American Indian Studies

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American Indian Studies blends many fields in the social sciences and humanities; history and anthropology have been especially prominent, along with education, sociology, psychology, economics, and political science. For convenience, this literature can be grouped into several subject areas: demographic behavior, socioeconomic conditions, political and legal institutions, and culture and religion. Of course, there is a great deal of overlap. To date, this literature deals mostly with aboriginal North Americans and their descendants. As the field has evolved, little attention has been devoted to the natives of South America or the Pacific Islanders. However, there is a growing interest in common experiences of indigenous peoples around the world (e.g. Fleras and Elliot 1992).


Historical Demography. Historical demography is important for understanding the complexity of indigenous North American societies and for assessing the results of their contacts with Europeans. For example, complex societies require large populations to generate economic surpluses for trade, and large populations often entail highly developed systems of religion, culture, and governance. Because American Indians almost disappeared in the late nineteenth century, large numbers of pre-Columbian Indians would indicate that devastating mortality rates and profound changes in native social organization followed the arrival of Europeans.

No one knows with certainty when populations of Homo sapiens first appeared in the Western Hemisphere. The first immigrants to North America probably followed game from what is now Siberia across the Beringia land bridge, now submerged in the Bering Sea. This land bridge has surfaced during several ice ages, leading to speculation that the first populations arrived as early as 40,000 years ago or as recently as 15,000 years ago—25,000 years ago is a credible estimate (Thornton 1987, p. 9).

In 1918 a Smithsonian anthropologist, James Mooney, published the first systematic estimates of the American Indian population. He reckoned that 1.15 million American Indians were living around 1600. Alfred Kroeber (1934) subsequently reviewed Mooney's early estimates and deemed them correct, though he adjusted the estimate downward to 900,000 (Deneven 1976). The Mooney-Kroeber estimates of approximately one million American Indians in 1600 have been the benchmark for scholars throughout most of this century. These estimates were flawed, however, because they failed to take epidemic disease into account; European pathogens devastated native populations.

Noting the shortcomings of the Mooney-Kroeber figures, Henry Dobyns (1966) revised the estimate for the 1492 precontact population, suggesting that it was as large as twelve million. His article ignited an intense debate that is still not fully resolved. Conservative estimates now number the indigenous 1492 population at approximately three to five million (Snipp 1989). Dobyns (1983) later raised his estimate to eighteen million.

Population estimates substantially larger than the Mooney-Kroeber figures are consistent with the archaeological record, which indicates that relatively complex societies occupied the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, and the Mississippi River valley before the Europeans arrived (Thornton 1987). The effects of European contact were certainly greater than once believed. European diseases, slavery, genocidal practices, and the intensification of conflicts nearly exterminated the native people. Huge population losses undoubtedly caused large-scale amalgamation and reorganization of groups struggling to survive and wrought profound changes in their cultures and social structures.

Despite long and heated debates about the likely number of pre-Columbian North Americans, there is relatively little consensus about this figure. It seems likely that it will never be known with certainty. As scholars realize the elusiveness of this number, there is less interest in trying to establish the definitive estimate and more in attempting to understand the complex demographic behavior related to depopulation (Thornton et al. 1991; Verano and Ubelaker 1992).

Contemporary Demography. During the twentieth century, the American Indian population grew very quickly, from about 228,000 in 1890 to about 1.96 million in 1990 (Shoemaker 1999). American Indian fertility is exceedingly high (Snipp 1996). Indians often have better access to health care (from the Indian Health Service) than other equally impoverished groups, and they are experiencing diminishing infant mortality and increasing longevity (Young 1994; Snipp 1996).

A peculiar characteristic of American Indian population growth, at least since 1970, is that a large share of the increase has resulted from persons switching the racial identification they report to the census from another category (such as black or white) to American Indian (Passell and Berman 1986; Harris 1994). The U.S. census, virtually the only comprehensive source of data for American Indians, depends on voluntary racial self-identification. Declining racial discrimination, growing ethnic pride, and resurgence in tribal organization have been cited as reasons that persons of mixed heritage may choose to report themselves as American Indian (Passell and Berman 1986). Evidence indicates that persons who change their identity so they may claim their Native-American heritage tend to be relatively well-educated (Eschbach et al. 1998).

The fluidity of the American Indian population underscores a particularly problematic concern for demographers: namely, defining population boundaries. Definitions abound, and there is no single agreed-upon standard. Some federal agencies and a number of tribes use an arbitrary measure of descent, such as one-fourth blood quantum; standards for tribal membership vary greatly from one-half to one-sixty-fourth Indian blood.

For many other applications, genealogical verification of blood quantum standards is too complex. Agencies such as the U.S. Bureau of the Census thus simply rely on self-identification. By default, most studies of American Indians also rely on self-identification, especially if they use secondary data from federal government sources. To complicate the matter, the Canadian government uses a somewhat different set of standards to define the boundaries of its native Indian population (Boldt 1993).

Beyond the complexities of counting, studies show that American Indians, more than other minorities, are concentrated in rural areas; slightly less than one-half reside in cities. Most live west of the Mississippi River, primarily because nineteenth-century removal programs were directed at eastern American Indians. A large number of studies document that American Indians are one of the least educated, most often unemployed, poorest, and least healthy groups in American society (see Sandefur et al.1996). Nonetheless, American Indians are more likely than other groups, especially blacks, to live in a large husband-wife household, and about one-third of them speak an Indian language—provisional evidence of the continuing influence of traditional culture in family organization and language use (Sandefur and Liebler 1996).


Studies of the early social and economic status of American Indians focus on the historical development of so-called dependency relations between them and Euro-Americans (White 1983, 1991; Chase-Dunn and Mann 1998). Dependency theory, a variant of neo-Marxist World Systems Theory, has been widely criticized for its shortcomings, but it has gained some acceptance among scholars of white-Indian relations (Wolf 1982; White 1983; Hall 1989). In this view, economic dependency arose from trade relations in which Euro-Americans enjoyed disproportionate economic advantage stemming from a near monopoly over items such as manufactured goods and rum (Wolf 1982; White 1983). European business practices, such as the use of credit, also fostered dependency.

Dependency relations promoted highly exploitative conditions that were a frequent source of conflict and periodically erupted into serious violence. Unscrupulous traders and a growing commerce in Indian captives, for example, spawned the Yamassee War, which ended Indian slavery in the Southeast (Merrell 1989). Early colonial officials frequently complained about the conflicts created by the unethical practices of frontier traders and sought to curb their abuses, though with little success (White 1991).

Nevertheless, European traders introduced innovations that altered cultures and lifestyles forever. In the Southwest, for example, guns and horses revolutionized relations between nomadic and sedentary groups and allowed the Spanish to exploit traditional antagonisms (Hall 1989).

The emergence of industrial capitalism, largescale manufacturing, growing urbanization, and an influx of immigrants from Europe and slaves from Africa changed dramatically the relations between Euro-Americans and indigenous peoples. Trading with Indians subsided in favor of policies and measures designed to remove them from lands desired for development (Jacobsen 1984). Throughout the nineteenth century, American Indians were more or less forcibly induced to cede their lands for the development of agriculture, timber, and water. In the late nineteenth century, U.S. corporations began to develop petroleum, coal, and other minerals on tribal lands (Miner 1976).

Exploitation of Indian lands has continued, prompting some scholars to argue that American Indian tribes have a quasi-colonial status within the U.S. economy (Snipp 1986). Natural resources such as timber, water, and minerals are extracted from reservations and exported to distant urban centers where they are processed. In exchange, manufactured goods are imported for consumption. The value of the imported goods typically exceeds the value of the exported resources. The deficit between imports and exports contributes to the persistent poverty and low levels of economic development on many reservations.

The Meriam Report, published in 1928, furnished the first systematic empirical assessment of the economic status of American Indians. Since its publication, numerous studies have documented the disadvantaged status of American Indians (Levitan and Miller 1993). Although many reports have described economic conditions in detail, fewer have attempted to isolate the causes of poverty and unemployment. Clearly, a number of factors can be blamed. American Indians have very little formal education, limiting their access to jobs. Whether racial discrimination limits opportunities is unclear. Some research suggests that discrimination is not a significant disadvantage for American Indians (Sandefur and Scott 1983), but other studies disagree with this conclusion (Gwartney and Long 1978).

Conditions on reservations, where about one-third of American Indians live, are particularly harsh. Unemployment rates above 50 percent are not unusual. Studies of reservation economies usually blame the isolated locales for many of their woes. The collision of traditional native values and the ethics of capitalism (Cornell and Kalt 1992) frequently complicates economic development in Indian country. In the 1990s, some reservations have enjoyed limited (and in a few instances, spectacular) success in spurring economic development, especially in tourism, gambling, and light manufacturing (Snipp 1995).

Urban American Indians enjoy a higher standard of living than their counterparts in reservation areas (Snipp 1989). Even so, there is disagreement about the benefits of rural-urban migration for American Indians; earlier studies have identified tangible benefits for urban immigrants (Clinton, Chadwick, and Bahr 1975; Sorkin 1978), but later research found contrary evidence (Gundlach and Roberts 1978; Snipp and Sandefur 1988). Federal programs that encouraged urban immigration for American Indians in the 1950s and 1960s were abandoned amid controversies over their effectiveness and overall results (Fixico 1986).

The economic hardships facing rural and urban American Indians alike have been a major source of other serious distress. Alcoholism, suicide, and homicide are leading causes of death for American Indians (Snipp 1996).


The political and legal status of American Indians is an extremely complicated subject, tangled in conflicting treaties, formal laws, bureaucratic regulations, and court decisions. Unlike any other racial or ethnic group in U.S. society, American Indians have a distinctive niche in the legal system. As a result of this legal history, a separate agency within the federal government (the Bureau of Indian Affairs [BIA]), a volume of the Code of Federal Regulations, and a multiplicity of other rules exist for dealing with American Indians.

The political status of American Indian tribes is difficult to characterize. In 1831, Chief Justice John Marshall described tribes as "domestic, dependent nations," setting forth the principle that tribes are autonomous political entities that enjoy a quasi-sovereignty yet are subject to the authority of the federal government (Pommersheim 1995; Boldt 1993). The limits on tribal political autonomy have fluctuated as a result of court decisions and federal legislation curtailing or extending tribal powers. Since the early 1900s, tribal governments have greatly increased their autonomy (Pommersheim 1995).

One of the most significant political developments in this century for American Indians was the passage of the Wheeler-Howard Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934. This legislation made it possible for tribes legally to reconstitute themselves for the purpose of limited self-government (Prucha 1984, ch. 37). Subject to the democratic precepts imposed by the federal government, tribes were allowed to have representative governments with judicial, executive, and legislative branches. Other forms of tribal governance—based on the inheritance of authority, for example—were not permitted by the IRA legislation. Today, virtually every reservation has a form of representative government (O'Brien 1989).

Tribal sovereignty is a complex legal doctrine affecting the political autonomy of tribal governments. It is distinct from a closely aligned political principle known as self-determination. The principle of self-determination, unlike tribal sovereignty, is relatively recent in origin and was first posed as a claim for administrative control of reservation affairs. As a political ideology, self-determination developed in response to the unilateral actions of the federal government in implementing policies such as the Termination legislation of the 1950s. In the 1960s, it was a rallying theme for promoting greater tribal involvement in federal policies affecting American Indians. The principle was formally enacted into public law with the passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act of 1975, P.L 97–638. Since its passage, federal agencies have gradually divested control over programs and services such as those once administered by the BIA. For example, many tribal governments have contracts to provide social services similar to the arrangements made with state and local governments.

In recent years, ideas about self-determination have developed to the point where self-determination is nearly indistinguishable from tribal sovereignty (O'Brien 1989). The most influential statement merging the two is a report presented to the U.S. Senate by the American Indian Policy Review Commission (AIPRC) in 1976. The AIPRC report was a comprehensive, though highly controversial evaluation of federal Indian policy. Every presidential administration since Richard Nixon's has endorsed the principle of tribal sovereignty. Shortly after taking office, the Clinton Administration endorsed this principle and there is no indication of a reversal in the foreseeable future.

The political revitalization of American Indians accelerated with the civil rights movement. Some observers have suggested that Indian political activism in the 1960s was a response to postwar termination policies (Cornell 1988), which tried to dissolve the federal reservation system and liquidate the special status of the tribes. Relocation programs in the 1950s accelerated the urbanization of American Indians and, at the very least, may have contributed to the political mobilization of urban Indians, as well as their reservation counterparts (Fixico 1986). Though often complementary, the political agendas of urban and reservation Indians are not always in strict accord.

The diverse tribal composition of urban Indian populations has meant that it is virtually impossible to organize them around issues affecting only one or a few tribes. In the face of this constraint, the ideology of "pan-Indianism" is particularly appealing to urban Indian groups (Hertzberg 1971; Nagel 1996). Pan-Indianism is a supratribal ideology committed to broad issues such as economic opportunity and social justice and to cultural events such as intertribal pow-wows.

The roots of modern pan-Indian organizations can be traced first to the Ottawa leader Pontiac and later to the Shawnee leader Tecumseh and Joseph Brant, a Mohawk. These men led pan-Indian movements opposing Euro-American frontier settlement in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (e.g., Pontiac's Revolt 1763). In the late nineteenth century, pan-Indian messianic movements known as Ghost Dances swept across the West (Thornton 1986).

Pan-Indian organizations have been active throughout the twentieth century, but urbanization hastened their development in the 1950s and 1960s (Cornell 1988; Nagel 1996). Some, such as the National Congress of American Indians (founded in 1944), have moderate political agendas focused on lobbying; others, such as the American Indian Movement, are highly militant. The latter was involved in the sacking of the Washington, D.C., BIA office in 1972 and in the armed occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973 (Smith and Warrior 1996). Today, most cities with large Indian populations have pan-Indian organizations involved in political organization, cultural events, and social service delivery (Johnson et al. 1997).


The cultures of American Indians are extremely diverse, and the same can be said, in particular, about their religious beliefs. Not much is known about the spiritual life of American Indians before the fifteenth century. Only from archaeological evidence is such knowledge available, and this seldom captures the rich complexity of religious symbol systems. Most of what is known about American Indian religions is based on the later reports of explorers, missionaries, traders, and anthropologists (Brown 1982).

Contemporary spiritual practices reflect several different types of religious observances: Christian, neotraditional, and traditional. Participation in one type does not necessarily preclude participation in another. Furthermore, there is a great deal of tribal variation.

American Indians who are practicing Christians represent the legacy of European missionaries. The Christian affiliation of many, perhaps most, American Indians reflects their tribal membership and the denomination of the missionaries responsible for their tribe's conversion. Numerical estimates are not available, but there are many Catholic Indians in the Southwest, and American Indians in the Midwest are often Lutheran, to mention only two examples.

American Indians who participate in neotraditional religions often belong to a branch of the Native American Church (NAC). NAC is a pan-Indian religion practiced throughout the United States and Canada. It combines elements of Christianity with traditional religious beliefs and practices.

Traditional religions are often practiced in informally organized groups such as sweatlodge or feasting societies. Some of these groups are remnants of older religious movements such as the Ghost Dance. Not much is written about them because they are ordinarily not open to outsiders; the Sun Dance is an exception. It is perhaps best known for the ritual scarification and trances of its participants (Jorgenson 1972).

The secrecy in which many traditional religions are practiced may be due to the intense repression once directed at their observances by the federal government. In 1883, the BIA established Courts of Indian Offenses that prosecuted people for practicing native religions. Among other things, the courts forbade traditional medicines, shaman healers, and all traditional ceremonial observances. Despite their dubious legal foundation, the Courts of Indian Offenses were active until their mandate was rewritten in 1935 (Prucha 1984).

In 1935, the federal government ended its official repression of tribal culture and religion. But the conflicts between government authorities and American Indians trying to practice non-Christian religions did not end. Many Indians regard freedom of religion as an elusive promise. Most controversies involve NAC ceremonies, the preservation of sacred areas, and the repatriation of religious artifacts and skeletal remains in museum collections (Loftin 1989; Echohawk 1993). NAC ceremonies are controversial because they sometimes involve the use of peyote (a hallucinogen) as a sacrament. Although peyote was once outlawed, the NAC won the right to use it within narrowly defined limits prescribed by the courts. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a case in which Oregon banned the use of peyote, however, raising concerns about how the conservative court will interpret freedom of religion cases in the future (Echohawk 1993).

Preservation of sacred areas places Indian groups at odds with land developers, property owners, local governments, and others who would use sites deemed sacred by spiritual leaders. In one case, the Navajo and Hopi in 1983 went to court to petition against the development of a ski resort that intruded on sacred grounds. In this case and several similar ones, the courts ruled against the Indians (Loftin 1989). Similar conflicts have arisen over the repatriation of religious artifacts and skeletal remains in museums. These issues pit academics such as scientists and museum curators against Indian groups. In some instances, remains and artifacts have been returned to tribes; Stanford University returned burial remains to the Ohlone tribe in California, for example. Other institutions have opposed repatriation or are studying the matter. The Smithsonian has developed a complex policy for repatriation, and the University of California appointed a committee to develop a policy. For the foreseeable future, the controversy is likely to linger in the courts, Congress, and academic institutions.

Compared to repatriation, cultural studies are a less controversial though no less important domain of American Indian Studies. Indian religion represents one of the central forms of native culture, but cultural studies also emphasize other elements of Indian lifestyles, values, and symbol systems. Some of these studies focus on the content of tribal culture; other research deals with the consequences of tribal culture.

For decades, ethnologists recording for posterity details about Indian culture, especially material culture, or documenting the ways that European contact influenced the content of tribal culture dominated studies of American Indians. The popularity of this type of research has declined significantly, partly because there are few "pristine" cultures left anywhere in the world, much less in North America. Another reason, perhaps more damaging, is the growing realization that studies purporting to document precontact Indian culture were based on secondhand accounts of groups that were not truly pristine. The influence of European diseases and trade goods often arrived far in advance of Europeans (Ramenofsky 1987).

Many studies of American Indian culture now resemble literary or artistic criticism. Others focus on how European innovations have been incorporated into tribal culture in unique ways; silversmithing and rug weaving are two well-known examples. A related set of studies deals with the resurgence of traditional culture, such as the increase in the use of American Indian languages (Leap 1988).

The behavioral consequences of culture are perhaps most prominent in a large literature on American Indian mental health, education, and rehabilitation (Bennett and Ames 1985; Foster 1988). Many studies show that education and rehabilitation efforts can be made more effective if they are sensitive to cultural nuances (LaFromboise 1995). In fact, many specialists take this idea as a point of departure and focus their research instead on the ways in which Euro-American educational and therapeutic practices can be adapted to the cultural predisposition of American Indian clients (Lafromboise 1995).

Like the American Indian population, American Indian Studies is a highly diverse and growing field of inquiry. It is interdisciplinary and eclectic in the perspectives it uses. Once primarily the domain of historians and anthropologists, American Indian Studies has rapidly expanded beyond the bounds of these disciplines with contributions from scholars in a wide variety of fields.


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