Native People of the American Southwest


Thousands of years ago, ancient people first settled in the deep canyons of present-day New Mexico. The members of these ancient civilizations—the Pueblo (PWEB-loh), the Mogollon (moh-guh-YOHN), and the Hohokam (huh-HOH-kum)—built cities carved into the cliffs and created complex canals to water crops in the desert. Almost all of the Southwestern tribes, which later spread out into present-day Arizona, Texas, and northern Mexico, can trace their ancestry back to these civilizations.

Two powerful Southwest tribes were the exception: the Navajo (NA-vuh-hoh) and the Apache (uh-PA-chee). These people moved into the region from the Arctic between the 1200s and 1500s. They were hunters who followed their game across a wide territory and who often raided the other tribes in the area for food.


Between A.D. 900 and 1150, the ancient Pueblo people built hundreds of multistory sandstone buildings in canyons. Many tribes including the Hopi (HOH-pee) continued this building tradition, creating stone houses that were five stories high.

The American southwest has a dry climate with little rain, so tribes had to be creative to grow crops like beans and squash. For instance, the Quechan (kwuht-SAN) people planted crops in narrow valleys that would sometimes be covered in river water, and the Hopi people grew different types of corn to suit the arid climate, including white, red, yellow, blue, and speckled varieties. People also gathered prickly pear cactus and wild berries, and women and children of some tribes like the Havasupai (hah-vah-SOO-py) and Mojave (moh-HAH-vee) helped to hunt, stamping their feet to drive rabbits from their burrows.

Southwestern tribes are well known for their art and crafts. Artisans create turquoise and silver jewelry, finely woven baskets, clay pottery with geometric patterns, and colorful blankets.


Many Southwest tribes were affected by the California Gold Rush in 1849, when settlers, mining companies, and U.S. soldiers invaded ancestral homelands. By the end of the century, many tribal members had moved onto reservations. But some tribes managed to keep hold of at least some areas of their native lands because the landscape was too rugged for settlers.

Some tribes, like the Cocopah (koh-koh-PAH) and Maricopa (MAH-ree-KOH-pah) in Arizona and the Zuni (ZOO-nee) in New Mexico, run museums that teach people about their history. In the Grand Canyon region of Arizona, the Havasupai operate a campsite and lodge, and many tribal members work as guides for tourists to the national park. The Hualapai (WAH-luh-py) tribe built the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a glass platform 4,000 feet above the gorge.

The Zuni, Navajo, and Hopi tribes are famous for making silver and turquoise jewelry. <br>
The Zuni, Navajo, and Hopi tribes are famous for making silver and turquoise jewelry.
Photograph by Joseph H. Bailey, National Geographic Creative

Text and photos adapted from the Nat Geo Kids Encyclopedia of American Indian History and Culture.