Native American diversity

All parts of Native American life were affected by the climate and geography in which the Native Americans lived. The weather, the fertility of the soil, access to water, and the height of mountains all contributed to how a particular Indian tribe organized its social and political systems. Each was unique. Tribes lived by farming, fishing, hunting, gathering, and later, trading, depending on their particular region and amount of contact with others. The Arapaho of the Plains, for example, were nomads and built no permanent settlements. However, other tribes joined together to form larger, stronger groups. The Iroquois confederacy of the Northeast united six tribes to protect each other from war and invasion. Tribes and confederacies developed systems of social status, or rank, and their clothing and adornment reflected these systems. Generally, the higher a person's status was within the tribe, the more ornate their costume.

Native American tribes and Arctic peoples developed rich cultures that respected the land around them. For thousands of years Native Americans prospered on the North American continent, but the arrival of white Europeans changed everything. The changes to Native American life were devastating. Huge numbers of natives died from diseases introduced by Europeans. Between 1769 and 1869 diseases introduced by European traders, missionaries, and settlers decreased the native population of California from three hundred thousand to twenty thousand. In addition, Europeans' outlook on life was fundamentally different from that of Native Americans.

Historical Native American Dress

Blackfeet Indians wearing custom Native American clothing, including garments with detailed embroidery. Reproduced by permission of National Archives and Records Administration.

Europeans did not consider the balance of the natural world as carefully as did Native Americans and often exploited and pillaged the land rather than nourishing or sustaining it. Europeans' desire for goods from the North American continent created a system of trade that soon changed Native American lives forever. European traders encouraged the near destruction of many animals for their hides, including the beaver and the buffalo, leaving natives without the animals they once depended on for survival. Moreover, Native Americans could not continue to live in the same places. White settlers began building farms, ranches, and towns on land used by Native Americans. Whites pushed Indians off their land until, in the mid-1800s, the U.S. government demanded that all Native Americans live on reservations, land designated for Indian use. Decades of struggle between Native Americans and whites ensued. The result was the near destruction of Native American life and culture by the early twentieth century.

Native Americans today live very differently from their ancestors, but many continue to appreciate the traditions of their diverse

Blackfeet Indians wearing custom Native American clothing, including garments with detailed embroidery. Reproduced by permission of National Archives and Records Administration.

ancestry. Although Native Americans no longer dress daily in the ways of their ancestors, they do continue to wear traditional clothing for ceremonial purposes.


Dubin, Lois Sherr. North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment: From Prehistory to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999.

NativeWeb. (accessed on July

Paterek, Josephine. Encyclopedia of American Indian Costume. Denver, CO: ABC-CLIO, 1994.

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  • katri
    How did california native americans dress?
    8 years ago
  • annikki viljanen
    How did native americans dress in the middle ages?
    7 years ago

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