More than 12,000 years ago, a group of people discovered America, and these people are known as the nomadic ancestors of modern Native American tribes. These groups hiked over a “land bridge” from Asia to what is now Alaska. This happened thousands and thousands of years before Christopher Columbus’ ships landed in the Bahamas. In reality, scholars estimate that more than 50 million people were already living in the Americas by the time European adventurers arrived in the 15th century A.D. According to these records, around ten million people lived in the area that would become the United States. With the passing of time, these migrants and their descendants moved in south and east, and through their travel, they adapted in the new areas. To keep track of these distinct groups, anthropologists and geographers have decided to divide them into “culture areas” or rough groupings of contiguous peoples who shared similar habitats and characteristics. There are ten separate culture areas that the scholars divide North America into:
The Arctic Native Groups
The area known as the Arctic culture area is a cold, flat, treeless region or, in other words, a frozen desert near the Arctic Circle, which is now known as Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. This area was home to the people known as Inuit and the Aleut. The native language of these groups was dialects descended from what scholars call the Eskimo-Aleut language family that is spoken even today. Due to the rough conditions and inhospitable landscape, the Arctic’s population was relatively small and scattered. The Inuit who lived in the northern part of the region was considered as nomads, due to their way of living following seals, polar bears and other game as they migrated across the tundra. On the other hand, the population in the southern part of the region, the Aleut, lived a life that was a bit more settled, living in small fishing villages along the shore.
The Inuit and Aleut had a lot of things in common. Lots of them lived in dome-shaped houses built out of sod or timber. In order to make warm, weatherproof clothing, aerodynamic dogsleds, and long, open fishing boats (kayaks in Inuit; baidarkas in Aleut), they used to seal and otter skins.
The native population in this area reached the number of just 2,500 by the time the United States purchased Alaska in 1867, which came as a result of the decades of oppression and exposure to European diseases. The descendants of these survivors still live in the area even today.
The Subarctic Native Groups
The Subarctic culture area included the greater part of inland Alaska and Canada, and this area was composed of swampy, piney forests (taiga) and waterlogged tundra. According to the scholarly records, the region’s people were divided into two language groups: the Athabaskan speakers from the western end, including the Tsattine (Beaver), Gwich’in (or Kuchin) and the Deg Xinag (formerly identified as the Ingalik), and the Algonquian speakers living in the eastern end, among them the Cree, the Ojibwa, and the Naskapi.
In this area, people had difficulty in traveling. The primary means of transportation were sleds, snowshoes, and lightweight canoes. Generally speaking, the population of the Subarctic did not shape large permanent settlements but instead, small families who stayed together as they traipsed after herds of caribou. Their homes were tiny and easy-to-move tents and lean-tos, and when the weather was too cold to hunt, they hunkered into underground dugouts.
The way of life of the Subarctic population was disrupted in the 17th and 18th centuries with the growth of the fur trade. During that time, in the place of hunting and gathering for survival, the Indians focused on supplying pelts to the European traders. This has ultimately led to the displacement and extermination of many of the region’s native communities.
The Northeast Native Groups
The Northeast culture area stretched from present-day Canada’s Atlantic coast to North Carolina and inland to the Mississippi River valley and is recognized as one of the first to have sustained contact with Europeans. The population in this area belong to two main groups: Iroquoian speakers including the Cayuga, Oneida, Erie, Onondaga, Seneca and Tuscarora and the majority of them lived along inland rivers, and lakes in fortified, politically stable villages, and the larger population or Algonquian speakers among them the Pequot, Fox, Shawnee, Wampanoag, Delaware, and Menominee were people who lived in little farming and fishing villages along the ocean. In these areas, they grew crops like corn, beans, and vegetables.
The life in the Northeast was complicated due to the fact that the Iroquoian groups had a tendency of being rather violent and warlike, which lead to bands and villages outside of their allied confederacies never to be safe from their raids. This grew to be even more complicated and when European colonizers arrived. Colonial wars were the reason why the region’s natives were forced to take sides, pitting the Iroquois groups against their Algonquian neighbors. In the meantime, as white settlement pushed westward, it ultimately dislocated both sets of indigenous people from their lands.
The Southeast Native Groups
The Southeast culture area was a moist, fertile agricultural region that stretched north of the Gulf of Mexico and south of the Northeast. Many of its natives were professional farmers who mostly grew staple crops like maize, beans, squash, tobacco, and sunflower and lived around tiny ceremonial and market villages recognized as hamlets. The most popular Southeastern indigenous peoples are the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole occasionally called the Five Civilized Tribes, several of whom spoke a variant of the Muskogean language.
The Southeast culture area had previously lost lots of its native people to illness and displacement by the time the U.S. had won its independence from Britain. In 1830, the federal Indian Removal Act bound the transfer of what remained of the Five Civilized Tribes for the white settlers never to have their land. Between 1830 and 1838, federal officials enforced nearly 100,000 Indians out of the southern states.
The Plains Groups
The Plains culture area stretched to the vast prairie region between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, from current Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Prior to the arrival of European traders and explorers, the populations of this area were relatively settled hunters and farmers. Their native languages were Siouan, Algonquian, Caddoan, Uto-Aztecan, and Athabaskan. People of this area became much more nomadic after their first contact with European civilization, particularly after the 18th century when Spanish colonists brought horses to the region. Some groups tended to use horses to chase great herds of buffalo across the prairie. What most interested these hunters were the cone-shaped teepee, a bison-skin tent that was very practical since it could be folded up and carried anywhere. Plains Indians are also famous for their ornately feathered war bonnets.
Native people came to depend on many damaging things: commercial goods, like knives and kettles, guns, and disease that white traders and settlers tended to move west across the Plains region. Near the end of the 19th century, white sport hunters had nearly exterminated the area’s buffalo herds, which caused the Plains natives to leave on government reservations since they had no ways of making money.
The Southwest Native Groups
Native people of the Southwest culture area, who lived in an enormous desert region in what is now known as Arizona and New Mexico, developed two distinct ways of life.
Some of the natives who lived in this area used to grow crops like corn, beans, and squash and lived in permanent settlements, recognized as pueblos. Other population living in the Southwestern, such as the Navajo and the Apache, were considered as more nomadic. The source of their survival was hunting, gathering, and raiding their more established neighbors for their crops. These people were constantly moving, and naturally, their homes were much less permanent than the pueblos. For example, the Navajo were popular for their iconic eastward-facing round houses, known as hogans, build-out of materials like mud and bark.
Many of the native people who lived in these lands had already been exterminated by the time the southwestern territories became a part of the United States after the Mexican War. The majority of the natives were enslaved by the Spanish colonists and during the second half of the 19th century.
The Great Basin Groups
The Great Basin culture area was considered as an infertile wasteland of deserts, salt flats, and salty lakes. This area covered a large space and stretched across the Rocky Mountains to the east, the Sierra Nevadas to the west, the Columbia Plateau to the north, and the Colorado Plateau to the south. The greater part of the population spoke Shoshonean or Uto-Aztecan dialects, searched for roots, seeds, and nuts and hunted snakes, lizards, and small mammals. This population was constantly on the move, and that is the reason why they lived in compact, easy-to-build wikiups crafted out of willow poles or saplings, leaves, and brush.
After this nation came in contact with European civilization, some of the groups received horses and formed equestrian hunting and raiding bands. With the discovery of gold and silver in the region by the white prospectors in the middle of the 19th century, the majority of the Great Basin’s people lost their land and, frequently, their lives.
California Native Groups
Before it came in touch with the European civilization, the moderate, warm California culture area had more people than any other. In the mid-16th century, its population was estimated to 300,000 people. This area was also very diverse since 100 different tribes and groups spoke more than 200 dialects. Actuality, as the records of scholar researches point out, California’s linguistic landscape was more complex than that of Europe.
Besides how diverse it was, native people in California had a similar life. Their source of existence was not agriculture, but instead, they grouped themselves into tiny, family-based bands of hunter-gatherers known as tribelets. Their relationships were based on well-established systems of trade and common rights, were commonly nonviolent.
In the middle of the 16th century, California was infiltrated by the Spanish explorers. In 1769, the cleric Junipero Serra organized a mission at San Diego, inaugurating a mainly cruel period in which obligatory labor, illness, and absorption nearly exterminated the culture area’s native population.
The Northwest Coast Groups
The Northwest Coast culture area stretched along the Pacific coast from British Columbia to the top of Northern California. This area had a mild climate and a profusion of natural resources because the ocean and the region’s rivers provided almost everything people needed for survival, such as salmon, whales, sea otters, seals, and fish and shellfish of different kinds. Unlike most of the culture gatherers who struggled to survive and were forced to chase animal herds from one place to another, the Indians of the Pacific Northwest were able to construct permanent villages where hundreds of people lived. Those villages were among the most sophisticated than any outside of Mexico and Central America. In these villages, the status of a person was determined by his closeness to the village’s chief and reinforced by the number of things he had in his possession like blankets, shells and skins, canoes, and even slaves. Such goods were crucial in the ceremony of elaborate gift-giving designed to affirm these class divisions.
Some of the prominent groups in the region were the Athapaskan Haida and Tlingit, the Penutian Chinook, Tsimshian and Coos, the Wakashan Kwakiutl, and Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka); and the Salishan Coast Salish.
The Plateau Native Groups
The Plateau culture area starched across what is now knows as Idaho, Montana, and eastern Oregon and Washington. The more significant part of the population lived in tiny, nonviolent villages along stream and riverbanks whose source of survival was fishing for salmon and trout, hunting and gathering wild berries, roots, and nuts. In the southern Plateau region, most of the natives spoke languages originating from the Penutian. Most of the people from North of the Columbia River, most (the Skitswish (Coeur d’Alene), Salish (Flathead), Spokane and Columbia) spoke Salishan dialects.
In the 18th century, there was progress in this region since other native groups brought horses to the Plateau. The region’s inhabitants rapidly incorporated the animals into their economy, because they helped in expanding the radius of their hunts and started to act as traders and emissaries between the Northwest and the Plains. In 1805, the explorers’ Lewis and Clark passed through the area who carried with them many ill white settlers.
All of these mentioned groups or tribes made a tremendous impact on the tattoo culture then and today. We will talk about different aspects of the tattoo images in the next articles.
Until then, stay safe and think before you ink?