American Indian Culture of the West

Shoshone Indians at Ft. Washakie, Wyoming Indian reservation, 1892 / Wikimedia Commons

Many different groups of American Indians with distinct cultures inhabited the western region of North America.

Geographic and Temporal Setting: The Diverse West

Map depicting the tribal groups of Californian Indians. Pacific Northwest due North of this map; Great Basin due east. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The West of United States, extending from the top corner of Washington, through California and into parts of Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho, was home to a diverse array of Native American groups living off bountiful natural resources much before Lewis and Clark ever discovered the region’s riches. It is hard to generalize about the cultural practices of native groups in the West since the climate and resources varied immensely, creating microenvironments which different groups used to advantage. Some tribes that lived in the Pacific Northwest include the Makah and the Kwakiutl people. Over one hundred federally-recognized tribes lived in modern California. The Great Basin—the vast expanse of land between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevadas—was home to the Mono, Paiute, Bannock, Shoshone, Ute, and Gosiute peoples, among others.

Common Food Practices: Hunting, Gathering, and Fishing

Most Western native people fished, hunted and gathered in the bountiful land. Along the Colorado River, Native Americans gathered a variety of wild food and planted some tobacco. Acorns were a pivotal part of the Californian diet. Women would gather and process the acorns. They removed toxins from the pulp inside the nut and made it into flour, creating a less perishable source of nourishment. In the Pacific Northwest, people foraged for pine nuts, wild plants, and more.

Chuckachancy women grinding acorns into flour c. 1920 in California, the tradition persisting throughout centuries. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

American bison also roamed the Pacific Northwest , proving an easy target for hunters. Along the coast of modern-day California, natives hunted small mammals, snakes, and lizards. In the Great Basin, fishing sustained the native people. Salmon was plentiful along the Columbia and Colorado rivers. Native fishermen would use large harpoons to stab the fish swimming through the rushing water, along with complex trapping systems. However, a natural disaster like a mudslide or earthquake could completely disrupt the salmon patterns.

A Hupa man, native of California, hunts for salmon with a spear. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Great Basin natives were the first to create canoes to aid the fishing process and secure a surplus of fish in preparation for times of scarcity. Evidence suggests that the Western American Indians had an extremely healthy, protein- and nutrient-rich diet, much more so than other groups in the Plains or Northeast who relied on farming.

Societal Organization: Distinct, Yet Connected, Communities

A traditional wikiup. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Salmon dominated trade networks as well as diets. The Dalles, the area upstream of Long Narrows on the Columbia River, became a central trading point for networks that extended to the Plains and to the Pacific. The Chumash Indians of the region near modern-day Santa Barbara were known for their trade fairs, where they would trade marine mammals for shells from the Pacific Northwest and hides from the Plains. Acorns were often used as currency.

Many Western Indians, including the Acjachemen native people of California, lived in compact, easy-to-build, and easy-to-move wikiups made of wood, leaves and brush. Others, in resource-rich areas mostly in the Pacific Northwest, lived in more permanent and established villages. The structure of shelter oftentimes indicated the sustainability of the food source—the more plentiful the fish and acorns in the area, the more likely the native peoples lived in intricately-designed homes within societies that were there to stay.

Social and Religious Norms: Resources Dictate Wealth

The great concentration of resources also created rigidly stratified class structures throughout the West. Villages were comprised of thousands of people, organized by a complex social system in which men would hunt and fish and women would harvest and prepare the meat for food and trade. The Chinookan people, whose strategic position along the Columbia River ensured fishing and hunting success, practiced slavery to complete the laborious tasks required to process large animals like bison.

Woman harvesting bison meat and preserving the hide. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In less densely populated areas, sociopolitical organization and tribal relationships were constantly evolving. People generally identified with family-based bands called tribelets. A tribelet would include a few hundred to a thousand people that aligned culturally, but hunted and gathered in smaller units of 10-12 people. In areas with sparse natural resources, native groups were more nomadic and less connected to other groups.

Even monotonous tasks like hunting and gathering had spiritual significance to Western American Indians. Some groups would pray for good hunting luck, and others developed rituals around such processes. In the Great Basin, Sahaptin-speaking people would throw salmon bones back into the Columbia River as to rejuvenate the supply of fish for the following season.

Originally published by the Khan Academy under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.



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