Regional and Cultural Diversity of Indigenous Peoples

September 15, 2021

Indigenous peoples, both historical and contemporary, in North America can be divided into 10 cultural areas. Only the first six areas are found within the borders of Canada:

  • Arctic
  • Subarctic
  • Northwest Coast
  • Plateau
  • Plains
  • Eastern Woodlands (sometimes referred to as the Northeast)
  • Southeast
  • Southwest
  • Great Basin
  • California

Contemporary political borders in North America do not reflect (and often overlap) traditional lands. For example, the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne straddles both provincial (Québec and Ontario) and international (New York State) borders, as its existence predates the establishment of the international border in 1783.

Rather than representing 10 distinct cultures, these areas reflect geographic and cultural groupings that are fluid and often intermixed. In addition, contemporary Indigenous peoples may live far from their ancestral homelands and indeed may form new communities rooted in urban centres rather than traditional lands.

These cultural areas are massive and generalized; what is true of a part is not always true of the whole. For example, some sources further divide the Eastern Woodlands into the Southeast and Northeast regions, while others combine these regions into simply Woodlands, and as such one must not assume that all peoples in a cultural area shared the same experiences.1

As an example, In Northwest Coast, sculptural and decorative artwork was also part of daily life. Artists applied embellishments to tools, houses, baskets, clothing, and items associated with the supernatural. Wood sculpture and painting, notably totem poles, are the most renowned features of Northwest Coast Indigenous culture. Archaeological evidence suggests that such artistic traditions have a long history in the area and that regional styles share basic similarities of form with an earlier tradition. In the north, the art is highly formalized and often depicts family crests on property. Wakashan sculptors excelled in creating masks for dramatic performances. The Salish put emphasis on religious implements, with little concern for crests. In all areas, ownership of sculptural and decorative art was indicative of wealth and denoted class position.2

As another example, as Indigenous cultures varied across the Plains, artistic expression ranged from tattoos, to clothing painted or embroidered with dyed porcupine quills, to painted tipi covers, shields, and rawhide containers. Plains art also included carvings on wooden bowls, horn spoons, and stone pipes. These items often featured symbols associated with the Indigenous nation or the identity of the particular band member who made the designs.3

  1. 2021. Indigenous Peoples in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 February 2021].
  2. 2021. Northwest Coast Indigenous Peoples in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 February 2021].
  3. 2021. Plains Indigenous Peoples in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 February 2021].