Native Americans

Native Americans (also Aboriginal Peoples, Aboriginal Americans, American Indians, Amerindians, Amerind, Indians, First Nations, First Peoples, Native Canadians, or Indigenous Peoples of America) are those peoples indigenous to the Americas, living there prior to European colonization. This term encompasses a large number of distinct tribes, states, and ethnic groups, many of them still enduring as political communities.

The terms "Amerindian" and "Indian", both of which are derivatives of "American Indian" (as is "Amerind", though this term is more popular in linguistic circles), are not necessarily completely synonymous with "Native American". Although all Amerindians are Native Americans, not all Native Americans are Amerindians. "Amerindian" relates to a mega-group of people spanning the Americas that are related in culture and genetics, and are quite distinct from the later arriving Eskimos (Inuit, Yupik, and Aleut peoples native to Alaska and arctic Canada). The latter share their cultural and genetic commonality with other arctic peoples not native to the American continent, such as those from arctic Russian Siberia.

The same distinction is made in Canada, where the term First Nations applies only to Native Canadians who belong to the same cultural and genetic mega-group of Amerindians mentioned above. The Canadian First Nations specifically exclude the Inuit and Inuvialuit in the north, although these are included in the terms "First Peoples" and "Native Canadians". First Peoples are enshrined in the Canadian Constitution with various treaty rights, some long established and many more currently under negotiation.

The term Native American may be construed to either include or exclude the Metis of Canada and the Mestizos and Zambos of Latin America.

Other indigenous peoples that are native to territorial possesions of American countries but are not specifically "Native American" (in the sense that they are not native to the actual lands that comprise the American continent) are a diversity of Pacific Islanders including: Native Hawaiians (also known as Kanaka Moli and Kanaka 'Oiwi) in the US state of Hawaii, natives of American Samoa (USA) and natives of Easter Island (Chile).

Early History

The Bering Strait Land Bridge Theory

Based on anthropological and genetic evidence, scientists generally agree that most Native Americans descend from people who migrated from Siberia across the Bering Strait, between 17,000–11,000 years ago.

The exact epoch and route is still a matter of controversy, as is whether it happened at all. Until recently there was a consensus among anthropologists that the alleged migrants crossed the strait 12,000 years ago via the Bering Land Bridge which existed during the last ice age (which occurred 26,000 to 11,000 years ago), and that they followed an inland route through Alaska and Canada that had just been freed of its ice cover. There are a number of difficulties in this theory - in particular, growing evidence of human presence in Brazil and Chile 11,500 years ago or earlier. Thus other possibilities, not necessarily exclusive, have been suggested:

Some mainstream anthropologists and archaeologists consider the genetic and cultural evidence for a primarily Siberian origin overwhelming. According to their theories, at least three separate migrations from Siberia to the Americas are highly likely to have occurred:

One result of these successive waves of migration is that large groups of Native Americans with similar languages and perhaps physical characteristics as well, moved into various geographic areas of North, and then Central and South America. While Native Americans have traditionally remained primarily loyal to their individual tribes, ethnologists have variously sought to group the myriad of tribes into larger entities which reflect common geographic origins, linguistic similarities, and life styles. (See Classification of Native Americans.)

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.

Other ideas have been rediscovered, some with growing acceptance, as to the ultimate origin of Native Americans:

Here we find: Mississippian culture, Cahokia, Mesoamerica, Maya, Olmec, Zapotec, Toltec, Teotihuacan, Aztec, Aymara, Inca, indigenous people of Brazil.

European Colonization of the Americas

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 Columbus, the 250,000 Arawaks of Haiti, were enslaved. Only 500 survived by the year 1550, and the group was extinct before 1650.

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, (species Equus Scotti and others) 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.

Native Americans in the United States

From the outset European colonists had, at best, lived in an uneasy truce with the Native Americans. While the groups sometimes cooperated, the Natives were inexorably displaced from the most favorable land, and frequently resisted this process with violence.

Although in recent years it has become popular to assert that Native Americans learned scalping from Europeans, historical evidence suggests that scalping by Native Americans had been practiced long before contact with Europeans.

The first reported case of white men scalping Native Americans took place in New Hampshire colony on February 20, 1725.

Four Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy sided with the British and the Tories in the American Revolutionary War. The colonists were especially outraged by the Wyoming Valley Massacre and the Cherry Valley Massacre, which occurred in 1778.

In 1779 Congress sent Major General John Sullivan on what has become known as the Sullivan Expedition to neutralize the Iroquois threat to the American side. The two allied nations were rewarded, at least temporarily, by keeping title to their lands after the Revolution. The title was later purchased very cheaply by Massachusetts and sold off in the Phelps and Gorham Purchase and the Holland Purchase, after which by treaty these lands became part of New York State. The tribes were either moved to reservations or sent westward. Part of the Cayuga Nation was granted a reservation in British Canada.

Indian Wars and Forced Relocations

In the 19th century, the Westward expansion of the United States incrementally expelled large numbers of Native Americans from vast areas of their territory, either by forcing them into marginal lands farther and farther west, or by outright massacres. U

nder President Andrew Jackson, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forced the Five Civilized Tribes from the east onto western reservations, primarily to take their land for settlement. The forced migration was marked by great hardship and many deaths. Its route is known as the Trail of Tears.

Conflicts generally known at the time 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.

Students at the Bismark Indian School in the early 20th centuryAmerican 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, 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 and adopt European-American culture, despite many of the practices being in violation of clauses of the U.S. Constitution separating church and state. There are also many documented cases of sexual, physical and mental abuses occurring at these schools.

Many other attempts were made to deprive the American Indians of their culture, language, and religious beliefs, some of which are reported to continue into current times.

Current Status

Military defeat, cultural pressure, confinement on reservations, forced cultural assimilation, outlawing of native languages and culture, forced sterilizations, 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 1960s, Indians were being jailed for teaching their traditional beliefs. As recently as the 1970s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was still actively pursuing a policy of "assimilation", the goal of which was to eliminate the reservations and steer Indians into mainstream U.S. culture. Even their lands are perhaps no longer safe; as of 2004, there are still claims of theft of Indian land for the coal and uranium it contains.

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.

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.

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 [15].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.

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

Native Americans in Canada

In Canada, the most commonly preferred term for Native Americans is The First Nations. First Nations peoples make up approximately 3% of the Canadian population. The official term - that is, the term used by the Act regulating benefits received by members of First Nations, and the register defining who is a member of a First Nation - is Indian.

The term First Nations excludes the Inuit and Metis, who are instead collectively recognized with the First Nations as Aboriginal peoples.

Native Americans in Mexico

The territory of modern-day Mexico was home to numerous Native American civilizations prior to the arrival of the European conquistadors:

In contrast to what was the general rule in the rest of North America, the history of the colony of New Spain was one of racial intermingling (mestizaje). Mestizos quickly came to account for a majority of the colony's population; however, significant pockets of pure-blood indigenas (as the native peoples are now known) have survived to the present day.

With mestizos numbering some 60% of the modern population, estimates for the numbers of unmixed Native Americans vary from a very modest 10% to a more liberal (and probably more accurate) 30% of the population. The reason for this discrepancy the Mexican government's policy of using linguistic, rather than racial, criteria as the basis of classification.

In the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca and in the interior of the Yucatán peninsula the majority of the population is indigenous. Large indigenous minorities, including Nahuas, Purepechas, and Mixtecs are also present in the central regions of Mexico. In Northern Mexico indigenous people are a small minority: they are practically absent from the northeast but, in the northwest and central borderlands, include the Tarahumara of Chihuahua and the Yaquis and Seri of Sonora.

While Mexicans are universally proud of their indigenous heritage (generally more so than of their Spanish roots), modern-day indigenous Mexicans are still the target of discrimination and outright racism. In particular, in areas such as Chiapas - most famously, but also in Oaxaca, Puebla, Guerrero, and other remote mountainous parts - indigenous communities have been left on the margins of national development for the past 500 years. Indigenous customs and uses enjoy no official status. The Huichols of the states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Zacatecas, and Durango are impeded by police forces in their ritual pilgrimages, and their religious observances are interfered with.

Native Americans in Belize

Mestizos (European with Native American) number about 45% of the population; unmixed Mayans make up another 10%

Native Americans in Guatemala

The Native Americans of Guatemala are of Maya stock. Pure Mayans account for some 45% of the population; although around 40% of the population speaks an indigenous language, those tongues (of which there are more than 20) enjoy no official status.

In 1951 Jacobo Arbenz was elected with popular support due to his land reform policies. "Foreign capital will always be welcome as long as it adjusts to local conditions, remains always subordinate to Guatemalan laws, cooperates with the economic development of the country, and strictly abstains from intervening in the nation's social and political life." - Arbenz, in his inaugural address.

American corporations didn't like what they heard and by 1954 the CIA was involved in the overthrow of Arbenz and the installation of General Castillo Armas. A long line of dictators followed him as did genocidal policies again the indigenous population to suppress revolutionary movements.

Native Americans in Other Parts of America

Native Americans make up the majority of the population in Bolivia and Peru, and are a significant element in most other former Spanish colonies. Exceptions to this include Costa Rica, Cuba, Argentina, Dominican Republic, and Uruguay. At least three of the Amerindian languages (Quechua in Peru and Bolivia, Aymara also in Bolivia, and Guarani in Paraguay) are recognized along with Spanish as national languages.

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.


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.


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 transgendered individuals in the role of the "two-spirit" person (previously labeled by Europeans as "berdache", a term now considered obsolete). Two-spirit transvestite 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 sexes, 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

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 but little other instrumentation, although flutes are played by individuals. 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), 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.

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.

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


The terms Indian or American Indian were born of the misconception by Christopher Columbus that the Caribbean islands were the islands in Southeast Asia known to Europeans as the Indies. Despite Columbus's mistake, the name stuck, and for centuries the native people of the Americas were collectively called Indians.

The term Native American was introduced in the United States by anthropologists who considered Indian quaint, demeaning, or inaccurate. However, a 1996 survey revealed that more "natives" in the United States still prefer American Indian to Native American. Native Americans