Native American Society on the Eve of British Colonization



From The Independence Hall Association



The Anasazi pottery seen here has been dated between 1000 and 1300 C.E.

In Renaissance times, Europeans were not the only ones accomplishing great things. No one can deny the beauty of Michelangelo’s brushwork or the brilliance of Shakespeare’s verse. But societies elsewhere also flourished. As the modern world turned 1600, it seems as though each corner of the globe had its own “renaissance.” The Native American societies of North America were no different. They had diverse cultures and languages, much like Europe.

When the British staked their claim to the east coast of the modern United States, they could not have dreamed of the complexity of the peoples they were soon to encounter.

There are between 140 and 160 different American Indian tribes. There is no single Native American language. It would be as difficult for the Mohawk Indians of the East to converse with Zuni Indians of the West as it would be for Germans to converse with Turks.


Before Europeans arrived in North America, Native peoples inhabited every region. This map shows Native American tribes, culture areas, and linguistic stocks. (Click Image to Enlarge)

Twenty-seven states derive names from Indian languages. Native Americans turned wild plants such as corn, potatoes, pumpkin, yams, and lima beans into farm crops for human consumption. More than half of modern American farm products were grown by Native Americans before British colonization.

Medicine was not an unknown science in the Western Hemisphere. Most natural herbs used for medicinal purposes in the modern world had also been used by Native Americans before European contact. Archaeologists have learned that North American Indians made salt by evaporation and mined a great many minerals including copper, lead, and coal.

Despite myths to the contrary, not all Native Americans were peaceful. Like Europe, the American continent faced tribal warfare that sometimes led to human and cultural destruction.


The buffalo played an important role in the survival of Native American tribes. In addition to providing food, the buffalo provided clothing and more.

In short, there is no simple way to tell the tale of a continent that had been peopled by diverse communities for thousands of years. Their tales are as complex as any others, their cultures as rich, their knowledge as deep. British contact did not mark the replacement of established cultures by a better way of life, but rather the beginning of a new civilization based on a blend of diverse folkways.

An examination of three groups — Anasazi, Iroquois, and Algonkian — serves as a beginning to learning about the American world that once was.

As you read this section, keep in mind the following questions:

  1. How did European explorers respond to the language, clothing, customs, dwellings, and food of the Native American peoples?
  2. How did the Native Americans respond to the language, clothing, and customs of the explorers?
  3. What are some of the difficulties in trying to understand someone from a different culture?
  4. Why was it difficult for European explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries to understand the diversity of the native peoples who lived in the Americas?
  5. How do historians and archaeologists know what the explorers experienced? How do they know what the Native American peoples experienced?
  6. What do you want to know about the Americas prior to the era of European exploration? How can you find out?

Diversity of Native American Groups


The structures Native Americans called home were extremely varied and often exclusive to tribe or region. These “apartment” style dwellings were the work of Natives of the Southwest.

Since 1492, European explorers and settlers have tended to ignore the vast diversity of the people who had previously lived here. It soon became common to lump all such groups under the term “Indian.” In the modern American world, we still do. There are certain experiences common to the survivors of these tribes. They all have had their lands compromised in some way and suffered the horrors of reservation life.

Language Lessons


The Natchez chief, known as “Great Sun,” was a powerful Indian leader. Unlike some Indian leaders, “Great Sun” ruled as an absolute monarch.

Stereotyping Indians in this way denies the vast cultural differences between tribes. First, there is the issue of language. The Navajo people of the Southwest and the Cherokees of the Southeast have totally unrelated languages.

There were over 200 North American tribes speaking over 200 different languages. The United States used the uniqueness of the Navajo language to its advantage in World War II. Rather than encrypting radio messages, it proved simpler to use Navajos to speak to each other in their everyday language to convey high-security messages. It worked.

Between 1942 and 1945, about 400 Navajos served as code talkers for the U.S. Marines. They could encode, transmit, and decode a message in a fraction of the time it took a machine to do the same. And unlike with machine codes, the Japanese were never able to break the Navajo code.

Excerpts from the Navajo Code Talkers’ Dictionary


– excerpted from the Navajo Code Talkers’ Dictionary (revised as of June 15, 1945), Department of the Navy

Different Strokes for Different Folks


“In the beginning, this place was only darkness and water until the time when a woman fell from the sky world.” Thus starts the Oneida creation story. Every Native American tribe has their own history, culture, and art.

Lifestyles varied greatly. Most tribes were domestic, but the Lakota followed the buffalo as nomads. Most engaged in war, but the Apache were particularly feared, while the Hopis were pacifistic. Most societies were ruled by men, but the Iroquois women chose the leaders.

Native Americans lived in wigwams, hogans, igloos, tepees, and longhouses. Some relied chiefly on hunting and fishing, while others domesticated crops. The Algonkian chiefs tried to achieve consensus, but the Natchez “Sun” was an absolute monarch. The totem pole was not a universal Indian symbol. It was used by tribes such as the Chinook in the Pacific Northwest to ward off evil spirits and represent family history.

It is important that students of history explore tribal nuances. Within every continent, there is tremendous diversity. The tribal differences that caused the Apache and Navajo peoples to fight each other are not so different from the reasons Germans fought the French. Recognizing tribal diversity is an important step in understanding the history of America.

The Anasazi


According to Anasazi legend, Kokopelli was a little man who traveled from village to village with a flute and a sack of corn. At night he would play his flute among the fields, and the people would awake to find the crops taller than ever before.

In the centuries that led to the year 1000, Europe was emerging from chaos. Tribes roamed the countryside evoking fear from luckless peasants. The grandeur that was Rome had long passed. Across the Atlantic, the North American continent was also inhabited by tribes. The Anasazi managed to build glorious cities in the cliffs of the modern Southwest. Their rise and fall mark one of the greatest stories of pre-Columbian American history.


The Anasazi built their dwellings under overhanging cliffs to protect them from the elements. Using blocks of sandstone and a mud mortar, the tribe crafted some of the world’s longest standing structures.

Anasazi means “ancient outsiders.” Like many peoples during the agricultural era, the Anasazi employed a wide variety of means to grow high-yield crops in areas of low rainfall. Their baskets and pottery are highly admired by collectors and are still produced by their descendants for trade. It is their cliff dwellings, however, that captivate the modern archæologist, historian, and tourist.


One component of the Anasazi community were the kivas. These structures were used for religious celebrations. This kiva is from the Sand Canyon Pueblo, Crow Canyon, in the Mesa Verde region and dates back to the 13th century.

The famed cliff dwellings were built into the mountainsides with but one exit for the sake of defense. With the exception of hunting and growing food, all aspects of living could be performed within the dwelling. Deep pits were periodically dug within the living quarters. These pits, called kivas, served as religious temples for the ancient Anasazi. Sleeping areas were built into the sides of the cliffs. Even water could be gathered between the porous cracks in the walls — all by clever design, of course.

Historians can only theorize why the Anasazi civilization declined. One explanation is attack by hostile tribes. Others believe the resources of the area were becoming exhausted.

The durability of their structures has proven remarkable. Think of how our contemporary structures fall into utter disrepair without constant maintenance. The cliff dwellings have endured over eight hundred years of exposure to the elements and still stand proud. Modern day visitors can marvel at Anasazi accomplishments at Mesa Verde National Park or Canyon de Chelly National Park, to name a few.

The Algonkian Tribes


Massasoit, sachem of the Wampanoag tribe and father of Metacomet, meets with settlers. The Wampanoag helped the settlers survive their first winter by providing them with much needed supplies. But as more and more colonists arrived in New England, their relationship began to deteriorate.

When the British set foot on the North American continent at Jamestown, they encountered the Powhatan Indians. The Pequots and Narragansetts lived in New England as the Pilgrims and Puritans established a new home. William Penn encountered the Leni Lenape natives while settling “Penn’s Woods.”

Although these tribes have great differences, they are linked linguistically. All of these tribes (or nations) speak an Algonquin language. These Algonkian (or Algonquian) groups were the first the English would encounter as these early settlements began to flourish.

Algonkian or Algonquian

Which word is correct? When anthropologists classified Native American languages, they took all of the languages of the same language family as the Algonkin tribe (also called the Algonquin tribe) and called it the Algonquian or Algonkian language family.

Algonquian and Algonkian both refer to the Algonquin language or to the group of tribes that speak related dialects. Therefore, the Algonquian tribes (including the Delaware, the Narragansetts, the Pequot, and the Wampanoag) are so called because they all speak the Algonkin or Algonquin language.


The group of Native Americans that lived in Pennsylvania and the surrounding area before European settlement referred to themselves as Lenni-Lenape. It was the Europeans who called them Delaware.

The Algonkians relied as much on hunting and fishing for food as working the land. These tribes used canoes to travel the inland waterways. The bow and arrow brought small and large game, and the spear generated ample supplies of fish for the Algonkian peoples. Corn and squash were a few of the crops that were cultivated all along the eastern seaboard.



This painting, by Tall Oak of the Narragansett tribe, depicts a scene from King Philip’s War which pitted Metacomet against the British settlers.

As the first group to encounter the English, the Algonkians became the first to illustrate the deep cultural misunderstandings between British settlers and Native Americans. British Americans thought Algonquian women were oppressed because of their work in the fields. Algonkian men laughed at the British men who farmed — traditionally work reserved for females. Hunting was a sport in England, so British settlers thought the Algonkian hunters to be unproductive.

The greatest misunderstanding was that of land ownership. In the minds of the Algonkians selling land was like selling air. Eventually this confusion would lead to armed conflict.

The Powhatan Confederacy

The Powhatan organized a confederacy. Virginians were met with strong resistance as they plunged westward. In New England, Wampanoags under the leadership of Metacomet fought with Puritan farmers over the encroachment west onto Indian land. The pacifist Quakers were notable exceptions. Pennsylvania refused to raise a militia against the Indians for as long as Quakers dominated the government.

Unfortunately, the good times between the groups were few. The marriage of Pocahontas to John Rolfe and the first Thanksgiving with the Puritans did little to prevent the fighting. In most cases, each side regarded the other with fear and suspicion.

The Iroquois Tribes


The Masssachusetts Mohawk Trail began as a Native American footpath used for trade, hunting, and social calling by five tribes, including the Pocumtuck and the Mohawk.

The Iroquois people have inhabited the areas of Ontario and upstate New York for well over 4,000 years.

Technically speaking, “Iroquois” refers to a language rather than a particular tribe. In fact, the Iroquois consisted of five tribes prior to European colonization. Their society serves as an outstanding example of political and military organization, complex lifestyle, and an elevated role of women.

Governance and War


Mohawk Indian chief Joseph Brant served as a spokesman for his people, a Christian missionary of the Anglican church, and a British military officer during the Revolutionary War.

Until the 1500s, the five tribes of the Iroquois devoted much energy toward fighting and killing each other. According to oral tradition, it was about this time that they came to their senses and united into a powerful confederation.

The five tribes designed quite an elaborate political system. This included a bicameral (two-house) legislature, much like the British Parliament and modern U.S. Congress. The representatives, or sachems, from the Seneca and Mohawk tribes met in one house and those of the Oneida and Cayuga met in the other. The Onondaga sachems broke ties and had the power to veto decisions made by the others. There was an unwritten constitution that described these proceedings at least as early as 1590. Such a complex political arrangement was unknown in Europe at that time.

Excerpts from the Iroquois Constitution

Roots have spread out from the Tree of the Great Peace, one to the north, one to the east, one to the south and one to the west. The name of these roots is The Great White Roots and their nature is Peace and Strength…

The soil of the earth from one end of the land to the other is the property of the people who inhabit it. By birthright the Ongwehonweh (original beings) are the owners of the soil which they own and occupy and none other may hold it. The same law has been held from the oldest times. The Great Creator has made us of the one blood and of the same soil he made us and as only different tongues constitute different nations he established different hunting grounds and territories and made boundary lines between them…

Whenever a foreign nation is conquered or has by their own will accepted the Great Peace their own system of internal government may continue, but they must cease all warfare against other nations…

The women of every clan of the Five Nations shall have a Council Fire ever burning in readiness for a council of the clan. When in their opinion it seems necessary for the interest of the people they shall hold a council and their decisions and recommendations shall be introduced before the Council of the Lords by the War Chief for its consideration.

Although the tribes began to work together, they surely did not renounce war. They fought and captured other native tribes as well as wave after wave of European immigrants who presented themselves. They fought the early French and British settlers. During the French and Indian War they remained officially neutral, but would join either side to exploit an advantage. Both sides courted Iroquois support during the Revolution. As a result, there was a split in the Confederacy for the first time in over 200 years. Iroquois fought Iroquois once more.

Iroquois Society


The Iroquoi Tribes, also known as the Haudenosuanee, are known for many things. But they are best known for their longhouses. Each longhouse was home to many members of a Haudenosuanee family.

The longhouse was the center of Iroquois life. Archaeologists have unearthed longhouse remains that extend more than the length of a football field.

Agriculture was the main source of food. In Iroquois society, women held a special role. Believed to be linked to the earth’s power to create life, women determined how the food would be distributed — a considerable power in a farming society.

Women were also responsible for selecting the sachems for the Confederacy. Iroquois society was matrilineal; when a marriage transpired, the family moved into the longhouse of the mother, and family lineage was traced from her.

The Iroquois society proved to be the most persistent military threat the European settlers would face. Although conquest and treaty forced them to cede much of their land, their legacy lingers. Some historians even attribute some aspects of the structure of our own Constitution to Iroquois ideas. In fact, one of America’s greatest admirers of the Iroquois was none other than Benjamin Franklin.