Guide to Native American Tribes

Native Americans in the United States comprise approximately 1% of the country's population, including Hawaii and Alaska. Native Americans are citizens of the United States, but, as tribal members, they are also members of tribal nations independent of the United States government. Before North America's discovery by European explorers, Native Americans fell into two groups: hunter/gatherers and agricultural societies. Some cultures built intricate structures for housing and worship. As Europeans began to colonize in the United States, Native American populations were forced to to assimilate either by coercion or voluntarily and were relocated to various locations, called reservations, throughout the country. Subsequently, native populations in the United States had to devise new ways to survive while embracing their culture.

The Cherokee were an agricultural people. Living in circular dwellings made of branches and mud, the Cherokee farmed corn, squash, and beans. Initially inhabiting a good part of what is now the southeastern United States, most of the Cherokee were forced to leave their homeland for Oklahoma after gold was discovered in Georgia. Wilma Mankiller was principal tribal Chief from 1985 to 1995, the first woman of any tribe to hold the title. During her tenure, she improved the lives of many of the Cherokee tribe by diligently working for improved education, housing, and health initiatives.

Algonquin & Great Lakes Tribes
The Algonquin and Great Lakes Tribes include not only the Algonquin, but also the Huron, Iroquois, Ojibwa, Ho-chunk, Kickapoo, Shawnee, Fox, Potawatomi,and Ottawa tribes. Tribes in this region utilized the forests and lakes, hunting, fishing, and growing their own food. Where available, food included wild rice and sugar maple. Birchbark wigwams of various shapes were the typical shelter for tribes in the Great Lakes region. Algonquin Wayne Gino Odjick was a professional hockey player for four different NHL teams from 1990-2002.

Iroquois Tribes
The Iroquois include the Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Onondaga nations. The Iroquois people occupied the northeast sections of North America. They lived in villages in what were called longhouses made from elm bark. Primarily farmers, rituals and masks are a large part of the spiritual culture of the Iroquois. Ely Parker was both an Iroquois Chief and Union Army officer, who played a part in the surrender proceedings between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.

Originally inhabiting Florida, Seminole means runaways. The Seminole Tribe consisted of tribe members who were outcasts or had run away from other tribes. Escaped black slaves also became part of the tribe. Most of the Seminoles were forced to leave Florida for Oklahoma, but a small group remained and chose to fight for their native land. Three Seminole Wars followed, with most of the Seminole exiled to Oklahoma in 1842. Osceolo, a famous Seminole warrior and leader, led a fierce resistance, but was eventually captured. He died in prison less than a year later.

Occupying parts of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico in the southeastern part of the country, the Navajo were primarily a farming and agriculturally based people. Traditional Navajo homes called hogans consist of poles and brush covered with mud. Navajo composer Raven Chacon is renowned worldwide for his classical music.

  • Navajo Nation: Official website of the Navajo Nation.

  • Navajo Views: Discussion of Navajo origin stories with drawings and photos.

The Apache originally inhabited parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and the Great Plains. Apaches lived in teepees, hogans, or wickiups. A wickiup was made of wood and yucca fibers. Primarily hunter/gatherers, Apaches also made use of local plant life. One of the most powerful of the Native American tribes, the Apache staunchly opposed those they perceived as threats. Geronimo led the Apache to war in resistance of the takeover of Apache lands by Mexico and the United States. He surrendered in 1886.

  • Geronimo: Short biography of the life of Geronimo.

  • Wickiup: Photo of a traditional wickiup.

The Pueblo of the southwestern United States were an agricultural people. Indian corn was the main crop. The Pueblo lived in villages made of stone or adobe, but often visited nearby tribes to engage in trade. Pueblo people have a long history of ceramic pottery making. A diverse group, the Pueblo speak several different languages, but employ a similar culture throughout. Leslie Marmon Silko is a Pueblo poet and novelist who has won numerous awards.

Northwest Coastal Tribes
With its rich natural resources, the Pacific northwest was a prime location for the Northwest Coastal Tribes. Tribes in the region included the Tlingit and the Haida. These tribes enjoyed a rich culture where art, music, and carving were of primary importance. Nathan Jackson, a totem artist and carver, is one of the most famous Tlingit artists today. Salmon was a common and easily obtainable food source. Most of the coastal tribal people lived in wooden plank houses with a hole in the roof to vent smoke. Hats, fur-trimmed robes, and nose and ear rings were common attire.

Occupying the plains region of the United States, Plains Indians fell into two groups. Both groups hunted buffalo, but one group was nomadic, while the other raised crops and lived in small villages. Lakota, Arapahoe, Cheyenne, and Blackfoot were among the nomadic tribes. The Nez Perce, Pawnee, Osage, and Iowa lived in villages and grew crops. Teepees were the most convenient form of housing, allowing quick assembly and disassembly. Clothing was made from buffalo hide. Legendary Lakota warrior Crazy Horse was involved in the Battle of the Little Bighorn where George Custer was killed.

Inhabiting the Bering Strait, North Slope, and Northwest Arctic regions of Alaska, the Inuit have survived for centuries in the unforgiving climate. Primarily hunters and fishers, the Inuit people eat and make use of whale, sea lions, polar bear, walrus, and caribou. Every part of an animal is utilized for food, clothing, trading, or building. Dog sleds were a common mode of transportation, however snowmobiles are now used in addition to sleds. Susan Aglukark is a popular Inuit singer combining traditional Inuit music with popular music of the day.

California & Inter-mountain Seed Gatherers
Utah, Nevada, and California tribes included the Paiute, Ute, and Shoshone in the mountains and the Yurok, Modoc, Klamath, Patwin, and Miwok tribes in California. Mission tribes in the southern part of California, so-called because European Christian mission groups attempted to convert them, are also part of the seed gatherer group. Subsisting on pine nuts and grains, their diet was supplemented with wild game, birds, and sea life where available. Basket making is a huge part of tribal culture, with intricately designed creations for both practical and spiritual uses.

Currently, work continues within each Native American community to improve educational and financial opportunities for the native population. Entrepreneurship is being encouraged with tribes looking beyond the successful casino model that some have embraced. By looking to the future and remembering the past, Native American tribes in the United States strive to improve the lives of each member.

To learn more, visit the following resources:

  • Native North America: A list of different tribes and Native American people with links to brief histories and cultural information.

  • First Americans: Although created for grade school students, this site has a range of resources, information, and photos about the Navajo (Diné ), Tlingit, Iroquois, Lakota, and Muscogee. For people of all ages.

  • Native American Authors: A large database of Native American authors. Find authors using names, tribes, or titles.