Native Americans Research Paper

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The study of Native Americans of the United States and Canada was important in the development of anthropology in North America and elsewhere. In this research paper the Native American population is discussed in terms of its aboriginal state, the impact of European colonization upon it, and the contemporary situation of Native Americans. Also discussed is the anthropological study of Native Americans.

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1. Origins

Scholars have for some time generally accepted the notion that Homo sapiens sapiens—those who became the Native Americans—first arrived in the Western Hemisphere from the Asian continent. In this respect, they acknowledge the biological affinities between Native Americans today and peoples in eastern Asia. There was also general agreement that H. sapiens sapiens arrived via the Bering Land bridge, which has existed at least four times in the past 70,000 years. The issue was not how H. sapiens sapiens arrived, but when. The conservative view, based on clearly dated human skeletal remains, is that humans arrived only around 10,000 years ago; the liberal view, based on less clearly dated human skeletal remains, as well as other types of evidence, e.g., tool-making traditions, language, archaeological sites, is that humans have been in North America at least twice as long, if not considerably longer. Scholars have also revised their thinking as to how humans arrived in the Western Hemisphere, initially and/or subsequently. Another migration route gaining increasing acceptance is a maritime one, whereby humans migrated along the coast and thus around the edges of large glaciers which covered much of the northern part of North America at that time period. It is generally accepted now that there was not just one migration, or even just two: the first, the ancestors of American Indians; and the second, the ancestors of Inuit (Eskimos) and Aleutian Islanders. Most scholars would now accept the notion that there were at least three migrations: one, ancestors of most American Indians; two, ancestors of Athabascan American Indians; and, three, ancestors of Inuit and Aleuts. There is even acceptance of possible other migrations, as evidenced by the controversy and speculations surrounding ‘Kennewick man.’

Some of these migrations may have come from areas other than Asia. Confusing the scholarly study of arrivals and their timing is the idea of continued contact between peoples of the Pacific Rim following migrations. Posed to provide clarification of migrations, dates and affinities are developing techniques of analysis, e.g., DNA. Future generations of scholars will provide future answers and, undoubtedly, future controversies. It is clear, however, that what is emerging is a complex and dynamic picture of the peopling of the North American continent.

2. Early Native Americans

However and whenever, and how many separate times humans arrived in the Western Hemisphere before the late fifteenth century, they eventually developed elaborate and diverse societies and cultures. They, for example, developed a remarkable variety of material cultures, ones obviously shaped by the environments in which they lived and by how they exploited these environments. Some were foragers, exploiting different facets of their environments for food, clothing, shelter, etc. during different seasons of the year. Others were hunters, of deer and buffalo, particularly, but earlier of mammoths, mastodons and giant sloths; or they were fishers, for example, of salmon in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Yet others were maritime hunters of whales, seals and walruses. Many American Indians became agricultural peoples, typically growing maize by 1492—which diffused northward from present-day Mexico—but also other foods (e.g., squash and beans), along with maize, in the Southwest and East, or camas in the Pacific Northwest.

Cultural life also became rich. Multiple rituals and religions developed and flourished, along with diverse patterns of kinship and marriage, political organization and governance, and practices whereby youths became adults. Europeans considered many of these to be exotic, and compared them to ones they were familiar with in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Varied patterns of political organization and governance developed as well. For example, tribal patterns of organization diverged widely, ranging from small, extended kinship systems to triblets to tribes to confederacies and chiefdoms. Probably the most spectacular Native American peoples—from the European point of view—were the chiefdoms in Florida and the southeast to the Mississippi River described by the chroniclers of the explorer Hernando de Soto, whose expedition traveled the area from 1539–1543. These were large, dense settlements controlled by rulers, one of whom was the well-known ‘Lady of Cofitachequi’ (from present-day South Carolina). These chiefdoms soon declined following the arrival of European explorers, probably mainly from epidemic diseases brought by the Europeans. Some, however, such as Cahokia, across the Mississippi River from present-day St. Louis and the largest city in the Western Hemisphere north of Mexico, had reached their zenith prior to European contact. Perhaps a close second from the Europeans’ definition of spectacular Native American peoples were the pueblos of the southwest, described at about the same time as were the Florida chiefdoms by the explorer Hernando Coronado, and located generally along either side of the Rio Grande river. Other regions of aboriginal North America had Native American civilizations that impressed Europeans to some degree, although Europeans were decidedly unimpressed with some Native American societies and cultures they encountered.

3. Size And Distribution Throughout North America

Native American populations, in the form of hundreds of distinct peoples, were distributed widely throughout North America ca. 1492.

3.1 Aboriginal Population Size

Scholars continue to debate the size of the Native American population present in North America north of Mexico ca. 1492, and thus also the magnitude of population decline that began soon after European arrival and continued to about 1900. James Mooney (1928) of the Smithsonian Institution formulated the classic estimate of aboriginal population size at, as he expressed it, ‘first extensive European contact’: he asserted that there were some 1.153 million Native Americans north of the Rio Grande river. Subsequent scholars have offered both slightly lower and far larger population estimates, ranging from Kroeber’s (1939) 1.025 million to Dobyns (1983) 18 million (for north of Mesoamerica, an area including northern Mexico as well as the United States, Canada, and Greenland). The estimate I formulated and continue to use is 7-plus million, composed of some 5 million for present-day United States, and some 2 million for Canada and Greenland.

3.2 Distribution

Populations were not distributed evenly, however. For example, Kroeber (1939) used the concept of ‘cultural areas’ to divide Native American groups north of Mexico into areas sharing similar cultural traits as adaptations to similar environments. According to him, the largest populations were found in the southeast and California; the largest population concentrations were found in the Pueblo and Lower Columbia regions (see Kroeber 1939, table 8). More recently, Ubelaker (1988) argues that the largest area populations were found in the southwest and the northeast.

4. Impact Of European Contact

Contact with Europeans following the beginning of their extensive colonization of the Western Hemisphere after 1492 brought fundamental changes to native populations, and their societies and cultures. During the 1990s, ‘holocaust’ emerged as the metaphor to view the population collapse of Native Americans accompanying European expansion into this hemisphere (see Thornton 1987). Likewise, this ‘holocaust’ has emerged as crucial to understanding the full impact of colonialism upon Native Americans, and their subsequent social, cultural, biological, and even psychological changes. Native American societies and cultures, and Native Americans as biological and psychological entities were all impacted by demographic collapse after 1492.

4.1 Tribal Decimation And Relocation And Or Concentration

During the first four centuries following initial European contact, virtually all Native American groups experienced population decimation, and relocation and/or concentration, to some degree. Early relocations were sometimes voluntary, as American Indians moved westward to escape encroaching Europeans on America’s east coast. This in turn produced conflicts with other American Indians as they were pushed further west by the immigrant Indians. Later, however, relocation became the official policy of the US government.

Native American population size in the United States and Canada declined for some 400 years, reaching a nadir population around the beginning of the twentieth century of perhaps only 375,000. The causes of the population decline, of course, were epidemics and other diseases introduced from Europe and Africa, e.g., smallpox, the plague, measles, forms of influenza, whooping cough, cholera, typhoid, diphtheria, scarlet fever, yellow fever, malaria, and various sexually transmitted diseases. European, Euro-American, and American colonialism in all its forms also contributed to Native American population reduction through warfare and genocide, relocations, and destruction of economic systems as well as the association of disease with all of these. Important, too, in the equation was the inability of Native American populations to recover from population losses as their societies and cultures were undermined by colonialism.

Accompanying this decimation were further patterns of population relocation and/or concentration, typically onto reservations. The largest pattern of population relocation occurred as official US government policy in the first half of the nineteenth century, whereby large populations of Indians in the southeast—primarily the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole—were removed to lands west of the Mississippi River, lands which were designated Indian Territory and eventually became the eastern half of the state of Oklahoma in 1907. Other tribes were removed into what became the state of Oklahoma (named after Oklahoma Territory, the former western half of the state) as well, particularly ones from other parts of the Southern and Western Plains, the Northern Plains, and the so-called ‘Old Northwest,’ around the Great Lakes.

US government troops, especially following the United States Civil War which ended in 1865, were used in particular to subjugate Native Americans by forcing them onto reservations in Oklahoma Territory, Indian Territory, and elsewhere in order to contain them and reshape their ways of life. American Indian struggles against such repression included new spiritual movements such as the Ghost Dances of 1870 and 1890, and the Peyote Religion, which arose among many Indian peoples. However, struggles also culminated in infamous massacres, e.g., at Sand Creek, Colorado; Fort Robinson, Nebraska; and Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

4.2 Tribal Or Individual Indian

After establishing a reservation system for American Indians, the US government soon began to undermine the integrity of many Indian lands when it saw the reservation system as ‘not working’ to ‘civilize’ Indians. From the late nineteenth century into the early twentieth century, policy was introduced to allot parcels of land on some reservations, and in Oklahoma and Indian Territory to individual Indians, thereby eliminating many reservations. A reduced reservation pattern therefore emerged, with most remaining reservations being in the west and representing only small remnants of former lands.

The idea was that Indians were to become individual Indian citizens on privately owned parcels of land. This culminated in the Citizenship Act of 1924, which made all American Indians in the United States citizens for the first time and gave them full voting privileges. ‘Left over’ or ‘surplus’ lands were then ‘opened’ to claims by non-Indians. Accompanying allotment were larger political and corporate desires for American Indian lands. The decades following the period were characterized by frauds whereby individual allotments ended up in the hands of land barons, speculators, and corporations, as Debo (1940) has shown for the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole in Oklahoma; and as Meyer (1994) has shown regarding the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota.

American Indian tribal life was undermined greatly by allotment. Tribes able to retain tribal land in the form of reservations survived as tribes and as Indians better than those that were not able to do so. This included Indians on the Plains and in the west and southwest. In 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act was enacted, acknowledging that an Indian tribe had ‘rights to organize for its common welfare.’ The Act served to codify tribal governments under the all too watchful eyes of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And, in turn, it provided the basis for the operations of the more than 330 federally recognized tribes, on reservations or not, and hundreds of federally recognized Alaskan Native Villages.

The larger American society’s vision of American Indians as citizens was also manifest in its system of Indian education. In the early days, America established schools to educate Indians. In fact, the American system of higher education which began in the seventeenth century—the ‘Ivy League’ schools, in particular—was in part to educate Native Americans, as reflected in the charters of, for example, Harvard University and Dartmouth College. With the development of the reservation system and the development of the system of elementary and secondary education in the United States, a natural alliance was born, and some treaties provided funds for reservation schools. By the beginning of the twentieth century, there were more than 200 government schools on reservations, supplemented by schools funded reluctantly funded by states for Indian youth, and some schools in soon-to-become Oklahoma, primarily under the auspices of the Five Tribes there. By the mid-1920s, however it became apparent that these schools—particularly the boarding ones, but also the day schools—were not effective as avenues to mainstream America: rather, they were a national disgrace. In 1928, the Meriam Report (Meriam 1928, p. 348) stated that the ‘Indian problem is essentially an educational one,’ and called for a redirection of Indian education. Eventually, schools for American Indians became more sympathetic to Indian cultures, and began to incorporate Indian history and culture into the curriculum. Following World War II, however, boarding and day schools for Indians began to decline, and by the 1950s public school education for Indians became the norm.

4.3 Urbanization

Coinciding with the increase in the American Indian population beginning with the twentieth century, and with the dispossession of Indians from their lands, were the beginnings of a small but steady increase in the proportion of the population that lived in urban areas. Less than one-half of one percent of the American Indian population of the United States lived in urban areas in 1900; by 1950, more than 13 percent of the population lived in urban areas; at the time of writing, well over half of the American Indian population lives in urban areas, and the remainder live on reservations or in rural areas. (Only about half of the Native Americans in Canada live in cities, a substantial increase from about one-third in the 1970s, and a mere one-eighth in the early 1960s.) In part, this was a result of American Indian servicemen and women returning to cities rather than to small towns or rural areas following World War II. It was also a result of the mid-twentieth-century Bureau of Indian Affairs relocation program that encouraged and assisted American Indians to relocate to urban areas.

5. Native Americans Today

The Native American population in the United States and Canada experienced significant population recover during the twentieth century. From the nadir population of about 375,000 at the start of the twentieth century, it increased to more than 3 million by the end of the century. (See Shoemaker (1999), Ubelaker (1988), and Thornton (2000) for considerations of Native American population recovery.) This occurred because Native American mortality rates decreased, and fertility rates remained higher for Native Americans than for the total population. It also occurred because of changing census definitions of Native Americans in the United States, whereby individuals formerly classified as non-Native Americans became classified as Native Americans through self-identification in the censuses.

5.1 Tribal Membership

Most individuals self-identified in US censuses reported a tribal affiliation. The largest reported tribal affiliations are Cherokee, Navajo, Chippewa (Ojibwa), Sioux, Choctaw, Pueblo, Apache, Iroquois, Lumbee, and Creek. Not all of those in the Native American population are actual members of Native American tribes, however. Only about two-thirds of those self-identified as Native American in the US decennial censuses are actual members of one of the federally recognized tribes or Alaskan Native Villages.

In Canada, the situation is different. There one must be registered under the Indian Act of Canada to be an ‘official’ Indian. Categories of Indians there include either status (or registered) Indians—those recognized under the Act—and nonstatus (or nonregistered) Indians—those who never were registered or gave up their registration (and became ‘enfranchised’). Status Indians, in turn, are subdivided into treaty and nontreaty Indians. Canada also has the Metis, individuals of Indian and white ancestry who are recognized as such but not legally recognized as Indians. Most Canadian Indians are registered, however.

5.2 Distribution

Only about one-quarter of Native Americans in the United States live on the more than 300 reservations and trust lands in the United States. About half of these live on the ten largest reservations (and trust lands): Navajo Reservation (and trust lands); Pine Ridge Reservation (and trust lands); Gila River Reservation; Papago Reservation; Rosebud Reservation (and trust lands); San Carlos Reservation; Zuni Pueblo; Hopi Pueblo (and trust lands); and Blackfeet Reservation. Conversely, about two-thirds of the registered Indians in Canada live on more than 2000 reserves there.

According to census data, the states with the largest Native American population are, in order, Oklahoma, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Alaska, Washington, North Carolina, Texas, New York, and Michigan. United States cities with the largest Native American populations are New York City, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, Tulsa, Los Angeles, Minneapolis St. Paul, Anchorage, and Albuquerque. Canadian provinces with the largest number of Native Americans are Ontario, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. And, there is now in Canada a new Native-American-controlled province of Nunavut.

6. Anthropology And The Study Of American Indians

Europeans who colonized North American soon developed intellectual interests in the native peoples here. They had to explain where the natives came from, but they were also in awe of native customs and cultures. Early explorers even sent Native Americans back to Europe, so that Europeans could see them for themselves. Eventually, prominent European scholars such as Thomas Malthus and G. W. F. Hegel developed an interest in these people and sought to integrate them into their study of human history, although Malthus considered Native Americans as ‘wretched’, and Hegel thought they lacked history and would disappear.

In the late nineteenth century, however, Lewis Henry Morgan wrote of the native peoples of North America, including his two classics, League of the Hode-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois (1851) and Ancient Society (1877). He argued that they were disappearing and called for their study—documentation—before this happened. Others, such as Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Frederick Engels, also drew upon Native American societies and cultures in their writings. Although the interest here was decidedly on social evolution—with Native Americans being at the lower stages—intellectual interests changed in the early twentieth century toward how individual elements in societies and cultures were integrated to form a whole. Anthropology in the United States was now separating itself from sociology and coming into its own, with a decided interest in the native peoples there. In California, for example, Kroeber heeded Morgan’s earlier call and sought in the first decades of the twentieth century to describe California Indians before they disappeared, or changed their ways of life fundamentally. In this regard, the well-known Ishi— the so-called ‘last wild Indian’—became a person of curiosity for Kroeber and others. Anthropology and history soon rejoined forces at mid-century, however, with the decided interest in studying Native Americans using the newly developed idea of ‘ethnohistory.’

It was not too long before Native Americans became more involved in setting research agendas about themselves, and reacted against the study of them by anthropologists. Many rallied around Vine Deloria Jr.’s critique of anthropology in his Custer Died for Your Sins (1969), and his depiction of anthropologists as ‘anthros.’ Coinciding with this was the emergence of Native American studies in colleges and universities in the United States, and Native studies in Canadian counterparts, as a reaction toward both anthropology and the neglect of the study of Native Americans in other disciplines (see Thornton 1998a).

At the time of writing, anthropology, Native American studies, and Native Americans have achieved a truce, although an occasionally delicate one, in no small part because anthropologists have gained a new respect for Native Americans. Coinciding with an increased degree of self-determination of Native Americans in American society was the passage of the National Museum of the American Indian Act in 1989, both creating a national museum at the Smithsonian Institution devoted to Native Americans, and mandating the return of Native American human remains and funerary objects held at the Smithsonian, primarily in the National Museum of Natural History. A year later, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed which mandated the repatriation not only of human remains and funerary objects from all institutions receiving federal funding but also the return of Native American objects of cultural patrimony and sacred objects. The Smithsonian, already required to repatriate human remains and funerary objects, was exempt from this legislation. However, the National Museum of the American Indian Act was amended in 1996 to include the required return of objects of cultural patrimony and sacred objects held at the Smithsonian.

Smithsonian repatriation is monitored by a seven member committee mandated by congress, and it is required that the majority of its members be selected from nominations submitted by Native American tribes. Since its inception in 1990, it has been chaired by Russell Thornton. To date, several thousand sets of human remains and numerous cultural objects have been returned to Indian tribes from the Smithsonian. Included here are human remains from the Sand Creek and Fort Robinson Massacres, Ghost Dance shirts and other objects from the Wounded Knee Massacre, and Ishi’s brain. (Among the thousands of remains yet to be returned are Sitting Bull’s braid, cut from his body at his autopsy and sent to the Smithsonian.)

These national repatriation laws and state laws as well, have in turn forged new relationships between museums, archaeologists, physical anthropologists and ethnographers, and Native Americans (Thornton 1998b).

The study of Native Americans, by both non-native and native scholars, in anthropology and other disciplines, will continue; however, Native Americans will have an increasing role in determining what, how, and by whom it is studied.


  1. Debo A 1940 And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Fi e Civilized Tribes. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  2. Deloria V Jr. 1969 Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. Macmillan, New York
  3. Dobyns H 1983 Their Number Become Thinned: Native American Population Dynamics in Eastern North America. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, TN
  4. Kroeber A L 1939 Cultural and natural areas of native north America. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 38: 1–242
  5. Meriam L 1928 The Problem of Indian Administration. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
  6. Meyer M 1994 The White Earth Tragedy: Ethnicity and Dispossession at a Minnesota Anishinaabe Reser ation. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE
  7. Mooney J 1928 The aboriginal population of America north of Mexico. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 80: 1–40
  8. Morgan L H 1851 League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee or Iroquois. Burt Franklin, New York
  9. Morgan L H 1877 Ancient Society. Holt, New York
  10. Shoemaker N 1999 American Indian Population Recovery in the Twentieth Century. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, NM
  11. Thornton R 1987 American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A
  12. Population History since 1492. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK
  13. Thornton R 1998a Institutional and intellectual histories of Native American studies. In: Thornton R (ed.) Studying Native America: Problems and Prospects. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI
  14. Thornton R 1998b Who owns our past? Repatriating Native American human remains and cultural objects. In: Thornton R (ed.) Studying Native America: Problems and Prospects. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI
  15. Thornton R 2000 Population history of native North Americans. In: Haines M R, Steckel R H (eds.) A Population History of North America. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  16. Ubelaker D 1988 North American Indian population size, A.D. 1500 to 1985. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 77: 289–94


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