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Great listing with culture and histories of many Native American tribes

More on the Chumash tribe



If You're Native American and You Know It, Clap Your Hands


What do you think of when you hear the word "Indian?"

No wait, before you answer this, think about this word. Is "Indian" really correct?

The answer is no. There is a great deal of resistance to the word "Indian" when describing America's original people. The reason for this resistance is that the term is incorrect.

So how did this incorrect term "Indian" come to life in the first place? The term evolved from the words "Los Indios," meaning the people of the Indies. When Italian explorer Christopher Columbus landed in America, he thought he had landed in India and used the term "Los Indios" to describe the native people he encountered. Even though Columbus was wrong, the word "Indian" has stuck throughout the centuries.

Now let's get it right. More accurate terms include "The First Peoples," "Indigenous Peoples," or "Original Americans." Today, most people are accustomed to the term "Native American" or "American Indian." These terms are more accurate and more respectful of an ancient race.

Now, what do you think of when you hear the words "Native American?"

Maybe you picture a tall, strong Cherokee tribesman riding his horse across the plains of Oklahoma and aiming his shotgun at a herd of buffalo. Or, perhaps you envision a village of teepees and people dressed in decorative eagle feathers and headdresses, chanting and stomping around a campfire.

Now picture a tall, strong male Cherokee tribesman with neither a horse nor a gun, living in a log cabin in a small agricultural village in North Carolina.

Actually, both images have some truth to them even though they are quite different. In order to build an accurate picture of traditional Native American culture, let's explore the practices and customs of some of the less well-known tribes before they encountered European explorers. Native American tribes lived all across this country, in a variety of environments and following a great number of diverse traditions and practices in their daily lives. Not unlike the differences in the way people live today, Native Americans adapted to their environments and made the most of the resources that were available.

Did you realize that Native Americans did not have horses until the Spanish brought them to America through Mexico in the late 1600's? Without horses, for example, Native Americans hunted on foot using a variety of techniques. The Illini tribe, originating from the state of Illinois, depended on buffalo as a major food source and large herds of these animals were found on the northern prairies of Illinois. Although it was extremely difficult and dangerous, the Illini tribe conducted annual buffalo hunts that involved up to 300 people and used one of two methods. The first method is a "surround" method whereby the hunters strategically and carefully surround and attack their prey. The second method is a "firing" technique in which hunters set fire to the prairies, thus trapping the huge animals.

Before acquiring European firearms like shotguns, muskets, and rifles, Native Americans hunted using traditional weapons like the lance and the bow and arrow. Over time, they improved these weapons with the use of steel for knives, arrow heads and lance points. Native Americans fought their enemies using these same traditional weapons. Even after they had acquired their first firearms from French traders, Native Americans continued to rely heavily on their traditional weapons.

For example, they found that in mounted warfare (on horseback), their own traditional weapons still gave them quite an advantage. The Comanches for example, disliked the rifle because of its weight. Even though the rifle had greater accuracy, this feature was useless from horseback. If an enemy attacked using a firearm and then had to reload, a Comanche could close in quickly with his lance or send six arrows into an opponent while hanging under the neck of a galloping horse.

Throughout Native American tribes, traditionally the men were responsible for warfare and hunting. During the hunting season, the men of some tribes left their village and set up separate, scattered hunting camps, living there for an entire season. Often men would leave their village in the fall for the annual hunt and they wouldn't return until mid-winter. During buffalo hunts for example, the hunters of the Winnebago tribe (located in northeast Wisconsin) used teepees for temporary shelter.

When you think about Native American villages and homes, what do you picture?

As mentioned above, tepees were used more for temporary shelter than for long-term housing. Not unlike the differences in the homes we see in this country today, more permanent Native American homes came in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some tribes built communal "longhouses" over 200 feet long using elm tree bark to cover a framework made from interlocking branches. In the Connecticut region, members of the Pequot tribe lived in traditional wigwams, huts built using an arched framework of poles and then covered with bark, woven mats, or animal hides.

In North and South Carolina, Cherokee homes were usually "wattle and daub", a circular framework built from interlocking branches and then plastered with mud. This type of Native American home looked like an upside-down basket, covered in dried mud and partially sunken into the ground. Later on, Cherokees generally lived in log cabins built with one door and a smokehole opening in a bark-covered roof. Naturally, the varieties of Native American housing were influenced by the skills of the tribe, the resources available, and the environment in which they lived.

When you picture Native American dress, what do you envision?

From tribe to tribe, Native American daily dress differed in varying degrees and depended on a tribe's creativity, talent, and living environment. For example, the Winnebago tribe of Wisconsin wore fringed buckskin, often decorated with beautiful designs created from porcupine quills, feathers and beads - a skill for which they are still renown. Both men and women wore their hair long, and men styled their hair in two long braids. Later, men changed this look to a scalplock and headdress. A scalplock is the long tuft of hair on the crown of an otherwise shaved head and a headdress is an elaborate headpiece or covering. Also, both men and women wore quite a lot of body tatooing.

People of the Chumash tribe, on the other hand, didn't wear much clothing at all! They lived in the Santa Barbara area of southern California where the climate is mild and the sun is strong. Women usually wore a two-piece skirt made of deer skin or plant fibers. The skirt hung to the knee and had a narrow apron in front with a wider piece that wrapped around the back. Boys and men wore nothing at all. Occasionally, they wore belts or small nets tied around their waist to carry tools. In colder weather, the Chumash wore capes of animal skins and a tribal chief wore a waist-length bearskin cape as a symbol of his leadership status.

For festive occasions, ceremonies, and celebrations, Native Americans often dressed with more extravagance. Outfits included body paint, jewelry, feathered skirts and headdresses. For example, a Chumash male in his traditional dance outfit wore a skirt made of milkweed fiber twisted with white feathers. His headdress looked like a crown of feathers topped with magpie tails. (Magpies are fairly large black and white birds.) Many of the photographs that exist in books and museums today capture Native Americans wearing their elaborate dress.

One festive occasion that still exists today is the Native American Pow Wow. Traditionally, this event brought together different clans within a larger Native American tribe. Today, these gatherings of Native American people are held to celebrate their rich heritage, to socialize with old friends and make new ones, and to expose non-Native Americans to the centuries old tradition of the various dances and Native American crafts. Also, Native Americans use the Pow Wow to educate visitors with story telling and lore demonstrations.

Today, Pow Wows still are held across the country and visitors often are welcome. Visit www.meyna.com and www.geocities.com/_truewarrior_/ and find out where you can take your learning to the next step and experience a Pow Wow first hand!

The Team


Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - Discovering what makes Sherman Alexie tick
Daphne - Cheerleaders and cowboys among the Native Americans?
Daphne - Living with those pesky, loud tourists at the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico
Stephanie - The time honored traditions of the Taos Pueblo Indians
Stephanie - So what exactly goes on at a powwow anyway?