3 Facts You May Not Know About Indigenous Peoples in United States

In second grade my teacher, Mrs. Kleinart, assigned all of us a book report to be presented to the class. I do not recall the name of the book I read for the assignment, but I do recall the misinformation. This book peddled the usual stereotypes about NDN peoples, that we all live in teepees, that we all wear war bonnets, and that we’re all great horse riders. Fortunately, my family set me right on that count, and I was lucky to have access to and knowledge of my history as an Oneida woman.

Still, I’ve found that many non-Indigenous and even Indigenous peoples don’t know a whole lot about us for myriad reasons, systemic and individual, about which I could write a whole other essay (or series of essays). Our histories and our very existence have weathered and continue to weather determined attempts at erasure, marginalization, and extermination. So, I am unsurprised if often saddened and frustrated that so much misinformation persists. With that in mind, here are a few things you may not know about Indigenous Peoples in the present-day United States:

1. Most Native peoples do not live on reservations.

Since World War II, between sixty and seventy percent of Native peoples in the United States have lived and continue to live in urban areas and close to eighty percent live off of reservations. While many Native peoples were forcefully removed for their original territories and relocated onto reservations or relocated onto reservations that comprised only a very small part of their original territories, many did not remain there. In 1887, the federal government enacted the General Allotment Act (Dawes Act). This act cut up reservation land into 40 – 160 acre lots distributed to individual tribal members while the government held all remaining land to be sold to white settlers. Because the lots were not always contiguous, this had the effect of displacing the reservation system and thus severing or weakening community ties.

Later, the establishment of off-reservation boarding schools, beginning with the infamous Carlisle Indian Boarding School in 1879, further displaced Native children. These schools hoped to assimilate Native children into U.S. culture, and while at these boarding schools many children learned and were encouraged to go into trades that took them away from their reservations, their families and their cultures.

Finally, during World War II, a least one-third of Native men, and up to seventy percent on some reservations, served in the war. Many more Native people left their reservations to work in factories in urban centers during this time as did returning veterans. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) facilitated this move to urban centers by initiating an urban relocation program in which they promised to provide education and housing to Native peoples that moved to large metropolitan centers such as Chicago and Denver. Today, less than one-fourth of Native peoples remain living on reservations.

A poster with pictures of Native Americans on the job with captions about working in Chicago.
Courtesy of the National Archives in Chicago

2. There are 560+ federally recognized tribes in the United States but very many tribes that are not federally recognized.

As I previously discussed, the federal government has a unique relationship with Indigenous tribes. With this relationship comes many responsibilities including providing or stepping out of the way for tribes to be able to provide quality education, healthcare, housing, infrastructure, and other needed services. The negative effects of the sudden abrogation of this responsibility on the federal government’s part can be seen when we look at the termination acts that occurred in the 1950s. The Menominee tribe in Wisconsin and several West Coast tribes were left struggling with state governments over land, hunting, and fishing rights and left with little in the way of funding for infrastructure on many reservations. Moreover, the federal government offered the members of many of these tribes payments if they would withdraw their tribal enrollment status and sell their lands. Because poverty was and continues to be widespread in Indian country, many tribal members elected to do just that, and this further displaced Native peoples and shrunk their land bases.

Because of the perceived benefits that come with federal recognition, including recognition and protection of trust lands, many tribes fight for such recognition (though some have eschewed it altogether). But, gaining that recognition can be tough because of the burden of proof placed on tribes that many cannot meet because of historical displacements caused by colonialism. Many tribes simply cannot trace their lineage in an unbroken link back to pre-colonial days. Recently the BIA, with input from Tribal leaders, proposed “streamlining” the federal recognition process and easing some of those burdens.

Map of Federally Recognized Tribes in Wisconsin
Federally Recognized Tribes in my Home State Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison

3. Currently, at least 5 million+ Native peoples live in the United States.

According to the 2010 United States Census, at least 5.2 million people identified themselves as being of American Indian or Alaskan Native descent. That works out to about 2% of the population of the United States. In some states, Native peoples account for up to 15% of the population. Alaska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Montana, North Dakota, Arizona, and Wyoming all have Indigenous populations higher than the national average. This can be partially explained by the pattern of contact, colonization and removal. Eastern tribes in the current United States contended with European colonists first, and colonists did not move West of the Mississippi River in large numbers until after the Revolutionary War. In addition, many tribes were removed further and further West as the colonial project expanded especially in and around Oklahoma.

A color coded map of the percentages of Native Americans in the United States according to the 2000 census.
By Rcragun (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Before European contact, it is estimated that anywhere between 3 million and 20 million Indigenous peoples resided in what is now the United States. The debate on the exact numbers is, understandably, heavily politicized. But, few debate that Indigenous populations were heavily diminished by war and, most notably, disease after contact with colonizers. When considering the present numbers, we must keep in mind that data collection techniques, the way Indigenous identity is defined by those who are not Indigenous, and historical displacements may still skew the numbers lower. Many tribes must follow strict membership criteria in order to meet federal recognition guidelines, and these criteria can and do exclude many people who may identify as Indigenous. Data collection, even for the census, will not account for each individual living in the United States. And, many people are simply disconnected from their heritage after hundreds of years of colonization. Still, it appears that the number of Indigenous peoples continues to grow each year.

And, those are my 3 facts you may not know about Indigenous peoples in the United States. Did any of them surprise you? For those of you in the United States, can you answer these questions about Indigenous peoples? Why or why not?

By Marena

Marena recently earned her Master of Arts degree in Social Justice & Human Rights & primarily explores social justice issues in the production & consumption of popular mass media. You may find her creating fanworks, testing her hand-eye coordination with beadweaving, flailing over her fictional faves, reading everything from fanfic to theory texts, or watching low budget sci-fi. You can find her writing on Marena ni yukyats.

101 replies on “3 Facts You May Not Know About Indigenous Peoples in United States”

It can definitely be an uphill battle. I’m advantaged in some ways in that my tribe is federally recognized. I don’t give a hang about validation from the fed, but we wouldn’t be able to provide a lot of the services we do or have legal grounds to challenge state, local and the federal governments on a lot of issues without that, unfortunately. I hope the tribe in your home town eventually accomplishes their goal.

Leave a Reply