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Native North Americans - The Major Groups

Most Anthropologists group Native North Americans into eight major groups. These groups are according to the type of lifestyle the natives had. Lifestyle depended largely on the type and amount of food available, and how easily people could move around. The size of individual groups within each area was limited by the amount of food available and the ability to store food.

Sub arctic Hunters and Fishers
This group includes all of Canada, except the Northwest coast and Arctic region, and extends south to the Great Plains. It only extended a little way into the present day United States. This is a very wet region in summer, and covered in snow in winter. Natives had to use canoes, toboggans and snowshoes to move around. Life was very difficult. Food was plentiful, with protein being the biggest part of the diet. Large herds of caribou migrated through the area every year. Fish, bear, moose and deer were also good sources of food.
Because they hunted for food and transportation and movement was limited, they lived in small family groups. They had easily portable homes, usually made from the bark of trees.
Northwest Coast Fishermen
From the Northwest coast of Canada stretching down to northern California, a thin strip of coastal land formed a good area for Native Americans to settle. Here they could fish in the sea or the plentiful rivers. The rivers were full of salmon and provided plentiful food. The sea provided fish, mammals including sea lions and whales, and shellfish such as oysters and clams. The land provided plentiful food as well, with deer, moose, caribou, mountain goats and other small animals as well as berries and roots. The diet of this group was far more varied and healthy than that of the sub arctic group.
Villages here were larger, usually having over 100 members. Although they were usually related, they were much more loosely related. One family was the head family, and how closely related you were to them decided how important you were.
Interior Plateau Foragers
This group lived in a wooded area with streams. They were able to fish for salmon, hunt for small game and collect fruit and berries. They lived in small family groups and were very peaceful and friendly towards each other.
Great Basin Desert Foragers
This group of people, like the sub arctic hunters, didn't have a very friendly environment to live in. The differences in temperature between summer and winter made living difficult. The climate meant that few things grew, and few animals lived there. Food was mainly berries, cactus fruits, pine nuts, seeds and roots. For protein they ate lizards, snakes and insects. Occasionally they would catch a moose or deer, and have a great feast. In winter there was very little food, and if they had not stored food in the summer, they faced starvation.
They lived in small family units, moving around in search of food. In bad years when food was scarce they joined with other related groups to help support each other.
California Foragers
This group covered much the same area as present day California. They survived mainly on plant food including grasses and acorns. Along the coast they supplemented their food with fish and seafood, and in the interior with animals such as deer and rabbits.
They lived in villages of about 100 people, not always related. Because the villages contained people who were unrelated there was a form of society with relationships between villages.
Plains Prairie Bison Hunters
This is the Native American group that most easily comes to mind when people talk about "Red Indians". The plains are a huge area extending from the Rocky Mountains in the east to the Mississippi River in the west, and from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico. It formed the largest region, and was based on hunting of bison. The groups were small groups who foraged for food and hunted the bison.
Once horses had been introduced to North America, more and more of the neighboring groups moved in, hunting the bison. The groups moved, following the bison. They were large groups and the head of the group fought for the position. In order to be accepted into a group and to have honor they fought and became very aggressive. They formed raiding parties and fought neighboring groups, to prove that they were "worthy" warriors. The warriors also served as a form of security police within the larger settlements. These were the natives who are portrayed in films as the aggressors. Generally, though, the Native Americans were peaceful.
Eastern Woodlands Cultivators
This area was to the west of the Great Plains area. It extended to the Atlantic Ocean, and from Southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The area had woodlands which provided plenty of wild food, both plant and animal. All of the groups here used cultivation of crops to some degree. In the northern most part, the growing season was short, so they depended heavily on wild crops and fish from the Great Lakes and rivers. In the Eastern coastal region crops didn't grow very well, so they also depended heavily on wild crops and fish. The rest of the region depended mostly on cultivated crops.
Because of the degree of cultivation, and the ability to store food, some of the groups in this area were very large, with a society and classes developing. In the coastal area and northern part, groups tended to be smaller and more family based.
Southwest Cultivators and Foragers
This area covers present-day Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Mexico. The climate was very hot and dry (arid). Despite the climate food was plentiful. They lived off wild plants and animals. In addition they used irrigation methods to grow crops. The main crop was maize. Because they used irrigation and cultivation methods they were able to store food for years when wild food was hard to find.
They lived in villages, usually related to one another. Unlike most of the other groups, they counted family as being on the mother's side. This is called matrilineage. Most of the other groups counted it on the father's side, known as patrilineage. Not all the villages were matrilineal, some were patrilineal, but all were related in some way.


These groups of Native Americans stayed pretty much along the same lines until the European settlers arrived. With them they brought disease, guns, horses and a desire for land. The result of European settlement was to destroy the Native way of life.


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