Native Americans in the United States

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This article is about the people indigenous to the United States. For broader uses of "Native American" and related terms, see Native Americans (disambiguation).

Native Americans in the United States (also Indians, American Indians, First Americans, Indigenous Peoples, Aboriginal Peoples, Aboriginal Americans, Amerindians, Amerinds, or Original Americans) are those indigenous peoples within the territory which is now encompassed by the continental United States, and their descendants in modern times. This collective term encompasses a large number of distinct tribes, states, and ethnic groups, many of them still enduring as political communities. A comprehensive tribal list can be found under "Classification of Native Americans."

The U.S. states and several of the inhabited insular areas which do not form part of the continental U.S. territory also contain indigenous groups. These other indigenous peoples in the United States are not generally designated as "Native Americans". This includes groups such as the Alaska Natives (Inuit, Yupik, Aleut, etc.), Native Hawaiians (also known as Kanaka Māoli and Kanaka 'Oiwi), and various Pacific Islander peoples such as the Chamorros.

There is some controversy surrounding the names used to describe these peoples. U.S. specific teminology considerations are also covered in the Terminology differences section, below.

Early history

See also: archeology of the Americas, models of migration to the New World, and indigenous people of the Americas for more detailed history and migration theories.

The Bering Strait Land Bridge theory

Based on anthropological and genetic evidence, most scientists believe that most Native Americans descend from people who migrated from Siberia across the Bering Land Bridge between 17,000 and 11,000 years ago, where the Bering Strait is today.

The exact epoch and route is still a matter of controversy.

It should be noted, however, that many Native Americans reject theories of modern anthropology, having their own traditional stories that offer accounts to their origins, which are seen only as folklore by the scientific community.

The primarily Siberian origin is widely regarded as the most likely, consisting of at least three separate migrations from Siberia to the Americas:

  • The first wave, during the late Pleistocene, would be the forerunners of the Clovis and Folsom cultures, both hunting the abundant large mammals of the virgin continent. This wave eventually spread over the entire hemisphere, as far south as Tierra del Fuego and is believed to have reached the New World no later than 11,000 years ago.
  • The second migration brought the ancestors of the Na-Dene peoples. They lived in Alaska and western Canada, but some migrated as far south as the Pacific Northwestern U.S. and the American Southwest, and would be ancestral to the Dene, Apaches and Navajos. This group is believed to have reached North America between 6,000 to 8,000 years ago.
  • The third wave brought the ancestors of the Inuit, Yupik and Aleut peoples. They may have come by sea over the Bering Strait, after the land bridge had disappeared. They are believed to have reached Alaska as early as 3,000 years ago.

In recent years, molecular genetics studies have suggested as many as four distinct migrations from Asia. These studies also provide surprising evidence of smaller-scale, contemporaneous migrations from Europe, possibly by peoples who had adopted a lifestyle resembling that of Inuits and Yupiks during the last ice age.

While many Native American groups retained a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle through the time of European occupation of the New World, in some regions, specifically in the Mississippi River valley of the United States, in Mexico, Central America, the Andes of South America, they built advanced civilizations with monumental architecture and large-scale organization into cities and states.

A recent (2004) study has claimed evidence which, if accepted, would extensively revise the timeline of human habitation in the Americas. At the Topper site on the Savannah River near Allendale, South Carolina, a team led by University of South Carolina archaeologist Dr. Albert Goodyear reported recovering what they claimed to be stone tool artifacts from strata considerably below that of Clovis culture remains. Using stratigraphy and charcoal material found with the artifacts, radiocarbon dating performed by the University of California at Irvine Laboratory dated these remains to be at least 50,000 years old. This would indicate the presence of humans well before the termination of the last glaciation. Other archaeologists have disputed the dating methodology employed, and have also questioned whether these "artifacts" are not in fact naturally-formed, rather than of human manufacture. Other recent claims for pre-Clovis artifacts have similarly been made in some South American sites. The notion of pre-Clovis habitation continues to be a subject of scholarly debate, and the issue has not yet been satisfactorily resolved.

Settling down

By 1500 B.C. many tribes had settled into small indigenous communities. These began as temporary settlements built by the hunter-gatherers, and over the centuries they grew into small villages, mostly established in the river valleys of North America, where crops could be raised. While exhibiting widely divergent social, cultural, and artistic expressions, all Native American groups worked with materials available to them and employed social arrangements that augmented their means of subsistence and survival. Gradually, these communities became more sophisticated; examples of more complex societies included the tribes of the southern United States from the Atlantic Coast to the Mississippi River. These groups, usually known as the Mississippian Culture, were the most highly developed Indian cultures north of Mexico. They constructed large and complex earthworks, and were particularly skilled at small stone sculptures and engravings on shell and copper.

The large pueblos, or villages, built on top of rocky talleland or mesas of Southwest around A.D. 700, were a complicated aggregate of family apartments. Towns were one large complex of buildings, with multistoried houses arranged around courtyards or plazas. Wooden ladders provided access to upper levels. Under the courtyards, subterranean kivas, or ceremonial structures, served as meeting rooms for religious societies.

European colonization

Initial impacts

The European colonization of the Americas forever changed the lives and cultures of the Native Americans. In the 15th to 19th centuries, their populations were ravaged, by the privations of displacement, by disease, and in many cases by warfare with European groups and enslavement by them. The first Native American group encountered by Christopher Columbus, the 250,000 Island Arawaks more properly called Taino of Haiti Quiskaya, Cubanacan (Cuba) and Boriquen as Puerto Rico were known then, were enslaved. It is said that only 500 survived by the year 1550, and the group was considered extinct before 1650. Yet DNA studies show that the genetic contribution of the Taino to that region continues, and the mitochondrial DNA studies of the Taino are said to show relationships to the Northern Indigenous Nations, such as Inuit (Eskimo) and others.

In the 15th century Spaniards and other Europeans brought horses to the Americas. Some of these animals escaped and began to breed and increase their numbers in the wild. Ironically, the horse had originally evolved in the Americas, but the last American horses, died out at the end of the last ice age. The re-introduction of the horse had a profound impact on Native American culture in the Great Plains of North America. This new mode of travel made it possible for some tribes to greatly expand their territories, exchange goods with neighboring tribes, and more easily capture game.

Europeans also brought diseases against which the Native Americans had no immunity. Chicken pox and measles, though common and rarely fatal among Europeans, often proved fatal to Native Americans, and more dangerous diseases such as smallpox were especially deadly to Native American populations. It is difficult to estimate the total percentage of the Native American population killed by these diseases. Epidemics often immediately followed European exploration, sometimes destroying entire villages. Some historians estimate that up to 80% of some Native populations may have died due to European diseases. For more information, see population history of American indigenous peoples.

Early relations

During the Seven Years' War many Native Americans sided with France although some did fight alongside the British.

During the American War of Independence, the newly proclaimed United States competed with the British for the allegiance of Native American nations east of the Mississippi River. Most Native Americans who joined the struggle sided with the British, hoping to use the war to halt colonial expansion onto American Indian land. Many native communities were divided over which side to support in the war. For the Iroquois Confederacy, the American Revolution resulted in civil war. Cherokees split into a neutral (or pro-American) faction and the anti-American Chickamaugas, led by Dragging Canoe. Many other communities were similarly divided.

Frontier warfare during the American Revolution was particularly brutal, and numerous atrocities were committed on both sides. Noncombatants of both races suffered greatly during the war, and villages and food supplies were frequently destroyed during military expeditions. The largest of these expeditions was the Sullivan Expedition of 1779, which destroyed more than 40 Iroquois villages in order to neutralize Iroquois raids in upstate New York. The expedition failed to have the desired effect: American Indian activity became even more determined.

Native Americans were stunned to learn that when the British made peace with the Americans in the Treaty of Paris (1783), the British had ceded a vast amount of American Indian territory to the United States without even informing their Indian allies. The United States initially treated the American Indians who had fought with the British as a conquered people who had lost their land. When this proved impossible to enforce (the Indians had lost the war on paper, not on the battlefield), the policy was abandoned. The United States was eager to expand, and the national government initially sought to do so only by purchasing Native American land in treaties. The states and settlers were frequently at odds with this policy.

Removal and reservations

In the 19th century, the incessant Westward expansion of the United States incrementally compelled large numbers of Native Americans to resettle further west, sometimes by force, almost always reluctantly. Under President Andrew Jackson, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which authorized the President to conduct treaties to exchange Indian land east of the Mississippi River for lands west of the river. As many as 100,000 American Indians eventually relocated in the West as a result of this Indian Removal policy. In theory, relocation was supposed to be voluntary (and many Indians did remain in the East), but in practice great pressure was put on American Indian leaders to sign removal treaties. Arguably the most egregious violation of the stated intention of the removal policy was the Treaty of New Echota, which was signed by a dissident faction of Cherokees, but not the elected leadership. The treaty was brutally enforced by President Martin Van Buren, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 4,000 Cherokees (mostly from disease) on the Trail of Tears.

Conflicts generally known as "Indian Wars" broke out between U.S. forces and many different tribes. Authorities entered numerous treaties during this period, but later abrogated many for various reasons. Well-known military engagements include the atypical Native American victory at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, and the massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee in 1890. On January 31, 1876 the United States government ordered all remaining Native Americans to move into reservations or reserves. This, together with the near-extinction of the American Bison which many tribes had lived on, set about the downturn of Prairie Culture that had developed around the use of the horse for hunting, travel and trading.

File:Bismarck Indian School.jpg
Students at the Bismarck Indian School in the early 20th century

American policy toward Native Americans has been an evolving process. In the late nineteenth century reformers in efforts to "civilize" Indians adapted the practice of educating native children in Indian Boarding Schools. These schools, which were primarily run by Christians [1], proved traumatic to Indian children, who were forbidden to speak their native languages, taught Christianity instead of their native religions and in numerous other ways forced to abandon their Indian identity[2] and adopt European-American culture. There are also many documented cases of sexual, physical and mental abuses occurring at these schools [3] [4].

Current status

There are 563 Federally recognized tribal governments in the United States. The United States recognizes the right of these tribes to self-government and supports their tribal sovereignty and self-determination. These tribes possess the right to form their own government; to enforce laws, both civil and criminal; to tax; to establish membership; to license and regulate activities; to zone; and to exclude persons from tribal territories. Limitations on tribal powers of self-government include the same limitations applicable to states; for example, neither tribes nor states have the power to make war, engage in foreign relations, or coin money. [5]

In addition, there are a number of tribes that are recognized by individual states, but not by the federal government. The rights and benefits associated with state recognition vary from state to state.

Military defeat, cultural pressure, confinement on reservations, forced cultural assimilation, outlawing of native languages and culture, termination policies of the 1950s, and 1960s, and slavery have had deleterious effects on Native Americans' mental and physical health. Contemporary health problems include poverty, alcoholism, heart disease, diabetes, and New World Syndrome.

As recently as the 1970s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was still actively pursuing a policy of "assimilation" [6], the goal of which was to eliminate the reservations and steer Indians into mainstream U.S. culture. As of 2004, there are still claims of theft of Indian land for the coal and uranium it contains. [7] [8] [9] [10]

In the state of Virginia, Native Americans face a unique problem. Virginia has no federally recognized tribes, largely due to the work of one man, Walter Ashby Plecker. In 1912, Plecker became the first registrar of the state's Bureau of Vital Statistics, serving until 1946. An avowed white supremacist and fervent advocate of eugenics, Plecker believed that the state's Native Americans had been "mongrelized" with its African American population. A law passed by the state's General Assembly recognized only two races, "white" and "colored". Plecker pressured local governments into reclassifying all Native Americans in the state as "colored", leading to massive destruction of records on the state's Native American community.

This Census Bureau map depicts the locations of Native Americans in the United States as of 2000.

Even after his death, Plecker still haunts the state's Native American community. In order to receive federal recognition and the benefits it confers, tribes must prove their continuous existence since 1900. Plecker's policies have made it impossible for Virginia tribes to do so. The federal government, while aware of Plecker's destruction of records, has so far refused to bend on this bureaucratic requirement. A bill currently before U.S. Congress to ease this requirement has been favorably reported out of a key Senate committee, but faces strong opposition in the House from a Virginia member concerned that federal recognition could open the door to gambling in the state. [11]

In the early 21st century, Native American communities remain an enduring fixture on the United States landscape, in the American economy, and in the lives of Native Americans. Communities have consistently formed governments that administer services like firefighting, natural resource management, and law enforcement. Most Native American communities have established court systems to adjudicate matters related to local ordinances, and most also look to various forms of moral and social authority vested in traditional affiliations within the community. To address the housing needs of Native Americans, Congress passed the Native American Housing and Self Determination Act (NAHASDA) in 1996. This legislation replaced public housing, and other 1937 Housing Act programs directed towards Indian Housing Authorities, with a block grant program directed towards Tribes.

Gambling has become a leading industry. Casinos operated by many Native American governments in the United States are creating a stream of gambling revenue that some communities are beginning to use as leverage to build diversified economies. Native American communities have waged and prevailed in legal battles to assure recognition of rights to self-determination and to use of natural resources. Some of those rights, known as treaty rights are enumerated in early treaties signed with the young United States government. Tribal sovereignty has become a cornerstone of American jurisprudence, and at least on the surface, in national legislative policies. Although many Native American tribes have casinos, they are a source of conflict. Most tribes, especially small ones such as the Winnemem Wintu of Redding, California, feel that casinos and their proceeds destroy culture from the inside out. These tribes refuse to participate in the gaming industry.

Many of the smaller eastern tribes have been trying to gain official recognition of their tribal status. The recognition confers some benefits, including the right to label arts and crafts as Native American and they can apply for grants that are specifically reserved for Native Americans. But gaining recognition as a tribe is extremely difficult because of a Catch-22 in the process. To be established as a tribal groups, members have to submit extensive genealogical proof of tribal descent, yet in past years many Native Americans denied their Native American heritage, because it would have deprived them of many rights, such as the right of probate. The Waccamaw tribe and the Pee Dee tribe of South Carolina were granted official recognition February 17, 2005. Two other tribal applications were denied for lack of documentation.

According to 2003 United States Census Bureau estimates, a little over one third of the 2,786,652 Native Americans in the United States live in three states: California at 413,382, Arizona at 294,137 and Oklahoma at 279,559 [12].

As of 2000, the largest tribes in the U.S. by population were Cherokee, Navajo, Choctaw, Sioux, Chippewa, Apache, Blackfeet, Iroquois, and Pueblo. In 2000 eight of ten Americans with Native American ancestry were of mixed blood. It is estimated that by 2100 that figure will rise to nine of ten [13].

The Massachusetts legislature repealed a 330-year-old law that barred Native Americans from entering Boston on the 19th of May 2005.

Cultural aspects

Though cultural features, including language, garb, and customs vary enormously from one tribe to another, there are certain elements which are encountered frequently and shared by many tribes.

Early nomadic hunters forged stone weapons from around 10,000 years ago; as the age of metallurgy dawned, newer technologies were used and more efficient weapons produced. Prior to contact with Europeans, most tribes used similar weaponry. The most common implement were the bow and arrow, the war club, and the spear. Quality, material, and design varied widely.

Large mammals such as the mammoth were largely extinct by around 8,000 B.C., and the Native Americans were hunting their descendants, such as bison or buffalo. The Great Plains tribes were still hunting the buffalo when they first encountered the Europeans. The acquisition of the horse and horsemanship from the Spanish in the 17th century greatly altered the natives' culture, changing the way in which these large creatures were hunted and making them a central feature of their lives.

File:American indians 1916.jpg
Panoramic view of California Indians. Photograph taken in 1916


The Iroquois tribes, living around the Great Lakes and extending east and north, used strings or belts called wampum that served a dual function: the knots and beaded designs mnemonically chronicled tribal stories and legends, and further served as a medium of exchange and a unit of measure. The keepers of the articles were seen as tribal dignitaries.

Pueblo tribes crafted impressive items associated with their religious ceremonies. Kachina dancers wore elaborately painted and decorated masks as they ritually impersonated various ancestral spirits. Sculpture was not highly developed, but carved stone and wood fetishes were made for religious use. Superior weaving, embroided decorations, and rich dyes characterized the textile arts. Both turquoise and shell jewelry were created, as were high-quality pottery and formalized pictorial arts.

Navajo religion focused on the maintenance of a harmonious relationship with the spirit world, often achieved by ceremonial acts, usually incorporating sand paintings. The colors—made from sand, charcoal, cornmeal, and pollen—depicted specific spirits. These vivid, intricate, and colorful sand creations were erased at the end of the ceromony.


The most widespread religion at the present time is known as the Native American Church. It is a syncretistic church incorporating elements of native spiritual practice from a number of different tribes as well as symbolic elements from Christianity. Its main rite is the peyote ceremony. The church has had significant success in combatting many of the ills brought by colonization, such as alcoholism and crime. In the American Southwest, especially New Mexico, a syncretism between the Catholicism brought by Spanish missionaries and the native religion is common; the religious drums, chants, and dances of the Pueblo people are regularly part of Masses at Santa Fe's Saint Francis Cathedral.

Gender roles

Most Native American tribes had traditional gender roles. In some tribes, social and clan relationships were matrilinear and matriarchal but several different systems were in use. Men filled the war leader role. The cradle board is used by mothers to carry their baby whilst working or traveling.

As in many indigenous cultures around the world, homosexual and transgender individuals (and animals) are considered routine and expected. Many Native American tribes formally recognize these homosexual and transgender individuals in the role of the "two-spirit" person (previously labeled by Europeans as "berdache", a term now considered obsolete). Two-spirit transgender and homosexual roles are known to have been recognized and honored, at the present time or historically, in more than 150 different tribes.

The two-spirit is a man or woman who mixes gender roles by wearing clothes of the opposite or both genders, doing both male and female (or primarily "opposite-gender") work, and often engaging in same-sex relations with other members of the tribe. Two-spirit people often are shamans, performing religious and/or mediating functions. Their special status is thought to invest them with exceptional spiritual power, as a result of which they are both feared and respected.

Music and art

File:Mystic River Singers 1024.jpg
Mystic River Singers performing at a powwow in 1998

Native American music is almost entirely monophonic, but there are notable exceptions. Traditional Native American music often includes drumming and/or the playing of rattles or other percussion instruments but little other instrumentation. Flutes and whistles made of wood, cane, or bone are also played, generally by individuals, but in former times also by large ensembles (as noted by Spanish conquistador de Soto). The tuning of these flutes is not precise and depends on the length of the wood used and the hand span of the intended player, but the finger holes are most often around a whole step apart and, at least in Northern California, a flute was not used if it turned out to have an interval close to a half step.

Performers with Native American parentage have occasionally appeared in American popular music, most notably Shania Twain (ethnically European, but raised by a First Nations adoptive father), Buffy Sainte-Marie, Robbie Robertson, Rita Coolidge, Wayne Newton, and Redbone (band). Some, such as John Trudell have used music to comment on life in Native America, and others, such as R. Carlos Nakai integrate traditional sounds with modern sounds in instrumental recordings. A variety of small and medium-sized recording companies offer an abundance of recent music by Native American performers young and old, ranging from pow-wow drum music to hard-driving rock-and-roll and rap.

The most widely practiced public musical form among Native Americans in the United States is that of the pow-wow. At pow-wows, such as the annual Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque, New Mexico, members of drum groups sit in a circle around a large drum. Drum groups play in unison while they sing in a native language and dancers in colorful regalia dance clockwise around the drum groups in the center. Familiar pow-wow songs include honor songs, intertribal songs, crow-hops, sneak-up songs, grass-dances, two-steps, welcome songs, going-home songs, and war songs. Most indigenous communities in the United States also maintain traditional songs and ceremonies, some of which are shared and practiced exclusively within the community. For further information, see A Cry from the Earth: Music of North American Indians by John Bierhorst (ISBN 094127053X).

Native American art comprises a major category in the world art collection. Native American contributions include pottery, paintings, jewelry, weavings, sculptures, basketry, and carvings.

File:Hopi weaver.jpg
Hopi man weaving on traditional loom

Artists have at times misrepresented themselves as having native parentage, most notably Johnny Cash, who traced his heritage to Scottish ancestors and admitted he fabricated a story that he was one-quarter Cherokee. The integrity of certain Native American artworks is now protected by an act of Congress that prohibits representation of art as Native American when it is not the product of an enrolled Native American artist.

See: Blackfoot music


Survival in the environments in which they lived defined the work of the native groups. The Inuit, or Eskimo, prepared and buried stocks of dried meat and fish. Pacific Northwest tribes crafted seafaring dugouts 40-50 feet long for fishing. Farmers in the Eastern Woodlands tended fields of maize with hoes and digging sticks, while their neighbors in the Southeast grew tobacco as well as food crops. On the Plains, some tribes engaged in agriculture but also planned buffalo hunts in which herds were efficiently driven over bluffs. Dwellers of the Southwest deserts hunted small animals and gathered acorns to grind into a flour with which they baked wafer-thin bread on top of heated stones. Some groups on the region's mesas developed irrigation techniques, and filled storehouses with grain as protection against the area's frequent droughts.

As these native peoples encountered European explorers and settlers and engaged in trade, they exchanged food, crafts, and furs for trinkets, blankets, iron, and steel implements, horses, firearms, and intoxicating liquids.

Terminology differences

For more detail see, Native American name controversy

When Christopher Columbus arrived in the "New World", he described the people he encountered as Indians because he mistakenly believed that he had reached the islands known to Europeans as the Indies. Despite Columbus's mistake, the name Indian (or American Indian) stuck, and for centuries the native people of the Americas were collectively called Indians in America, and similar terms in Europe. The problem with this traditional term is that the peoples of India are, of course, also known as Indians.

Common usage in the U.S.

The term Native American was originally introduced in the United States by anthropologists as a more accurate term for the indigenous people of the Americas, as distinguished from the people of India. Because of the widespread acceptance of this newer term in and outside of academic circles, some people mistakenly believe that Indians was outdated or offensive. People from India (and their descendants) who are citizens of the United States are known as Indian Americans.

However, some American Indians have misgivings about the term Native American. Russell Means, a famous American Indian activist, opposes the term Native American because he believes it was imposed by the government without the consent of American Indians. [14] Furthermore, some American Indians question the term Native American because, they argue, it serves to ease the conscience of "white America" with regard to past injustices done to American Indians by effectively eliminating "Indians" from the present. [15] Still others (both Indians and non-Indians) argue that Native American is problematic because "native of" literally means "born in," so any person born in the Americas could be considered "native". However, very often the compound "Native American" will be capitalized in order to differentiate this intended meaning from others. Likewise, "native" (small 'n') can be further qualified by formulations such as "native-born" when the intended meaning is only to indicate place of birth or origin. However, neither of these two senses invalidates the other, so long as the intended sense is made clear by the context.

A 1996 survey revealed that more American Indians in the United States still preferred American Indian to Native American. Nonetheless, most American Indians are comfortable with Indian, American Indian, and Native American, and the terms are now used interchangeably. [16] The continued usage of the traditional term is reflected in the name chosen for the National Museum of the American Indian, which opened in 2004 in Washington, D.C..


  • Adams, David Wallace. Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience 1875-1928, University Press of Kansas, 1975. ISBN 0-7006-0735-8 (hbk); ISBN 0-7006-0838-9 (pbk).
  • Bierhorst, John. A Cry from the Earth: Music of North American Indians. ISBN 0-9412-7053-X.
  • Hirschfelder, Arlene B.; Byler, Mary G.; & Dorris, Michael. Guide to research on North American Indians. American Library Association (1983). ISBN 0-8389-0353-3.
  • Nichols, Roger L. Indians in the United States & Canada, A Comparative History. University of Nebraska Press (1998). ISBN 0-8032-8377-6.
  • Snipp, C.M. (1989). American Indians: The first of this land. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  • Sturtevant, William C. (Ed.). (1978-present). Handbook of North American Indians (Vol. 1-20). Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution. (Vols. 1-3, 16, 18-20 not yet published).
  • Tiller, Veronica E. (Ed.). Discover Indian Reservations USA: A Visitors' Welcome Guide. Foreword by Ben Nighthorse Campbell. Council Publications, Denver, Colorado (1992). ISBN 0-9632580-0-1.

See also

External links

General information and history

Tribal, regional and reservation information





  • Map of languages in the US - William C. Sturtevant. (1967). Early Indian tribes, culture areas, and linguistic stocks.: (caution: Material is out-of-date)


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