American Aboriginal Culture

The debate surrounding aboriginal American culture has raged across conversations for decades. At the center of the intercontinental American discussion has been the myth that Italian explorer Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492. Columbus actually first landed in the Bahamas and later took control of the indigenous populations on the islands of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

The ancestors of Native American tribes were thriving cultures long before Columbus sailed. As nomads these people lived in Alaska more than 12,000 years ago. Across the continent of North America, there were more than 50 million aboriginals, with 10 million of that number living in the United States.

Roughly 10 groups make up aboriginal culture: the Northeast, the Southeast, the Northwest Coast, the Southwest, the Arctic, the Subarctic, the Plains, the Great Basin, the Plateau and California. This does not include Mexico. U.S. Census Bureau statistics place the number of aboriginals at 4.5 million, including Native Americans and native Alaskans.

Aboriginal Mayans from southeast Mexico gave us the only system of pre-Columbian writing that represents the entire spoken language of a community. The language has more than 1,000 glyphs. Syllabics is a language used to write the Algonquian, Inuit and Athabaskan language families. Much of the musical culture centers around drumming, though clappersticks, rattles, flutes and rasps are prominent, too. Artists from aboriginal cultures did painting and sculpture, carvings, pottery, basketry and weaving, jewelry and beadwork.

As seen from much of the art, music and lifestyles, some cultural practices transcend all of these groups, depending on where each is geographically situated. Groups in close proximity have tended to practice similar social patterns and developed the same kind of agricultural or aquacultural survival systems.

Northeast culture included the Atlantic coast of Canada all the way to North Carolina and then to the Mississippi River Valley. This group, composed mainly of the Iroquoi, who lived inland in stable villages, and the Algonquian, who lived along the coast in small farming and fishing villages. The Iroquoi lived often as raiders and were aggressive to communities outside of the Iroquoi villages. This kept tension in the region and was only heightened when European settlers arrived.

In the Southeast culture, there was much opportunity for agriculture. The land was fertile, and the aboriginals here were impressive farmers. In their market villages, they grew tobacco, beans, squash, sunflowers and corn. This was home to the groups known as the Five Civilized Tribes who spoke dialects of Muskogean languages. White settlers forced these groups, the Choctaw, Seminole, Cherokee, Creek and Chickasaw, from their land between 1830 and 1838 in what has come to be known as the Trail of Tears.

Pacific coastal life is filled with many natural resources. The ocean provided shellfish, salmon, sea otters and whales. This kind of security enabled groups like the Tlingit and Athapaskan Haida, the Wakashan Kwakiutl and the Penutian Chinook to build sophisticated social communities that could house about 100 people. The measure of social status was determined by the number of personal possessions and the ability to get close to the village chief. These groups strongly reinforced social divisions through a gift-giving ceremony called a potlatch. Those who had many possessions to give were considered of high social status.

Southwest aboriginals in present-day New Mexico and Arizona were either farmers or nomads. The Hopi, Yuma, Yaqui and Zuni lived in farming villages with housing structures made like apartment buildings. Their villages, or pueblos, had ceremonial pit houses, or kivas, in the center. They produced crops like squash, corn and beans.

The Navajo and Apache were hunters, gatherers and raiders and always on the move. Their houses, called hogans, were made of mud and bark and always faced east. Those who did not did during enslavement by Spanish colonists and missionaries were eventually moved to government reservations.

In Arctic culture, considered a frozen desert, the Inuit and Aleut spoke dialects of the Eskimo-Aleut language, which scholars have labeled as unfriendly. Language became a distancing element and made an already nomadic culture very scattered across the region. In their small groups, the Inuit hunted polar bears, seals and other game. The Aleut lived in small fishing villages. Both groups used seal and otter skins to make clothing and lived in dome-shaped sod houses. Those who lived in the north built houses made of ice blocks.

Once European invasions began brought diseases and the brutalities of conquest, the population dropped to about 2,500. The people who live there now are descendants of this smaller population.

Much of inland Alaska and Canada is waterlogged, which makes it tough for the aboriginals of the region to travel. The small population typically used snowshoes, small canoes and toboggans to get around. There were two regional languages for these groups: Athabaskan in the west and Algonquian in the east.

Mostly small groups of families moved across the region to hunt caribou. They lived in tents or other structures easy to assemble and take down and made underground dugouts for cold weather. The culture seemed to begin to decline once the people stopped hunting and gathering and turned to the fur trade of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Plains
The hunters and farmers of the Plains became more nomadic once Spanish settlers introduced horses to them. They chased herds of buffalo across the prairie region between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River. With a reputation for wearing richly detailed war bonnets, the groups of this region lived in teepees made from bison skin. The Comanche, Crow, Arapaho, Blackfeet and Cheyenne who lived here were eventually forced to live on government reservations when white sport hunters killed off most of the buffalo and took over their land.

Great Basin
The nomadic people of the Great Basin had lives that were socially temporary. They used leaves and poles from willow trees to make houses and they captured snakes and small animals to eat. They also used nuts, seeds and roots to make food. Their land was mostly deserts with salt flats and lakes. Although European settlers introduced these aboriginals to horses, they were no match for other settlers who came to the Great Basin in search of silver and gold. They lost their land and ultimately continued to lose their lives.

The Plateau sat at the intersection of the Plains, Great Basin, Northwest Coast, Subarctic and California regions. Most of the groups here lived in small fishing villages and were able to eat trout and salmon, roots, nuts and wild berries. Because of their geographic location, the Plateau aboriginals were in a position to be great traders between other regions. After 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition brought diseases, which killed off some of the population. Survivors were moved to government plantations.

With 100 tribes speaking more than 200 different dialects, the California aboriginals outnumbered those of any other region. They were peaceful traders and hunter-gatherers, and they had strong relationships based on mutual respect. Spanish explorers who came in the 16th century forced many of these groups into labor, and they contracted diseases and were forced to adapt to Spanish culture.

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