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What is an American Indian?

By C. K. Lanz
Updated May 17, 2024
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An American Indian or Native American is an indigenous person of the continental United States, Alaska or Hawaii whose tribe was present when European settlers and explorers arrived in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. American Indians are members of various tribes and ethnic groups spread throughout the United States. Some tribes continue to thrive today on their own lands while others have witnessed traditions and languages erode over time as members assimilate or are forcibly assimilated into mainstream American culture.

It is theorized that American Indian tribes were hunter-gathers who first came to North America from Eurasia via a land bridge between Alaska and Siberia that was accessible about 60,000 years ago. When European colonists began arriving in North America, conflict arose with the American Indian tribes as settlers pushed west and began occupying tribal lands and using tribal resources. Any resistance on the part of American Indian tribes was generally met with and subdued by military force. Intermarriage, genocide, enslavement, war with Europeans, a lack of immunity to European disease and assimilation programs further decimated American Indian populations through the 19th century.

As Europeans pushed west, American Indian tribes were forced to resettle even further west. Many tribes eventually relocated to reservations where they hoped to preserve and cultivate what remained of their culture while protecting themselves from outside influences. Currently there are more than 300 Indian reservations in the United States and more than 550 recognized tribes therefore not every tribe has a reservation. Each reservation is managed by its tribe who can establish its own laws and a government that has jurisdiction as opposed to federal or other local authorities. The quality of life on reservations varies but can be poor due to substandard education and high rates of alcohol and substance abuse, poverty, unemployment and infant mortality.

With the passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act in 1975, the U.S. government legally recognized the right of American Indians to self-government and began offering grants to federally recognized tribes. An individual must be certified and recognized by a tribe to gain access to tribal and government services. Each tribe determines its own requirements for membership, which vary widely as a result. The Cherokee, for example, require that all members provide documentation proving descent from a Native American listed on the Dawes Rolls. Members of the Navajo Nation must prove that they are at least one quarter Navajo.

Many tribes continue to face barriers to economic development including a lack of technical expertise and natural resources but individual American Indians have made contributions to many scientific and artistic fields. Some, like Jim Thorpe, are recognized athletes while others, like Tori Amos, are prominent musicians. John Herrington is an astronaut and member of the Chickasaw Nation. There are currently more than 4 million people living in the United States that self-identify as American Indian or Alaska Native.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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