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5.1: History and Demographics

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    Introduction to American Indian/Native American Studies

    "Powerful storytelling can create pathways of empathy and understanding across cultural, racial and socioeconomic divides that were built up to keep us separated from one another.” -Frank Waln from In Their Own Words

    -American Writers Museum May 2, 2019

    As a special note to the reader, we the authors of this chapter will be using Indian, American Indian, Native, and Native American interchangeably throughout this chapter. We humbly realize that we cannot cover everything there is to know about American Indian Studies/Native American Studies in this one single chapter. The information provided is meant to be an overview of the foundational knowledge in this core discipline area of Ethnic Studies: American Indian/Native American Studies. We would like to encourage you to take Native American Studies courses, and do your own research about any of the content and topics raised in this chapter.

    Land Acknowledgement

    "That was our hunting ground and you have taken it from us. This is what sits heavy [on our hearts] and the hearts of all nations." - Cornstalk, Shawnee chief

    The greatest struggle for American Indians has been over their land. To understand this struggle is to understand our genocidal history and the role we have played and continue to play in systems in which power and resources, such as land, are distributed unequally.

    The authors of this chapter acknowledge that we are writing in the unceded territory of California, home to nearly 200 tribal nations. We acknowledge and honor the original inhabitants of our various regions. By taking a moment to honor these ancestral grounds that we are on, we support the resilience and strength that all Indigenous people have shown worldwide. The Miwok are one of the tribal nations in our area. Below is a photo of a bust of a Miwok dancer done by Miwok artist Jim Plamondon.

    Sculpture at Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park located in California's Sierra Nevada foothills
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Miwok Dancer Bust done in Metal by Artist Jim Plamondon dedicated in 1992, 2012. (Public Domain; Carol Highsmith via Wikimedia Commons)

    Land Acknowledgement Statements must be created in collaboration with local sovereign tribal nations. Land Acknowledgement Statements should be read at the beginning of meetings, events, graduation, orientation, convocation and be included on your college's website and course syllabi. These statements are important because they recognize that local tribes continue to exist and are part of the community. Contacting local tribes is the first step in this collaboration, which has the capacity to result in a great opportunity to build a working relationship and help serve Native American students on your campus.

    If you are interested in finding out what Indigenous lands your U. S. city are on, please text your city name and state (e.g., Long Beach, California) to (907) 312 - 5085. This chapter will use the terms Native Americans and AI/AN (American Indian/Alaska Natives) given that there is no specific consensus among scholars regarding terminology. Moreover, some Indigenous people prefer to be identified by their Nation. Lastly, the concept of Indigenous, people who live or have lived within the past several centuries in non-state societies, will be utilized to discuss people and cultures that existed in the United States prior to European contact.

    American Indian/Native American Studies: An Academic Discipline

    American Indian Studies (AIS) or Native American Studies (NAS) is an academic discipline that formally began in the late 1960’s when Native American student activists coordinated with Asian American, Chicana/o/x, Puerto Rican and Black students to demand change within higher education. During this time, American Indian students at San Francisco State (Student Kouncil of Intertribal Nations - SKINS), Berkeley, UCLA and UC Davis were speaking out about American Indian rights, criticizing federal Indian policy and laws, discussing American Indian identity, and seeking to preserve tribal cultures.

    Student activism focused attention on the inequity evident in the low enrollment and success rates of Black, Chicano, Asian American and American Indian students on college campuses as well as the lack of coverage of these core groups within the college curriculum. American Indians had long been the subject of study in disciplines like sociology, history, art and anthropology, but these disciplines only viewed Native people from an "outsider" perspective, treating us as subjects of study, often reinforcing stereotypes. Vine Deloria Jr., enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, author, historian and activist for Native American rights, concerned with the establishment of federal policy based on inaccurate academic studies, often criticized anthropologists and historians in his writings (ie. Custer Died for your Sins: An Indian Manifesto).

    American Indian students and community leaders including Indian activists from the American Indian Movement (AIM), United Native Americans (UNA) and the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) as well as other organizations influenced the national political climate by providing information to the media that the general public did not know, which in turn pressured a response from the federal government and local colleges and universities. This movement specifically addressed broken treaties, unlivable conditions on reservations, and the lack of fair and equitable representation of Native people in academia and scholarly research.

    While other disciplines may "study" and teach about Native people, American Indian Studies (AIS) or Native American Studies (NAS) provides the voices, social struggles, contributions and lived experiences of Native people culturally, socially, economically, legally, politically, and academically. AIS/NAS actively promotes the sustained and thriving existence of Native peoples and sovereign tribal nations with an emphasis on agency and group-affirmation. To accomplish this, AIS/NAS encourages important research to identify critical issues relevant to Native communities. This commitment to Native communities distinguishes AIS/NAS from other academic disciplines. One could argue that NAS or AIS began way before the 1960’s in that Native voices can be heard speaking about justice and equity, establishing laws and governing councils, as well as sustainable land and environmental policies of nations, if one listens, from the beginning of our existence. But that is the point…if one listens.

    Background in America

    American Indians have been on this continent much longer than any other racial or ethnic group. According to the Bering Strait theory, sometime between 17,000 and 30,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers from Siberia came across the frozen Bering Strait, or across a land bridge formed during the Ice Age, in search of game. Over the millennia, they became the people we call Native Americans or American Indians. They are the Indigenous people of the North and South American continents (Dunn, 2010). However, this theory has been challenged from both from a philosophical angle (Deloria, 1995) and from new research uncovered from an evolutionary genetic approach (Daley, 2016; Ewen, 2017).

    Pre-European Contact

    It is difficult to determine how many Native Americans existed in the United Stated prior to European contact. Emmanuel Domenech (1860) estimated that the Native American population pre-European contact was between 16 to 17 million people. Years later, a more generally accepted scientific estimate was provided by James Mooney (1928) in which he estimated that the North American "aboriginal" population was 1.2 million at the onset of European contact. A more recent estimate has been provided by Matthew Snipp (1986) in which he places the pre-European contact population from 2 to 5 million. The population figures discussed are only estimates and some scholars suggest that the Indigenous American population pre-European contact was larger than the last estimate Snipp (1986) provided.

    Post-European Contact

    Race and ethnicity have torn at the fabric of American society ever since the time of Christopher Columbus, when about 1 million Native Americans were thought to have populated the eventual United States. By 1900, their numbers had dwindled to about 240,000, as tens of thousands were killed by white settlers and U.S. troops and countless others died from disease contracted from people with European backgrounds. Scholars have stated that this mass killing of Native Americans amounted to genocide (Wilson, 1999).

    European colonization of the Americas was detrimental to the Indigenous populations. Colonization is the act of taking land by a foreign group or nation, most frequently through force, and then settling in the newly acquired territory which displaces the original Indigenous people to those lands. War, famine, forced removal, lack of immunity to European diseases, and the exploitation of this lack of immunity as intentional "biological" warfare, such as blankets infected with diseases, decimated American Indians (Snipp, 1989). Using the estimates mentioned above and U. S. Census data, Figure 5.1.2 below shows the early dramatic decrease and gradual recent increase of the Native American population, specifically American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) alone (meaning not mixed with other race-ethnic groups).

    In the United States, settler-colonialism is the specific type of colonization practiced. According to Morris (2019), "We can begin by defining settler-colonialism as it relates specifically to Indigenous peoples of North America. The goal of settler-colonization is the removal and erasure of Indigenous peoples in order to take the land for use by settlers in perpetuity." Once lands have been colonized, European settlers move into the lands usually cleared by European colonizers and further expanded these settlements both spatially and temporally. This results in the continued and, most frequently, permanent displacement of Indigenous communities from their ancestral homelands.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): American Indian and Alaska Native Alone by Year. Pre-European contact, the American Indian and Alaska Native population is estimated to have been more than 2.5 million; the population plummeted to 200,000 at the onset of European contact. It remained static until the 1960s, after which time the population steadily increased to nearly 3 million in 2000. (Data from Spinden, 1928; Snipp, 1986; Thornton, 2001; 2000 and 2010 U. S. Census Bureau)


    Concerning modern American Indians, Gary Sandefur, a professor of social work and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an affiliate of the Institute for Research on Poverty writes:

    How American Indians came to be concentrated on reservations is a complicated story that most Americans know only very little about from their courses in American history in high school and college. The isolation and concentration of American Indians began very early, but it received its first legal justification in the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Subsequent to the passage of this legislation, most of the Indians who were located east of the Mississippi were relocated to areas west of the river...Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the federal government revised its principal approach to the "Indian problem" to one of forced assimilation rather than forced isolation. This change in policy was in part motivated by awareness that the quality of life on the isolated reservations was very, very low. The concerns about the reservations resembled in many respects the current analyses of problems in the central city...The next major attack on the reservation system occurred in the early 1950s. Public opinion and political leaders were distressed by the miserable living conditions on Indian reservations, on the one hand, and the special legal relationship between American Indian groups and the federal government, on the other hand. In 1953, termination legislation was passed and signed into law. The intent of this legislation was to end the special relationship between Indian tribes and the federal government. Reservations would cease to exist as independent political entities...Since the 1950s the proportion of the American Indian population living on reservations has declined from over 50 percent to approximately 25 percent in 1980. This decline has been due to the migration of American Indians away from these impoverished, isolated areas. In 1980, 336,384 American Indians lived on reservations. Although some of these reservations are quite small, 250,379 Indians lived on 36 reservations with populations of 2,000 or more. Three-quarters of these Indians lived on the 18 reservations that had poverty rates of 40 percent or higher. In other words, approximately 14 percent of all American Indians in 1980 lived on large reservations with poverty rates of 40 percent or higher (Sandefur, 1989).

    Though most AI/AN do not live on reservations, the table below conveys the largest reservations.

    Table \(\PageIndex{3}\): Largest Native American Reservations. (Data from the U. S. Census Bureau (2010))
    American Indian Reservation American Indian or Alaska Native (Alone or in Combination)
    Navajo (AZ, NM, UT) 169,321
    Pine Ridge (SD, NE) 16,906
    Fort Apache (AZ) 13, 014
    Gila River (AZ) 11,251
    Osage (OK) 9,920
    San Carlos (AZ) 9,901
    Rosebud (SD) 9,809
    Tohono O'oodham (AZ) 9,278
    Blackfeet (MT) 9,149
    Flathead (MT) 9,138


    The only fully nonimmigrant ethnic group in the United States, Native Americans once numbered in the millions 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 themselves as Native American mixed with another ethnic group (Norris, Vines, & Hoeffel, 2012).

    Table \(\PageIndex{4}\): American Indian and Alaska Natives, 2010. (Data from the U. S. Census Bureau (2010); Norris, Vines, and Hoeffel (2012))
    Alone Alone or in combination (two or more groups)
    All American Indians and Alaska Natives 2,932,248 5,220,579
    American Indians 2,164,193 3,631,571
    Alaska Natives 122,990 168,786

    There are about 3 million Native Americans currently living in the US. Their tribal affiliations (as of census 2000) are 16% Cherokee, 12% Navajo, 6% Chippewa, 6% Sioux, 4% Choctaw, 46% all other tribes; the ten largest nations are detailed in the table below. Less than 2% of the US population is Native American with 22.3% living on reservations and trust lands; 10.2% living in tribal jurisdiction statistical areas; 2.7% in tribal designated statistical areas; 2.4% in Alaska native village statistical areas. However, the largest group of American Indians, 62.3%, do not live on traditional tribal lands or reservations. The geographical distribution is as follows: 6.25% of all American Indians live in the Northeast U.S., 17.93% of all American Indians live in the Midwest U.S., 30.21% of all American Indians live in the Southern U.S., and 45.59% of all American Indians live in the Western U.S. (U. S. Census Bureau).

    Table \(\PageIndex{5}\): American Indian or Alaska Native Population by Tribal Grouping. (Data from the U. S. Census Bureau (2010); Norris, Vines, and Hoeffel (2012))
    Tribal Grouping One Tribal Grouping Reported
    1. Navajo 286,731
    2. Cherokee 284,247
    3. Ojibwa/Chippewa 112,757
    4. Sioux 112,176
    5. Choctaw 103,916
    6. Apache 63,193
    7. Lumbee 62,306
    8. Pueblo 49,695
    9. Creek 48,352
    10. Iroquois 40,570

    Native Americans speak: English, Spanish, French, and over 150 Native Languages and thousands of dialects. American Indians come from: United States, Mexico, Canada, Central America, South America. Although some Indigenous languages have survived, there are several languages that are at risk of becoming extinct. While it is difficult to estimate how many Indigenous languages have been lost, a recent estimate suggests that in the United States, it has been at least 125 languages (Koyfman, 2017).

    Table \(\PageIndex{6}\): Major Tribal Languages. (Data from the 2006 - 2010 American Community Survey in Siebens and Julian (2011))
    Tribal Grouping One Tribal Grouping Reported
    1. Navajo 169,471
    2. Yupik (Alaska) 18,950
    3. Dakota (Sioux) 18,616
    4. Apache 13,083
    5. Keres (Pueblo) 12,495
    6. Cherokee 11,610
    7. Choctaw 10,343
    8. Zuni 9,686
    9. Ojibwa 8,371
    10. Pima 7,270

    Currently, Native Americans are more likely to live in a city rather than a reservation, as the figure conveys below. The trend towards urbanization began to increase after the passage of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, then dropped a bit leading up to the 1953 Termination Act. Urbanization then sharply increased in the 1950s with multiple government programs created to encourage Native Americans to move to the cities, such as the establishment of American Indian Centers and after 1962, the Employment Assistant Program (Healey & O'Brien, 2015; Schaefer, 2015).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Urbanization of American Indians, 1900 - 2010. (Data from Thornton, 2001; 2000 and 2010 U. S. Census Bureau)

    The urbanization trend is supported by the 2010 U. S. Census data which indicates that U. S. cities hold the largest number of Native Americans, as shown in Table 5.1.8. California is the state with the largest Native American population.

    Table \(\PageIndex{8}\): Ten Places with the Largest American Indian or Alaska Natives, 2010. (Data from the U. S. Census Bureau (2010))
    Place Alone or in Combination
    1. New York City 111,749
    2. Los Angeles 54,236
    3. Phoenix 43,724
    4. Oklahoma City 36,572
    5. Anchorage 36,062
    6. Tulsa 35,990
    7. Albuquerque 32,571
    8. Chicago 26,933
    9. Houston 25,521
    10. San Antonio 20,137

    Assuming these demographic trends continue as conveyed in USA Facts, the Native American population will continue to rise, demonstrating American Indian resilience.

    Contributors and Attributions


    • Aguirre, A., Jr. & Jonathan, H.T. (2004). American Ethnicity: The Dynamic and Consequences of Discrimination. 4th ed. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
    • Cook. R. (n.d.). Heart of Colonialism Bleeds Blood Quantum.
    • Daley, J. (2016). First humans entered the americas along the coast, not through the ice. Smithsonian Magazine.
    • Deloria, V., Jr. (1995). Red Earth, white Lies. New York, NY: Scribner's.
    • Domenech, E. (1860.) Seven Years Residence in the Great Deserts of North America. London, UK: Longmans.
    • Ewen, A. (2017). The Bering Strait Theory. New York, NY: Indian Country Today.
    • Healey, J. F. & Eileen O. (2015). Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Class: The Sociology of Group Conflict and Change. 7th ed. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
    • Koyfman, S. (2017). What was, and what is: Native American languages in the us. Babbel Magazine.
    • Loewe, R. (2016). Of Sacred Lands and Strip Malls: The Battle for Puvungna. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield.
    • Mooney, J. (1928). The Aboriginal Population of America North of Mexico. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Miscellaneous Collections, 80:7.
    • Morris, A. (2019). What is settler-colonialism? Teaching Tolerance.
    • Norris, T., Vines, P.L., and Hoeffel, E.M. (2012). The American Indian and the Alaska Native population:2010. C2010BR-10.
    • Saltzgaver, H. (2020). Dirt dumped on Puvungna at cal state long beach prompts lawsuit. The Grunion.
    • Sandefur, G.D. (1989). American Indian reservations: the first underclass areas? Focus 12 1:37-41.
    • Schaefer, R.T. (2015). Racial and Ethnic Groups. 14th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson.
    • Siebens, J. &Tiffany, J. (2011). Native North American Languages Spoken at Home in the United States and Puerto Rico: 2006-2010. ACSBF/10-10.
    • Snipp, M.C. (1986). The changing political and economic status of the American Indians: From captive nations to internal colonies. American Journal of Economics and Sociology 45, 145-57.
    • Snipp, M.C. (1989). American Indians: The First of This Land. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.
    • Spinden, H. (1928). The population of ancient America. Geographical Review 18,640-60.
    • Thornton, R. (2001). Trends among American Indians in the United States. In N. Smelser, W. Wilson, and F. Mitchell (Eds.), America Becoming: Racial Trends and Their Consequences (1:135-69).Washington, D. C.: National Academy Press.
    • United States Census Bureau. (2010). Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2010.
    • Wilson, J. (1999). The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America. New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press.