Earliest Inhabitants

It is generally believed that 13,000 years ago, hunters migrated across the Bering Strait, a small land mass connecting a tip of Asia with Alaska. These early inhabitants hunted big game such as mastodons and bison and disappeared after 2,000 years. An archeological site in Arizona, for instance, contained an extinct mammoth 11,000 years old that measured 13-feet in height with eight stone spearheads located in its skeletal remains. Other nomadic cultures followed, thriving off large prehistoric beasts, until around 8,000 to 7,000 B.C., when the Southwest’s climate became less tropical and much drier. At this point in history, there is a 500 year gap in archeological records regarding the Paleo-Indian cultures that next appeared, and it is uncertain whether they were descendants of the Big Game Hunters or whether they migrated to the Southwest using other routes.

The three primary Indian cultures that appeared in the desert southwest after the Big Game Hunters include a desert/agricultural culture known as the Hohokam; a hunting and gathering group known as the Mogollon; and a cliff-dwelling and mountainous culture known as the Anasazi. Each group developed their own style of tools, pottery and village construction.


The word Hohokam means “those who have vanished” or “all used up”. Their culture thrived in central Arizona between 300 B.C. and 1400 A.D. These industrious people were farmers who were the first to use gravity-fed irrigation and canals. A canal system of over 300 miles has been identified that is the largest one found in North America. They lived in villages scattered throughout central Arizona around the Gila and Salt Rivers, and grew a variety of crops including corn, beans, squash, and cotton. They also utilized the land and harvested edible food such as cactus fruit and mesquite beans. Hohokam produced excellent pottery, clay figurines and shell-designs obtained from the Gulf of California. During the fifteenth century, they left their villages and it is not certain whether they moved completely out of the region or whether present-day tribes such as the Pima or Papago may accurately trace their ancestry to the Hohokam.


The Mogollon culture appeared between 300-200 B.C. and endured until approximately 1400 A.D. They were primarily a hunting culture located in the mountainous regions of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. Their pit houses were built partially underground with wooden beams for roof support and they hunted animals such as deer, turkey, mountain sheep and bison. The Mogollon were among the first Native Americans to store water and food in pottery of their own making. Their pottery evolved from simple red ware to Red-on-white and Black-on-white wares that are considered some of the finest prehistoric pottery in the Southwest. Around 900 A.D., the Mogollon began building their first above ground pueblos using stone, a move that was partially influenced by the Anasazi culture. These structures ranged in simplicity from 4-5 rooms to a 500-room structure preserved in the White Mountains of Arizona. It is uncertain whether the Mogollon eventually migrated north to Zuni and Hopi country or whether they migrated to the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico.


This culture is best known for the complex cliff dwellings found in Canyon de Chelly, Navajo National Monument, Mesa Verde, Chaco Culture National Historic Park and many other sites where their architecture has been preserved. The term “Anasazi” is of Navajo origin and means “enemy ancestors.” The Hopi claim that they are descendants of this culture and prefer the name Hisatsinom meaning “people of long ago.” The Anasazi moved into the region around the time of Christ and flourished until the end of the sixteenth century, after which they moved north to join the Zunis. Before the Anasazi built and occupied cliff dwellings, they lived in pit houses similar to the Mogollon, living in open country. They produced woven baskets and subsisted on a variety of foods, both hunted, grown and gathered. In approximately 900 A.D., the center of the Anasazi culture was located in the Chaco Canyon area, now part of the Navajo Indian Reservation in New Mexico. Irrigation systems were developed as well as roads and houses. In some cases, multiple level structures were built measuring 5 stories tall. From 1100 to 1300 A.D., the Anasazi began to incorporate “kivas” into their villages, special rooms used for communal purposes. Masonry villages evolved into cliff dwellings that supported hundreds of families, such as Cliff Palace that incorporates 217 rooms and 23 kivas. Cliff Palace is the largest in North America and was thought to have supported 200-250 people. Cliff dwellings were developed by the Anasazi as a measure of defense against nomadic groups, such as the Ute and Paiute ancestors. Hundreds of sites have been preserved throughout the Four Corner states, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado, attesting to the industry and community-building skills of the Anasazi.

Present-Day Indian Tribes

There are numerous Native American tribes living in the southwest in general proximity to the Grand Canyon. In fact, the State of Arizona alone contains 19 Indian reservations that make up almost 25% of its total land area. This concentration of Indian culture is greater than any other state in the U.S. Today, descendants of early Native American inhabitants can be found throughout the Four Corners area. Some of those tribes include:


(The People or “Dineh”) The Navajo Tribe has a population of over 210,000 and a reservation that encompasses 17.5 million acres, making it larger in size than 9 out of 50 states. In addition to this, the Navajo Nation is the largest Indian Tribe in America out of over 550 federally-recognized Indian governments. During World War II, Navajos used their complex language skills as a defense against Japanese code breakers. Today, Navajos are involved in sheep farming, agriculture, lumbering, oil and gas exploration and mining. They are also accomplished artisans and are famous for their colorful woven rugs, sand paintings, turquoise and silver jewelry and their pottery.


The Hopi reservation is surrounded by the Navajo Indian Reservation. Some Hopi villages are of great antiquity such as Oraibi, one of their dwelling sites, that has been occupied since 1150 A.D. The Hopi believe that they are descendants of the Anasazi culture. Their matrilineal society traces its descent through the genealogy of its mothers, and their religious heritage is integral to their way of life, including the dramatic snake dance. Hopi artisans skillfully craft Kachina dolls (beneficial spirits), baskets, jewelry and pottery and the tribe as a whole participates in a farming and agricultural lifestyle.


(People of the Blue-Green Water) The Havasupai live in an area of the Grand Canyon 3,200 feet above sea level. They have lived for centuries in the isolated canyon of Havasu Creek, a Colorado River tributary. There are three world-famous waterfalls within Havasu Creek that are known for their incredible beauty; Navajo Falls, Havasu Falls and Mooney Falls. The Havasupai maintain 188,077 acres within the Canyon and rely on farming, grazing and tourism for their livelihood. The majority of their reservation is surrounded by cliffs and is only accessible via an 8-mile trail that can be hiked or ridden on horseback.


(People of the Tall Pines) The Hualapai reservation is composed of approximately 1 million acres, including 108 miles of the Grand Canyon rim. The Reservation was founded in 1883 and lies in between Las Vegas to the west and Grand Canyon Village near Tusayan to the east. The Hualapai are descendants of the Cerbat tribe that migrated into the area around 1300 A.D., and they lived as nomadic hunters and gatherers in and around the Grand Canyon for hundreds of years. Currently, there are over 2,000 Hualapai tribal members that live primarily along a portion of historic Route 66 in northern Arizona. They are involved in cattle operations, forestry and tourism.


The Paiutes were originally semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers. Two tribes have descended from the early Paiute culture, the Kaibab Paiutes (located on the border of Utah and Arizona) and the San Juan Southern Paiutes (located within the Navajo Nation). The Kaibab Paiutes rely primarily on livestock as an economic base. The Southern Paiutes live in areas north and west of Navajo Mountain and do not have their own reservation, even though they are recognized by the federal government as separate from the Navajo. Both tribes are skilled in basket weaving and garment-making.


There are 19 Pueblo tribes located throughout New Mexico that share a common ancestry with the cultures of the Four Corners region. Fifteen of the nineteen tribes are located along the Rio Grande valley between Albuquerque and Taos. There are several different languages within the Pueblo Tribes. Most of the tribes have maintained a strong affiliation with farming and raising livestock. Many tribal members living close to cities have found occupations other than the traditional ones. Each pueblo tribe is independent of the others and has an elected governor. The Pueblo tribes of the lower Rio Grande include Isleta, Sandia, Santa Ana, Zia, Jemez, San Felipe, Santo Domingo, and Cochiti. Pueblos of the northern Rio Grande include Tesuque, Pojoaque, Nambe, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, San Juan, Picuris and Taos. Other Pueblos include the Zuni and the Acoma.