Native Americans

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the historical context and current experience of Native Americans in the United States

Native Americans

The only nonimmigrant ethnic group in the United States, Native Americans once dominated the North American continent but by 2010 made up only 0.9 percent of U.S. populace (U.S. Census 2010). Currently, about 2.9 million people identify themselves as Native American alone, while an additional 2.3 million identify them as Native American mixed with another ethnic group (Norris, Vines, and Hoeffel 2012).

How and Why They Came

The earliest immigrants to America arrived millennia before European immigrants. Dates of the migration are debated, with estimates ranging from between 45,000 and 12,000 BCE. It is thought that these early migrants came across a land bridge from present-day Siberia in search of big game to hunt, which they found in huge herds of grazing herbivores in the Americas. Over the centuries and then the millennia, Native American culture blossomed into an intricate web of hundreds of interconnected tribes, each with its own customs, traditions, languages, and religions.

History of Intergroup Relations

Native American culture prior to European settlement is referred to as Pre-Columbian; that is, prior to the coming of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Mistakenly believing that he had landed in the East Indies, Columbus named the indigenous people “Indians,” a name that has persisted for centuries, despite being a geographical misnomer and one used to blanket 500 distinct groups who each have their own languages and traditions.

The history of intergroup relations between European colonists and Native Americans is a brutal one. As discussed in the section on genocide, one effect of European settlement in the Americas was to nearly destroy the indigenous population. Native Americans’ lack of immunity to European diseases caused the most deaths, but overt mistreatment of Native Americans by Europeans was devastating as well.

From the first Spanish colonists to the French, English, and Dutch who followed, European settlers took what land they wanted and expanded across the continent at will. If indigenous people tried to retain their stewardship of the land, Europeans fought them off with superior weapons. A key element of this issue is the indigenous view of land and land ownership. Most tribes considered the earth a living entity whose resources they were the stewards of. Europeans’ domination of the Americas was one of conquest. One scholar points out that Native Americans are the only minority group in the United States whose subordination occurred purely through conquest by the dominant group (Marger 1993).

After the establishment of the United States government, discrimination against Native Americans was codified and formalized in a series of laws intended to subjugate them and keep them from gaining any power. For example:

  • The Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced the relocation of any native tribes east of the Mississippi River to lands west of the river.
  • The Indian Appropriation Acts (1851, 1871, 1885, and 1889) funded further removals and declared that no Indian tribe could be recognized as an independent nation with which the U.S. government would have to make treaties. This made it even easier for the U.S. government to take land.
  • The Dawes Act of 1887 reversed the policy of isolating Native Americans on reservations, instead forcing them onto individual properties that were intermingled with white settlers, thereby reducing their capacity for power as a group.

Native American culture was further eroded by the establishment of Indian boarding schools in the late nineteenth century. These schools, run by both Christian missionaries and the United States government, had the express purpose of “civilizing” Native American children and assimilating them into white society with the infamous slogan, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” The boarding schools were located off-reservation to ensure that children were separated from their families and culture. Schools forced children to cut their hair, speak English, and practice Christianity. Physical and sexual abuses were rampant for decades; only in 1987 did the Bureau of Indian Affairs issue a policy on sexual abuse in boarding schools. Some scholars argue that many of the problems that Native Americans face today result from almost a century of mistreatment at these boarding schools.

Although many Native Americans were already U.S. citizens through marriage, military service, or accepting land allotments, it wasn’t until 1924 and the Indian Citizenship Act that all Native Americans were granted citizenship. American Indians today have all the rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, can vote in elections, and run for political office, but controversies remain over how much jurisdiction the federal government has over tribal affairs, sovereignty, and cultural practices. Many Native Americans served in the American armed forces during World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945). Hundreds of Cherokee, Choctaw, and Navajo service members (among others) utilized their tribal languages in the unique and vital “code talker” program, which provided a means of transmitting messages during combat operations that could not be deciphered by enemy forces.

Current Status

The eradication of Native American culture continued until the 1960s, when Native Americans were able to participate in and benefit from the Civil Rights Movement. The Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 guaranteed Native American tribes most of the rights enumerated in the United States Bill of Rights. New laws like the Indian Self-Determination Act and the Education Assistance Act (both 1975) recognized tribal governments and gave them more power. Indian boarding schools have dwindled to only a few, and Native American cultural groups are striving to preserve and maintain old traditions and tribal languages to keep them from being lost forever.

It wasn’t until 2009 that an “apology to Native Peoples of the United States” was included in the text of the 2010 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.”

Today, Native Americans (some of whom now wished to be called “American Indians” so as to avoid the “savage” connotations of the term “native”) still suffer the effects of centuries of degradation. There are over five million Native Americans in the United States, 78% of whom live outside reservations. Generational poverty, inadequate education, cultural dislocation, and high rates of unemployment contribute to Native American populations falling to the bottom of the economic spectrum.

Graph titled, "Median household income for Native Americans and total population (2016 dollars), 2005-2016". Shows that the median income for Native Americans remains roughly $15,000 or $20,000 below the total population whose median income is around $55,000 to $60,000.
Figure 1. Median household income of Native Americans remains significantly lower than the total population. Source: The Economic Policy Institute,
Native American populations also have lower life expectancies than most groups in the United States, and high rates of suicide, particularly among 18-24 year olds, is a growing concern. Recent large-scale research from the University of Arizona has found comparable rates of alcohol use between Native Americans and other racial groups, which calls into question the stereotypes of rampant alcoholism among Native Americans (for more information on the study, watch a summary video clip of the University of Arizona research). 
Native Americans continue to have a complicated relationship with the U.S. government. Much can be learned from the variety of Native American tribes, including a worldview that sees the natural environment as something we are entrusted to care for and maintain for future generations, an ethos expressed by the following: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” 

Sports Teams with Native American Names

In figure (a), a Native American man sits facing the camera. Figure (b) is a photograph of a baseball stadium during an active game.
Figure 2. Many Native Americans (and others) believe sports teams with names like the Indians, Braves, and Warriors perpetuate unwelcome stereotypes. (Photo (a) courtesy of public domain/Wikimedia Commons; Photo (b) courtesy of Chris Brown/flickr)

The sports world abounds with team names like Indians, Warriors, Braves, Seminoles, and even Savages and Redskins. These names arise from historically prejudiced views of Native Americans as fierce, brave savages, attributes that might be beneficial to a sports team, but which are offensive to many Native Americans and others in the United States who seek to distance themselves from these stereotypical views. In college sports, the Florida State Seminoles’ fans do a “tomahawk chop.” Many see this as an instance of cultural appropriation and a de-contextualization of Native American history.

Since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) has been campaigning against the use of such mascots, asserting that the “warrior savage myth . . . reinforces the racist view that Indians are uncivilized and uneducated and it has been used to justify policies of forced assimilation and destruction of Indian culture” (NCAI Resolution #TUL-05-087 2005). The campaign has met with only limited success. While some teams have changed their names, hundreds of professional, college, and K–12 school teams still have names derived from this stereotype. Another group, American Indian Cultural Support (AICS), is especially concerned with the use of such names at K–12 schools, where this practice might influence children and young adults in the very place where they should be gaining a fuller and more realistic understanding of Native American history and culture.

What do you think about such names and/or gestures? Should they be allowed or banned? What argument would a symbolic interactionist make on this topic? How would a functionalist or conflict theorist approach this topic?

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