Illustration of Native Americans in cold weather gear, kayaking and fishing with spears.

The Inuit had to overcome the challenges of living in the harsh Arctic climate. They built kayaks with wood or whale bone, over which they stretched animal skins, and used harpoons and other weapons to hunt seals.

Distinct Cultures Develop in Different Geographic Regions

Distinct ways of life developed in each Native American culture area. Here, we examine three culture areas—the Arctic, the Northwest Coast, and the Eastern Woodlands—in which varied climates and natural environments helped unique cultures develop.

The Inuit

In the far northern stretches of Canada, the Inuit (IN oo it; often called the Eskimo) adapted to the harsh climate of the Arctic. By about 2000 B.C., they had settled there, using the resources of the frozen land to survive. Small bands lived by hunting and fishing. Seals and other sea mammals provided them with food, skins for clothing, bones for needles and tools, and oil for cooking.

The Inuit paddled kayaks in open waters or used dog sleds to transport goods across the ice. In some areas, the Inuit constructed igloos, or dome-shaped homes made from snow and ice. In others, they built sod dwellings that were partly underground.

Cultures of the Northwest Coast

The peoples of the Northwest Coast lived in an environment far richer in natural resources than the Inuit did. Rivers teemed with salmon, and the Pacific Ocean offered a supply of other fish and sea mammals. Hunters tracked deer, wolves, and bears in the forests. In this land of plenty, people built large permanent villages with homes made of wood. They traded their surplus goods, gaining wealth that was then shared in a ceremony called potlatch. At this ceremony, which is still practiced in Canada and the Northwest coast of the United States today, a person of high rank and wealth distributes lavish gifts to a large number of guests. By accepting the gifts, the guests acknowledge the host's high status.

The Iroquois

On the other side of the continent, the Northeast was home to numerous Native American groups. Many of these spoke the Iroquois (IHR uh kwoy) language, shared similar traditions, and were known collectively as the Iroquois. Typically, the Iroquois cleared land and built villages in the forests. While women farmed, men hunted and frequently fought wars against rival groups.

According to Iroquois tradition, the prophet Dekanawidah (deh kan ah WEE dah) urged these rivals to stop their constant wars. In the late 1500s, he became one of the founders of the unique political system known as the Iroquois League. This was an alliance of five Iroquois groups—the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca—who were known as the Five Nations. The Iroquois League did not always succeed in keeping the peace. Still, it was the best-organized political group north of Mexico. Member nations governed their own villages, but met jointly in a council when they needed to address larger issues.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments