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The American Indians living in North America before Columbus's arrival are divided into Northeast, Southeast, Great Plains, Southeast, Great Basin, Plateau, California, and Northwest Coast cultural areas. They consisted of thousands of small groups of loosely connected tribes. Western American Indians were mostly hunter-gatherers. The Eastern American Indians devised a clever system of what they called three sisters agriculture: corn, beans, and squash. Beans grew on the stalks of corn, and squash covered the planting mound to hold moisture in the soil. This agriculture method supported some of the largest tribes, including the Cherokee, Creek, and Choc-taw in the Southeast.

In the northern woodlands of what are now New York and New England was a remarkable alliance called the Iroquois Confederacy (also known as the League of Peace and Power, the Five Nations, the Six Nations, and the People of the Longhouse). This group of First Nations/American Indians originally consisted of five tribes: the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, and the Seneca. A sixth tribe, the Tuscarora, joined after European settlers came. The Iroquois Confederacy constitution, called the Great Law of Peace, was handed down from the time of the Middle Ages, when Europe was just a collection of feuding local rulers. The Iroquois Confederation actually served as one model for the development of the U.S. Constitution.

Although what's now the United States had some centers of development, the American Indian population of this area before Columbus probably never exceeded 4 million. Agriculture simply arrived too late to support large urban areas. In some areas, planting never arrived at all. The California American Indians spoke more than 200 languages and lived in small, stable communities near rich seashore and mountain food sources. These early Californians had the chance to develop agriculture but never bothered.

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