Louise Laruse, Spokane
Louise Laruse, Spokane

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Anthropology 7
Native Peoples of North America
Regional Lifeways:

The Culture Area Concept

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For at least 15,000 years, the Americas have been home to Native Americans. By the time the Europeans first encountered them, they occupied all the land from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America. As noted in the Brief Historical Overview, they spoke many different languages, had no single word to describe themselves as a cultural group, and no single lifeway characterized all of the Native Americans. Sociopolitical organization ran the full gamut of human achievement, from bands to chiefdoms to states. Different tribes, bands, villages, and communities had varying customs, traditions, esthetics, and tools. Some societies lived as simple gathering and hunting bands, following an essentially nomadic way of life. Other societies lived by farming small plots of land, supplemented by gathering and hunting, and leaving their villages for only short periods. Still others lived in populous urban centers supported by highly elaborate agricultural systems. The Native Americans the Pilgrims lived among on the northeast Atlantic coast, those the Spanish encountered in Florida, California, Arizona, and New Mexico, and those the French traded with along the St. Lawrence and Mississippi Rivers were as unlike each other as the Pilgrims and Spanish and French themselves.

Scholars have used a number of concepts for organizing and analyzing all this diversity: by tribe, by general cultural or geographic areas, or by cultural traits. Prime among such heuristic devices is the concept of the Culture Area, a region where the inhabitants share such things as ecological, economic, social, and ideological systems. Such an organizing principle is an abstraction, a classificatory device convenient for grouping societies that are similar in terms of many aspects of their culture, but primarily subsistence.

A culture area is first of all a geographical region with characteristic climate, land forms, plants and animals. Humans living in a particular geographical region must adapt to its characteristics to obtain the necessities of life: People living in the desert do not fish nor possess boats and people living in the Great Plains away from the river valleys do not plant crops. But people can live well in the desert by gathering seeds and cactus fruits and hunting small game animals, or on the Great Plains by hunting buffalo. Each culture area, then, has certain natural resources as well as the potential for certain technologies and people living in a particular culture area use many of its resources and develop technologies-and social organizations-to fit the area's physical potential and its limitations (climate, water availability, etc.). Neighboring peoples learn of one another's inventions and begin to use them and over time societies within a given culture area come to resemble one another and differ from those in other culture areas.

map of culture areas Organizing by culture area has some drawbacks. First, the groups being described are frozen in time, usually just prior to or just after European / American conquest. Secondly, the concept often stresses material culture - the things people have such as watercraft, tools, clothing, housing styles, basketry or pottery styles, etc. - at the expense of other aspects of culture. Within any one culture area, a number of distinct sociopolitical groups may be grouped as similar when, in many ways, they differ in several significant respects. For example, the Southwest Culture Area encompasses people who vary in terms of subsistence (from gathering and hunting people to agriculturalists), housing styles (hogans among the Dine [Navajo], multi-room apartment complexes among the Puebloan peoples), and languages (at least four major language stocks are represented). Thirdly, anthropologists disagree about the number of culture areas and the specific nations that should be included in each area. In this class I use a modified version of one of the more popular culture area classificatory schemes, categorizing Native North America into ten regions, each characterized by distinctive social and economic orientations. It's neither better nor worse than others, but reflects my own theoretical and research interests.

Class lectures for this section will consist of an overview of a culture area and an ethnographic/ethnohistoric description of a selected society in that culture area. You will also read a short ethnography on a different society in each culture area. Below are short essays describing each of the culture areas and listing the two Native societies in each culture area about which we will learn. I am still adding material to the Regions listed below; hopefully all the essays will be finished by the time the Spring Semester begins.

redheaded woodpeckerPlease Select a Culture Area Most Applicable to Your Interestsredheaded woodpecker

Northeast Woodlands | Southeast Woodlands | Plains | Southwest
California | Plateau | Great Basin | Northwest Coast

Subarctic | Arctic

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Regional Lifeways

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Last Update: 11 November 1999