Native Americans

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Editor: William A. Darity, Jr.
Date: 2008
International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 6
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Native Americans

Though referring properly to anyone born in America, the term Native Americans has referred to American indigenous peoples since the eighteenth century. Its use became popular in the 1970s as part of a movement to advance indigenous political and legal rights by emphasizing the aboriginal status of pre-Columbian peoples. The choice to use Native American rather than Indian, the term Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) gave and the other term commonly used in the United States, remains a matter of political debate in some indigenous communities. Aboriginal peoples of the Americas is more accurate, but unfamiliar. Further, it does not, strictly speaking, refer to Arctic peoples, sometimes known as Eskimo, Inuit, and other names pertaining to particular geographic groups, since the ancestors of these peoples arrived millennia after the ancestors of the people known as Indians. Indigenous has been criticized on the grounds that it means “originating in,” and all human beings originated in the Old World. Native American finds wide usage only in the United States, and for this reason this entry focuses on the United States. Moreover, Native American usually does not include aboriginal Alaskans, widely and officially known as Alaska Natives. Canadians usually use the term First Nations Peoples (French: première nations), aboriginal peoples (French: autochtone), Inuit, Native Canadians, natives, or Indians. In Latin America, the terms indigenous peoples (Spanish: pueblos indígenas ; Portuguese: povos indígenas), Indians (Spanish: indios ; Portuguese: índios), and sometimes aborigine (Spanish: aborigen) are used. There, the term pre-Columbian peoples (Spanish: pueblos precolumbinos ; Portuguese: povos pré-colombianos) refers to aboriginal people prior to 1492, not to anyone alive today. Most autonyms simply mean “(the) people.”


Archaeological data suggest that the first people probably arrived in North America from Asia approximately 15,000 years ago, although this date remains controversial. Numerous physical features are common to American Indians and East Asians, and unknown or unusual among Europeans and Africans: a brachycephalic (relatively wide) skull; Mongoloid spot (a greenish-blue birthmark above the coccyx which disappears within a few years); shovel-shaped incisors; dark, coarse, straight hair; little body hair; dry earwax; and others.

Prehistory The ancestors of modern American Indians spread out over the Americas rapidly. About 11,200 to 10,900 years ago, hunters developed the beautiful fluted Clovis point and played an important role in the extinction of many animal species, including mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, horses, and several species of Page 424  |  Top of Articlecamel. The Ice Age ended 11,600 years ago, and with it the Paleolithic life of large-game hunting. Neolithic peoples hunted smaller animals and gathered wild plant foods. One exception includes the Maritime Archaic peoples in the extreme Northeast, who subsisted on deep-sea fish. With the exception of the alpaca, vicuña, and llama in South America, the turkey in Central America, and the dog everywhere, pre-Columbians had no domesticated animals. Beans, squash, and most importantly maize for the energy it supplies were all domesticated in Central America before 7,000 years ago. Maize probably originated from selective breeding of a grass called teosinte. Maize first arrived in the southwestern United States around 3,500 to 3,000 years ago. Around 1,300 years ago, a new variety called northern flint or maiz de ocho appeared, and with its larger kernels and much shorter growing season it spread throughout eastern North America, occasionally as far north as southern Canada.

Cultures The cultures and societies of the original peoples of North America represent an astonishing range of diversity. While some lived in a city of tens of thousands (Cahokia, in present-day Illinois), others living in parts of the Great Basin and subarctic regions never met more than two hundred people their entire lives. People who adopted maize tended to become sedentary and developed food surpluses, concentrations of wealth and political power, and larger, denser populations. In North America, maize production frequently correlates with matrilineality and matrilocal residence, whereas primary dependence on hunting often correlates with patrilineality and patrilocal residence. When maize first arrived in an area, women probably cultivated it, since women already gathered plant foods while men hunted. As maize became more important in the diet over time, women’s increasing contribution to the economy brought them greater political power and the most valuable types of property, in some cases including the society’s political offices, often descended from mother to daughter. Even where men later ended up doing most or all of the farming, matrilineal social structure and inheritance often remained. An example of this latter case is the Hopi, arguably the most matrilineal people on earth—so much so that what we think of as “normal” sex roles are sometimes reversed: men traditionally wove and women did most of the house construction. The Crow, once matrilineal farmers, later moved out onto the plains, where men provided most of the food through bison hunting. Crow men after a time began to argue for patrilineal social structure.

Some two hundred to five hundred different languages were spoken in North America, and there were at least sixty-two language families and isolates. While immense differences exist between the various languages of North America, they all share the characteristics of polysynthesis and agglutination, meaning that they can bring together subject, object, verb, tense, adjective, adverb, mood, and so on in one word. For example, the Micmac word ketulmieyap means “I wanted to go home.”


It has long been recognized that peoples in various parts of North America share more cultural similarities with peoples of the same geographic area than with peoples of other geographic areas. Although controversy persists in identifying exact culture area boundaries, one can say much about the general locations of these areas and the general characteristics of the peoples inhabiting each area.

California Most California peoples subsisted on fish and game, but especially on acorns, an abundant food that made them, like the peoples of the Northwest Coast, capable of sedentary life in permanent villages, and thus nearly unique among all hunting-and-gathering peoples. Here, great wealth meant concentrations of both wealth and power, and peoples such as the Yurok developed a sharply defined nobility. Yurok pegerks owned great wealth, especially money, heirlooms, and even prehistoric antiquities. They lived at named elevated locations, served as priests and judges, wore distinctive clothing, ate foreign foods, employed aides, gave gifts and feasts at ceremonies, spoke foreign languages, traveled extensively, and used ornate speech. Most societies have moieties, and some have ambilateral social structure in which each individual had the choice to join the father’s group or the mother’s group; often individuals chose the group with the most resources. Some southern California people also raised maize, beans, and squash.

Great Basin This intermontane region of Nevada, Utah, and adjoining areas was home to some of the most mobile and dispersed populations of hunters and gatherers in the world. Due to the difficulty of survival, which affected all parts of life, bands were small, often the size of a nuclear family, with fluid membership, and kinship was largely bilateral with little or no emphasis on lineages, which would confer no benefits to such dispersed people. People hunted and collected seeds and roots. Because of the rigorous conditions and sexual division of labor, marriage was essential to survival; people married early, and they married people living at a distance to create kinship links over a wider area. In some places, the sororate and levirate were legally required and both polygyny and polyandry were practiced. Warfare was almost unknown, cooperation was so essential for survival. In places, giving birth to twins was considered unlucky—in a few places, one of the pair was killed.

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Northeast From Maine to Wisconsin and south to Virginia and Kentucky, people depended partially on maize, beans, and squash, which the Iroquois named “the three sisters,” but also upon hunting, gathering, and fishing. As swidden horticulturalists, people had to move their villages every decade or so as soil lost fertility, weeds encroached, and firewood and game became scarce. The Iroquoisian peoples are matrilineal; elsewhere social organization is patrilineal. Warfare for the purpose of revenge occurred frequently, and villages were often palisaded.

Northwest Coast The coastal region of Oregon to southern Alaska has some of the most distinctive cultures in the world. These people traditionally subsisted on the immensely abundant salmon, making them the wealthiest in North America and leading them to build permanent villages. Their cultures reflected this: fine arts and theater were developed, people (slaves) were considered a measure of wealth, and the rich gave lavish feasts known as potlatches, which because of the wealth acquired through trade with Europeans, grew to titanic proportions in the nineteenth century, involving the giving away and destruction of what would be millions of dollars in today’s money. Warfare, including raiding for slaves, was common, and many villages were palisaded. Many groups had an elaborate system for ranking individuals, and for those in high positions, marriage to someone of equal rank was the only possibility. Both men and women were wealthy, owning various types of corporeal and incorporeal property, which was inherited both matrilineally and patrilineally.

Plains The Plains consists of two smaller areas, the high plains (short-grass prairie) to the west of the hundredth meridian where mobile people hunted, and the prairie-plains (tall-grass prairie) to the east where people lived as horticulturalists and hunters. Though many associate the High Plains culture with that of North American Indians generally, High Plains culture is unique in most respects in North America. What we have come to know as High Plains culture did not exist until recent times, because few people could manage to live on the high plains: the region is dry, inhospitable to agriculture without a steel plow, and the prolific denizen of the plains, the bison, was very difficult to find and kill reliably. But the European introduction of the horse allowed people to find and kill sufficient quantities of bison so that entire societies could live by hunting alone on the high plains, encouraging people from all surrounding culture areas to live there, developing within two hundred years what we know as Plains culture. Due to Euro-American hunger for land, this culture disappeared even more quickly. The High Plains Indian culture represents an almost unique case in human history of people leaving farming to become hunters. Because of the extreme mobility of high plains life in which individuals and families moved from one band to another, lineal groups were rare.

Plateau From southeastern British Columbia and eastern Washington and Oregon, east to Montana, were people who, like the peoples of the Northwest Coast, subsisted primarily on salmon. However, the fish sometimes did not migrate in large numbers so far inland, and thus the people of the plateau region had to depend upon other foods, particularly various roots such as the camas bulb. Therefore, semipermanent villages were usually located at prime fishing spots, but the populations of those villages tended to be fluid as resources determined. Some groups took to raiding Plains peoples after the horse came, and combined into confederacies to repel Plains raiders. Kinship structure is bilateral, sometimes with emphasis on the patriline, and the kindred was important.

Southeast In the Southeast, warm temperatures, abundant rainfall, fertile soil, and maize all combined to produce far more food than was necessary, and commonly large and fast-growing populations, concentrations of wealth in the hands of a few in stable classes, cities (often palisaded), priestly classes, large armies frequently built by conscription, fine arts, monumental earthworks, leaders holding the power of life and death over followers, celebration of the annual Green Corn Ceremony (emphasizing renewal), playing of the ball game (a lacrosse-like game with two sticks), and wars often due to rivalries between leaders. Many villages and cities were permanent, since maize fields were planted on floodplains that were refertilized each spring with silt. Probably because of the importance of maize, all the peoples here are matrilineal. This is the one part of North America for which arguments have been made for the existence of state societies. In many of these societies, male leaders held offices, but which because of the matrilineal social structure were passed through the female line.

Southwest The Southwest is a complex area because its range of environment supported a number of subsistence strategies. The area was dominated on the one hand by the Puebloan peoples, sedentary matrilineal maize farmers who live in permanent villages and who sometimes had to run for dozens of miles to tend distant maize fields. The other dominant peoples are the Apache and Navajo, two closely related matrilineal Athabaskan-speaking migratory peoples who hunted, gathered, raided, and farmed and whose ancestors arrived in the Southwest from the western subarctic in the 1400s. Numerous other populations include the patrilineal Piman and bilateral Yuman peoples.

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Subarctic Stretching from Alaska to eastern Canada lies a territory too far north to grow any kind of crops in premodern times. In this cold and wet land, small groups of people had to depend almost entirely on the large game and fish that men acquired. Thus, a patrilinealizing influence pervaded this region, fully evident among the Algonquian speakers of the eastern half. In the western half, the traditionally matrilineal culture of the Athabaskans competes with this influence, to produce cultures that are nominally matrilineal or have bilateral kinship. Mostly migratory, most groups had summer gathering places. Here, people sought the hardest workers as spouses.


Major European colonial powers differed in their relationships with Native Americans. Britain and the United States sought a more formal legal relationship, and used treaties recognizing American Indian groups as politically independent entities, while maintaining social and cultural separation. The Spanish and French did not recognize Indians as separate legal entities, but rather intermarried with and assimilated them to a greater degree. Both the English and the Spanish sought control over conquered territories, whereas the French had more interest in establishing strategic trading venues than in controlling territories.

European invasion brought alcohol, increased warfare, and diseases (including typhoid, cholera, typhus, smallpox, measles, influenza, and malaria) to which aboriginals had little resistance, killing 10 to 80 percent of each population, and destroying entire societies. We shall never know about the cultures of many peoples or even the size of the population of the Americas before Columbus.

Initial aboriginal reactions to the European invasion varied greatly. The Iroquois, for example, had long dominated their political environment by warring with other Indian peoples, walking as far as Wisconsin, Georgia, and Nova Scotia to do so. The Iroquois for a time cooperated with the Dutch and later the English to control the fur trade in the Northeast, benefitting both parties at the expense of their neighbors, Indian and European.

Having endured military losses, alcohol, and disease, as well as the loss of land, freedom, and game, many native peoples became dispirited. When conditions change and people feel that their culture no longer serves them ideally in their new circumstances, it often happens that a leader with an idea for cultural revitalization appears. This occurred numerous times among native North Americans, and one of the most famous of these cultural revivals took place in the latter half of the nineteenth century in the West. A Paviotso man named Wovoka (c. 1856–1932) had a vision—a direct connection with a supernatural being in which many American Indians place great faith—taking him to the other world, where he saw a great spirit, and there all the people who had died were young and happily engaging in traditional pursuits. The great spirit’s message was that he go back and tell his people that they must dance, be good, live in peace with white people, work, be honest, and give up war. If they obeyed him they would be reunited with those who had died and no one would grow old or die; from this resurrection of the dead came the name Ghost Dance. As time went on, many Indian people in much of the West accepted this message as a ray of hope. But as the Ghost Dance traveled orally, it began to change. A new message arose stating that white people would vanish, while the technological advancements they brought would remain.

Still later, the idea of the Ghost Dance shirt, allegedly providing invulnerability to the white man’s bullets, was added. The altered message became popular among some of the Sioux of South Dakota in 1890. The Sioux had been militarily defeated, crowded into guarded camps, largely disarmed of their rifles (though not revolvers or clubs), experienced the assassination of their leader Sitting Bull (c. 1831–1890) by hostile Indian police, and suffered violations of every treaty that they had signed, most importantly the one guaranteeing them sufficient food (beef) to survive the winter. One irate adherent of the Ghost Dance, perhaps believing the message of invulnerability, fired on the U.S. cavalry, igniting a melee that killed the Sioux warriors present as well as a number of cavalrymen, and enraging the remaining cavalrymen, who themselves were still angry over the cavalry’s obliteration at Little Bighorn in 1876, to the point that they then retaliated against any Sioux they could find, including women and children. This fight became known as the Sioux outbreak of 1890 and later as the Wounded Knee massacre. Following the demonstrated ineffectiveness of the Ghost Dance shirt, many Sioux became interested, temporarily at least, in Christianity.

Although rarely by design, European influences have sometimes benefited aboriginal peoples. Pacification, for example, ended indigenous warfare. The United States freed Hopi from the attacks of the Navajo, and the United States, by defeating the raiding Apache and purchasing their wheat and cotton crops, helped the Pimas (Akimel O’odham, “river people”) become wealthy farmers in the second half of the eighteenth century. Technological introductions eased many of life’s difficulties, and the imposition of the English language provided Indians with their first true lingua franca.

In 1969 Vine Deloria Jr. (1933–2005) published Custer Died for Your Sins, which argued that most of the types of information about Indians that interested scholars Page 427  |  Top of Articlewere unimportant. Deloria called upon scholars, particularly anthropologists, as well as missionaries, government workers, and others, to work toward the betterment of the living conditions of North American Indian people. His message was well heeded in academia, where two important effects can be noted. The first was a multiplication of programs of American Indian and Native American studies at North American universities, a development intended to increase the numbers of Native American college students. Another effect has been to discourage American Indian students from pursuing academic interests in anthropology, something that American Indian anthropologists have decried.


Although often framed in terms positive to Indian interests, most significant nineteenth-century U.S. legislation aimed to dispossess Indians of their lands for the benefit of non-Indians. For example, the 1830 Indian Removal Act promised southeastern Indians ownership of land in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), but those who did not accede to its terms were rounded up (some escaped) and forced to walk to Indian Territory, causing thousands of deaths. Even when aboriginal peoples agreed to cede lands, it was usually under intense pressure from non-Indians, often including both a military presence and payments to treaty signers. Moreover, the resulting reservation lands were often whittled away by official measures and encroachment. In addition, treaty provisions for food and medicine were often poorly enforced. As one-sided, deceptive, and coercive as the treaty process was, it at least recognized indigenous peoples as separate and capable of making their own decisions, and therefore gave them power to negotiate terms. The 1871 Indian Appropriation Act ended the power of Indians to make treaties, although it did give legal protection to those already made. In the same year, rules preventing Indians from leaving reservations ended.

In 1887 the U.S. Congress passed the General Allotment Act (also known as the Dawes Act), breaking up 118 reservations into individual parcels allotted to each family. The primary goal was to free up land for white settlers, since lands above and beyond those needed for each family allotment were considered “surplus” and were taken from the Indians and sold off. Native Americans lost 34,800,000 hectares, or 62 percent of reservation lands. The secondary goal was to assimilate Indians and acculturate them as farmers. Predictably, the first goal was met admirably, since in addition to the taking of lands, many Indians sold their lands or lost them due to their inability to pay the taxes on them. The second goal was rarely met. Indian poverty and misery both increased, due in part to the allotments’ effects on social unity and the loss of resources. Because the Dawes Act made no provision for later generations, many people had no land of their own.

The 1934 Indian Reorganization Act encouraged U.S. Indians to adopt a federally prescribed means of choosing leaders and forming governments to ensure democratic elections and governments where sometimes none had previously existed. This arrangement was accepted by approximately three-quarters of all U.S. Indian groups. Although representing an advance in democracy, it must be said that this measure also represented a change of the culture and a step back from independence. The question of what is best for a people is not clear-cut, and often this exact question divides communities. This legislation and other rules also created administrative units for American Indian governments based upon the concept of a tribe, a concept that despite popular opinion applies to few Amerindians. What people think of as a “tribe” is usually only a class of people speaking the same language. To call these “tribes” is comparable to thinking of all U.S. citizens, New Zealanders, South Africans, and so on as a single group because they all speak English. Traditional means of dealing with social frictions became useless in these new larger “tribes.” Nowadays, these groups possess more political power as a result of their greater size.

In 1953 and 1954 the U.S. Congress voted to terminate federal controls over many American Indians, prompting considerable outcry from Native Americans and others. As much as Native Americans dislike and distrust the federal government, they realize that they benefit from its oversight, financial assistance, and protections, and many groups split apart as a result of this program.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA) grants Indians in the United States rights over some human remains of ancestors and religious and culturally central objects. This legislation has allowed Indian peoples to reacquire many of these objects from federally funded institutions such as museums, as well as to gain legal standing to do such things as challenge the treatment of Kennewick Man, an ancient skeleton found in 1996 near the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington.

From the 1970s onward, Congress chose to support tribal autonomy by encouraging and financing tribal courts. For many types of offenses, both the federal government and the tribal government have jurisdiction. Tribal courts decide many issues pertaining to disputes between Indians on the reservation, but cannot deal with the most serious crimes. These courts also have jurisdiction over disputes involving contracts between Indians and non-Indians on the reservation, which has led many non-Indian entrepreneurs to avoid doing business with Page 428  |  Top of ArticleIndians on reservations, and which therefore must be considered a reason for poor economic development there. Unfortunately, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is accountable for the operation of these courts, has not always ensured that the courts operate according to the principles of procedure and justice upheld elsewhere in the United States.

The 1990s began to see U.S. courts interpret treaty rights liberally in favor of Indians. In Minnesota et al. v. Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians et al., 526 U.S. 172 (1999), the U.S. Supreme Court decided that even though the Mille Lacs Chippewa in their 1855 treaty with the United States relinquished “all” of their interests in Minnesota lands, this did not include their rights to hunt, fish, and gather.

Although American Indians are among the poorest people in the United States, conditions are improving. Unemployment, domestic crowding, and poverty rates are dropping, educational levels are rising, and incomes are increasing at three times the rate of the general U.S. population. And whereas more than half of the American Indian population in the United States lived in cities in the 1980s, by 2000 people were moving back to the reservations in large numbers. Even Shannon County, one of the country’s poorest, which lies in Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, saw its population rise by more than a fourth between 1990 and 2000. One of several reasons for this growth is the employment opportunities accompanying newfound wealth deriving from the more than four hundred Indian casinos in twenty-eight states. In 2005 these casinos earned profits of $20 billion. While some Native American communities have become very wealthy because of their casinos, many other American Indian groups, particularly the poorest rural ones, have lost money with their casinos, and many of these have closed. And despite the fact that Indians acquired the right to operate casinos because of their “limited sovereignty,” states can still prevent and regulate casinos within their borders. Utah, for this reason, has no Indian casinos. Those groups with profitable casinos have used the money to build houses, fund education, create employment, and buy influence; in 2004 Indians gave $8.6 million to political candidates.

Cultural retention remains important to many Indians. Partly for reasons of pride in themselves, their people, and their history, many Indians are careful to teach their children about their traditions, language, and values both at home and in some reservation schools, partly as a way to counter the influences of Euro-American culture in schools, off the reservations, and especially on television. Others wish to retain culture for political reasons, now that most aboriginal North Americans dress the same way other Americans do, live in the same kinds of houses, and so on. Some worry that non-Indian Americans will argue that Indians do not differ from other Americans, and therefore do not deserve special rights. But on this matter, like all matters pertaining to the future of Indian people in North America, there are as many opinions as there are Native American individuals. Some Indian parents, even ones whose first languages are indigenous, go out of their way to speak to their children in English, believing that success in English is paramount to economic success in the United States and that knowledge of an Indian language represents an impediment. Although culture loss is lamentable, the fact that aboriginal peoples are attempting in myriad ways to succeed in this changing modern world must be viewed positively.


Deloria, Vine, Jr. 1969. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. New York: Macmillan.

Fagan, Brian. 2005. Ancient North America: The Archaeology of a Continent. 4th ed. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Fenton, William N. 1998. The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Krech, Shepard, III. 1999. The Ecological Indian: Myth and History. New York: Norton.

Kroeber, Alfred Louis. 1925. Handbook of the Indians of California. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Llewellyn, Karl N., and E. Adamson Hoebel. 1941. The Cheyenne Way: Conflict and Case Law in Primitive Jurisprudence. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Mooney, James. [1896] 1965. The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

O’Brien, Sharon. 1989. American Indian Tribal Governments. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Spicer, Edward H. 1962. Cycles of Conquest: The Impact of Spain, Mexico, and the United States on the Indians of the Southwest, 1533–1960. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Sturtevant, William C., et al., eds. 1978–2004. Handbook of North American Indians. 20 vols. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Swanton, John Reed. 1911. Indian Tribes of the Lower Mississippi Valley and Adjacent Coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Daniel P. Strouthes

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3045301704