How Many Indigenous People Do You Think America Has?

We’re coming up on Indigenous Peoples Day here in the States. It’s a day to honor the people who were in America long before Columbus crossed the ocean. But did you learn about these people in school? Or did you learn what you know on cowboy shows? The shows that told you about the Souix and the Apache omitted many more tribes. How many indigenous people do you think America has today?

Left Hand Bear Chief Oglaha Souix

How Many Indigenous People?

There are over five million Native Americans in the United States today. (1.6% of the total population) Approximately 78% of Native Americans live outside reservations.

As of February 19, 2020, 574 Indian tribes were legally recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) of the United States.

But federally recognized tribes do not include all Native Americans.

map of the U.S. with Indian territories marked. How many indigenous people do you think America has--if you look at this map you'd get an idea that once there were many, many more.
Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

The Definitions

We often use the terms Native American, American Indian, and Indigenous American synonymously. Yet, there are federal definitions that are inclusive and exclusive.

In the 2010 census the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) used this definition: “American Indian or Alaska Native” refers to a person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment. The American Indian and Alaska Native population includes people who marked the “American Indian or Alaska Native” checkbox or reported entries such as Navajo, Blackfeet, Inupiat, Yup’ik, or Central American Indian groups or South American Indian groups.

The American Indian and Alaska Native Population: 2010 2010 Census Briefs 

That definition excludes Hawaiian Natives,  Samoans, and Chamorros. It also excludes some Alaskan natives. And it excludes any native not federally recognized.

The Federally Recognized Native Americans

According to the BIA a federally recognized tribe is an American Indian or Alaska Native tribal entity that is recognized as having a government-to-government relationship with the United States, with the responsibilities, powers, limitations, and obligations attached to that designation, and is eligible for funding and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The government assigns federally recognized tribes as possessing certain inherent rights of self-government (i.e., tribal sovereignty) and may receive certain federal benefits, services, and protections because of their special relationship with the United States.

The process for becoming a federally recognized tribe is long, tedious, and expensive. They must submit detailed petitions to the  Bureau of Indian Affairs’ (BIA) Office of Federal Acknowledgment. The process commonly takes a decade or more. “The Shinnecock Indian Nation formally petitioned for recognition in 1978 and was recognized 32 years later, in 2010.”

Termination of Recognition

And still we may not have an accurate count of Native Americans. 

Between 1953 and 1964, the government terminated recognition of more than 100 tribes and bands as sovereign dependent nations. These actions affected more than 12,000 Native Americans or 3% of the total Native American population.,the%20total%20Native%20American%20population.

The number of not-yet-recognized tribes and bands is unknown. As mentioned earlier, it does not include Hawaiian natives and some Alaskans. Nor are natives of territories of the United States included.

native alaskan woman wearing a parka

A Brief History

The Second Continental Congress created a trio of Indian-related agencies in 1775. They appointed commissioners, including Benjamin Franklin and Patrick Henry, to negotiate treaties with Native Americans. The treaties detailed Native American neutrality during the American Revolutionary War.

The U.S. Congress placed agencies created to handle Indian-related issues under the War Department for a while. The duty of the Office of Indian Trade (1806–1822) was to maintain the fur trade. When the fur trade “factory” ended, so did the Office of Indian Trade.

Secretary of War John C. Calhoun formed the Bureau of Indian Affairs on March 11, 1824. He created the agency as a division within his department, without authorization from Congress.

Today the BIA an agency of the Department of Interior. After abuses and mismanagement within the agency, many Native Americans developed a deep distrust of the BIA. The agency’s role today is to move away from the supervisory role of its past to a more advisory role. Learn more about the BIA.

Other Bits of History

Native Americans weren’t granted U.S. citizenship until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. 

The Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 applies to the Indian tribes of the United States and makes many but not all the guarantees of the Bill of Rights applicable within the federally recognized tribes. 

Know Your Country’s History

First, it’s important to know our country’s history. The history of how our government treated Native Americans is appalling. And that isn’t referring only to the Trail of Tears.

From the Indian Removal Act to states forcibly taking children from their parents and living conditions on the reservations, to inadequate water supplies and medical care during the pandemic our Native Americans have been poorly treated by our government—by us.

Deeper Understanding

image of Hawaiians demonstrating how to make poi
By Lahalele – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

As a human being, it’s your duty to try to understand your fellow humans. Learn about other people, their culture, and their history. Don’t pigeonhole a people or culture. Doing so diminishes you far more than it does them.

Learn about individuals like Molly Brant or any of these women.

Grow your capacity for understanding, compassion and empathy. A deeper understanding of at least one culture that is not your own is useful when you encounter unfamiliar cultures. Cultural differences won’t frighten or threaten you. Perhaps you’ll be tolerant. Hopefully, a new understanding will inspire you to make a difference.

Learning about the history of native Americans (or other cultures) is also useful for science fiction authors to understand the clash of cultures and the struggles of one culture being assimilated into another. Using patterns from history, from other cultures, can illustrate a fiction story that is an argument against the mistreatment of one another.

How Many Indigenous People?

It isn’t as simple of a question as it seems. To get at the answer, one must try to understand how the government sees Native Americans. And that is far more complex than this post can cover.

When this post asked, how many indigenous people do you think America has, did you know the answer? Were you surprised by the answer?

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