North American Indigenous Nations Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Among the southeastern and southern North American chiefdoms of the Mississippian period (900-1540 c.e.), there were cities designated as “peace towns” and “war towns,” which were occupied alternately during times of peace and war.

Political Considerations

Among the southeastern and southern North American chiefdoms of the Mississippian cultureMississippian period (900-1540 c.e.), there were cities designated as “peace towns” and “war towns,” which were occupied alternately during times of peace and war. There were also chieftains who bore the same designations and alternately led their people during these times. The “Red Chief” led in times of war, and the “White Chief” in times of peace. This system continued through to the early eighteenth century, when the Chickasaw tribeChickasaw of northern Mississippi, who were in periodic conflict with the ChoctawChoctaw and their English allies, would turn leadership over to their Red Chief and remove their people to the red towns when hostilities loomed. It is assumed that this elaborate tradition of response to war and peace was in place long before the European contact.North America;indigenous nationsNative AmericansAmerican IndiansNorth America;indigenous nationsNative AmericansAmerican Indians

Apparently, there was no effort on the part of Native American groups in the South and Southeast to develop what could be called empires. The chiefdoms controlled large areas that included many towns, but distance was an important factor in the amount of control a small group of native nobles and priests could have over a large territory. The Natchez peopleNatchez of western Mississippi, near the city now bearing that name, along the Mississippi River, were probably the best and most advanced example of centralized control over people. The Great Sun was the absolute ruler, presiding over a tightly controlled class system that included four distinct classes: the Great Sun and his immediate family, the Nobility, the Honored Ones, and the Stinkards, or agricultural peasants. It is unlikely, however, that the total Natchez population ever exceeded 5,000 or 6,000, and the territory controlled by the central government was, by modern standards, extremely small. Some distance had to be maintained between chiefdoms to prevent encroachment upon one another’s territories. These buffer zones also served as hunting territory.

Other politically advanced chiefdoms were groups later known to the Europeans as the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole, Timucua, Quapaw, Catawba, Tunica, Caddo, Shawnee, Chitimacha, Calusa, Tuscarora, Pamlico, and Powhatan. This Mississippian, or “temple mound,” group of Mississippian peoplescultures extended from Virginia to Oklahoma and from the Ohio River to the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. The Mississippian peoples also extended some distance up the Mississippi River into Wisconsin. At the peak of their development in the late fifteenth century, they probably included no more than one-half million people. They, like most of the Native American groups, periodically fought small battles with each other, but the fighting was mainly precipitated by encroachments into hunting territories, or misunderstandings stemming from language differences. For instance, the Chickasaw often drove the Kickapoo tribeKickapoo out of their hunting grounds in present Tennessee and Kentucky, east of the Tennessee River. The Cherokee and the various Muskogean peoples–the Chickasaw, Choctaw, those who later made up the Creek Confederation, and the Seminole–were generally hostile to each other because the CherokeesCherokee, who had arrived in the Southeast in the twelfth or thirteenth century, spoke an Iroquoian language. The MuskogeansMuskogeans all spoke closely related dialects of the Muskogean language.

Native Peoples of Eastern North America, c. 1600

One of the most politically advanced groups in the East and Northeast was the Iroquois Iroquois ConfederacyConfederacy, a United Nations-type alliance that had been organized by the sixteenth century. An increase in separate tribal identities had begun in the fourteenth century, perhaps as a male response to the increasing importance of women in food production, with the spread of maize agriculture in the Northeast during this time. Male prestige, which had previously resulted from the successful hunting and auspicious bravery during the hunt, declined, and men roamed farther from home for longer periods of time, encroaching on the territories of others with whom they engaged in violence, all in search of prestige. Another view involves the Trade and warfare;Native Americantrade in prestige items such as copper, obsidian, sea shells, and exotic furs. As male prestige suffered among the Iroquois, raiding to obtain these items by force brought about increased warfare between related groups that had once traded peacefully. By the time of European contact, the Iroquois Confederacy was responsible for a somewhat peaceful coexistence between formerly hostile tribes in the East Lakes region, New England, and southern Canada. These tribes often joined forces to fight their hostile western and southern neighbors.

Another significantly developed political entity were the Anasazi peopleAnasazi, who were a fundamentally agricultural people occupying a large area of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. They built great pueblos in such places as Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde in the Four Corners region. Some believe that the far-flung Anasazi confederation was destroyed in the thirteenth century by raids conducted by Utes, Apaches, Navajos, and Comanches who had been driven out of adjacent habitats by a great and prolonged drought that impacted almost all of western North America during what was called the Little Ice Age. During this time, crops failed and the courses of rivers changed. The successors to the Anasazi, known as the Pueblo Pueblo peoplespeoples, an amalgam of the raiding groups, occupied, and continue to occupy, villages consisting of great adobe apartment complexes. These peoples were not, however, part of any large confederation, but rather were more like bands who often fought with one another for a variety of reasons, many trivial.

West Indian natives and Spanish explorers clash at Columbus’s settlement at La Navidad.

(North Wind Picture Archives via AP Images)

Along the coast of British Columbia, reaching into southern Alaska and Washington state, lived tribes such as the Tlingit peopleTlingit, who were highly developed both socially and politically. These tribes maintained some degree of peace by engaging in the periodic practice of the Potlatchpotlatch, the ceremonial act of giving a great deal of a group’s material possessions to another group, which was expected to reciprocate appropriately within a reasonable time. Northwestern tribes did, however, engage in frequent combat with their neighbors over hunting and gathering territory and perhaps in response to raids for obtaining women.

The archaeological record reveals that during the early fourteenth century there were hostilities between Native Americans who lived along the river valleys of the Dakotas and those who occupied the river valleys of Kansas and Nebraska. The southern group, probably responding to drought conditions, moved northward, forcibly encroaching upon the Dakota group. At the Crow Crow CreeksCreek site on the Missouri River in South Dakota, more than five hundred scalped and mutilated bodies were unearthed from a shallow mass grave at one end of a defensive trench. Evidence indicates that this massacre occurred around 1325. Many other such occurrences have been documented by archaeologists.

It is certain that warfare did exist between Native American groups during the prehistoric period, though it was almost always on the small scale of war parties, perhaps the size of squads or platoons. Battles were seldom fought for the purpose of territorial conquest, but rather in response to encroachments into hunting territory, over misunderstandings due to language differences, for theft of prestige items, or in raids to obtain slaves or wives.

Military Achievement

Because no written historical record exists for North America north of the Valley of Mexico before 1500 c.e., warfare between groups of Native Americans cannot be documented with any precision. There are some oral sources but most information derives from archaeological evidence, which does point to violent conflicts. Many Walled citiestowns were Fortifications;Native Americanfortified with palisades, bastions, and defensive trenches that would have been unnecessary had there not been real or potential enemy incursions.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

The weapons of prehistoric Native American warfare would have been essentially, if not exactly, the same weapons as those used in hunting. These would have included the throwing and thrusting spear, dart, bow and arrow, hand ax, war club, hand pick or tomahawk, knife, accoutrements such as the Atlatlsatlatl (spear-thrower), detachable projectile points, body armor, shields, quivers, and knife sheaths.

The Spears;Native Americanspear was probably one of the earliest Native American weapons, arriving with the earliest immigrants across the Bering Strait land bridge fourteen thousand or more years ago. The evolution of its use in North America is believed to have roughly paralleled that in Eurasia. The spear was originally used as a thrusting instrument in the early Paleolithic period (c. 12,000 b.c.e.). It then progressed to the throwing spear by the late Paleolithic period (c. 8000 b.c.e.). The earliest evidence of the atlatl comes from the Fort Rock Cave in Oregon and dates to approximately 6500 b.c.e. At the Five Mile Rapids site east of The Dalles, Oregon, on the Columbia River, two atlatl spurs, which engage the tip of the spear at the throwing end, were discovered and found to be contemporaneous with the Fort Rock Cave atlatl. There are two basic types of atlatl: the compound, with the spur as a separate piece attached to the body of the atlatl, and the simple, which combines the two into one piece. The simple atlatl appears to have appeared somewhat later than the compound. By the late Woodland period (c. 400 c.e.), the simple atlatl and spear, or the shorter dart, were in use, along with the bow and arrow. They appear to have been used as a weapon until about the end of the Woodland period (c. 700 c.e.) in both the South and Southeast. The spear continued to be used after this time in the Great Plains and in the West.

Two types of Mohawk weapons.

(North Wind Picture Archives via AP Images)

The spear point was made of a variety of lithic materials. In the West, flint and basalt were used. Slate, being easily chipped, was common in the Northeast, whereas chert and flint were utilized in the South and Southeast, as well as the Great Plains. Horn was also known to be used. These points were hafted into a groove at the end of the shaft and secured with sinew and glue.

The spear was constructed from hard, straight woods such as hickory and oak in the East; yew and sometimes cedar in the West; and spruce, especially Sitka spruce, in the Northwest. Atlatls were often constructed of horn, such as that of the bighorn sheep, as well as wood. They had stone weights attached to their handles that enabled effective balance of the weapon in the hand of the thrower. The atlatl-thrown spear was a very effective weapon, but it was neither as effective nor as easily portable as the bow and arrow. During the temple mound period in the South and Southeast, the spear became a ritual item.

The bow and Bows and arrows;Native Americanarrow appears to have been the principal weapon used during the period one thousand to twelve hundred years before European contact with native North Americans. Only the projectile points, or arrowheads, of spears have survived through time to the present day; the organic parts have been lost to decay. There are exceptions, however, in cases where weapons were deposited in dry caves. The time when the bow and arrow were introduced, and its diffusion throughout North America, remains a matter of dispute. Most archaeologists date its inception in the fourth or fifth century c.e. However, a few would put the introduction of this technology in about 500 b.c.e., and still fewer as far back as 4000 b.c.e. The earliest sites have been reported, and highly disputed, to be in the southern half of the Canadian Shield region, which includes Labrador and the southern taiga of eastern Canada. Some have suggested that bow and arrow weapons were diffused throughout this region through contact with Paleoeskimo (Inuit) Inuit peoplespeoples as early as 1500 b.c.e. At some pre-Dorset sites (1050 to 550 b.c.e.) in the eastern Arctic zone of North America, the region that includes Baffin Island, small, chipped, stone projectile points have been found and interpreted to be arrowheads.

In the lower and middle Columbia River region of Washington and Oregon, small projectile points inferred to be arrowheads date as early as 550 b.c.e. Sites in the Willamette Valley of Oregon and Saint Lawrence Island, Alaska, place the bow and arrow in use as early as 50 b.c.e. If these inferences are true, the bow and arrow may have diffused from Asia to the Paleoeskimo (Inuit) cultures of the North American Arctic. It is known that there were strong lines of communication between prehistoric Inuit peoples. At the time of European contact, their languages, from those of eastern Siberia to those of eastern Greenland, were fairly uniform. Therefore, the bow and arrow could have diffused southward along both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

From these northwestern and northeastern locations, weapons technology moved into the Great Basin and the West Lakes regions by about 100 c.e. From these locations, diffusion into the East Coast and Southeast regions, the Colorado Plateau, and California occurred by about 400 c.e. It was probably another few hundred years (525-950 c.e.) before the bow and arrow reached the bulk of the Great Plains region.

Before the introduction of the Horses and horse riding;Native Americanhorse by Europeans in the early sixteenth century, bows were commonly from 1.5 to 2 meters in length and were fired from a vertical position. Later the bowman on horseback used a much shorter bow and fired from a horizontal position. In the western and northern Great Plains, bows were often wrapped with sinew, which has elastic qualities. Because sinew-wrapped bows were prone to lose their tensile strength with exposure to high humidity, the craftsman would wrap the bow with rattlesnake skin, which is nonporous. Horn bows were also sometimes wrapped in a similar manner. Some bows resembled a curved lath, or rod, that was tapered in thickness from about 2.5 centimeters at the grip to about 1.5 centimeters at the tip. Other, compound, bows were elliptical in shape, bending outward from the grip; when strung, they bent gracefully in compound curves.

Bowstrings Bows and arrows;Native Americanwere fashioned from the tough shoulder sinew of the large male bison or elk. The sinew was separated into strands, soaked in water and a glue probably made from reduced vegetable and hoof materials, and finally twisted into a heavy cord. One end of the cord was always attached to one end of the bow, whereas the other end was attached to a notch on the other end only when the warrior was ready to string the bow for use. This allowed the bow to maintain its elasticity and tensile strength. The bowman often carried a spare string.

Arrows Bows and arrows;Native Americanwere made from essentially the same wood material as were bows. The length of arrows varied throughout North America. The Omaha, for instance, traditionally made arrows the length of the distance from the pit of the left elbow to the tip of the middle finger and back over the hand to the wrist bone, an average of 63 to 64 centimeters. Arrows were fletched with feathers–usually three–and some of the feather fletching extended a full one-third of the shaft length. The feathers had to be large enough to split, so the feathers of turkeys, prairie chickens, owls, chicken hawks, eagles, and vultures were preferred. The feathers, after splitting, were often tied to the shaft at both ends with sinew, allowing the middle section to be free from the shaft. The shafts were grooved from the fletching to the tip, and the design of the grooving varied from tribe to tribe. The purpose of this grooving has been lost through time, but some Native Americans of seventeenth and eighteenth centuries claimed that the grooves made the arrow fly a straighter course; some claimed they were bleeding channels, others claimed they kept the arrow from warping, and still others claimed they were occult symbols that ensured accuracy.

The notch on the arrow that fit on the bowstring was at the feather end of the arrow. This end was made a bit bulbous to facilitate a better grip with the thumb and index finger. The string was pulled with the other three fingers.

The Arrows;Native Americanarrowheads of war arrows were perpendicular to the bowstring, so that the arrows would easily pass between the ribs of the enemy. Hunting arrowheads were parallel to the string, so that they would pass through the ribs of game. Some reports claim that there was essentially no difference between hunting and war arrows, except that the arrowhead on the war arrow was longer for more effective penetration. Arrows were often distinctly decorated among the tribes and among individuals. This decoration facilitated retrieval by the owner and also emphasized tribal distinctiveness.

Arrowheads took many forms even in the early periods of bow and arrow usage. By the late Woodland period, points were side notched and corner notched on the hafting, or attaching, end and these were of varying lengths to suit various purposes, such as hunting and warfare. The war arrowhead was the longest and most slender. Toward the end of the Woodland period and the beginning of the Mississippian, or temple mound, period, the triangular-shaped point became increasingly prominent.

These points were crafted by chipping and flaking any of several substances. Chert, flint, and obsidian were the most common materials; all are varieties of quartz. Chert, a poor-quality flint, was used when better qualities of raw materials were not available. Most arrowheads were made of good-quality flint. Flint, composed of extremely fine-grained sediment, has a concoidal fracture that easily lends itself to accurate chipping or pressure-flaking. Obsidian, or natural glass, is a volcanic rock and was available only in parts of the Rocky Mountains and the Cascade-Sierra Nevada ranges of the far West. Obsidian produced a super-sharp edge and could be easily sharpened when it became dull.

The arrowhead was hafted to the tip of the arrow shaft with sinew and glue. A notch was cut in the tip of the shaft, and the head was wedged into the notch. In the case of the war arrow, the head was sometimes detachable. It was loosely hafted to the shaft, and no sinew or glue was used. The head was simply wedged into the notch. If the arrow’s victim attempted to pull the arrow out, the arrowhead would remain and increase the severity of the wound.

The bow and arrow was a very effective weapon of war. An arrow could be projected up to 500 meters and, in the hands of a skilled marksman, was extremely accurate at distances of 100 meters or more. The penetrating power of an arrow shot from a bow with a 40-pound pull had more penetrating potential than did a bullet shot from a Colt .45, and it was more accurate at long distances.

Bows were usually carried in highly decorated bow cases, and arrows were carried in equally elaborately decorated quivers that were slung over the shoulder and hung almost horizontally near the waist. Quivers;Native AmericanQuivers were generally made of soft animal skins, such as that of the river otter.

In the Great Plains and in eastern North America, prehistoric bows often had a long flint blade or knife hafted to one end. These were used as Bayonets;Native Americanbayonets in hand-to-hand combat. The Omaha called these weapons Mindehi (Native American weapon)mindehi, which means “bowtooth.”

The war Clubs;Native Americanclub was a common weapon throughout North America. In very early times it was probably similar to the simple hand ax, made of ground sandstone with a groove near the top to permit it to be hafted onto a short wooden handle and lashed together with rawhide. During the temple mound period in the East and South, the war club was made of either stone or bone. The stone head, sometimes rounded, sometimes pointed, was hafted to a wooden handle with rawhide. Willow was a choice wood because it could be split on the hafting end and was pliable enough to wrap around the hafting groove. The whole assembly was wrapped with wet rawhide that shrunk tight while drying. A bone war club was a one-piece item made from one of the long bones of a large animal, the socket forming the rounded head of the club.

The Nootka peopleNootka of the Pacific Northwest often made their war clubs from whale bones. These war clubs were straight or slightly curved with a hole drilled in the handle end to facilitate a wrist thong. They were ornate objects, and intricate carvings of various designs are known. During the years of first European contact, war clubs of the Northwest were valuable trade items and carried great prestige.

Knives Knives;Native Americanwere bifacial instruments made of flaked or chipped flint or obsidian in most of North America. Ground or chipped slate knives have been found among the archaeological remains in the sub-Arctic Northeast. Some flint knives were as many as 75 centimeters in length and could be classified as short swords. Most, however, were considerably shorter and were hafted onto wooden handles in the manner of projectile points. The knife was often kept in a sheath made of leather, ornately decorated with shell and beads, and worn tucked in the waist belt. The knife, like the war club, was very effective in close combat.

A type of Armor;Native Americanarmor was sometimes worn by warriors in battle. Some of it was constructed of bent wooden laths that were drilled and sewn together with rawhide. Armor was also made of the thick leather of buffalo or elk, folded several times and worn as a vest that covered the entire torso. This same material was used by warriors in the Northwest to make thigh and shin guards. It was very difficult to penetrate, even with arrows and thrusting spears. Shields were also carried into battle. They were generally made of wood, covered with leather, and painted with various designs that were believed to have magical powers to protect the warrior.

It is not known whether the Native American warrior wore distinctive dress or a type ofUniforms;Native Americanuniform that set him apart from the nonwarrior, because such items have not survived to the present day. At the time of European contact there was no indication that a particular type of uniform set any tribal warrior apart from others. It might be inferred, though, that someone wearing only a loincloth but carrying all of his weapons, body armor, and a shield could be identified as prepared to fight. European observers in all parts of North America often reported that, except for chiefs and shamans, all the men seemed to be dressed similarly.

Military Organization

It does not appear that any Native American group in prehistoric times had a standing army or even a warrior class. Warriors were able-bodied young men who, when called upon to engage in violence, left their normal duties as farmers, hunters, and craftsmen and assumed the role of warrior.

Most violent encounters between groups seem to have been conducted by small bands of warriors numbering no more than twenty or thirty. Oral tradition indicates that battles started with an Ambushes;Native Americanambush and concluded with hand-to-hand Hand-to-hand combat[hand to hand combat];Native Americancombat. It is true that some groups displaced others from their traditional territories. The traditions of the Shawnee peopleShawnee tell of their former home somewhere in central Tennessee, and it is believed that they were displaced to the north of the Ohio River by pressures from some of the Southern tribes during the fifteenth or sixteenth century. Choctaw and Chickasaw migration legends claim that these peoples originally came from somewhere to the west of the Mississippi River. These removals, though, could have resulted just as easily from environmental conditions as from warfare. It would not have taken a vast army to cause the removal of small groups from their traditional homes. Persistent attacks by small raiding parties, which could not be successfully rebuffed or answered by counterraids, would have been enough pressure to force migrations. There is no record until after European contact of large military assemblages descending upon an enemy.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

Little or nothing is known of prehistoric military doctrine or strategies, and what is known of tactics is simple. Some of the tactics would have come from hunting, involving moving silently before the attack. The shock of ambush with bows and arrows, usually followed by close fighting with clubs and knives, seems to have been the favorite tactic used in hostile encounters. The strategies and tactics used by Native Americans after European contact, involving large numbers of warriors, probably were not traditional and could easily have been due to European influence.

Medieval Sources

Native Americans north of Mexico, prior to European contact, had no written languages; therefore, no information except the archaeological record remains. Apart from some Viking and Welsh legends, which may or may not have any historical foundation, there is little in the Native American legends to provide details on the military history of the region before 1500. Castañeda de Nágera (fl. sixteenth century), chronicler for Coronado, Francisco Vásquez deCoronado, Francisco Vásquez deFrancisco Vásquez de Coronado (1510-1554), recorded what he witnessed in the Southwest from February, 1540, until the fall of 1542. Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar NuñezCabeza de Vaca, Alvar NuñezAlvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca (c. 1490-c. 1560) traded along the Gulf Coast in 1535 and left a journal describing his trade in bows and arrows. El Inca Garcilaso de la VegaGarcilaso de la VegaGarcilaso de la Vega’s (1539-1616) chronicles of the 1539 to 1543 expedition of De Soto, HernandoDe Soto, Hernando[Desoto, Hernando]Hernando de Soto (c. 1496-1540) through the South offer a glimpse of Native American warfare at the close of the prehistoric period.North America;indigenous nationsNative AmericansAmerican Indians

Books and Articles
  • Ballentine, Betty, and Ian Ballentine, eds. The Native Americans: An Illustrated History. Atlanta: Turner, 1993.
  • Cressman, L. S. Prehistory of the Far West: Homes of Vanished Peoples. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1977.
  • Fagan, Brian M. Ancient North America: The Archaeology of a Continent. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1991.
  • Fiedel, Stuart J. Prehistory of the Americas. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Lewis, Thomas M. N., and Madeline Kneberg. Tribes That Slumber: Indians of the Tennessee Region. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1958.
  • Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. New York: Knopf, 2005.
  • Stewart, Hilary. Indian Artifacts of the Northwest Coast. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973.
  • Sutton, Mark O. An Introduction to Native North America. Boston: Pearson, 2008.
Films and Other Media
  • Broken Arrow. Feature film. Twentieth Century-Fox, 1950.
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Feature film. HBO, 2007.
  • Crazy Horse. Film. Frank von Zernick, 1996.
  • Dances with Wolves. Feature film. TIG, 1990.
  • Five Hundred Nations. Documentary. Tig Productions, 1995.
  • Geronimo: An American Legend. Feature film. Columbia Pictures, 1993.
  • The Great Indian Wars. Documentary. Centre Communications, 2005.
  • Last of the Mohicans. Feature film. Twentieth Century Fox, 1992.
  • The Trail of Tears: Cherokee Legacy. Documentary. Rich-Heape, 2006.
  • Ulzana’s Raid. Feature film. Universal, 1972.

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