Native Americans of the Southwest

The southwestern United States, site of the continent’s longest continuous human habitation outside of Mesoamerica, is also its most environmentally diverse region. Roughly including the states of Arizona and New Mexico, extreme southwest Colorado, extreme southern Utah and Nevada, and extreme southeast California, the region contains three major river basins: the Rio Grande, Colorado, and San Juan. It features colorful canyons, mesas, buttes, deserts, bluffs, rock formations, caves, plateaus, forests, and some of the highest mountains in the United States. Although some parts receive regular rainfall, the Southwest as a whole is distinguished by its aridity.

In addition to its great topographical variation, the region contains a striking divergence of climate, soils, and plant and animal life. Consequently, people living there evolved numerous traits to adapt to their specific local environment in order to survive and prosper. In time, different cultures grew out of these local adaptations. Thus, the region’s environmental diversity is matched by an extraordinary linguistic and cultural mix.

Paradoxically, Southwest Indian cultures, although very diverse, also share several unifying factors. The most notable is a farming tradition and the use of ceramics; also important is the absence, in general, of state-level societies and large urban centers. Southwest Indians today take particular pride in their tenacity in retaining their land, religion, institutions, languages, and aesthetic traditions in the face of vigorous efforts over the centuries to eradicate indigenous culture, not to mention the people themselves.


The first people in what was to become the southwestern United States arrived between roughly 23,000 and 10,000 B.C.E. In about 9500 B.C.E. people hunted mammoth, giant bison, and other big game species now extinct. By around 5000 B.C.E., human activity had switched to hunting small desert animals and gathering seeds and wild plants. Both baskets and a flat milling stone were in use. Approximately 4,000 years ago, corn and other cultivated crops began coming into the region from Mesoamerica.

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Four tribes of Arizona Indians, the Navajos, Papagos, Apaches, and Hopis, through their head men at an Indian conclave have banned the use of the traditional swastika symbol from all designs in their basket weaving and blanket making as a protest against Nazi "acts of oppression." Fred Kaboti, Hopi (left), and Miguel Flores, Apache, are about to sign a parchment document proclaiming the ban in 1940.

Four tribes of Arizona Indians, the Navajos, Papagos, Apaches, and Hopis, through their head men at an Indian conclave have banned the use of the traditional swastika symbol from all designs in their basket weaving and blanket making as a protest against Nazi "acts of oppression." Fred Kaboti, Hopi (left), and Miguel Flores, Apache, are about to sign a parchment document proclaiming the ban in 1940.

The Indians had completed a gradual process of agricultural transformation by roughly 500 C.E.; by that time squash, cotton, and beans had been introduced, and pottery was being produced. Farming had little immediate impact on the Southwest, but it did set in motion dramatic social and economic changes. Many peoples settled in villages, at first living in pit houses and later in buildings made of wood and/or adobe. (The pit houses, called kivas, continued to be used for ceremonial purposes, as they still are today.) As village life developed, people used pits and pottery to store foodstuffs, replaced spears and darts with bows and arrows, and used wells for water storage. With these adaptations, the four major southwestern cultural groups, each heavily influenced by Mesoamerican civilizations, were in place and poised to begin their major phases of development. These groups were the Anasazi, the Mogollon people, the Hohokam people, and the Hakataya.

The Anasazi lived on the sandstone plateaus and in the narrow canyons and broad valleys of the present-day Four Corners region, where northeast Arizona, northwest New Mexico, and extreme southeast Utah and southwest Colorado meet. Since the region contains little water, the Anasazi refined techniques for dry farming. After their absorption of another cultural group, the Mogollon, the Anasazi built the well-known cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and other sites. By around 1400, the Anasazi had abandoned most such sites, including the cliff dwellings, in the western part of their range in favor of the well-watered highland regions, Colorado Plateau waterways, and the Rio Grande Valley. Archaeologists have proposed several theories to explain why the Anasazi abandoned these sites. These include environmental factors (the region experienced a severe drought in the twelfth century), overfarming, decentralization, and natural migration patterns. The so-called Pueblo Indians of today are descended from the Anasazi.

On the edge of the Colorado Plateau, among the forested mountains, grasslands, and streams of present-day eastern Arizona to southwest New Mexico, lived the Mogollon people. Between roughly 900 to 1200, the Mimbres culture, part of the Mogollon, produced some of the best pottery north of Mexico. Some Mogollon people practiced irrigation. After about 1000, Mogollon culture underwent rapid changes in housing, arts, tools, and ceremonies, in part influenced by the Anasazi. By the fifteenth century, the dominant Anasazi had completely absorbed the Mogollon culture.

Sedentary farming based on large-scale irrigation distinguished the Hohokam people, who entered present-day southern Arizona around 300 B.C.E. They lived in the low desert west of the continental divide, primarily along the Gila and Salt Rivers. This region has extremely hot, dry summers and mild-to-cool winters with light rains. Only cactus and hardy trees like mesquite can survive in this desert. As early as several centuries B.C.E., the Hohokam had constructed an extensive and efficient system of irrigation canals. Unlike other southwestern societies, Hohokam houses were scattered according to no discernible plan. For much of their existence, the Hohokam built and occupied relatively large villages and towns, such as Snaketown (located in present-day Pinal County, Arizona), which was occupied roughly from 300 B.C.E. to at least 1100 C.E. Well-developed platform mounds and ball courts, used for religious and gaming purposes, suggest social ties to Mesoamerica. Concurrent with other southwestern peoples, the Hohokam underwent a significant population contraction around 1400 and, for undetermined reasons, vanished shortly thereafter. Their descendants are thought to be the present-day Pimas.

Finally, the Hakataya occupied an extensive area on both sides of the lower Colorado River. These deserts are even lower and hotter than those in Hohokam territory, although the region as a whole features extensive temperature variation. The Hakataya lived in small camps or villages of scattered units or in pueblos with small farm plots. Most of their structures were made of rock, in contrast to the Hohokam, who favored dirt. Relatively mobile, the Hakataya were culturally influenced by the Hohokam and other peoples. The Indian tribes that have occupied this territory in historic times, such as the Havasupai and the Mojave, probably descended from the Hakataya.

A fifth major southwestern cultural group, the Southern Athapaskans, arrived in the region from their ancestral home in west-central Canada late in the prehistoric period, probably in the 1400s, as bison-hunting nomads. These people settled in abandoned areas formerly populated by the Anasazi and Mogollon, although they eventually crowded other groups out of hunting and potential farming areas. Both Navajos and Apaches, the main groups of Southern Athapaskans, continued their nomadic occupations until the nineteenth century and later. The Navajos took up sheepherding, whereas the Apaches, having been pushed off the plains during the eighteenth century by the Comanche, became the most feared raiders of the Southwest.

Corn, beans, squash, cotton, and tobacco constituted the most important crops among prehistoric southwestern tribes. People living near rivers also ate fish as a major part of their diets. Cacti, mescal, screwbeans, mesquite, and grasses were important food sources in the south of the region; deer, mountain sheep, and small mammals were more important in the north. Those who produced little food or who had limited regular access to food raided, traded, or received agricultural products as gifts. The Athapaskans dominated hunting in the Southwest, but only the Navajo hunted more than they gathered, and even for them, hunting was less important than farming as a source of food. Since growing food in the Southwest often required the use of many different environmental niches, a certain degree of mobility often accompanied even farming-based economies.

Southwestern tribes exchanged goods on a large scale throughout the historic and prehistoric periods. Food, shell beads, turquoise and other minerals, silver jewelry, buckskins, baskets and blankets, ritual items, and even spouses, ritualists, dancers, and medicine people were exchanged both within the region and with tribes in neighboring regions. Means of exchange included trade, mutual assistance, gambling and gaming, ceremonial redistribution, and raiding and plundering. Interestingly, although tribes did engage in localized raiding, they fought few or no organized wars, at least through the prehistoric period. In short, southwestern Indians devised complex systems of exchange to ensure, without risk to their independence and basic egalitarianism, that each community received approximately what it needed to survive and prosper.

The religious beliefs of southwestern Indians were, and are, rooted in the natural environment, as are the belief systems of other Native Americans. Some regional themes include the idea of a multilayered worldview, or cosmos, and a concept that the balance between natural and supernatural forces may be maintained through a specialist’s access to power. According to this view, an intimate relationship exists between the natural and supernatural worlds. Time and space organize the former in such a way that it becomes endowed with supernatural, or sacred, meaning. Thus time may be thought of not only as linear but also spiritual, and place becomes something far more than where a certain "thing" is located.

Southwestern Indians probably developed complex annual ceremonies, with the goal of maintaining and promoting both individual and community health, as far back as 2,000 years ago. Such ceremonies, usually performed or orchestrated by specialists, were, and are, often accompanied by chanting, dancing, and music. A shaman might acquire special powers to communicate with and influence the supernatural by way of visions, dream-trances, or learning rituals. Such an approach offers a confrontation with the supernatural away from the human realm.

Conversely, sandpaintings and katsina performances, central to the ceremonialism of tribes such as the Navajo and Hopi, are designed to bring the supernatural into the human sphere. Katsinas are beings or spirits that live in or near water and may bring blessings such as rain, crops, and healing. According to tradition, katsinas visit various villages seasonally and inspire dances in their honor. Masks also figure prominently in katsina dancing and in other forms of southwestern Indian ceremonialism. Masking traditions are probably both of indigenous and of European origin. Typical ritual objects among Southwest Indians include feathers, tobacco, and corn pollen or meal.

As mentioned earlier, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw the end of major residential use of large areas of the Southwest and significant population redistribution. New and colorful ceramics were also produced and distributed at this time. However, the following century was no less dramatic. In 1540, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s northern expedition, seeking fabled golden cities, encountered the Zuni pueblo of Hawikuh and established the first European presence in what is now the United States. Coronado retreated two years later, and no further Spanish exploration occurred until 1581. However, by the middle of the seventeenth century, the precontact southwestern Indian population of several hundred thousand or more had been reduced by 75 to 80 percent as a result of new diseases introduced by the Spaniards.

New Spain established its first regional colony in the Rio Grande Valley in 1598 and began to demand religious conversion, monetary tribute, and slave labor of the Indians. Such abuses led to revolts, culminating in the Pueblo revolt of 1680, led by Pope, which succeeded in expelling the Spanish from the valley for 12 years. When they returned, the Spanish had learned to moderate their demands somewhat, and the Pueblo Indians had learned to practice their own religion in secret while adopting a form of Catholicism.


Unlike the British colonists of North America, the Spanish did not attempt, at least initially, to settle on Indian lands. Still, the Spanish influence throughout the region was enormous. In addition to Catholicism and a legacy of oppression, the Spaniards introduced a variety of technological innovations into the area, such as domestic animals, wool and textiles, wheat and other crops, metal tools, and firearms. Spanish subjugation of Southwest Indians ended in 1821 with the declaration of the modern state of Mexico. However, Mexico soon found itself in conflict with the new United States over land, a situation that led to war in 1845 and the Mexican cession between 1848 and 1853 of what is now the southwestern United States.

In short order, but especially following the Civil War, the United States began a military campaign to confine all Indians to reservations. By the 1880s it had largely achieved this goal. The more settled tribes, such as the Pueblos, fared the best during this period, retaining at least part of their traditional lands and largely avoiding the starvation, mass deportations, and attendant suffering that were the fate of the more nomadic and defiant tribes such as the Apaches and Navajos. Loss of land and liberty was almost always accompanied by new religious persecution, this time at the hands of Protestant missionaries.

Twentieth-century efforts to force southwestern Indians deeper into the margins of U.S. society have been realized in part. Statehood for the western states and the accompanying pressure to "open up" the reservations cut into the land base of many tribes. Government policies specifically encouraging the destruction of Indian identity, such as forced attendance at boarding schools and the criminalization of some ceremonies, presaged a decline of tribal structures as well as of weaving, ceramic arts, and other traditional crafts. Especially since World War II, subsistence-based economies have come under attack, and such limited wage work as exists, such as mining, is often associated with environmental degradation and its attendant health problems. Poverty and substance abuse remain endemic among Southwest Indians. The federal government remains reluctant to honor its treaty obligations.

On balance, however, Indian identity remains relatively strong in the late-twentieth-century southwestern United States. To a greater degree than Indians in most other regions, Southwest Native Americans have retained strong, secure reservations and pueblos, which provide the basis of a continuing and vital culture. The influx of non-Indians into the region has also aided the economy by bringing a boom in Native American arts and crafts. Mining leases often remain exploitative, yet they are an important source of income for many tribes, and Indians continue to seek more favorable lease terms. After decades of struggle, Indian education is coming more under local control, and the federal government is committed to some form of Indian self-determination. Indian populations are on the rise; the Navajo, at roughly 220,000, are the second-largest and one of the fastest-growing U.S. Indian tribes.

The Indians of the Southwest still grapple with the challenges of living and trying to succeed in an increasingly dominant Anglo/Hispanic culture while retaining their own heritage. Pressures on the youth are particularly acute. However, as they have for generations past, these people still demonstrate a marked ability to adapt, accepting what they will, or must, and rejecting much else. It is this dynamism, along with relatively unbroken access to their traditions and culture, that remains the key to their ongoing survival and growth.

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