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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.