How the Indians Lived


Some tribes depended almost entirely on agriculture and had permanent villages, as did the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest. Others depended almost entirely on hunting, as did the Plains Indians. A few tribes in the Northwest depended on salmon fishing almost as completely as the Plains tribes did on buffalo hunting.

Most Indians, however, had to search out every possible food resource. Typically, corn and other crops would be planted in spring near a permanent village site. The tribe would then go on a summer hunt, and, because any large band of Indians would soon kill or frighten off all game in a region, hunting grounds were changed frequently. The tribe would return to the village site to harvest crops, then move out again on a fall hunt. A winter camp might be made in an entirely different location. Stops were scheduled to gather such food as wild rice or camas roots, and much time was given to fishing.

Thus most tribes were migratory in a more or less annual pattern. Any of a number of factors, however, could cause them to migrate to an entirely different region. For example, hunting grounds were frequently exhausted.


Although Central American Indians made wheeled figurines, the wheel as a transportation device was unknown to the Indians until the arrival of Europeans. Instead of wagons, the Plains tribes used the travois. It consisted of two poles bound on either side of an animal, with the other ends dragging along the ground and a mat or bundle tied between them. Dogs, the Indians' only fully domesticated animals, were used before horses were obtained, and could draw only light loads. When horses were acquired, the travois became practical for long journeys.

The principal form of water transport was the canoe. The bark-frame canoe was used in northern areas from Alaska to the Atlantic coast. Framed of spruce wood and covered with bark (usually birch) sewn together and made waterproof with pitch, it was light and could be easily carried. The dugout canoe was used on the Pacific coast, in the South, and in parts of the northeast and Great Lakes areas. It was made of a single log, hollowed out by burning or cutting. Some dugouts were as much as 100 feet (30 m) long.

The bull boat of Missouri River tribes was made of buffalo hide stretched on a circular framework of willow branches. The balsa, made of rushes tied in bundles, was used by Indians of the Pacific Slope. Some tribes had no boats; the Blackfeet, for example, used only temporary rafts.


In nothing did tribes differ more than in their habitations. Most Indians lived in single-family dwellings, but many dwelt in large community houses.

The wigwam of the Algonquians was a domed or conical structure framed with poles and covered with bark, rushes, or branches. The Apache wickiup was a circular brush shelter, sometimes covered with bark or earth. The Choctaw covered a frame of poles with palmetto leaves. The tepee of the Plains Indians was similar to the conical wigwam, but was covered with buffalo skin.

Wigwam.Wigwam. A wigwam is a domelike dwelling once common among the Algonquian-speaking Indians of the Eastern Woodlands of North America. It was usually made of light poles tied together with bark to form an oval-shaped dome. The builder covered this framework with reed mats or bark, as shown in this illustration.

The longhouse of the Iroquois was a communal house 50 to 100 feet (15 to 30 m) long by about 18 feet (5.5 m) wide. It was made of bark supported by a framework of poles. The Mandan built circular communal houses, each about 40 feet (12 m) in diameter. They were built of timber and branches covered with dirt or clay. The hogan of the Navaho was a mound-shaped structure, large enough for a single family, made of logs and mud. The Omaha, Osage, and Pawnee used earth lodges or grass lodges. The most elaborate community dwellings were the cliff dwellings and pueblos of the Southwest. They were made of stone, adobe, or coarse plastered wickerwork, often several stories high.


Buckskin (tanned deer hide) was a common material for clothing. Men of many tribes wore a shirt that hung free over the hips, a breech-cloth, leggings, and moccasins. Women commonly wore a short-sleeved dress, reaching below the knee and tied at the waist by a belt. Women also wore leggings and moccasins. A few tribes wore sandals and some went barefoot, but moccasins of varied design and decoration were almost universal.

Garments were sewn with a bone awl, and often were elaborately decorated with shells, porcupine quills, feathers, and, after Europeans came, beads. Necklaces, armbands, and other articles of personal adornment were common.

Buffalo robes and, later, blankets served as winter overcoats. Some Indians in prehistoric times wove fabrics of cotton, hair, fur, mountain-sheep wool, or feathers.

The feathered headdress, often with long trails, was a late development among tribes of the Plains, although other Indians used feathers as ornaments. Many Indians of the East and South wore turbans or headbands. Along the Pacific Coast hats were of basketry.


Indians spoke many different languages (see section “Language Groups and Tribes”), but a sign language of hand gestures was widely understood by the tribes between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains, from Canada to Mexico.

Only the Mayas, who lived in Mexico and Central America, had a written language. The other Indians made many pictographs (pictures or symbols expressing ideas; called petroglyphs when made on stone). In place of writing, the Incas of Peru devised the quipu, consisting of cords of different lengths and colors, which, by the arrangement of knots, recorded accounts and events. Smoke signals conveyed only a few simple ideas, and usually required prearrangement.

During the early 19th century, Sequoya, a Cherokee, devised a system of writing used in printing newspapers and books for his people.

Family Life

In many tribes descent was through the mother, and children were members of the mother's clan. There was little distinction between mother and aunt, father and uncle, brother or sister and cousin. This wide relationship was the basis of a clan, which might be scattered through several bands or villages of a tribe. Marriage within clans was almost always taboo. Plural marriage was common; often a man would marry sisters of the same family.

Indians were generally indulgent with children, seldom punishing them, but taking great pains in training them.

Religion and Ceremony

Myths and folk tales are in great variety among tribes, most of them showing belief in magic power possessed by the forces of nature. The Great Spirit was not all-powerful, and the Evil Spirit might be a part of him. Old Man, of the Blackfeet Indians, was the creator, but he could be tricky, mean, and sometimes evil, and sometimes he overreached himself and was defeated. Similar was Old Man Coyote, of the Crows. Sun, his wife Moon, and their son Morning Star were powerful persons, but had frailties similar to those of the Greek gods.

The sun dance of many Plains tribes was dedicated to the sun, but these Indians were not exclusively sun worshipers. There were many dances whose purpose was to gain benefits from the deities—for example, the buffalo dance, corn dance, and rain dance.

Young warriors sought individual aid by prolonged fasting and prayer in solitude. They might dream that an animal or bird spoke to them; the creature would then become the personal “medicine” (guiding spirit) of the fasting warrior.


The Iroquois had a well-organized confederacy and decided issues around a council fire. Sioux buffalo hunting and Pueblo agriculture were highly organized communal efforts, as were many religious festivals. Tribal councils, however, generally had little control over the individual, and chiefs governed only by the powers of personal leadership. Crime was largely a personal matter. Murder might be avenged by relatives of the victim, or an indemnity might be paid by the killer.

Secret societies of warriors often exercised considerable police power and directed hunts and tribal migrations.

Warfare was almost entirely a matter of personal leadership. A young warrior would announce that he planned a raid; those who wished, joined him. If he were uniformly successful he would become a popular war chief. Warfare was a normal state; other tribes were either allies or enemies.