- Published: 18 September 2009
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Richard Schofield, age 11, of Peoria, I11., for his question:
How many Indian tribes were in America when Columbus discovered it?
Columbus himself, of course, never reached the mainland we call America. That was traveled bit by bit during the years that followed his discovery of the islands of the New World. So we cannot tell exactly how many tribes were here in the year 1492. The actual number of Indians living north of Mexico at the time has been roughly estimated at over one million.
The Old World explorers and travelers found the problem of tribes most confusing. Even more confusing was the problem of languages. There were some 600 different dialects spoken by the Indians. And sometimes different tribes spoke the same language.
The Indians themselves were not too much help at sorting things out. Most of them lived in small groups. There were about 50 grownups and their children in a group. In some areas these groups formed villages of farmers, In others they were hunting and fishing companions.
The larger tribes were formed from members of these smaller groups. Members of one tribe spoke the same language. Maybe the whole tribe got together only in time of trouble ‑ war, drought or famine. Maybe they met more often.
One estimate says that there were some 900 different tribes of Indians in America. The Old World explorers met at least 800 different tribes by the time they reached the Pacific coast. There were about 90 large tribes. But ninety percent of them belonged to small, scattered tribes.
There is a more simple way to group the Indians of the New World. This is according to how they made their living and what they could do. All of them used their surroundings to do the best they could. We call these the large cultural groups of Indian life.
The Indians of the Northwest coastline were expert fishermen. From Alaska to Northern California there were six major tribes and a number of smaller tribes in this cultural group. Further south along the west past was a coast was a seed‑gathering, basket making way of life. In the Southwest were the Pueblos, tribes of farmers and herdsmen.
The prairie dwellers were hunters. They followed the grazing bison. Par north into Canada were the caribou hunters. Still further north were the Eskimos, experts fishermen, hunters of seal and polar bear.
The largest cultural group reached from Hudson's Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. It covered the territory from the Mississippi to the Atlantic Ocean. The Indians here thrived as hunters and fishermen. They hunted among the woodsy eastern hills and mountains. They fished in the Great Lakes and the streams and rives of the Mississippi Basin. Most of the large tribes were in eastern and midwestern cultural groups