• Laurie Seban

North America: the Earth is a Gift

Updated: Oct 17, 2021

Native American groups range from large scale prehistoric civilizations to smaller scale historic tribes, but there are a few themes that you will see across the continent: in fact, many of the concepts discussed below apply to most small-scale indigenous cultures across the globe. While they don’t apply to ALL small scale or indigenous cultures, they do reflect fairly common concepts.

Present tense living cultures. Archaeologists talk about prehistoric migration patterns or the archaeological record, and linguists discuss the distribution of language groups, but it is essential to stress that Native American culture should not be discussed in the past tense. Native peoples themselves are a living culture interested in speaking for themselves rather than having others speak for them. Even what we consider to be scientific facts (such as the linguistic or archaeological record) should be tempered with a sensitivity to current beliefs.

One recent example: a group of Hopi took part in a University of Arizona research project looking at DNA for the purpose of better understanding diabetes. When that DNA was used without permission in a later research project to determine when Hopi people first appeared in the Southwest, the Hopi Nation successfully sued, arguing that their DNA information was used to contradict religious beliefs about their origins in the Southwest.

It's essential when looking at any contemporary culture to give primary consideration to their belief system regarding names, meanings, and functions, instead of reverting to past misconceptions, or relying solely on current science.

Map of Native American culture areas/Clovis culture points, c.14,000 BCE  

According to the archaeological record, North America was populated from the same Bering “land bridge” that brought people into the Americas beginning 40,000 years ago. Archaeologists can trace their routes as groups pushed south and across the continent, with evidence of groups in Chile by c. 9000 BCE. Clovis points dating back to 11,000 BCE are exquisitely worked arrowheads with a distinct fluting around the edges. They were first found in Clovis, New Mexico in the 1930's; since then, Clovis points have been found across the Americas--as well as other arrowheads, tools and artifacts from Paleo-Indians, some with even earlier origin dates.

Petroglyphs etched into cliffs and boulders across the continent record the history of countless generations. One of the earliest, Horseshoe Canyon in Utah (part of Canyonlands National Park), dating to approximately 8000 BCE, depicts a series of people and animals overseen by larger geometric figures, a mysterious communion of human and divine. Geoglyphs similar to the Nazca Lines in Peru mark the landscape in eastern California--and like Nazca, their function remains a mystery.

 Horseshoe Canyon c. 8-5,000 BCE / Blythe Geoglyphs c.1000 BCE

Shared language families. Migration patterns of early cultures have their remnants in the language groups: the Algonquian and Iroquoian speaking peoples that settled into the Northeast, the Caddoan and Siouan in the Southeast, the Athabaskan in the Northwest. For the most part, a shared language group can often mean shared belief systems: Anishnaabe cultures of the Great Lakes region have the same Algoniquian terms for spirits, similar curing traditions and social structures. In some cases, however, groups fragmented a great deal: the Chumash in California have their closest linguistic relatives in Chile! And while their customs no longer seem to have any similarities, they have basic words in common.  


The importance of the environment. While archaeologists look at migration patterns coming into the Americas, the cultures themselves believe in their origin in their specific place, often emerging from the underworld into this world. The specific environment is not only a source of physical sustenance, it is often a source of spiritual sustenance as well. Many Native American stories are about how the land was created, and it is believed to be a living entity: not just “Mother Earth,” but a spiritual entity that sustains many different elements, from the grasses and trees to the animals and rocks to the wind and sky.

Cultures also use the materials that are available; the Southwest desert creates clay products, for example, and the Woodlands create wooden objects. But just as important is that the availability of resources within a given environment can also shape culture. In the book (and PBS series) Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond theorizes that if an area does not have enough plant or animal resources to sustain a permanent settlement, groups will be semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers, usually following a seasonal migration to obtain both animal and plant products. As a result, they tend to be small scale, existing in bands of 20-200 people and logically, their art-production is also small scale: utilitarian items that are portable and lightweight. This focus on environmental determinism has MANY detractors and should not be read as the only factor in the development of cultures, but it is something to think about. As are some other concepts:

Items might be utilitarian, but they are almost always embellished; if you look at the clothing and shelter of the Plains groups, for example, you can see how beautifully decorated those items can be. Designs within these smaller scale groups also tend to be shared cultural symbols: animals that are hunted in the Arctic make their way into the masking tradition, just as basketry patterns in California may be regional, but are certainly not “owned.”

On the other hand, in areas rich in resources such as the Eastern Woodlands, groups settle down and create permanent housing and more large-scale works. In North America, the key to settled developments was agriculture. Even in areas where you wouldn’t expect agriculture: the Southwest is a very arid environment, but in the prehistoric period, the ancestral Pueblo people were able to create irrigation canals and develop some of the earliest settled communities in North America, in rock and adobe pueblo housing. As a result, art and cultural productions tend to be more elaborate because items can be stored, and often regalia and ceremonies can also have status attached to them.

There are some exceptions, of course. On the Northwest Coast (from Oregon to British Columbia), resources were so plentiful that communities only had to hunt and gather ¼ of the year; the rest of the time was spent in the development of an extremely complex culture which included massive cedar house and boats, large poles (we call “totems”), and a very status oriented system of production and ownership.

Gender also plays an important role in most indigenous small-scale communities. It makes sense; jobs must be shared for survival of the overall community. Traditionally, women, as the bearers and nurturers of children dominated the domestic sphere: the home, children, cooking, clothing etc. Sound very fifties era, but that also included ownership of the home, too! Women’s arts included the construction and decoration of the homes (from the Southwest Pueblos to the Plains tipis), cooking and food vessels, and clothing. Interestingly enough, these items tend to be made of soft materials (clay, fiber, hide, etc.) and geometric in design.

Men’s works tended to be materials that were hard, and worked with implements (stone, bone, wood, etc.) And the works were more representative: images of culture heroes, animals, narrative exploits, etc. The items were used in public or ritual performances (which in itself was generally public), such as curing ceremonies, masking ceremonies, etc. You can still see the parallels in our western world today; if you look at most public performances like opera or theaters, both men’s and women’s’ roles were originally played by men, and most religious traditions began with only men in the leadership and priestly roles (and the real changes have only been made in the last half century).

Don’t make the (Western) mistake in thinking that because men play a public role and women a more private role, they are not equal; in fact, if you look at most indigenous cultures, while there are strict gender divisions, gender complementary is the norm—women often wield a great deal of power in terms of ritual leadership or participation. You can see this very clearly in the Plains tradition of warriors recounting their battle exploits before the Council fire. Women also take a turn, and recount their achievements in quilling. Many societies are actually matrilineal, so their power is also seen in the family lineage follows the maternal line instead of the paternal line. And there are always exceptions—in some cases, women grow and own crops (Woodland), in other cases, men (Southwest). Sometimes gender roles can be changed. And shamans can be either a man or a woman.

As with many indigenous communities, most Native American cultures have a distinct worldview shaped by a belief in an animate world—a world of not just people and animals, but plants, and geography that have a spirit, which should be respected. Shamans and priests are used to communicate with the spirit world on behalf of an individual or a community, but cultural productions also reflect that in a variety of ways. A term that reflects this is respect and reciprocity: the idea that any item taken from the environment (whether a plant animal, or even rock) has a spirit, and that spirit must be respected in a variety of ways. A purification process before hunting, the embellishment of hunting gear good to attract and please an animal, or even the placement of a prayer flag shows respect, and also reciprocates the gift that has been taken. Respect and reciprocity embodies our Western idea of beauty; in many native languages, the equivalent of beauty translates to an acknowledgement of the spirit world. In Lakota, saicye means “something sacred wears me,” while for the Navajo, hozho means “in harmony with the world,” and the Inuit term tukminikuk means, “it is pleasing to the spirits.”

For this reason, anything we call art must be seen in the context of its use, whether it is something to be worn, used, or part of any kind of ceremony. Looking at an object separate from its use and often, the accompanying, music, stories, and accessories, does not give a full picture of its meaning or importance. In some cases, items like masks might even be discarded after a single use. To really appreciate and understand many different art forms (regalia, masks, headdresses, etc.) you must seen them as they are danced. In the words of a Yurok regalia maker, “they cry to be danced.” 

Fred Kabotie Mixed Kachina Dance 1919 UC Davis Powwow

There is also no such idea as a static tradition. We began this section with the concept that Native American cultures are living cultures. All cultures are constantly incorporating new materials and ideas. If you look at the earliest Prehistoric Woodlands burial mounds that are scattered throughout the east, deposits included copper from the Appalachians, copper from the Great Lakes, shark teeth from the Gulf Coast, and grizzly teeth from the Rockies. New materials were always being introduced, such as dentalium shells into the Northwest Coast and California. Europeans who brought in beads, new forms of metal, fabric, and ribbon were just adding to the vast array of materials available, and each item became a part of native “traditions.” Just as you no longer celebrate holiday traditions in the exact same way that you did as a child, native traditions are in a constant process of change-so even beaded Vans or stilettos are perfectly “traditional” and ”authentic” today.

The idea of survivance--the creativity and variety with which native groups were able to adapt to contact with the West (and the attendant death, disruption, and relocation) is always a victory. It can be seen in the beads, introduced from Europe, which are synonymous with Indian culture today, or the metalwork learned from Mexicans, which Navajo transformed into their own unique style of Southwest jewelry. But it can also mean the tourist art—beaded fancies, miniature totem poles, or miniature baskets that natives also sold on the tourist market. Not “authentic” or “traditional,” necessarily, but today, scholars are looking at those items as essential to the survival of individual cultures and traditions.

The cultural areas of Native North America (Woodlands, Southwest, Plains, Arctic and Subarctic, Northwest Coast, and West) each have a distinct environment that shapes culture, but the objects discussed are just a brief glimpse of the complexity and variety of cultures and cultural themes you see. I will not repeat his information, but I do want to briefly summarize the key ideas to think about with each of the cultural areas. First, keep in mind the shared themes (such as those discussed above) you will see in each of the areas. And while each area is discrete and separate, there are lines of connection between them all--the similarities between the Prehistoric Woodlands and later Historic Woodlands, but also in the Plains and even Sub-Arctic.

Here in California we have very diverse traditions of native culture (over 150 different groups speaking over 65 different languages). In fact, California has the largest population of Native Americans today—despite the fact that California natives suffered by far the worst brutality of all native peoples. Beginning in the 1600’s, those Southern California natives that were not felled by disease were conscripted into missions, where the average lifespan was 2 years, or sometimes killed in mass baptism/executions or poisoned feasts. In Central and Northern California, the Gold Rush of the mid 1800’s led to even greater violence: mass killings by settlers and the US Cavalry and state laws that allowed the capture of Indian (dead or alive) for bounty. Through this means, from 1865-1875, over 100,000 natives were killed by settlers and by gubernatorial decree, clearing the land for settlers and ranchers.

Native American culture areas/Frank La Pena, We Are all Sacred 2004

Before their extermination by the mission system and the Gold Rush, California natives subsided in semi-nomadic villages, creating the most complex basketry found in the Americas. Basketry was used as a tool for living in every aspect of life, from birth to death. You can see the cradleboards infants were placed in (and stayed there until the age of 5 or so!), the baskets used to gather and process food, and the gift baskets adorned with shells and embroidered with feathers (red woodpecker, black/green mallard, yellow meadowlark, topknots from the California quail). And as groups like the Pomo, Miwok and Maidu were forced from their land, some were able to sell their baskets to earn money and in the case of some Pomo women, even buy back their land! Traditional-turned-tourist arts enabled communities to continue.

Cradle basket/ Maidu basketry tray/Pomo feather basket with flicker feathers, shells,  mallard, meadowlark & quail

The Southwest is an entirely different area. Although the area is a desert, the largest group, the prehistoric Pueblo peoples were and are a sedentary culture firmly rooted in tradition and the past. Early prehistoric settlements show the influence of Meso American, and the corns, beans, and squash first cultivated there are central to the Southwest Pueblo idea of fertility and renewal. You can see it in the centuries old Pueblo settlements, evolving tradition of pottery, elaborate ceremonial kachina spirits as seen in Kabotie's Kachina Dance (above) and kachina dolls for the art market (below). On the other hand, you have the constant influx of new groups like the Dine (both Apache and Navajo) who come in and influenced by the Pueblo peoples, create distinct cultures entirely their own. The Navajo were taught to weave by the Pueblo people, and have transformed that tradition into something that is uniquely Navajo, with an ever-changing variety of patterns.


top: Southwest Pueblo Mesa Verde c. 1400 BCE/Pueblo Hemis Kachina/

bottom: Nancy Youngblood (Santa Clara) pottery   Navajo textile c. 1885  

The Prehistoric Woodlands also seemed to have direct connections to Meso America. This area is one of the oldest in North America, with large-scale, almost urban areas. Cahokia, Illinois was a settlement that housed up to 20,000 people in 1400 CE. You should be able to recognize the ceremonial centers, bird warriors, maize and even ball games there and in the Southwest as being related to some of the Mesoamerican traditions we've already looked at. Although no direct link has been found, it's clear that ideas were exchanged in addition to agricultural products like corn and tobacco. And as we saw with Mesoamerican cultures, the large scale developments eventually disappeared prior to any European contact—but ideas about burials, ancestors, the importance of pipes and even feathers are carried into later historic cultures. Many Historic Woodlands cultures like the Muskogee (formerly called Creek), Caddo, and Choctaw are the direct descendants of these early groups.

top: Prehistoric Woodlands c. 1400: Great Serpent Mound   /   Effigy Pipe 

bottom: Cahokia, Illinois c. 1400 CE     /    Mississippian Bird Warrior

The Historic Woodlands (Algonquian, Iroquois, Cherokee, Muskogee, to name just a few) are essentially the entire Eastern half of the U.S., from the Mississippi to the Atlantic. This heavily wooded area was home to many different semi-nomadic and sedentary hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists, each with different ceremonial traditions, but you do see common themes. The carved feast bowls, ladles, and pipes by men, synonymous with Woodlands culture, all have their roots in the burial goods of the Prehistoric Woodlands. Women’s work consisted of hidework on which sacred wampum, or shells were sewn, or quilled bags and items of clothing. With the introduction of fabric, silk and beads from Europeans, Woodlands culture bloomed, with beautifully embellished clothing, bags, moccasins, and cradleboards. Eventually, women were able to adapt to a new post-contact culture by selling their works on the tourist market—even at Niagra Falls!.

Woodlands:Wampum robe/Menominee quilled knife case/Muskogee bandolier bag

The importance of the burials, pipes and ancestors is also seen in the later Plains (Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Lakota) culture, which is almost entirely a product of contact in terms of guns and horses. Like the Woodlands, the Plains is made up of many disparate groups, though they have common themes. First, the introduction of guns and horses (through Spaniards in the Southwest) in the 1600’s transformed sedentary cultures like the Mandan and Kiowa into nomadic cultures that followed the buffalo. The cultural productions for both males and females relied heavily on the use of images as a form of symbolic protection. This can be seen on men’s shields which used dream spirits and other additives like feathers, men’s shirts which used imagery, feathers, and hairlocks, or buffalo robes which showed past exploits and victories as a source of power. This same narrative style was transferred to ledger drawings as Plains people were confined to reservations by the late 1800’s. Men’s clothing and other regalia was a visual vocabulary of of the wearer’s achievements and power, made in collaboration with a woman. George Catlin’s painting of the Mandan warrior Mato-tope shows this, with his feather headdress, beaded and quilled shirt, leggings, and décor.


top: Shield of No Two Horns (Lakota)      /     Mandan Buffalo Robe                

bottom: Oglala Lakota Men’s shirt   /   Karl Bodmer, Warrior Mato-tope

Further north, you have the Northwest Coast, a culture of over 200 villages from Oregon to British Columbia (including parts of Alaska) that lived in settled villages and created a complex system of crests to advertise status and control in a very ranked society. The result of that is spectacular poles outside the clan homes, along with a wealth of other sculpted and woven traditions.

Northwest Coast:

top: Haida Clan houses at Skidegat/ Willie Seaweed (Kwakiutl) Raven mask     bottom: Tlingit Chilkat blanket     /   Tlingit Oyster-catcher rattle

Linked to the Northwest Coast is by most measures the most limited of all North American environments, the Sub-Arctic (from the Canadian border through the forests) and the Arctic (the tundra above the tree line). Yet even with very few materials and a culture that is entirely dominated by survival and the hunt, these cultures created a very rich culture and mythology of animals and dreams that are still quite vital today.  In the Arctic, you will find one of the richest masking traditions in the Americas, with a wide variety of masks meant to appeal to the spirit of the hunted animals, from birds that dive down to those that fly up. No matter what form the masks take, the intent is always to please the inua, the spirit of the animal that is often depicted as a small human face.


Yupik Diving Loon mask  /  Yupik mask with bird, fish, hand, inua  /   Inuit Umaut (women's parka)  / Innu-Naskapi coat (Sub-Arctic)

In the Sub-Arctic, you will find a similar focus on respect and reciprocity for greater success in the hunt. Each individual was born into a "totem' (this is the correct usage of the Anishnaabe term!) which dictated the relationships with different members of the animal world. Elaborate hunting regalia designed to pay respect and reciprocity to the hunted animals accrued power with each successful hunt. But even here, tradition was constantly evolving due to the influence of Europeans; note the flared skirt and wide collar of the Innu-Naskapi coat. European in design, but with open armpits to allow for better air circulation!

Despite the programmatic genocide of the past 500 years, the continuing evolution and innovation of native arts across North America embodies the resilience, creativity, and ultimate victory of Native Americans.

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