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About Our Maps

The maps we feature on our pages about Native American tribes in each state are not exact. It is impossible to draw a single exact map of the Native American tribes in any state, for three reasons:

1) With only two or three exceptions, traditional Native American borders were extremely fluid. Many Indian tribes were used to sharing territory with other tribes they were at peace with. Meanwhile, tribes who were at war often pushed their borders back and forth several times a year. And some tribes were semi-nomadic or seasonally migrational, so the same band might not even occupy the same location all year long.

2) Everything changed when Europeans arrived. European diseases devastated the American continents. Some villages lost as many as 90% of their people. Entire regions were left empty of people as the survivors left their homes and joined neighboring tribes. Some tribes that had originally been distinct banded together, sometimes under a new name. Others moved into areas that were now empty. In the Great Plains, the introduction of horses brought more benign changes, as previously settled tribes began to adapt a more migratory lifestyle and nomadic tribes greatly increased their range. And, of course, as Europeans began settling North America more and more, Native American tribes were increasingly displaced, pushed westward either indirectly (by population pressure) or directly (by the US Army force-marching them to Oklahoma.) Most Native Americans today are not living on the same land where their ancestors once lived.

3) No one was drawing accurate maps of tribal lands in North America until after all those changes were already in motion. Native American tribes were not familiar with cartography as a science (drawing maps of small localities if at all), and most early Europeans who drew maps knew next to nothing about Native American languages or Native American tribes. The best and most reliable maps of precolonial North America that exist today are reconstructions, made by comparing many different European maps with Indian oral history and the letters and diaries of early colonists. There is an element of guesswork to each and every one of them.

In sum, if you want a really precise visual representation of where Native American tribes lived in your state, a single map will not help you. You will need a series of maps showing the territories of different tribes over the course of many years. One book that contains a lot of good map reconstructions from different time periods is the Atlas of the North American Indian. If you would like a more in-depth picture of Native American habitation in your state, that is an excellent place to start. Our maps are only intended to give the general sense of where in each state different tribes were living, and they should not be used for research, only as a jumping-off point for further learning.

Orrin and Laura

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