Native American

Native Americans (also American Indians, Amerindians, Amerinds, or Red Indians) are indigenous peoples and descendants of those who lived in the Americas prior to the European colonization. Many of these tribally affiliated ethnic groups endure today as political communities. The name "Indians" was bestowed by Christopher Columbus, who mistakenly believed that the places he found them were among the islands to the southeast of Asia known to Europeans as the Indies. (See further discussion below).

Canadians generally use the term First Nations to refer to Native Americans; the Canadian Indian Act, however, which defines the rights of recognized First Nations, refers to them as Indians. In Alaska, because of legal use in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANSCA) and because of the presence of the Inuit, Yupik, and Aleut peoples, the term Alaskan Native predominates. In Canada, however, Inuit are not considered First Nations (neither are Métis).

The preferred term in Latin America for the original inhabitants of the Central and South America is Indigenous peoples. (See further discussion below.)

Native Americans officially make up the majority of the population in Bolivia, Peru and Guatemala and are significant in most other former Spanish colonies, with the exception of Costa Rica, Cuba, Argentina, Dominican Republic and Uruguay.

Early History

There are a number of theories about the arrival of Native Americans, and many are not mutually exclusive.

Perhaps the most prominent theory is a migration over Bering Land Bridge. There are other proposals:

Based on anthropological evidence, at least three distinct migrations from Siberia occurred. The first wave of migration came into a land populated by the large mammals of the late Pleistocene epoch, including mammoths, horses, giant sloths, and wooly rhinoceroses. The Clovis culture provides one example of such immigrants. Later the Folsom culture developed, based on the hunting of bison.

The second immigration wave comprised the Athabascan people, including the ancestors of the Apaches and Navajos; the third wave consisted of the Inuits, the Yupiks, and the Aleuts, who may have come by sea over the Bering Strait. The Athabascan peoples generally lived in Alaska and western Canada but some Athabascans migrated south as far as California and the American Southwest, and became the ancestors of tribes now there.

The descendants of the third wave are so ethnically distinct from the remainder of the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas that they are not usually included in the terms "American Indian" or "First Nations".

In recent years, anthropological evidence of migration has been supplemented by studies based on molecular genetics. The provisional results from this field suggest that four distinct migrations from Asia occurred; and, most surprisingly, provide evidence of smaller-scale, contemporaneous human migration from Europe. This suggests that the migrant population, living in Europe at the time of the most recent ice age, adopted a life-style resembling that lived by Inuits and Yupiks in recent centuries.

In the Mississippi valley of the United States, in Mexico and Central America, and in the Andes of South America Native American civilizations arose with farming cultures and city-states.

The Arrival of Europeans

The European colonization of the Americas forever changed the lives and cultures of the Native Americans. In the 15th to 19th centuries, their populations were decimated, by the privations of displacement, by disease, and in many cases by warfare with European groups and enslavement by them. The first Native American group encountered by Columbus, the 250,000 Arawaks of Haiti, were violently enslaved. Only 500 survived by the year 1550, and the group was totally extinct before 1650. Over the next 400 years, the experiences of other Native Americans with Europeans would not always amount to genocide, but they would typically be disastrous for the Native Americans.

In the 15th century Spaniards and other Europeans brought horses to the Americas. Some of these animals escaped their owners and began to breed and increase their numbers in the wild. Ironically, the horse had originally evolved in the Americas, but the last American horses died out at the end of the last ice age. The re-introduction of the horse, however, had a profound impact on Native American cultures in the Great Plains of North America. This new mode of travel made it possible for some tribes to greatly expand their territories, exchange goods with neighboring tribes and to more easily capture game.

Europeans also brought diseases against which the Native Americans had no immunity. Sometimes they did this intentionally, but often it was unintentional. Ailments such as chicken pox and measles, though common and rarely fatal among Europeans, often proved fatal to Native Americans. More deadly diseases such as smallpox were especially deadly to Native American populations. It is difficult to estimate the percentage of the total Native American population killed by these diseases, since waves of disease oftentimes preceded White scouts and often destroyed entire villages. Some historians have argued that more than 80% of some Indian populations may have died due to European-derived diseases. [See Jeffrey Amherst]

The first reported case of white men scalping Native Americans took place in New Hampshire colony on February 20, 1725, though it is thought that Indians learned scalping from Americans who, at times, collected them for bounties.

Four Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy sided with the British and the Tories of the American Revolutionary War. The colonists were especially outraged at the Wyoming Massacre and the Cherry Valley Massacre, which occurred in 1788. In 1799 Congress sent Major General John Sullivan on what has become known as the Sullivan Expedition to neutralize the Iroquois threat to the American side. The two allied nations were rewarded, at least temporarily by keeping title to their lands after the Revolution. The title was later purchased very cheaply by Massachusetts and sold off in the Phelps and Gorham Purchase and the Holland Purchase, after which by treaty, it became a part of New York State. The tribes were moved to reservations or sent westward. Part of the Cayuga Nation was granted a reservation in British Canada See also History of New York.

Outside of the United States, the descendants of the native Americans constitute the base of the population of the countries that long ago composed the Spanish Empire in America, excepting Argentina, Uruguay and the Caribbean ones. Two of the Amerindian languages, Quechua and Guarani have reached rank of co-officials in Latin American countries.

Living with a Young Nation (Native Americans and the U.S.)

In the 19th century, the army of the United States massacred Native Americans and confined survivors into reservations.

In the 19th century the burgeoning United States incrementally forced large numbers of Native Americans onto marginal lands in areas farther and farther west as European-American settlement of the young nation expanded in that direction. Conflicts widely reported at the time as Indian Wars broke out between US forces and many different tribes. Authorities entered numerous treaties during this period, but later abrogated many for various reasons. Well-known military engagements include an atypical Native American victory at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, and the massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee in 1890. On January 31, 1876 the United States government ordered all Native Americans to move into reservations or reserves. This set about the downturn of Prairie Culture that developed around the use of the horse for hunting, travel and trading.

American policy toward Native Americans has been an evolving process. In the late nineteenth century reformers in efforts to civilize Indians adapted the practice of educating native children in boarding schools. The experience in the boarding schools which existed from 1875 to 1928 was difficult for Indian children who were forbidden to speak their native languages and in numerous other ways forced to adopt European-American cultural practices.

Military defeat, cultural pressure, confinement on reservations, forced cultural assimilation, the outlawing of native languages and culture, forced sterilizations, termination policies of the 50's and 60's, and slavery have had deleterious effects on Native Americans' mental and ultimately physical health. Contemporary problems include poverty, alcoholism, heart disease, diabetes and New World Syndrome.

In the early 21st Century, Native American communities remain an enduring fixture on the American landscape, in the American economy and in the lives of Native Americans. Communities have consistently formed governments that administer services like firefighting, natural resource management and law enforcement. Most Native American communities have established court systems to adjudicate matters related to local ordinances, and most also look to various forms of moral and social authority vested in traditional affiliations within the community.

Gaming has become a leading industry. Casinos operated by many Native American governments in the United States are creating a stream of gaming revenue that some communities are beginning to use as leverage to build diversified economies. Native American communities have also waged and often prevailed in various legal battles to assure recognition of rights to self-determination and to use of various natural resources. Some of those rights, known as treaty rights are enumerated in early treaties signed with the young United States government. Tribal sovereignty has become a cornerstone of American jurisprudence, and at least on the face, in national legislative policies.

Culture and Arts

Native American music is almost entirely monophonic, but there are notable exceptions. Traditional Native American music often includes drumming but little other instrumentation, although flutes are played by individuals. 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, most notably Cher. 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.

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, paintings, jewelry, weavings, sculptures, basketry and carvings.

Artists have at times misrepresented themselves as having native parentage, most notably Johnny Cash, who traced his heritage to Scottish ancestors and admitted he fabricated a story that he was one-quarter Cherokee. 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.

What name best identifies this group of people?

The term "Native American" originated with anthropologists who preferred it to the former appellations of "Indian" or "American Indian", which they considered inaccurate, as these terms bear no relationship to the actual origins of Aboriginal Americans (or American Aborigines), and were born of the misapprehension on the part of Christopher Columbus, arriving at islands off the east coast of the North American continent, that he had reached the East Indies. The words "Indian" and "American Indian" continue in widespread use in North America, even amongst Native Americans themselves, many of whom do not feel offended by the terms.[1] But the appropriateness of this usage has become controversial since the late 20th century; many feel that the term "Indian" is undesirable as it is symbolic of the domination of these peoples by the European colonists. Others, in turn, resent criticism of their traditional way of speaking. ""Red Indian" is a common British term, useful in differentiating this group from a distinct group of people referred to as East Indians, but considered offensive in North America, where it is rarely if ever used. In the French language, the term Amérindien has been coined, and the English term Amerindian (sometimes abbreviated Amerind) is sometimes used in the social sciences in reference to all Native American peoples or cultures considered collectively.

One minority view has advocated the name "Asiatic Americans" as a more accurate term because of the popular theory that such peoples migrated to the Americas from Asia across an ice bridge covering the Bering Straits some 20,000 years ago. Competent fossil evidence supports the case for such a migration. However, this term is considered offensive by many American Indians because most native religions state that American Indians have been in the Western Hemisphere since the dawn of time. Furthermore, the strong tradition among archaeologists and anthropologists, is to indicate the geographic origins of a people as relating to the region where researchers first encountered them or their remains.

One difficulty with the term "Native American" as a substitute for "American Indian" lies in the fact that there exist several groups of people indisputably indigenous to the Americas, but who fall outside the classification of "American Indians", for example the Innu people of the Labrador/Quebec peninsula and the Inuit, Yupik, and Aleut peoples of the far north of the continent. Another argument is that any person born in America is native to it.

Another difficulty is that many Native American groups migrated (or were displaced) to their current locations after the start of European colonization, and therefore it can be argued that they have no more "native" ties to their current locations than do the Europeans. However, as they were moving within America, they remained native to the America.

Generally, most people wish that others use the name they give themselves.

Classification – United States and Canada

Ethnographers commonly classify the native peoples of the United States and Canada into ten geographical regions with shared cultural traits. The following list groups peoples by their region of origin, followed by the current location. See the individual article on each tribe for a history of their movements. The regions are:




Eastern Woodlands

Great Basin


Northwest Coast




Classification – Central and South America

Indians of Central and South America are generally classified by language, environment, and cultural similarities.





Central Amazon

Eastern and Southern Amazon

Southern Cone


For a general discussion, see Language families and languages


Mandrake Press Home Page
Mandrake Press Shop