A clan could have a hundred members, who’d spend most of the year living together in hundred-foot-long bark houses. During summer, many clans moved closer to the coast or to large lakes where they could fish. To stay cool, they lived in dome-shaped shelters called wigwams, which were made of young trees, bark, and cattails.Tribes that lived only on the coast—including the Micmac (pronounced MIK-mak) and Pequot (pronounced PEE-kwot)—often ate meat from clams and sea snails, then pounded and polished the shells into beads called wampum. (Purple beads were especially prized because shells of that color were more rare.) They could then trade these beads with members of inland tribes for furs and food.
When Europeans began to arrive in the 1600s, they often fought with tribal members over land. Tribes sometimes made treaties with these immigrants to cease fighting, and these agreements moved the Native Americans to land called reservations—but those areas were often far from their original homes. Today many tribal members choose to live on reservations, where they have their own governments and support themselves with businesses such as forestry and blueberry farming.
Many tribes are working to protect the natural resources of the land that they live on. For instance, the Maliseet (pronounced MAL-uh-seet) people are working to protect bald eagles, and the Penobscot (pronounced puh-NOB-skot) people are active in helping endangered Atlantic salmon.
In the mid-1700s, Plains tribes started riding horses that had been brought over from Europe. Groups such as the Blackfeet, Sioux (pronounced SOO), and Comanche (pronounced kuh-MAN-chee) became master riders and warriors, and they controlled huge hunting grounds that supported thousands of members. For instance, at one point, the powerful Comanche tribe had more than 40,000 people.
Because the Plains tribes were spread across so much land, they spoke many different languages—so they developed a single sign language for people of all tribes to communicate with. They also shared a tradition of dance: Different tribes practiced ceremonial dances. The Cheyenne (SHY-an) performed the Animal Dance, meant to send luck to hunters so they would bring back enough food for the tribe. The Caddo (CAD-oh) performed the Turkey Dance, which celebrated the return of warriors from battle; and several tribes performed the Sun Dance, in which dancers prayed for spiritual healing and the welfare of their communities.
Plains tribes didn’t hunt more bison than they needed to survive, so the population of these animals remained stable—that is, until European settlers arrived. By the 1880s these newcomers had hunted the bison almost to extinction. Once these tribes lost their main source of food, the U.S. government forced many of them to move to reservations, which are lands reserved for Native Americans. These were often located far from their traditional homelands in present-day Oklahoma, North Dakota, and South Dakota believed to be unsuitable for farming or settlement.
Today the Plains tribes are keeping their culture alive. Many host traditional celebrations for the public to watch, and some have created apps to make sure their languages aren’t forgotten. They’re also helping preserve their natural resources: Tribes in Texas are working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to restore the region’s longleaf pine forests, and other Plains tribes are trying to bring back bison to the region.
The Pacific Northwest Coast at one time had the most densely populated areas of indigenous people. The mild climate and abundant natural resources, such as cedar and salmon, made possible the rise of a complex aboriginal culture. The indigenous people in this region practiced various forms of forest gardening and fire-stick farming in the forests, grasslands, mixed woodlands, and wetlands, ensuring that desired food and medicine plats continued to be available through the use of advanced farming techniques. Those involved in agricultural development would create low-intensity fires in order to prevent larger, catastrophic fires and sustain low-density agriculture in a loose rotation. This is what is known as permaculture, or any system of sustainable agriculture that renews natural resources and enriches local ecosystems.
One of the major cultural elements that began to flourish on the Pacific Northwest Coast was the use of music and other forms of arts and crafts. Although music varied in function and expression among indigenous tribes, there were cultural similarities. For example, some tribes used hand drums made of animal hides as their instrument of choice, while others used plank or log drums, along with whistlers, wood clappers, and rattles. However, regardless of the type of instrument used, music and song were created to accompany ceremonies, dancing, and festivities.
The principal function of music in this region was to invoke spirituality. Music was created to honor the Earth, the creator, ancestors, and all other aspects of the supernatural world. Songs were also used to convey stories and sometimes were owned by families like property that could be inherited, sold, or given as a gift to a prestigious guest at a feast. Professional musicians existed in some communities, and in some nations, those who made musical errors were punished, usually through shaming. Vocal rhythmic patterns were often complex and ran counter to rigid percussion beats.
As with music, the creation of art also served as a means of transmitting stories, history, wisdom, and property from generation to generation. Due to the abundance of natural resources and the affluence of most Northwest tribes, there was plenty of leisure time to create art. Many works of art served practical purposes, such as clothing, tools, weapons of war and hunting, transportation, cooking, and shelter. Others were purely aesthetic. Art provided indigenous people with a tie to the land and was a constant reminder of their birth places, lineages, and nations. One example of this is the use of symbols on totem poles and plank houses of the Pacific Northwest coast.
Other cultural elements that became established were the religious and social ceremonies of the Pacific Northwest nations. Although various tribes might have had their own different mythologies and rituals, “animism” is said to describe the most common, foundational thread of indigenous peoples’ spiritual or supernatural perspectives in this region. Spiritualism, the supernatural, and the importance of the environment played such integral roles in day-to-day life. Therefore, it was not unusual for worldly goods to be adorned with symbols, crests, and totems that represented some important figure(s) from both the seen and unseen worlds.
Many of these religious or spiritual symbols would be present during social ceremonies as well. The potlatch, a gift-giving feast, was perhaps one of the most significant social experiences that occurred within Pacific Northwest groups. It was a highly complex event where people gathered in order to commemorate a specific event such as the raising of a totem pole or the appointment/election of a new chief. In the potlatch ceremony, the chief would give highly elaborate gifts to visiting peoples in order to establish his power and prestige, and by accepting these gifts, the visitors conveyed their approval of the chief. There were also great feasts and displays of conspicuous consumption. Groups of dancers put on elaborate dances and ceremonies. Watching these performances was considered an honor. Potlatches were held for several reasons: the confirmation of a new chief, coming of age, tattooing or piercing ceremonies, initiation into a secret society, marriages, the funeral of a chief, or a battle victory.