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A Glossary of Native American History

Historical Terminology | Kinship Terminology | Political Organization
Religious Terminology | Forms of Shelter

Historical Terminology:


During one of the earth's periodic ice ages, water froze into glaciers, reducing sea levels 200 to 300 feet, exposing a subcontinent known as Beringia. This subcontinent connected Asia and North America and formed a migration route for hunters and animals searching for food.

Clovis tradition

A sophisticated form of toolmaking that appeared about 12,000 years ago.

Mississippian cultural patterns

A form of social organization that appeared among the Indian peoples east of the Mississippi beginning in the seventh century, characterized by permanent villages and towns, political and economic stratification, specialized crafts, and extensive trade.


Early Indian peoples, including the Adena, Hopewell, and Mississippian cultures, who built large earthen monuments to serve as burial sites and as sites for temples and religious ceremonies.

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Kinship Terminology


A group of persons tracing descent from a common ancestor.


Two or more lineages claiming descent from a common ancestor.


One of two basic complementary tribal subdivisions. Among some people, the members of one moiety were responsible for burying the dead of the other moiety.


An organization whose members were not related. Among the Plains Indians, associations were often organized according to age.

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Political Organization


The form of political organization customarily found among hunter-gatherers. Bands usually have no permanent leaders; decisions are based on building consensus. Leadership tends to be situational, arising for short periods of time.


Larger than a band, tribal organization is customarily associated with agriculture and more permanent settlements. Kinship is generally the central organizing principle. Leaders are usually chosen by consensus and rule by consensus.


Usually larger than a tribe, chiefdoms show the beginning of social stratification and the emergence of a distinct ruling class. Customarily, the chiefs must redistribute the resources they control. Chiefdoms are often engaged in some kinds of extensive trade.


A union of a number of distinct tribes or chiefdoms.


Unlike bands, tribes, and chiefdoms, states have a true class structure and a distinct ruling class. It is a more extensive system of political control, often involving rule over subjugated groups.

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Religious Terminology

Agrarian Tradition

A religious system associated with farming communities, which was characterized by rituals associated with changing seasons. Unlike the Hunting Tradition, which had individual shamans, the Agrarian Tradition had organized priesthood and cult societies.

Ghost Dance

A messianic religious ritual originating among the Paiute, which later spread to the Plains, and was supposed to bring the return of the spirits of the dead.

Hunting Tradition

A religious system of beliefs that emphasized the ties between hunters and the animal world.


A Pueblo Indian ceremonial structure that is usually round and partly underground.


A ceremonial feast held by Indians of the Northwest Pacific Coast marked by the host's lavish distribution of gifts.


An individual with a special relationship with the spirit world. White often called shamans "medicine men" because they were responsible for curing the sick.

Southern Cult

A system of religious ritual that shared many customs and symbols with Mexican Indian religions.

Sun Dance

A religious ceremony among the Plains Indians to mark the renewal of nature.


An object, such as an animal or plant, that serves as the emblem for a lineage or clan. The totem often serves as a symbolic representation of a guardian spirit or an ancestor.

Totem Pole

A carved or painted pillar erected by Indians of the Northwest Pacific Coast to mark an important event, such as a religious ceremony or acquisition of a title or the death of a relative.

Vision Quest

A rite in which a young persons or young adults go to an isolated place to seek, in a vision, a protective spirit.

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Forms of Shelter


An earth lodge found among the Navajo, consisting of a frame built of poles or logs covered with dirt.


Large, rectangular structure found among the Iroquois. Some longhouses were 100 feet long and housed ten or more families.

Pit house

An insulated structure built in a pit several feet deep and covered with sod, dirt, or other materials.

Plank house

Form of housing found in the Pacific Northwest.


Multistoried apartment building built out of adobe (sun-dried bricks) found in Arizona and New Mexico.


Cone-shaped structure built on a pole framework. On the Plains, it was covered with buffalo skins. Elsewhere, it was covered with animal skins or tree bark.


Form of shelter found among the Apaches and Paiutes constructed of brush and matting.


A dome-shaped structure found in the eastern woodlands that was built on a pole framework and covered with leaves and bark.

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