Indians and the Environment

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The natural phenomena that surrounded the aborigines of North America, stimulating and conditioning their life and activities, contrasted greatly with those of the European-Asiatic continent. The differences in the two environments do not lie alone in physical geography and in plant and animal life, but are largely meteorologic the sun operating on air, land, and water, producing variations in temperature and water supply, and as a result entirely new vegetal and animal forms. The planets and stars also affected cultural development, since lore and mythology were based on them. Within the American continent N. of Mexico there were ethnic; environments which set bounds for the tribes and modified their industrial, esthetic, social, intellectual, and religious lives. Omitting the Eskimo, practically all the peoples dwelt in the temperate zone. Few impassable barriers separated the culture areas, as in Asia. In some respects, indeed, the entire region formed one environment, having easy communications x. and s. and few barriers E. and w. The climate zones which Merriam has worked out for the U. S. Department of Agriculture in regard to their animal and vegetal life correspond in a measure with the areas of linguistic families as delimited on Powell s map (see Linguistic families). The environmental factors that determine cultural development of various kinds and degrees are (1) physical geography; (2) climate, to which primitive peoples are especially amenable; (3) predominant plants, animals, and minerals that supply the materials of drink, food, medicines, clothing, ornaments, houses, fuel, furniture and utensils, and the objects of hunting, war, the industrial arts, and activities connected with travel, transportation, and commerce.

Twelve ethnic environments may be distinguished. There are Cosmopolitan characters common to several, but in each area there is an ensemble of qualities that impressed themselves on their inhabitants and differentiated them.

(1) Arctic. The characteristics of this environment are an intensely cold climate; about six months day and six months night; predominance of ice and snow; immense archipelagos, and no accessible elevations; good stone for lamps and tools; driftwood, but no timber and little fruit; polar bear, blue fox, aquatic mammals in profusion, migratory birds, and fish, supplying food, clothing, fire, light, and other “wants in the exacting climate.

(2) Yukon-Mackenzie. This is Merriam s transcontinental coniferous belt, separated from the arctic environment by the timber line, but draining into arctic seas. It has poor material resources, and barren grounds here and there. Its saving riches are an abundance of birch, yielding bark utensils, canoes, binding materials, and houses, and of spruce, furnishing textile roots and other necessaries caribou, muskox, bear, red fox, wolf, white rabbit, and other fur-bearing mammals, and porcupines, migrating birds, and fish. Snow necessitates snowshoes of fine mesh, and immense inland waters make portages easy for bark canoes. Into this area came the Athapascan tribes who developed through its resources their special culture.

(3) St Lawrence and Lake region. This is a transition belt having no distinct lines of separation from the areas on the N. and s. It occupies the entire drainage of the great lakes and includes Manitoba, E. Canada, and N. New England. It was the home of the Iroquois, Abnaki, Chippewa, and their nearest kindred. The climate is boreal. There are a vast expanse of lowlands and numerous extensive inland waters. The natural products are abundant evergreens, birch, sugar maple, elm, berries, and wild rice in the w.; maize, squash, and beans in the s.; moose, deer, bear, beaver, porcupines, land and water birds in immense flocks, whitefish, and, on the seacoast, marine products in greatest variety and abundance. Canoe travel; pottery scarce.

(4) Atlantic slope. This area, occupied principally by tribes allied to the Delaware, but also by detached Iroquoian tribes and perhaps some Siouan and Uchean bands, included the region of the fertile piedmont, poor foothills lands, bays and rivers abounding in aquatic life, and vast salt meadows. The low mountains were not ethnic barriers, but the differences in physical conditions on the two sides were marked enough to produce separate cultures. Minerals for tools and weapons were present in great variety, and ochers, clays, and some copper were found. Plant life was varied and abundant. Forests of hard wood, birch, elm, maple, and evergreens furnished materials for supplying a great diversity of wants. From the soft wood were made dugout canoes. The dense forest growth rendered foot traveling irksome. Nuts, berries roots, and maize furnished food; flax and tough pliant woods and bark gave textile materials. The life conditions for economic animals were as varied as possible. Beginning with the shallow marshes and numerous salt-w rater inlets, furnishing clams, oysters, crabs, cod, mackerel, her ring, halibut, shad, sturgeon, eels, and terrapin, as shell-heaps attest, it terminated in the trout streams of the mountains. There were birds of the air, like the eagle and wild pigeon, ground birds, like the quail and the turkey, and water birds innumerable. Mammals of the water w y ere the muskrat, otter, and beaver; of the land, moose, elk, deer, bear, rabbit, squirrel, raccoon, opossum, and wood-chuck. The wide range of latitude necessitated different dwellings for different climates, as the bark tipi, the mat house, and the arbor house. For clothing, garments of hide, rabbit skin, and feathers were used. Stone was abundant for making tools, for flaking or grinding, but neither materials nor motives for artistic work of a high order were present.

(5) Gulf coast. The Southern states, from Georgia to Texas, were inhabited by Muskhogean tribes and several small linguistic families. The characteristics of this area are a climate ranging from temperate to subtropical, with abundant rain, low mountains, and rich river valleys and littoral with varied and profuse mineral, vegetal, and animal resources. The environment yielded a diet of meat, fish, maize, pulse, melons, and fruits. It was favorable to meager dress and furnished materials and incentives for featherwork and beadwork, stonework, earth work, and pottery. Traveling on foot and in dug out canoes was easy.

(6) Mississippi valley. This area includes the states of the Middle West beyond the Great Lake divide, extending to the loosely defined boundary of the great plains. Its characteristics in relation to Indian life were varied climate, abundant rainfall, numerous waterways, fertile lands, alternate timber and prairie, and minerals in great variety and abundance, including clay for pottery. The economic plants were soft and hard woods, and plants yielding nuts, berries, fruits, and fiber. The fertile land was favorable to the cultivation of maize and squashes. Animals of the chase were buffalo, deer, small rodents, and wild pigeons and other land birds; but there was a poor fish supply, and the only shellfish were river mussels. This environment developed hunting and agricultural tribes, chiefly of Algonquian lineage, including sedentary tribes that built remarkable mounds.

(7) Plains. This environment lies between the Rocky mts. and the fertile lands w. of the Mississippi. To the x. it stretches into Athabasca, and it terminates at the s. about the Rio Grande. The tribes w r ere Siouan, Algonquian, Kiowan, Caddoan, and Shoshonean. The Missouri and Arkansas and many tributaries drain the area. The plants were boisd` arc and other hard woods for bows, cedar for lodge poles, willows for beds, the pomme blanche for roots, etc., but there were no fine textile fibers. Dependence on the buffalo and the herbivorous animals associated with it compelled a meat diet, skin clothing and dwellings, a roving life, and industrial arts depending on the flesh, bones, hair, sinew, hide, and horns of those animals. Artistic and symbolic de signs w r ere painted on the rawhide, and the myths and tales related largely to the buffalo. Travel was on foot, with or with out snowshoes, and transportation was effected by the aid of the dog and travois. The horse afterward wrought profound changes. The social order and habit of semi-nomadic wandering about fixed centers were the direct result of the surroundings and discouraged agriculture or much pottery. No canoes or other craft than the Mandan and Hidatsa skin boats.

(8) North Pacific coast. From Mt St Elias to the Columbia mouth, lying along the archipelago and cutoff from the interior by mountains covered with snow, was the area inhabited by the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Nootka, and coast Salish. It has a moist, temperate climate, a mountainous coast, with extensive island groups and landlocked waters favorable to canoe travel. The shores are bathed by the warm current of the N. Pacific. The days in different seasons vary greatly in length. The material resources are black slate for carving and good stone for pecking, grinding, and sawing; immense forests of cedar, spruce, and other ever green trees for houses, canoes, totem-posts, and basketry; mountain goat and big horn, bear, beaver, birds, and sea food in great variety and in quantities inexhaustible by savages. This environment induced “a diet of fish, mixed with berries, clothing of bark and hair, large communal dwellings, exquisite twined and checkered basketry to the discouragement of pottery, carving in w rood and stone, and unfettered travel in dugout canoes, which provided opportunity for the full development of the dispersive clan system.

(9) Columbia-Fraser region. This includes the adjoining basins of these streams and contiguous patches, inhabited principally by Salishan, Shahaptian, and Chinookan tribes. In the s. is a coast destitute of islands. At the head waters of its rivers it communicates with the areas lying to the E. across the mountains. Rich lands, a mild climate, good minerals for industries, textile plants, excellent forests, and an abundance of edible roots and fruits, fish, mollusks, and water fowl ready at hand characterize this environment, with skin and wool for clothing. The manifold resources and varied physical features fostered a great variety of activities.

(10) Interior basin. This is embraced between the Rocky mts. and the Sierras of the United States, terminating in a regular line in the s., and is the home of the great Shoshonean family. It partly coincides with the arid Sonoran area of Merriam, consisting of partial deserts, with rich wooded patches among the mountains. Good stone for various crafts is present. Timber is scarce, but wild seeds are abundant for food, and excel lent woods and roots for basketry. Animals available were buffalo, rabbit, deer, antelope, wolf, mountain sheep, and birds, but fish were scarce. The environment made necessary the brush shelter and the cave dwelling. Little pottery was made, but the sinew-backed bow was developed. Traveling was necessarily done on foot, and carrying effected by dogs and women, as there w r as no transportation by water.

(11) California-Oregon. This includes s. Oregon and the greater part of California that embraced in the drainage basins of the Sacramento, San Joaquin, and smaller rivers flowing into the Pacific. The temperature is mild, neither cold in winter nor hot in summer, and the year is divided into wet and dry seasons. The Sierras form a mountain boundary, and mountain groups of some height are obstructions within the area, but the Coast range is low and broken and not a barrier. Obsidian, steatite, and other good stones for the arts were plentiful. There was clay, but no pottery. The region was well but not heavily timbered, consisting of open plains, with hillsides and ranges covered more or less with brush and scattered oaks, many species furnishing acorns for food. The open spaces alternating with the wooded lands yielded grasses and medicinal herbs. Other useful plants were the buckeye, manzanita, nut pine, redwood, and tule in the s. for balsas, baskets, matting, and houses, and edible and textile roots were also found. The animals entering into Indian economy were the deer, rabbit, bear, coyote, squirrel, jaguar, condor, salmon, sturgeon, eel, trout, smelt, mussel, clam, haliotis and other shellfish whose shells furnished media of exchange. This environment was the Caucasus North America here 25 linguistic families were assembled. On Merriam s bio-geographic maps, published by the Department of Agriculture, a great variety of life is shown, due to vertical zones of temperature, only the lower of which were inhabited by Indians. The more elevated of these were just as effectual as boundaries as though they were impassable. Owing to the peculiar nature of materials, the arts of this environment were w r ell defined.

(12) Pueblo country. This area includes s. Utah, s. w. Colorado, all of New Mexico and Arizona together with the Mohave desert, and extends southward into Mexico. It embraces the drainage basin of the San Juan in the N., the Rio Grande and the Pecos in the E., and the Colorado in the w. In physiographic character it ranges from semiarid to desert. There are deep canyons, elevated mesas, narrow fertile valleys, broad stretches of plains, and isolated mountain masses. The climate demands little clothing in the lowlands, but on the plateaus the nights are cold and the summer temperature that of Maine. Rain is irregular and periodic, being plentiful for weeks, followed by months of drought; most of the streams are therefore intermittent. Useful minerals are gypsum, obsidian, varieties of quartz, potter s clay, adobe, ochers, lignite, salt, and turquoise. Plant life, except after rains, is comparatively meager, the species giving rise to native industries being chiefly cactus, yucca, cotton wood, grease wood, willow, scrub oak, conifers, and rushes. Maize, beans, and cotton were cultivated from a very early period. Wild animals hunted or trapped were the rabbit, deer, bear, turkey, prairie dog, mountain lion, wildcat, wood-rat, mountain sheep, coyote, and wolf. Dogs were trained, and burros, sheep, goats, and cattle found a con genial home in this area after their introduction by the Spaniards. Travel was formerly done on foot only, and goods had to be carried chiefly on the heads and backs of men and w r omen, there being few navigable waters. This peculiar environment impelled tribes coming into the region to lead the life of the Pueblo. The outskirts of the region were even less favored with resources, hence the Pueblos were brought into conflict with predatory tribes like the Ute, and later the Navaho, the Apache, and the Comanche, w r ho robbed them and constantly threatened to consume w r hat they raised. These conflicts developed the cliff-dwelling as means of protection. Southwest of the region proper are Piman and Yuman tribes and the Mission Indians, dwelling in oases of the desert that extends into Mexico. Here grow mesquite, ironwood, agave, palo verde, cacti in the greatest variety, and, along the water courses, cotton wood and rushes. The people live a life partly sedentary, housed in shelters of brush and grass. The effects of this environment, where the finding of springs was the chief desideratum in the struggle for existence, were to influence social structure and functions, manners and customs, esthetic products and motives, lore and symbolism, and, most of all, creed and cult, which were conditioned by the un ending, ever-recurring longing for water.



MLA Source Citation:

Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 24 July 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/indians-and-the-environment.htm - Last updated on Jul 18th, 2012


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