Native American Tribes of the Southwest

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13138

Which tribe celebrates a baby's first laugh? Which built a huge palace under a cliff? Which are called "the peaceful people," and which are "the enemy?" Learn all about native tribes of the Southwest!


United States

learning style
Auditory, Kinesthetic, Visual
personality style
Beaver, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio: Image - Button Play
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Does your family have any special traditions that you keep, or special days that you celebrate?

Well, the Navajo Indians have a unique tradition that celebrates something very special: a baby's first laugh!

laughing baby

Around three months or so after a baby is born, the family begins watching him or her very closely, trying to catch that first laugh. When a parent, sibling, grandparent, or friend sees the baby laugh for the first time, that person begins to plan a party to celebrate!

The tradition behind the Navajo First Laugh Ceremony is their belief that, when a baby is born, he or she is part of two different worlds: the spirit world and the physical world. The first laugh shows that the baby is happy to be here in the physical world, and has decided to stay and not return to the spirit world. So the Navajo people celebrate this special event!

Would you like to learn more about these fascinating people? Read on!

The hot and dry southwestern region of North America presented many challenges to the tribes who lived there, but they adapted and thrived.

Long ago, the natives of this area learned how to farm, despite the lack of rain, and to build houses of clay and sand (adobe). They settled by rivers or streams and used irrigation to grow their crops.

The southwestern tribes lived in what is now known as the Four Corners of the U.S. - where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado meet - as well as further east to parts of Texas and Mexico.

classification of indigenous peoples of North America

Image by Nikater, via Wikimedia Commons, was released into the public domain.

After the Spanish arrived in this area, the Native Americans adopted some of their ways adding by horses, donkeys, and sheep to their livestock and adding wheat, different types of beans, and various fruits to their crops. The sheep provided wool for making clothes and beautiful hand-woven blankets, as you'll see later.

Watch the following video for an introduction to these tribes. Throughout the lesson, write down what you learn about the homes, food, skills, natural resources, languages, and culture of the southwestern tribes. You'll use this information later in the Got It? section.

Pueblo- Native Americans of the Southwest from Laura Herrman:

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Pueblo (Anasazi)

What we now call the Pueblo people were descendants of the Anasazi. They lived in the American southwest from 1200 BC to 1200 AD. They build homes near or on the cliffs.

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde

Anasazi means "ancient ones." Watch The Anaszi Indians from Studies Weekly to learn more:

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For a closer view of the amazing cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, check out our lesson found under Additional Resources in the right-hand sidebar or watch the following video.

Mesa Verde National Park from GoTraveler:

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The Navajo came down from Canada and drove out the cliff dwellers in Arizona and New Mexico. They raised crops - the three sisters (corn, beans, and squash) - kept livestock, and made jewelry and rugs. They lived in houses called hogans, made of wood poles covered in tree bark and mud.


Learn about Navajo history in this clip from America's Great Indian Nations - Full Length Documentary - 3689 by Questar Entertainment:

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As you saw in the video, American and Mexican soldiers destroyed the Navajo land and sent 8,000 of the natives on the 300 mile Long Walk from Ft. Defiance, AZ to Bosque Redondo, NM. Around 200 people died on the way, and 2,000 died later at the reservation due to lack of proper food and clean water. They were eventually allowed to return to their homeland after four long years of suffering.

Many of today's Navajo people continue to keep their traditions and pass on their culture to their children, including the making of beautiful, hand-woven rugs.

Watch Navajo Rug Weaving ~ Monument Valley from finleyholiday:

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If you completed the Related Lesson on southeastern tribes, found in the right-hand sidebar, you'll remember the Choctaw Code Talkers helped the Allies to win World War I.

Well, the Navajo were called upon to serve as code talkers during World War II. The Navajo language is very complex, which made it extremely hard to decode. In fact, it was never decoded by enemy soldiers!

Watch Navajo Code Talkers WW2 from Serkan Stage:

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The Apache tribe is closely related to the Navajo and speak a similar language.

Listen to The Sound of the Apache language (Numbers, Greetings & Book of Jude) with I Love Languages!:

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Once the Apache got horses, they became some of the best horse riders around.

They were also fierce warriors. The name Apache means "the enemy" in the language of a neighboring tribe. Even if they were not at war, the Apache would sometimes raid neighboring tribes' or settlers' villages. Though this was seen as stealing by Europeans, it was considered a show of cleverness, skill, and bravery by the Apaches.

The Apache lived in wikiups or teepees, when they had to be on the move to hunt buffalo.

wikiup and teepee

Watch The Apache Tribe from Studies Weekly to learn more:

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As you learned in the video, many Apache were forced to leave their lands, and many fought hard to keep them. Some agreed to be held as prisoners of the U.S. government for two years, and then be returned to their lands. However, the government held them as prisoners for 27 years instead. The government's treatment of native tribes is truly one of the saddest parts of U.S. history.

Today, the Apache are trying to revive some of their old customs. Watch as an Apache young lady celebrates her rite of passage ceremony.

Inside an Apache Rite of Passage Into Womanhood from Broadly:

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The Hopi lived on the plateaus of Arizona. They built their homes on top of the mesas (large, flat, steep hills).

ancient Hopi Village of Wolpi

Image by Terry Eiler for the EPA, via Flickr, is in the public domain.

In the ground below the mesas, they grew corn, beans, and squash and kept livestock such as sheep, goats, and turkeys.

Their language is from a different language family than the Navajo and Apache. It's called the Uto-Aztecan language group, and it's spread throughout western U.S., Mexico, and parts of Central America.

For a sampling of their language, watch The Sound of the Hopi Language (Numbers, Greetings & The Book of Revelation) from I Love Languages!:

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Hopi means "the peaceful people." They were often raided by the Navajo and Apache, but they maintained their ideal of respecting all things and people and being at peace with everyone.

However, the Hopi did join with other Pueblo tribes during the Pueblo Revolt of 1850. At that time, the Pueblo people rose up against the Spanish invaders of their land, killing 400 people, and driving out 2,000 settlers.

They now own a large reservation in Arizona. Like many Native Americans, the Hopi and other modern-day tribes of the southwest try to retain their culture by passing on their language, stories, songs, and dances to their children.

One of the stories they like to pass on tells how the Hopi came to their original home. Watch Hopi Origin Story |Native America | Sacred Stories | PBS:

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Now that you've learned something about the tribes of the southwest, head over to the Got It? section! There, you'll organize all the facts you've written down and create a travel log about your "trip" to the homeland of a southwestern tribe!

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