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Native Americans, or American Indians
Britannica Student Encyclopedia: An A to Z Encyclopedia. 2015.
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The first peoples in the Americas lived there for thousands of years before European explorers arrived. Many of these peoples still live in North and South America today.

The National Museum of the American Indian opened in 2004 in the U.S. capital of Washington, D.C. The museum teaches visitors about the culture and history of Native Americans.
The National Museum of the American Indian opened in 2004 in the U.S. capital of Washington, D.C. The museum teaches visitors about the culture and history of Native Americans.
age fotostock/SuperStock
The Iroquois people wove baskets and lids out of long blades of grass.
The Iroquois people wove baskets and lids out of long blades of grass.
Marilyn Angel Wynn/Nativestock Pictures
Native Americans from all regions are known for their beadwork. They use beads on clothing, bags, and other objects. A Cheyenne amulet, or charm, is an example of such beadwork.
Native Americans from all regions are known for their beadwork. They use beads on clothing, bags, and other objects. A Cheyenne amulet, or charm, is an example of such beadwork.
Marilyn Angel Wynn/NativeStock
Two dolls show the styles of clothing once worn by the Apache people.
Two dolls show the styles of clothing once worn by the Apache people.
Marilyn Angel Wynn/Nativestock Pictures
The Tlingit carved totem poles with figures from their stories and legends.
The Tlingit carved totem poles with figures from their stories and legends.
Wolfgang Kaehler/Corbis
A Cherokee boy performs a dance in festive clothing.
A Cherokee boy performs a dance in festive clothing.
Marilyn Angel Wynn/Nativestock Pictures

Arctic peoples, including the Eskimo (Inuit) and the Aleut, lived in the far northern parts of North America. The Carib, the Aztec, the Maya, the Inca, and other groups lived in the Caribbean, Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America), and South America.

Many other peoples lived in what are now Canada and the United States. These peoples are known as Native Americans or American Indians. In Canada they are also known as the First Nations.

Before Europeans arrived, different Native American groups lived in many regions of North America.
Before Europeans arrived, different Native American groups lived in many regions of North America.
Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Early Peoples of the Americas

The first peoples in the Americas probably traveled from Asia to what is now Alaska. Scientists believe that this happened about 60,000 to 20,000 years ago. During this period there may have been solid land where the Bering Strait now divides Asia and North America. By about 10,000 bc these peoples had spread throughout North, Central, and South America.

Some of the earliest North Americans hunted large animals, such as the mastodon, that are now extinct. Other early peoples fished and gathered seeds and wild plants. In time, some peoples began to farm.

North American Peoples

The peoples of North America spread out into as many as 240 groups. These groups are sometimes called tribes or nations. The groups spoke different languages even when they lived near each other. However, neighboring groups often had similar ways of life.

Native Americans in eastern North America included the Iroquois in the northeast and the Creek in the southeast. People in these regions used tree bark and branches to make houses, weapons, tools, and canoes. They made clothing from the skins of deer and other animals. They hunted, fished, and gathered wild plants. They also planted corn, squash, beans, and tobacco.

An illustration shows a Creek village on a river in northern Florida.
An illustration shows a Creek village on a river in northern Florida.
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory (http://floridamemory.com/items/show/34653)

Peoples on the Great Plains of central North America included the Cheyenne and the Sioux. The grasses of the plains fed huge herds of grazing animals, including elk, deer, antelope, and bison (buffalo). Plains Indians got almost everything they needed from the bison. They ate the meat, made tepees and clothing from the skins, and made tools from the bones.

The Plains Indians depended on the bison for their survival.
The Plains Indians depended on the bison for their survival.
Rare Book and Special Collections Division/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (http://lccn.loc.gov/02005383)

The Pueblo Indians, the Navajo, and other groups lived in the dry Southwest. Peoples there learned to farm using very little water. Some built homes from stone and adobe (sun-baked clay). Others lived in simpler shelters.

The Navajo are talented weavers. In this photo one Navajo woman weaves a blanket on a loom. Another Navajo woman weaves a belt.
The Navajo are talented weavers. In this photo one Navajo woman weaves a blanket on a loom. Another Navajo woman weaves a belt.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (Digital file no. cph 3c26405)

Many groups of Californian Indians lived along the West Coast. They fished and hunted, and some groups made flour from acorns. The Chumash built dome-shaped houses. The Miwok built houses that were partly underground.

An illustration shows a group of Miwok gathered around a fire to share stories. It comes from the painting Recital of the Ancient Myths in the Roundhouse at Night by E.W. Deming.
An illustration shows a group of Miwok gathered around a fire to share stories. It comes from the painting Recital of the Ancient Myths in the Roundhouse at Night by E.W. Deming.
The Dawn of the World by C. Hart Merriam, 1910

The Great Basin was home to the Shoshone and other peoples. This dry area included what are now Nevada and Utah. These peoples moved around in search of food. They hunted small animals, fished, and gathered berries, nuts, seeds, and roots.

A group of Shoshone stand by their tepees in a photo taken in the early 1900s.
A group of Shoshone stand by their tepees in a photo taken in the early 1900s.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (Digital file no. LC-DIG-npcc-19914)

North of this region lived the Nez Percé, the Flathead, and other groups of Plateau Indians. These peoples fished and hunted. They often lived in villages during winter. During summer they camped in tents or tepees.

A photograph taken in about 1871 shows a group of Nez Percé in Montana.
A photograph taken in about 1871 shows a group of Nez Percé in Montana.
Library of Congress, Washintgon, D.C. (Digital file no. LC-DIG-stereo-1s00436)
A portrait of a Flathead man.
A portrait of a Flathead man.
U.S. National Archives, Washington, D.C. (ARC Identifier: 523843)
A photograph shows a group of Flathead Indians seated in front of tepees on their reservation in Montana in about 1908.
A photograph shows a group of Flathead Indians seated in front of tepees on their reservation in Montana in about 1908.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (Digital file no. cph 3b05015)
A Nez Percé woman and her son stand in front of their tepee in about 1909.
A Nez Percé woman and her son stand in front of their tepee in about 1909.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (Digital file no. cph 3c22131)

Many peoples lived on the Northwest Coast, an area that stretched between modern California and Alaska. They included the Tlingit and the Kwakiutl. The peoples of this region fished in the ocean and rivers. Some groups hunted whales. They made large houses and sturdy canoes out of wood.

This Tlingit mask is made of painted wood.
This Tlingit mask is made of painted wood.
Museum of Cultures, Helsinki, Finland.
A Kwakiutl man wears a mask of a mythical creature.
A Kwakiutl man wears a mask of a mythical creature.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (Digital file no. cph 3b00205)
A Tlingit woman wears special clothes for a potlatch celebration.
A Tlingit woman wears special clothes for a potlatch celebration.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (Digital file no. cph 3c01170)
A photo from about 1900 shows a Kwakiutl village at Newettee on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.
A photo from about 1900 shows a Kwakiutl village at Newettee on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.
The Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island by Franz Boas, 1905.
A Kwakiutl mask represents a double-headed serpent.
A Kwakiutl mask represents a double-headed serpent.
The Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island by Franz Boas, 1905.
A Kwakiutl mask represents a whale and a thunderbird.
A Kwakiutl mask represents a whale and a thunderbird.
The Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island by Franz Boas, 1905.

The Chipewyan, the Cree, and other peoples lived in the subarctic. This area lies south of the Arctic, in what are now Canada and Alaska. Subarctic peoples depended on caribou, moose, and beavers for food. They also made tents and clothing from animal hides.

Cree chief Mahsette Kuiuab
Cree chief Mahsette Kuiuab
Rare Book and Special Collections Division/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (http://lccn.loc.gov/02005383)
A Cree man blows a horn. The sound of the horn is meant to bring moose into the area.
A Cree man blows a horn. The sound of the horn is meant to bring moose into the area.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (Digital file no. cph 3c23167)
A group of Cree camp on the Canadian plain.
A group of Cree camp on the Canadian plain.
Charles Horetzky/Library and Archives Canada, C-005181

Native Americans and Europeans

Europeans began to arrive in the Americas in the late 1400s. They called the people they met there Indians because they thought they had arrived in the East Indies, in Asia.

The Europeans brought new plants and animals. The horse, for example, brought great change to Native American life. Groups on horseback could travel long distances and hunt bison much more easily than before. Native Americans also welcomed such European goods as cloth fabrics, metal tools, and guns.

But the Europeans also brought diseases, including measles and smallpox. Most Native Americans could not fight these diseases because their ancestors had not been exposed to them. Smallpox soon wiped out many groups.

In the 1600s many people from England settled permanently in eastern North America. Some Native Americans helped the English at first. But as more English colonists arrived, they took over more of the Native Americans’ land. Unlike the Native Americans, the colonists thought that individual people could own land.

Several wars broke out between colonists and Native Americans. In King Philip’s War (1675–76) the English defeated a group of several tribes. This victory allowed colonists to settle more land in New England.

Native Americans and the United States

Colonists had taken over much of the land in the Northeast by the end of the American Revolution in 1783. In the 1830s the U.S. government forced the Cherokee and other tribes in the Southeast to move west. Their difficult journey is now known as the Trail of Tears. The government set aside land called Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) for the tribes to live on. However, white settlers soon settled there, too.

In the mid-1800s the U.S. army fought many battles against the peoples of the Great Plains and the Southwest. One of the last conflicts took place in 1890 at Wounded Knee in South Dakota.

Eventually, most of the Native Americans of the West came to live on reservations. These were areas of land that the U.S. government set aside for certain Native American groups. However, a group’s reservation often was smaller or in a different place than that group’s homeland. Conditions on the reservations were poor. Many Native Americans had to give up their traditional ways of life.

In 1934 the U.S. government began to change the way it treated Native Americans. It passed a law that gave Native American governments more power over their own land and people.

However, many Native Americans were still angry at the U.S. government’s treatment of them. A protest group called the American Indian Movement (AIM) formed in the late 1960s. AIM took over Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay during 1969–71. In 1973 AIM took over the town of Wounded Knee for more than two months.

In 1964 a group of Native Americans claimed that Alcatraz Island, part of the U.S. state of California, was rightfully theirs. Native Americans took over the island again during 1969–71.
In 1964 a group of Native Americans claimed that Alcatraz Island, part of the U.S. state of California, was rightfully theirs. Native Americans took over the island again during 1969–71.
© Bettmann/Corbis

Native Americans Today

By 2000 there were nearly 2.5 million Native Americans in the United States. (This number includes the Eskimo and other Arctic peoples.) They made up about 1 percent of the U.S. population. Less than half of them lived on or near reservations. Another 1.7 million people in the United States had some Native American ancestors.

Today reservations are outside the reach of many state laws. This has allowed many Native American groups to open gambling casinos on their land. These businesses raise money for the groups and provide jobs. Even so, Native Americans who live on reservations generally are poorer than most other Americans.

Native Americans continue to fight for the respect of their history and culture. Some have protested the use of Native American names or mascots by sports teams. Many have demanded that the U.S. government return or pay for the lands where their ancestors lived.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"Native Americans, or American Indians." Britannica Student Encyclopedia: An A to Z Encyclopedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2015. Kids InfoBits, http%3A%2F%2Flink.galegroup.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FNGIXKL447757611%2FITKE%3Fu%3Dwaln31154%26sid%3DITKE%26xid%3D7b8638ff. Accessed 13 Dec. 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|NGIXKL447757611