Native Americans in the United States

Native Americans
Total population
American Indian and Alaska Native (2010 Census Bureau) [1]
One race: 2,932,248 are registered
In combination with one or more of the other races listed: 2,288,331
Total: 5,220,579
Regions with significant populations
Predominantly in the Western United States; small but significant communities also exist in the Eastern United States
Native American languages (including Navajo, Central Alaskan Yup'ik, Dakota, Western Apache, Keres, Cherokee, Zuni, Ojibwe, O'odham [2]), English, Spanish, French
Related ethnic groups
Aboriginal peoples in Canada, Indigenous peoples of the Americas, Metis, Mestizo, Native American Latin Americans

In the United States, Native Americans (also known as American Indians, Amerindians or simply Indians; see §Terminology differences) are people descended from the Pre-Columbian indigenous population of the land within the country's modern boundaries. These peoples were composed of numerous distinct tribes, bands, and ethnic groups, and many of these groups survive intact today as partially sovereign nations.

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. Most Native American groups had historically preserved their histories by oral traditions and artwork, which has resulted in the first written sources on the conflict being authored by Europeans. [3]

At the time of first contact, the indigenous cultures were quite different from those of the proto-industrial and mostly Christian immigrants. Some of the Northeastern and Southwestern cultures in particular were matrilineal and operated on a more collective basis than the Europeans were familiar with. The majority of Indigenous American tribes maintained their hunting grounds and agricultural lands for use of the entire tribe. Europeans at that time had patriarchal cultures and 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, as well as 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 European diseases spread throughout the Americas by the Spanish to which they had yet not acquired immunity. Smallpox epidemics are thought to have caused the greatest loss of life for indigenous populations, although estimates of the pre-Columbian population of what today constitutes the U.S. vary significantly, from one million to eighteen million. [4] [5]

After the thirteen colonies revolted against Great Britain and established the United States, President George Washington and Henry Knox conceived of the idea of "civilizing" Native Americans in preparation for assimilation as U.S. citizens. [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] Assimilation (whether voluntary, as with the Choctaw, [11] [12] 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.

As American expansion reached into the West, settler and miner migrants came into increasing conflict with the Great Basin, Great Plains, and other Western tribes. These were complex nomadic cultures based on ( introduced) horse culture and seasonal bison hunting. They carried out resistance against United States incursion in the decades after the completion of the Civil War and the Transcontinental Railroad in a series of Indian Wars, which were frequent up until the 1890s but continued into the 20th century. Over time, the United States forced a series of treaties and land cessions by the tribes and established reservations for them in many western states. U.S. agents encouraged Native Americans to adopt European-style farming and similar pursuits, but European-American agricultural technology of the time was inadequate for often dry reservation lands, leading to mass starvation. In 1924, Native Americans who were not already U.S. citizens were granted citizenship by Congress.

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. 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; [13] established Native American studies programs, tribal schools and universities, and museums and language programs; and have increasingly been published as authors.

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 been adopted by major newspapers and some academic groups, but 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.


Pre-Columbian Era

Main articles: Paleo-Indians and Pre-Columbian era
This map shows the approximate location of the ice-free corridor and specific Paleoindian sites ( Clovis theory).

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 Ice Age, and then spread southward throughout the Americas and possibly going as far south as the Antarctic peninsula. This migration may have begun as early as 30,000 years ago [14] and continued through to about 10,000+ years ago, when the land bridge became submerged by the rising sea level caused by the ending of the last glacial period. [15] These early inhabitants, called Paleoamericans, soon diversified into many hundreds of culturally distinct nations and tribes.

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' voyages of 1492 to 1504, 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 development prior to European contact

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; [16] see Archaeology of the Americas.

The Clovis culture, a megafauna hunting culture, is primarily identified by 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. 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).

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 indigenous peoples of the Americas, 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. [17] 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.

A Folsom point for a spear.

The Folsom Tradition was characterized by 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. [18]

Na-Dené-speaking peoples entered North America starting around 8000 BCE, reaching the Pacific Northwest by 5000 BCE, [19] and from there migrating along the Pacific Coast and into the interior. Linguists, anthropologists and archeologists 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.

They 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. [20] The Oshara Tradition people lived from 5500 BCE to 600 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.

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 the Americas 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 was abandoned about 2800 BCE, probably due to changing environmental conditions. [21]

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. [22] 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.

Totem poles in Wrangell, Alaska.

Poverty Point is a 1 square mile (2.6 km2) complex of six major earthwork concentric rings, with additional platform mounds at the site. Artifacts show the people traded with other Native Americans located from Georgia to the Great Lakes region. This is one among numerous mound sites of complex indigenous cultures throughout the Mississippi and Ohio valleys. They were one of several succeeding cultures often referred to as mound builders.

The Woodland period of North American pre-Columbian cultures refers to the time period from roughly 1000 BCE to 1,000 CE in the eastern part of North America. The term "Woodland" was coined in the 1930s and refers to prehistoric sites dated between the Archaic period and the Mississippian cultures. The Hopewell tradition is the term for the common aspects of the Native American culture that flourished along rivers in the northeastern and midwestern United States from 200 BCE to 500 CE. [23]

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 a special events. These events, such as, 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 Hopewell tradition was not a single culture or society, but a widely dispersed set of related populations, who were connected by a common network of trade routes, [24] known as the Hopewell Exchange System. At its greatest extent, the Hopewell exchange system ran from the Southeastern United States into the southeastern Canadian shores of Lake Ontario. Within this area, societies participated in a high degree of exchange; most activity was conducted along the waterways that served as their major transportation routes. The Hopewell exchange system traded materials from all over the United States.

Major cultures

Grave Creek Mound, located in Moundsville, West Virginia, is one of the largest conical mounds in the United States. It was built by the Adena culture.
  • Adena culture: The Adena culture was a Native American culture that existed from 1000 BC to 200 BC, in a time known as the Early Woodland period. The Adena culture refers to what were probably a number of related Native American societies sharing a burial complex and ceremonial system.
A map showing the extent of the Coles Creek cultural period and some important sites.
The Great House at the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.
  • Hohokam culture: The Hohokam was a culture centered along American Southwest. [25] The early Hohokam founded a series of small villages along the middle Gila River. They raised corn, squash and beans. The communities were located near good arable land, with dry farming common in the earlier years of this period. [25] They were known for their pottery, using the paddle-and-anvil technique. The Classical period of the culture saw the rise in architecture and ceramics. Buildings were grouped into walled compounds, as well as earthen platform mounds. Platform mounds were built along river as well as irrigation canal systems, suggesting these sites were administrative centers allocating water and coordinating canal labor. Polychrome pottery appeared, and inhumation burial replaced cremation. Trade included that of shells and other exotics. Social and climatic factors led to a decline and abandonment of the area after 1400 A.D.
Ancestral Puebloan archeological sites
Mississippian culture
Monks Mound of Cahokia ( UNESCO World Heritage Site) in summer. The concrete staircase follows the approximate course of the ancient wooden stairs.
An artistic recreation of The Kincaid Site from the prehistoric Mississippian culture as it may have looked at its peak 1050-1400 AD.
  • Mississippian culture: The Mississippian culture which extended throughout the Ohio and Mississippi valleys and built sites throughout the Southeast, created the largest earthworks in North America north of Mexico, most notably at Cahokia, on a tributary of the Mississippi River in present-day Illinois.
    • The ten-story Monks Mound at Cahokia has a larger circumference than the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan or the Great Pyramid of Egypt. The 6 square miles (16 km2) city complex was based on the culture's cosmology; it included more than 100 mounds, positioned to support their sophisticated knowledge of astronomy, and built with knowledge of varying soil types. The society began building at this site about 950 CE, and reached its peak population in 1,250 CE of 20,000–30,000 people, which was not equalled by any city in the present-day United States until after 1800.
    • Cahokia was a major regional chiefdom, with trade and tributary chiefdoms located in a range of areas from bordering the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.
    • Kincaid [27] c. 1050-1400 AD, [28] is one of the largest settlements of the Mississippian culture, it was located at the southern tip of present-day U.S. state of Illinois. Kincaid Mounds has been notable for both its significant role in native North American prehistory and for the central role the site has played in the development of modern archaeological techniques. The site had at least 11 substructure platform mounds (ranking fifth for mound-culture pyramids). Artifacts from the settlement link its major habitation and the construction of the mounds to the Mississippian period, but it was also occupied earlier during the Woodland period.
    • The Mississippian culture developed the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, the name which archeologists have given to the regional stylistic similarity of artifacts, iconography, ceremonies and mythology. The rise of the complex culture was based on the people's adoption of maize agriculture, development of greater population densities, and chiefdom-level complex social organization from 1200 CE to 1650 CE. [29] [30]
    • The Mississippian pottery are some of the finest and most widely spread ceramics north of Mexico. Cahokian pottery was espically fine, with smooth surfaces, very thin walls and distinctive tempering, slips and coloring. [31]
  • Iroquois Culture: The Iroquois League of Nations or "People of the Long House", based in present-day upstate and western New York, had a confederacy model from the mid-15th century. It has been suggested that their culture contributed to political thinking during the development of the later United States government. Their system of affiliation was a kind of federation, different from the strong, centralized European monarchies. [32] [33] [34]
    • Leadership was restricted to a group of 50 sachem chiefs, each representing one clan within a tribe. The Oneida and Mohawk people had nine seats each; the Onondagas held fourteen; the Cayuga had ten seats; and the Seneca had eight. Representation was not based on population numbers, as the Seneca tribe greatly outnumbered the others. When a sachem chief died, his successor was chosen by the senior woman of his tribe in consultation with other female members of the clan; property and hereditary leadership were passed matrilineally. Decisions were not made through voting but through consensus decision making, with each sachem chief holding theoretical veto power. The Onondaga were the " firekeepers", responsible for raising topics to be discussed. They occupied one side of a three-sided fire (the Mohawk and Seneca sat on one side of the fire, the Oneida and Cayuga sat on the third side.) [34]
    • Elizabeth Tooker, an anthropologist, has said that it was unlikely the US founding fathers were inspired by the confederacy, as it bears little resemblance to the system of governance adopted in the United States. For example, it is based on inherited rather than elected leadership, selected by female members of the tribes, consensus decision-making regardless of population size of the tribes, and a single group capable of bringing matters before the legislative body. [34]
    • Long-distance trading did not prevent warfare and displacement among the indigenous peoples, and their oral histories tell of numerous migrations to the historic territories where Europeans encountered them. The Iroquois invaded and attacked tribes in the Ohio River area of present-day Kentucky and claimed the hunting grounds. Historians have placed these events as occurring as early as the 13th century, or in the 17th century Beaver Wars. [35]
    • Through warfare, the Iroquois drove several tribes to migrate west to what became known as their historically traditional lands west of the Mississippi River. Tribes originating in the Ohio Valley who moved west included the Osage, Kaw, Ponca and Omaha people. By the mid-17th century, they had resettled in their historical lands in present-day Kansas, Nebraska, Arkansas and Oklahoma. The Osage warred with Caddo-speaking Native Americans, displacing them in turn by the mid-18th century and dominating their new historical territories. [35]

European exploration and colonization

Discovery of the Mississippi by William Henry Powell (1823–1879) is a Romantic depiction of de Soto's seeing the Mississippi River for the first time. It hangs in the United States Capitol rotunda.

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. [36]

Impact on native populations

From the 16th through the 19th centuries, the population of Indians sharply declined. [37] Most mainstream scholars believe that, among the various contributing factors, [38] 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. [39] [40] [41] [42] It is difficult to estimate the number of pre-Columbian Native Americans who were living in what is today the United States of America. [43] Estimates range from a low of 2.1 million to a high of 18 million ( Dobyns 1983). [4] [5] [44] 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. [45] Chicken pox and measles, endemic but rarely fatal among Europeans (long after being introduced from Asia), often proved deadly to Native Americans. [46] [47] [48] [49] 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. [50]

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 Jeffrey 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. [51] [52] [53]

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." [54] 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." [55] 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." [56]

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. [57] 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. [58]

Smallpox epidemics in 1780–82 and 1837–38 brought devastation and drastic depopulation among the Plains Indians. [59] [60] 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. [61] [62]

Animal introductions

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. [63] 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.

King Philip's War

Main article: King Philip's War

King Philip's War, also called Metacom's War or Metacom's Rebellion, was the last major armed [64] 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. [65]

Natural society

Further information: Great Law of Peace

Some European philosophers considered Native American societies to be truly "natural" and representative of a golden age known to them only in folk history. [66]

American Revolution

Yamacraw Creek Native Americans meet with the Trustee of the colony of Georgia in England, July 1734. The painting shows a Native American boy (in a blue coat) and woman (in a red dress) in European clothing.

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. [67]

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.

18th-century United States

The United States was eager to expand, to develop farming and settlements in new areas, and to satisfy 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. [68]

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. [7] Washington had a six-point plan for civilization which included:

  1. impartial justice toward Native Americans
  2. regulated buying of Native American lands
  3. promotion of commerce
  4. promotion of experiments to civilize or improve Native American society
  5. presidential authority to give presents
  6. punishing those who violated Native American rights. [9]
Benjamin Hawkins, seen here on his plantation, teaches Creek Native Americans how to use European technology. Painted in 1805.

In the late 18th century, reformers starting with Washington and Knox, [69] supported educating native children and adults, in efforts to "civilize" or otherwise assimilate Native Americans to 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 on Native American improvement. [70]

Following the US takeover of California, famine, violence and starvation caused the reduction of the indigenous population of California from 150,000 in 1848 to just 15,000 in 1900. During the California Gold Rush, many natives were killed by incoming settlers as well as California government financed and organized militia units. [71] 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 acts of genocide against the native people of California. [72] [73]

19th century

Tecumseh was the Shawnee leader of Tecumseh's War who attempted to organize an alliance of Native American tribes throughout North America. [74]

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 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. [75] This resulted in the Trail of Tears.

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. [76] Manifest Destiny had serious consequences for Native Americans, since continental expansion for the United States took place at the cost of their occupied land. [77]

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.

Mass grave for the dead Lakota following the Wounded Knee Massacre. The 1890 massacre took place during the Indian Wars in the 19th century

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. [78] Notable conflicts in this period include the Dakota War, Great Sioux War, Snake War and Colorado War. 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. [79]

Among the most notable events during the wars was the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. [80] 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. On December 29 during this attempt, gunfire erupted, and soldiers killed up to 300 Indians, mostly old men, women and children. [80]

Civil War

For more details on this topic, see Native Americans in the American Civil War.
Ely Parker was a Union Civil War General who wrote the terms of surrender between the United States and the Confederate States of America. [81]

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. [82] 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. [82] [83] 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. [83] [84] A few Native American tribes, such as the Creek and the Choctaw, were slaveholders and found a political and economic commonality with the Confederacy. [85] The Choctaw owned over 2,000 slaves. [86]

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 removal of the Cherokee by President Jackson to Indian Territory. [87] 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, [88] where, under armed guards, more than 3,500 Navajo and Mescalero Apache men, women, and children died from starvation and disease. [88]

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". [12] [89]

Factors establishing citizenship included:

  1. Treaty provision (as with the Cherokee)
  2. Registration and land allotment under the Dawes Act of February 8, 1887
  3. Issuance of Patent in Fee simple
  4. Adopting Habits of Civilized Life
  5. Minor Children
  6. Citizenship by Birth
  7. Becoming Soldiers and Sailors in the U.S. Armed Forces
  8. Marriage to a U.S. citizen
  9. 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". [90]

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. [91]


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. [92] 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. [93] [94] [95]

Before the 1930s, schools on the reservations provided no schooling beyond the sixth grade. To obtain more, boarding school was usually necessary. [96] Small reservations with a few hundred people usually send 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 BIA brought in progressive educators to reshape Indian education. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (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, make educated not only teenagers but also an adult audience. There were no Indian facilities for higher education. [97] [98] 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. [99]

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.

20th century

Charles Curtis, of Kaw, Osage, Potawatomi, French and British ancestry from Kansas, was 31st Vice President of the United States, 1929–1933, serving with Herbert Hoover.

On August 29, 1911, Ishi, generally considered to have been the last Native American to live most of his life without contact with European-American culture, was discovered near Oroville, California. [100] [101] [102]

In 1919, the United States under President Warren G. Harding 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. [103] 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 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. [104] [105] The Act extended citizenship to "all non-citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States." [103]

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. [106]

Mid-century, the Indian termination policy and the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 marked a new direction for assimilating Native Americans into urban life.

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. [107]

World War II

For more details on this topic, see Native Americans and World War II.
General Douglas MacArthur meeting Navajo, Pima, Pawnee and other Native American troops

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. [108] 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. [109]

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. [110] 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. [111]

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. [111]

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 in the FBI deaths. [112]

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. [113] 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. [114]

Tribal colleges

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. [115] 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.

21st century

Byron Mallott, an Alaska Native, is the current Democratic lieutenant governor of Alaska.

In 2009, an "apology to Native Peoples of the United States" was included in the defense appropriations act. It states 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. [116]

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. [117] [118]

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 Minneapolis, Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix, Tucson, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Houston, New York City, Los Angeles, and Rapid City. Many lived in poverty. Racism, unemployment, drugs and gangs were common problems which Indian social service organizations such as the Little Earth housing complex in Minneapolis attempted to address. [119] Grassroots efforts to support urban Indigenous populations have also taken place, as in the case of Bringing the Circle Together in Los Angeles.