Southwest Native American Culture and Traditions

Southwest Native American Culture and Traditions

With the Holidays here it makes me think a lot about culture and tradition, and about the way we incorporate our heritage in our everyday lives. This can be through little superstitions, or how we prepare meals, or the lullabies our parents used to sing to us and we now sing to our children. My favorite way of incorporating my culture is through jewelry, and when it comes to the Southwest Native American traditions, jewelry is one of the more important ways we stay connected to our heritage.

So, this time I really want to tell you all about Southwest Native American culture and traditions the way they were centuries ago.

More than 12000 years ago, there were already people in North America. Scholars estimate that by the 15th century more than 50 million people already called North America their home. Because it’s all really overwhelming, academics divided them into “culture areas,” rather than studying them by tribe or community.

So, in the North American territory (excluding present-day Mexico) there are 10 of these areas: the Arctic, the Subarctic, the Northeast, the Southeast, the Plains, the Great Basin, California, the Northwest Coast, the Plateau, and the one I’ll tell you all about in this blog post – the Southwest!

The Southwest Native American Tribes

Before we get into the Southwest Native American culture and tradition, I just want to mention that there cannot be only one culture and tradition. Even though the scholars decided present-day Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado, Utah, Texas, and Mexico are all a part of a one “culture area,” the truth is every tribe is distinct. There are similarities, but if you want to learn more about a people, you should really focus on one tribe.

The tribes of the Southwest people can be categorized, by their way of life, into three categories: the farmers (the Yuma, Prima, and Mojave tribes), the villagers (the Zuni, Hopi, and Pueblo), and the nomads (the Apache and Navajo). Because of their ways of life, and the nature surrounding them, they developed their own, particular cultures and traditions. They are alike in some ways and different in others – like all cultures!

So, the nomadic tribes – the Navajo and the Apache – were in constant movement and survived by hunting and gathering. Unlike the other tribes, their homes were less permanent, like the Navajos hogans, homes made of mud and bark. They didn’t stay in one place, so they didn’t need to worry about making their homes long-lasting!

The other tribes, farmers and villagers, had a different kind of life. They made “real” settlements, the ones that can survive for a good long while. Many lived in pueblos, homes built of stone and adobe that we can compare to apartment buildings of today.

The languages you’ll find in the Southwest area are Siouan, Algonquian, Uto-Aztecan, Caddoan, and Athabaskan. What’s really amazing is that a sign language also developed between these tribes – it was used to overcome language barriers so that they could communicate with each other!

The Southwest Native American Culture

To me, one of the more interesting and amazing aspects of the Southwest Native American culture is that it’s matrilineal. So, the ownership of livestock and other properties followed the female line. Unlike the more “western” cultures, the Native American culture of the Southwest meant that children were born into matrilineal societies, and when the men married, they would stay with the wife’s clans, not the other way around!

To take the example of the Navajo – when a child is born, whether it’s a girl or a boy – it takes the mother’s clan (not the father’s), and when a couple is married, it’s the groom who moves to the bridal home. Another Navajo belief is that each of our bodies is made of two halves – one male, the other female – and they are completely equal and exist as one.

Within a settlement, the entire extended family lived and worked together, with everyone (men and women equally) contributing to the agricultural processes. While the Native American women claimed a more equal status among the community, it was the men – the heads of households – who would gather to form community decisions (and if anyone knows of women participating in them, please let me know!).

These men – band leaders – were like a loosely organized council, and they would deal with only public happenings and unrest. But what was most important to the individual for their identity was the tribe, not the band leader.

Southwest Native American Culture

The Southwest Native American Traditions

Traditions stem from beliefs and culture, so it’s important to note here that the Southwest tribes’ religion and ceremonies are all based on animism – the belief that within each object in the universe resides a spirit.

Again, unlike the “western” cultures, Native American tribes believe souls and spirits are a natural part of humans, plants, animals, and also many natural forces – the rain, caves, rivers, mountains, the sun. The notion that Native Americans are “so connected” with nature likely stems from these beliefs. But all it really means is that Native American tribes have a deep respect to nature.

Ceremonies that Southwest Native Americans often practice are the winter and summer solstices – the Soyal festival, for example, is the winter solstice ceremony performed by the Zuni and the Hopi tribes. Prior to the ceremony, Paphos (prayer sticks) are made to bless the entire community. Sacred ritual chambers, called kivas, are also opened as a part of the ceremony.  

There are so many fascinating details about Southwest Native American traditions and culture that it was really hard to pick these! I hope you understand why I find them so beautiful and amazing. There’s really no question about how I and all the Pink Camel designers get inspiration for our work!

If you want a piece of the Southwest and the amazing culture and traditions of natives to always be by your side, check out the Pink Camel Boutique! Every piece of jewelry was exquisitely handcrafted by Native American designers, and made in a way that seamlessly blends the traditional with the modern.


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