Native American Cultures
Copyright © 2012 Henry J. Sage

Native American Cultures:  The Pre-History of America

At the time Columbus discovered America millions of Indians had been living in the Western Hemisphere for tens of thousands of years.  During the latter part of the Ice Age, a land bridge existed between Asia and Alaska across what is now the Bering Strait, and all evidence indicates that the Native American tribes migrated from Mongolia, through Alaska and Canada and eventually all the way down to South America, with some settling in favorable locations in the north and others moving on.  Over time, they developed into distinct, separate Indian cultures.

IndianThus North and South American Indians were extremely diverse, with varied physical traits, linguistic groupings, ethnic characteristics, customs, cultures, and so on.  Indeed the Indians in North America were probably far more diverse than the people of the nations of northwestern Europe in 1500.  In Central America the Aztecs had a large powerful empire, while along the eastern coast of North America Indians lived in smaller tribes and subsisted by both agriculture and by hunting and gathering.  Farther south the Mayas and Incas had advanced civilizations that had progressed far in mathematics, astronomy, and engineering.  In the western part of North America nomadic tribes roamed over the Great Plains in search of buffalo and other game and often came into conflict with other tribes over the use of their hunting grounds.

When game became more scarce, perhaps due to over-hunting or from other causes, many American Indian groups turned to agriculture as a means of subsistence.  In so doing American Indians became perhaps the best farmers in history, developing new crops and refining farming methods that they later shared with the colonists from Europe.  Dozens of foodstuffs consumed in the world today, including corn, potatoes, various beans, squash, and so on, were developed by Native American farmers.  When the European colonists first arrived, their survival often depended on their adoption of Indian hunting and farming practices.

Indians also understood the use of natural medicines and drugs, and many of their healing techniques are still used by medical people today.  Indian foods, especially corn and the potato, transformed European dietary habits, and in fact the impact of the potato on Ireland’s population was so great that it led to much of the Irish immigration to America in the 1800s.

A thorough investigation of Native American cultures, even those in North and Central America, is an apt subject for lengthy study; the literature on pre-Columbian America is rich indeed.  What is important to know is that Indian and European cultures affected each other profoundly, a phenomenon that has been called the Colombian Exchange—the exchange of habits, practices, living techniques, and resources between the Indians and the Europeans.

The Native American cultures in the Western Hemisphere found their societies disrupted or even destroyed by the impact of the Europeans, some of which was deliberate, and some of which was a result of the transmission of diseases to which the American Indians were not immune.  The introduction of firearms, alcohol, and other European artifacts also had deep and unpredictable effects.  But the impact of the Indians on European culture was also deeply significant.

For reasons that are not fully understood, some groups of Indians vanished without being affected by the Europeans.  One such group were the Anasazi of the southwestern United States.  They built spectacular dwellings in the cliffs in New Mexico; some of their settlements carved into the rocks contained hundreds of rooms.  But somewhere around the year 1300 they left their rock palaces, never to return, for reasons unknown. Anasazi link.

Native Americans and Europeans

Ironically, in North America the presence of the native cultures made it possible for the first English settlers to maintain a foothold on the new continent.  The Jamestown colony and the New England Pilgrims certainly owed their mere survival to the help and assistance of Indians.  The Indian cultures that the Europeans encountered were in many ways just as sophisticated, or in some instances even more sophisticated, than the European cultures that arrived in the first ships.  The Indians never thought of themselves as inferior to whites; in fact, the opposite was often the case.

Indian and colonistsThe arrival of the Europeans also upset the balance of power among the North American Indian tribes, both in the eastern woodland regions and later on the Great Plains and in the deserts of the Southwest.  Europeans frequently had a romanticized view of the Indians as “noble savages,” and some Europeans believed them to be one of the ten lost tribes of Israel.  In eastern tribes women frequently held power, and in fact some were tribal chiefs.  Europeans often rated Indians as inferiors, which then justified their harsh treatment of the Indians later on.

Probably the greatest misunderstanding between Europeans and Indians was their differing concepts of land, or land ownership.  The European believed that you could drive four stakes in the ground, parcel off a square of land, and claim ownership of that piece of ground.  Such individual ownership of a section of land was completely alien to the Indian way of thinking.  Certainly Indian tribes fought over the use of land on which to hunt or fish or even practice agriculture, though the agricultural tribes tended to be less warlike than hunting tribes.  But the idea of “ownership” of land was something they did not understand.  For some Indians the land itself was sacred, held as a mother goddess.  For many Indians the idea of plowing soil to plant crops was as good as blasphemy, and many aspects of nature—rivers, ponds, even rocks—performed similar functions as the saints in Christian cultures.  Even after they had made deals with the Europeans for the purchase of land, the meaning of what they had done was often unclear and led to further conflict.

Many Indians tribes were traders and had built complicated economic relationships with their neighboring tribes, so they understood the idea of commerce as is existed within their own system of barter and exchange.  The European impact on this trading culture was often destructive, however, as the Europeans sought to trade and exchange different kinds of goods from what the Indians were used to.

The nature of warfare also illustrated cultural differences and heightened the conflict between Europeans and Indians.  Native Americans fought hard, and the ability to sustain pain and suffer physical punishment with stoicism was a sign of honor.  The loot in Indian warfare was often the capture of women and children of enemy tribes, especially when the population of an aggressor tribe was threatening for some reason.  Thus many Europeans saw Indian ways of warfare as primitive and barbarous, while Indians in turn thought European practices such as hanging were destructive of the soul.

Despite all the conflicts, in certain ways the Indians benefited from the contact with the Europeans.  The horse, for example, had become extinct in North America long before the Spaniards arrived.  But when the Spaniards brought their superior breed of Arab horses to North America, within a few generations the Indians of the Southwest had taken to the horse with amazing speed.  The horse transformed the culture of the Plains Indians almost immeasurably; consider the difficulty of tracking and killing a fast-moving buffalo on foot, compared with the ability to run down one on horseback.  Plains Indians became the greatest light cavalry in the history of the world.  Armed with rifles or bows and arrows, Plains Indians could hold their own against any cavalry detachment anywhere on the open plains.  That they eventually succumbed to the superior military power of the United States was less a factor of individual skill than it was of organization and numbers.

The history of the interaction between the Indians and whites begins with Columbus, and the story is a long, tragic tale of greed; relentless pushing, shoving, and grabbing of land; insensitivity; xenophobia; and even genocide.  The cultural differences between Indians and Europeans and their American descendants continue to this day.  As we go through the history of Americans and the United States, we will pick up the thread of this story again.


  • Native Roots:  How the Indians Enriched America, by Jack Weatherford
  • Indian Givers:  How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World, by Jack Weatherford
  • Custer Died for Your Sins:  An Indian Manifesto (Civilization of the American Indian), by Vine Deloria
  • Native American Testimony:  A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations from Prophecy to the Present, 1492–2000, by Peter Nabokov
  • North American Indians:  A Comprehensive Account (2nd ed.), by Alice B. Kehoe

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Updated November 5, 2016