics, law and order. The Inuit suffer in their body the establishment of western foods and customs: they are fatter, they have cavities and diabetes, and heart diseases previously unknown to their people. They utilize western technological elements, but also harpoons, sleds, snowmobiles, airplanes, seaplanes, motorboats… They have a high level of unemployment, with a social assistance which especially covers children- which makes the birth rate grow- and the state offers them temporary jobs. Among these the cooperatives of commercial art have great success, stone sculptures and engravings which are sold far from the Arctic constitute an important source of income. These cooperatives maintain “denominations of origin.” The majority are made up of part time artists, and when they have money available, they go out to hunt. There are also known artists who can earn a great deal of money.

The Inuit do not have intermediaries to speak with the Canadian government, and they do it directly. In addition the climate which reigns in the Northwest Territories helps their isolation. In the Canadian provinces (Alberta, British Columbia…) the natives are a minority, not so in the Arctic, where some 80% are indigenous and the whites are scarce and live in cities.

In the 60s they did not have representation in Parliament, but little by little they organized themselves into electoral districts, gaining representatives in the parliament of Ottawa. This has been possible because of the homogenization of the Inuktitut language, which has become a link of identity. They have 22 native representatives. In the 70s the Inuit Tapirisat was organized, the conference in which the reconfiguration of the Northwest Territories into two: the Northwest Territory itself and Nunavut (our land) was proposed, desired by some 85% of the northerners. However, it was rejected in the provinces. Nunavut is a territory in which rights would be recognized for the peoples of the Arctic: that they are different peoples, with nations and institutions, with preferential rights to lands and the resources of fishing, hunting, and exploitation of soil. In 1992 a referendum was made. Since 1999, Canada has three Nunavut territories, granting to their inhabitants powers and rights, although for the Inuit it is not a territory (for example, they lack their own justice system).

The Inuit are the people who have best achieved relating themselves without assimilating to the western world, owing to two key factors: the use of a common language and the rigorous nature of the climate in which they live.

In spite of everything, the native North American peoples continue to be the lowest rung of the ladder in the U.S.

The Indian demands in the U.S. are now made through AIM, the American Indian Movement, founded in Minneapolis in 1968. It is an activist organization with very striking actions, which raises awareness through the communications media. In 1973 they shut themselves in at Wounded Knee, and the army sent tanks, killing several in an action during the “sequestration” of the place. The people then realized that the Indians in North America still exist.

In the present day the natives have a wide fan of cultural traditional implication. Some are assimilated, although in the Northwest they still live in a very traditional way. The Reservations are maintained by the Indians themselves for economic development. A great number live in poverty, although some have incomes derived from renting out their lands. The Reservations tend to be far from areas with commerce and employment, which makes their economic take-off difficult. There are Reserves, as in Nebraska, where private businesses, stores, caravans, and shoe stores selling moccasins have been established. To this it must be added that there are incomes derived from the tourism of “Indians playing Indian.”

Life on the Reservations continues. The Pow-Wow and the Giveaway are two feasts and social events, where traditional songs and dances mix, in the style of a costume party.

The natives continue on their lands, and a new “Ghost Dance” may revitalize the cultural complex which was nearly left wiped out in such a short time.

Ancient Civilizations of North America
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