Native Americans in the United States facts for kids
|American Indian and Alaska Native
One race: 2.5 million are registered
In combination with one or more other races: 1.6 million are registered
1.37% of the US population
|Regions with significant populations|
| United States
(predominantly the West and South)
Native American languages
|Related ethnic groups|
|Indigenous peoples of the Americas|
Native Americans in the United States are the indigenous peoples from the areas of North America now part of the continental United States, including parts of Alaska. The Cherokee were the first Native Americans to be recognized as US citizens. In the 19th century white colonists called the Cherokee one of the Five Civilized Tribes. The others were Chicksaw, Chocktaw, Creek, and Seminole.
There are about 310 Indian reservations in the US. Most Native Americans do not live on a reservation anymore.
European colonization of the Americas led to centuries of conflict and adjustment between Old and New World societies. Most of the written historical record about Native Americans was made by Europeans after initial contact. Native Americans lived in hunter/farmer subsistence societies with significantly different value systems than those of the European colonists. The differences in culture between the Native Americans and Europeans, and the shifting alliances among different nations of each culture, led to great misunderstandings and long lasting cultural conflicts.
Estimates of the pre-Columbian population of what today constitutes the United States of America vary significantly, ranging from 1 million to 18 million.
After the colonies revolted against Great Britain and established the United States of America, the ideology of Manifest destiny became integral to the American nationalist movement. In the late 18th century, George Washington and Henry Knox conceived of the idea of "civilizing" Native Americans in preparation of American citizenship. Assimilation (whether voluntary as with the Choctaw, or forced) became a consistent policy through American administrations. In the early decades of the 19th century, Native Americans of the American Deep South were removed from their homelands to accommodate American expansion. By the American Civil War, many Native American nations had been relocated west of the Mississippi River. Major Native American resistance took place in the form of "Indian Wars," which were frequent up until the 1890s.
Society, language, and culture
Far from forming a single ethnic group, Native Americans were divided into several hundred ethno-linguistic groups, most of them grouped into the Na-Dené (Athabaskan), Algic (including Algonquian), Uto-Aztecan, Iroquoian, Siouan-Catawban, Yok-Utian, Salishan and Yuman-Cochimí phyla, besides many smaller groups and several language isolates. Demonstrating genetic relationships has proved difficult due to the great linguistic diversity present in North America.
The indigenous peoples of North America can be classified as belonging to a number of large cultural areas:
- Alaska Natives
- Arctic: Eskimo-Aleut
- Subarctic: Northern Athabaskan
- Western United States
- Central United States
- Eastern United States
Of the surviving 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); Nadene comes in second with approximately 180,200 speakers (148,500 of these are speakers of Navajo). 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). Another area of considerable diversity appears to have been the Southeast; however, many of these languages became extinct from European contact and as a result they are, for the most part, absent from the historical record.
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 hunter-gatherer tribes made stone weapons from around 10,000 years ago; as the age of metallurgy dawned, newer technologies were used and more efficient weapons produced. Prior to contact with Europeans, most tribes used similar weaponry. The most common implements were the bow and arrow, the war club, and the spear. Quality, material, and design varied widely. Native American use of fire both helped provide insects for food and altered the landscape of the continent to help the human population flourish.
Large mammals like mammoths and mastodons were largely extinct by around 8,000 B.C. Native Americans switched to hunting other large game, such as bison. The Great Plains tribes were still hunting the bison when they first encountered the Europeans. Acquiring horses from the Spanish and learning to ride in the 17th century greatly altered the natives' culture, changing the way in which they hunted large game. In addition, horses became a central feature of Native lives and a measure of wealth.
Early European American scholars described the Native Americans as having a society dominated by clans or gentes before tribes were formed. There were some common characteristics:
- The right to elect its sachem and chiefs.
- The right to depose its sachem and chiefs.
- The obligation not to marry in the gens.
- Mutual rights of inheritance of the property of deceased members.
- Reciprocal obligations of help, defense, and redress of injuries.
- The right to bestow names on its members.
- The right to adopt strangers into the gens.
- Common religious rights, query.
- A common burial place.
- A council of the gens.
Subdivision and differentiation took place between various groups. Upwards of forty stock languages developed in North America, with each independent tribe speaking a dialect of one of those languages. Some functions and attributes of tribes are:
- The possession of the gentes.
- The right to depose these sachems and chiefs.
- The possession of a religious faith and worship.
- A supreme government consisting of a council of chiefs.
- A head-chief of the tribe in some instances.
Society and art
The Iroquois, living around the Great Lakes and extending east and north, used strings or belts called wampum that served a dual function: the knots and beaded designs mnemonically chronicled tribal stories and legends, and further served as a medium of exchange and a unit of measure. The keepers of the articles were seen as tribal dignitaries.
Pueblo peoples crafted impressive items associated with their religious ceremonies. Kachina dancers wore elaborately painted and decorated masks as they ritually impersonated various ancestral spirits. Sculpture was not highly developed, but carved stone and wood fetishes were made for religious use. Superior weaving, embroidered decorations, and rich dyes characterized the textile arts. Both turquoise and shell jewelry were created, as were high-quality pottery and formalized pictorial arts.
Navajo spirituality focused on the maintenance of a harmonious relationship with the spirit world, often achieved by ceremonial acts, usually incorporating sandpainting. The colors—made from sand, charcoal, cornmeal, and pollen—depicted specific spirits. These vivid, intricate, and colorful sand creations were erased at the end of the ceremony.
Native American agriculture started about 7,000 years ago in the area of present-day Illinois. The first crop the Native Americans grew was squash. This was the first of several crops the Native Americans learned to domesticate. Others included cotton, sunflower, pumpkins, tobacco, goosefoot, and sump weed.
Agriculture in the southwest started around 4,000 years ago when traders brought cultigens from Mexico. Due to the varying climate, some ingenuity was needed for agriculture to be successful. The climate in the southwest ranged from cool, moist mountains regions, to dry, sandy soil in the desert. Some innovations of the time included irrigation to bring water into the dry regions and the selection of seed based on the traits of the growing plants that bore them. In the southwest, they grew beans that were self-supported, much like the way they are grown today.
In the east, however, they were planted right by corn in order for the vines to be able to "climb" the cornstalks. The most important crop the Native Americans raised was maize. It was first started in Mesoamerica and spread north. About 2,000 years ago it reached eastern America. This crop was important to the Native Americans because it was part of their everyday diet; it could be stored in underground pits during the winter, and no part of it was wasted. The husk was made into art crafts, and the cob was used as fuel for fires. By 800 A.D. the Native Americans had established three main crops — beans, squash, and corn — called the three sisters.
The agriculture gender roles of the Native Americans varied from region to region. In the southwest area, men prepared the soil with hoes. The women were in charge of planting, weeding, and harvesting the crops. In most other regions, the women were in charge of doing everything, including clearing the land. Clearing the land was an immense chore since the Native Americans rotated fields frequently. There is a tradition that Squanto showed the Pilgrims in New England how to put fish in fields to act like a fertilizer, but the truth of this story is debated. Native Americans did plant beans next to corn; the beans would replace the nitrogen which the corn took from the ground, as well as using corn stalks for support for climbing. Indians used controlled fires to burn weeds and clear fields; this would put nutrients back into the ground. If this did not work, they would simply abandon the field to let it be fallow, and find a new spot for cultivation.
Europeans in the eastern part of the continent observed that Natives cleared large areas for cropland. Their fields in New England sometimes covered hundreds of acres. Colonists in Virginia noted thousands of acres under cultivation by Native Americans.
Native Americans commonly used tools such as the hoe, maul, and dibber. The hoe was the main tool used to till the land and prepare it for planting; then it was used for weeding. The first versions were made out of wood and stone. When the settlers brought iron, Native Americans switched to iron hoes and hatchets. The dibber was a digging stick, used to plant the seed. Once the plants were harvested, women prepared the produce for eating. They used the maul to grind the corn into mash. It was cooked and eaten that way or baked as corn bread.
The Midewiwin Lodge is a traditional medicine society inspired by the oral traditions and prophesies of the Ojibwa (Chippewa) and related tribes. Traditional practices include the burning of sacred herbs (tobacco, sweetgrass, sage, etc.), the sweatlodge, fasting (paramount in "vision quests"), singing and drumming, and the smoking of natural tobacco in a pipe. A practitioner of Native American spiritualities and religions may incorporate all, some or none of these into their personal or tribal rituals.
Another significant religious body among Native peoples is known as the Native American Church. It is a syncretistic church incorporating elements of native spiritual practice from a number of different tribes as well as symbolic elements from Christianity.
Native Americans are the only known ethnic group in the United States requiring a federal permit to practice their religion. The eagle feather law stipulates that only individuals of certifiable Native American ancestry enrolled in a federally recognized tribe are legally authorized to obtain eagle feathers for religious or spiritual use. Native Americans and non-Native Americans frequently contest the value and validity of the eagle feather law, charging that the law is laden with discriminatory racial preferences and infringes on tribal sovereignty. The law does not allow Native Americans to give eagle feathers to non-Native Americans, a common modern and traditional practice. Many non-Native Americans have been adopted into Native American families, made tribal members and given eagle feathers.
Most Native American tribes had traditional gender roles. In some tribes, such as the Iroquois nation, social and clan relationships were matrilineal and/or matriarchal, although several different systems were in use. One example is the Cherokee custom of wives owning the family property. Men hunted, traded and made war, while women gathered plants, cared for the young and the elderly, fashioned clothing and instruments and cured meat. The cradleboard was used by mothers to carry their baby while working or traveling. However, in some (but not all) tribes a kind of transgender was permitted called Two-Spirit.
Apart from making home, women had many tasks that were essential for the survival of the tribes. They made weapons and tools, took care of the roofs of their homes and often helped their men hunt bison. In some of the Plains Indian tribes there reportedly were medicine women who gathered herbs and cured the ill.
In some of these tribes such as the Sioux girls were also encouraged to learn to ride, hunt and fight. Though fighting was mostly left to the boys and men, there had been cases of women fighting alongside them, especially when the existence of the tribe was threatened.
Native American leisure time led to competitive individual and team sports. Early accounts include team games played between tribes with hundreds of players on the field at once. Jim Thorpe, Notah Begay III, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Billy Mills are well known professional athletes.
Native American ball sports, sometimes referred to as lacrosse, stickball, or baggataway, was often used to settle disputes rather than going to war which was a civil way to settle potential conflict. The Choctaw called it ISITOBOLI ("Little Brother of War"); the Onondaga name was DEHUNTSHIGWA'ES ("men hit a rounded object"). There are three basic versions classifed as Great Lakes, Iroquoian, and Southern. The game is played with one or two rackets/sticks and one ball. The object of the game is to land the ball on the opposing team's goal (either a single post or net) to score and prevent the opposing team from scoring on your goal. The game involves as few as twenty or as many as 300 players with no height or weight restrictions and no protective gear. The goals could be from a few hundred feet apart to a few miles; in Lacrosse the field is 110 yards. A Jesuit priest referenced stickball in 1729, and George Catlin painted the subject.
Chunke was a game that consisted of a stone shaped disk that was about 1–2 inches in length. The disk was thrown down a 200-foot (61 m) corridor so that it could roll past the players at great speed. The disk would roll down the corridor, and players would throw wooden shafts at the moving disk. The object of the game was to strike the disk or prevent your opponents from hitting it.
Music and art
Traditional Native American music is almost entirely monophonic, but there are notable exceptions. Native American music often includes drumming and/or the playing of rattles or other percussion instruments but little other instrumentation. Flutes and whistles made of wood, cane, or bone are also played, generally by individuals, but in former times also by large ensembles (as noted by Spanish conquistador de Soto). The tuning of these flutes is not precise and depends on the length of the wood used and the hand span of the intended player, but the finger holes are most often around a whole step apart and, at least in Northern California, a flute was not used if it turned out to have an interval close to a half step.
Performers with Native American parentage have occasionally appeared in American popular music, such as Robbie Robertson (The Band), Rita Coolidge, Wayne Newton, Gene Clark, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Blackfoot, Tori Amos, Redbone, and CocoRosie. Some, such as John Trudell, have used music to comment on life in Native America, and others, such as R. Carlos Nakai integrate traditional sounds with modern sounds in instrumental recordings. A variety of small and medium-sized recording companies offer an abundance of recent music by Native American performers young and old, ranging from pow-wow drum music to hard-driving rock-and-roll and rap.
The most widely practiced public musical form among Native Americans in the United States is that of the pow-wow. At pow-wows, such as the annual Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque, New Mexico, members of drum groups sit in a circle around a large drum. Drum groups play in unison while they sing in a native language and dancers in colorful regalia dance clockwise around the drum groups in the center. Familiar pow-wow songs include honor songs, intertribal songs, crow-hops, sneak-up songs, grass-dances, two-steps, welcome songs, going-home songs, and war songs. Most indigenous communities in the United States also maintain traditional songs and ceremonies, some of which are shared and practiced exclusively within the community.
Native American art comprises a major category in the world art collection. Native American contributions include pottery(Native American pottery), paintings, jewellery, weavings, sculptures, basketry, and carvings. Franklin Gritts, was a Cherokee artist, who taught students from many tribes at Haskell Institute (now Haskell Indian Nations University) in the 1940s, the Golden Age of Native American painters.
The integrity of certain Native American artworks is now protected by an act of Congress that prohibits representation of art as Native American when it is not the product of an enrolled Native American artist.
The Inuit, or Eskimo, prepared and buried large amounts of dried meat and fish. Pacific Northwest tribes crafted seafaring dugouts 40–50 feet long for fishing. Farmers in the Eastern Woodlands tended fields of maize with hoes and digging sticks, while their neighbors in the Southeast grew tobacco as well as food crops. On the Plains, some tribes engaged in agriculture but also planned buffalo hunts in which herds were driven over bluffs. Dwellers of the Southwest deserts hunted small animals and gathered acorns to grind into flour with which they baked wafer-thin bread on top of heated stones. Some groups on the region's mesas developed irrigation techniques, and filled storehouses with grain as protection against the area's frequent droughts.
In the early years, as these 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.
Images for kids
This map shows the approximate location of the ice-free corridor and specific Paleoindian sites (Clovis theory).
Totem poles in Wrangell, Alaska.
The Great House at the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.
Benjamin Hawkins, seen here on his plantation, teaches Creek Native Americans how to use European technology. Painted in 1805.
A student acting as Chief Osceola, the Florida State University mascot
Oklahoma Cherokee language immersion school student writing in the Cherokee syllabary.
The Cherokee language taught to preschoolers as a first language, at Kituwah Academy
Makah Native Americans and a whale, pictured in 1910 by Asahel Curtis. (The photo's title is The King of the Seas in the Hands of the Makahs.)
Charles Eastman was one of the first Native Americans to become certified as a medical doctor, after he graduated from Boston University.
Buffalo Soldiers, 1890. The nickname was given to the "Black Cavalry" by the Native American tribes they fought.
Members of the Creek (Muscogee) Nation in Oklahoma around 1877; they include men with some European and African ancestry.
White House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Native Americans in the United States Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.