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Native American culture of the West

Native American peoples throughout the Western region determined their unique lifestyle by their proximity and abundance of natural resources.


  • Many different groups of Native Americans, with distinct cultures based on their resource allocation and climate, inhabited the western region of North America.
  • Hunting, gathering, and fishing supplied most of the food for indigenous people throughout the West, especially along the Columbia and Colorado Rivers.
  • Although hunting and gathering could be challenging and unpredictable, the bountiful West provided ample food and trading goods, which allowed Native Americans to establish sedentary villages.

Geographic and temporal setting: the diverse West

The western part of the present-day United States, extending from the top corner of Washington, through California and into parts of Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho, was home to a diverse array of Native American groups. They lived off the region's rich natural resources.
It's hard to generalize about the cultural practices of indigenous people in the West since its climate and resources varied immensely, creating microenvironments which different groups used to their advantage. Over one hundred federally-recognized tribes lived in modern California. The Great Basin—the vast expanse of land between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevadas—was home to the Mono, Paiute, Bannock, Shoshone, Ute, and Gosiute peoples, among others.
Map depicting the territories of indigenous peoples in modern-day California at the time of European contact. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Common food practices: hunting, gathering, and fishing

Most Western indigenous people fished, hunted and gathered for sustenance. Along the Colorado River, Native Americans gathered a variety of wild food and planted some tobacco. Acorns were a pivotal part of the Californian diet. Women would gather and process acorns. They removed toxins from the pulp inside the nut and made it into flour, creating a less perishable source of nourishment. In the Pacific Northwest, people foraged for pine nuts, wild plants, and more.
Chuckachancy women grinding acorns into flour in California, c. 1920. Image source: Wikimedia Commons
American bison also roamed the Pacific Northwest, proving an easy target for hunters. Along the coast of modern-day California, natives hunted small mammals, snakes, and lizards. In the Great Basin, fishing sustained the native people. Salmon was plentiful along the Columbia and Colorado rivers. Native fishermen would use large harpoons to stab the fish swimming through the rushing water, along with complex trapping systems. However, a natural disaster like a mudslide or earthquake could completely disrupt the salmon patterns.
The Great Basin natives were the first to create canoes to aid the fishing process and secure a surplus of fish in preparation for times of scarcity. Evidence suggests that the Western American Indians had an extremely healthy, protein- and nutrient-rich diet, much more so than other groups in the Plains or Northeast who relied on farming.
A Natinixwe (Hupa) man hunts for salmon with a spear in northwest California, c. 1923. Wikimedia Commons

Societal organization: distinct, yet connected communities

Salmon dominated trade networks as well as diets in the West. The Dalles, the area upstream of Long Narrows on the Columbia River, became a central point for trade networks that extended to the Plains and to the Pacific. The Chumash people of the region near modern-day Santa Barbara were known for their trade fairs, where they would exchange marine mammals for shells from the Pacific Northwest and animal hides from the Plains. Acorns were often used as currency.
Many Western indigenous people, including the Acjachemen people of California, lived in compact, easy-to-build, and easy-to-move wikiups made of wood, leaves and brush. Others, in resource-rich areas in the Pacific Northwest, lived in more permanent villages. The structure of shelter oftentimes indicated the reliability of the food source: the more plentiful the fish and acorns in the area, the more likely that indigenous people lived in homes within societies that were there to stay.
A traditional wikiup, c. 1903. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Social and religious norms: resources dictated wealth

The great concentration of resources also created rigidly stratified class structures throughout the West. Villages were organized by a complex social system in which men would hunt and fish and women would harvest crops and prepare the meat for food and trade. The Chinookan people, whose strategic position along the Columbia River ensured fishing and hunting success, practiced slavery to complete the laborious tasks required to process large animals like bison.
A woman harvesting bison meat and preserving the hide, Kansas, 1953. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In less densely populated areas, sociopolitical organization and tribal relationships were constantly evolving. People generally identified with family-based bands called tribelets. A tribelet would include a few hundred to a thousand people that aligned culturally, but hunted and gathered in smaller units of 10-12 people. In areas with sparse natural resources, groups were more nomadic and less connected to others.
Even monotonous tasks like hunting and gathering had spiritual significance to Western American Indians. Some groups would pray for good hunting luck, and others developed rituals around such processes. In the Great Basin, Sahaptin-speaking people would throw salmon bones back into the Columbia River as to rejuvenate the supply of fish for the following season.

What do you think?

How did proximity to natural resources determine social position in the West?
What do you think would happen to the societal structure of a large village near the river if natural resources were depleted, by overfishing or natural disaster? How would the group’s lifestyle and social organization change?
When did hunters and gatherers live nomadically? When did they establish villages? Why?

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