Native Americans

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Author: Barbara Gurr
Editor: Andrea O'Reilly
Date: 2010
Encyclopedia of Motherhood
From: Encyclopedia of Motherhood(Vol. 2. )
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 5
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Page 895

Native Americans

The term Native Americans refers specifically to the descendants of people living in what is now the contiguous United States prior to the mass arrival Page 896  |  Top of Articleof settlers from other continents. The United States Census combines Native Americans and Alaskan Natives for statistical purposes, although each tribal nation is culturally, linguistically, and politically distinct. Native Americans is also used to refer to indigenous peoples from Central and South America. Other terms to refer to Native Americans include American Indian, Indian, Amerindian, Native, and Indigenous. Generally speaking, Native Americans prefer their individual tribal affiliation over the more general term of Native Americans.

Traditional Social Systems and Change

Historically, the social, political, and economic systems of Native American culture groups were tremendously diverse, ranging from hierarchical systems based on various social statuses to more egalitarian systems. Many culture groups were and still are matriarchal, matrilineal, and/or matrilocal. The Apache of the southwest, for example, trace their lineage through the mother’s line; all children belong to the mother’s family. Among the Iroquois nations of the northeast, women performed all of the agricultural labor and controlled the distribution of their produce, thereby exerting both social and political authority. Iroquois women were also politically active, as were women in many southeastern culture groups such as the Cherokee.

The pre-contact social systems of all Native American tribes underwent great change beginning in the early contact period and continuing today. For instance, the arrival of horses (which migrated from Mexico after arriving with the Spaniards in the early 1500s) had a tremendous impact on the cultures of many Native American groups, most notably those on the Plains, who became much more mobile. This increased mobility encouraged a period of prosperity for Native American groups whose hunting territories were expanded. Horses quickly became an integral aspect of the spiritual, economic, and political culture of many Plains groups such as the Kiowa, the Sioux, and the Cheyenne.

Another major change for all Native American groups has come about through assimilation, both forced and voluntary. The U.S. government and the American people undertook varied efforts to assimilate Native Americans, including but not limited to various federal policies, education, particularly through the boarding school system, religious acculturation, and the reservation system, which simultaneously physically separated Native Americans from the rest of U.S. society and imposed non-Native forms of housing, land use, and agricultural and hunting methods.

The Role of Mothers and Grandmothers

In many Native American cultures both historically and today, the social and biological roles of mother and grandmother were and are accorded great respect. In many cases, this respect has sacred precedent, as many Native origin stories credit women with the creation of Turtle Island (North America) and/or with the provision of foods such as corn, beans, and squash. Many Native American cultures were matrilineal, matrifocal, matrilocal, or some combination of the three. In these cultures, mothers and grandmothers were largely responsible for the teaching and socialization of children, particularly during early childhood. As they grew older, however, young boys were expected and encouraged to spend more time with men in the community, although young girls generally stayed in the company of women. As mothers and grandmothers, women exerted social and political authority both within the community and in relationships with outsiders, including Europeans. This relationship was never limited strictly to biological relationship; adoptive and metaphorical motherhood, and particularly grandmotherhood, was and remains common.

The authority of women over their motherhood was both indirectly and directly targeted for centuries following initial contact with European nations, as settlers and missionaries sought to alter the social and political fabric of Native American cultures. For instance, throughout the 17th century, Jesuit missionaries in the northeast attempted to impose models of marriage in which one man and one woman remained married for life, and the children of the marriage were identified through the father’s line. During the early colonial period, many Europeans settlers refused to negotiate with what they referred to as “petticoat governments” and rejected the public authority of Native American women. By the end of the 19th century, after most Native American nations had been confined to reservations, the boarding school system began

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A 1901 photograph of a Native American mother from the Plains region carrying her baby on her back.

A 1901 photograph of a Native American mother from the Plains region carrying her baby on her back.

the process of assimilating Native American children through physical removal from their natal families and the imposition of Western education. These removals were mandated by law and often tied to the provision of supplies to Native American families. Also beginning at this time, hundreds more Native American children were taken from their natal families by social service agencies and placed in foster care outside of the Native American community; the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act was legislated to stem the tide of these removals.

While all of these attacks on the role of mothers in Native communities have had both personal and social consequences for Native American mothers, perhaps the most insidious has been the practice of involuntary surgical sterilizations of Native American women. A 1974 study by the Native American activist organization Women of All Red Nations concluded that as many as 42 percent of all Native American women of childbearing age had been sterilized without their fully informed consent. This was followed by an investigation conducted by the U.S. General Accounting Office, which, though limited in scope, nonetheless showed that 3,406 involuntary sterilizations were performed during a three-year period. Today, many Native American scholars and activists refer to these sterilizations as acts of genocide.

Nonetheless, and despite efforts to the contrary, the roles of mother and grandmother continue to hold cultural, social, and political importance in many Native American communities. Adolescent motherhood is high in Native American communities (as high as 85 percent in some), as is single (unmarried) motherhood. A large majority of grandparents retain the responsibility of raising at least some of their grandchildren. Many Native American women activists refer to their biological and social motherhood as the impetus for their work in Native American communities, and motherhood is celebrated in songs, stories, and ceremonies.

Federal Policies Concerning Native Americans

Native Americans have a long historical relationship with the U.S. government, beginning before the American Revolution with the signing of treaties, mostly for trade and friendship, between Native American tribes and European-American colonies. During this colonial era, relations between colonists and local Native Americans were not always friendly, however; the Pequot War, King Philip’s War, and the Beaver Wars, for instance, all occurred before the American Revolution between colonists and local Native American tribes.

In the southwest during the 300-year period between 1492 and the dawn of the 19th century, similar tensions developed between Native American tribes such as the Keres, the Tewa, and other Pueblo peoples, and the Spanish and Mexican settlers.

After the American Revolution, the relationship between the United States and Native American tribes evolved to encompass more trade agreements and specific military alliances. Very quickly, however, treaty negotiations and military engagements centered on land rather than trade or alliance.

Between 1820 and 1840, approximately 90,000 Native Americans were forcibly removed from their homelands with the Indian Removal Act. The exact death toll of what became known as the Trail of Page 898  |  Top of ArticleTears is unknown, but estimates hover between 20–25 percent, mostly children and elders. In 1824, the U.S. Congress officially formed the Bureau of Indian Affairs (located at the time in the War Department). In 1862, the Homestead Act opened up Indian land in Kansas and Nebraska to homesteaders. As a result, 20 tribes in these states had to be relocated. After the Civil War ended in 1865, the first missionary-operated Indian schools were opened with the financial support of the federal government. In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act (Dawes Act), which broke up reservation land bases and assigned parcels of land to individual families. Land that was left over after each (male) head of household had received their allotment was opened up to settlers, resulting in a total land loss of about 90 million acres for Native Americans collectively.

Between 1906 and 1909, the federal government under President Theodore Roosevelt transferred over 2.5 million acres of land from tribal control to national forests. In 1921, Congress formally provided funds for the health care of Native Americans through the Snyder Act. In 1924, Congress bestowed full citizenship rights on all Native Americans, despite the protests of many Native American people who did not want to become U.S. citizens. In 1934, the Wheeler-Howard Act (or Indian Reorganization Act) provided for tribal ownership of land, thus reversing portions of the Dawes Act, and encouraged the development of tribal governments after the model of the United States. In 1950, the official federal twin policies of Termination and Relocation were instituted with the goal of lessening federal responsibility to Native Americans through relocating mass numbers from reservation land bases to urban centers.

This resulted in the loss of federal services and protection for 61 tribes, bands, and communities. Termination policy was eventually phased out with the formulation of the Indian Self-Determination policy in 1970. In 1975, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act permitted tribes to participate in all federal social programs and services relating to Native Americans and provided funds for public schools on or near reservations. In 1978, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act as well as the Indian Child Welfare Act. The Indian Tribal Government Tax Status Act was passed in 1983, confirming that Native American nations are not taxable entities. In 1990, the Native American Language Act reversed official policy of suppressing Native American languages and cultures, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act required federal agencies and federally funded museums to return human remains and sacred objects to tribes.


Population figures for Native Americans prior to 1492 are hypothetical, but various methods of calculation include comparative analyses of ecosystems and multiplying by a fixed number the lowest Native American population figures for various regions. Current estimates range between 15 million for the entire North American continent to as high as 60 million. The lowest point of the Native American population—less than 250,000—is thought to have occurred between 1890 and 1910. Current population is estimated at 4.1 million, based on 2000 U.S. Census figures. This number represents approximately 2.5 million people who identified solely as Native American or Alaskan Indian as well as 1.6 million who reported Native American or Alaska Native combined with at least one other race.

The extreme population decrease is due to a variety of factors, including but not limited to: war, disease, massacres, boarding school abuses, high suicide rates, high rates of sterilization of Native American women, and federally imposed recognition policies that restrict tribal enrollment numbers. The Census Bureau projects modest growth by Native American communities in the next few decades, topping 5 million individuals by the year 2065 and comprising 1.1 percent of the population. Today there are 569 federally recognized Tribal Nations in the United States. About 20 states have policies that allow Native American nation recognition on the state level, even without federal recognition.

Health and Income Disparities

Native American people are statistically the poorest in the United States. On many reservations, unemployment hovers between 80–85 percent. Employment statistics are slightly better for Native Americans in urban areas. Native Americans suffer from severe health disparities. For example, in 2001, Page 899  |  Top of ArticleNative Americans and Alaska Natives had the highest rate of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) of any racial/ethnic population in the United States; Native Americans and Alaska Natives statistically have the highest infant mortality rate in the country, after African Americans. In 2003, the diabetes rate for Native Americans and Alaska Natives was higher than that for all other race/ethnicities other than African American; in 2003, Native Americans and Alaska Natives had the highest death rate from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis. Suicide rates for Native American and Alaska Native youths are three times higher than the rate for their white peers.

Heart disease, cancer, and unintentional injuries are the leading causes of death for Native Americans and Alaska Natives.


Waldman Carl. Atlas of the North American Indian. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.

Centers for Disease Control, Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities. “American Indian & Alaska Native (AI/AN) Populations.” (accessed January 2009).

Mankiller, Wilma, and Michael Wallis. Mankiller: A Chief and Her People. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999.

Ogunwole, Stella. The American Indian and Alaska Native Population 2000. U.S. Census Bureau, 2002.

Smith, Andrea. Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2005.

Barbara Gurr
University of Connecticut, Storrs

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3021600493