Native North Americans

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Native North Americans

LOCATION: United States; Canada
POPULATION: Over 2,500,000 (2000 U.S. Census); over 1,175,000 (2006 Canadian Census)
LANGUAGE: See individual tribes.
RELIGION: See individual tribes.
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 2: Choctaw; Comanches; Creeks; Dakota and Lakota; Hopi; Inuit; Iroquois; Navajos; Ojibwa; Paiutes; Seminoles and Miccosukees; and Tlingit


Archaeologists generally agree that the first peoples to inhabit the North American continent crossed over from Asia to what is now Alaska on the Bering Land Bridge sometime between 12,000 and 25,000 years ago. When the glaciers melted at the end of the Ice Age, the water levels rose in the Earth's oceans and covered the land bridge, preventing any further migrations. The people who had already crossed over began to spread across the North American continent. According to the terrain and climate of the regions in which they eventually settled, they became either farmers or hunter-gatherers (or sometimes both). Farming tribes tended to form large permanent communities, while those who lived by hunting and gathering traveled in smaller, nomadic bands. By the time the first Europeans arrived (Nordic explorers reached Greenland in ad 985); a huge diversity of well-developed cultures had existed in North America for thousands of years. Over 500 years later, when Columbus "discovered" America, these cultures were centuries more sophisticated. Native North Americans, the First Peoples, were not primitive or backwards or wild savages, as the Europeans often described them. Rather, they were highly skilled providers and preparers of food, clothing, and shelter; fine artists; deeply religious peoples with complex belief systems; and self-governed, independent societies, some with complex governmental structures. From the time Columbus set foot on the Americas, through the next four hundred years, Europeans decimated Native North American cultures and populations, killing perhaps as many as 60 million Native peoples. Some were slaughtered in wars as the Europeans pushed them off their homelands to make room for European expansion. Many others died from European diseases for which they had no immunity or known treatments. Native North American populations did not begin to recover from this holocaust until about 1900.

The first "reservation" for Native North Americans was created in 1638 by the Puritans in what is now Connecticut, for the Quinnipiac Nation. The Quinnipiacs were given a mere 1,200 acres on which to live. They were subject to English rule and were required to convert to Christianity. Through the 17th century, European settlers pushed Native North Americans further and further west in what would become the United States. Those who remained in the east, and those in Canada, were squeezed onto smaller and smaller territories. British-ruled Canada began establishing what they called "reserves" for Native North Americans during the 18th century. In Can- ada, reserves were set aside on the Natives' homelands, rather than forcing them to relocate, sometimes far from their homes, as did the U.S. government when it began confining Natives to reservations.

Reservations and reserves were not the only changes forced upon the Native North Americans by the Europeans. Christian missionaries, beginning in the 17th century with French Jesuits in the northeast and Spanish Franciscans in the southwest, built mission churches and schools near Native communities and worked to "educate" the Natives in European ways and religion. Missionary methods ranged from supportive and helpful to violent and destructive. Jesuit priests in eastern Canada kidnapped young Natives and took them back to France to try to acculturate them there. Many of the young people died in these experiments; others became marginalized in both societies and sunk into alcoholic depressions. In the southwestern United States, the Spanish brutalized the Pueblo peoples in their efforts to convert them to Christianity. After the Pueblo peoples staged a successful revolt in 1680, the Spanish agreed to a compromise: the Pueblo peoples would allow them to build their missions in the pueblos, but they must allow the Pueblo peoples to practice their native religion unhindered.

The 17th century also saw the beginning of the decimation of Native populations by European diseases, and the blurring of blood lines through intermarriage between Native North Americans and European traders. (In Canada, an entirely new population known as Métis, or mixed-bloods, was created in the 18th century from the marriage of European traders with Native women. They are now a recognized racial group in Canada.) Suddenly, tribal peoples who had existed in relative stability for millennia found themselves threatened with extinction. During the following centuries, Native North Americans struggled to survive, with varying degrees of success. Some European contributions were welcomed, such as the horse, adopted by Great Plains tribes in the United States and Canada during the 18th century, and wheat, which quickly became a staple food of agricultural Native North Americans. For the most part, however, the Europeans brought only destruction to the Native North American peoples.

During the 18th century, Native North Americans stepped lively among frequently shifting allegiances with European powers as the French, Spanish, and British vied for control of the New World. The Native peoples were interested in protecting their lands and their access to food. Whichever European power seemed most likely to allow them to do that became their ally of the moment. In the end, no European nation protected the Natives' interests, despite all the assistance the Natives had given them. In 1763, the British drew the first of a series of boundary lines between land available for European settlement and Native land, or "Indian Territory." This first line ran down the crest of the Appalachian Mountains. Many European settlers ignored this boundary and moved west of the line into the lands supposedly reserved for Native North Americans. Eventually, the line was redrawn further west, and again settlers ignored it. For the next one hundred years, Indian Territory was redefined further and further west, first by the British and then by the U.S. government, forcing Eastern tribes to relocate to unfamiliar terrain occupied by other Native North American nations. The lands allegedly reserved for Native North Americans were becoming crowded, and histori-cally antagonistic tribes were forced to live in close proximity to each other.

In Canada, no imaginary lines were drawn between the European East and Native West, and Native peoples were allowed to stay in their original homelands. However, the lands set aside for them in these regions were small, and less valuable than those claimed by the Europeans. The first organized Native resistance to the Europeans in Canada was Pontiac's War against the British in 1763–66. Pontiac was an Ottawa chief who, with his warriors, successfully captured every British fort west of Niagara Falls except for Fort Detroit and Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh). Fort Detroit was under siege for five months before the British finally managed to turn the tables on Chief Pontiac and ultimately win the war.

Differences in culture, language, and worldview made peaceful resolutions to the conflicts between Europeans and Native North Americans almost impossible. Treaties were made, both in the United States and Canada, but misunderstandings by both sides and deliberate breaches of promise by the Europeans prevented the treaties from having any lasting positive effects. The Micmac tribe in what is now the Canadian province of New Brunswick signed the first treaty with Europeans in 1725. Canadian Natives signed a total of 11 more treaties between 1871 and 1923 with the British and then Canadian governments. The first treaty between Native North Americans and the U.S. government was signed on 17 September 1778 at Fort Pitt. A total of 389 more treaties were made or remade in the United States before Congress passed a law in 1871 forbidding the signing of any more treaties with Native North Americans. The U.S. government broke most of the promises it made to the Native North Americans in those 390 treaties.

The U.S. government not only defied most of its treaties with Native North Americans but also betrayed a promise made to them in its own Articles of Confederation. The Ordinance of 1787, contained in the Articles of Confederation, stated that "land and property shall never be taken from [Native North Americans] without their consent; and in their property, rights and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress." During the 19th century, in blatant disregard of this Ordinance, European American settlers invaded, destroyed, and seized most of the Native North Americans' remaining lands in the United States, all with the full support of the U.S. government. In the July-August 1845 issue of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, editor John L. O'Sullivan coined the phrase "manifest destiny" to justify this genocide of the Native Nations. He saw it as "the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our multiplying millions." Manifest Destiny became the rallying cry for the Mexican War of 1846-48 and was used to justify the annexation of Texas in 1845; the claim to Oregon country disputed with Britain, and the planned seizure of Cuba from Spain, in the 1850s; the Alaska Purchase of 1867; and even annexations of territories outside of the continental United States, such as Hawaii and Guam, in the late 1800s.

In Canada, the aim of the government towards the Native Nations was complete assimilation. Rather than drive them out or slaughter them, the Canadians attempted to assimilate the Native North Americans into European Canadian culture. In 1857, the Imperial (British) Government passed the Grad- ual Civilization Act, which declared Native North Americans in Canada to be noncitizens and created a process by which they could attain citizenship. The government expected all Natives to become Canadian citizens—but in so doing, the Native peoples would renounce all legal distinctions as Native North Americans, essentially giving up their identities. It is not surprising that few chose to do so. Between 1857 and 1920, only 250 Native North Americans opted to become Canadian citizens.

To encourage assimilation, Canada created boarding schools for Native North American children where they would be taught European languages, values, and customs. These schools, both government-run and missionary schools, were purposely built far from the children's homes to break all contact between the children and their families. The children were placed in European homes for the duration of their education, sometimes not seeing their true families for years on end. Although Native parents resisted sending their children to these schools, government officials insisted that they comply, often kidnapping the children and threatening the parents with cuts in food rations or worse. Boarding schools were also set up in the United States by missionaries and by the government, and the scenario was much the same there as in Canada. Students in both Canadian and U.S. boarding schools were subject to physical and sexual abuse; they were punished severely for speaking their native languages or practicing native religions; and their homes, families, and cultures were denigrated. The damaging effects of these schools are still felt by Native North Americans. Needless to say, this attempt at assimilation was not very successful.

In the United States, the Indian Removal Act passed by Congress in 1830 legalized the forcible relocation of many Native North Americans to reservations in the West. The Trail of Tears over which the Cherokees and other southeastern tribes were marched during the winter of 1838 from their homelands to what was then Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), and the Long Walk of the Navajos in 1864 to a concentration camp in New Mexico called Bosque Redondo, are still remembered by Native North Americans everywhere. Some 4,000–8,000 Cherokees (one out of every four) died on the Trail of Tears. Hundreds of Navajos died on the Long Walk, and many more died soon after arriving at Bosque Redondo. The situation worsened for Native North Americans in the United States in 1831 when the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the previous U.S. policy and declared Native North American tribes as domestic dependent nations, rather than independent foreign nations. Native North Americans, therefore, no longer had the rights granted to sovereign nations, nor were they given rights as U.S. citizens. Native North Americans in the United States effectively had no rights whatsoever.

The Gold Rush which began in the late 1840s in California and soon spread throughout the West (in both the United States and Canada) brought swarms of European prospectors and settlers into Native territory. European settlers squeezed out the Native North Americans and upset the fragile balance of nature on the prairies and plains. By 1879, the buffalo herds had disappeared from Canadian prairies, and many Canadian Natives were forced to follow the few remaining buffalo into the United States. Native peoples in the United States were already struggling to survive on the dwindling supply of buffalo and other game. In an effort to starve the Natives into submis-sion, the U.S. government sponsored massive buffalo hunts, where gunmen rode through Native lands and shot as many buffalo as possible, leaving them to rot on the ground. In California, European Americans killed as many as 84,000 Native North Americans between 1850 and 1880 to rid themselves of competition for gold, land, and other resources.

Finally, by the end of the 19th century, Native North Americans in the United States and Canada surrendered to the superior firepower and sheer numbers of the Europeans and resigned themselves to life on reservations and reserves. Both governments outlawed many Native religious practices and continued to whittle away at Native lands through various acts of legislation. The General Allotment Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1887, divided up reservation lands between individual Natives—160 acres per person. Whatever lands were left over were sold to European Americans. The 160-acre parcels allotted to Native North Americans were not contiguous but rather were laid out in a checkerboard pattern, making large-scale collective farming or ranching impossible. With this one Act, the U.S. government succeeded in trapping Native North Americans in poverty for generations.

The 20th century has seen some improvements and some setbacks for Native North Americans. The United States granted citizenship to all Native North Americans within its boundaries on 2 June 1924, though some individual states did not declare them citizens for years to follow. Canada gave its Native peoples the national franchise in 1960, but separate provinces were slower to give them the provincial franchise. The Indian New Deal of the 1930s in the United States made reforms in Native North American land controls, improved conditions on reservations, and lifted restrictions on Native religious practices. Twenty years later, however, the Termination policy of 1954–62 eliminated federal recognition of many Native North American tribes in the United States, leaving those peoples with no federal protections or services. The United States also embarked on a Relocation Program in the early 1950s to encourage Native North Americans to move off the reservations to urban centers. The government hoped that by living and working in cities, away from their tribal lands, Native North Americans would become more integrated into European American society. In fact, the many Natives who did choose to move to urban centers instead found themselves unqualified and unprepared to succeed in the European American work world. Most of them simply traded poverty on the reservation for poverty in the city. Although Canada had no organized program to encourage Natives to relocate to cities, many did so because there was simply not enough room, nor enough resources or employment opportunities, on their reserves for everyone to survive. They found no more success in Canada's cities than did Native North Americans in the United States.

Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s in the United States, Native North Americans in both the United States and Canada began to band together in pan-tribal organizations to fight for their rights. In the United States, the National Indian Youth Council, a radical activist organization, was formed in 1961. The American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded in the United States in July 1968 by Dennis Banks and Russell Means. AIM's original goals were to improve the conditions of urban Native North Americans and to prevent harassment of urban Natives by local police. Since then, their activities have expanded to cover a spectrum of Native North American concerns on the national level. The first truly national Canadian Native North American organization was the National Indian Council, formed in 1961. Various other tribal and pan-tribal organizations have since come into being to promote the preservation of Native North American culture; to lobby, demonstrate, and fight for Native North American rights in Canada and the United States; and to improve conditions for Natives in both countries. Due to the efforts of these groups, governmental attitudes and approaches are beginning to change. In the 1970s, the Canadian government began funding Native North American organizations, rather than trying to suppress them as it had done in the past. It also adopted a policy of multiculturalism, as opposed to its former policy of assimilation. In both the United States and Canada, many Native North American tribes have submitted land claims and brought suit against the government for restitution for broken treaties. The first major land claims case won by Native North Americans was in 1970 when U.S. president Richard Nixon agreed to return 48,000 acres of land (including the sacred Blue Lake) to Taos Pueblo in New Mexico. It was another 12 years before the first Canadian Native land claims case was settled, for the Micmac tribe in Nova Scotia.

Much confusion and disagreement remains, however, on the relation of Native North Americans to the government that rules their lands and lives. Canadian Natives continue to wrestle with the Canadian government over what the Natives believe is their inherent right to self-rule. U.S. Natives struggle to define themselves in the murky area of sovereign dependence. Conditions are still harsh for the majority of Native North Americans, whether they live on reservations, reserves, or in cities. Unemployment, alcoholism, suicide, and cultural dislocation continue to plague these descendants of once-great nations. Racist perceptions of "redskins" and caricatured depictions of Indians persist in the European-dominated cultures of Canada and the United States. Dartmouth College in 1969, and Stanford University in 1972, stopped the use of Native North American symbols and mascots for their sports teams, but more than two decades later, other teams like the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves in professional baseball continue to promote racist ideas of Native North Americans with their Chief Wahoo grinning-Indian mascot (Cleveland) and tomahawk chant (Atlanta).

On a potentially positive note, the late 20th century has seen a surge in European Americans' and Canadians' interest in Native North American spirituality and worldview. If this interest leads to increased respect for Native North Americans, it should create significant improvements in their lives. If the Europeans, however, use this as yet another opportunity to steal from the Natives, co-opting their spiritual traditions and Europeanizing them, Native North Americans will once again have one less thing to call their own.


Native North American tribes are usually grouped into major culture areas based on the geographic area of their traditional homelands. Those culture areas are generally designated as Northeastern (including the Great Lakes region, or Woodlands); Southeastern; Southwestern; Great or Northern Plains; Northwest Coast; Plateau, Great Basin, and Rocky Mountains; California; Alaska; and the Northwest Territory and ArcticCircle. Due to the forced relocation of many tribes in the United States during the 19th century to so-called "Indian Territory" in what is now the state of Oklahoma, a new division known as Oklahoman Indians has been added to the list. (Oklahoman Indians identify themselves as such.) These culture areas, except for Oklahoma, are useful for historical discussions of Native North Americans, but tribal groupings are based more on differences in political and economic relations with the U.S. and Canadian governments than on geographic regions. In Canada, Native North Americans are divided into Inuit (a separate culture group living in the subarctic regions), Métis (mixed-bloods who have developed a distinct cultural identity), and North American Indians (all other Canadian Natives), as well as "status" and "nonstatus" Indians (referring to whether or not they are recognized as Native North Americans by the government). In the United States, most Native North Americans are now referred to simply by tribe. (There is a great deal of controversy over how to refer to Native North Americans in general: some say Native Americans, some say American Indians, while others use terms such as First Peoples or First Nations. In an attempt to find a middle ground, and with no intention of disrespect to those who prefer other designations, we have chosen to use Native North Americans as the general descriptive term.)

Historically, the terrain and environment of a tribe's home-land determined its way of life. Northeastern tribes lived in temperate woodlands where game animals abounded. They built semipermanent villages made up of wood lodges, cultivated some food, and hunted, fished, and gathered the rest. Southeastern tribes, on the other hand, lived in hotter climates with very fertile ground and a long growing season, so they became settled agriculturalists with large, well-organized communities. Plains tribes relied on the buffalo and wild grasses for their livelihood, while Southwestern tribes eked out a living on carefully tended corn and built apartment-style complexes of adobe. Within each of these culture areas, however, individual tribes had quite different religious beliefs, languages, social customs, and interpersonal relations. It is quite inaccurate to think of Plains tribes, or Southwestern tribes, as single, unified groups with one common lifeway. It is grossly inaccurate to think of Native North Americans as a singly defined unit. However, for the purposes of this article, we will attempt to offer some general statements about Native North Americans as a collection of distinct peoples.

According to the 2000 Census, the total population of Native North Americans in the United States was 2,475, 956. The Canadian Census of 2006 counted a total of 1,172,790 Native North Americans, including about 700,000 First Nations Peoples; about 390,000 Métis and nonstatus Indians; and nearly 51,000 Inuit. Historians and archaeologists guess that the Native North American population was in the tens of millions when Europeans first arrived on the continent. By 1900, the Native population in the United States had reached an all-time low of 237,196. The Canadian Native population bottomed out in 1911 at less than 110,000. Since then, Native North American populations in both countries have increased significantly, though they are still far from their original numbers. Native North Americans make up about 1.0% of the total U.S. population, and 3.8% of the total Canadian population.

There are 564 federally recognized Native North American tribes in the United States, over 200 Alaska Native villages and communities, and some 600 recognized "First Nations" in Canada. A total of over 56 million acres in the United States have been divided into about 310 Native North American reservations, mostly in the Great Plains region and the West. A few are located in the eastern United States. In the United States, Native North Americans make up less than 50% of the population on many reservations due to land allotment, leasing arrangements, and the opening of reservation lands to non-Natives. While reservations in Arizona, New Mexico, and the Dakotas still have over 90% Native populations, those in California, the Great Lakes states, and Washington have less than 30%. According to 2003 estimates, the state of California has the largest concentration of Native North Americans in the United States (413,382), followed by Arizona (294,137), and Oklahoma (279,559). The Navajo Nation, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, is the largest Native North American tribe in the United States, followed closely by Cherokee. In Canada, the Cree far outdistance the next largest tribe, the Ojibwa. The provinces of Ontario and British Columbia have the greatest concentrations of Native North Americans.

Many Native North Americans have left the reservations and reserves to live in cities. In Canada, anywhere from 60-80% of the Native population lives off-reserve in urban centers such as Winnipeg, Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton, and Toronto. Some 62% of U.S. Natives are urban dwellers. In the United States, the cities of Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, and Tulsa have the largest Native North American populations.

The relatively recent Native North American population increase from the lows of the early 20th century have created a youth-dominated population: 32% of Native North Americans are under 15 years old, while only 5% are over 64 years old. The decimation of tribal populations in the 19th century, plus the crowding together of many different tribes on common reservations in the United States, has led to a great deal of intermarrying and blurring of once pure tribal lineages. Many Native North Americans have also married and borne children with European Americans, resulting in a large percentage of mixed-bloods. In Canada, the Métis have developed a distinct cultural identity and are now recognized as such by the Canadian government. Because Native North Americans are eligible for government services and benefits, many with small percentages of Native North American blood register on tribal rolls. Some have such minute traces of Native blood that other Native North Americans refer to them as "no-bloods."


Linguists guess that there may have originally been as many as 300 separate and distinct Native North American languages before Europeans arrived on the continent. Since that time, many Native languages have become extinct because of European decimation of tribal populations; the assimilation of Native peoples into European-dominated English-speaking society; education (forced and voluntary) of young Native North Americans in English, Spanish, or French; and the loss of faith in elders and traditional tribal culture by young Native North Americans who then reject their native cultures and tongues. Over 100 Native North American languages still exist, though some are spoken by only a few people. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional Native ways, including languages, by Native North Americans themselves and by the U.S. and Canadian governments. On 30 October 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Native American Languages Act to preserve, protect, and promote the practice and development of Native North American languages. This Act reversed the 19th century campaign by the U.S. government to eradicate those same languages that it is now trying to protect. Canada's new policy of multiculturalism supports Native languages and traditions, in contrast to its former policy of assimilation which tried to erase them.

The most widely spoken Native North American language is Navajo, with over 170,000 speakers. Cree, spoken by over 117,000 people in Canada, runs a close second. Navajo is a member of the Athabaskan language family; Cree is an Algonquian language. Linguists group languages with common roots into families, such as the Romance (Italian, Spanish, and French) and Germanic (German, English, Dutch) families in Europe. Native North American languages comprise some 57 families, including Athabaskan, Algonquian, Caddoan, Chumashan, Eskimo, Iroquoian, Kiowa-Tanoan, Muskogean, Pomoan, Siouan, Uto-Aztecan, Yuman, and others. There are also many "isolates," languages not related to any others, among the huge diversity of Native North American languages. Some examples of isolates are Aleut, Cayuse, Haida, Hopi, Tlingit, Washo, and Zuni. A number of languages have yet to be classified, such as Kutenai, Salishan, and Wakashan. The greatest linguistic variety exists in the relatively small area of California, which boasts 20 of the 57 Native North American language families. There is more linguistic variety in California than in all of Europe.

The only Native North American language written with its own symbol system is Cherokee. In 1823, a Cherokee named Sequoyah invented a writing system for his language using symbols to represent syllables (such as "ma," "no," "gu"). He borrowed some symbols from English, which he had seen but did not know how to read or speak, so the English letters do not correspond to the English sounds. For example, D represents the sound "a," and T represents "i." Other Native North American languages have since been written with adapted Roman or Russian (for the Aleut language in Alaska) alphabets. But for millennia, Native North American languages were purely oral. A form of sign language did develop among the Plains tribes so that they could communicate across language barriers. Many Europeans learned this system of gestures as well. Trade languages, with elements of two or more tribal (and even European) languages, developed between neighboring tribes, such as Chinook Jargon in the Pacific Northwest. A very special language was consciously created during World War II by a group of Navajo who devised a code based on the Navajo language, in such a way that even a native Navajo speaker would need the key to understand it. The United States used this code for military operations in the Pacific, and the Japanese were never able to break it. The Navajo Code Talkers, as they came to be known, were greatly honored for their invaluable service to the United States.

The English language has borrowed many words from Native North Americans since the arrival of English speakers on the continent. The oldest known borrowed word is raccoon. Others include caribou, opossum, moose, skunk, woodchuck, chipmunk, hickory, squash, pecan, succotash, moccasin, and toboggan. Many North American place names are Native North American words, such as Massachusetts, Connecticut, Manhattan, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Chicago, Mississippi (which means "big-water"), Niagara, Ottawa, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Manitoba, Dakota, Alabama, Appalachia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Utah, Seattle, Saskatchewan, Alaska, and Yosemite.


Separating folklore from religion in Native North American cultures is impossible because all stories are religious teaching stories. Religion is an integral part of daily life for Native North Americans, and the lessons for living that life in a sacred way are passed down from generation to generation through rituals, songs and dances, and stories. In the following articles on Native North Americans, therefore, this section will discuss specific stories and characters in those stories, while section #5, "Religion: origin and traditional beliefs," will talk about sacred ceremonies and rituals and the general spiritual world-view of Native North Americans.

Each native North American tribe has its own creation myth, but many of these myths share common themes. There are three basic types of creation stories among Native North American tribes:

1) Earth-diver stories, where an animal or bird dives into the depths of the watery chaos to bring up a bit of mud which becomes the Earth;

2) Culture-hero stories, where great beings create the world and the people in it and teach those people how to live (or sometimes Two-Creator stories, where two great beings create the world through their efforts to compete with each other); and

3) Emergence stories, where the people emerge from a lower world (or worlds) up onto this one.

Trickster tales are also universal among Native North Americans. Trickster figures are usually animals, birds, or insects who teach humans the limits of time and space, and the consequences of disrespectful or unbalanced behavior, by their own follies, errors, and tricks. They sometimes help humans by restoring balance to the world. Native North Americans believe that the world is made up of paired opposites, such as light-dark, night-day, male-female, sun-moon, etc. Tension between these opposing elements creates movement. Trickster figures keep the world moving by keeping the tension alive between paired opposites, often by turning them on their heads. Common trickster figures (according to region) are: Raven (Northwest), Hare or Raccoon (Great Lakes), Coyote (Southwest and Great Basin), Iktomi the Spider (Plains), Rabbit (Southeast), and Jay or Wolverine (Canada).


Modern Native North American religious movements and sacred ways tend to be pan-tribal (crossing tribal boundaries, rather than specific to one or another tribe). Though sacred ways are continually changing, adapting to the realities of life in a changing world, to new experiences and new wisdom, certain core beliefs remain fundamentally unchanged because the basic realities of life remain the same. The four traditional enemies are still poverty, sickness, fatigue, and old age. The sacred boundaries of tribal worlds are still the same and can still be mapped. The seasons continue in the same cycles, and the sun, moon, and stars continue in the same paths. People are still born, and they still die. Native North American sacred ways are involved with survival; the sacred ways are an integral part of life and cannot be separated from daily living. There is no word for "religion" in any Native North American language because it is not seen as a separate enterprise. The disintegration of tribal culture and severe disruption of traditional daily life in the last two centuries, therefore, caused many Native North Americans to lose their understanding of and sense of communion with their traditional sacred ways. In recent years, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional Native North American spirituality, both among Native North Americans themselves and among European Americans and Canadians.

Most Native North Americans share six concepts of the sacred:

  1. Unseen powers, sometimes called The Great Mystery, exist;
  2. All things in the universe are interdependent and we must, therefore, respect all life and maintain balance and harmony or else destruction will result;
  3. Worship strengthens the bonds between the individual, community, and great powers;
  4. Sacred traditions and teachers of those traditions teach morals and ethics for everyday life;
  5. Trained sacred practitioners (called medicine men and women, shamans, priests and priestesses, etc.) are responsible for special, sometimes secret, knowledge that they preserve in their memories and pass on from generation to generation; and
  6. Humor is a necessary part of the sacred because it keeps us in perspective and eases our journey through the difficulties of life.

Sacred rites among different tribes range from complex ritual dances and worship activities to a pervasive sense of sacred living with almost no ceremonial rites. Visions and dreams are considered by all Native North Americans to be powerful experiences worthy of serious attention. Native North Americans do not believe in a separate divine being who rules the universe, like the Judeo-Christian God. Rather, they believe that all of life and creation is sacred.

In the Native North American worldview, all elements of the universe are paired, and those pairs balance each other, such as male-female, north-south, east-west, up-down, night-day, sun-moon, moist-dry, dark-light, life-death. Each element in the pair is part of the other and necessary to the other: without night, there would be no day but simply a constant, unchanging, undefined sunlight. Because of this belief in balanced opposites, the concepts of good and evil are not nearly as important to Native North Americans as the idea of balanced or imbalanced, or harmony versus disharmony. The sacred is based on relationships that must be kept in balance. The sacred teachings give knowledge about those relationships, how to keep them in balance, and what tragedies will result if they are not kept in balance. This knowledge is taught through stories, ritual experiences, lectures, dances and songs, and the interpretation of visions and dreams.

Prayers are offered before and after many actions, such as waking, going to sleep, hunting, killing, planting, and harvesting. Three standard elements of Native North American prayer rituals are:

  1. Purification—sweat baths, smudging with smoke, bathing, etc.;
  2. Blessing—a call to the great powers, prayers for the self and others; and
  3. Sacrifice—offering something of oneself to the great powers to reestablish one's connection with all else.

Offerings, such as tobacco, feathers, corn meal, or pollen, also often accompany prayers.

Peyotism has a long history with Native North Americans. The use of peyote, an herb of the cactus species that grows along the Rio Grande in Texas and Mexico, was traditionally used by the ancient Aztecs of Mexico. In the early 18th century, the Mescalero Apaches began to use it in their healing ceremonies. Gradually, the use of peyote spread through the tribes of the Southwest and into the Great Plains. By the late 19th century peyotism had become a pan-tribal religion, eventually incorporated as the Native American Church. Sometimes blending aspects of Christianity (such as belief in the Trinity) with traditional Native North American sacred ways, the Native American Church promotes four basic teachings:

  1. Love for one's fellow beings;
  2. Responsibility for one's family;
  3. Self-reliance; and
  4. Refraining from the use of alcohol.

Peyotism has enabled Native North Americans both to assimilate some elements of the dominant European Christian culture as well as to maintain a separate cultural identity and connection with traditional sacred ways. The discouragement of the use of alcohol and encouragement of responsibility and self-reliance have also helped Native North Americans to overcome the despair and accompanying social disintegration that has resulted from centuries of poverty, discrimination, and cultural dislocation.


As hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists, people who live close to the earth, Native North Americans traditionally celebrated holidays based on the Earth's rhythms. Solstices, equinoxes, planting and harvesting times, the first fish caught each year, and other seasonal events constituted Native North Americans' sacred calendar. Many Native North Americans have become Christian and celebrate Christian holidays. Those who are U.S. citizens also celebrate major U.S. holidays such as the Fourth of July (Independence Day). Canadian Native North Americans celebrate Canada Day on 1 July.

However, most tribes continue to hold ceremonial dances and religious rites on their traditional, Earth-based holidays as well. These sacred ceremonies were outlawed for a time by the U.S. and Canadian governments during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But Native North Americans continued to celebrate them secretly and the ceremonies survived to take on new life in the return to traditional ways that has taken hold in Native North American communities in recent decades.


Common rites of passage among Native North American tribes are birth, naming, renaming, puberty, marriage, and death. Native North American initiation (or rite of passage) ceremonies mark a point of physical or emotional growth in a person and open that person's eyes to the Great Mysteries to which he or she is now exposed. The ceremonies also teach the person about the new responsibilities involved in being exposed to these powers. Birth rites are centered on rituals to ensure the child's safety into old age. Puberty ceremonies teach the young boy or girl about adult responsibilities and expectations. New names are often given at each passage from one stage of life to the next, or after a dramatic event in a person's life. Though naming customs differ among Native North American tribes, names are always believed to have great importance. In some tribes, a person may have acquired several names by the end of her or his life.

Death is not feared by Native North Americans because it is considered to be one more step on the path of life. Native North American burial rites involve preparations for the deceased's continuing journey after death. For example, in many Native North American tribes, the dead are buried sitting up, facing west (the direction of the life beyond this one), with things they will need as they travel the next part of the path, such as blankets and food. An inevitable part of the life cycle, death is deeply respected as a time of great transition.


Most Native North American societies are organized around some sort of extended family unit. In matriarchal tribes, the eldest woman is head of the group and carries a great deal of weight in the larger community as well. Patriarchal tribes look to the eldest man for leadership. Traditionally, most Native North American cultures practiced a similar division of labor in which women were responsible for domestic affairs and men took care of hunting, raiding or warring, and public affairs (such as intertribal business or meetings with Europeans). This division of labor made perfect sense in that women were frequently pregnant and/or nursing an infant and were not able during those times to perform heavy manual labor or venture too far from home. They also needed to be protected in the interest of the survival of the tribe or clan. Biologically speaking, women were more valuable because they could give birth only to one child every two years or so, whereas men could father many children in that same period of time. Therefore, fewer men than women were needed to perpetuate the group.


Whether on reservations or in cities, the great majority of Native North Americans suffer substandard living conditions. In the United States, more than one out of every four Native North Americans (or 28%) live below the poverty level, as opposed to one out of eight (12%) of the total U.S. population. Native North Americans are the most disadvantaged group in Canada. Reservations and reserves were established on the poorest land and forced to hold many more people than the land could support. Farming has always been difficult, even at subsistence level, and there are few other sources of income. Many reserves and reservations are located in remote areas, often inaccessible by road, and work opportunities are scarce. Unemployment is extremely high (up to 90% on some Canadian reserves during the winter months), and income levels are extremely low. Access to modern Western health care is limited by poverty, isolation and lack of transportation, and misunderstandings of government policies and benefits. Entire tribes of Native North Americans were wiped out by epidemics during the 18th - early 20th centuries. Certain communicable diseases, such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, and trachoma, were not brought under control on reservations or reserves until the mid-20th century. Canadian Natives receive free health care, and more than half of all U.S. Native North Americans receive health care from the federal Indian Health Service (IHS), a government-supported health care system like no other in the United States. But urban (or other off-reservation) Natives in the United States are not covered by the IHS, so they have extremely limited access to health care. Native North Americans in Canada are often too far removed from health centers to take advantage of their services.

The cultural destruction of Native North American tribes over the past three centuries has led to tremendous stress, depression, and the adoption of unhealthy habits and lifestyles (cigarette smoking, junk-food diets, alcohol dependence) by Native North Americans. Hypertension (high blood pressure), strokes, diabetes, cancer, and coronary heart disease are now prevalent among Native North Americans due to these changes in lifestyle. Mental disorders, alcoholism, and suicide have also become serious problems. As compared to the total U.S. population, Native North American death rates from the following disorders are as follows:

alcoholism:438% greater
tuberculosis:400% greater
diabetes mellitus:155% greater
accidents:131% greater
homicide:57% greater
pneumonia/flu:32% greater
suicide:27% greater

Death rates are similar for Native North Americans in Canada. One study determined that Canadian Natives may have the highest suicide rate of any racial group in the world.

Sexually transmitted diseases are now widespread among Native North Americans, and AIDS is becoming a concern. Toxic waste dumps are often located near reservations and reserves and create further health problems for Native North Americans through contamination of their soil, water, and air. Life expectancy for Native North Americans is at least ten years less, and the infant mortality rate almost twice as high, than for all other races living in the United States and Canada.

Federal housing programs provide low-cost housing for Native North Americans on reservations and reserves, but many Native North Americans still do not have adequate housing. Run-down trailers and shacks are not uncommon. Those living in remote areas usually have no electricity, indoor plumbing, running water, or any heat beyond a small cooking stove. Water is either hauled from wells or dipped from streams and brooks that are often polluted.

Native North Americans living in urban areas are usually marginalized as well. Lacking the skills and cultural background to succeed in the Western work world, most urban Natives find themselves unable to get steady, full-time jobs. Instead, they work at occasional odd jobs and struggle to make rent payments on the worst slum housing. Many eventually return to the reservations and reserves, poorer than when they left.


The family relationship is the center and core of Native North American tribes. Extended families figure prominently in all Native North American cultures; clans are common. Many Native North American cultures are matrilineal (and often matrilocal, meaning a newly married couple lives with or near the bride's mother). In a matrilineal society, lineage is inherited through the mother, not the father. A child is born into the mother's clan or kinship group. Therefore, there is no such thing as an illegitimate child because it is always known who a child's mother is (while the identity of a child's father can be unknown). When a child inherits its mother's name or lineage, it is assured of a recognized place in society.

Children are highly valued members of nearly all Native North American societies from the moment of their birth (or even before). Family size tends to be large, particularly since the decimation of Native populations during the 18th and 19th centuries. In order to rebuild clans and tribes, Native North Americans encourage high birth rates. Children are rarely punished physically. Rather, they are scolded in a firm but gentle voice, or are teased into behaving well.

Women are usually responsible for domestic affairs, while men take care of public affairs and any work that requires trav- eling a distance from home (such as hunting, trapping, raiding, and warfare). In matrilineal societies, women rank as the highest elders with the most authority. Clan mothers, or the eldest women of each kinship group, often choose the men who will be chiefs in public leadership and can remove those chiefs if they feel the men are not leading their people well. In patrilineal societies, women are still highly valued for their reproductive role and their many other contributions to the survival of the group.


Native North Americans wear Western-style clothing for everyday purposes. Only for ceremonies and powwows do they dress in their traditional ways. Traditional clothing varies from tribe to tribe, depending on what natural materials were available in their traditional homelands and the climate of the region, as well as by particular tribal custom. Eagle feathers have always been highly valued by many Native North Americans. Eagles are considered powerful beings, and their feathers are believed to possess some of that power. Nowadays, Native North Americans must get permission from the U.S. government to use the feathers of a protected species.


Thousands of years before Columbus arrived in the New World, Native North Americans of the Hopi and Zuni tribes were cultivating vegetables and corn. Corn is a very sophisticated agricultural product. First, it had to be created by crossing two types of wild grasses, neither of which was very productive on its own. Because it is a hybrid, corn cannot re-seed itself simply by dropping its kernels on the ground. The kernels must be planted and tended carefully in order for them to grow. Native North Americans consider corn to have great spiritual power. Cornmeal and corn pollen are used in many religious ceremonies.

Pacific Northwest tribes had such an abundance of wild fruits and vegetables and fish available to them that they did not need to farm at all. They could gather enough food during the three months of summer to last them the rest of the year. The Plains tribes' primary source of food was the buffalo, along with wild rice in the northern Plains. Alaska and northern Canada Natives have long relied on seal and whale meat and blubber for the bulk of their diet. Most Northeastern and Southeastern Native tribes were farmers like the Southwestern tribes.

When Europeans first began to settle on the eastern shores of the continent, Native North Americans saved them from starvation by showing them what wild foods were edible and how to cultivate other foods unknown to Europeans, such as corn, pumpkins, and squash. Modern-day foods that originated with Native North Americans include corn, pumpkins, squash, lobster, sweet and "Irish" potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, peanuts, avocados, pineapples, certain kinds of beans, maple syrup and sugar, sunflower seeds, and turkey. We can also thank Native North Americans for barbecue, spoon bread, cranberry sauce, mincemeat pie, chili, guacamole, and many other dishes too numerous to mention.


Traditional Native North American education does not separate secular and sacred knowledge because religion and every- day life are completely intertwined. Therefore, Native wisdom involves "seeking life," or knowing what is necessary for survival. Survival requires balance and harmony with all things. The way to wisdom is to sit still, wait, and listen. Native North Americans teach their children to let the Great Mysteries be revealed to them. The children are taught not to ask questions but to listen and wait and the answer will come. Asking questions means a person is not listening well enough or learning anything. A person who asks questions is considered stupid in Native North American society. In a technological society, such as the modern Western society of European-dominated U.S. and Canada, one needs to ask questions because human-made things have origins and definite causes and effects. In an Earth-based society, on the other hand, such as that of traditional Native North Americans, life is based on mysteries that can only be revealed by listening in stillness. Traditional Native North American wisdom is taught mostly through stories, lectures, songs, dances, rituals and ceremonies, vision quests, survival training, and silence.

Western education was introduced to Native North Americans in the 17th century by early Roman Catholic missionary priests. Education was in French, Spanish, or English (depending on the country of origin of the priests). The priests' goal was to "civilize the savages," so they taught the Natives European manners, attitudes, culture, and languages, as well as Christianity. By the 19th century, the United States and Canadian federal governments had become involved in Native North American education. In order to assimilate Natives into European culture, the government set up boarding schools and forcibly removed Native children from their homes and placed them in these schools. During vacations, the children were boarded with European American and Canadian families. Any Native parents who resisted having their children taken to these schools were punished by having their rations withheld. Conditions were generally terrible at the boarding schools. Poor health care and nutrition, combined with sub-standard living conditions, caused widespread illness among the students. Low teacher salaries also attracted unqualified teachers (who could not get better paying jobs), and they were given improper curricula with which to work. Vocational training programs did not fit the marketplace, so Native students graduated with no marketable skills. Students were required to speak English (or French, or Spanish), and any caught speaking in their native tongues were severely punished. Other physical and even sexual abuses have since been revealed. In June 1991, the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) in Canada publicly acknowledged responsibility for the abuses inflicted on Native North American students at Canadian boarding schools. The DIA promised to fund programs to help abuse victims heal their wounds—physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, and social—and to treat other damaging effects, such as the breakdown of families, alcoholism, the perpetration of abuse on others by abuse victims, and suicide. The Reverend Douglas Crosby, president of the Oblate Conference of Canada (the largest Roman Catholic missionary order in Canada) also asked forgiveness for abuses inflicted at Catholic missionary schools upon Native North Americans.

The Choctaw and Cherokee tribes of the southeastern United States had both developed extensive school systems of their own which taught both Native and Western subjects by the 19th century. The Creeks, Chicksaws, and Seminoles also had schools, and together these Southeastern Natives came to be known to European Americans as the "Five Civilized Tribes." In the early 1900s, however, the U.S. government closed down the Native-run schools and took control of their education. It was not until the late 1960s that Native North Americans once again became responsible for the formal education of their own children. Ramah High School, on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, opened in 1968 to become the first Native-controlled high school since the closing of the Five Civilized Tribes' school systems. In Canada, the Cree band (or tribe) of northeastern Alberta took over the Blue Quills school in 1970, becoming the first Canadian band to control its own education. The Canadian government officially gave Native North Americans more control over their education in 1973.

The first tribally controlled college was Navajo Community College, established in 1966. Saskatchewan Indian Federated College became the first Canadian college run by Native North Americans, in May 1976. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) provides grants for 32 tribally controlled community colleges in 13 states in the United States.

As of 2008, only 7% of Native North American primary and secondary students in the United States attend BIA-funded schools. Some 5% attend private or parochial schools, while most (88%) attend public schools. School attendance among Canadian Native North Americans has always been low, due both to traumas experienced at boarding schools and to the remoteness of many reserves. Attendance rates have been improving in recent years, however.

Native children educated in traditional ways encounter great difficulties when entering the Western education system. Traditionally taught not to ask questions, Native students are often considered "slow" or "stupid" by Western teachers and peers. Cultural contexts are often so different that Native students cannot fully understand what they are being taught. Native North American students are among the lowest in achievement and highest in dropout rates. More than 25% of Canadian Natives older than the age of 15 have less than a 9th grade education. At least 34% have some high school but no diploma. A mere 8% of all Native North Americans in Canada over 15 years old have completed high school (only 5% among the Inuit). The percentages in the United States are somewhat better, with 55% of U.S. Native North Americans graduating from high school, but this is still well below the national average of 66.5% for the total U.S. population.

The figures for college graduation are even more disparate: 16.2% of the total U.S. population graduates from college, while only 7% of Native North Americans do. In Canada, 4% of Native North Americans have achieved a university degree. Only a handful—1%—of Inuits have finished college.


Native North American music and dance is centered on religious ceremonies. These ceremonies were outlawed in the U.S. and Canada during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so much of the heritage was lost. The renaissance of Native North American culture in the late 20th century is helping to preserve what is left of traditional music and dance.

The voice has always been the most important musical instrument for Native North Americans. Rattles and/or drums often accompany the voice. A percussion instrument unique to Native North Americans is the water drum: a small container of wood, pottery, or metal is partially filled with water to create a certain tone. The container is covered with dampened hide stretched tightly, and it is beaten with a hard stick. Some Native North American tribes have used flutes for centuries. Recently, the flute has become popular pan-tribally. The Apache fiddle and musical bows in various tribes also have a long history, while modern fiddles and guitars have been adopted by many tribes in recent years.

Native North American dances express spiritual truths or tell religious stories through movement. Dancers stay close to the earth; there are usually no large leaps into the air. Most dances are performed by groups moving in unison. A few solo dances have always existed in certain tribes, and others have developed as show dances in the latter half of the 20th century (such as the hoop dance, where a solo performer dances with a number of hoops, forming them into intricate designs, usually collecting money contributions on a blanket nearby).

Native North American cultures developed highly sophisticated oral traditions. Storytelling is one of the most prized skills a Native North American can possess. Telling an entire story or story cycle can take two to three days. All Native North American stories are coded to contain many teaching elements and symbols that become more clearly understood as the listener matures and hears the story repeatedly. Another form of oral literature is oratory, or speech-making. One of the best-known Native North American orators was Chief Seattle (c.1786–1866) of the Suquamish tribe in the Pacific Northwest.

The first novel ever written by a Native North American was Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, by John Rollin Ridge (1827-67), a Cherokee. Black Elk Speaks, by Nicholas Black Elk, as told to John G. Neihardt, sparked a new blaze of Native North American writing when it was republished in 1959. It is the autobiography of Nick Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux medicine man. It is considered to rank among the most important holy books of the world. In 1969, N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa, became the first Native North American to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize, for his novel House Made of Dawn (published in 1968). There is a growing list of successful Native North American writers, including Vine Deloria, Jr., Dee Brown, James Welch, Duane Niatum, Geary Hobson, Leslie Silko, Simon Ortiz, Louise Erdrich (whose first novel, Love Medicine, published in 1984, became a best-seller), Paula Gunn Allen, Linda Hogan, Beth Brant, Gerald Vizenor, and poets Wendy Rose, Joy Harjo, and Ray A. Young Bear.

Artistically, Native North Americans do not impose form on an object but rather attempt to uncover the form that is already there. This is true for music as well as the visual arts. Musical instruments are used to reproduce the natural musical patterns that exist in wind and moving water, for example. Traditional patterns and designs for visual art works are also based on the rhythms and lines of natural formations.

Native North American visual arts have a history that goes back perhaps 25,000 years. Many of the patterns and designs have been in use since ancient times. Each tribe has its own particular style and set of patterns and designs that distinguish its art from that of other tribes. Native North American visual arts include rock engravings and paintings; ivory, bone, and soapstone carvings; pottery; jewelry and metalwork; beading and quillwork; weaving; and basketry. Ceremonial costumes are another expression of visual art. Native North American visual arts fall into four categories: 1) sacred drums and ceremonial costumes and objects; 2) tourist or popular art forms for sale to non-Natives; 3) contemporary art—carvings, prints, and crafts—for sale in small galleries; and 4) mainstream or high art that is created by Native North Americans trained in Western art schools and which is shown in major urban galleries and art institutions. There are many highly skilled Native North Americans working in each of these four categories.

Perhaps the first widely known Native North American in the performing arts was William Penn Adair "Will" Rogers (1879–1935), a cowboy, writer, actor, entertainer, and humorist of mixed-blood Cherokee descent who became very popular during the 1930s. Jay Silverheels (1912–80), a Mohawk actor, gained fame in the 1950s as "Tonto" in the Lone Ranger television series in the United States. Since the 1970s, Native North Americans have been paving the way for greater recognition and participation in the theater arts, including stage, film, and television. The American Indian Theatre Ensemble (later renamed the Native American Theatre Ensemble) was founded in New York City in the 1970s. It was the first professional acting company of Native North American performing artists. In 1983, the American Indian Registry for the Performing Arts was established for the advocacy and promotion of Native North American actors, directors, producers, and technical workers in film and on television. The Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium was also founded in the early 1980s to support Native North American work in television, video, and film.

Other well-known Native North American artists and entertainers include Navajo artist R. C. Gorman (1932–); Oneida actor Graham Greene (1950–), best known for his work in the 1991 film Dances with Wolves and the 1990s television series Northern Exposure; Navajo-Ute musician R. Carlos Nakai (1946–); Cree folk musician Buffy Sainte-Marie (1942–); and Osage prima ballerina Maria Tallchief (1925–).

On 12 September 2004, grand opening ceremonies were held to launch the National Museum of the American Indian. The NMAI is part of the Smithsonian Institution museum system and is located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Native American consultants and curators were in charge of developing the building design, landscaping, and exhibit formats. The NMAI has been successful in giving Native Americans a forum for displaying themselves and their heritages from their own points of view.

In August 2005, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) banned the use of "hostile and abusive" Native American mascots from postseason tournaments, but they will still be allowed to be worn on uniforms during regular season play.


Native North Americans have the highest unemployment rate of all races in the United States and Canada. Unemployment soars as high as 90% during the winter months on some Canadian reserves. The average unemployment rate for Native North Americans in the United States is consistently more than twice the national average. Of those who are employed, many work seasonal jobs. Native Americans in the United States have the second lowest median household income, $32,116, while whites have the highest at $46,305, according to the 2000 Census data.

The General Allotment Act of 1887 (also known as the Dawes Act) prevented Native North American business development on U.S. reservations by dividing the lands up into small, non-adjoining plots that were barely large enough to support subsistence farming. Farming and ranching for profit were impossible, and Native North Americans were not given the education or vocational training necessary to begin other types of businesses. Canadian reserves were also much too small, and located in areas too poor in resources, to support large-scale operations. When educational opportunities improved for Native North Americans so that they could gain the necessary skills to compete in the business world, most of the choicest niches for profitable enterprise had already been filled by European Americans and Canadians.

However, Natives in both the United States and Canada have managed to create business opportunities for themselves, including small retail operations, construction companies, hotels, tourist facilities, gas stations, commercial fishing, logging and other work in the forestry industry, Native arts and crafts production, and gambling establishments.

One of the most successful businesses owned and run by Native North Americans is the Blackfeet Writing Company in Montana which makes pens and pencils. In the United States, gambling establishments, such as bingo halls and casinos, have become a leading source of income on many reservations since the Federal Indian Gambling Regulatory Act of 1988 made it legal for any federally recognized tribe to engage in gambling activities for profit. At least half of all U.S. tribes have bingo halls, and there are about 40 Native-run casinos in about a dozen U.S. states. The Florida Seminole tribe was the first to adopt reservation gambling as a source of income, in 1979. The total income from gambling on reservations was estimated to be $25.7 billion in 2006. Gambling revenues are sometimes the only real source of income for smaller, poorer tribes.

Western-educated Native North Americans sometimes succeed in the European American work world, but the work schedule often conflicts with traditional life. Native North American culture is not based on the eight-hour workday or Monday-Friday workweek. Traditional Native religious ceremonies usually do not coincide with U.S. or Canadian offi-cial holidays, so it is often difficult for Native North American workers to get the necessary time off. Most jobs are off the reservation or reserve as well, forcing Native workers either to commute long distances daily or to live away from their families, returning only on weekends and/or vacations. This creates a great deal of stress for all concerned.

Because Native North American women have traditionally been responsible for taking care of the home and young children, fewer work at jobs outside the home than do women of European or African descent in the United States and Canada. This means that Native households are less likely to have two incomes on which to draw. (Women tend to be the ones to make traditional arts and crafts for sale, however, so in this way they help support their families financially.) To survive, many Native North Americans resort to leasing their land to non-Natives, but the income they receive from these leasing arrangements is usually six to nine times lower than market value. Most Native North Americans, therefore, are relegated to work as small ranchers, laborers on commercial (non-Native) farms, and low-level workers in other non-Native businesses.


The best-known Native North American sport, named lacrosse by the French, was invented by the Iroquois centuries ago. It is now Canada's national sport. The Iroquois believe that their ancestors gave them the game to develop their endurance and make them great warriors. Traditionally, boys began learning to play at a very early age. Many Iroquois (boys and girls) still start lacrosse lessons as small children. Most traditional Native North American sports were used to develop the skills needed for survival.

Two modern world–class Native North American athletes are James Francis "Jim" Thorpe (1888–1953), of the Sac and Fox tribe, and Billy Mills (1938), an Oglala Sioux. Jim Thorpe won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympic Games. Seven months later, he was stripped of the medals because it had been discovered that he had previously played semi-professional baseball for $15 per week. The rules at that time stated that any athlete who had received pay for athletic performance was officially considered a professional and was therefore ineligible to participate in amateur competitions such as the Olympics. Seventy years later, the medals were restored to Thorpe posthumously during the 1984 Olympics, after a grass-roots campaign led to the discovery that complaints must be made within thirty days of competition. It had been seven months before complaints were lodged against Thorpe. Thorpe also held world records in track-and-field and was a college All-American in lacrosse, basketball, and football. After the 1912 Olympics, Thorpe played professional baseball from 1913–19, with a career batting average of.252. He then played professional football and became the first president of the American Professional Football Association. In 1950, the Associated Press declared Thorpe the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century. He was also named to both college and professional halls of fame.

Billy Mills won the 10,000-meter run at the 1964 Olympic Games and set a world record for the event. He was the first American ever to win a distance race at the Olympics. Completely unknown to the world, he was never expected to win and had to give the official his name when he crossed the finish line in first place. Mills later set another record for the six-mile run. He has become successful businessperson and Native North American activist.


Traditional Native North American games are a form of education, either to teach spiritual truths or survival skills (such as dexterity and coordination). Almost all traditional games have music and sometimes dance elements. The most popular are hand games or stick games where one team sings while hiding an object and the other team then tries to guess where it is (sometimes while singing also). The songs are usually simple with repeated phrases, though they sometimes have complicated rhythms and multipart singing. Many Native North American games involve gambling. Gambling has always been a favorite form of entertainment among Native North Ameri- cans, and now they are turning that pursuit to profit with bingo halls and casinos on their reservations, catering to Natives and non-Natives alike.

The Inuit peoples of the arctic and subarctic regions of Siberia and North America created a special game to develop manual dexterity. It has come to be known as "cat's cradle." In this game, a piece of string (or sinew) is tied into a continuous loop and then held with the fingers of both hands. By turning the fingers and hands in certain ways, the string is woven into different patterns, some of which can be quite elaborate. When one player has made a pattern, another player reaches in and takes the string onto her or his own hands in such a way as to create another pattern. Sometimes two players can create one pattern together by contributing one or two hands each. The Inuit have played cat's cradle for centuries.

A uniquely Native North American form of entertainment and recreation, called the powwow, has developed in the last 100 years. Powwows are gatherings in which Native North Americans from many tribes come together to sing, dance, gamble, and visit with friends and family. The main focus is on dancing, usually with a dance contest (with money as prizes). A few Native North Americans make their living by traveling from one powwow to the next, competing in the dance contests and collecting prize money. Only the best dancers can make enough money to support themselves this way. The dances are traditional ones, formerly used for religious ceremonies, and the costumes are often extravagant expressions of traditional ceremonial garb.

Pau wau was originally the Algonquin word for "medicine man" or "medicine woman" (or spiritual leader). Europeans who saw these pau waus dances thought the word referred to the entire ritual and eventually the word powwow came to be applied to tribal gatherings featuring costumed dance. The modern powwow began among the Plains tribes and eventually spread throughout the United States and Canada. Up until the 1970s, powwows only took place on reservations and reserves. Now some are held in convention centers and gymnasiums, or other large gathering places, in cities. There are more than 1,000 powwows each year, and an estimated 90% of Native North Americans attend at least one. Alcohol is banned at most powwows as a way to promote healthful recreation. The majority of powwows are open to non-Natives, though they must be respectful of Native customs and may be asked to leave at any time if they are not. Powwows serve as cultural revivals, as well as entertainment, for Native North Americans. Important persons and personal events are also honored at powwows, such as athletic achievements, scholarships, retirements, and deaths.


Native North American art is a continuation of traditional forms and methods that have been in existence for centuries. It is therefore impossible to distinguish "folk art" from so-called "fine art" or "high art" (see #14, "Cultural heritage" above). The increased interest in Native North American arts and crafts in recent decades has led to a booming business in counterfeit imitations made by non-Natives but sold as authentic Native North American art. The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 gave the Indian Arts and Crafts Board (established in 1935) more power to prosecute counterfeiters and thereby protect themselves from this kind of theft.


The social problems of Native North Americans have been discussed throughout this article. The forced removal of Native North Americans from their tribal lands by invading European Americans and Canadians, and the resulting disruption of their traditional ways, culture, and heritage, have led to high rates of alcoholism and suicide among Natives. Drug abuse is also on the rise. Poor lands and lack of economic opportunities on reservations and reserves create oppressive poverty and unemployment. Deep-seated racism and widespread discrimination in the larger European-dominated societies of the United States and Canada keep Native North Americans under the heel of that oppression. Though Native North American populations are increasing, the vast majority of those numbers are made up of "mixed-bloods," children of intertribal or interracial couples. Traditional lineages and tribal lifeways are becoming lost in the blur of racial and tribal blending. Finally, the generations of life on reserves and reservations, at the mercy of government handouts, has cultivated a mind-set of dependency on the part of modern Native North Americans. Attempts by Native activists to reclaim control of their economic and political lives are often met with fear and doubt on the part of older Natives. And the United States and Canadian governments are not quite ready to give up their hold on Native North American reins. So the political and economic tugof-war continues between tribal and federal governments over lands, services, jurisdictions, and racial equality.


Many Native American groups recognize four genders: male, female, woman-man, and man-woman. It has been estimated that over 150 tribes recognize women-men, or berdaches. An additional 50 tribes also recognizes men-women; the fourth gender.

The general characteristics of berdaches include: (1) specialized occupational roles where the berdache performs the work of a woman; (2) gender differentiation where berdaches are distinguished from both men and women in terms of dress, temperament, lifestyle, and other social characteristics; (3) spiritual intervention where berdaches are believed to be the result of a spiritual intervention in the form of visions or dreams; and, (4) same sex relationships where berdaches typically form sexual and emotional relationships with other men who are not berdaches. The most salient marker of berdache gender status is some manner of cross-dressing. A heightened sexuality is also a general characteristic of berdaches as well as men-women. Among the Pawnee, berdaches provide men with love charms to attract women.

From the European and American perspectives, the structure of Native American society lacked the complexity of their own communities. Yet by their own accounts of Eastern Woodland peoples, the tribes' division of labor and gender roles was actually very advanced, especially where the status of women was concerned. Whereas married women in Europe held few rights to their property, family wealth, or even children, women of the Eastern Woodland tribes had much greater power and autonomy over their produce, conditions of labor, and property. In many Eastern Woodlands tribes, women even served as representatives on the tribal councils and held rights to the lands they worked. While "women's work" was undervalued in many European cultures, women's daily contributions were recognized by men in many of the Eastern Woodlands tribes as crucial to the prosperity of the community and worthy of respect and recognition.


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—revised by J. Williams

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