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Humanities Libertexts

1.4: The Pre-Contact Era (1000-1492 CE)

  • Page ID
    7866
  • In the period before European contact, more than 500 identifiable groups emerged in North America. A tremendous amount of diversity existed amongst these groups; the people of the West Coast had very little in common with the way that the peoples of the Southwest lived. However, groups within each region tended to have more commonalities. For instance, each region of the continent could be typified by the way in which peoples supported themselves, that is, their subsistence strategies. Other similarities might include kinship relations, political structure, and material culture, the objects and artifacts utilized by a people and having social significance to them.

    1.4.1: The West Coast

    The Pacific Northwest and California Peoples in the Pacific Northeast supported themselves largely through hunting, gathering, and fishing, relying most heavily on salmon fishing. Consequently, the salmon became an important figure in the cosmology of groups like the Tlingit and Haida. The Pacific Northwest region was densely populated and culturally diverse because of the rich natural resources that allowed for a high “carrying capacity” of the land: that is, relatively reliable and plentiful food sources translated into a large population. Most groups lived in large, permanent towns in the winter. These towns formed the basis of the political structure for many Northwestern groups. People identified themselves by their town, and towns organized themselves into larger cultural and political groups through family and political alliances. Each town was led by a secular leader from one of the town’s important clans. Clans are groups of families that recognize a common ancestor and a greater familial relationship amongst the group. Clans were often identified by a symbolic figure or idea important to the region. In the Pacific Northwest, for instance, clans were named for important animals such as raven, salmon, eagle, and killer whale. Society in Pacific Northwest groups was generally highly stratified in a complex system of hierarchy that ranked individuals, families, clans, and towns.

    One of the most important ceremonies of the Pacific Northwest groups was the potlatch, a socio-political ceremony that gathered towns together to celebrate important events. Potlatches functioned as a demonstration of the host’s status and importance. The hosts worked hard to ensure that all of the attendees were fed well, received gifts, and entertained; the hosts spent much of their wealth in demonstrating that they were deserving of their rank and societal status. In the Pacific Northwest, wealth was determined by how much individuals shared and gave away, not how much wealth they possessed. A successful potlatch could confer greater status on a person or a family.

    One of the most diverse regions of North America was the region that came to be California. Politically, groups were divided into tribes led by chiefs whose title was passed down through families and clans. Economically, California peoples participated in large trade networks that linked much of the region and beyond. In general, they were hunter/gatherers. Acorns were a dietary staple, nutritious and able to be stored for long periods of time. However, they were a very labor-intensive crop, as they had to be pounded into flour and cooked in order to be edible. Agriculture was not completely unknown on the west coast; many groups cultivated tobacco as their sole agricultural crop. Contrary to popular opinion, the switch from hunter/gather to agriculturalist is not a measurement of “progress;” plentiful evidence suggests that hunter/gatherers often were able to live in semi-sedentary villages, complex societies, with even a better diet than agriculturalists. Religiously, the many of the peoples of Northern California participated in Kuksu, a religion that revolved around a male secret society that regulated the people’s relationship with the sacred. The primary goal of this society and religion was to re-create the original, sacred, pure state of the world, in other words, to renew the world.

    1.4.2: The Plains

    Some of the earliest peoples of the Midwest/Great Plains region were agriculturalists, settling in the south and central areas. However, the reintroduction of the horse to North America at European contact transformed Plains life (the ancestor of modern horses was found throughout much of North America in the Pleistocene era, but died out and disappeared from the continent). Groups quickly adopted use of the horse in following and hunting the great bison herds, and many groups, such as the Sioux, comprising the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota, were transformed from farmers to nomadic hunter/gatherers and emerged as one of the most important groups in the northern Plains region. Other important groups include the Crow in the north, the Cheyenne, Pawnee and Arapaho in the central plains area, and the Comanche in the south.

    Warfare was endemic on the Plains. War was waged for three main reasons: for prestige, for obtaining goods, and for vengeance. The strategy and tactics of Plains warfare revolved around the concept of counting coup. Coup was an action that demonstrated bravery and skill. The most highly valued coup was to touch a live enemy and live to tell about it. Killing an enemy was coup, too, but demonstrated valor to a lesser degree; after all, the live man is still a threat, while a dead one can do you no harm. Touching a dead enemy was also a lesser form of coup. After a battle, warriors returned to the settlement to recount their stories, or “count coup.” Demonstrations of skill also conferred honor to the warrior; a successful horse raid from a rival group, for example, showed great skill and bravery.

    Politically, Plains groups were led by chiefs and councils. Most groups had a war and a peace chief. Peace chiefs held more power and tended to be older men with more experience. The war chiefs tended to be younger men. In this way, the war chiefs gained political experience that would lend future stability to the government as they aged and went on to become peace chiefs or members of the decision-making councils.

    Religious beliefs on the Plains tended to hold the bison as a central figure of the sacred earth. Most groups kept “medicine bundles,” a collection of sacred objects holding symbolic importance for the group. Often, religious celebrations center on the medicine bundle. For instance, the most important medicine bundle for the Cheyenne contains four sacred arrows given to the prophet Sweet Medicine by the Creator, Maheo. Each year, the medicine bundle was celebrated in a five-day ceremony which reenacted the creation of the world. During the ceremony, the arrows were cleansed and the world was renewed. The concept of world renewal was an important one in Plains religion. One of the important world renewal ceremonies celebrated by many Plains cultures was the Sun Dance. The Sun Dance was sponsored by an individual who wished to give to his tribe or to thank or petition the supernatural through the act of self-sacrifice for the good of the group. Celebration of the Sun Dance varied in detail from group to group, but a general pattern holds. The Sun Dance usually occurred in the summer and involved the erection of a large structure with a central pole, symbolizing the Tree of Life, as its dominant feature. Large groups would gather for the celebration, to give thanks, celebrate, pray, and fast. The individual sponsoring the Sun Dance would pray and fast throughout the celebration, which lasted up to a week in duration. He was the celebration’s lead dancer, and the dance would continue until his strength was completely gone. Often, the dance involved some kind of bloodletting or self-torture. Participants might pierce the skin and/or muscle of the chest and attach themselves to the central pole, dancing around or hanging from it until the pins were pulled free. Another variation involved piercing the muscles of the back in a similar way and dragging buffalo skulls behind the dancer until the weight of the skull ripped the pins free. The scars that the dancers carried after the celebration were a mark of honor. At the end of the Sun Dance, the world was renewed and replenished. Finally, another kind of ceremony celebrated by many Plains groups was the smoking of the calumet, often called the “peace pipe.” The smoking of the calumet bonded individuals and groups together. Smoking recognized alliances, formalized ceremonies, and established kin relations between individuals.

    1.4.3: The Northeast

    Northeastern groups were complex in many ways. Economically, they relied on both hunting/gathering and farming. Many participated in a system of exchange with shells as the medium. After the 1600s, groups began manufacturing wampum, made from white and purple shell beads, using them to record important events and to formalize agreements. Exact copies would be made for each party participating in an agreement. Wampum was very highly valued.

    Politically, groups were led by men called sachems. Many towns organized themselves into tribes or nations; some tribes further allied to form political confederacies of affiliated nations. The Iroquois, or Haudenosaunee, made up of an association of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca nations, was the largest and most successful of these northeastern confederacies. Confederacies were governed by councils made up of leaders from each of the member tribes; the most influential of these leaders often led the council itself. Among the Iroquois, the council was made up of fifty sachems from each of the Five Nations. Council members were chosen from among families designated to inherit the post.

    Warfare played an important role in the Northeast, as it was the chief way to gain power and prestige. Revenge primarily motivated warfare in the region. A cycle of war was ensured because each group sought to avenge those killed in earlier wars or skirmishes in what became called the “Mourning Wars.” Acceptable outcomes of war could take several forms: killing the enemy, taking captives, and taking trophies of some sorts, often in the form of beheadings and/or scalping, a practice that may have been introduced to the region by the French. Captives would be taken back to the victors’ town, where they would be handed over to the women who had lost family members to war. These women led the torture of the captured, which often lasted for many hours or even days. The torture was quite brutal; prisoners were cut, beaten, mutilated, and burned. Ultimately, one of two fates awaited the prisoners. Either they would be tortured to death, or the women might decide that they be adopted by one of the families who had lost men to war. The captive who withstood the torture by showing strength, singing his death song so as to have a good death, would be held in high esteem and sometimes spared. Occasionally, the torturers would consume the flesh of these tortured after their deaths. This might have been a means of ingesting the strength of the enemy; some have suggested that the torture and sacrifice of prisoners was a way to maintain cosmic order through the ceremonies of warfare, torture, and sacrifice.

    1.4.4: Before You Move On

    Key Concepts

    During the Pre-contact Era (1000-1492 CE), more than 500 identifiable groups emerged in North America. Although tremendously diverse, the groups within each region of the continent shared many commonalities. Similarities included subsistence strategies, kinship relations, political structure, and material culture.

    Peoples in the Pacific Northeast supported themselves largely through hunting, gathering, and fishing, relying most heavily on salmon fishing. The Pacific Northwest region was densely populated and culturally diverse because of the rich natural resources that allowed for a high “carrying capacity” of the land. Most groups lived in large, permanent towns in the winter; these towns formed the basis of many group’s political structure. Society in Pacific Northwest groups was generally highly stratified. The practice of potlatch helped to maintain and reinforce this complex hierarchical structure.

    The reintroduction of the horse to North America at European contact transformed the culture of many Plains peoples. Groups quickly adopted use of the horse in following and hunting the great bison herds, and many groups transformed from farmers to nomadic hunter/gatherers. Plains groups were led by chiefs and councils, with most having a war chief and a peace chief. Religious systems in the Plains region were often characterized by the centrality of the bison as an important figure and by the Sun Dance or other world renewal rituals as important ceremonies.

    The peoples of the Northeast were both agriculturalists and hunter/ gatherers. Many towns organized themselves into tribes or nations; some tribes further formed political confederacies of affiliated nations. An important example of such a confederacy is the Iroquois. Warfare played an important role in the Northeast, as it was the main way of gaining power and prestige. Revenge based warfare ensured a cycle of war as each group sought to avenge those killed in earlier wars or skirmishes in what became called the “Mourning Wars.”

    Test Yourself

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    The Mourning Wars were associated with what region?

    a. The Northeast

    b. California

    c. The Plains

    d. The Pacific Northwest

    Answer

    a

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    2. The practice of potlatch is associated with what region?

    a. The Northeast

    b. The Southwest

    c. The Plains

    d. The Pacific Northwest

    Answer

    d

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    Plains groups transformed from agriculturalists to nomadic hunter/gatherers in part because of

    a. the death of the bison herds.

    b. the reintroduction of the horse to North America.

    c. a 100 year drought.

    d. the European introduction of bison to North America.

    Answer

    b

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