Currently, the United States has 562 federally recognized Native American communities and more than 270 reservations. Reservations range in size from the largest, inhabited by the Navajos in New Mexico and containing approximately 16 million acres, to fewer than 10 acres, as is the case for various Native communities in states across the United States. Populations today are beginning to equal those that existed at the time of contact. Most demographers assume that the United States supported 5 to 8 million people prior to the spread of newly introduced diseases. Diseases such as smallpox, measles, influenza, bubonic plague, diphtheria, cholera, and typhoid spread with the advance of contact. Some of these diseases occurred in waves and frequently disrupted subsistence cycles, the transmission of knowledge between generations, and the ability of communities to remain viable polities.
In some cases, epidemics eliminated entire communities, and in others, it resulted in the death of 85% or more of the population. Generally, these epidemics killed the young and the elderly in disproportionate numbers. This resulted in the loss of numerous categories of knowledge retained by the elderly. These new diseases definitely accelerated the region’s depopulation and probably contributed to the inability of indigenous communities to resist the continual encroachments of colonial nations.
Because of patterns of Euro-American colonization and the disappearance or relocation of indigenous communities caused by newly introduced diseases, most Native peoples currently reside west of the Mississippi River in the states of Oklahoma, California, and New Mexico.
Ever since colonists arrived in the United States, researchers have been interested in the origins, political economies, kinship structures, and religious beliefs of Native peoples. As anthropology emerged as an academic discipline, knowledge about these areas became more systemized and contributed to both the development of federal policies as well as paradigms associated with cultural, archeological, and linguistic anthropology.
Bureau of American Ethnology
The development of the Bureau of Ethnology in 1879 accelerated these areas of study. Throughout the reservation era, anthropologists, often working in concert with museum or other collecting agencies, began to participate in ethnographic and archeological studies of Native communities across the United States. Information about aspects of kinship, warfare, religious ceremonies, social structures, political organizations, economic activities, and a wealth of other details was obtained from numerous indigenous communities in the United States. Much of the information collected led to the development of central theories in anthropology. For example, work with the Shoshones in the Great Basin permitted Julian Steward to develop his evolutionary scheme of political societies and to contribute a lexicon critical to anthropological discourse.
With the help of Elias Parker, a member of the Iroquoian nation, Henry Morgan illustrated the diversity of kinship systems among Native populations. Building on his work, future anthropologists contributed to the study of the various functions of kinship.
Scholars such as Harrington, Worf, and Powell focused their efforts on the linguistic diversity within Native North America. Through their efforts, language families became systematized. Noting the rapid disappearance of Native American languages, these scholars attempted to record as many of these languages as possible. Although only 150 of the approximately 8,000 languages spoken at contact are currently used in the United States, most current linguists estimate that as few as 10 indigenous languages will remain viable in 2050.
The Beginning of Applied Anthropology
Speculations concerning the origin of Native Americans have riveted scholars since the time of contact. Prior to the 1800s, whether viewed as remnants of the Lost Tribe of Israel or survivors of Atlantis, many researchers believed indigenous occupants of North America had degenerated from some ideal Caucasian past. Continental thinkers correlated this degeneration with environmental factors. Recognizing the implications of this philosophy for the future of the recently arrived colonial inhabitants to North America, local scholars searched for alternative explanations to account for phenotypic differences between indigenous and colonial peoples.
As an outgrowth of this conundrum, by the 1800s, ethnological research emerged as a method to study and systematize information about Native Americans. During this early anthropological era, researchers inverted European explanations of change by attributing human diversity to societal progression rather than to externally induced factors affecting the mental capacities of individuals.
With this shift in paradigms, American scholars speculated that societies progress from savagery to civilization. Whereas these early ethnological perspectives caused a shift from a paradigm of degeneration to one of progression, the early evolutionary model assumed a predictable evolutionary trajectory. Many researchers assumed that social engineering could accelerate the transition from “savagery” to “civilization.” For example, reindeer herding was taught to Arctic populations in order to transform these hunting populations into pastoralists. Farming was instituted among nomadic communities in the Great Plains in order to change these societies into sedentary agricultural communities.
Although these evolutionary perspectives colored the kinship studies of Henry Lewis Morgan, the biological research of Samuel G. Morton, and the historical research of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, each of these works contributed to a greater understanding of social complexity among indigenous peoples. Their work also opened the door to a more scientific study of the peopling of North America.
Origins of Native Peoples
Like many other human societies, Native peoples understood their origins through religious teachings. In some cases, Native peoples emerged from the earth, were created from mud by powerful gods, or were transformed into humans from another form. Even with these variant viewpoints, indigenous religious beliefs emphasize that Native peoples originated in North America.
Through the use of scientific methods to gain a better understanding of the origins of Native peoples, anthropologists lack the paradigms to account for these faith-based beliefs. Instead, their inquiries rely on archeological, linguistic, and biological data to determine the timing of indigenous migrations into North America and the location of the original homeland of these populations.
Archeological Evidence of Native American Origins
Among archeologists, there are two major theories employed to account for the presence of Native peoples in North America. The most common theory presumes that Native peoples migrated into North America sometime after 18,000 years ago. In this scenario, small indigenous populations walked across Beringia, a land bridge that spans across the Bering Strait during ice ages. As glaciers advance, shallow seas, such as the Bering Strait, become bridges between land masses. According to this theory, small communities migrated from Asia into North America.
A second theory assumes that indigenous communities used boats to travel from Asia to the North American continent. Although no evidence of water-craft dating to 18,000 years ago have been found in the Americas, this theory provides an explanation of early sites located in South America.
Debates rage over the timing of these migrations into North America. The first agreed-upon occupation of the continent is a sparsely populated group referred to as the Clovis. Clovis sites appear suddenly in widely dispersed parts of the United States and northern Mexico. Issues arise over whether any archeological sites predate those associated with the Clovis. Potential pre-Clovis sites include San Diego Complex, Old Crow Flats, Orogrande Cave, Pedra Furada, Pikimackay Cave, Monte Verde, Chesrow Site, and Fort Rock Cave.
Linguistic Evidence of Native American Origins
Linguistic evidence of the peopling of North America suggests three main migrations into the continent.
Using stable categories of words, such as body parts, base numbers, and pronouns, lists of indigenous words associated with these stable categories have been compiled. Based on this effort, three clusters of languages were identified; the Amerind, Na Dene, and Eskaleut. According to the study’s conclusions, Amerind speakers entered the continent around 9000 BC, Na Dene languages about 7000 BC, and Eskaleut by 2000 BC.
Biological Evidence of the Peopling of North America
A number of researchers have explored skeletal structures, dental morphology, and, to a lesser extent, genetic information in order to determine both the origin and the timing of migrations into North America. Based on this work, most scholars assume indigenous peoples migrated into this continent from Siberia as early as 12,000 years ago. A smaller contingent of researchers suggests that numerous migrations into North America occurred and originated from places other than Siberia. Possible homelands have been identified in the Causcoids, Japan, and China.
Earliest Agreed-Upon Indigenous Occupants of North America
About 12,000 years ago, the PaleoIndian Tradition began. This period included a series of temporally separated big game hunting groups. At the beginning of this era, numerous small sites exhibiting similar technologies appeared in the United States. Referred to as the Clovis Period, these sites encompassed a sophisticated bifacial tool technology. In addition, excellent lithic materials were used to manufacture Clovis tools. Because of issues of preservation, little is known about other aspects of their material culture. Archeologists believe that Clovis peoples hunted big game animals, many of which are now extinct. According to Martin’s Overkill Hypothesis, overhunting by Clovis drove many of these mega fauna to extinction. This view is currently in dispute.
Approximately 1,000 years after Clovis, the Folsom Period arose. Like Clovis, Folsom peoples created excellent bifacial tools made from exquisite lithic materials. Folsom populations developed sophisticated mass harvesting techniques for capturing bison. These included corrals, as illustrated by the Jones Miller Site, and cliff jumps, as shown at Blackwater Draw. During this era, evidence of storage occurs as well. The last population to be included in the PaleoIndian Tradition is the Plano peoples. As with the Folsom before them, Plano populations mass harvested bison. Because of the lack of preservation, little is known about their homes, their use of plants, and the manufacturing of items not made of stone.
After the PaleoIndian Period, the Archaic Period arose. During the Archaic Period, numerous changes took place. These included dramatic increases in the number of sites located in the United States, population increases, greater diversity of tool types and subsistence practices, the emergence of long distance trade networks, more complex human burials, and ultimately the development of social inequalities.
In the Archaic Period, populations engaged in broad-spectrum subsistence. They gathered and hunted for seasonally available resources. Critical resources included small game, tubers, seed plants, nuts, and other locally available foods.
The Archaic Period ended with the emergence of domesticated plant production. There were three centers of initial domestication in the United States. These included the Southwest, eastern Great Plains, and northeastern United States. In the Southwest, maize, beans, and squash diffused from central Mexico and began to be grown by southwestern communities by 1500 BC. Although this was an arid region, the presence of a high water table permitted the development of sustainable plant production.
In the eastern Great Plains, incipient farming of maize, beans, and squash first emerged around 500 BC. In this region, however, bison always supplemented these horticultural activities.
In the eastern United States, maize, beans, and a variety of seed plants began to be domesticated approximately 1000 BC. Throughout this region, the practice of swidden agriculture occurred. This extensive type of farming seems to have led to the presence of endemic warfare prior to contact.
Elsewhere in the United States, communities continued to participate in broad-spectrum subsistence by specializing in seasonally available resources. In the Great Plains, this subsistence strategy continued until forced into farming during the reservation era.
Historical Relations Between Native Peoples and the United States
Colonial policies initially focused on trading relations and the development of alliances with Native peoples.
Until the 1830s, Native peoples played a pivotal role in the securing of furs for overseas markets. Because of the competing interest of colonial powers in North America, indigenous nations often acted as auxiliary armies for the colonial nation with which they were allied. Once America dispatched weaker colonial states and secured its position as the sole colonial state in the United States, the importance of Native peoples to geopolitical events began to decline.
This change transformed the political relationship between heretofore sovereign tribal nations and the federal government. Suddenly, these tribal nations became conquered populations that only retained sovereignty not taken by the federal government. In order to legally institute these shifting political realities, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Native tribes dependent nations similar to a guardian-ward relationship. In this new administrative role, the federal government placed tribal communities under the aegis of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an agency within the Department of the Interior. As a result of this policy change, the United States became legally obligated to protect and develop indigenous resources and to provide economic and social programs to raise the standard of living of Native peoples to a level comparable with the rest of society.
Through treaties, executive orders, and congressional legislation, however, indigenous communities have experienced the erosion of political, economic, religious, legal, and social sovereignty. In addition, they have been forced to transfer vast amounts of mineral, land, and cultural wealth to the dominant society.
Reservations arose as aboriginal title over territory was extinguished. With the development of reservations, Native peoples lost the right to travel freely and expand their land base beyond reservation boundaries. With little say over the organization of reservations, Native peoples were forced to accept the rules of Indian agents and mandates passed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Prior to the establishment of the Allotment Act in 1887, the tribe controlled the dispensation of Native lands. This led to numerous legal and illegal sales of lands to settlers and speculators. A number of anthropologists, Native leaders, and interested citizens believed that if individuals owned their own land, they could more easily maintain control over it.
As a result, the 1887 Allotment Act was passed. The census taken of all Native peoples living on reservations was used to parcel blocks of land to indigenous peoples. This act failed to account for the needs of future generations, nor did it provide equal amounts of land to each Native person. Instead, the largest blocks of land went to heads of households, smaller ones to the spouse, and the smallest amounts to minors. Allotments ranging in size from 80 to 160 acres were passed down to heirs and, in some cases, sold to non-Natives. Land not allotted was sold to non-Native peoples on a first-come basis. Tribal governments had no control over who would buy the surplus lands. Instead, acreages were sold to the first buyers able to pay the below-market prices.
Between 1887 and 1934, when allotment ended, Native land ownership fell from 138 million acres to 55 million acres. Because of the methods used to dispose of surplus lands, non-Natives often surpass Native populations on reservations. Even so, however, more enrolled Native peoples live on rather than off the reservations. This is the case even though unemployment is more than 50% on many reservations; housing, when available, is often substandard; schools are often dilapidated; and health problems abound. For example, on the reservations, lifespans are the shortest and mortality rates for newborns are the highest in the country.
Because of the small size of allotments and the fact that current allotments may have numerous owners because of laws of inheritance, it is difficult for Native peoples to work their land. Until recently, the Bureau of Indian Affairs leased allotments for farming, ranching, or extracting resources at below-market prices to non-Native businesspeople or corporations. The Bureau’s slipshod record keeping resulted in the nonpayment of monies owed allotment owners. This has led owners of leased allotments to file a class action suit against the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Although filed more than a decade ago, this case is still winding through the court system with no final solution in sight.
The Indian Reorganization Act
In 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act was passed to remedy some of the past abuses. With this act, monies were provided for economic development and the establishment of an apprenticeship program to maintain artistic traditions. In addition, the parceling of land into allotments came to a stop, and democratic forms of government were instituted for most federally recognized tribes.
Although allotments no longer occur, land is still taken from tribes for the development of roads, dams, and other types of infrastructure viewed as necessary by the federal government. Monies provided for economic development are given to the tribe, but no incentives are given to attract outside investors. As a result, economic enterprises not funded by tribal governments are a rarity on reservations. Because the federal government woefully underfunds apprenticeship programs for the transmission of artistic styles, few tribes are able to participate in them.
Tribal governments organized on democratic principles have also faced their share of problems. Generally, tribes elect members to the tribal council. These councils regulate tribal membership and economic development, provide for public welfare and safety, and have the limited right to maintain justice.
Although the U.S. census permits individuals to self-identify their ethnicity, tribal governments maintain sovereignty over their own membership. Enrollment in a tribe is determined in a variety of ways, the most common of which is through blood quantum. These can vary from one half to one sixty-fourth. Some Native communities determine membership through descent. This can be matrilineal, patrilineal, or bilineal descent. In other cases, individuals must show descent from a specific person on the Dawes Rolls. These rolls were developed prior to allotment in the 1880s.
The Erosion of Tribal Control Over Criminal Behavior
Since the late 1800s, the United States has given the federal government greater control over criminal activities on the reservations. Beginning with the passage of the Major Crimes Act in the 1880s, tribes have experienced continual erosion over their criminal justice programs. At this point, the federal courts maintain jurisdiction over murder, rape, assault with a weapon, and a variety of other violent crimes. In some cases, states are also beginning to take over aspects of tribal justice. Most recently, they have taken control over the management of wildlife on reservations.
Land Claims and Sacred Sites
Congress established the Indian Claims Commission in 1946 to redress the loss of Native territory. From the start, the courts decided, except in a handful of rare cases, to award money rather than the return of land titles to Native claimants. This has resulted in numerous disappointments among Native litigants. For example, the Lakotas refuse to accept monies awarded them for the illegal loss of the Black Hills. Hopis have also decided to forgo monies for land illegally seized from the tribe.
Results have not been much better for the protection of sacred sites on public and private lands. The uses of areas of sacred geography vary according to the meanings attributed to them. Consequently, some may provide a physical expression of sacred events; others may contribute to the efficacy of ceremonies or act as a portal to spiritual power; and in some cases, a place is sacred because of its relationship to the ancestors or spirits in general. Complicating the issue further is the fact that a number of Native communities may express different beliefs and practices about the same sacred area.
Throughout the United States, various geographical places are perceived as sacred by Native peoples. In some cases, these are sites for religious ceremonies and spiritual renewal. In others, however, the landscape’s presence is all that is needed to retain its sacredness.
Because many of these sites are not on Native land, nor do they have any objective proof of their importance beyond the land itself, it has been difficult for Native peoples to protect how these spaces are used. Currently, 44 sites sacred to Native Americans are in danger of being destroyed. In most of these cases, resources located at or near these places are considered important to the nation’s economy. For example, water from a sacred lake is needed to process coal in the Hopi area. In Montana, an area of sites sacred to a number of Native communities will soon be made available to oil exploration.
Sites may also be destroyed in order to develop the region’s tourism industry. Mount Shasta’s expansion of skiing facilities destroyed religious areas used by various indigenous communities in California. Anthropologists, Native religious leaders, and concerned citizens have fought the destruction of these sites on religious grounds.
According to the Supreme Court, however, the 1978 Religious Freedom Act does not cover geographical religious sites. As a result, sites that are located on public and private lands receive no special protection.
In some cases, however, public agencies are attempting to accommodate Native religious activities at sacred sites. One of the best-known examples is the effort of the National Park Service to accommodate the use of Devil’s Tower by both tourists and Native peoples. This igneous outcrop located in Wyoming has religious significance for numerous Native tribes. It is also a popular place for climbing enthusiasts. Most of the religious ceremonies take place during the month of June, which was also the peak season for climbing the tower.
Two issues concerned religious leaders: that the distraction caused by the climbers weakened the connection between the prayers and the area’s spiritual power, and that the pounding of pitons into the face of Devil’s Tower disrespected the sacredness of the place. As a result, the National Park Service, which oversees Devil’s Tower, requested that during the month of June, tourists forgo climbing the Tower. In addition, they strongly suggested that climbers reuse pitons already in place or obtain a permit to hammer more pitons into the rock’s face. This strategy led to a significant drop in the number of climbers practicing their sport during the month of June. Unfortunately, in 2004, the number of climbers rose.
Native American Religions
Native American religions have undergone numerous changes since contact. In the 1900s, as anthropologists tried to salvage information about the traditional religious life of Native peoples, the government was busy trying to eradicate “paganism.” Sun Dances, giveaways, potlatches, ceremonial clowns, and pilgrimages were being outlawed on all of the reservations. As these types of religious expression became seditious, many Native peoples converted to Christianity or joined newly emerged religious movements. One of the most contentious religions to gain popularity is the Native American Church. Using peyote, a type of cactus that grows in northern Mexico and southern Texas, as a sacrament, members of the Church participate in group prayers, songs, healing ceremonies, and Bible readings.
Because peyote has been classified periodically as an illegal drug by the federal government, and sometimes by state governments as well, the Native American Church has undergone periods of persecution. In 1918, Native peoples, anthropologists, and concerned citizens halted legislation to outlaw the use of peyote. With the help of James Mooney, an ethnologist with the Bureau of American Ethnology, practitioners of this religion incorporated the Native American Church. This strategy provided a modicum of protection against religious persecution.
A more complicated situation occurred when the Navajo Tribal Council outlawed the presence of the Native American Church on the reservation. Not until the 1960s did the Navajos’ tribal council adhere to the U.S. Bill of Rights guarantee of religious freedom. Finally, in the 1990s, President Clinton passed an executive order that protected members of the Native American Church from prosecution by the states for ingesting peyote.
Tribal economies have had a difficult time, particularly because they lost such a vast amount of land between allotment in 1887 and the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934. Obtaining capital for economic ventures is difficult for a number of reasons. One of the most daunting relates to the fact that most tribal land is held in trust by the federal government. Other issues stem from the lack of infrastructure to get products to market, and conflicts with state governments.
Responding to these problems, President Nixon passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act in the 1970s. Basically, this Act transferred some power from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the tribal governments. As a result, tribes can negotiate leases with external companies, contract their own educational services, and try to attract businesses onto the reservation.
Gambling, which has an illustrious history among many Native communities, has become an important area of revenue for many tribes. Since the 1980s, when the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed, tribes have been permitted to operate one to three classes of gambling on reservation land. Class I gaming recognizes social gaming, often in connection with ceremonial activities that offer minimal monetary values. For example, in some communities, such as the Navajos and the Comanches, gambling has a spiritual dimension. Among other tribes, wagers are placed on hand games. Currently, tribes regulate this type of gambling.
Class II gaming, which includes bingo, pull-tabs, and lotto-style games, is under the jurisdiction of tribes and the National Indian Gaming Commission. Class III gambling, which involves casino-style games, requires approval by the tribe, the Indian Gaming Commission, and the state in which the activity will occur. Problems arise if the state does not allow Class III gaming. For example, in Nebraska, the Santee Sioux tribe has been running lottery-style gaming on its reservation. The state deemed the tribe’s actions illegal, and the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state.
Another obstacle to establishing gaming operations is lack of funding. Loans may be obtained from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or joint ventures between tribes or between a tribe and a state have been established in order to operate casinos.
For some tribes, casinos have been an economic boon. As competition increases, however, casino revenues have begun to decline. In some states, such as Minnesota and Wisconsin, numerous Native-owned casinos operate, and the market has become saturated. Many states wanting to share a larger portion of the gambling profits have constructed their own casinos. When this occurs, the profit margin of Native American gaming diminishes further.
Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
During the 1970s, Native peoples began to dispute anthropological perspectives of Native peoples and also to raise ethical concerns about research practices. Particularly contentious were the countless cultural objects with varying degrees of significance, skeletal remains, and photographic images of Native peoples that had been collected by researchers. Many Native peoples expressed anger that an estimated 600,000 of their ancestors’ remains were being stored in universities, museums, and private collections in the United States.
Through the efforts of Native peoples, anthropologists, and concerned citizens, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed in 1990. This federal legislation demanded the repatriation of skeletal materials and objects sacred to a community or an individual. Only federally recognized tribes are recognized as repositories for these returned items. In addition, these tribes must be able to prove a direct connection to the ancestral remains or culturally significant artifacts.
The controversy surrounding Kennewick Man, also known as the Ancient One, illustrates some of the problems with NAGPRA. Found in 1996, this skeleton of an adult male was dated to around 8,000 years ago. Using NAGPRA as their justification, members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, Wanapum Band, Yakama Confederated Tribes, the Nez Perce Tribe, and the Colville Confederated Tribes requested the reburial of this skeleton. Some members of the anthropological profession fought this request. According to their argument, no proven linkage could be documented between current Native populations and a skeleton dating 8,000 years ago, it could not be shown that these remains were Native American, and the remains could provide valuable information about the peopling of North America and the health of early communities.
At this point, the Native tribes have lost their bid to rebury Kennewick Man. It is unclear at this time what sort of effect this will have on future anthropological work with Native peoples in the United States.
- Basso, K. (1996). Wisdom sits in places: Landscape and language among the western Apache. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
- Castile, G. P., & Bee, R. L. (Eds.). (1992). State and reservation: New perspectives on federal Indian policy. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
- Nason, J. D. (1997). Beyond repatriation: Cultural policy and practice in the 21st century. In B. Ziff & P. Rao (Eds.), Borrowed power: Essays on cultural appropriation (pp. 291-312). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
- Thornton, R. (Ed.). (1998). Studying Native America: Problems and perspectives. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.