People lived in North America for thousands of years before the arrival of the European colonizers. The paths of the migration of the First Americans 13,000 years ago led them to a variety of different environments which in turn affected the thousands of different cultures and languages that developed.
About 30,000 years ago, North America looked much like it does today with a narrow strip of ocean, the Bering Sea, separating North America from Asia. There were no people living in North or South America at the time. Then, during the last Ice Age about 15,000 years ago, sea levels dropped, exposing a land bridge between North America and Asia which people today call Beringia. Large game animals like bison and mammoth crossed this land bridge and were soon followed by Asian hunters. Over thousands of years, people migrated across North and South America such that by about 1500 BCE, it is estimated that 50 million people were living in the Americas. About 15-20 million people lived in North America.
The Indigenous Peoples in North America are extremely diverse. Each First Nation has their own language, social customs, technologies, and culture. However, many scholars agree on cultural regions that resulted in similar characteristics that were adapted from the environment: the Arctic, Northwest Coast, California-Intermountain Region, Southwest, Plateau, Great Plains, Eastern Woodlands and Southeast.
Most First Nations traded extensively with other tribes. Therefore, they were able to specialize in particular products and trade them with others. Many Native American religions center around the belief in a Creator, the power of spirits found in nature, the belief that people should live in harmony with nature, and that people should not own land, but rather that the land belongs to everyone. Some Native Americans were nomadic, traveling around to follow their source of food with temporary summer and winter homes. Others built permanent homes and villages. Some indigenous groups farmed and others were hunter gatherers. The differences in their natural environments greatly affected the development of their culture and customs.
The Arctic Region is very cold and flat. It is a frozen desert with very little vegetation. The region extends near the Arctic Circle from present-day northern Alaska, northern Canada and Greenland. The indigenous people of this area are the Inuit and the Aleut. Because of the harsh environment, the Inuit and Aleut had to adapt many ways of keeping warm and finding food.
The Northwest Coast Region is located along the Pacific coast from Southern Alaska to Northern California. The environment included the ocean and rocky coastline, dense forests, rivers and streams, and a mild climate. Natural resources—such as wood for building homes and tools, sea and land animals for sustenance and clothing, and additional food from naturally growing fruit, vegetables, and nuts—made the Northwest Coast a thriving region. There are many First Nations that call this region home including the Tlingit, Haida, Kwakiutl, and Chinook.
The California-Intermountain Region stretches inland from the Pacific coast of California through the high Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Great Basin. The Great Basin is located in present day Nevada, Utah, and Western Colorado. The environments here differ greatly, from the mild climate of the beaches, the extreme hot and cold of the desert, to the dense Redwood forests and the mountains. Over 100 First Nations call this region home including the Shoshone, Paiute, Ute, Miwok, and Pomo people.
The Plateau (or Columbia Plateau) Region is located in the northwestern United States and British Columbia, Canada and stretches between the Cascade Mountains and the Rocky Mountains with the large Columbia and Fraser Rivers running through it. The area is semi-arid, meaning it is fairly dry with little rainfall, but the rivers provide water. It is very cold in the winter and hot in the summer. The Plateau has flatlands as well as gorges, hills, and forests near the mountains. Some of the First Nations that call this region home are the Klamath, Klickitat, Walla Walla, Nez Perce, Spokane, Yakama, Lillooet, and Shuswap.
The Southwest Region stretches from the southwestern states of Arizona and New Mexico, parts of Colorado, Utah and Texas, all the way to northern Mexico. It is filled with very dry deserts as well as mesas, canyons, and mountains. The deserts have extreme temperatures of very hot days and freezing nights. There is very little rainfall and very little vegetation other than cacti. The summers are very hot and the winters are mild. Some of the first nations that called this region home include the Puebloan people, the Hopi, the Zuni, the Yaqui and Yuma, as well as the Apaches and the Navajo (Diné).
The Great Plains and Canadian Prairies Region is an extremely large region that stretches from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains from Texas through Canada. The region has cold winters and hot summers. It is mostly a flat and treeless grassland with animals such as pronghorn antelope, deer, bear, and bison. The buffalo is a sacred creature to the First Nations of the Great Plains. Native Americans in this region include the Sioux, Pawnee, Crow, Cheyenne, Comanche, Dakota, Lakota, Nakota, Blackfeet, Arapaho, Saulteaux, and Ojibwe.
The Northeast / Eastern Woodlands Region stretches from the Mississippi River east to the Atlantic Ocean. It has abundant forests, lakes and rivers as well as mountains, valleys and the seacoast. People in this region enjoy all four seasons: hot summers, cool falls, cold winters, and warm springs. The forests and rivers support many animals like turkeys, deer, beavers, bears, and fish. Some First Nations in this region were nomadic and moved from place to place while others farmed and built permanent homes. The two main language groups in this region are Iroquois which include: the Cayuga, Oneida, Erie, Onondaga, Seneca, Tuscarora, and Mohawk people, and Algonquian which include the Pequot, Fox, Shawnee, Wampanoag, Delaware, Menominee, and Mohegan people.
The Southeast Region runs from Texas to the Atlantic Ocean and south from the Ohio River Valley to the Gulf of Mexico. The Southeast is hot and humid most of the year and includes rivers, mountains, valleys, coastal plains, and swamps. It was the most populated of all the regions of North America. Its climate made the southeast a rich and fertile agricultural region. Crops like maize, beans, squash, tobacco, and sunflowers were plentiful. First Nations that thrived in this region were the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Natchez, and Seminole. Today many of the Southeast tribes are located in Oklahoma because of the forced removal of over 100,000 Native Americans in the 1830s. Called the Trail of Tears, this forced removal killed many Natives en route to their new "home".
Millions of Native Americans lived in North America for thousands of years and each First Nation has a rich history, language, and culture that was influenced by the environment in which they lived. Despite a history of forced removal and genocide, many First Nations continue to thrive today and carry on their rich cultural traditions.
With the activities in this lesson plan, students will examine the geography and climates of the different regions of North America to better understand how they influenced the development of cultures and civilizations of Native Americans.