Investigative Question

How were different groups of North American Indians organized into systems of governments and confederacies?

The inhabitants of North America organized varied economies and systems of government. Groups such as the Iroquois, Huron, Cherokee, Navajo, Creek, Hopi, Algonquin, and Lakota (Sioux) established pueblo-city states, tribelets, native bands, confederacies, and nations. Communal councils led by chiefs or elders formed the basis of local governance in many villages or settlements; some included female advisers. Traditional commerce involved exchanging and bartering commodities of regional significance and abundance, including salt, shells, beads, timber, agricultural products, abalone, fish, flint, and fur. Teachers may have students consider the importance of trading networks as a means of disseminating goods and the value of information such as technology, agricultural practices, and religious beliefs (for example, animism and shamanism). This exercise will also help students grasp the environmental geography of North America by exploring which resources and trade goods originate from which regions and why. ... Finally, students should appreciate the diversity of Native American communities and connect this national story of diverse natives to their fourth-grade studies of California Indians.

It is very difficult to generalize about the social, cultural, economic, and political organizations of Native Americans without oversimplifying the history and experiences of vastly different groups of people. Nevertheless, there are some similarities that we can highlight to help students recognize overarching themes in the social, economic, and political structures of Native people in North America. The sources in this set provide examples of systems of government that Native people developed in the regions highlighted in Standard 5.1, including the American Southwest, Pacific Northwest, Great Plains, and groups east of the Mississippi River.

Native North American people organized themselves into various systems of governments. They used the land and resources available to them to form diverse political, economic, and social structures. For many groups, people's sense of belonging was with their local community. Most groups were sovereign, meaning that they were independent and self-governing and controlled their own affairs according to the worldviews that guided their people. Land, trade, war, culture, religion, marriage, accommodation, cooperation, and adaptation linked groups together. Indigenous people primarily organized themselves by village in family-based social and political structures—into what some scholars refer to as bands, tribes, or tribelets. In other areas, groups unified into larger organizational structures, known today as nations, leagues, tributaries, or confederacies. In some places, independent Native nations formed complex democratic political organizations, as seen in the Iroquois Confederacy (Source 1). In other places, leaders ruled as paramount chiefs who expected tribute payments from tribes within their sphere of control, as in the case of Powhatan (Source 2).

By the 1500s and 1600s, when Europeans arrived in North America, Native people had established various social, cultural, political, militaristic, economic, and diplomatic relationships with each other. European and American contact changed these relationships in a variety of ways. The persistence of the Pueblo Kivas (Source 3) through these changes demonstrates the centrality of clans and religion in the sociopolitical structure of Pueblo and Hopi societies. Horses, introduced by Europeans, also altered the lifeways of many Native groups. Strong horseback cultures developed in the West that changed the structures of life, leadership, and diplomacy for many Native peoples including the Lakota (Source 4) in the Great Plains, the Comanche (Source 5) in the Southern Plains and Southwest, and the Nez Perce (Source 6) in the Pacific Northwest. European and American leaders tended to recognize Native political structures that reflected Euro-American leadership. Some groups adopted Euro-American structures of government in an attempt to protect their lands and lifeways, as seen in the Constitution of the Cherokee Nation (Source 7). By the early 1800s, European and American contact affected many Native communities in North America. Sources 4, 6, and 7 deal with the ways that Native governments negotiated with the United States. While the US government generally did not uphold its treaty obligations to Native nations, groups continue to work to have their sovereignty and land rights recognized today.

Teaching Challenges and Opportunities: The diversity of Native cultures throughout the Americas is a major challenge. Teachers and students may be tempted to generalize that the social, economic, and political structures highlighted in this inquiry set may be applied to other Native communities. However, Native people varied greatly in language, culture, organization, and structure. Teachers should treat each group as an independent entity.

Conversely, the diversity of Native North Americans provides teachers and students with an opportunity to explore the richness and complexity of Native societies. In this way, teachers and students can appreciate the diversity that existed among Native groups in the past, which still exists today.

Extension: An enriching extension activity might ask students to explore the current status of one or more of the groups in this inquiry set. Do they continue to maintain the same sociopolitical organization? Why or why not?

Literacy Support (Unit 5.1: Native North American People. Strategy can be applied to visual texts throughout the unit).

Teacher background:
This visual literacy tool can be used throughout the year with any historical text that is image-based (rather than word-based). It defines for students an iterative process for approaching historical images, with four steps that can be approached in a flexible order: (1) observing and describing content and composition of the text itself, (2) gathering outside context, (3) reflecting on possible meaning, and (4) posing further questions.

Directions for using the visual literacy tool with students:

  1. Provide context about the tool itself and why it's useful.
    a. Let students know this will be a familiar structure that will help them read images like historians throughout the unit (and throughout the year).
    b. To build on prior knowledge of how to encounter new texts, have students briefly reflect on what they already know to be good strategies for approaching word-based texts. Talk through the steps of the visual literacy tool and point out any parallels between strategies students already know and those they are being asked to use in the tool.
    c. Stress for students that this is a flexible process that will depend on the images being analyzed and the information that is available about them. Explain to students that the process does not necessarily need to be performed in a strict order, and that insights in one area can help to offer new insights in others. Also note for students that the list of questions for each part of the process are there to prompt thinking and that students should focus only on those that seem most useful for each image.
    d. You might need to troubleshoot with students some vocabulary from the visual literacy tool, such as the following:
    posed: placed purposefully in a certain position
    candid: informal, unposed
    realistic: looks like real life
    abstract: focus on color, shapes, and lines; looks less like real life

  2. Provide some context about each historical image you work with.
    The amount of context you provide for students for each image will depend in part on what insights you hope they might generate. You can provide students with some context about an image before they describe and interpret it, or you might choose to wait to see what they can generate on their own first and then fill in gaps with context.

  3. Use the tool with students.
    The first few times you use the tool, consider modeling it or using it together as a whole class. After students gain familiarity with the process, they can begin analyzing images with less teacher guidance, working in pairs or small groups to maximize each student's opportunities to talk and negotiate meaning.

  4. Extend the learning.
    If you want to provide extra writing/speaking opportunities around the historical images students analyze, you could ask students to:
    a. Caption (or recaption) images and then discuss how different caption ideas communicate different things about the images.
    b. Write a story or draw a comic strip that shows what might have happened before or after the scene in the image, and then share these with classmates.


5.1 Organization and Systems of Governments of Native North American People Student Handouts

5.1 Organization and Systems of Governments of Native North American People Teacher Handout

  • The Library of Congress. The Library of Congress’ Primary Source Analysis Tool supports an inquiry model of instruction by asking students to first observe, then reflect, then question. Their customizable tool includes specific prompts for student interrogation of books and other printed materials, maps, oral recordings, photographs and paintings, and many other types of primary sources.

  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA has developed a vast collection of document analysis worksheets, ready for classroom use. Their website offers teachers a wide collection of customizable tools – appropriate for working with photographs, maps, written documents, and more. NARA has also customized their tools to meet the needs of young learners, and intermediate or secondary students.

Many of the historic images of Native Americans were drawn or photographed by foreign (mostly European or American) observers of Native people. They may not reflect the ways that Native people would have represented themselves at the time. It is important to acknowledge this with students. Teachers and students are encouraged to also seek out Native sources and consider the ways that Native people may have represented themselves in these historical contexts. Moreover, Native people may not have viewed their systems of government as a central defining factor before European contact. Sense of belonging for many groups rested first with their culture, family, clan, and/or village.