Indigenous Peoples of the Southwest

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. Some of the first nations that called this region home are the Hopi, Zuni, Yaqui and Yuma, Apache, Tao, and Navajo (Dine). These activities will let students explore the culture and traditions of these First Nations people and better understand their history.

Student Activities for Indigenous Peoples of the Southwest

Essential Questions for Indigenous Peoples of the Southwest Region

  1. Who are the First Nations of the Southwest Region?
  2. Where is the Southwest region and what is its environment?
  3. How did the environment impact the development of culture and traditions of the Native Americans of the Southwest Region?

Background for Indigenous Peoples of the Southwest Region


The Southwest cultural region is home to the driest climate with vast deserts, tall mesas, and steep canyons like the Grand Canyon. The region stretches from the Southwestern United States of Arizona, New Mexico, parts of Colorado and Utah and Texas, to northern Mexico between the Rocky Mountains to the west and the Sierra Madres to the east in Mexico.

Natural Resources

The climate is arid and very dry with less than 4 inches of rain a year. There, extreme temperatures range from very hot days of over 100°F to cold nights where temperatures can drop below freezing. There is very little rainfall and therefore, little vegetation. The plants that do grow in the desert include yucca, agave, sagebrush, and many types of cacti. Animals that can survive in the extreme climate of the Southwest include the coyote, javelina, horned toad, jaguar, bighorn sheep, jackrabbit, roadrunner, scorpion, rattlesnake, and whiptail lizard, among others.

Indigenous Peoples

Thousands of years ago, people first began to settle in the vast canyons of what is now New Mexico. The first known peoples of the region were the Cochise. They are estimated to have lived here in 7000 B.C.! Archeologists have found evidence of the Cochise subsisting from hunting and gathering small mammals and wild plants as well as the beginnings of agriculture. Other ancient civilizations were called the ancestral Pueblo (PWEB-loh) (also called the Anasazi), the Mogollon (moh-guh-YOHN), and the Hohokam (huh-HOH-kum). They built entire cities carved into the cliffs and invented methods of irrigation to bring water to the dry desert for farming. The descendants of these civilizations make up the First Nations of the Southwest Region. Modern Pueblo tribes include the Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, and Laguna. Other First Nations in the Southwest region include the: Navajo (Dine), Apache, Pima (Akimel O'odham), Yaqui, Yuma, and Tao.


The ancient Anasazi lived in the Southwest region more than 2,000 years ago and were known for creating cliff dwellings, which are homes and villages built into the side of steep cliffs using stones and adobe clay. The cliffs would help protect them from the harsh climate and from potential invaders. The Anasazi developed ways to farm using very little water by creating mechanisms for irrigation. Nations like the Hopis are considered descendants of the Anasazi and they, too, lived in permanent villages. The Hopis also farmed using very little water. They grew vegetables like corn, beans, and squash. Around 800 A.D., the Hopi also grew cotton with which they would weave colorful blankets and clothing. They would use plants to create dyes in vibrant colors like orange, yellow, red, green, and black, and would embroider intricate designs in their clothing.

Homes and Village Life

First nations like the Hopi built homes called pueblos, which are like apartment buildings made of stone and adobe clay. Adobe clay hardens when it dries and becomes strong like cement. Pueblo apartments could stand four or five stories high with multiple rooms. Ladders were used to move from one story to another. At the center of such villages were usually a gathering place called a kiva. Kivas could be underground and were places where communities could come together to talk, tell stories, or perform religious ceremonies.

Other tribes, like the Navajo and Apache, were semi-nomadic, hunter-farmers. Men traditionally hunted to provide food while women managed the home and the land. They kept sheep and goats and their wool was woven into cloth for clothing and blankets. The Navajo built homes called hogans. There are two types of hogans: the male and the female. The male hogan was built with an entryway and a main room that was pointed at the top. It was built from wood, mud, and sand. The doorway always faced the east to greet the rising sun in the morning. The female hogan is round with a domed roof and was built with wood and thick earthen walls. The name Hogan comes from the Navajo word “hoghan”, meaning “dwelling house.” The hogan provided a cool respite during the summer and warm home during the winter.

Religion and Traditions

Basket weaving and pottery are as artistically beautiful as they are useful. The pictures on pottery tell a story and they were called “talking pots.” The spiritual beliefs of the people of the Southwest teach peace and the importance of showing kindness and love to all people and to the earth. Southwestern Native Americans believe in spirits or Kachinas. Kachina dolls are beautifully crafted, sacred objects traditionally made from the cottonwood root. Today, Kachina dolls are crafted from wood and painted to look like the spirit they represent.

Spanish conquistadors first arrived in the region in 1519 under the explorer Hernando Cortes. They introduced horses to the region, which became important for groups like the Navajo and Apache who used them for travel and trade. However, the arrival of the Spanish also brought the enslavement of many of the Native Americans. Spanish colonists and missionaries forced the indigenous peoples of the Southwest to work on large ranches called encomiendas. They also brought diseases which the Native Americans did not have immunity to. Disease, slavery, and battles with the Spanish over territory caused the deaths of many indigenous peoples.


While the first nations of the Southwest like the Hopi, Zuni, Navajo, and Apache had lived in the region for thousands of years, the expansion of the United States after the Mexican War (1846-1848) and the Civil War (1861-1865) caused them to lose their land. The U.S. government forcibly took over more and more of the land from Native Americans and forced many to live on reservations. Soldiers destroyed Native American crops and homes. Today, more than 20 percent of Native Americans in the United States live in the Southwest (mostly in Arizona and New Mexico) both on and off reservations. Native American people of the Southwest continue to preserve their diverse cultural traditions that have been passed down for generations from their ancestors, the First Americans.

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