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Native Americans, also known as American Indians, First Americans, Indigenous Americans and other terms, are the indigenous peoples of the United States, sometimes including Hawaii and territories of the United States and sometimes limited to the mainland. There are 574 federally recognized tribes living within the US, about half of which are associated with Indian reservations. “Native Americans” (as defined by the United States Census) are Indigenous tribes that are originally from the continental United States, plus Alaska Natives.
Indigenous peoples of the United States who are not American Indian or Alaska Native include Native Hawaiians, Samoans, or Chamorros. The US Census groups these peoples as “Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander.”
The ancestors of living Native Americans arrived in what is now the United States at least 15,000 years ago, possibly much earlier, from Asia via Beringia. A vast variety of peoples, societies and cultures subsequently developed. European colonization of the Americas, which began in 1492, resulted in a precipitous decline in Native American population because of new diseases to which they had no immunity, wars, ethnic cleansing, and enslavement. After its formation, the United States, as part of its policy of settler colonialism, continued to wage war and perpetrated massacres against many Native American peoples, removed them from their ancestral lands, and subjected them to one-sided treaties and to discriminatory government policies, later focused on forced assimilation, into the 20th century. Since the 1960s, Native American self-determination movements have resulted in changes to the lives of Native Americans, though there are still many contemporary issues faced by Native Americans. Today, there are over five million Native Americans in the United States, 78% of whom live outside reservations: California, Arizona and Oklahoma have the largest populations of Native Americans in the United States. Most Native Americans live in small-town or rural areas.
When the United States was created, established Native American tribes were generally considered semi-independent nations, as they generally lived in communities separate from white settlers. The federal government signed treaties at a government-to-government level until the Indian Appropriations Act of 1871 ended recognition of independent native nations, and started treating them as “domestic dependent nations” subject to federal law. This law did preserve the rights and privileges agreed to under the treaties, including a large degree of tribal sovereignty. For this reason, many (but not all) Native American reservations are still independent of state law and the actions of tribal citizens on these reservations are subject only to tribal courts and federal law.
The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 granted U.S. citizenship to all Native Americans born in the United States who had not yet obtained it. This emptied the “Indians not taxed” category established by the United States Constitution, allowed natives to vote in state and federal elections, and extended the Fourteenth Amendment protections granted to people “subject to the jurisdiction” of the United States. However, some states continued to deny Native Americans voting rights for several decades. Bill of Rights protections do not apply to tribal governments, except for those mandated by the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968.
Since the end of the 15th century, the migration of Europeans to the Americas has led to centuries of population, cultural, and agricultural transfer and adjustment between Old and New World societies, a process known as the Columbian exchange. As most Native American groups had historically preserved their histories by oral traditions and artwork, the first written sources of the contact were written by Europeans. The Cultural areas of pre-Columbian North America, according to Alfred Kroeber
Ethnographers commonly classify the indigenous peoples of North America into ten geographical regions with shared cultural traits, called cultural areas. Some scholars combine the Plateau and Great Basin regions into the Intermontane West, some separate Prairie peoples from Great Plains peoples, while some separate Great Lakes tribes from the Northeastern Woodlands. The ten cultural areas are as follows:
- Arctic, including Aleut, Inuit, and Yupik peoples
- Northeastern Woodlands
- Southeastern Woodlands
- Great Plains
- Great Basin
- Northwest Plateau
- Northwest Coast
- Southwest (Oasisamerica)
At the time of the first contact, the indigenous cultures were quite different from those of the proto-industrial and mostly Christian immigrants. Some Northeastern and Southwestern cultures, in particular, were matrilineal and operated on a more collective basis than that with which Europeans were familiar. The majority of Indigenous American tribes maintained their hunting grounds and agricultural lands to use the entire tribe. At that time, Europeans had cultures that had developed concepts of individual property rights with respect to land that were extremely different. The differences in cultures between the established Native Americans and immigrant Europeans and shifting alliances among different nations in times of war caused extensive political tension, ethnic violence, and social disruption.
Even before the European settlement of what is now the United States, Native Americans suffered high fatalities from contact with new European diseases, to which they had not yet acquired immunity; the diseases were endemic to the Spanish and other Europeans, and spread by direct contact and likely through pigs that escaped from expeditions. Smallpox epidemics are thought to have caused the greatest loss of life for indigenous populations. William M. Denevan, noted author and Professor Emeritus of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said on this subject in his essay “The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492”; “The decline of native American populations was rapid and severe, probably the greatest demographic disaster ever. Old World diseases were the primary killer. In many regions, particularly the tropical lowlands, populations fell by 90 percent or more in the first century after the contact. “
Estimates of the pre-Columbian population of what today constitutes the U.S. vary significantly, ranging from William M. Denevan’s 3.8 million in his 1992 work The Native Population of the Americas in 1492, to 18 million in Henry F. Dobyns’ Their Number Become Thinned (1983). Henry F. Dobyns’ work, being the highest single point estimate by far within the realm of professional academic research on the topic, has been criticized for being “politically motivated”. Perhaps Dobyns’ most vehement critic is David Henige, a bibliographer of Africana at the University of Wisconsin, whose Numbers From Nowhere (1998) is described as “a landmark in the literature of demographic fulmination”. “Suspect in 1966, it is no less suspect nowadays,” Henige wrote of Dobyns’s work. “If anything, it is worse.”
After the thirteen colonies revolted against Great Britain and established the United States, President George Washington and Secretary of War Henry Knox conceived of the idea of “civilizing” Native Americans in preparation for assimilation as U.S. citizens. Assimilation (whether voluntary, as with the Choctaw, or forced) became a consistent policy through American administrations. During the 19th century, the ideology of manifest destiny became integral to the American nationalist movement. Expansion of European-American populations to the west after the American Revolution resulted in increasing pressure on Native American lands, warfare between the groups, and rising tensions. In 1830, the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, authorizing the government to relocate Native Americans from their homelands within established states to lands west of the Mississippi River, accommodating European-American expansion. This resulted in the ethnic cleansing of many tribes, with the brutal, forced marches coming to be known as The Trail of Tears.
Contemporary Native Americans have a unique relationship with the United States because they may be members of nations, tribes, or bands with sovereignty and treaty rights upon which federal Indian law and a federal Indian trust relationship are based. Cultural activism since the late 1960s has increased political participation and led to an expansion of efforts to teach and preserve indigenous languages for younger generations and to establish a greater cultural infrastructure: Native Americans have founded independent newspapers and online media, recently including First Nations Experience, the first Native American television channel; established Native American studies programs, tribal schools, and universities, and museums and language programs. Literature is at the growing forefront of American Indian studies in many genres with exception only to fiction, which some traditional American Indians actually find insulting due to conflicts with tribal oral traditions.
The terms used to refer to Native Americans have at times been controversial. The ways Native Americans refer to themselves vary by region and generation, with many older Native Americans self-identifying as “Indians” or “American Indians”, while younger Native Americans often identify as “Indigenous” or “Aboriginal”. The term “Native American” has not traditionally included Native Hawaiians or certain Alaskan Natives, such as Aleut, Yup’ik, or Inuit peoples. By comparison, the indigenous peoples of Canada are generally known as First Nations.
Settlement of the Americas
It is not definitively known how or when the Native Americans first settled the Americas and the present-day United States. The prevailing theory proposes that people migrated from Eurasia across Beringia, a land bridge that connected Siberia to present-day Alaska during the Last Glacial Period, and then spread southward throughout the Americas over subsequent generations. Genetic evidence suggests at least three waves of migrants arrived from Asia, with the first occurring at least 15,000 years ago. These migrations may have begun as early as 30,000 years ago and continued to about 10,000 years ago, when the land bridge became submerged by the rising sea level at the onset of the current interglacial period.
The pre-Columbian era incorporates all period subdivisions in the history and prehistory of the Americas before the appearance of significant European influences on the American continents, spanning the time of the original settlement in the Upper Paleolithic period to European colonization during the early modern period. While technically referring to the era before Christopher Columbus‘ 1492 arrival on the continent, in practice the term usually includes the history of American indigenous cultures until they were conquered or significantly influenced by Europeans, even if this happened decades, or even centuries, after Columbus’ initial landing.
Native American cultures are not normally included in characterizations of advanced Stone Age cultures as “Neolithic,” which is a category that more often includes only the cultures in Eurasia, Africa, and other regions. The archaeological periods used are the classifications of archaeological periods and cultures established in Gordon Willey and Philip Phillips‘ 1958 book Method and Theory in American Archaeology. They divided the archaeological record in the Americas into five phases.
Numerous Paleoindian cultures occupied North America, with some arrayed around the Great Plains and Great Lakes of the modern United States and Canada, as well as adjacent areas to the West and Southwest. According to the oral histories of many of the Americas’ indigenous peoples, they have been living on this continent since their genesis, described by a wide range of traditional creation stories. Other tribes have stories that recount migrations across long tracts of land and a great river believed to be the Mississippi River. Genetic and linguistic data connect the indigenous people of this continent with ancient northeast Asians. Archeological and linguistic data has enabled scholars to discover some of the migrations within the Americas.
Archeological evidence at the Gault site near Austin, Texas, demonstrates that pre-Clovis peoples settled in Texas some 16,000–20,000 years ago. Evidence of pre-Clovis cultures have also been found in the Paisley Caves in south-central Oregon and butchered mastodon bones in a sinkhole near Tallahassee, Florida. More convincingly but also controversially, another pre-Clovis has been discovered at Monte Verde, Chile.
The Clovis culture, a megafauna hunting culture, is primarily identified by the use of fluted spear points. Artifacts from this culture were first excavated in 1932 near Clovis, New Mexico. The Clovis culture ranged over much of North America and also appeared in South America. The culture is identified by the distinctive Clovis point, a flaked flint spear-point with a notched flute, by which it was inserted into a shaft. The dating of Clovis materials has been by association with animal bones and by the use of carbon dating methods. Recent reexaminations of Clovis materials using improved carbon-dating methods produced results of 11,050 and 10,800 radiocarbon years B.P. (roughly 9100 to 8850 BCE). A Folsom point for a spear
The Folsom Tradition was characterized by the use of Folsom points as projectile tips and activities known from kill sites, where slaughter and butchering of bison took place. Folsom tools were left behind between 9000 BCE and 8000 BCE.
Na-Dené-speaking peoples entered North America starting around 8000 BCE, reaching the Pacific Northwest by 5000 BCE, and from there migrating along the Pacific Coast and into the interior. Linguists, anthropologists, and archaeologists believe their ancestors comprised a separate migration into North America, later than the first Paleo-Indians. They migrated into Alaska and northern Canada, south along the Pacific Coast, into the interior of Canada, and south to the Great Plains and the American Southwest. Na-Dené-speaking peoples were the earliest ancestors of the Athabascan-speaking peoples, including the present-day and historical Navajo and Apache. They constructed large multi-family dwellings in their villages, which were used seasonally. People did not live there year-round, but for the summer to hunt and fish, and to gather food supplies for the winter.
Since the 1990s, archeologists have explored and dated eleven Middle Archaic sites in present-day Louisiana and Florida at which early cultures built complexes with multiple earthwork mounds; they were societies of hunter-gatherers rather than the settled agriculturalists believed necessary according to the theory of Neolithic Revolution to sustain such large villages over long periods. The prime example is Watson Brake in northern Louisiana, whose 11-mound complex is dated to 3500 BCE, making it the oldest, dated site in North America for such complex construction. It is nearly 2,000 years older than the Poverty Point site. Construction of the mounds went on for 500 years until the site was abandoned about 2800 BCE, probably due to changing environmental conditions.
The Oshara Tradition people lived from 700 to 1000 CE. They were part of the Southwestern Archaic Tradition centered in north-central New Mexico, the San Juan Basin, the Rio Grande Valley, southern Colorado, and southeastern Utah.
Poverty Point culture is a Late Archaic archaeological culture that inhabited the area of the lower Mississippi Valley and surrounding Gulf Coast. The culture thrived from 2200 BCE to 700 BCE, during the Late Archaic period. Evidence of this culture has been found at more than 100 sites, from the major complex at Poverty Point, Louisiana (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) across a 100-mile (160 km) range to the Jaketown Site near Belzoni, Mississippi.
The Formative, Classic and post-Classic stages are sometimes incorporated together as the Post-archaic period, which runs from 1000 BCE onward. Sites & cultures include: Adena, Old Copper, Oasisamerica, Woodland, Fort Ancient, Hopewell tradition and Mississippian cultures.
The Woodland period of North American pre-Columbian cultures refers to the time period from roughly 1000 BCE to 1000 CE in the eastern part of North America. The Eastern Woodlands cultural region covers what is now eastern Canada south of the Subarctic region, the Eastern United States, along to the Gulf of Mexico. The Hopewell tradition describes the common aspects of the culture that flourished along rivers in the northeastern and midwestern United States from 100 BCE to 500 CE, in the Middle Woodland period. The Hopewell tradition was not a single culture or society, but a widely dispersed set of related populations. They were connected by a common network of trade routes, This period is considered a developmental stage without any massive changes in a short period, but instead having a continuous development in stone and bone tools, leather working, textile manufacture, tool production, cultivation, and shelter construction.
The indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast were of many nations and tribal affiliations, each with distinctive cultural and political identities, but they shared certain beliefs, traditions, and practices, such as the centrality of salmon as a resource and spiritual symbol. Their gift-giving feast, potlatch, is a highly complex event where people gather in order to commemorate special events. These events include the raising of a Totem pole or the appointment or election of a new chief. The most famous artistic feature of the culture is the Totem pole, with carvings of animals and other characters to commemorate cultural beliefs, legends, and notable events.
The Mississippian culture was a mound-building Native American civilization archaeologists date from approximately 800 CE to 1600 CE, varying regionally. It was composed of a series of urban settlements and satellite villages (suburbs) linked together by a loose trading network, the largest city being Cahokia, believed to be a major religious center. The civilization flourished in what is now the Midwestern, Eastern, and Southeastern United States.
Numerous pre-Columbian societies were sedentary, such as the Pueblo peoples, Mandan, Hidatsa and others, and some established large settlements, even cities, such as Cahokia, in what is now Illinois. The Iroquois League of Nations or “People of the Long House” was a politically advanced, democratic society, which is thought by some historians to have influenced the United States Constitution, with the Senate passing a resolution to this effect in 1988. Other historians have contested this interpretation and believe the impact was minimal, or did not exist, pointing to numerous differences between the two systems and the ample precedents for the constitution in European political thought.
European exploration and colonization
After 1492, European exploration and colonization of the Americas revolutionized how the Old and New Worlds perceived themselves. Many of the first major contacts were in Florida and the Gulf coast by Spanish explorers. Some scholars have designated this point in history as the beginning of the “Age of Capital” or the Capitalocene: an epoch that encompasses the profit-driven era that has led to climate change, global land change.
Impact on native populations
From the 16th through the 19th centuries, the population of Native Americans sharply declined. Most mainstream scholars believe that, among the various contributing factors, epidemic disease was the overwhelming cause of the population decline of the Native Americans because of their lack of immunity to new diseases brought from Europe. It is difficult to estimate the number of pre-Columbian Native Americans who were living in what is today the United States of America. Estimates range from a low of 2.1 million to a high of 18 million (Dobyns 1983). By 1800, the Native population of the present-day United States had declined to approximately 600,000, and only 250,000 Native Americans remained in the 1890s. Chicken pox and measles, endemic but rarely fatal among Europeans (long after being introduced from Asia), often proved deadly to Native Americans. In the 100 years following the arrival of the Spanish to the Americas, large disease epidemics depopulated large parts of the eastern United States in the 16th century.
There are a number of documented cases where diseases were deliberately spread among Native Americans as a form of biological warfare. The most well-known example occurred in 1763, when Sir Jeffery Amherst, Commander-in-Chief of the Forces of the British Army, wrote praising the use of smallpox-infected blankets to “extirpate” the Indian race. Blankets infected with smallpox were given to Native Americans besieging Fort Pitt. The effectiveness of the attempt is unclear.
In 1634, Fr. Andrew White of the Society of Jesus established a mission in what is now the state of Maryland, and the purpose of the mission, stated through an interpreter to the chief of an Indian tribe there, was “to extend civilization and instruction to his ignorant race, and show them the way to heaven”. Fr. Andrew’s diaries report that by 1640, a community had been founded which they named St. Mary’s, and the Indians were sending their children there “to be educated among the English”. This included the daughter of the Piscataway Indian chief Tayac, which exemplifies not only a school for Indians, but either a school for girls, or an early co-ed school. The same records report that in 1677, “a school for humanities was opened by our Society in the centre of [Maryland], directed by two of the Fathers; and the native youth, applying themselves assiduously to study, made good progress. Maryland and the recently established school sent two boys to St. Omer who yielded in abilities to few Europeans, when competing for the honor of being first in their class. So that not gold, nor silver, nor the other products of the earth alone, but men also are gathered from thence to bring those regions, which foreigners have unjustly called ferocious, to a higher state of virtue and cultivation.”
Through the mid-17th century the Beaver Wars were fought over the fur trade between the Iroquois and the Hurons, the northern Algonquians, and their French allies. During the war the Iroquois destroyed several large tribal confederacies, including the Huron, Neutral, Erie, Susquehannock, and Shawnee, and became dominant in the region and enlarged their territory.
In 1727, the Sisters of the Order of Saint Ursula founded Ursuline Academy in New Orleans, which is currently the oldest continuously operating school for girls and the oldest Catholic school in the United States. From the time of its foundation, it offered the first classes for Native American girls, and would later offer classes for female African-American slaves and free women of color.1882 studio portrait of the (then) last surviving Six Nations warriors who fought with the British in the War of 1812
Between 1754 and 1763, many Native American tribes were involved in the French and Indian War/Seven Years’ War. Those involved in the fur trade tended to ally with French forces against British colonial militias. The British had made fewer allies, but it was joined by some tribes that wanted to prove assimilation and loyalty in support of treaties to preserve their territories. They were often disappointed when such treaties were later overturned. The tribes had their own purposes, using their alliances with the European powers to battle traditional Native enemies. Some Iroquois who were loyal to the British, and helped them fight in the American Revolution, fled north into Canada.
After European explorers reached the West Coast in the 1770s, smallpox rapidly killed at least 30% of Northwest Coast Native Americans. For the next eighty to one hundred years, smallpox and other diseases devastated native populations in the region. Puget Sound area populations, once estimated as high as 37,000 people, were reduced to only 9,000 survivors by the time settlers arrived en masse in the mid-19th century.
Smallpox epidemics in 1780–82 and 1837–38 brought devastation and drastic depopulation among the Plains Indians. By 1832, the federal government established a smallpox vaccination program for Native Americans (The Indian Vaccination Act of 1832). It was the first federal program created to address a health problem of Native Americans.
With the meeting of two worlds, animals, insects, and plants were carried from one to the other, both deliberately and by chance, in what is called the Columbian Exchange. In the 16th century, Spaniards and other Europeans brought horses to Mexico. Some of the horses escaped and began to breed and increase their numbers in the wild. As Native Americans adopted use of the animals, they began to change their cultures in substantial ways, especially by extending their nomadic ranges for hunting. The reintroduction of the horse to North America had a profound impact on Native American culture of the Great Plains. Early Native American tribal territories
King Philip’s War
King Philip’s War, also called Metacom‘s War or Metacom’s Rebellion, was the last major armed conflict between Native American inhabitants of present-day southern New England and English colonists and their Native American allies from 1675 to 1676. It continued in northern New England (primarily on the Maine frontier) even after King Philip was killed, until a treaty was signed at Casco Bay in April 1678.
Some European philosophers considered Native American societies to be truly “natural” and representative of a golden age known to them only in folk history.
During the American Revolution, 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, based both on their trading relationships and hopes that colonial defeat would result in a halt to further colonial expansion onto Native American land. The first native community to sign a treaty with the new United States Government was the Lenape.
In 1779 the Sullivan Expedition was carried out during the American Revolutionary War against the British and the four allied nations of the Iroquois. George Washington gave orders that made it clear he wanted the Iroquois threat completely eliminated:
The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more. The British made peace with the Americans in the Treaty of Paris (1783), through which they ceded vast Native American territories to the United States without informing or consulting with the Native Americans.
The United States was eager to expand, develop farming and settlements in new areas, and satisfy the land hunger of settlers from New England and new immigrants. The national government initially sought to purchase Native American land by treaties. The states and settlers were frequently at odds with this policy.
United States policy toward Native Americans continued to evolve after the American Revolution. George Washington and Henry Knox believed that Native Americans were equals but that their society was inferior. Washington formulated a policy to encourage the “civilizing” process. Washington had a six-point plan for civilization which included:
- impartial justice toward Native Americans
- regulated buying of Native American lands
- promotion of commerce
- promotion of experiments to civilize or improve Native American society
- presidential authority to give presents
- punishing those who violated Native American rights.
In the late 18th century, reformers, starting with Washington and Knox, supported educating native both children and adults, in efforts to “civilize” or otherwise assimilate Native Americans into the larger society (as opposed to relegating them to reservations). The Civilization Fund Act of 1819 promoted this civilization policy by providing funding to societies (mostly religious) who worked towards Native American improvement.
The population of California Indians was reduced by 90% during the 19th century—from more than 200,000 in the early 19th century to approximately 15,000 at the end of the century, mostly due to disease. Epidemics swept through California Indian Country, such as the 1833 malaria epidemic. The population went into decline as a result of the Spanish authorities forcing Native Californians to live in the missions where they contracted diseases from which they had little immunity. Dr. Cook estimates that 15,250 or 45% of the population decrease in the Missions was caused by disease. Two epidemics of measles, one in 1806 and the other in 1828, caused many deaths. The mortality rates were so high that the missions were constantly dependent upon new conversions. During the California Gold Rush, many natives were killed by incoming settlers as well as by militia units financed and organized by the California government. Some scholars contend that the state financing of these militias, as well as the US government’s role in other massacres in California, such as the Bloody Island and Yontoket Massacres, in which up to 400 or more natives were killed in each massacre, constitutes a campaign of genocide against the native people of California.
As American expansion continued, Native Americans resisted settlers’ encroachment in several regions of the new nation (and in unorganized territories), from the Northwest to the Southeast, and then in the West, as settlers encountered the Native American tribes of the Great Plains. East of the Mississippi River, an intertribal army led by Tecumseh, a Shawnee chief, fought a number of engagements in the Northwest during the period 1811–12, known as Tecumseh’s War. During the War of 1812, Tecumseh’s forces allied themselves with the British. After Tecumseh’s death, the British ceased to aid the Native Americans south and west of Upper Canada and American expansion proceeded with little resistance. Conflicts in the Southeast include the Creek War and Seminole Wars, both before and after the Indian Removals of most members of the Five Civilized Tribes.
In the 1830s, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, a policy of relocating Indians from their homelands to Indian Territory and reservations in surrounding areas to open their lands for non-native settlements. This resulted in the Trail of Tears. Mass grave for the dead Lakota following the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre, which took place during the Indian Wars in the 19th century.
In July 1845, the New York newspaper editor John L. O’Sullivan coined the phrase, “Manifest Destiny“, as the “design of Providence” supporting the territorial expansion of the United States. Manifest Destiny had serious consequences for Native Americans, since continental expansion for the U.S. took place at the cost of their occupied land. A justification for the policy of conquest and subjugation of the indigenous people emanated from the stereotyped perceptions of all Native Americans as “merciless Indian savages” (as described in the United States Declaration of Independence). Sam Wolfson in The Guardian writes, “The declaration’s passage has often been cited as an encapsulation of the dehumanizing attitude toward indigenous Americans that the US was founded on.”
The Indian Appropriations Act of 1851 set the precedent for modern-day Native American reservations through allocating funds to move western tribes onto reservations since there were no more lands available for relocation.
Native American nations on the plains in the west continued armed conflicts with the U.S. throughout the 19th century, through what were called generally Indian Wars. Notable conflicts in this period include the Dakota War, Great Sioux War, Snake War, Colorado War, and Texas-Indian Wars. Expressing the frontier anti-Indian sentiment, Theodore Roosevelt believed the Indians were destined to vanish under the pressure of white civilization, stating in an 1886 lecture:
I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.
One of the last and most notable events during the Indian wars was the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. In the years leading up to it the U.S. government had continued to seize Lakota lands. A Ghost Dance ritual on the Northern Lakota reservation at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, led to the U.S. Army’s attempt to subdue the Lakota. The dance was part of a religious movement founded by the Northern Paiute spiritual leader Wovoka that told of the return of the Messiah to relieve the suffering of Native Americans and promised that if they would live righteous lives and perform the Ghost Dance properly, the European American colonists would vanish, the bison would return, and the living and the dead would be reunited in an Edenic world. On December 29 at Wounded Knee, gunfire erupted, and U.S. soldiers killed up to 300 Indians, mostly old men, women, and children.
Native Americans served in both the Union and Confederate military during the American Civil War. At the outbreak of the war, for example, the minority party of the Cherokees gave its allegiance to the Confederacy, while originally the majority party went for the North. Native Americans fought knowing they might jeopardize their independence, unique cultures, and ancestral lands if they ended up on the losing side of the Civil War. 28,693 Native Americans served in the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War, participating in battles such as Pea Ridge, Second Manassas, Antietam, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and in Federal assaults on Petersburg. A few Native American tribes, such as the Creek and the Choctaw, were slaveholders and found a political and economic commonality with the Confederacy. The Choctaw owned over 2,000 slaves.
Removals 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, often by force, almost always reluctantly. Native Americans believed this forced relocation illegal, given the Treaty of Hopewell of 1785. Under President Andrew Jackson, United States Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which authorized the President to conduct treaties to exchange Native American land east of the Mississippi River for lands west of the river.
As many as 100,000 Native Americans relocated to the West as a result of this Indian removal policy. In theory, relocation was supposed to be voluntary and many Native Americans did remain in the East. In practice, great pressure was put on Native American leaders to sign removal treaties. The most egregious violation, the Trail of Tears, was the removal of the Cherokee by President Jackson to Indian Territory. The 1864 deportation of the Navajos by the U.S. government occurred when 8,000 Navajos were forced to an internment camp in Bosque Redondo, where, under armed guards, more than 3,500 Navajo and Mescalero Apache men, women, and children died from starvation and disease.
Native Americans and U.S. Citizenship
In 1817, the Cherokee became the first Native Americans recognized as U.S. citizens. Under Article 8 of the 1817 Cherokee treaty, “Upwards of 300 Cherokees (Heads of Families) in the honest simplicity of their souls, made an election to become American citizens”.
Factors establishing citizenship included:
- Treaty provision (as with the Cherokee)
- Registration and land allotment under the Dawes Act of February 8, 1887
- Issuance of Patent in Fee simple
- Adopting Habits of Civilized Life
- Minor Children
- Citizenship by Birth
- Becoming Soldiers and Sailors in the U.S. Armed Forces
- Marriage to a U.S. citizen
- Special Act of Congress.
After the American Civil War, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 states, “that all persons born in the United States, and not subject to any foreign power, excluding Indians not taxed, are hereby declared to be citizens of the United States”.
Indian Appropriations Act of 1871
In 1871, Congress added a rider to the Indian Appropriations Act, signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant, ending United States recognition of additional Native American tribes or independent nations, and prohibiting additional treaties.
After the Indian wars in the late 19th century, the government established Native American boarding schools, initially run primarily by or affiliated with Christian missionaries. At this time, American society thought that Native American children needed to be acculturated to the general society. The boarding school experience was a total immersion in modern American society, but it could prove traumatic to children, who were forbidden to speak their native languages. They were taught Christianity and not allowed to practice their native religions, and in numerous other ways forced to abandon their Native American identities.
Before the 1930s, schools on the reservations provided no schooling beyond the sixth grade. To obtain more, boarding school was usually necessary. Small reservations with a few hundred people usually sent their children to nearby public schools. The “Indian New Deal” of the 1930s closed many of the boarding schools, and downplayed the assimilationist goals. The Indian Division of the Civilian Conservation Corps operated large-scale construction projects on the reservations, building thousands of new schools and community buildings. Under the leadership of John Collier the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) brought in progressive educators to reshape Indian education. The BIA by 1938 taught 30,000 students in 377 boarding and day schools, or 40% of all Indian children in school. The Navajo largely opposed schooling of any sort, but the other tribes accepted the system. There were now high schools on larger reservations, educating not only teenagers but also an adult audience. There were no Indian facilities for higher education. They deemphasized textbooks, emphasized self-esteem, and started teaching Indian history. They promoted traditional arts and crafts of the sort that could be conducted on the reservations, such as making jewelry. The New Deal reformers met significant resistance from parents and teachers, and had mixed results. World War II brought younger Indians in contact with the broader society through military service and work in the munitions industries. The role of schooling was changed to focus on vocational education for jobs in urban America.
Since the rise of self-determination for Native Americans, they have generally emphasized education of their children at schools near where they live. In addition, many federally recognized tribes have taken over operations of such schools and added programs of language retention and revival to strengthen their cultures. Beginning in the 1970s, tribes have also founded colleges at their reservations, controlled, and operated by Native Americans, to educate their young for jobs as well as to pass on their cultures.
In 1919, the United States under President Woodrow Wilson granted citizenship to all Native Americans who had served in World War I. Nearly 10,000 men had enlisted and served, a high number in relation to their population. Despite this, in many areas Native Americans faced local resistance when they tried to vote and were discriminated against with barriers to voter registration.
On June 2, 1924, U.S. President Republican Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act, which made all Native Americans born in the United States and its territories American citizens. Prior to passage of the act, nearly two-thirds of Native Americans were already U.S. citizens, through marriage, military service or accepting land allotments. The Act extended citizenship to “all non-citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States”.
Republican Charles Curtis, a Congressman and longtime US Senator from Kansas, was of Kaw, Osage, Potawatomi, and European ancestry. After serving as a United States Representative and being repeatedly re-elected as United States Senator from Kansas, Curtis served as Senate Minority Whip for 10 years and as Senate Majority Leader for five years. He was very influential in the Senate. In 1928 he ran as the vice-presidential candidate with Herbert Hoover for president, and served from 1929 to 1933. He was the first person with significant Native American ancestry and the first person with acknowledged non-European ancestry to be elected to either of the highest offices in the land.
American Indians today in the United States have all the rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, can vote in elections, and run for political office. Controversies remain over how much the federal government has jurisdiction over tribal affairs, sovereignty, and cultural practices.
The census counted 332,000 Indians in 1930 and 334,000 in 1940, including those on and off reservations in the 48 states. Total spending on Indians averaged $38 million a year in the late 1920s, dropping to a low of $23 million in 1933, and returning to $38 million in 1940.
World War II
Some 44,000 Native Americans served in the United States military during World War II: at the time, one-third of all able-bodied Indian men from eighteen to fifty years of age. Described as the first large-scale exodus of indigenous peoples from the reservations since the removals of the 19th century, the men’s service with the U.S. military in the international conflict was a turning point in Native American history. The overwhelming majority of Native Americans welcomed the opportunity to serve; they had a voluntary enlistment rate that was 40% higher than those drafted.
Their fellow soldiers often held them in high esteem, in part since the legend of the tough Native American warrior had become a part of the fabric of American historical legend. White servicemen sometimes showed a lighthearted respect toward Native American comrades by calling them “chief”. The resulting increase in contact with the world outside of the reservation system brought profound changes to Native American culture. “The war”, said the U.S. Indian Commissioner in 1945, “caused the greatest disruption of Native life since the beginning of the reservation era”, affecting the habits, views, and economic well-being of tribal members. The most significant of these changes was the opportunity—as a result of wartime labor shortages—to find well-paying work in cities, and many people relocated to urban areas, particularly on the West Coast with the buildup of the defense industry.
There were also losses as a result of the war. For instance, a total of 1,200 Pueblo men served in World War II; only about half came home alive. In addition, many more Navajo served as code talkers for the military in the Pacific. The code they made, although cryptologically very simple, was never cracked by the Japanese.
Military service and urban residency contributed to the rise of American Indian activism, particularly after the 1960s and the occupation of Alcatraz Island (1969–1971) by a student Indian group from San Francisco. In the same period, the American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded in Minneapolis, and chapters were established throughout the country, where American Indians combined spiritual and political activism. Political protests gained national media attention and the sympathy of the American public.
Through the mid-1970s, conflicts between governments and Native Americans occasionally erupted into violence. A notable late 20th-century event was the Wounded Knee incident on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Upset with tribal government and the failures of the federal government to enforce treaty rights, about 300 Oglala Lakota and AIM activists took control of Wounded Knee on February 27, 1973.
Indian activists from around the country joined them at Pine Ridge, and the occupation became a symbol of rising American Indian identity and power. Federal law enforcement officials and the national guard cordoned off the town, and the two sides had a standoff for 71 days. During much gunfire, one United States Marshal was wounded and paralyzed. In late April, a Cherokee and local Lakota man were killed by gunfire; the Lakota elders ended the occupation to ensure no more lives were lost.
In June 1975, two FBI agents seeking to make an armed robbery arrest at Pine Ridge Reservation were wounded in a firefight, and killed at close range. The AIM activist Leonard Peltier was sentenced in 1976 to two consecutive terms of life in prison for the FBI deaths.
In 1968, the government enacted the Indian Civil Rights Act. This gave tribal members most of the protections against abuses by tribal governments that the Bill of Rights accords to all U.S. citizens with respect to the federal government. In 1975, the U.S. government passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, marking the culmination of fifteen years of policy changes. It resulted from American Indian activism, the Civil Rights Movement, and community development aspects of President Lyndon Johnson‘s social programs of the 1960s. The Act recognized the right and need of Native Americans for self-determination. It marked the U.S. government’s turn away from the 1950s policy of termination of the relationship between tribes and the government. The U.S. government encouraged Native Americans’ efforts at self-government and determining their futures. Tribes have developed organizations to administer their own social, welfare and housing programs, for instance. Tribal self-determination has created tension with respect to the federal government’s historic trust obligation to care for Indians; however, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has never lived up to that responsibility.
Navajo Community College, now called Diné College, the first tribal college, was founded in Tsaile, Arizona, in 1968 and accredited in 1979. Tensions immediately arose between two philosophies: one that the tribal colleges should have the same criteria, curriculum and procedures for educational quality as mainstream colleges, the other that the faculty and curriculum should be closely adapted to the particular historical culture of the tribe. There was a great deal of turnover, exacerbated by very tight budgets. In 1994, the U.S. Congress passed legislation recognizing the tribal colleges as land-grant colleges, which provided opportunities for large-scale funding. Thirty-two tribal colleges in the United States belong to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. By the early 21st century, tribal nations had also established numerous language revival programs in their schools.
In addition, Native American activism has led major universities across the country to establish Native American studies programs and departments, increasing awareness of the strengths of Indian cultures, providing opportunities for academics, and deepening research on history and cultures in the United States. Native Americans have entered academia; journalism and media; politics at local, state and federal levels; and public service, for instance, influencing medical research and policy to identify issues related to American Indians.
In 2009, an “apology to Native Peoples of the United States” was included in the Defense Appropriations Act. It stated that the U.S. “apologizes on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States”.
In 2013, jurisdiction over persons who were not tribal members under the Violence Against Women Act was extended to Indian Country. This closed a gap which prevented arrest or prosecution by tribal police or courts of abusive partners of tribal members who were not native or from another tribe.
Migration to urban areas continued to grow with 70% of Native Americans living in urban areas in 2012, up from 45% in 1970 and 8% in 1940. Urban areas with significant Native American populations include Phoenix, Tulsa, Minneapolis, Denver, Albuquerque, Tucson, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Houston, New York City, Los Angeles, and Rapid City. Many live in poverty. Racism, unemployment, drugs and gangs were common problems that Indian social service organizations such as the Little Earth housing complex in Minneapolis attempt to address Grassroots efforts to support urban Indigenous populations have also taken place, as in the case of Bringing the Circle Together in Los Angeles.
The 2010 Census showed that the U.S. population on April 1, 2010, was 308.7 million. Out of the total U.S. population, 2.9 million people, or 0.9 percent, reported American Indian or Alaska Native alone. In addition, 2.3 million people or another 0.7 percent, reported American Indian or Alaska Native in combination with one or more other races. Together, these two groups totaled 5.2 million people. Thus, 1.7 percent of all people in the United States identified as American Indian or Alaska Native, either alone or in combination with one or more other races.
The definition of American Indian or Alaska Native used in the 2010 census:
According to Office of Management and Budget, “American Indian or Alaska Native” refers to a person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment.
The 2010 census permitted respondents to self-identify as being of one or more races. Self-identification dates from the census of 1960; prior to that the race of the respondent was determined by the opinion of the census taker. The option to select more than one race was introduced in 2000. If American Indian or Alaska Native was selected, the form requested the individual provide the name of the “enrolled or principal tribe”.
78% of Native Americans live outside a reservation. Full-blood individuals are more likely to live on a reservation than mixed-blood individuals. The Navajo, with 286,000 full-blood individuals, is the largest tribe if only full-blood individuals are counted; the Navajo are the tribe with the highest proportion of full-blood individuals, 86.3%. The Cherokee have a different history; it is the largest tribe with 819,000 individuals, and it has 284,000 full-blood individuals.
As of 2012, 70% of Native Americans live in urban areas, up from 45% in 1970 and 8% in 1940. Urban areas with significant Native American populations include Minneapolis, Denver, Phoenix, Tucson, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Houston, New York City, and Los Angeles. Many live in poverty. Racism, unemployment, drugs and gangs are common problems which Indian social service organizations such as the Little Earth housing complex in Minneapolis attempt to address.
Distribution by U.S. state
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 (413,382), Arizona (294,137) and Oklahoma (279,559).
In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that about 0.8% of the U.S. population was of American Indian or Alaska Native descent. This population is unevenly distributed across the country. Below, all fifty states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, are listed by the proportion of residents citing American Indian or Alaska Native ancestry, based on the 2010 U.S. Census.
|State||Pop. (2010)||% pop (2010)|
|District of Columbia||2,079||0.3%|
Population by tribal grouping
Below are numbers for U.S. citizens self-identifying to selected tribal groupings, according to the 2010 U.S. census.
|Tribal grouping||American Indian & Alaska Native Alone one tribal grouping reported||American Indian & Alaska Native Alone more than one tribal grouping reported||American Indian & Alaska Native Mixed one tribal grouping reported||American Indian & Alaska Native Mixed more than one tribal grouping reported||American Indian & Alaska Native tribal grouping alone or mixed in any combination|
|Canadian & French American Indian||6,433||618||6,981||790||14,822|
|Central American Indian||15,882||572||10,865||525||27,844|
|Mexican American Indian||121,221||2,329||49,670||2,274||175,494|
|Puget Sound Salish||14,320||215||5,540||185||20,260|
|South American Indian||20,901||479||25,015||838||47,233|
|Spanish American Indian||13,460||298||6,012||181||19,951|
|All other American Indian tribes||270,141||12,606||135,032||11,850||429,629|
|American Indian tribes, not specified||131,943||117||102,188||72||234,320|
|Alaska Native tribes, specified||98,892||4,194||32,992||2,772||138,850|
|Alaska Native tribes, not specified||19,731||173||9,896||133||29,933|
|American Indian or Alaska Native tribes, not specified||693,709||no data||852,253||1||1,545,963|
There are 573 federally recognized tribal governments and 326 Indian reservations in the United States. These tribes possess the right to form their own governments, to enforce laws (both civil and criminal) within their lands, to tax, to establish requirements for 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 (this includes paper currency). 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.
Many Native Americans and advocates of Native American rights point out that the U.S. federal government’s claim to recognize the “sovereignty” of Native American peoples falls short, given that the United States wishes to govern Native American peoples and treat them as subject to U.S. law. Such advocates contend that full respect for Native American sovereignty would require the U.S. government to deal with Native American peoples in the same manner as any other sovereign nation, handling matters related to relations with Native Americans through the Secretary of State, rather than the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Bureau of Indian Affairs reports on its website that its “responsibility is the administration and management of 55,700,000 acres (225,000 km2) of land held in trust by the United States for American Indians, Indian tribes, and Alaska Natives“. Many Native Americans and advocates of Native American rights believe that it is condescending for such lands to be considered “held in trust” and regulated in any fashion by other than their own tribes, whether the U.S. or Canadian governments, or any other non-Native American authority.
Some tribal groups have been unable to document the cultural continuity required for federal recognition. To achieve federal recognition and its benefits, tribes must prove continuous existence since 1900. The federal government has maintained this requirement, in part because through participation on councils and committees, federally recognized tribes have been adamant about groups’ satisfying the same requirements as they did. The Muwekma Ohlone of the San Francisco Bay Area are pursuing litigation in the federal court system to establish recognition. Many of the smaller eastern tribes, long considered remnants of extinct peoples, have been trying to gain official recognition of their tribal status. Several tribes in Virginia and North Carolina have gained state recognition. Federal recognition confers some benefits, including the right to label arts and crafts as Native American and permission to apply for grants that are specifically reserved for Native Americans. But gaining federal recognition as a tribe is extremely difficult; to be established as a tribal group, members have to submit extensive genealogical proof of tribal descent and continuity of the tribe as a culture. Native peoples are concerned about the effects of abandoned uranium mines on or near their lands.
In July 2000, the Washington State Republican Party adopted a resolution recommending that the federal and legislative branches of the U.S. government terminate tribal governments. In 2007, a group of Democratic Party congressmen and congresswomen introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives to “terminate” the Cherokee Nation. This was related to their voting to exclude Cherokee Freedmen as members of the tribe unless they had a Cherokee ancestor on the Dawes Rolls, although all Cherokee Freedmen and their descendants had been members since 1866.
In the state of Virginia, Native Americans face a unique problem. Until 2017 Virginia previously had no federally recognized tribes but the state had recognized eight. This is related historically to the greater impact of disease and warfare on the Virginia Indian populations, as well as their intermarriage with Europeans and Africans. Some people confused ancestry with culture, but groups of Virginia Indians maintained their cultural continuity. Most of their early reservations were ended under the pressure of early European settlement.
Some historians also note the problems of Virginia Indians in establishing documented continuity of identity, due to the work of Walter Ashby Plecker (1912–1946). As registrar of the state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, he applied his own interpretation of the one-drop rule, enacted in law in 1924 as the state’s Racial Integrity Act. It recognized only two races: “white” and “colored”.
Plecker, a segregationist, believed that the state’s Native Americans had been “mongrelized” by intermarriage with African Americans; to him, ancestry determined identity, rather than culture. He thought that some people of partial black ancestry were trying to “pass” as Native Americans. Plecker thought that anyone with any African heritage had to be classified as colored, regardless of appearance, amount of European or Native American ancestry, and cultural/community identification. Plecker pressured local governments into reclassifying all Native Americans in the state as “colored” and gave them lists of family surnames to examine for reclassification based on his interpretation of data and the law. This led to the state’s destruction of accurate records related to families and communities who identified as Native American (as in church records and daily life). By his actions, sometimes different members of the same family were split by being classified as “white” or “colored”. He did not allow people to enter their primary identification as Native American in state records. In 2009, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee endorsed a bill that would grant federal recognition to tribes in Virginia.
As of 2000, the largest groups in the United States by population were Navajo, Cherokee, Choctaw, Sioux, Chippewa, Apache, Blackfeet, Iroquois, and Pueblo. In 2000, eight of ten Americans with Native American ancestry were of mixed ancestry. It is estimated that by 2100 that figure will rise to nine out of ten.
Civil rights movement
The civil rights movement was a very significant moment for the rights of Native Americans and other people of color. Native Americans faced racism and prejudice for hundreds of years, and this increased after the American Civil War. Native Americans, like African Americans, were subjected to the Jim Crow Laws and segregation in the Deep South especially after they were made citizens through the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. As a body of law, Jim Crow institutionalized economic, educational, and social disadvantages for Native Americans, and other people of color living in the south. Native American identity was especially targeted by a system that only wanted to recognize white or colored, and the government began to question the legitimacy of some tribes because they had intermarried with African Americans. Native Americans were also discriminated and discouraged from voting in the southern and western states.
In the south segregation was a major problem for Native Americans seeking education, but the NAACP’s legal strategy would later change this. Movements such as Brown v. Board of Education was a major victory for the Civil Rights Movement headed by the NAACP, and inspired Native Americans to start participating in the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began assisting Native Americans in the south in the late 1950s after they reached out to him. At that time the remaining Creek in Alabama were trying to completely desegregate schools in their area. In this case, light-complexioned Native children were allowed to ride school buses to previously all white schools, while dark-skinned Native children from the same band were barred from riding the same buses. Tribal leaders, upon hearing of King’s desegregation campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, contacted him for assistance. He promptly responded and, through his intervention, the problem was quickly resolved. Dr. King would later make trips to Arizona visiting Native Americans on reservations, and in churches encouraging them to be involved in the Civil Rights Movement. In King’s book “Why We Can’t Wait” he writes:
Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles over racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or to feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it.
Native Americans would then actively participate and support the NAACP, and the civil rights movement. The National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) would soon rise in 1961 to fight for Native American rights during the Civil Rights Movement, and were strong supporters of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. During the 1963 March on Washington there was a sizable Native American contingent, including many from South Dakota, and many from the Navajo nation. Native Americans also participated the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. The NIYC were very active supporters of the Poor People’s Campaign unlike the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI); the NIYC and other Native organizations met with King in March 1968 but the NCAI disagreed on how to approach the anti-poverty campaign; the NCAI decided against participating in the march. The NCAI wished to pursue their battles in the courts and with Congress, unlike the NIYC. The NAACP also inspired the creation of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) which was patterned after the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund. Furthermore, the NAACP continued to organize to stop mass incarceration and end the criminalization of Native Americans and other communities of people of color. The following is an excerpt from a statement from Mel Thom on May 1, 1968, during a meeting with Secretary of State Dean Rusk: (It was written by members of the Workshop on American Indian Affairs and the NIYC)
We have joined the Poor People’s Campaign because most of our families, tribes, and communities number among those suffering most in this country. We are not begging. We are demanding what is rightfully ours. This is no more than the right to have a decent life in our own communities. We need guaranteed jobs, guaranteed income, housing, schools, economic development, but most important- we want them on our own terms. Our chief spokesman in the federal government, the Department of Interior, has failed us. In fact it began failing us from its very beginning. The Interior Department began failing us because it was built upon and operates under a racist, immoral, paternalistic and colonialistic system. There is no way to improve upon racism, immorality and colonialism; it can only be done away with. The system and power structure serving Indian peoples is a sickness which has grown to epidemic proportions. The Indian system is sick. Paternalism is the virus and the secretary of the Interior is the carrier.
Native American struggles amid poverty to maintain life on the reservation or in larger society have resulted in a variety of health issues, some related to nutrition and health practices. The community suffers a vulnerability to and disproportionately high rate of alcoholism.
It has long been recognized that Native Americans are dying of diabetes, alcoholism, tuberculosis, suicide, and other health conditions at shocking rates. Beyond disturbingly high mortality rates, Native Americans also suffer a significantly lower health status and disproportionate rates of disease compared with all other Americans.— U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (September 2004)
Recent studies also point to rising rates of stroke, heart disease, and diabetes in the Native American population.
Societal discrimination and racism
In a study conducted in 2006–2007, non-Native Americans admitted they rarely encountered Native Americans in their daily lives. While sympathetic toward Native Americans and expressing regret over the past, most people had only a vague understanding of the problems facing Native Americans today. For their part, Native Americans told researchers that they believed they continued to face prejudice, mistreatment, and inequality in the broader society.
Affirmative action issues
Federal contractors and subcontractors, such as businesses and educational institutions, are legally required to adopt equal opportunity employment and affirmative action measures intended to prevent discrimination against employees or applicants for employment on the basis of “color, religion, sex, or national origin”. For this purpose, a Native American is defined as “A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America), and who maintains a tribal affiliation or community attachment”. The passing of the Indian Relocation Act saw a 56% increase in Native American city dwellers over 40 years. The Native American urban poverty rate exceeds that of reservation poverty rates due to discrimination in hiring processes. However, self-reporting is permitted: “Educational institutions and other recipients should allow students and staff to self-identify their race and ethnicity unless self-identification is not practicable or feasible.”
Self-reporting opens the door to “box checking” by people who, despite not having a substantial relationship to Native American culture, innocently or fraudulently check the box for Native American.
The difficulties that Native Americans face in the workforce, for example, a lack of promotions and wrongful terminations are attributed to racial stereotypes and implicit biases. Native American business owners are seldom offered auxiliary resources that are crucial for entrepreneurial success.
Native American mascots in sports
American Indian activists in the United States and Canada have criticized the use of Native American mascots in sports, as perpetuating stereotypes. This is considered cultural appropriation. There has been a steady decline in the number of secondary school and college teams using such names, images, and mascots. Some tribal team names have been approved by the tribe in question, such as the Seminole Tribe of Florida‘s approving use of their name for the teams of Florida State University.Further information: NCAA Native American mascot decision
Among professional teams, the NBA‘s Golden State Warriors discontinued use of Native American-themed logos in 1971. The NFL‘s Washington Redskins, whose name was considered to be a racial slur, has recently been removed. They are currently now known as the Washington Football Team. MLB‘s Cleveland Indians, whose usage of a caricature called Chief Wahoo has also faced protest. Starting in 2019, Chief Wahoo ceased to be a logo for Cleveland Indians, though Chief Wahoo merchandise could still be sold in the Cleveland-area.
On December 13, 2020 The New York Times reported that Cleveland would be officially changing their name, set to take affect likely following the 2021 season.
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 leverage to build diversified economies. Although many Native American tribes have casinos, the impact of Native American gaming is widely debated. Some tribes, 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 gambling industry.
Numerous tribes around the country have entered the financial services market including the Otoe-Missouria, Tunica-Biloxi, and the Rosebud Sioux. Because of the challenges involved in starting a financial services business from scratch, many tribes hire outside consultants and vendors to help them launch these businesses and manage the regulatory issues involved. Similar to the tribal sovereignty debates that occurred when tribes first entered the gaming industry, the tribes, states, and federal government are currently in disagreement regarding who possesses the authority to regulate these e-commerce business entities.
Crime on reservations
Prosecution of serious crime, historically endemic on reservations, was required by the 1885 Major Crimes Act, and court decisions to be investigated by the federal government, usually the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and prosecuted by United States Attorneys of the United States federal judicial district in which the reservation lies.
A December 13, 2009 New York Times article about growing gang violence on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation estimated that there were 39 gangs with 5,000 members on that reservation alone. Navajo country recently reported 225 gangs in its territory.
As of 2012, a high incidence of rape continued to impact Native American women and Alaskan native women. According to the Department of Justice, 1 in 3 Native women have suffered rape or attempted rape, more than twice the national rate. About 46 percent of Native American women have been raped, beaten, or stalked by an intimate partner, according to a 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control. According to Professor N. Bruce Duthu, “More than 80 percent of Indian victims identify their attacker as non-Indian”.
Barriers to economic development
Today, other than tribes successfully running casinos, many tribes struggle, as they are often located on reservations isolated from the main economic centers of the country. The estimated 2.1 million Native Americans are the most impoverished of all ethnic groups. According to the 2000 Census, an estimated 400,000 Native Americans reside on reservation land. While some tribes have had success with gaming, only 40% of the 562 federally recognized tribes operate casinos. According to a 2007 survey by the U.S. Small Business Administration, only 1% of Native Americans own and operate a business.
The barriers to economic development on Native American reservations have been identified by Joseph Kalt and Stephen Cornell of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development at Harvard University, in their report: What Can Tribes Do? Strategies and Institutions in American Indian Economic Development (2008), are summarized as follows:
- Lack of access to capital
- Lack of human capital (education, skills, technical expertise) and the means to develop it
- Reservations lack effective planning
- Reservations are poor in natural resources
- Reservations have natural resources but lack sufficient control over them
- Reservations are disadvantaged by their distance from markets and the high costs of transportationTeacher with picture cards giving English instruction to Navajo day school students
- Tribes cannot persuade investors to locate on reservations because of intense competition from non-Native American communities
- The Bureau of Indian Affairs is inept, corrupt or uninterested in reservation development
- Tribal politicians and bureaucrats are inept or corrupt
- On-reservation factionalism destroys stability in tribal decisions
- The instability of tribal government keeps outsiders from investing. The lack of international recognition Native American tribal sovereignty weakens their political-economic legitimacy. (Many tribes adopted constitutions by the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act model, with two-year terms for elected positions of chief and council members deemed too short by the authors for getting things done)
- Entrepreneurial skills and experience are scarce
A major barrier to development is the lack of entrepreneurial knowledge and experience within Indian reservations. “A general lack of education and experience about business is a significant challenge to prospective entrepreneurs”, was the report on Native American entrepreneurship by the Northwest Area Foundation in 2004. “Native American communities that lack entrepreneurial traditions and recent experiences typically do not provide the support that entrepreneurs need to thrive. Consequently, experiential entrepreneurship education needs to be embedded into school curriculum and after-school and other community activities. This would allow students to learn the essential elements of entrepreneurship from a young age and encourage them to apply these elements throughout life”. Rez Biz magazine addresses these issues.
Discourse in Native American economic development
Some scholars argue that the existing theories and practices of economic development are not suitable for Native American communities—given the lifestyle, economic, and cultural differences, as well as the unique history of Native American-U.S. relations. Little economic development research has been conducted on Native American communities. The federal government fails to consider place-based issues of American Indian poverty by generalizing the demographic. In addition, the concept of economic development threatens to upend the multidimensionality of Native American culture. The dominance of federal government involvement in indigenous developmental activities perpetuates and exacerbates the salvage paradigm.
Native land that is owned by individual Native Americans sometimes cannot be developed because of fractionalization. Fractionalization occurs when a landowner dies, and their land is inherited by their children, but not subdivided. This means that one parcel might be owned by 50 different individuals. A majority of those holding interest must agree to any proposal to develop the land, and establishing this consent is time-consuming, cumbersome, and sometimes impossible. Another landownership issue on reservations is checkerboarding, where Tribal land is interspersed with land owned by the federal government on behalf of Natives, individually owned plots, and land owned by non-Native individuals. This prevents Tribal governments from securing plots of land large enough for economic development or agricultural uses. Because reservation land is owned “in trust” by the federal government, individuals living on reservations cannot build equity in their homes. This bars Native Americans from getting loans, as there is nothing that a bank can collect if the loan is not paid. Past efforts to encourage land ownership (such as the Dawes Act) resulted in a net loss of Tribal land. After they were familiarized with their smallholder status, Native American landowners were lifted of trust restrictions and their land would get transferred back to them, contingent on a transactional fee to the federal government. The transfer fee discouraged Native American land ownership, with 65% of tribal-owned land being sold to non-Native Americans by the 1920s. Activists against property rights point to historical evidence of communal ownership of land and resources by tribes. They claim that because of this history, property rights are foreign to Natives and have no place in the modern reservation system. Those in favor of property rights cite examples of tribes negotiating with colonial communities or other tribes about fishing and hunting rights in an area. Land ownership was also a challenge because of the different definitions of land that the Natives and the Europeans had. Most Native American tribes thought of property rights more as “borrowing” the land, while those from Europe thought of land as individual property.
Land ownership and bureaucratic challenges in historical context
State-level efforts such as the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act were attempts to contain tribal land in Native American hands. However, more bureaucratic decisions only expanded the size of the bureaucracy. The knowledge disconnect between the decision-making bureaucracy and Native American stakeholders resulted in ineffective development efforts.
Traditional Native American entrepreneurship does not prioritize profit maximization, rather, business transactions must have align with their social and cultural values. In response to indigenous business philosophy, the federal government created policies that aimed to formalize their business practices, which undermined the Native American status quo. Additionally, legal disputes interfered with tribal land leasing, which were settled with the verdict against tribal sovereignty.
Often, bureaucratic overseers of development are far removed from Native American communities and lack the knowledge and understanding to develop plans or make resource allocation decisions. The top-down heavy involvement in developmental operations corrupts bureaucrats into further self-serving agenda. Such incidences include fabricated reports that exaggerate results.
While Native American urban poverty is attributed to hiring and workplace discrimination in a heterogeneous setting, reservation and trust land poverty rates are endogenous to deserted opportunities in isolated regions.
Historical trauma is described as collective emotional and psychological damage throughout a person’s lifetime and across multiple generations. Examples of historical trauma can be seen through the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, where over 200 unarmed Lakota were killed, and the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887, when American Indians lost four-fifths of their land.
Impacts of intergenerational trauma
American Indian youth have higher rates of substance and alcohol use deaths than the general population. Many American Indians can trace the beginning of their substance and alcohol use to a traumatic event related to their offender’s own substance use. A person’s substance use can be described as a defense mechanism against the user’s emotions and trauma. For American Indians alcoholism is a symptom of trauma passed from generation to generation and influenced by oppressive behaviors and policies by the dominant Euro-American society. Boarding schools were made to “Kill the Indian, Save the man”. Shame among American Indians can be attributed to the hundreds of years of discrimination.
Society, language, and culture
The culture of Pre-Columbian North America is usually defined by the concept of the culture area, namely a geographical region where shared cultural traits occur. The northwest culture area, for example, shared common traits such as salmon fishing, woodworking, and large villages or towns and a hierarchical social structure. Ethnographers generally classify the indigenous peoples of North America into ten cultural areas based on geographical region.
Though cultural features, language, clothing, and customs vary enormously from one tribe to another, there are certain elements which are encountered frequently and shared by many tribes. Early European American scholars described the Native Americans as having a society dominated by clans.
European colonization of the Americas had a major impact on Native American cultures through what is known as the Columbian exchange. The Columbian exchange, also known as the Columbian interchange, was the widespread transfer of plants, animals, culture, human populations, technology, and ideas between the Americas and Eurasia (the Old World) in the 15th and 16th centuries, following Christopher Columbus‘s 1492 voyage. The Columbian exchange generally had a destructive impact on Native American cultures through disease, and a ‘clash of cultures’, whereby European values of private land ownership, the family, and division of labor, led to conflict, appropriation of traditional communal lands and changed how the indigenous tribes practiced slavery. Geronimo, Chiricahua Apache leader. Photograph by Frank A. Rinehart (1898).
The impact of the Columbian exchange was not entirely negative, however. For example, the re-introduction of the horse to North America allowed the Plains Indian to revolutionize their ways of life by making hunting, trading, and warfare far more effective, and to greatly improve their ability to transport possessions and move their settlements.
The Great Plains tribes were still hunting the bison when they first encountered the Europeans. The Spanish reintroduction of the horse to North America in the 17th century and Native Americans’ learning to use them greatly altered the Native Americans’ cultures, including changing the way in which they hunted large game. Horses became such a valuable, central element of Native lives that they were counted as a measure of wealth by many tribes.
In the early years, as Native peoples encountered European explorers and settlers and engaged in trade, they exchanged food, crafts, and furs for blankets, iron and steel implements, horses, trinkets, firearms, and alcoholic beverages.
The Na-Dené, Algic, and Uto-Aztecan families are the largest in terms of the number of languages. Uto-Aztecan has the most speakers (1.95 million) if the languages in Mexico are considered (mostly due to 1.5 million speakers of Nahuatl); Na-Dené comes in second with approximately 200,000 speakers (nearly 180,000 of these are speakers of Navajo), and Algic in third with about 180,000 speakers (mainly Cree and Ojibwe). Na-Dené and Algic have the widest geographic distributions: Algic currently spans from northeastern Canada across much of the continent down to northeastern Mexico (due to later migrations of the Kickapoo) with two outliers in California (Yurok and Wiyot); Na-Dené spans from Alaska and western Canada through Washington, Oregon, and California to the U.S. Southwest and northern Mexico (with one outlier in the Plains). Several families consist of only 2 or 3 languages. Demonstrating genetic relationships has proved difficult due to the great linguistic diversity present in North America. Two large (super-) family proposals, Penutian and Hokan, look particularly promising. However, even after decades of research, a large number of families remain.
A number of words used in English have been derived from Native American languages.
To counteract a shift to English, some Native American tribes have initiated language immersion schools for children, where an Indigenous American language is the medium of instruction. For example, the Cherokee Nation initiated a 10-year language preservation plan that involved raising new fluent speakers of the Cherokee language from childhood on up through school immersion programs as well as a collaborative community effort to continue to use the language at home. This plan was part of an ambitious goal that, in 50 years, will result in 80% or more of the Cherokee people being fluent in the language. The Cherokee Preservation Foundation has invested $3 million in opening schools, training teachers, and developing curricula for language education, as well as initiating community gatherings where the language can be actively used. Formed in 2006, the Kituwah Preservation & Education Program (KPEP) on the Qualla Boundary focuses on language immersion programs for children from birth to fifth grade, developing cultural resources for the general public and community language programs to foster the Cherokee language among adults.
There is also a Cherokee language immersion school in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, that educates students from pre-school through eighth grade. Because Oklahoma’s official language is English, Cherokee immersion students are hindered when taking state-mandated tests because they have little competence in English. The Department of Education of Oklahoma said that in 2012 state tests: 11% of the school’s sixth-graders showed proficiency in math, and 25% showed proficiency in reading; 31% of the seventh-graders showed proficiency in math, and 87% showed proficiency in reading; 50% of the eighth-graders showed proficiency in math, and 78% showed proficiency in reading. The Oklahoma Department of Education listed the charter school as a Targeted Intervention school, meaning the school was identified as a low-performing school but has not so that it was a Priority School. Ultimately, the school made a C, or a 2.33 grade point average on the state’s A-F report card system. The report card shows the school getting an F in mathematics achievement and mathematics growth, a C in social studies achievement, a D in reading achievement, and an A in reading growth and student attendance. “The C we made is tremendous,” said school principal Holly Davis, “[t]here is no English instruction in our school’s younger grades, and we gave them this test in English.” She said she had anticipated the low grade because it was the school’s first year as a state-funded charter school, and many students had difficulty with English. Eighth graders who graduate from the Tahlequah immersion school are fluent speakers of the language, and they usually go on to attend Sequoyah High School where classes are taught in both English and Cherokee.
Gender roles are differentiated in many Native American tribes. Many Natives have retained traditional expectations of sexuality and gender, and continue to do so in contemporary life despite continued and on-going colonial pressures.
Whether a particular tribe is predominantly matrilineal or patrilineal, often both sexes have some degree of decision-making power within the tribe. Many Nations, such as the Haudenosaunee Five Nations and the Southeast Muskogean tribes, have matrilineal or Clan Mother systems, in which property and hereditary leadership are controlled by and passed through the maternal lines. In these Nations, the children are considered to belong to the mother’s clan. In Cherokee culture, women own the family property. When traditional young women marry, their husbands may join them in their mother’s household.
Matrilineal structures enable young women to have assistance in childbirth and rearing and protect them in case of conflicts between the couple. If a couple separates or the man dies, the woman has her family to assist her. In matrilineal cultures the mother’s brothers are usually the leading male figures in her children’s lives; fathers have no standing in their wife and children’s clan, as they still belong to their own mother’s clan. Hereditary clan chief positions pass through the mother’s line and chiefs have historically been selected on the recommendations of women elders, who could also disapprove of a chief.
In the patrilineal tribes, such as the Omaha, Osage, Ponca, and Lakota, hereditary leadership passes through the male line, and children are considered to belong to the father and his clan. In patrilineal tribes, if a woman marries a non-Native, she is no longer considered part of the tribe, and her children are considered to share the ethnicity and culture of their father.
In patriarchal tribes, gender roles tend to be rigid. Men have historically hunted, traded and made war while, as life-givers, women have primary responsibility for the survival and welfare of the families (and future of the tribe). Women usually gather and cultivate plants, use plants and herbs to treat illnesses, care for the young and the elderly, make all the clothing and instruments, and process and cure meat and skins from the game. Some mothers use cradleboards to carry an infant while working or traveling. In matriarchal and egalitarian nations, the gender roles are usually not so clear-cut and are even less so in the modern era.
At least several dozen tribes allowed polygyny to sisters, with procedural and economic limits.
Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota girls are encouraged to learn to ride, hunt and fight. Though fighting in war has mostly been left to the boys and men, occasionally women have fought as well – both in battles and in defense of the home – especially if the tribe was severely threatened.
Interracial relations between Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans is a complex issue that has been mostly neglected with “few in-depth studies on interracial relationships”. Some of the first documented cases of European/Native American intermarriage and contact were recorded in Post-Columbian Mexico. One case is that of Gonzalo Guerrero, a European from Spain, who was shipwrecked along the Yucatan Peninsula, and fathered three Mestizo children with a Mayan noblewoman. Another is the case of Hernán Cortés and his mistress La Malinche, who gave birth to another of the first multi-racial people in the Americas.
European impact was immediate, widespread, and profound already during the early years of colonization and the creation of the countries which currently exist in the Americas. Europeans living among Native Americans were often called “white indians”. They “lived in native communities for years, learned native languages fluently, attended native councils, and often fought alongside their native companions”.
Early contact was often charged with tension and emotion, but also had moments of friendship, cooperation, and intimacy. Marriages took place in English, Spanish, French, and Russian colonies between Native Americans and Europeans though Native American women were also the victims of rape.
There was fear on both sides, as the different peoples realized how different their societies were. Many whites regarded Native people as “savages” because the Native people were not Protestant or Roman Catholic and therefore the Native people were not considered to be human beings. Orthodox Christians never viewed Native people as savages or sub-human. The Native American author, Andrew J. Blackbird, wrote in his History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan (1897), that white settlers introduced some immoralities into Native American tribes. Many Native Americans suffered because the Europeans introduced alcohol. Many Native people do not break down alcohol in the same way as people of Eurasian background. Many Native people were learning what their body could tolerate of this new substance and died as a result of imbibing too much.
The Ottawas and Chippewas were quite virtuous in their primitive state, as there were no illegitimate children reported in our old traditions. But very lately this evil came to exist among the Ottawas-so lately that the second case among the Ottawas of ‘Arbor Croche’ is yet living in 1897. And from that time this evil came to be quite frequent, for immorality has been introduced among these people by evil white persons who bring their vices into the tribes.
The U.S. government had two purposes when making land agreements with Native Americans: to open up more land for white settlement, and to “ease tensions” (in other words assimilate Native people to Eurasian social ways) between whites and Native Americans by forcing the Native Americans to use the land in the same way as did the whites—for subsistence farms. The government used a variety of strategies to achieve these goals; many treaties required Native Americans to become farmers in order to keep their land. Government officials often did not translate the documents which Native Americans were forced to sign, and native chiefs often had little or no idea what they were signing. Charles Eastman was one of the first Native Americans to become certified as a medical doctor, after he graduated from Boston University.
For a Native American man to marry a white woman, he had to get consent of her parents, as long as “he can prove to support her as a white woman in a good home”. In the early 19th century, the Shawnee Tecumseh and blonde hair, blue-eyed Rebbecca Galloway had an interracial affair. In the late 19th century, three European-American middle-class women teachers at Hampton Institute married Native American men whom they had met as students.
As European-American women started working independently at missions and Indian schools in the western states, there were more opportunities for their meeting and developing relationships with Native American men. For instance, Charles Eastman, a man of European and Lakota origin whose father sent both his sons to Dartmouth College, got his medical degree at Boston University and returned to the West to practice. He married Elaine Goodale, whom he met in South Dakota. He was the grandson of Seth Eastman, a military officer from Maine, and a chief’s daughter. Goodale was a young European-American teacher from Massachusetts and a reformer, who was appointed as the U.S. superintendent of Native American education for the reservations in the Dakota Territory. They had six children together.
The majority of Native American tribes did practice some form of slavery before the European introduction of African slavery into North America, but none exploited slave labor on a large scale. Most Native American tribes did not barter captives in the pre-colonial era, although they sometimes exchanged enslaved individuals with other tribes in peace gestures or in exchange for their own members. When Europeans arrived as colonists in North America, Native Americans changed their practice of slavery dramatically. Native Americans began selling war captives to Europeans rather than integrating them into their own societies as they had done before. As the demand for labor in the West Indies grew with the cultivation of sugar cane, Europeans enslaved Native Americans for the Thirteen Colonies, and some were exported to the “sugar islands”. The British settlers, especially those in the southern colonies, purchased or captured Native Americans to use as forced labor in cultivating tobacco, rice, and indigo. Accurate records of the numbers enslaved do not exist because vital statistics and census reports were at best infrequent. Scholars estimate tens to hundreds of thousands of Native Americans may have been enslaved by the Europeans, being sold by Native Americans themselves or Europeans. Slaves became a caste of people who were foreign to the English (Native Americans, Africans and their descendants) and non-Christians. The Virginia General Assembly defined some terms of slavery in 1705:
All servants imported and brought into the Country … who were not Christians in their native Country … shall be accounted and be slaves. All Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves within this dominion … shall be held to be real estate. If any slave resists his master … correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction … the master shall be free of all punishment … as if such accident never happened.— Virginia General Assembly declaration, 1705
The slave trade of Native Americans lasted only until around 1750. It gave rise to a series of devastating wars among the tribes, including the Yamasee War. The Indian Wars of the early 18th century, combined with the increasing importation of African slaves, effectively ended the Native American slave trade by 1750. Colonists found that Native American slaves could easily escape, as they knew the country. The wars cost the lives of numerous colonial slave traders and disrupted their early societies. The remaining Native American groups banded together to face the Europeans from a position of strength. Many surviving Native American peoples of the southeast strengthened their loose coalitions of language groups and joined confederacies such as the Choctaw, the Creek, and the Catawba for protection. Even after the Indian Slave Trade ended in 1750 the enslavement of Native Americans continued in the west, and also in the Southern states mostly through kidnappings. Both Native American and African enslaved women suffered rape and sexual harassment by male slaveholders and other white men.
Native American and African relations
African and Native Americans have interacted for centuries. The earliest record of Native American and African contact occurred in April 1502, when Spanish colonists transported the first Africans to Hispaniola to serve as slaves. Buffalo Soldiers, 1890. The nickname was given to the “Black Cavalry” by the Native American tribes they fought.
Sometimes Native Americans resented the presence of African Americans. The “Catawaba tribe in 1752 showed great anger and bitter resentment when an African American came among them as a trader”. To gain favor with Europeans, the Cherokee exhibited the strongest color prejudice of all Native Americans. Because of European fears of a unified revolt of Native Americans and African Americans, the colonists tried to encourage hostility between the ethnic groups: “Whites sought to convince Native Americans that African Americans worked against their best interests.” In 1751, South Carolina law stated:
The carrying of Negroes among the Indians has all along been thought detrimental, as an intimacy ought to be avoided.
In addition, in 1758 the governor of South Carolina James Glen wrote:
it has always been the policy of this government to create an aversion in them [Indians] to Negroes.
Europeans considered both races inferior and made efforts to make both Native Americans and Africans enemies. Native Americans were rewarded if they returned escaped slaves, and African Americans were rewarded for fighting in the late 19th-century Indian Wars.
“Native Americans, during the transitional period of Africans becoming the primary race enslaved, were enslaved at the same time and shared a common experience of enslavement. They worked together, lived together in communal quarters, produced collective recipes for food, shared herbal remedies, myths and legends, and in the end they intermarried.” Because of a shortage of men due to warfare, many tribes encouraged marriage between the two groups, to create stronger, healthier children from the unions.
In the 18th century, many Native American women married freed or runaway African men due to a decrease in the population of men in Native American villages. Records show that many Native American women bought African men but, unknown to the European sellers, the women freed and married the men into their tribe. When African men married or had children by a Native American woman, their children were born free, because the mother was free (according to the principle of partus sequitur ventrem, which the colonists incorporated into law).
While numerous tribes used captive enemies as servants and slaves, they also often adopted younger captives into their tribes to replace members who had died. In the Southeast, a few Native American tribes began to adopt a slavery system similar to that of the American colonists, buying African American slaves, especially the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Creek. Though less than 3% of Native Americans owned slaves, divisions grew among the Native Americans over slavery. Among the Cherokee, records show that slaveholders in the tribe were largely the children of European men who had shown their children the economics of slavery. As European colonists took slaves into frontier areas, there were more opportunities for relationships between African and Native American peoples.
In the 2010 Census, nearly 3 million people indicated that their race was Native American (including Alaska Native). Of these, more than 27% specifically indicated “Cherokee” as their ethnic origin. Many of the First Families of Virginia claim descent from Pocahontas or some other “Indian princess“. This phenomenon has been dubbed the “Cherokee Syndrome“. Across the US, numerous individuals cultivate an opportunistic ethnic identity as Native American, sometimes through Cherokee heritage groups or Indian Wedding Blessings.
Some tribes (particularly some in the Eastern United States) are primarily made up of individuals with an unambiguous Native American identity, despite having a large number of mixed-race citizens with prominent non-Native ancestry. More than 75% of those enrolled in the Cherokee Nation have less than one-quarter Cherokee blood, and the former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Bill John Baker, is 1/32 Cherokee, amounting to about 3%.
Historically, numerous Native Americans assimilated into colonial and later American society, e.g. through adopting English and converting to Christianity. In many cases, this process occurred through forced assimilation of children sent off to special boarding schools far from their families. Those who could pass for white had the advantage of white privilege. With the enforcement of blood quantum laws, Indian blood could be diluted over generations through interbreeding with non-Native populations, as well as intermarrying with tribes that were not recognized by the United States government. “Kill the Indian, save the man” was a mantra of nineteenth-century U.S. assimilation policies.
Native Americans are more likely than any other racial group to practice interracial marriage, resulting in an ever-declining proportion of indigenous blood among those who claim a Native American identity. Some tribes will even resort to disenrollment of tribal members unable to provide scientific “proof” of Native ancestry, usually through a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood. Disenrollment has become a contentious issue in Native American reservation politics.
Since the 2000 United States Census, people may identify as being of more than one race. Since the 1960s, the number of people claiming Native American ancestry has grown significantly and, by the 2000 census, the number had more than doubled. Sociologists attribute this dramatic change to “ethnic shifting” or “ethnic shopping”; they believe that it reflects a willingness of people to question their birth identities and adopt new ethnicities which they find more compatible.
The author Jack Hitt writes:
The reaction from lifelong Indians runs the gamut. It is easy to find Native Americans who denounce many of these new Indians as members of the wannabe tribe. But it is also easy to find Indians like Clem Iron Wing, an elder among the Lakota, who sees this flood of new ethnic claims as magnificent, a surge of Indians ‘trying to come home.’ Those Indians who ridicule Iron Wing’s lax sense of tribal membership have retrofitted the old genocidal system of blood quantum—measuring racial purity by blood—into the new standard for real Indianness, a choice rich with paradox.
The journalist Mary Annette Pember notes that identifying with Native American culture may be a result of a person’s increased interest in genealogy, the romanticization of the lifestyle, and a family tradition of Native American ancestors in the distant past. There are different issues if a person wants to pursue enrollment as a member of a tribe. Different tribes have different requirements for tribal membership; in some cases persons are reluctant to enroll, seeing it as a method of control initiated by the federal government; and there are individuals who are 100% Native American but, because of their mixed tribal heritage, do not qualify to belong to any individual tribe. Pember concludes:
The subjects of genuine American Indian blood, cultural connection and recognition by the community are extremely contentious issues, hotly debated throughout Indian country and beyond. The whole situation, some say, is ripe for misinterpretation, confusion and, ultimately, exploitation.
The United States Government’s Relationship with Native Americans
The history of relations between Native Americans and the federal government of the United States has been fraught. To many Native Americans, the history of European settlement has been a history of wary welcoming, followed by opposition, defeat, near-extinction, and, now, a renaissance. To Europeans and Americans, it has included everything from treatment of Native American nations as equals (or near-equals) to assimilation to exile to near-genocide, often simultaneously.
Late 18th Century
Many Native American tribes allied with the British during the Revolutionary War. However, the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war, was silent on the fates of these British allies. The new United States government was thus free to acquire Native American lands by treaty or force. Resistance from the tribes stopped the encroachment of settlers, at least for a while.
After the Revolutionary War, the United States maintained the British policy of treaty-making with the Native American tribes. In general, the treaties were to define the boundaries of Native American lands and to compensate for the taking of lands. Often, however, the treaties were not ratified by the Senate, and thus were not necessarily deemed enforceable by the U.S. government, leaving issues unresolved.
On occasion, the representatives of Native American tribes who signed the treaties were not necessarily authorized under tribal law to do so. For example, William McIntosh, chief of the Muskogee-Creek Nation, was assassinated for signing the Treaty of Indian Springs in violation of Creek law.
Treaty-making as a whole ended in 1871, when Congress ceased to recognize the tribes as entities capable of making treaties. The value of the treaties also came to be called into question when the Supreme Court decided, in 1903, Congress had full power over Native American affairs, and could override treaties. Many of the treaties made before then, however, remained in force at least to some extent, and the Supreme Court was occasionally asked to interpret them.
One notable treaty with ongoing repercussions is the Treaty of Ft. Laramie of 1868. Under that treaty, the United States pledged, among other things, that the Great Sioux [Lakota] Reservation, including the Black Hills, would be “set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation” of the Lakota Nation.
Although neither side fully complied with the treaty’s terms, with the discovery of gold in the area, the United States sought to buy back the Black Hills. The Lakota rejected the offer, resulting in the Black Hills War (1876-1877), which included Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn (June 25-26, 1876).
Finally, in 1877, Congress went back on the original treaty and passed an act reclaiming the Black Hills. In 1923, the Lakota sued. Sixty years later, the Supreme Court determined the annulment was a “taking” under the Fifth Amendment and that the tribe was owed “just compensation” plus interest starting from 1877. The tribe has refused to accept payment, however, and is still seeking return of the land. As of 2018, the amount due appears to be around $1 billion.
Removal and Resettlement
Although conflicts were fought in the Northwest Territories (Tecumseh and the Battle of Tippecanoe) and the Southeast (Creek War and the Seminole Wars), the major policy toward the North American tribes in the early part of the nineteenth century was removal and resettlement.
The Removal Act of 1830 authorized President Andrew Jackson to negotiate for the removal and resettlement of Native American tribes. A primary target was the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. Although the removal and resettlement was supposed to be voluntary, ultimately, this resulted in the series of forcible removals known as the Trail of Tears.
Allotment and Assimilation
For most of the middle part of the nineteenth century, the U.S. government pursued a policy known as “allotment and assimilation.” Pursuant to treaties that were often forced upon tribes, common reservation land was allotted to individual families. The General Allotment (Dawes) Act of 1887 made this more general, which resulted in the loss of much reservation land.
A new approach was undertaken during the New Deal with the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which ended allotment, banned further sale of Native American land, and returned some lands to the tribes.
After World War II, however, proposals arose in favor of assimilation, termination of tribes, and an end to reservations. A number of reservations, such as the Menominee in Wisconsin and the Klamath in Oregon, had their reservations terminated.
The influence of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s led to the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975, which restored some sovereignty to tribal governments and gave them a certain independence in handling federal funds and operating federal programs.
The status of the Native American tribes with respect to the states is complicated. In general, today’s Native American groups are sovereign within their territory with respect to tribal members, but lack authority over nontribal members.
However, the Supreme Court did determine in 1987 that states cannot regulate Native American gaming enterprises. This resulted in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, which provided the framework that governs Indian casinos.
Native Americans Want to be Included in Race Talks
GREAT FALLS, MONTANA – As protesters demand justice for George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis, many Native Americans in Montana are showing solidarity for black Americans.
Floyd, 46, died after pleading for his life as a white police officer pressed his knee into his neck. The incident sparked outrage, and protesters flooded cities worldwide, including Great Falls, Helena, Bozeman, Missoula and Billings, calling for justice and an end to systemic racism.
Resulting anger and frustration are compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, which illuminates inequity, as it disproportionately ravages minority communities.
A May report from the APM Research Lab found that the COVID-19 mortality rate for black Americans is 2.4 times higher than for white Americans. While the report acknowledged “limited and uneven data” regarding Indigenous populations, it stated that in New Mexico, which contains portions of the Navajo Nation, the Indigenous mortality rate is eight times as high as the white mortality rate.
Rep. Barbara Bessette (D-Great Falls), a Chippewa Cree tribal member, said, like coronavirus, she views systemic racism as a public health crisis.
“Minority communities have high health disparities, economic injustice and inadequate housing. This isn’t about just one incident but a myriad of things. What’s happening now is symptomatic of a much deeper ‘disease,'” she told the Great Falls Tribune.
As Floyd’s death sparks an anti-racism movement, some Native Americans wonder if they will be included in conversations of injustice and change.
Indian Education for All Instructional Coach Jordann Lankford said that while the growing movement provides an opportunity to discuss inequity, she is disappointed that other minorities have been excluded from the dialogue.
“I fear people in Montana will see these things and see the riots and think, ‘Well, that really doesn’t affect Montana because we don’t have a big black population here.’ But it’s not just a black and white issue — racial inequity affects all minority groups, and it needs to be an open dialogue, including everyone,” she said.
Craig Falcon, a Blackfeet tribal member who is running for council in Seville District No. 7, said that when it comes to conversations about racism, American Indians are often treated “like the forgotten stepchild of the family that no one likes.”
“The African American population often gets the spotlight on racism, but our struggle is very similar,” Falcon said. “We also deal with racism on a daily basis, so this touches home for us, too. Native Americans are often dehumanized and portrayed as savages. It seems like we get forgotten because America is ashamed, or embarrassed about its treatment of us.”
But, Ben Pease, an artist who, through his work, challenges cultural appropriation and confronts Indigenous stereotypes, said including Native voices in anti-racist movements “happens at a different trajectory and velocity.”
“This country is quite literally founded on stolen lands and the conquering of many peoples, thousands of tribes. But we have a small population; we don’t have a large representation in media. As individuals and culturally, we are not as vocal. We haven’t had a Dr. (Martin Luther) King or a Dr. Cornel West. We’ve had other scholars, activists and educators, but our voice is much smaller,” he said.
Lance Morris, 62, a member of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes and local activist, said unrest is a familiar story in America.
He remembers the ransacking of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building, the burning of a courthouse in South Dakota and protests at Wounded Knee in the 1970s. He also attended Stewart Indian School, which, along with other boarding schools in the country, punished students for embracing their cultural identity.
It’s hard for Morris to reconcile new anti-racist movements with past injustices. He often wonders where the protesters were when he was fighting for equality.
“We’ve had the Indian Removal Act, Trail of Tears, ethnic cleansing and genocide. This man didn’t deserve to die, and it’s very tragic, but where were these people when we needed them to stand?” he said. “Indigenous women, men and children go missing and are murdered every day … where’s the outrage for them? Where’s the outrage for the generational trauma that people are still dealing with on reservations? We’re still being forgotten.”
Lankford works with Indigenous youth and often talks with them about how to effectively incite change.
She said she encourages students to confront, rather than confirm, stereotypes and worries that when people see riots and the destruction of property, it will be harder to have conversations about race.
“Absolutely, people should stand for what they believe in. We have the right to protest, but we have a moral responsibility to uphold, and there’s a line between protesting and anarchy,” she said. “I don’t want to teach children that this is how you get your way. I’m trying to teach kids how to rationally look at situations and make room for dialogue. Reacting violently is not going to allow people to listen to you.”
Artist Ben Pease disagrees.
“Personally, I think, how loud do you have to be to be heard? How many times do you have to die? How many African Americans have to die at the hands of the police for there to be systemic change? Rioting does work. Looting does work. Protesting does work,” he said. “People are speaking up, and if no one is listening, it takes yelling.”
While feelings of anger, frustration and exhaustion reverberate nationwide, many see the growing movement as a sign of hope.
Lankford likened the new movement to the #MeToo movement, which supports survivors of sexual violence.
“With the #MeToo movement, we saw a trickle-down effect that made a lot of room for conversation about missing and murdered Indigenous women. Even though the issue has been around for more than 500 years, that movement allowed Indigenous voices to be heard. It’s unfortunate that it takes a catastrophe for us to have an opening to talk about these things, but I hope the dialogue will stay open,” she said.
Falcon said he is proud of Montanans for speaking up.
“We don’t want these atrocities to happen to any person of any color, and it seems that people are finally fed up with racism,” he said.
Pease wrestles with his emotions on the topic but ultimately takes solace in local activism.
“This country was built to say that yes, white people are more valuable,” he said. “So, how am I supposed to feel? I’m angry, disappointed, scared and unsure of the future for myself, my children and their children. But there is hope. I am seeing a lot of beautiful things in our state of Montana, and I’m seeing people protest peacefully and race boundaries begin to dissolve.”
Rep. Bessette offered advice for Montanans who want to support the movement:
“Speak up if you see injustices, be a known ally for those who are disproportionately represented in these situations and, no matter what, vote.”
Discrimination in the United States: Experiences of Native Americans
Native Americans have experienced worse health outcomes than whites since Europeans first arrived in the Americas more than 500 years ago.1 Centuries of massive trauma, genocide, forced migration, segregation, and discrimination have been important causes of Native Americans‐white health disparities, as well as poor health outcomes for generations of Native Americans.1–4 However, because of sampling difficulties, Native Americans’ modern experiences of discrimination and harassment remain understudied in health services research. In order to build evidence for appropriate policies and programs that address these problems and improve related health outcomes, it is critical to examine and document present‐day experiences of discrimination of Native Americans across a broad spectrum of life domains.
Previous research suggests that these experiences have had massive and cumulative effects on the physical, emotional, and psychological health of Native American individuals and communities.1–4 Research also shows that experiences of discrimination and harassment (including disproportionate exposures to trauma and recurrent microaggressions) have severe negative consequences for Native Americans’ health behaviors and related outcomes.1–12 Major issues experienced by Native Americans include high mortality rates, poor health, low‐quality health care, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and sexual violence.5, 13
Prior research indicates that for some US minorities, socioeconomic status, geographic variation, and neighborhood conditions may moderate the relationships between race, discrimination, and health. For example, discrimination research suggests that for blacks and Latinos, higher income and education levels are associated with greater reported discrimination.14, 15 However, it has not been thoroughly investigated whether these patterns would extend to Native Americans. Research also suggests that residential segregation impacts discriminatory experiences, with major consequences for racial/ethnic minorities’ health, social mobility, and quality of life.16–20
Increasing evidence about the health risks associated with experiencing discrimination suggests an updated examination of minority groups is warranted, to complement ongoing national policy work on these issues.20–24 In particular, more research is needed among populations hard to reach in telephone polling, including Native Americans.25 Therefore, this study had three purposes: (a) to document the prevalence of racial discrimination against Native American adults across institutional domains (health care, education, employment, housing, political participation, police, and the criminal justice system), as well as interpersonal experiences that affect health outcomes, including slurs, microaggressions, harassment, and violence; (b) to document disparities in experiences by comparing Native Americans to whites; and (c) to conduct exploratory analyses examining the variation in Native American adults’ experiences with discrimination by socioeconomic status and geographic/neighborhood characteristics.
This study brings a public health perspective to the complexity and pervasiveness of discrimination in the United States today, alongside complementary articles in this issue of Health Services Research. It was conducted as part of a larger nationally representative survey fielded in 2017 in response to a growing national debate about discrimination in the United States today,22, 26 to understand experiences of discrimination against several different groups in America, including blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, women, and LGBTQ people.
2.1 Study design and sample
Data were obtained from an original, nationally representative, probability‐based telephone (cell and landline) survey of US adults, conducted from January 26 to April 9, 2017. The survey was jointly designed by Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and National Public Radio. SSRS administered the survey. Because Harvard researchers were not directly involved in data collection and de‐identified datasets were used for analysis, the study was determined to be “not human subjects research” by the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health Office of Human Research Administration.
The full sample included 3453 US adults aged 18 years and older, and this paper examines the subsample of 342 Native Americans and 902 non‐Hispanic whites. Potential respondents were told the surveyor was calling on behalf of the Harvard School of Public Health and National Public Radio, and the purpose of the survey was to conduct “research about some interesting issues in America today.” Screening questions regarding racial identities were asked at the beginning of the survey, and all questions about racial/ethnic identity were based on respondents’ self‐identification. If respondents identified as multiracial, interviewers asked which race they identified with most. Respondents were asked if they identified as American Indian or Alaska Native, following the language used by the US Census, and volunteered responses of “Native American” are also allowed. In all follow‐up questions for Native American respondents, question wording used the term “Native American,” following language most commonly used. This method of screening also allowed interviewers to use the appropriate language in survey questions to describe or refer to the respondent’s own identity. For example, this allowed questions to be read as “Did you experience [form of discrimination] because you are [‘Native American’]?” rather than “because of your race or ethnicity?”
The completion rate for this survey was 74 percent among respondents who answered initial demographic screening questions, with a 10 percent overall response rate, calculated based on the American Association for Public Opinion Research’s (AAPOR) RR3 formula.27 Because data from this study were drawn from a probability sample and used the best available sampling and weighting practices in polling methods (eg, 68 percent of interviews were conducted by cell phone, and 32 percent were conducted via landline), they are expected to provide accurate results consistent with surveys with higher response rates28, 29 and are therefore reliably generalizable to the broader populations of white and Native American adults, within a margin of error of ±4.7 percentage points (whites) ±8.0 percentage points (Native Americans) at the 95 percent confidence interval. See Benson, Ben‐Porath, and Casey (2019) for a further description of the survey methodology.30
2.2 Survey instrument
The poll asked about adults’ experiences of racial discrimination. We conceptualized racial discrimination as differential or unfair treatment of individuals based on self‐identified race, whether by individuals (based on beliefs, words, and behavior) or social institutions (based on laws, policies, institutions, and related behavior of individuals who work in or control these laws, policies, or institution).15, 21, 31 We analyzed 18 questions from the survey, covering six institutional and six interpersonal areas of discrimination (question wording in Appendix S1). Institutional areas included were health care, employment, education, housing, political participation, and police and courts. Interpersonal areas included were racial slurs, microaggressions, racial fear, sexual harassment, being threatened or nonsexually harassed, and violence. We also explored two areas in which concerns about discrimination might prevent adults from taking needed action: seeking health services and protection from the police.
Questions were only asked among a random half sample of respondents to maximize the number of questions while limiting respondent burden. Questions were only asked of relevant subgroups (eg, college questions only asked among adults who had ever applied to college). Questions on harassment, violence, and avoiding institutions for fear of discrimination were asked about whether they had been experienced by either respondents or their family members because of the sensitive nature of the topic. Prior literature has demonstrated the validity of asking questions this way to measure experiences on sensitive topics, as vicarious experiences of stress (eg, through discrimination or harassment experienced by family members) can adversely affect the health of individuals reporting it, even without respondents directly experiencing it themselves.32
2.3 Statistical analyses
After calculating descriptive statistics, we calculated the prevalence of all Native Americans and whites who reported that they had ever experienced racial discrimination in each of the domains. Using pairwise t tests of differences in proportions, we made uncontrolled comparisons of the percentage of Native American and white adults reporting discrimination across domains. For all analyses, statistical significance was determined at P < .05.
We then conducted logistic regression models to assess whether reporting discrimination remained significantly associated with race (reference group: whites) after controlling for the following variables that are related to variation in experiences of discrimination: gender, age (18‐49, 50+), household income (<$25 000, $25 000+), education (less than college degree or college graduate), neighborhood racial composition (whether or not respondents live in a neighborhood they describe as predominantly their own race), metropolitan status (urban, suburban, rural [outside metropolitan statistical areas]), and region (US Census Bureau 4‐region division: Midwest, Northeast, South, West).
Finally, we estimated logistic regression models as exploratory analyses among Native Americans only, to give further consideration as to whether socioeconomic status, neighborhood racial composition, residence on a reservation or tribal lands, or metropolitan status (rural or nonrural) are associated with experiences of institutional discrimination among Native American adults. We examined variation in institutional discrimination by socioeconomic status (income: <$25 000 or $25 000+; education: less than college degree or college graduate) and neighborhood racial composition (living in a predominantly Native American neighborhood or not), while controlling for gender and age (18‐49 or 50+). To test characteristics associated with experiencing greater amounts of discrimination across domains, we ran an ordinal logistic regression model reported in Table 3 to estimate factors associated with experiencing between 0 and 7 institutional types of discrimination among Native American adults only (questions were asked among only a half sample of respondents for each type of institutional discrimination). Logistic regression models were estimated using complete case analysis.
We tested the sensitivity of our results to several model specifications. First, we tested an alternate measure of neighborhood racial composition: whether respondents reported living on tribal lands such as a reservation, pueblo, or Alaska Native village (“yes” n = 109). Second, we tested an alternate measure of geography: whether respondents reported living in rural (n = 172) or nonrural (urban or suburban, n = 131) areas. We ultimately used living in a predominantly Native American neighborhood as the measure of neighborhood racial composition in final models, as it has been associated with worse health outcomes19, 33 and is more inclusive of Native American adults living off, but near, reservations and other tribal areas.
To compensate for known biases in telephone surveys (eg, nonresponse bias) and variations in probability of selection within and across households, sample data were weighted by household size and composition, cell phone/landline use, and demographics (gender, age, race/ethnicity, and Census region) to reflect the true population distribution of Native American and white adults in the country. According to the 2017 American Community Survey (ACS), Native American populations on average have slightly less phone access (95 percent) than the general population (97 percent). However, since access is still above 90 percent, we do not expect this slight difference to introduce any sample bias. ACS estimates were derived from data downloaded from the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS).34 Other techniques, including random‐digit dialing, replicate subsamples, and random selection of a respondent within a household, were used to ensure that the sample is representative. All analyses were conducted using STATA version 15.0 (StataCorp), and all tests accounted for the variance introduced by weighted data.
Four key findings emerged from this survey of Native American adults. First, our results clearly demonstrate that Native Americans experience pervasive patterns of discrimination across many areas of life in the United States, particularly when it comes to health care, employment, interactions with the police and courts, and interpersonal areas including violence, harassment, microaggressions, and racial slurs.
Second, in the context of health care specifically, we found that almost one in six Native Americans reported avoiding health care for themselves or family members due to anticipated discrimination or unfair treatment. Prior research shows that Native Americans commonly report discrimination in health care visits, associate Western health care practices with other abuses by the US government, and deem such heath care as not culturally safe.6, 35 Our findings, coupled with prior research, demonstrate a need to improve accessible, affordable, and culturally appropriate care at both the institutional (eg, those serving Native American populations) and clinical levels (eg, by clinicians).
Third, Native Americans have significantly higher odds of reporting racial discrimination than whites in most areas, even after adjusting for major sociodemographic differences between the two groups. These significant differences in discrimination may amplify health disparities between Native Americans and whites.1–4
Fourth, geographic/neighborhood measures indicated variation in discriminatory experiences. Native Americans who reported living in predominantly Native American areas had higher odds of reporting greater institutional discrimination overall, compared to those living in areas that were not predominantly Native American. This is generally consistent with related research showing that as the size of a racial/ethnic minority population increases, white attitudes become more biased against them—though importantly, results may vary by minority group and geographic characteristics.36–38 There may also be unmeasured geographic characteristics associated with living in self‐reported predominantly Native American neighborhoods that account for this relationship. Little research has examined discrimination among Native Americans and alternate measures of geography—whether living on tribal lands, or in rural areas—and our models showed no association with higher odds of reporting overall discrimination. For discrimination specifically by the court system, all three geographic measures found the same pattern: Whether by self‐reported rurality, living in a predominantly Native American area, or living on tribal lands, Native Americans in those areas had consistently higher odds of reporting unfair treatment by the courts (compared to, respectively, Native Americans in nonrural areas, not in predominantly Native areas, or off tribal lands). Due to our sample size, this study was limited in our ability to examine more nuanced patterns in experiences of discrimination along neighborhood and geographic lines, but future research should explore potentially important differences in Native Americans’ experiences by geographic location, cultural identity, tribal affiliation, and residential segregation.16–19, 33
Regardless of geographic or neighborhood living situation, Native American adults reported experiencing high levels of discrimination in many areas of life, and our estimates are consistent with nonrepresentative samples that also find discrimination and bias against Native American people in their interactions with the police and the courts.39, 40 This may be due in part to the complex criminal jurisdiction in Indian Country and also racial tension between Native and non‐Native communities, including suspicion of law enforcement, perceived prejudice, and cultural conflicts between Native American and Western values.39–41 This study found that more than one in five Native Americans reported avoiding interactions with the legal system because they fear unfair treatment, further perpetuating distrust and increasing racial disparities in interactions with law enforcement.
High levels of reported violence and harassment are also troubling, particularly given that such experiences are typically underreported in surveys,42 so the true rate is likely higher. These findings support other research documenting high rates of ongoing sexual assault and violence against Native American people, and Native American women in particular.5, 13 Results are also consistent with other research findings that Native Americans are frequently subject to recurrent microaggressions and racial slurs through antiquated and demeaning representations and stereotypes, including in sports mascots and media depictions.4, 7, 8 In addition to addressing more overt forms of discrimination, future programmatic and policy efforts should address these subtler, but still harmful forms of discrimination that threaten Native American identities.
Importantly, we found little variation in experiences of discrimination among Native American adults by socioeconomic status and gender, suggesting that having a higher income and earning a college degree are not protective against discrimination for Native Americans in most areas of life.
While it is beyond the scope of these results to recommend specific approaches to ending discrimination, because discrimination continues to affect such a significant share of the Native American population, health service researchers should continue to examine Native Americans’ unique experiences of discrimination because of their long‐term impacts on patients’ overall health and well‐being. Native Americans’ problems with discrimination extend beyond health care, and future laws, policies, services, and research should identify, implement, and rigorously evaluate interventions to identify and end discrimination against Native Americans, as well as study‐related health and health care outcomes.
Taken together with other research documenting the failure of both federal policies and agencies to address the needs of Native nations,23, 24 this literature suggests that in addition to equalizing access to economic, medical, and social resources for Native Americans, specific antidiscriminatory efforts are necessary in future policies to improve health, including positive portrayals of contemporary Native Americans to change biased cultural ideas.8 Policies and programs that give Native nations better resources to address harassment and violence may also improve health for some, including the ability to exercise Special Domestic Violence Criminal Jurisdiction over non‐Indians under the Violence Against Women Act of 2013.8, 43
The results of this study should be interpreted while considering the following limitations. Due to the cross‐sectional design of this study, we cannot determine the causality, timing, or severity of experiences of discrimination. Our low response rate is a notable limitation, though evidence suggests that low response rates do not bias results if the survey sample is representative of the study population.28, 29 Recent research has shown that such surveys, when based on probability samples and weighted using US Census parameters, yield accurate estimates in most cases when compared with both objective measures and higher response surveys.28, 29, 44, 45 For instance, a recent study showed that across fourteen different demographic and personal characteristics, the average difference between government estimates from high‐response rate surveys and a Pew Research Center poll with a response rate similar to this poll was 3 percentage points.28 However, it is still possible that some selection bias may remain that is related to the experiences being measured. This survey also did not distinguish between the heterogeneous experiences of different Native Americans, who are culturally diverse by language, heritage and traditions, geographic location, and tribal affiliation. The sample size also limited our ability to estimate complex models and to test geographic and neighborhood differences. Large confidence intervals in some logistic regression models (eg, health care avoidance) should be cautiously interpreted, as they may indicate low precision in estimates. In addition, because we specifically asked about racial discrimination, and because many forms of discrimination (including sexual harassment and violence) are often underreported, the “true” rate of Native Americans’ experiences with discrimination is likely higher than our estimates. For example, in this issue SteelFisher et al46 explore the high rates of gender discrimination experienced among Native women. Given this, our findings may subject to underreporting and thus may be considered a lower bound estimate of discrimination and harassment against Native Americans in the United States today. Despite these limitations, our results highlight the extent of discrimination currently experienced by Native Americans across public policies and interpersonally.
Our findings document widespread, high levels of discrimination personally experienced by Native Americans today across many areas of life, regardless of geographic or neighborhood context. Alongside other research on the failure of federal policies and agencies to address the needs of Native communities, these results suggest discrimination against Native Americans is still a pervasive, systemic, and untreated problem in the United States. In policies, services, and research, future work should explicitly seek to end discrimination, as it affects a significant share of the Native American population.
Invisibility is the Modern Form of Racism Against Native Americans
A new study published in July found two-thirds of Americans don’t believe Native people experience significant racial discrimination. Yet rather than living in a country where discrimination has lessened and or access to resources and rights has been improved, Native Americans live in a country that consistently pretends like they do not exist.
Today, Native Americans are more likely to be killed by police than people of any other race. Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than any other ethnic group, and 97% have experienced violence perpetrated by at least one non-Native person. Native youth not only have the lowest graduation rates of any racial group, but they are also dying by suicide at the highest rate of any demographic in the United States. These same teens are twice as likely to be disciplined than their white peers in school and are twice as likely to be incarcerated for minor crimes than teens of any other race.
How could a group that faces the highest rates of these indications of systemic racism be perceived by the public as immune from it?
Peyton Boyd is a 15-year-old sophomore at Muskogee High School and a member of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. She remembers her teachers showing videos about diversity where “all the races of the world came together and held hands.” But one race was always missing. “I’ve never seen a Native person in one of those videos. I’ve never seen Native people in media at all,” she tells Teen Vogue.
New research from Reclaiming Native Truth confirms the pervasive invisibility that Native Americans, like Boyd, have been living with for years. In the first comprehensive national public-opinion study about how non-Natives perceive Native Americans, researchers conducted 28 focus groups in 11 states, surveyed 13,306 people online, and analyzed 4.9 million social media posts.
To illustrate this reality, can you name a famous Native American actor? A famous Native politician who is alive today? Can you name five Native Americans, famous for anything, who were born after 1950? Do you know what the Carlisle Indian Industrial School was, or the history of Indian boarding schools in the U.S.? Do you personally know anyone who is Native American?
If you answered no to most of these questions, it’s not your fault. Maybe you can’t name a Native actor because of the 2,336 characters on 345 of the most popular television shows that aired between 1987 and 2007, only three were Native American. Most Americans have never heard of Carlisle because even though this country operated over 400 Indian boarding schools, only four states teach this history. Media depiction of contemporary Native Americans is so rare that, according to a 2015 report, 95 of the first 100 Google image search results for “Native American” are historical representations. Sixty-two percent of non-Native Americans report not knowing a single one of the over 5 million Native people in the U.S., 70% of whom live in urban areas.
The prevailing ignorance about Native people does not stem from individual failings but rather from the systemic erasure of Native people from K-12 education, mainstream news, and pop culture. Researchers found that this lack of visibility directly undermines public support for Native rights. Respondents who didn’t know about contemporary oppression were less willing to support a broad range of social justice issues, including treaty rights and eliminating racist sports mascots. As one participant put it, “I feel like Native Americans do not experience a great deal of discrimination mainly because I don’t hear about it in the news.”
Invisibility is the modern form of racism against Native people. We are taught that racism occurs when a group of people is seen as different, as other. We are not taught that racism occurs when a group of people is not seen at all. Yet the research shows that the lack of exposure to realistic, contemporary, and humanizing portrayals of Native people creates a deep and stubborn unconscious bias in the non-Native mind. Rooted in this unconscious bias is the idea that Native people are not real or even human.
“They think that we really aren’t people, in a way. I don’t know how to explain it,” Boyd says, struggling to describe interactions with her peers. “It really hurts when I realize everyone assumes that I’m not Native. And when I tell them that I am — I’ll even tell them my tribes — they still try and justify in their minds that I’m not.”
The cruel irony is that Native people survived removal, forced assimilation, and attempted genocide only to be told that they didn’t. Only to live in a country that pretends they no longer exist.
Today in the United States there are 573 federally recognized tribes and over 5 million living, breathing Native people. Despite systemic erasure, “We are still here. We are resilient. We are beautiful. We are modern. We are contributing incredible things,” Crystal Echo Hawk (Pawnee), co-project lead of the group responsible for the report, tells Teen Vogue. Echo Hawk believes non-Native people need to “demand more and learn more” accurate information about contemporary Native people.
Native Americans Are An Underrepresented Racial Minority
In conversations about race relations in America, the risks faced by African Americans often take center stage. Sometimes, the loud voices of groups like Black Lives Matter can drown out the perspectives of smaller minority groups, including Native Americans. Stephanie Fryberg, associate professor of psychology and American Indian studies at the University of Washington, told NPR:
“Native people are generally omitted from discussions of discrimination. . . We have been rendered invisible in so many domains. . . the perception is that we’ve vanished or there is the negative stereotype that we are helpless, dependents or wards of the government. That is just not my experience.”
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s racial discrimination poll makes an exception to that invisibility. In breaking down the statistics by racial minority, the poll, and a series of articles explaining the data, gave voice to a variety of racial groups, including Native Americans. The study included 342 adult Native Americans, asking questions about everything from police interaction and housing to workplace discrimination. It evaluated discrimination on the societal and community level, and asked people about their personal experiences, shedding light on the frequency of Native American racial discrimination.
1/3 of Native Americans Report Workplace Discrimination
Native American’s relative rarity (as compared to other racial minorities) doesn’t stop them from being the target of workplace harassment and discrimination. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s poll, one third of all workers surveyed in the category report having personally experienced Native American racial discrimination when it came to pay or promotions. Over 30% said they had experienced discrimination when applying for jobs. More broadly, 39% of Native Americans surveyed reported personally experiencing offensive comments, racial slurs, and negative assumptions about their race.
Native American Issues Today | Current Problems & Struggles
Contemporary Native Americans face many challenges today. If you watch the news you’ll see headlines about mascots, celebrities wearing headdresses, and pipelines. While these are important issues, there are other problems facing Native communities that are more significant.
These challenges are experienced socially, economically, culturally and on many other fronts, and include but aren’t limited to:
- Impoverishment and Unemployment
- Violence against Women and Children
- Native Americans are Less Educated
- Poor Quality Housing
- Inadequate Health Care
- Unable to Exercise Voting Rights
- Native Language is Becoming Extinct
- Limited Financial Institutions in the Native Communities
- Natural Resources Exploitation
567 tribes that are recognized by the federal government see these issues. The Native Americans, a diverse race of people, are subjected to racial abuse, societal discrimination, wrong depiction in arts mental, spiritual and physical violence and others.
These historical and social hurdles have resulted in many Native Americans becoming alcoholics and suicide potentials. In this post, we will be looking at the various problems that the present Native American has to grapple with.
About 22% of our country’s 5.2 million Native Americans live on tribal lands (2010 U.S. Census). Living conditions on the reservations have been cited as “comparable to Third World,” (May 5 2004, Gallup Independent). It is impossible to succinctly describe the many factors that have contributed to the challenges that Native America faces today, but the following facts about the most pressing issues of economics, health, and housing give a hint of what life is like for many first Americans.
This is by no means a definitive or comprehensive list of issues and challenges!
Impoverishment and Unemployment
The Native American population is grappling with poverty and joblessness even with casinos. Ever since the recovery from the Great Depression the Native American society has been left out of economic prosperity. According to U.S Census Bureau Data, 27% of all Native Americans live in poverty.
In the Blackfoot Reservation in Montana, the unemployment rate is 69% as of 2014. In 2012, the Sioux reservations in the North and South Dakota constituted three of the five poorest counties in the USA.
Typically, Tribal and Federal governments are the largest employers on the reservations. Many households are overcrowded and earn only social security, disability or veteran’s income. The scarcity of jobs and lack of economic opportunity mean that, depending on the reservation, four to eight out of ten adults on reservations are unemployed. Among American Indians who are employed, many are earning below poverty wages (2005 BIA American Indian Population & Labor Force Report).
The overall percentage of American Indians living below the federal poverty line is 28.2% (2008, American Indians Census Facts). The disparity for American Indians living below poverty on the reservations is even greater, reaching 38% to 63% in our service area (2006, National Center for Education Statistics, and other sources).
Often, heads of household are forced to leave the reservation to seek work, and grandparents take on the role of raising their grandchildren. In order to survive, extended families pool their meager resources as a way to meet basic needs. The relative poverty still experienced by these blended families is best understood as the gap between the overall need and the need that goes unmet.
Violence against Women and Children
About 46% of all Native American women have experienced some sort of physical abuse including rape, stalking or dating or domestic violence. It is also envisaged that one in three Indian women will experience physical trauma at some point in their life. On some reservations, Native American women are murdered at a rate, 10 times more than the nation’s average. Report from the Department of Justice in 1990 states 80% of the physical abuses and rape experienced by Native American women are perpetrated by non-native Americans.
Nevertheless, efforts have been made to prosecute non-Native men that subject Native American women to dating violence, domestic violence or rape on Indian reservations.
Many people are working to raise awareness of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW).
Native Americans are Less Educated
The Native Americans represent less than 1% of the students’ population in the U.S. Since 2008, the graduation rates of the Alaska Native and American Indian has been dropping. The Native Americans dropout rate is twice the nation’s average and is more than any other U.S racial or ethnic group.
This high dropout rate can be attributed to how they are treated in school or their academic needs not being met. For some Native Americans, their dropout can be linked to the structural deterioration and poor equipping of schools due to insufficient funding from the federal government.
Poor Quality Housing
Due to the high poverty rate among the Native Americans, many of them live in overcrowded and poor conditioned houses on Indian reservations. There are over 90,000 under-housed or homeless American Indians. The living conditions of some Native Americans have also been compared to those in third world countries.
In addition, many American Indians are living in substandard housing. About 40% of on-reservation housing is considered inadequate (2003, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights). The waiting list for tribal housing is long; the wait is often three years or more, and overcrowding is inevitable. Most families will not turn away family members or anyone who needs a place to stay. It is not uncommon for 3 or more generations to live in a two-bedroom home with inadequate plumbing, kitchen facilities, cooling, and heating.
Further increasing the concerns with reservation housing is the noticeable absence of utilities. While most Americans take running water, telephones, and electricity for granted, many reservation families live without these amenities. On a seriously stretched budget, utilities are viewed as luxuries compared to food and transportation. Overcrowding, substandard dwellings, and lack of utilities all increase the potential for health risk, especially in rural and remote areas where there is a lack of accessible healthcare.
Inadequate Health Care
Many Native Americans live in poor health conditions with limited access to healthcare facilities. This health care disparity has led to high rates of obesity, diabetes, HIV/AIDS. The Indian Health Service(IHS) has been established to provide healthcare services to American Indians but almost one in three Native Americans are ensured to benefit from the scheme.
The IHS is underfunded and many of the local IHS facilities lack the basic amenities to provide quality and excellent healthcare services. Mostly the local IHS facilities are distant from the Native Americans. It makes it a grueling process for the locals to access the facility.
“The average life expectancy for Native Americans has improved yet still trails that of other Americans by almost 5 years” (2010, HHS Indian Health Disparities Fact Sheet). About 55% of American Indians rely on the Indian Health Service for medical care (2006, Indian Health Facts). Yet, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act only meets about 60% of their health needs (2003, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights).
Due to underfunding, Indian Health Service facilities are crisis-driven and leave a wide gap in adequate and preventative health care for many Native Americans on the reservations. Pharmacies and doctor’s offices outside of hospitals are completely non-existent in some communities.
The pressures to shift from a traditional way of life toward a Western lifestyle has dramatically impacted the health and welfare of the Native peoples and created a terrible epidemic of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, tuberculosis, and cancer. The statistics are alarming.
- Heart disease is the leading cause of death for American Indians (2003, Center for Disease Control).
- Due to the link between heart disease, diabetes, poverty, and quality of nutrition and health care, 36% of Natives with heart disease will die before age 65 compared to 15% of Caucasians (2001, HHS Office of Minority Health).
- American Indians are 177% more likely to die from diabetes (2011, Indian Health Disparities).
- 500% are more likely to die from tuberculosis (2011, Indian Health Disparities).
- 82% are more likely to die from suicide (2011, Indian Health Disparities).
- Cancer rates and disparities related to cancer treatment are higher than for other Americans (2005, Native People for Cancer Control).
- Infant death rates are 60% higher than for Caucasians (2001, HHS Office of Minority Health).
Unable to Exercise Voting Rights
Native Americans have suffrage rights but are unable to exercise them because of the unavailability of polling units. Some of the natives’ Reservations such as the Goshute Reservation in Utah and Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada do not have any polling unit near them. The polling units around are many miles away.
Many Native people on reservations are unable to register to vote. Many reservations don’t use traditional street addresses and their applications for voting cards are rejected.
Native Language is Becoming Extinct
Native American languages is gradually going obsolete. Only 175 out of the more than 300 native languages remain today according to the Indigenous Language Institute. It is also predicted that without any measure set up to salvage the remaining languages about 20 will be left by 2050.
Many educators that want to teach the Native American children the Native languages face an obstacle of poor funding and resources.
Limited Financial Institutions in the Native Communities
There is a dearth in the Native American communities. On many communities, the land is held by the government in trust, which makes it difficult for the Natives to leverage them in the collection of loans that they will use to set up businesses. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, about 56.2 million acres of land are held in trust by the federal government. This, in turn, has resulted in the stunted economic growth of the area.
Natural Resources Exploitation
Some of the Native American reservations such as the Ute tribe contain natural resources such as timber, oil, and gas. American Indian territories in the West house gold and have had previous clashes with gold miners. These areas have been exploited for its natural resources for economic reasons and have threatened the area with climate change. Efforts have been made by the communities to safeguard natural resources and protect the environment.
Without a doubt the Native American tribes have suffered since the first immigrant set foot on this continent. Whether it be from small pox or having their land stolen from them. However, part of the problem lies with the culture of the native Americans. By nature these tribes have acted as separate countries, interacting only when they were at war with each other. If these tribes had acted in a unified way, they could have easily pushed the immigrants back into the sea, and maybe their history would have been different. When the tribes of the Sioux nation united with Cheyenne tribes they were able to overwhelm the calvary and Colonel Custer. However this rarely occurred and subsequently they were driven off their lands and onto reservations. Today many of these tribes still live on these same reservations. Some tribes have built casinos on them and are doing quite well. However most of the tribes live in poverty, eeking a meager living under substandard living conditions. Alcoholism is rampant and morale is low. Not a very good outlook for once a proud people.
history.com, “American-Indian Wars,” By history.com editors; en.wikipedia.org, “Native Americans in the United States,” By Wikipedia Editors; nationalgeographic.org, “The United States Government’s Relationship with Native Americans”; voxd.com, “6 Native leaders on what it would look like if the US kept its promises,” By Rory Taylor; voanews.com, “Native Americans Want to be Included in Race Talks,” By Associated Press; onlinelibrary.wiley.com, “Discrimination in the United States: Experiences of Native Americans,” By Mary G. Findling PhD, SMLogan S. Casey PhDStephanie A. Fryberg PhDSteven Hafner ScD, MARobert J. Blendon ScDJohn M. Benson MAJustin M. Sayde MSCarolyn Miller MS, MA; teenvogue.com, “Invisibility is the Modern Form of Racism Against Native Americans,” By Rebecca Nagle; courageousconversation.com, “RESPONDING TO THE THREAT OF NATIVE AMERICAN RACIAL DISCRIMINATION;” powwows.com, “Native American Issues Today | Current Problems & Struggles 2020;” nativepartnership.org, “Living Conditions;”
Native Americans Losses in the USA
From the moment English colonists arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, they shared an uneasy relationship with the Native Americans (or Indians) who had thrived on the land for thousands of years. At the time, millions of indigenous people were scattered across North America in hundreds of different tribes. Between 1622 and the late 19th century, a series of wars known as the American-Indian Wars took place between Indians and American settlers, mainly over land control.
Colonial Period Indian Wars
On March 22, 1622, Powhatan Indians attacked and killed colonists in eastern Virginia. Known as the Jamestown Massacre, the bloodbath gave the English government an excuse to justify their efforts to attack Indians and confiscate their land.
In 1636, the Pequot War over trade expansion broke out between Pequot Indians and English settlers of Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut. The colonists’ Indian allies joined them in battle and helped defeat the Pequot.
A series of battles took place from 1636 to 1659 between New Netherlands settlers in New York and several Indian tribes (Lenape, Susquehannocks, Algonquians, Esopus). Some battles were especially violent and gruesome, sending many settlers fleeing back to the Netherlands.
The Beaver Wars (1640-1701) happened between the French and their Indian allies (Algonquian, Huron) and the powerful Iroquois Confederacy. The fierce fighting started over territory and fur trade dominance around the Great Lakes and ended with the signing of the Great Peace Treaty.
Did you know? On November 29, 1864, one of the most infamous events of the American-Indian Wars occurred when 650 Colorado volunteer forces attacked a Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment along Sand Creek. Although they had already begun peace negotiations with the U.S. government, more than 140 Native Americans were killed and mutilated, most of whom were women and children.
King Philip’s War
King Philip’s War (1675-1676), also known as Metacom’s War, began after bands of Indians led by Wampanoag Chief Metacom (later called King Philip) grew frustrated with their dependence on the Puritans and attacked colonies and militia strongholds throughout Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
The attacks ignited a series of battles for power along the Connecticut River Valley between Metacom’s warriors and a large colonial militia and their Mohawk allies. The war ended with Metacom’s beheading and the near decimation of the Native Americans in his coalition.
Queen Anne’s War
Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713) occurred between French and English colonists and their respective Indian allies on several fronts including Spanish Florida, New England, Newfoundland and Acadia. The war ended with the Treaty of Utrecht, but the Indians were not included in peace negotiations and lost much of their land.
During the Tuscarora War (1711-1715), Tuscarora Indians burned North Carolina settlements and randomly killed colonists over treaty disputes. After two years of bloody fighting, North Carolina defeated the Indians with the help of South Carolina’s militia.
In 1715, Yamasee Indians – frustrated with the loss of their hunting grounds and the high debts they owed white settlers of South Carolina – formed a confederacy with other local tribes and forced many settlers to flee, devastating South Carolina’s economy.
French and Indian War
As France expanded into the Ohio River Valley from 1754 to 1763, it fought with Britain for control of North America. Both sides forged alliances with Indians to help fight their battles. Known as the French and Indian War, the struggle ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763.
In 1763, Pontiac Indians of the Ohio River became incensed upon learning King George III expected them to become British loyalists. During Pontiac’s War, the Ottawa Chief Pontiac rallied support among other tribes and laid siege to Britain’s Fort Detroit. When a British retaliatory assault plan on Pontiac’s village was discovered, the Indians attacked and killed many British soldiers during the Battle of Bloody Run on July 31.
The Battle of Fallen Timbers happened on August 20, 1794, along Ohio’s Maumee River between regional Indians (Miami, Shawnee, Lenape) and the United States. The well-trained U.S. Army decisively defeated the Indians and the battle ended with the adoption of the Treaty of Greenville.
In 1759, a series of battles known as the Cherokee Wars began from the valleys of Virginia to North Carolina and southward. Two peace treaties forced the Cherokee to give up millions of acres of land to settlers, provoking them to fight for the British in the Revolutionary War, hoping to keep what land they had left.
Early American Indian Wars
Indians had to choose sides or try to stay neutral when the American Revolution broke out. Many tribes such as the Iroquois, Shawnee, Cherokee and Creek fought with British loyalists. Others, including the Potawatomi and the Delaware, sided with American patriots.
But no matter which side they fought on, Native Americans were negatively impacted. They were left out of peace talks and lost additional land. After the war, some Americans retaliated against those Indian tribes that had supported the British.
Cherokee Chief Dragging Canoe led bands of Indians against white settlers in the South from 1776 through 1794. At the Battle of the Bluffs, he led 400 warriors to destroy Fort Nashborough in Tennessee, but a pack of unleashed hunting dogs forced them back during the battle.
At the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, Shawnee Chief Tecumseh formed a coalition to slow the flow of settlers into Illinois and Indiana. Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison led a force of soldiers and militia to destroy the Shawnee’s village but agreed to a temporary cease-fire. Tecumseh’s brother, “The Prophet,” ignored the cease-fire and attacked. Harrison prevailed, however, and the Shawnee retreated north.
The War of 1812 was fought between Britain and the United States and their respective Indian allies. Tecumseh’s defeat at the Battle of Tippecanoe led him to support the British. At the Battle of Thames (one of many battles in the War of 1812) along the Thames River in Ontario, British troops and Tecumseh’s coalition were outnumbered and easily defeated again. Tecumseh died in the battle, leading many Indians to abandon the British cause.
By 1814, pro-American Creeks (Lower Creeks) and Creeks who resented Americans (Upper Creeks) were fighting a civil war. At the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in Alabama on March 27, American militia fought alongside Lower Creeks to defeat Upper Creeks. The battle ended with the signing of the Treaty of Fort Jackson and the Creeks ceding almost two million acres of land.
In the First Seminole War (1816-1818), the Seminoles, assisted by runaway slaves, defended Spanish Florida against the U.S. Army. In the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), the Indians fought to retain their land in the Florida Everglades but were almost wiped out. The Third Seminole War (1855-1858) was the Seminole’s last stand. After being outgunned and outnumbered, most of them agreed to move to Indian reservations in Oklahoma.
In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, allowing the U.S. government to relocate Indians from their land east of the Mississippi River. In 1838, the government forcibly removed around 15,000 Cherokee from their homeland and made them walk more than 1,200 miles west. Over 3,000 Indians died on the grueling route, known as the Trail of Tears. The involuntary relocation fueled the Indians’ anger toward the U.S. government.
In 1832, Chief Black Hawk led around 1,000 Sauk and Fox Indians back to Illinois to reclaim their land. The battle, known as the Black Hawk War, was a disaster for the Indians who were greatly outnumbered by the U.S. Army, militias and other Indian tribes.
Sand Creek Massacre
The Sand Creek Massacre (1864) occurred after about 750 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho led by Chief Black Kettle were forced to abandon their winter campsite near Fort Lyon in southeastern Colorado. When they set up camp at Sand Creek, volunteer Colorado soldiers attacked, scattering them while slaughtering 148 men, women and children.
Red Cloud’s War (1866) began as the U.S. government developed the Bozeman Trail through Indian territory to allow miners and settlers access to gold in Montana Territory via the Powder River. For two years, an Indian coalition led by Lakota Chief Red Cloud attacked workers, settlers and soldiers to save their native lands. Their persistence paid off when the U.S. Army left the area and signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868.
The treaty established the Black Hills of western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming as part of the Great Sioux Reservation. After the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, however, the U.S. government began setting up Army posts there, leaving angry Sioux and Cheyenne warriors – led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse – determined to defend their territory.
Battle of the Little Bighorn
At the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, General George Armstrong Custer led 600 men into the Little Bighorn Valley, where they were overwhelmed by approximately 3,000 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors led by Crazy Horse.
Custer and his men were all killed in the battle, known as Custer’s Last Stand. Despite the decisive Indian victory, the U.S. government forced the Sioux to sell the Black Hills and leave the land.
The U.S. Army fought multiple skirmishes during the Red River War (1874-1875) against Southern Plains Indians who had left their reservations to reclaim former hunting grounds in the Texas Panhandle. The war ended after intense pressure from the U.S. Army forced the Indians to return to their reservations.
Driven by revenge for the slaughter of his family and the need to protect Apache native lands in northern Mexico and Southwest U.S. territory, the warrior Geronimo led his men in brutal attacks against Mexican troops, white settlers and the U.S. Army from 1850 until his capture in 1886.
In the late nineteenth century, Indian “Ghost Dancers” believed a specific dance ritual would reunite them with the dead and bring peace and prosperity. On December 29, 1890, the U.S. Army surrounded a group of Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee Creek near the Pine Ridge reservation of South Dakota.
During the ensuing Wounded Knee Massacre, fierce fighting broke out and 150 Indians were slaughtered. The battle was the last major conflict between the U.S. government and the Plains Indians.
By the early 20 century, the American-Indian Wars had effectively ended, but at great cost. Though Indians helped colonial settlers survive in the New World, helped Americans gain their independence and ceded vast amounts of land and resources to pioneers, tens of thousands of Indian and non-Indian lives were lost to war, disease and famine, and the Indian way of life was almost completely destroyed.
6 Native leaders on what it would look like if the US kept its promises
The US has signed hundreds of treaties with Indigenous peoples. Here’s what would happen if the government actually honored them.
“‘We the people’ has never meant ‘all the people.’”
These were words of independent presidential candidate and Navajo Nation member Mark Charles as he spoke, to great excitement, at the first presidential forum dedicated to Native American issues in over a decade.
In August, hundreds of Indigenous peoples gathered in Sioux City, Iowa, for the two-day Frank LaMere Presidential Forum. People had traveled from as far as Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico to Wampanoag communities in Massachusetts, eager for a chance to be heard. Aside from Charles, eight Democrats, including frontrunners Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, were in attendance. The forum marked the rare presidential cycle where candidates are simply acknowledging that Native people exist.
Questions covered a lot of ground: climate change, the 2020 census, the consultation of Indigenous nations on federal decisions, and the Indian Child Welfare Act, a 1978 law meant to reverse the disproportionately high number of Indigenous children removed from their homes by government agencies. Candidates’ plans were discussed as well: Warren’s includes massive increases in spending to help bolster Indian Country; Julián Castro’s notes the need to develop cultural competency in federal relationships, while also giving tribes enhanced self-determination.
But for all these current issues, historical grievances were aired, too. So one has to ask: What long-unfulfilled promises to Indigenous peoples can presidential candidates actually make good on? Where do we go from here?
There is no easy answer as to how to improve the over-400-year relationship between Indigenous peoples and the United States. In part, because Indian Country is so diverse. There are more than 5.2 million American Indian and Alaska Native people who live in America and 573 federally recognized Indian nations across the country, each with distinctive histories of colonization since European contact. Then there are state-recognized nations, unrecognized nations, and Indigenous communities living in the diaspora, too.
While people in a single community will provide a range of perspectives — much less in all 573 federally recognized tribes — more often than not, a version of one answer always comes up about what the US needs to do: honor the treaties.
The US government signed 370 treaties with numerous Indigenous nations from 1778 to 1871. While the language in the treaties is diverse, there are often certain common features of the pacts: a guarantee of peace, a definition of land boundaries, preservation of hunting and fishing rights, and provisions for protection against domestic and foreign enemies.
But these pacts were signed across significantly different periods of history, with incredibly divergent views of what Indigenous nations were. That’s why listening to what Native peoples are actually asking for is so important.
So while just about every candidate at the LaMere Forum said they would honor the treaties or the “Supreme Law” of the United States, what does that actually mean as far as tangible results?
We asked six Indigenous academics, community leaders, and activists what would it look like if the US were to fulfill their trust and treaty responsibilities.
Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy, Hoopa Valley Tribe/Yurok/Karuk, assistant professor and department chair of Native American studies at Humboldt State University:
Here in California, we actually do not have treaties. Well, we do have treaties, but those treaties were not ratified. There were 18 in total that were made with California Indians in the 1800s, but at the time, Congress decided not to ratify them and then put them under an injunction of secrecy.
Our people had agreed to these treaties in the hopes of finding reprieve from the genocide that was being perpetrated against us by the California government and citizens. Some of my own family members signed these treaties, and later they would tell stories about how hard-fought these negotiations were and how they struggled to reconcile what they had to compromise in order to protect future generations and to protect our lands and more-than-human relatives. When tribes would come to the table to negotiate treaties, they weren’t thinking only about the present, they were thinking about many generations into the future. Their negotiations were about relationship, responsibility, respect, and reciprocity.
Not every tribe in California was able to renegotiate or become recognized after the treaties were rejected. Some tribes who have signed treaties are now “unrecognized” tribes. In 2014, the National Museum of the American Indian featured one of the unratified California Treaties in their exhibits. A colleague visited this exhibit when it opened so she could view this treaty which was signed by some of her relatives. She told me that as she stood before the document, she cried silently to herself. To this day, the federal government does not recognize her people as living California Indians.
Treaties are foundational agreements the United States made with Native nations. Nobody fooled the US into entering into treaties, nobody tricked Benjamin Franklin (or whatever founding father) into building a nation that also had many other nations within it. This is the nation they built; these are the agreements they made. If we honor the Constitution, we have to honor the treaties. If we are truly going to honor the treaties, we have to center Indigenous histories, support self-determination, and build decolonized futures by giving back stolen land. This has happened all over the world, and it has even happened here in California. The return of stolen land is how we truly honor the trust responsibility.
Matthew Fletcher, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians/Potawatomi descendant, director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center at Michigan State University College of Law:
Our understanding of the federal government’s duties to Indians and Indian tribes could be on the verge of changing dramatically. But right now, the federal government fails horrifically at the fulfillment of its duties — just look at Indian country’s poverty, crime rates, suicide rates, and poor health indicators.
The original understanding of the federal-tribal relationship was that the United States agreed to undertake a duty of protection to Indians and tribes. This means that the tribes gave up much of their exterior sovereignty, but they were to retain all the internal governmental powers they possess, like the power to make laws and enforce them within the tribe’s territory.
In many treaties, the federal government agreed to guarantee education, health care, housing, and other services to Indian tribes. The United States also agreed to manage and protect Indian tribes’ resources, such as lands and timber.
However, the duty of protection mutated politically into a guardian-ward relationship after a Supreme Court decision in 1831. It would also be the premise for the federal government to label Indian people legally incompetent. This way of thinking reached an apex in the 1880s when Congress federalized jurisdiction in Indian Country, broke up reservations into individual allotments, and made boarding school education mandatory. In the latter half of the 20th century, Congress restored and implemented a modern understanding of the duty of protection, which we call self-determination.
What remains are two kinds of trust duties. The first kind is an actual trust, in which the United States holds and manages Indian and tribes’ assets in a trust. The second kind is referred to by the Supreme Court, inaccurately, as the general trust relationship, a kind of moral obligation to assist tribal interests. Labeling the duty as a moral obligation effectively renders the federal government’s obligations voluntary and unenforceable.
The general trust relationship does have teeth, however. If Congress decides to provide services to Indians or tribes, this modern version of the duty of protection is a source of legal authority for Congress to do so.
But what if Congress chooses not to act? Or the president acts in opposition to tribal interests, seemingly contrary to the duty of protection? Indian nations gave up a lot in exchange for the duty of protection — lands, resources, sovereign powers — and to label the federal government’s duties merely voluntary is atrocious.
This could change dramatically, as I mentioned above. Justice Gorsuch stated in a recent Supreme Court case that he takes very seriously the exchange between sovereigns memorialized in Indian treaties. To paraphrase, he wrote that tribes didn’t give up that much for nothing: Tribes are entitled to something.
Also, and this is not intended to be an endorsement of Elizabeth Warren, if her Indian affairs legislative platform comes to fruition and federal services to Indian country becomes fully funded, that would be a massive step toward the fulfillment of the trust responsibility.
Karen Diver, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, director of Business Development of Native American Initiatives at the University of Arizona:
First and foremost, fulfilling the treaties means recognizing that tribal nations are political entities and respecting the right to self-govern. To support that, the federal government needs to fully fund its obligations that were pre-paid by tribes with land.
For example, while there are many issues that contribute to negative health indicators in Indian Country, the chronic lack of funding for the Indian Health Service only makes matters worse. It is time for mandatory, full funding of the Indian Health Service, which is responsible for providing federal health services to Native peoples in the US, as a start toward improving health care in Indian Country.
Another prime example comes from housing services. The Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act, which simplified the housing assistance process for Indian nations, expired in 2013. While small amounts continue to be funded, the act, as a step toward recognizing the homelessness crisis in Indian Country, needs to be reauthorized.
These obligations also extend not just to the amount of funding authorized but also respecting the self-governance that tribal nations have in relation to that funding. In plain terms, this means not just funding programs in Indian Country but allowing tribal nations to manage those funds in a manner they see fit.
This respect for self-governance also needs to extend to criminal jurisdiction in Indian Country. At the current moment, the Violence Against Women Act and its provisions to allow for prosecution of non-Indians who commit domestic violence on tribal members, expired last year.
The previous examples are just a few small steps toward honoring the treaty obligations of the US, but they are meaningful. They are symbols and recognition that there were fully autonomous self-governing peoples here long before the creation of this country.
DeLesslin George-Warren, citizen of Catawba Nation, consultant for Catawba Nation:
For me, honoring the treaties means truly honoring the fishing, hunting, and harvesting rights guaranteed in most treaties. As many tribes entered into agreements with the Crown and later the US, we were specific in reserving our right to fish, hunt, and harvest as we always have on our lands. And yet tribal members are regularly fined for exercising these rights, and the US and corporations continue to build infrastructure that disrupts our ability to practice our traditional food systems.
For the most part, the federal government and corporations replaced a truly treaty-based negotiation process with a weak and unenforceable “consultation” practice, which doesn’t require much more than asking Indigenous peoples what they think on a particular project. In many cases, as it relates to our sacred sites and treaty rights, even if there is staunch opposition, projects move forward, rendering consultation nothing more than a notification process. Our treaties don’t guarantee consultations that will be ignored.
Treaties guarantee our right to traditional plants, animals, lands, air, and waterways. Projects that inhibit those rights are a violation of our treaties and by extension the Constitution of the United States.
Tara Houska, Couchiching First Nation, tribal attorney
To begin a chapter of US history that does not find its foundation in annually broken treaties, Congress must do its duty to uphold the law.
Realizing the trust responsibility is another matter. To me, it means recognizing and honoring sovereign Native nations as such: independent nations with full authority over criminal, civil, and self-governance matters. We must be able to protect our own people, enforce tribal laws, develop economically, and ensure healthy lands and waters to sustain our communities.
The world is in flux, our shared survival is on the line. Native peoples hold 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity. We are the holders of the sacred. We are the canary in the mine of humanity.
Liz Medicine Crow, Haida/Tlingit, president and CEO of First Alaskans Institute:
It is critical to understand that the basic binding relationship between tribes and the US, and its state and territorial governments, is a political one, as between tribal nations. In essence, what it also means is that instead of trying to undo it, get out of it, or change it in a way that breaks it down, the US government must actually embrace it and do the most it can to uphold these obligations in a respectful government-to-government relationship — working with the tribes, not against them.
And on a personal level, to be a patriot and a citizen of the US means to back up the commitments of this country by upholding and honoring these in-perpetuity obligations to the Indigenous peoples of these lands. Teach it in pre-K-12th grade schools, universities, technical, and trade programs. Make it a basic tenet of your community engagement and best business practices to establish good relationships with local and nearby tribes and tribal citizens. Perform meaningful land acknowledgments at your gatherings and conferences. Educate yourself, your families, and your faith and community organizations about these American responsibilities.
These relationships are a primary obligation of the United States’ nationhood. As a country founded on theft of Indigenous lands and lives and on the theft of black labor and lives through slavery, it means that this country must live up to its own ideals of itself and its legally binding promises, obligations, and commitments to the fullest extent. It means the US has to be honorable; and where it has not been, it must work to rectify this.
The Native American boarding school movement, popularized by the slogan “Kill the Indian, Save the Man”, meant that thousands of Native children were rounded up, taken to boarding schools, had their hair and clothes changed, and were forced to speak only in English. Many people didn’t know that these kidnappings continued through the 1940s and in Canada even into the 1960s. Children were picked up when they were playing outside and their parents wouldn’t know for weeks what happened to them or where they had gone. They were taken to boarding schools and when they were caught speaking their native language they were locked in dark basements.
Race Relations and Slavery Postings