Indigenous People of South America

Contributor: Brian Anthony. Lesson ID: 12142

Where would you find Indians? How about Native Americans? The answers may shake your beliefs. Be an ethnologist and visit indigenous American cultures to discover how they are and aren't all alike!


World Cultures

Social Studies
learning style
personality style
Otter, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

  • What do the Native Americans of North and South America all have in common, if anything?

Names carry a lot of meaning.

One of the oddities of history is how millions of people living in the Americas came to be known as “Indians.” As you probably know, Christopher Columbus and his co-travelers thought they had made it to the other side of the globe and had discovered islands off the coast of India.

People still commonly use the word “Indian” to refer to the many people of North and South America who have been living here for at least the past several thousand years. Not only is that name not geographically accurate, but they have been living in a completely different hemisphere. Other terms have been suggested. Some people prefer to use the term Native Americans, but this is sometimes understood to mainly mean the people who lived in North America.

While the people who lived in North, Central, and South America may have come from the same background — they can be traced to common ancestors — they went on to develop traditions, religions, and languages as rich and distinct as those found in other regions of the world.

These two aspects, the physical and the cultural, are sometimes represented with the words "race" and "ethnicity."

  • What do these terms mean?
  • What do they have in common?
  • What makes them different?

Learn more about these terms and how they interact through the following reading. As you read the article, What is the difference between race and ethnicity?, courtesy of PBS and California Newsreel, write down information and ideas to answer the following questions:

  • How do each of the experts define race and ethnicity?
  • How do people’s perceptions of themselves and others affect race and ethnicity?
  • What are some specific examples of each that the experts mention?

Share your answers with your parent or teacher, then discuss the following questions together:

  • How would you define "race"? How would you define "ethnicity"?
  • How do each of these terms relate to the native or indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere?
  • What role do race and ethnicity play in your own life?

Our perceptions of race and ethnicity shape how we understand the “Indians” of the New World. When we speak in broad terms about Native Americans or American Indians or indigenous South Americans, we are mainly thinking about race. A more interesting way of understanding people is to examine their cultural distinctions.

In the Got It? section, look at the many ethnicities that make up the indigenous peoples of South America.

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