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Indigenous Peoples


For well over a century claims have been advanced that Native Americans, and indigenous peoples in general, are about to vanish (Bodley 1990, 1994; Dippie 1982). Apparently, however, indigenous peoples have neither read nor followed these scripts. In fact, quite the opposite has occurred. In the United States and around the world there has been a resurgence of indigenous consciousness, political mobilization, and cultural renewal (Cornell 1988; Nagel 1996; Snipp 1988a, 1989, 1992; Thornton 1987; Wilmer 1993). Groups in Canada, the United States, Australia, Brazil, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere are making land claims, petitioning for political rights, and demanding control of resources with remarkable success given their nearly universal paucity of votes, money, or military means. Interestingly, these indigenous movements are occurring while the number of people who live "traditional" or "tribal" lifestyles has diminished under the onslaught of expanding national and global industrialism and capitalism. A full description and explanation of these contradictory trends would require several volumes. Here we offer a summary of current understanding of the state of indigenous peoples in North America and around the world, and we suggest why such issues are of vital concern to sociology.


Ethnic terminology is notoriously politically controversial and loaded. Terms such as "tribe," "clan," "ethnic entity," and "nation" have been used over the last few centuries as weapons of both the strong and the weak in wars of words, laws, and often guns, to attack or defend the rights and survival of indigenous peoples. Even the term "indigenous peoples" is problematic—after all, everyone is indigenous to some place, and indigenousness sometimes can be a matter of when the clock starts. We use the term "indigenous" to refer to those peoples who either live, or have lived within the past several centuries, in nonstate societies, although these indigenous societies may well have existed within the boundaries of state societies. We eschew the term "pre-state" because it implies, even sometimes unintentionally, that there is a necessary, progressive evolution from nonstate to state societies. We hasten to add that although some states have existed for several millennia (Sanderson 1999) in a variety of forms, the diversity of types among nonstate societies is far greater. This why there is a plethora of terms to refer to them: clans, bands, macrobands, tribelets, tribes, chiefdoms, segmentary lineages, and so forth. Virtually all these terms entail an attempt to organize this diversity (for discussion of the terms and concordance of the various meanings, see Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997, chs. 4, 7).

The most problematic in this litany of terms is "tribe." As much as anthropologists and others have argued that "tribe" has become so general as to be useless (Fried 1975), it often is used in efforts to communicate with the general public or beginning students. The problem is especially salient for those peoples who inhabited North America before Europeans arrived, since the tribe–nation distinction has often been used politically to support or to deny autonomy or sovereignty for indigenous groups. To further confuse matters some, indigenous communities officially and legally call themselves "tribes," though many have replaced "tribe" with "nation." Even the designation "Native American" is not without problems, since legally, anyone born in the United States is a "native"[-born] American. For all these reasons we use "nonstate society" as a generic term, and for those peoples indigenous to the Americas, we alternate among Native Americans, American Indians, native peoples, and indigenous peoples.

When referring to a specific indigenous community, we use the name of the group—but even that is often problematic. There are four broad problems in regard to group names that we discuss here because of the light these difficulties shed on the issues facing indigenous peoples generally. Our discussion deals specifically with North America, although the issues we raise often are faced by native peoples elsewhere. First, membership in indigenous groups may change over time as various forms of identity and political organization change in response to internal processes or encounters with outsiders. In early periods of contact with Europeans, North American native peoples often shared a broad sense of identity but were not ruled by any single social or political organization (Cornell 1988). Through years of contact, this situation frequently reversed itself. The need for unified resistance to European, then American, encroachments often necessitated the formation of sociopolitical structures that encompassed individuals and communities that had not necessarily shared historical cultures or identities (for examples, see Champagne 1989, 1992; Dunaway 1996; Faiman-Silva 1997; Fenelon 1998; Hall 1989; Himmel 1999; Meyer 1994).

Second, many historical indigenous cultures and communities have been destroyed, either by outright genocide, the devastations of disease, assimilation into European societies, or merger or amalgamation with other indigenous groups. As a survival strategy, many native groups found themselves greatly transformed, in particular through the consolidation of diverse individuals and communities. At times these amalgamated communities represented a form of "ethnogenesis," that is, the creation of new native groups.

Third, a great deal of ethnographic and ethnohistorical investigation shows that the symbolic, demographic, and social boundaries of nonstate groups are extremely permeable (as, indeed, are those of many states and empires). Thus, the expectation of fixed, clear, rigid boundaries or borders is an artifact of the creation of the modern European nation-state, and of the needs of European and American negotiators to identify "leaders" of native societies for purposes of treaty-making and land acquisition. Hence naming a group often gave a false sense of unity, solidity, and organization.

Finally, there are the historical accidents of naming and the vagaries of spelling that stemmed from a lack of clear understanding of indigenous languages. One of the most notorious is the naming of the Lakota peoples as "Sioux," which is a French corruption of an Anishinaabe [Chippewa or Ojibwa] word, "nadowasieux," which translates into something like "slimy snake people" (Tanner 1987, p. 4)—certainly, not a name many Lakotas would wish to be known by. Many Native American groups are shifting back to their own names for themselves, rather than continuing to use those assigned them by outsiders. For instance, Diné is increasingly used to refer to Navajo institutions and people, and the former "Winnebagos" of Wisconsin are now officially the "Ho Chunks."


There are several reasons that the study and understanding of indigenous peoples and the challenges they face are of special interests to sociology and to sociologists. First, in the United States (and every country in the Americas and in many others elsewhere) indigenous peoples are part of an ethnically diverse social, political, cultural, and economic landscape. Despite their often relatively small numbers, placing indigenous peoples into the ethnic mosaic of contemporary nations and states puts later settler and immigrant groups into a more accurate and larger historical context. This is a point that goes beyond "political correctness" or broad "multiculturalism." The history and current conditions of native peoples often highlight questions of group rights, nation formation, justice, and social change that are relevant to all ethnic communities, not just indigenous groups. To ignore any group in academic discussion of majority–minority relations is itself a form of racism that denies the existence or legitimacy of that group.

Second, of considerable importance in developing general theoretical accounts of intergroup relations is the fact that indigenous peoples present a wide variety of social structures that are not found among state groups, such as Americans, or immigrant groups within states, such as Cuban Americans. Thus, all theories of intergroup relations that study only state peoples will lack dimensions unique to indigenous peoples, such as particular spiritual traditions or patterns of social relations. For instance, most sociologists are familiar with the U.S. racial classification norm called the "one-drop rule": If an individual has any African ancestry, then that person is considered African American no matter what the person's appearance or skintone. But for Native Americans—another colonized, conquered, and oppressed group—the same rule does not apply. Often standards require much more than "one drop" for an individual to be officially considered an "Indian." A common standard requires one-quarter Indian ancestry (or "blood quantum"), that is, that an individual must have one grandparent or two great-grandparents who are American Indian to qualify as a "real" Indian. Sometimes such ancestry rules are official U.S. government regulations, and more than occasionally they are tribal government rules (see Meyer 1994 for a detailed discussion). No such "one drop" or "blood quantum" rules apply to other U.S. immigrant or ethnic groups.

Third, since the formation of the United States, Native Americans have had a very special political and social relationship with the U.S. government. They are the only ethnic community that has legal right to direct federal action and accountability that bypass city, county, and state governmental authority. This "government-to-government" tribal–federal relationship generates many politically and sociologically interesting interactions and exceptions. One example can be found in the controversies about gaming on Indian reservations that emerged in the last quarter of the twentieth century; another involves treaty-based Indian hunting and fishing rights.

Fourth, theories of long-term social change and social evolution that do not include analysis of indigenous peoples will be inherently defective due to a biased sample of societies examined. There is another danger—that of assuming that surviving indigenous people, even those who live "traditionally," are models or "living artifacts" of earlier societies. Contemporary indigenous peoples have survived centuries—and in parts of Asia, millennia—of contact and interaction with state societies. Their contemporary social structures have been shaped by their responses to those interactions. Indeed, Ferguson and Whitehead (1992) argue persuasively that these state/nonstate contacts so profoundly change both types of societies that scholars must view even the earliest first-hand accounts of indigenous societies with considerable skepticism. This is because typically by the time a representative of state society who produces written records observes an indigenous group, there has already been considerable interaction, and what that observer sees already has been shaped by that interaction. This is not denying that there are occasional observations that reflect very little interaction and change, but they are very rare. This raises questions, for example, about the accuracy of depictions of western U.S. tribes by such early travelers (1804) as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

In summary, to ignore indigenous peoples leads to bad sociology in the form of theories and explanations that are based on biased samples, that cover only a truncated range of processes and relations found in societies, and that lead to a distorted picture of ethnic, cultural, social, political, and economic diversity in any society with indigenous communities. This is why it is important to overcome the nineteenth century legacy of the division of labor between anthropology and sociology in their objects of study. This is no easy task given the great diversity of indigenous groups in the world, or even in the continental United States.


One of the more formidable problems in studying indigenous peoples is describing their demography. Here, too, there are several interesting challenges, even if discussion is restricted to the United States. First, there is the politics of numbers. This derives from changes, and in some cases, improvements in historical demography in the twentieth century and the uses to which numbers are put. Stiffarm and Lane (1992) argue persuasively that there is an inherent tendency to minimize the historical population of Native Americans prior to European contact in order to support the argument that destruction of the indigenous American population was not extreme and mostly accidental. While estimates for the indigenous population of North American (United States and Canada) range from 1 million to 30 million, Thornton (1987) argues for a figure in the neighborhood of 7 million, based on careful reconstruction of population densities, early population counts, and the effects of known epidemics. From 1492 on, Native populations declined drastically, primarily, but not exclusively, because of exposure to "Old World" diseases. For the continental United States, the absolute population nadir of about a quarter million was reached around the turn of the twentieth century. Thereafter, population has grown steadily, so that at the end of the twentieth century the Native American population is approximately 2 million, or between one-third and one-half of what it likely was in 1492. An important point here is that various studies show that more than disease was involved in the initial depopulation. That outright genocide contributed to the nearly total destruction of the Native American population is now well-documented (see Thornton 1987; Stannard 1992).

The impressive population recovery of the post–Second World War period is worth some mention. From 1960 to 1970, the number of Americans who reported their race to be "American Indian" in the U.S. census grew by 51 percent (from 523,591 to 792,730); from 1970 to 1980, the American Indian population grew faster, by 72 percent (to 1,364,033); and from 1980 to 1990, the American Indian population increased by 37 percent (to 1,878,285). Several reasons are given for this growth, including improved enumeration techniques, a decreasing death rate, and an increasing willingness of individuals to identify themselves as Native American. An important feature of the contemporary Native American population is the extensive intermarriage of indigenous peoples with non-Indians. Intermarriage has given rise to three distinct types of U.S. Indian population (Snipp 1986). First, there are "American Indians," persons who claim to be Indian racially and ethnically (having a specific tribal identification). Second, there are "American Indians of multiple ancestry," persons who claim to be Indian racially but have significant non-Indian ancestry. Third, there are "Americans of Indian descent," who do not claim to be Indian racially but report an Indian component in their background. The second two categories contain a number of individuals whose ethnic and racial identities readily shift with political, economic, and social contexts. By 1990 many, if not most, Indians were marrying outside their tribal group, and many were marrying non-Indians. As the number of individuals of ambiguous, and often ambivalent, Indian identity has increased, questions about membership in Indian tribes and definitions of who is and is not really an Indian have been raised by tribal governments, federal officials, and Indian communities and individuals. "Indianness" has become an empirical measurement issue, a political issue, and a theoretical issue. With the financial successes of some native community enterprises (in gaming, natural resources, and tourism), questions of tribal membership have become an economic issue as well.


In the twentieth century, political incorporation, assimilation, and economic interaction have tended to attenuate cultural processes and heighten political processes of tribal governments (Cornell 1988; Cornell and Kalt 1999). Access to wealth from mineral resources, gaming, and tourism has helped economic development. Snipp (1988b) shows, however, that many differences between Indian nations with energy resources and those without such resources tend to be minimal. A key problem in economic development—and one that is especially salient among indigenous communities—is how to participate in and benefit from economic development without simultaneously undermining or destroying traditional Indian values (Cornell and Kalt 1992; Ward and Snipp 1996, especially Ward's chapter). Not surprisingly, these issues are enmeshed in indigenous political action globally (Wilmer 1993).


The urbanization, intermarriage, education, increased participation in the paid labor force, and bicultural character of the American Indian population during the post–Second World War period gave rise to the most politically active period in American Indian history. The 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s saw Native Americans organize themselves into political activist organizations (the American Indian Movement, Women of All Red Nations), protest movements ("Red Power," Camp Yellow Thunder in the Black Hills), legal defense organizations (Native American Rights Fund, Native Action), and lobbying groups (National Congress of American Indians, National Tribal Chairmen's Association). These organizations and movements were established and grew in the fertile political soil of the civil rights era ethnic politics in the United States. The following decades were marked by a range of Native American protest events, from the "fish-ins" in the Pacific northwest in the mid-1960s, to the nineteen-month occupation of Alcatraz Island beginning in 1969, to the seventy-one-day siege at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1973, to the occupation of Camp Yellow Thunder in the Black Hills in the 1980s, to the protests against Indian athletic mascots of the 1980s and 1990s (see Johnson 1996; Nagel 1996). Against this backdrop of marches, occupations, protests, and sometimes open conflict, many legal battles were waged in U.S. and tribal courtrooms across the country. Out of both the protest and the legal battles came a new "self-determination" era in federal Indian policy. Self-determination opened the way to increased tribal control of budgets and decision making, to the development of tribally owned natural resources, to the establishment of casinos and gaming on tribal land, and to opportunities for self-rule and economic development by Indian communities. These political and economic opportunities have raised social questions about the rules for tribal membership, which will remain a subject for debate well into the twenty-first century because of the projected continued growth of the Indian population.


Two of the major contemporary issues facing Native Americans are debates over gaming and renewed interest in indigenous religion. Because of their special relationship with the U.S. federal government, reservation governments are able to sponsor gaming over the opposition of state authorities; to sell gasoline and cigarettes without paying local and state taxes; and to sell other products, such as fireworks, that are typically regulated or made illegal by state or local governments. Of all these, the most controversial has been the establishment of gaming facilities. Indeed, these bingo parlors and casinos have spawned social movements that are nominally antigaming but are often very thinly disguised anti-Indian movements, and in some cases reflecting a conflict of interest, as when state authorities see Indian gaming as unfair competition to state-run lotteries and other gaming enterprises. Similar non-Indian opposition has resulted from renewed Indian land claims (such as by the Oneidas in upstate New York in 1998–1999). These controversies have heightened the stakes of identity politics both within native groups and between native groups and the general population.

Initially, one might expect that renewed interest in and presumably respect for native religions by non-Indians might have been received positively by Native Americans. However, this is generally not the case. Often non-Indian appropriation of Indian spiritual traditions is perceived by native people as a final theft. After stealing Indian land, mineral rights, water rights, and fishing rights, the final non-Indian assault on native peoples is to usurp and subvert Indian culture. This has not been helped by the number of charlatans and hucksters (a few of whom are of native ancestry) involved in assorted "New Age" appropriations of Indian cultural elements, typically lifted entirely out of their indigenous context (see Churchill 1994, 1996; Rose 1992). The spread of New Age and "world" music, which uses elements and occasionally performers from various indigenous populations, has spawned analogous controversies at a global level (Feld 1991). Not the least of the subcontroversies is that it is non-Indian performers and producers who are making the large profits from the use of indigenous instruments, themes, music, and performances. Such controversies will not disappear quickly. They have, however, generated a new interest in relations with indigenous peoples and new attempts to reexamine the long and often tawdry history of Indian/non-Indian relations.


The sociology of indigenous peoples, including their relations to state peoples, is multifaceted, and fascinating. It is also a vital and necessary component to the study of the sociology of intergroup relations. Many complex and important sociological processes occur primarily, and sometimes only, in relations between state and nonstate peoples. In order to develop robust theories of intergroup relations, of social movements, and of globalization and resistance to its negative consequences, the study of indigenous peoples in indispensable. Theories built solely on the study of immigrant populations are necessarily flawed; those that include indigenous peoples are much richer.


The literature on indigenous peoples is immense, even in sociology. We have cited works which contain extensive bibliographies. We also suggest that those interested in this area use the World Wide Web to search for information on Native American studies, American Indian studies, and individual tribes—many of which have their own Web pages. The History Net list, H-AMINDIAN, is also an excellent resource. Some useful scholarly journals are: American Indian Culture and Research Journal, American Indian Quarterly, Native America, Wicazo Sa Review, and Cultural Survival Quarterly.


Bodley, John H. 1990 Victims of Progress, 3rd ed. Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield Publishing.

——1994 Cultural Anthropology: Tribes, States, and theGlobal System. Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield Publishing.

Champagne, Duane 1989 American Indian Societies: Strategies and Conditions of Political and Cultural Survival. Cambridge, Mass.: Cultural Survival.

——1992 Social Order and Political Change: Constitutional Governments Among the Cherokee, the Choctaw, theChickasaw, and the Creek. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Chase-Dunn, Christopher, and Thomas D. Hall 1997 Rise and Demise: Comparing World-Systems. Boulder: Westview Press.

Churchill, Ward 1994 Indians Are Us: Culture and Genocide in Native North America. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press.

——1996 "Spiritual Hucksterism: The Rise of the Plastic Medicine Men." In Ward Churchill, ed., Froma Native Son: Selected Essays on Indigenism, 1985–1995. Boston: South End Press.

Cornell, Stephen 1988 The Return of the Native: AmericanIndian Political Resurgence. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cornell, Stephen, and Joseph Kalt 1992 What Can TribesDo?: Strategies and Institutions in American Indian Economic Development. Los Angeles: American Indian Studies Center, University of California.

——1999 "Sovereignty and Nation-Building: The Development Challenge in Indian Country Today." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 22(3):87–214.

Dippie, Brian W. 1982 The Vanishing American: WhiteAttitudes and U.S. Indian Policy. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Dunaway, Wilma A. 1996 The First American Frontier:Transition to Capitalism in Southern Appalachia, 1700–1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Faiman-Silva, Sandra L. 1997 Choctaws at the Crossroads:The Political Economy of Class and Culture in the Oklahoma Timber Region. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Feld, Steven 1991 "Voices of the Rainforest." PublicCulture 4(1):131–140.

Fenelon, James 1998 Culturicide, Resistance, and Survivalof the Lakota (Sioux Nation). New York: Garland Publishing.

Ferguson, R. Brian, and Neil L. Whitehead, eds. 1992 War in the Tribal Zone: Expanding States and Indigenous Warfare. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: School of American Research Press.

Fried, Morton 1975 The Notion of Tribe. Menlo Park, Calif.: Cummings.

Hall, Thomas D. 1989 Social Change in the Southwest,1350–1880. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Himmel, Kelly D. 1999 The Conquest of the Karankawasand the Tonkawas: A Study in Social Change, 1821–1859. College Station: Texas A & M University Press.

Johnson, Troy 1996 The Indian Occupation of AlcatrazIsland: Self-Determination and the Rise of Indian Activism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Meyer, Melissa L. 1994 The White Earth Tragedy: Ethnicityand Dispossession at a Minnesota Anishinaabe Reservation, 1889–1920. Lincoln: University of Nebraska.

Nagel, Joane 1996 American Indian Ethnic Renewal: RedPower and the Resurgence of Identity and Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rose, Wendy 1992 "The Great Pretenders: Further Reflections on Whiteshamism." In M. Annette Jaimes, ed., The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization,and Resistance. Boston: South End Press.

Sanderson, Stephen K. 1999 Social Transformations: AGeneral Theory of Historical Development, 2nd ed. Boulder: Rowman and Littlefield.

Snipp, C. Matthew 1986 "Who Are American Indians? Some Observations About the Perils and Pitfalls of Data for Race and Ethnicity." Population Research andPolicy Review 5:237–252.

——(ed.) 1988a Public Policy Impacts on AmericanIndian Economic Development. Albuquerque: Native American Studies (Development Series No 4).

——1988b. "Public Policy Impacts and American Indian Economic Development." In C. Matthew Snipp, ed., Public Policy Impacts on American IndianEconomic Development. Albuquerque: Native American Studies (Development Series No 4).

——1989 American Indians: The First of This Land. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

——1992. "Sociological Perspectives on American Indians." Annual Review of Sociology 18:351–370.

Stannard, David E. 1992 American Holocaust: Columbusand the Conquest of the New World. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stiffarm, Lenore A., with Lane, Phil, Jr. 1992 "The Demography of Native North America: A Question of American Indian Survival." In M. Annette Jaimes, ed., The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization,and Resistance. Boston: South End Press.

Tanner, Helen H., ed. 1987 Atlas of Great Lakes IndianHistory. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Thornton, Russell 1987 American Indian Holocaust andSurvival. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Ward, Carol, and C. Matthew Snipp, eds. 1996 Researchin Human Capital and Development: Vol. 10, AmericanIndian Economic Development. Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press.

Wilmer, Franke 1993 The Indigenous Voice in WorldPolitics: Since Time Immemorial. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage.


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