Southwest Indian History : Early History

The origin of the native cultures of the southwestern United States is still debated.

Some say it began with the people who crossed the Bering land bridge, from Siberia to Alaska, about 10,000 BC. Others say it began in the Americas as early as 25,000 BC.

In either case, the earliest distinct culture in the Southwest is thought to be approximately 11,000 years old. This is based on spear points that were unearthed near Clovis, New Mexico in the 1930s. The Clovis, as these people are now known, hunted big game such as bison, mammoth, and other large animals.

In about 5000 BC the Cochise settled in Arizona and New Mexico. They lived in cliff dwellings and caves. Hunting was important to the Cochise, especially in the winter and spring when plants were scarce. The Cochise migrated throughout the Southwest, following the seasons and subsisting on wild plants and seeds.

By 1100 BC five great Indian cultures thrived in the western hemisphere. They were the Incas, on the west coast of South America, and four classic cultures from central and southern Mexico: the Mayan, Olmec, Zapotec, and the Teotihuacan cultures.

These Mesoamerican cultures had invented farming, writing, advanced mathematics, pottery, and they also worked with both copper and gold. They had developed these skills independently of people outside the Western Hemisphere and were the most technologically advanced people in the New World.

Indians from these Mesoamerican cultures drifted into the southwestern United States during the next millennium. They brought with them their knowledge and technological advancements.

The People of the Pueblo, Yaqui and Navajo Cultures
Learn About A Few of the Native American Cultures.

The information below is courtesy of the Council of Indian Nations, whose mission is to help Native American people improve the quality of their lives by providing opportunities for them to bring about positive changes in their communities.


The Pueblo People

All of the Pueblo People have similar religions, governments, and economies.

• They have kept their strongly traditional communities.
• They continue to practice their rituals and religions.
• Their customs and cultural order, passed down for centuries, have held firm despite U.S. efforts to significantly alter them.

Most Pueblo People speak English, however, many of them also speak their traditional dialects. There are four distinct languages: Tewa, Zuni, Keres, and Tiwa. Each language is spoken by the inhabitants of several pueblos in New Mexico.


The name pueblo comes from the name given to cliff-side dwellings first built in the 12th century AD. Pueblos, which were small rooms built along the cliffs, concealed the Indians from attacking raids, yet kept them close to their farming lands and water sources.

During the 13th and 14th centuries the Pueblo People began to build their pueblos on less accessible mesas, with defensive walls and lookouts that surrounded large clusters of rooms. These mesa locations were inconvenient for farming and gathering water, but excellent for defensive purposes.

Each pueblo was economically and governmentally self sufficient, but they did participate in a loose federation.

The Spanish arrived just after 1500

When the Spanish arrived just after 1500, there were 98 Pueblo villages in New Mexico. About 40,000 Pueblo Indians lived in these villages. This was nearly half the Southwest's Indian population at that time.

By the end of the century, most of the mesa pueblos had been abandoned. Only the large pueblo clusters, those with 1,000 rooms or more, survived.

By the late 1800s there were only 19 villages remaining – all of which still exist today.

The Pueblo People had some success fighting the Spanish, however, many gave up and moved to live in the same areas as the Navajo and Apache bands.

The Pueblo People were excellent farmers and even taught their farming skills to many of the Navajo.

Generally, the Pueblo People did not enjoy a good relationship with the Apache, and never willingly lived with them. In skirmishes between the two tribes, the Pueblo People were the constant losers.

Eventually the Pueblo People came under Spanish rule. The Spanish demanded Catholic conversion and made slaves out of them.

When the United States annexed New Mexico in various stages between 1845 and 1852, settlers rushed in to take the best farmland around the pueblos.

The Pueblo Indians didn’t get many of their traditional sites back until 1924, but by then it was too little and too late. Many religious sites were ruined, and many non-Indian settlers remained on the land. Only recently have the Pueblo people received water rights in this arid region.


The Yaqui

The federal government recognized the Yaqui as a tribe in 1978, even though the state of Arizona resisted. Arizona contended that these poverty-stricken people should be shipped back to Mexico.

Today the Yaqui communities in the Phoenix and Tucson areas of Arizona are vibrant and healthy.

Nearly all the Yaqui people are U.S. born citizens.


The Yaqui culture is rooted in Mexico.

The majority of Yaqui in the United States today descend from those who came to this country in 1884, fleeing persecution and abandoning rich agricultural lands in Mexico.


The Navajo

Today the Navajo live on the largest reservation in the United States. The number of tribal members ranks second only to the Cherokee.

Unlike most tribes, the Navajo have kept their language alive. Over 97% of adult Navajo speak the Navajo language.

Although much of the land on the Navajo Reservation is arid, historically there have been substantial water resources. For the last hundred years the land has been used for grazing. Lately, overgrazing and misuse of underground water by power and coal companies have diminished the land and water resources.

The Navajo reservation boasts half a million acres of forest. Oil, gas, coal and uranium are found underground.

The Navajo people believe they are safe within the four sacred mountains that bound their reservation – Mt. Taylor, San Francisco Peak, Blanca Peak, and the La Plata Range. In their creation stories this is the place of their origins; of their emergence to the surface of the earth from the other worlds below.


The Navajo call themselves "Diné" – The People. About 8,000 lived in the Southwest in 1680.

They came from the North, but were influenced by the Anasazi culture, already in place in the Southwest. The Navajo language comes from the Athapascan linguistic family, which originates in Northern Canada and Alaska.

The Navajo were nomadic people in constant search of food for survival. The Navajo overran the Pueblo People in New Mexico and learned farming, weaving, and various crafts from them.

Banditry was the cornerstone of the Navajo economy for many decades. The Navajo were considered to have a keen intellect, and adapted themselves by using the tools provided by other cultures. They stole not only ideas, but the craftsmen and artisans of other tribes to teach new technology to their people.

The Navajo were willing to both dominate and accept other cultures and people. This allowed them to become the largest and most pervasive tribe in the Southwest. They took the best of everything and incorporated it into how they developed their society and how they learned to survive.

The Navajo became accomplished horsemen after the Spanish came. They also took sheep and goats from the Spanish and became herders.

The Spanish used the Navajo for slave labor and tried to convert them to Catholicism. This led to continual skirmishes between the Spanish and the Navajo.

The Navajo generally lived in widely scattered buildings called hogans, instead of in pueblo-like communities.


  A traditional Navajo hogan.

Photo courtesy of the Council of Indian Nations.

After the U.S. acquired Arizona and New Mexico in 1848, the U.S. tried to wipe out the Navajo.


We'd like to thank the CIN for allowing us to republish the information above. For more information on the Council go to

Council of Indian Nations
P.O. Box 1800 / Apache Junction, AZ 85217-9961
(800) 811-6955 /