Southwest Region

southwest culture

The Southwest Culture

The Southwest Culture Area is defined as a geographical region in what is now the American Southwest, including most of Arizona and New Mexico and small parts of California, Utah, Colorado, and Texas, plus much of northern Mexico.


The accompanying map shows both United States and Mexican territory. But most of the Southwest tribes listed in this book under separate entries lived in what became part of the United States.


The Southwest Culture Area has varied topography. There is the rugged high country of the Colorado Plateau in the northern part, with its tablelands of flat- topped mesas separated by steep-walled canyons. The enormous Grand Canyon, cut by the long and winding Colorado River, is the most famous of all the world’s canyons. There is mountain country as well, such as the Mogollon Mountains in New Mexico. Inland Mexico also has highlands of plateau and sierra. Much of the Southwest is desert. The Painted Desert lies along the Little Colorado River in Arizona. There are also desert lands along the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of California.



All these different landscapes have aridity in common. The average annual rainfall for the region ranges from less than four inches a year to less than 20 inches. Most precipitation occurs within a six-week period of summer. Because of the extreme aridity, plants are sparse. There are three patterns of dominant tree growth in the Southwest, depending on altitude and rainfall: western evergreen trees; piñon and juniper trees; and mesquite trees, plus varying species of cacti and desert shrubs. Animals are also scarce: mostly small mammals and reptiles, such as deer, rabbits, squirrels, mice, and lizards; and some large birds, such as eagles, hawks, and vultures.


Two main ways of life evolved among Southwest Indians: farming and nomadic hunting and raiding. Those peoples who practiced agriculture were such skilled farmers that, even in the dry country, they could support sizable populations in permanent villages. Most Indian villages in the Southwest had what is known as pueblo architecture. The pueblos, made from adobe brick or stone and with different apartment-like levels connected by ladders, were generally located on mesa tops. Some villages were located in the desert lowlands, however, or along rivers, where the Indians lived in other types of houses, small pole-framed huts covered with plant matter or earth. Those who did not farm, the nomadic hunters and gatherers, supplemented their diet by raiding village peoples for their crops. The two main kinds of house among these people were wickiups (which were brush-covered) and hogans (which were earth-covered).


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"The old Indian teaching was that it is wrong to tear loose from its place on the earth anything that may be growing there. It may be cut off, but it should not be uprooted. The trees and the grass have spirits. Whatever one of such growth may be destroyed by some good Indian, his act is done in sadness and with a prayer for forgiveness because of his necessities...”
- Wooden Leg (late 19th century) Cheyenne



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