Indian Culture

Earliest Inhabitants

Anthropologists have traced North America's earliest ancestors back 13,000 years to Asian migrants. Back then, the face of the Earth and its land masses were much different. Asia and Alaska were connected by a land bridge called the Bering Strait. Asian inhabitants, namely Mongolians, eventually crossed the Bering Strait and began to travel and settle throughout what would one day become North America. Scientists have evidence that this migration likely began with hunters tracking big game like mammoths and bison. In Southeast Arizona, at an archaeological dig site now known as the Naco Mammoth Kill Site, the remains of a 10,000-year-old Columbian Mammoth were uncovered with 8 spearheads embedded in its skeleton. At a site in Murray Springs, Arizona, several more spearheads were discovered to be carved from mammoth bone and tusk.

Eventually, more Asiatic nomad groups crossed the strait until about 7,000 BC, when the climate began to change from tropical to dry. These groups evolved and adapted to this new land in different ways, each developing their own hunting, gathering, and dwelling styles. By analyzing the variety of tools, pottery, buildings, and artwork left behind, anthropologists are able to clearly differentiate 3 specific Indian Cultures in the desert Southwest: the Hohokam - an agriculture-based people, hunter/gatherers called the Mogollon, and the cliff-dwellers known as the Anasazi.


The Hohokam were an extremely agriculturally-advanced society that thrived in central/Southern Arizona from 200 - 1400 AD. Many scientists also theorize that their ancestors may have lived in the same area as early as 2000 BC. These ancient people were farmers of cotton, tobacco, beans, squash, corn, and agave cactus. By using a complex system of irrigation canals that relied on gravity to pull the water downhil, the Hohokam were able to have constant and controlled watering for their crops. This system stretched over 300 miles and is considered by anthropologists to rival the irrigation systems of ancient Egypt and China.

The home lives of the Hohokam was also incredibly refined. They built ovens to cook meats and breads. They crafted magnificent pottery, figurines, and decorated shells scavenged from the Gulf of California. They also developed the first form of acid-etching for artistic use.

This flourishing society came to a halt in the 14th century when the regional climate began to rapidly change. What was once a tropical environment was quickly becoming a dry desert, and their crops were severely affected. Without use of their 300-mile farm, the Hohokam society collapsed. The people abandoned their village and canals, leaving their ruins to be discovered hundreds of years later. The location of the peoples' next migration is unclear to anthropologists, but they theorize that the Pima or Papago could be their descendants. This likely explains why they were given the name "Hohokam" - the Pima tribe's word for "vanished".


The Mogollon culture appeared between 300-200 B.C. and existed uninterrupted until approximately 1400 A.D. when the Spanish first arrived to the New World. In fact, these people were given the name "Mogollon" after the Spanish governor of New Spain, Don Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollón.

While their early peoples were foragers living in small villages spread far apart, the growing population led the Mogollon to explore new options. The villages grew dense and the culture began to rely on hunting throughout the mountainous regions of southern Arizona and southwest New Mexico. Deer, turkey, mountain sheep, and bison were all prey to the expert Mogollon hunters. The Mogollon also master basic farming skills and developed water control systems for their crops. They created what is considered to be some of the finest prehistoric pottery in the Americas. These creations were not just for artistic purposes. The Mogollon were likely the first Native Americans to use pottery to store food and water.

In the early days, they built homes with floors dug deep into the ground, probably to save supplies needed for the walls. Around 900 AD, the Mogollon began constructing buildings completely above ground out of stone. These pueblos ranged in size from a standard 4-5 rooms to a behemoth 500-room building, preserved in the White Mountains of Arizona. These structures were highly influential to the Anasazi culture, as well.

Like many other indigenous cultures, it is unclear to anthropologists where the Mogollon later migrated, but theories lead to the Zuni or Hopi territories - or even down to the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico.


The cliff-dwelling civilization historically known as the Anasazi are known and recognized most for their daring architecture found in Canyon de Chelly. These people were given the name "Anasazi" by the Navajo and originally translated to "ancestors of our enemies". The Hopi natives call this ancient group "Hisatsinom", meaning "people of long ago". Today, the term generally used is "Ancestral Pueblo people". It is not only the true name of the civilization that remains a mystery, however, and researchers have spent decades unearthing clues these ancient people left behind.

It is still unclear as to when exactly this culture settled in North America, but both anthropologists and archaeologists theorize the 12th century BC. By approximately 900 AD, the Anasazi's central city was growing in the Chaco Canyon area, which is in modern day New Mexico within the Navajo Indian Reservation. They likely lived in this area until before the 17th century, when they migration North and merged with the Zuni people.

The Anasazi were a culturally-rich and innovative people - they wove intricate baskets, hunted deer and rabbits, and farmed corn and squash using irrigation systems. They also had basic road systems that led throughout their village, but their buildings are what astonish people in modern times. In the infancy of the Anasazi culture, the people dwelt in open land, living in dug-out pit houses similar to the Mogollon. However, as the civilization advanced, their enemies began to multiply, and they had to construct safer living quarters. Thus, the Anasazi began to construct their buildings within the walls of the mountains that surrounded them.

These high-rise cliff dwellings made it near-impossible for enemies to climb and infiltrate. They were built with the stone of the mountains themselves and were constructed upward in levels, some reaching five stories. Around 1100 AD the ancient architects began to feature "kivas" in their work. These were ceremonial rooms used for communal and religious purposes.

Despite their fragile appearance, these stone communities provided ample and spacious lodging. For example Cliff Palace - the largest of these dwellings - held 217 rooms and 23 kivas and could have comfortably held 250 individuals. While time has certainly taken its toll on these long-abandoned structures, hundreds of sites are preserved throughout the American Southwest today. The Navajo National Monument, Mesa Verde, Chaco Culture National Historic Park, and many other locations proudly display the expert construction skill of these ancient people to this day.

Present-Day Indian Tribes

The Southwest is still home to a huge number of Native American tribes today, many of which in close proximity to the Grand Canyon. The state of Arizona has the most concentrated population of Native American people, housing 19 Indian reservations which comprise nearly 25% of its total land area. Throughout the Four Corners - Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah - tribes descended from the early Native American settlers still practice their ancient culture today.


Known amongst themselves as the Dineh, or "The People", the Navajo Nation is the largest of 500 federally-recognized Indian governments in the United States. With 210,000 tribe members and a 17.5-million-acre reservation, The Navajo Nation is larger than 9 US states. Historically, the Navajo relied heavily on oral tradition to relay rich tales and lessons to their youth, an important custom to this day. Their language is extremely complex and considered by linguists to be one of the most difficult in the world to learn. The Navajo lended their language to the US military during World War II for use as a code, knowing that enemies listening in would never be able to translate it. Four hundred Navajo men served as code talkers, sending and decoding messages in a matter of seconds.

The modern Navajo society operates under the Navajo Nation Tribal Council, divided into 110 chapters with 88 tribal leaders. Their most lucrative businesses include agriculture, lumber, oil/gas, and mining. Members of the Navajo Nation maintain their traditional craft-making from rug-weaving to exquisite turquoise jewelry to pottery.


The Hopi are a Native American people believed to be descended from the ancient Anasazi. The name "Hopi" is an abbreviation of the tribe's full name "Hopittuh Shi-nu-mu" - meaning "peaceful ones". Indeed, the Hopi culture has been entirely based upon peaceful existence; morality, ethics, respect for the earth and being civilized with one another are the ways in which they pleased their creator god Maasaw. Their religion is an integral part of everyday life; in fact, many groups of Hopi practice a full cycle of ceremonies according to the lunar calendar. Interestingly, the Hopi have also historically functioned as a matrilineal society - tracing one's genealogy through generations of mothers.

The Hopi have occupied the same area of the country since at least 1100 CE, and likely long before. The ancient Hopi village of Oraibi is in fact one of the oldest continuously-occupied settlements in the United States. In these early days, the tribe lived in pueblos. They were called the "pueblo people" by the Spanish, who encountered them in the 16th century. Today, the Hopi inhabit a 1.5-million-acre reservation surrounded on all sides by the massive Navajo reservation. Nearly 20,000 tribe members live within the reservation, abiding by the law and authority of the Hopi Constitution.

The Hopi's respect for the earth means that their land is considered sacred. From early days, the Hopi were skilled farmers that held the bounty of the earth in high regard. Today, micro farming is still an effort produced by the entire tribe.

The Hopi history and culture is preserved through their vast display of craftsmanship. This includes the making of over 200 versions of kachina dolls - representations of Hopi spirits. Additionally, the Hopi made basketry and intricately-designed jewelry and pottery.


The name "Havasupai" is a combination of the words "havasu" - meaning "blue-green water", and "pai" - meaning people. This epithet comes from the 3 remarkable waterfalls that surge over the canyon cliffs that they call home - the Grand Canyon. In fact, the Havasupai have considered themselves the guardians of the Grand Canyon since at least the 13th century. Their isolated 188,077 acres of land lie within what is known today as Cataract Canyon or Havasu Canyon, along the banks of the Havasu River - a tributary of the Colorado River. This area of the canyon rises 3,200 feet above sea level, keeping the river water at a refreshing 70°F year round.

The Havasupai are actually a smaller group within the Hualapai Tribe, yet maintain their own unique history and customs. Living in the rocky, uneven terrain of the Grand Canyon made agriculture extremely difficult, but the Havasupai managed to farm by building irrigation systems to transport the river's water. They also mastered the craft of bow and arrow hunting and constructed their weapons with intense precision. The Havasupai were artists, as well. They wove intricate basketry and also painted along the walls of the canyon - some of which greatly resemble dinosaurs.

Today, the Havasupai tribe's major businesses are farming and tourism. Each year, over 20,000 tourists visit Havasu Falls to see the 3 wondrous waterfalls within: Navajo Falls, Havasu Falls, and Mooney Falls. The secluded Havasupai land is surrounded by cliffs - the only ways to reach the reservation is on foot or on horseback. Hikers should be aware that the journey to the Havasupai Reservation is 10 miles one way, and prepare accordingly.


The Hualapai, translated as "The People of the Tall Pines", are believed to be descendants of the Cerbat tribe, a subgroup of the Patayan culture. Having migrated in about 1300 AD to what would later become the Southwest United States, the Hualapai lived as a nomadic people. They were hunters and gatherers that travelled to follow their food, settling and spreading throughout the Grand Canyon for centuries. In 1883, under the executive order of President Arthur, a 1 million-acre reservation was designated for the Hualapai tribe. This area of land stretches from the Grand Canyon West Rim and ends right where the Havasupai territory begins. In fact, over 108 miles of the canyon rim belongs to the Hualapai people.

Today, there are 2,300 enrolled members of the Hualapai Tribe, with over 50% residing inside the reservation. The majority of the reservation population lives along a segment of the legendary Route 66 highway in northern Arizona. The Hualapai operate under their tribal council as well as an executive and judicial government in their capital city of Peach Springs. Their major industries are cattle, forestry, and tourism - especially at the Grand Canyon. The Hualapai still revere their ancient customs by engaging in the traditional ceremonies, song, and dance of their ancestors.


"Paiute" is a broad name referring to three closely related groups of indigenous peoples of the Great Basin. Originally a nomadic people, this tribe spread and settled across the American Southwest including California and up to Idaho. The tribe can be generally be divided into the Northern Paiute and the Southern Paiute.

The Northern Paiute settled across California, Idaho, Nevada and Oregon and were well-adjusted to life in dry desert conditions. Over time, they split into smaller, separate subgroups. These communities named themselves after their primary food source, translating to names such as "Trout-eaters", or "Rabbit-eaters". As a society that relied on hunting, mixed members of these communities would gather and hunt in a large group.

Southern Paiute of Arizona, also called the "San Juan Paiute", expanded across southeastern California, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. Archaeologists have discovered their handmade crafts along the coast, verifying that they were a society that did a great deal of trading. Spanish explorers who encountered the tribe observed that some male tribesmen wore thick beards, which is highly uncommon across Native American cultures. The Southern Paiute reside inside the Navajo Indian Reservation, but are recognized as their own tribe separate from the Navajo by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.


The Pueblo are an ancient people that are most recognized for their towns of clustered adobe and stone buildings. These cubical constructions were stacked similar to apartment complexes and were situated to provide advantage in case of a surprise attack from an enemy tribe. While they share a common ancestry, the Pueblo are divided into 19 smaller tribes along the Rio Grande Valley through New Mexico. The Pueblo tribes of the lower Rio Grande include Isleta, Sandia, Santa Ana, Zia, Jemez, San Felipe, Santo Domingo, and Cochiti. The tribes of the northern Rio Grande include Tesuque, Pojoaque, Nambe, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, San Juan, Picuris and Taos. The Zuni and the Acoma categorize themselves as Pueblo, as well. Each tribe elects its own governor and operates individually, not as a collective Pueblo organization. There are also a variety of languages and dialects amongst the tribe's divisions.

Religion has historically been of utmost importance to the Pueblo. For them, prayer is done not only verbally, but often accompanied by the use of prayer sticks. Ceremonies - many of which can be observed by outsiders - consist of dance, singing, and drumming. In the early days, the Pueblo hunted, gathered, and sculpted pottery to use for food and water storage. They also developed the skill to weave clothing, possibly before even the Aztec civilization. Today's modern Pueblo tribes maintain farms and raise livestock as an industry. On the other hand, many tribe members choose occupations in cities surrounding the reservation.