There is no one single scientific, biological, cultural, or even legal definition for who is identified as an “American Indian” or “Native American” in the United States, although racial categorizations and definitions continue to impact those whose identities and heritages are tied to indigenous cultures. The idea that hundreds of different cultures with enormously diverse ways of life, social organizations, languages, and belief systems could be combined into a single racial or cultural category is an artifact of predominantly European colonization of the North American continent. This entry views American Indians through the lenses of race, nation, culture, and homeland.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the late 15th century, the Native peoples of both North and South America identified themselves primarily in relation to the particular people to whom they culturally belonged. European colonizers viewed Native peoples collectively as belonging to a single, inferior “race,” based on the ideology that European cultures represented the pinnacle of social evolution. Particularly long-lasting effects resulted from racial definitions of “Indianness” that argued that the more “Indian blood” or blood quantum a person contained, the more “savage” or “uncivilized” he or she was.
Beginning in early U.S. colonial history, Indian blood quantum became a way of differentiating and excluding Native people from social, political, and economic participation in European American society. By the second half of the 19th century, this ideology was buttressed by a growing international body of social and biological sciences that claimed that this inferiority was scientifically demonstrable. This biological racism heavily influenced 19th-century U.S. policies toward Native peoples and its formal adoption into federal Indian policy with the passing of the General Allotment Act in 1887.
It was also during this time that the U.S. Census began to count Indians as a separate racial category (beginning in 1870). At that time, it was left up to census takers to determine whether an individual fit into the racial category of Indian. Today, assignment of individuals to the racial categories of American Indian or Alaska Native is based completely on self-identification at the time of filling out the census form. According to the 2000 census, the number of people who self-reported as only American Indian or Alaska Native was estimated at 2,475,956 people, or 0.9% of the total U.S. population. An additional 1,643,345 people self-reported as American Indian or Alaska Native in combination with one or more other races. Census self-identification is problematic since people can claim American Indian heritage regardless of whether they or their ancestors have ever actively practiced the cultures or been a part of the communities to which they claim their ancestry.
These estimates of the number of Native Americans are subject to variation. The 2004 American Community Survey placed the total number of self-reported American Indians or Alaska Natives at 2,151,322. The list of the largest tribal groups is shown in Table 1. While this represents a large difference from the 2000 census data, the table nonetheless offers a fairly accurate presentation of the larger tribal groups, led by the Cherokee and Navajo, both with over 200,000.
|Tribal Group||Population||Percentage of American Indian and Alaska Native Alone Population|
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2004 American Community Survey Report, Selected Population Profiles, p. 2.
1 Data based on sample limited to the household population and exclude the population living in institutions, college dormitories, and other group quarters.
2 This category includes people who reported only American Indian or Alaska Native, either by specifying one or more American Indian or Alaska Native tribes or tribal groupings or by responding with a generic term such as American Indian or Alaska Native.
3 This category includes people who reported one specified American Indian tribe or tribal grouping not shown above, as well as people who reported two or more specified American Indian tribes or tribal groupings but only reported as American Indian or Alaska Native.
4 This category includes people who reported one specified Alaska Native tribe or tribal grouping not shown above, as well as people who reported two or more specified Alaska Native tribes or tribal groupings but reported only as American Indian or Alaska Native.
5 This category includes respondents who checked the American Indian or Alaska Native response category or wrote in the generic term American Indian or Alaska Native or tribal entries not elsewhere classified.
|American Indian and Alaska Native alone1, 2||2,151,322||100|
|American Indian tribal grouping, specified||1,729,574||80.4|
|All other American Indian tribes3||446,809||20.8|
|American Indian tribes, not specified||45,736||2.1|
|Alaska Native tribes, specified||89,46||24.2|
|All other Alaska Native tribes4||11,427||0.5|
|Alaska Native tribes, not specified||11,808||0.4|
|American Indian tribes or Alaska Native tribes, not specified5||274,742||12.8|
The racial identification of “Indian” identity continues to negatively impact Native people today. The 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, which ended many abusive assimilationist policies and recognized the right of Native communities to be self-governing entities, forced tribes to continue to use blood quantum as the basis for determining tribal membership, using a standard of one-quarter Indian blood for tribal enrollment. Though the U.S. government has since recognized the right of tribes to define eligibility for enrollment according to their own criteria, nearly all tribes still use blood quantum as one of the requirements. To prove one’s blood quantum is often an enormously time-consuming, expensive, and demoralizing process involving extensive archival research into one’s ancestral lineage.
Those who, for a number of reasons, cannot prove the required blood quantum may be denied legal recognition of their identity by the tribe to which they and uncountable generations of their ancestors may have been members. They are also denied access to both tribal and federal services that are provided for enrolled members of federally recognized tribes. Blood quantum requirements also put pressure on Native people to avoid having children with non-Native or nontribal members, since they may lose these rights.
Thus, racial definitions of “Indian” identity are deeply problematic. Based historically on non-Native notions of racial inferiority, they reinforce racist ideologies and outside control over the destiny, opportunities, and everyday lives of Native people. They reinforce the colonial idea that Native people are racial minorities rather than members of sovereign nations. And they deny the legitimacy and importance of culture, community, and kinship structures that have been the basis for group identification in Native communities for millennia.
A person’s identity is formed and recognized in relation to other people. Most Native Americans define their identities in relation to one or more of the almost 800 tribal nations that exist within the territorial borders of the United States. Of these, 562 are “federally recognized” by the U.S. government to receive federal services, monies, and protections: 335 tribes in the lower forty-eight states and 227 in Alaska. There are at least an additional 220 tribes across thirty states, which have petitioned for but not received this federal recognition. Of these, between 45 and 65 (depending on the source) tribal nations are formally recognized by the states in which they are located.
The reasons for nonrecognition vary but generally are the result of historical U.S.-tribal relations and the ways in which the U.S. government sought to destroy tribal homelands and cultures. Like the racial definitions and classifications of Native people that continue to affect American Indian identity, the shared experiences of tribes as a result of U.S. policies and interventions in their lives continue to profoundly shape the consciousness, cultures, and material relations of Indian nations today.
All tribes have strong oral traditions recording their communities’ histories, going back for hundreds of generations. Nearly all of them trace their people’s origins to particular ancestral homelands on the North American continent. The master narrative taught to most non-Natives claims that Native people migrated to the continent from Asia across the Bering Straight during the last Ice Age. This narrative is substantiated primarily by linguistic and genetic studies that tie Native Americans to Asian and northern Russian ancestry. Well-respected scientists differ greatly on the details that are offered as evidence to support this theory. In addition, there is the issue of effectively denying the validity and cultural significance of Native people’s own narratives about themselves and in implying that Native people are not truly indigenous to the soils of the Americas.
Oral histories record the past and lifeways of the thousands of Native communities that inhabited the continent and their interactions prior to European contact. Though there was, as there still is, extensive inter- and intracontinental trade, commerce, warfare, marriage, and movement before colonization, most communities were politically autonomous. Many communities, especially in the interior of the continent, had little contact with non-Native peoples until the middle of the 19th century. Of those groups that did have early contact with European and American colonizers, many were recognized by European nations and the U.S. government as sovereign nations with whom they signed hundreds of treaties. Others were faced with substantial violence, encroachment, and displacement.
In the 1820s and 1830s, the federal government engaged in numerous wars with southeastern tribes and forcibly relocated thousands of Native people west of the Mississippi River to open their lands for settlement. During this same period, the Supreme Court, based on the “right of conquest,” extinguished Indian title to their own lands and turned the property over to the trusteeship of the federal government to manage on their behalf. Tribes were thus officially labeled “domestic dependent nations” and wards of the federal government.
By the late 1840s, the U.S. government had consolidated its ocean-to-ocean continental empire, and, by the 1870s, railroads and settlers were penetrating its farthest reaches. Massive western migrations of U.S. settlers led to violence between colonizers and Native people. The U.S. government used its military forces to forcibly relocate Native people to federal lands called “reservations.” In 1849, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was created within the Department of the Interior to oversee Indian affairs and the trusteeship of their lands.
By the 1870s, the federal government had abandoned treaty making with American Indian nations and declared unilateral authority to make decisions concerning Native people and their resources. Huge tracts of lands in the West were seized and redistributed to non-Native settlers. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, along with support from congressional acts and executive orders, undertook large-scale attempts at dismantling tribes and assimilating American Indian people into the U.S. “mainstream.” Among the tactics used were land reform and privatization of tribal lands, forced schooling of Native children in European American values and norms, and prohibitions against the practice of Native cultures and languages.
Native people were granted U.S. citizenship and voting rights in 1924, but openly assimilationist policies continued into the 1930s. In 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act recognized the right of Native people to continue practicing their own cultures and manage their own affairs. Tribes were given the opportunity to do so by adopting Western-style constitutional governments, which in some cases displaced traditional tribal governance structures and leadership. Despite these reforms, the secretary of the interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs continued to have strong authority as federal trustees to oversee tribal decision making.
Federal policies again shifted toward assimilation of Native Americans after World War II in the 1940s. Known as the “Termination” era in federal Indian policy, the U.S. government sought to rapidly and permanently assimilate Native Americans into the mainstream by terminating federal recognition of tribal sovereignty, removing federal support services and funding for tribes, extending state jurisdiction over tribal lands, opening reservations to economic exploitation by private companies, and relocating over 100,000 Native people to urban areas.
Termination policies deepened reservation poverty and helped to galvanize what was already a growing pan-Indian civil rights movement in the late 1950s and 1960s. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the 1960s encouraged tribes to undertake economic development to overcome system poverty and provided some federal support to do so. However, it would not be until the 1970s that the federal government would officially end its termination and assimilationist policies. This “self-determination” era beginning in 1970 resulted in a proliferation of legislation and case law that recognized tribal sovereignty and the right to self-government, return of control over tribal affairs and resources to tribes themselves, and efforts to support tribal economic development, as well as support for cultural revitalization and religious freedom.
This era of tribal self-determination continues today despite cutbacks in federal funding in the 1980s under the Reagan administration and continued federal authority over many tribal decision-making processes. This federal recognition of tribal sovereignty and self-determination has allowed many tribes to undertake vitally needed economic development and cultural revitalization programs. Tribes lacking federal recognition, however, have no legal mechanisms with which to leverage the protection, support, and enforcement of federal responsibilities and are unable to exercise true sovereign control over their affairs. They are denied access to federal programs and funding and are subject to often hostile local and state governments. Tribal members are without access to the vital support services that come with tribal membership in a federally recognized tribe. Thus, obtaining federal recognition as a tribal nation remains an extremely important part of obtaining true self-determination for many American Indian nations today.
Among the lasting legacies of federal Indian policies, racism, and interventions in Native Americans’ lives is widespread poverty in many Native communities. This is evidenced by alarmingly high rates of poor health and nutrition and, morbidity, suicide, substance abuse, and unemployment, as well as poor sanitation, infrastructure, and housing conditions on many reservations. Many tribes hope that the opportunities opened up in the last 20 years to generate income through tribally owned casino gaming enterprises will assist them in overcoming this systemic poverty. Indeed, many tribes are using these revenues to expand and improve health care, education, infrastructure, and other social services. They are also using gaming revenues to gain access to and influence over the political and legal structures that have harmed them in the past in order to restore tribal control and protection over culturally important places and resources.
Shifts in the relationship between American Indian nations and European colonizers and the U.S. government continue to impact Native identity and communities, by shaping the constraints on and opportunities that are available to both individuals and their communities. Despite these constraints, tremendous diversity has been sustained among Native peoples in their cultures, their beliefs, and their ways of life. It is impossible to describe or categorize “Native Americans” as one ethnic or racial group, though outsiders have attempted to do so for several hundred years. As we have seen, these racial identifiers are extremely problematic and deeply rooted in racist and colonial ideologies that continue to impact Native people today.
On the other hand, a pan-Indian consciousness and identity has emerged as the result of these interventions and has since become an important part of American Indian social life and political mobilization in the United States. Most Native people, however, draw their sense of identity from the ties they maintain with the people, cultural practices, and homelands of their people. These include their sense of responsibility to their extended families, clans, and communities and the perpetuation of their languages and ways of life.
For many non-Native people in the United States, the only encounters they have with Native American cultures are through the Native language names given to places they live in or visit, through pop culture and media stereotypes, and through the often brief and misleading histories they learn about Native people in primary and secondary education. Images of painted warriors dressed in buckskins and feathers, riding horses, sleeping in tipis, and wielding bows and arrows and tomahawks have dominated contemporary mainstream stereotypes.
Stereotypes change with the times, and Native people have variously been typed at different times as “bloodthirsty” or “noble, nature-loving savages,” living in an imagined “traditional” past. Others believe Native people have been fully assimilated into U.S. culture as impoverished racial minorities. In reality, there are a multitude of different Native communities in the United States, which actively practice and identify with hundreds of different Native cultures. Native people in the United States today live in the same modern world as non-Native Americans. Most live in European-American-style homes, dress in the same fashions as members of “mainstream” U.S. society, drive cars and pickup trucks, watch satellite TV, and live and work the same breadth of lifestyles and occupations as others do.
Culture is not a static phenomenon. All people, everywhere on earth, creatively incorporate and reinterpret their inherited “traditional” cultures in the contexts of their contemporary needs, desires, and values. Most American Indian people have adopted many aspects of mainstream U.S. culture, pop culture, and the regional cultures where they are located (southern, southwestern Chicano, and northeastern French cultures, for example). In addition, many Native Americans have also adopted as part of their identities and cultural toolkits aspects of the pan-Indian music, art, imagery, political activism, powwows, and sacred and religious practices that have developed over the past century.
The continuing practice and revitalization of local traditional cultural practices specific to one’s own people plays perhaps the largest part in defining the identity of most Native American people. Past U.S. policies and activities that aimed at destroying Native land bases and cultures, along with generations of reservation flight and the influences of U.S. culture, have all contributed to fears that traditional cultures, languages, and practices would disappear. Thus, American Indians struggle to maintain local traditional cultures despite these forces and to revitalize traditional arts, music, languages, healing practices, sacred rituals, and land use practices; this has always been and continues to be of the utmost importance in Native communities.
Because of the enormous variation among Native American cultures, it is impossible to adequately describe that diversity and complexity in this space. Historically, anthropologists attempted to describe and simplify this diversity in Native cultures by categorizing them into ten regional “culture areas,” which are still used in many texts today. This taxonomy, however, is not meaningful to Native people themselves. Native groups have varied greatly in their subsistence strategies and social organization from small bands of people who ranged seasonally across widely different landscapes as hunters and gatherers, to those who were sedentary agriculturalists or fishermen, to those who maintained their subsistence through trade and commerce. These historic ways of living on the land shaped the particular cultural formations, community structures, and senses of identity that each community formed. Today, subsistence in most communities can be and usually is obtained in part through wage labor and purchase of needs from retail stores. Traditional lifeways, cultural practices, and community structures persist in forms that reinforce local identities and cultures.
Native peoples are equally diverse in their cosmological belief systems, religious practices, governance structures, languages, musical and artistic expressions, and myriad material objects that reproduce their cultures. These include foods, clothing, housing, and other objects of daily and ritual use. Among the clearest indications of this diversity is the large number of indigenous languages that are still spoken in the United States today. When Europeans first arrived in the Americas, it is estimated that around 300 Native languages, including 2,000 dialects, were spoken in the United States and Canada. Today, there are about 175 to 200 languages (depending on how dialects are counted) still spoken. A decline in the use of Native languages over the past century has led to renewed efforts in recent decades to revitalize their use through bilingual education programs and the encouragement of their use in tribal offices and homes. The continuation of Native languages is vital to the survival of Native cultures, histories (which are predominantly preserved through oral traditions), and identities.
Granted this tremendous diversity among different Native American communities, a few general observations may be made about similarities between them. In most Native communities, kinship relations continue to dominate social organization. Male-headed, nuclear families are somewhat rare, though past U.S. policies and interventions in Native social life attempted to institute them as social norms. Extended families are common, often with many generations living in a single household or in close contact. Many Native communities are matrilocal, matrilineal, and matriarchal. In these communities, women control decision making, wealth, land use, and inheritance.
In most communities, people trace their lineages from and consider as part of their extended families those who belong to their clans. Clan lineage, often traced through one’s mother, is important in the organization of social life and the everyday functioning of many communities. In many, specific clans are responsible for various cultural, religious, and infrastructural maintenance tasks, including such matters as caring for sacred objects, organizing hunting and gathering trips, and looking over the maintenance of the village, agricultural fields, or other important places.
In most Native American cultures, “religion” or spirituality is threaded throughout the social organization and everyday lives of people. Many members of a Native community may not explicitly learn the traditional spiritual ways and meanings of their people, though they may play an important role in organizing the ways in which they live and the yearly practices in which they participate. Spiritual and cultural practices are often tied to relationships with particular places and the yearly cycles of seasonal, climatological, and agricultural changes of their homelands. In many cultures, clan kinship and ancestry is also linked to the natural world.
Nearly universally, Native American groups’ identities and cultures are tied to particular places. These places include sites of cosmological significance, such as those believed to be the location of their origins (places of emergence and creation); sites of communion with the holy, historic homelands, ancient villages, and burial grounds; places where they have collected foods, medicines, building and cultural materials, and holy objects for generations; and the reservations that their people now occupy. All of these specific places play important parts in the religions, cultures, and identities of Native people, and access to them is integral to their perpetuation as a people.
Even for the 66% of Native American people who now live away from reservations in urban areas in the United States, these places remain important to the orientation and perpetuation of their group identities. The struggle to maintain access to and control over these places continues today for nearly all tribes. Past U.S. violence and policies have significantly disrupted and fragmented Native homelands. In many cases, whole Native communities were forced from their lands and resettled elsewhere, especially in the 19th century. Many Indian lands were taken by the federal government and then given or leased to private citizens or kept as government lands, and, at various times, recognition of sovereign tribal authority to manage tribal lands and resources was denied.
The 2004 American Community Survey indicates that the American Indian and Alaska Native populations are not evenly distributed; just five states account for the majority of their populations: Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, and North Carolina. Their interactions with the U.S. government have resulted in a patchwork of 304 federal American Indian reservations and individual American-Indian-owned restricted fee lands, which make up the 55.7 million acres (225,410 km2), or 2.3%, of the area of the United States protected by the federal trust relationship today. The largest reservation in the United States is the Navajo Nation (Diné Bikéyah), which is about the size of West Virginia, with 17 million acres and a resident population of nearly 200,000 people. Reservations vary in size from this extreme to the 100 or less acres of many California tribes, which may be inhabited by only a handful of people.
American Indian reservations include all the lands that a tribe reserved for itself and did not specifically cede to or have illegally seized by the U.S. government. These reservations were recognized historically by the United States through treaties, executive orders, administrative acts, and acts of Congress. On federal reservations, tribal governments are recognized by the federal government as having jurisdictional control over the management of those lands and as being responsible for the provisions of infrastructure and services. A small number of individual states have also recognized Indian reservation lands, even when the federal government has failed to do so.
Of the reservation lands that have remained with or been restored to federally recognized tribes, many are highly fragmented in a checkerboard pattern of tribal ownership interspersed with non-Native private and government ownership. This makes it incredibly complicated both politically and legally for tribes, states, and the federal government to manage resources, work out jurisdictional disputes, and provide infrastructure and services to these communities. This is further complicated by the fact that many Native land-holdings are located far from urban centers and in many cases are underdeveloped in terms of physical infrastructure, such as paved roads; power, water, and waste facilities; housing; and economic opportunities.
Maintaining and reclaiming tribal sovereignty over Native lands and supporting sustainable economic development and ecological restoration on them continues to be an ongoing struggle for many tribes. These struggles include regaining access to, ownership of, jurisdictional authority over, and federal trust protection of lands and resources that were taken from tribes in the past. Many tribes have also faced environmental degradation of their homelands due to federal interventions and leases of Native lands, abusive practices by extractive industries, and economic and political restrictions that have made it difficult to effectively manage and regulate pollution.
Changes in federal laws and funding available to tribes in the last 4 decades are making it possible for tribes to use their unique political and legal status to protect and restore their important places. In nearly all cases, tribes are working to socially and ecologically protect the places that are sacred and culturally important to them, as these places embody their histories, sense of identity, cultures, and spiritual relationships with nature.
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