The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) Native Knowledge 360° Essential Understandings about American Indians is a framework that offers new possibilities for creating student learning experiences. Building on the ten themes of the National Council for the Social Studies' national curriculum standards, the NMAI's Essential Understandings reveal key concepts about the rich and diverse cultures, histories, and contemporary lives of Native Peoples. These concepts reflect a multitude of untold stories about American
Indians that can deepen and expand your teaching of history, geography, civics, economics, science, engineering, and other subject areas.
Framework for Essential Understandings about American Indians (PDF)
Marco de Referencia para las Comprensiones Esenciales Sobre los Inígenas Americanos (PDF)
1. American Indian Cultures
Culture is a result of human socialization. People acquire knowledge and values by interacting with other
people through common language, place, and community. In the Americas, there is vast cultural diversity among
more than 2,000 tribal groups. Tribes have unique cultures and ways of life that span history from time
immemorial to the present day.
- There is no single American Indian culture or language.
- American Indians are both individuals and members of a tribal group.
- For millennia, American Indians have shaped and been shaped by their culture and environment. Elders in
each generation teach the next generation their values, traditions, and beliefs through their own tribal
languages, social practices, arts, music, ceremonies, and customs.
- Kinship and extended family relationships have always been and continue to be essential in the shaping of
American Indian cultures.
- American Indian cultures have always been dynamic and changing.
- Interactions with Europeans and Americans brought accelerated and often devastating changes to American
- Native people continue to fight to maintain the integrity and viability of indigenous societies. American
Indian history is one of cultural persistence, creative adaptation, renewal, and resilience.
- American Indians share many similarities with other indigenous people of the world, along with many
2. Time, Continuity, and Change
Indigenous people of the Americas shaped life in the Western Hemisphere for millennia. After contact, American
Indians and the events involving them greatly influenced the histories of the European colonies and the modern
nations of North, Central, and South America. Today, this influence continues to play significant roles in many
aspects of political, legal, cultural, environmental, and economic issues. To understand the history and
cultures of the Americas requires understanding American Indian history from Indian perspectives.
- Many American Indian communities have creation stories that specify their origins in the Western
- American Indians have lived in the Western Hemisphere for at least 15,000â€“20,000 years.
- The Western Hemisphere was laced with diverse, well-developed, and complex societies that interacted with
one another over millennia.
- American Indian history is not singular or timeless. American Indian cultures have always adapted and
changed in response to environmental, economic, social, and other factors. American Indian cultures and
people are fully engaged in the modern world.
- American Indians employed a variety of methods to record and preserve their histories.
- European contact resulted in devastating loss of life, disruption of tradition, and enormous loss of lands
for American Indians.
- Hearing and understanding American Indian history from Indian perspectives provides an important point of
view to the discussion of history and cultures in the Americas. Indian perspectives expand the social,
political, and economic dialogue.
- Indigenous people played a significant role in the history of the Americas. Many of these historically
important events and developments in the Americas shaped the modern world.
- Providing an American Indian context to history makes for a greater understanding of world history.
3. People, Places, and Environments
For thousands of years, indigenous people have studied, managed, honored, and thrived in their homelands. These
foundations continue to influence American Indian relationships and interactions with the land today.
- The story of American Indians in the Western Hemisphere is intricately intertwined with places and
environments. Native knowledge systems resulted from long-term occupation of tribal homelands, and
observation and interaction with places. American Indians understood and valued the relationship between
local environments and cultural traditions, and recognized that human beings are part of the environment.
- Long before their contact with Europeans, indigenous people populated the Americas and were successful
stewards and managers of the land, from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego. European contact resulted in
exposure to Old World diseases, displacement, and wars, devastating the underlying foundations of American
- Throughout their histories, Native groups have relocated and successfully adapted to new places and
- Well-developed systems of trails, including some hard-surfaced roads, interlaced the Western Hemisphere
prior to European contact. These trading routes made possible the exchange of foods and other goods. Many of
the trails were later used by Euro-Americans as roads and highways.
- The imposition of international, state, reservation, and other borders on Native lands changed
relationships between people and their environments, affected how people lived, and sometimes isolated
tribal citizens and family members from one another.
4. Individual Development and Identity
American Indian individual development and identity is tied to culture and the forces that have influenced and
changed culture over time. Unique social structures, such as clan systems, rites of passage, and protocols for
nurturing and developing individual roles in tribal society, characterize each American Indian culture. American
Indian cultures have always been dynamic and adaptive in response to interactions with others.
- For American Indians, identity development takes place in a cultural context, and the process differs from
one American Indian culture to another. American Indian identity is shaped by the family, peers, social
norms, and institutions inside and outside a community or culture.
- Historically, well-established conventions and practices nurtured and promoted the development of
individual identity. These included careful observation and nurturing of individual talents and interests by
elders and family members; rites of passage; social and gender roles; and family specializations, such as
healers, religious leaders, artists, and whalers.
- Contact with Europeans and Americans disrupted and transformed traditional norms for identity development.
- Today, Native identity is shaped by many complex social, political, historical, and cultural factors.
- In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, many American Indian communities have sought to revitalize and
reclaim their languages and cultures.
5. Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
American Indians have always operated and interacted within self-defined social structures that include
institutions, societies, and organizations, each with specific functions. These social structures have shaped
the lives and histories of American Indians through the present day.
- There is no single American Indian culture or language.
- American Indian institutions, societies, and organizations defined people's relationships and roles, and
managed responsibilities in every aspect of lifeâ€”religion, health, government, diplomacy, war, agriculture,
hunting and fishing, trade, and so on.
- Native kinship systems were influential in shaping people's roles and interactions among other
individuals, groups, and institutions.
- External educational, governmental, and religious institutions have exerted major influences on American
Indian individuals, groups, and institutions. Native people have fought to counter these pressures and have
adapted to them when necessary. Many Native institutions today are mixtures of Native and Western
constructs, reflecting external influence and Native adaptation.
- A variety of specialized agencies have been formed to interact with and serve American Indian individuals,
groups, and institutions.
- Today, because of treaties, court decisions, and statutes, tribal governments maintain a unique
relationship with federal and state governments.
- Today, American Indian governments uphold tribal sovereignty and promote tribal culture and well-being.
6. Power, Authority, and Governance
American Indians devised and have always lived under a variety of complex systems of government. Tribal
governments faced rapid and devastating change as a result of European colonization and the development of the
United States. Tribes today still govern their own affairs and maintain a government-to-government relationship
with the United States and other governments.
- Today, tribal governments operate under self-chosen traditional or constitution-based governmental
structures. Based on treaties, laws, and court decisions, they operate as sovereign nations within the
United States, enacting and enforcing laws and managing judicial systems, social well-being, natural
resources, and economic, educational, and other programs for their members. Tribal governments are also
responsible for interactions with American federal, state, and municipal governments.
- Long before European colonization, American Indians had developed a variety of complex systems of
government that embodied important principles for effective rule. American Indian governments and leaders
interacted, recognized each other's sovereignty, practiced diplomacy, built strategic alliances, waged wars,
and negotiated peace accords.
- After 1492, American Indians suffered diseases and genocidal events that resulted in death on a
catastrophic scale and the rapid decimation of Native populations. These episodes greatly compromised the
continuity of existing tribal government structures.
- A variety of political, economic, legal, military, and social policies were used by Europeans and
Americans to remove and relocate American Indians and to destroy their cultures. U.S. policies regarding
American Indians were the result of major national debate. Many of these policies had a devastating effect
on established American Indian governing principles and systems. Other policies sought to strengthen and
restore tribal self-government.
- A variety of historical policy periods have had a major impact on American Indian people's abilities to
self-govern. These include:
- Colonization Period, since 1492
- Treaty Period, 1789–1871
- Removal Period, 1834–1871
- Allotment/Assimilation Period, 1887–1934
- Tribal Reorganization, 1934–1958
- Termination, 1953–1988
- Self-Determination, 1975–present
7. Production, Distribution and Consumption
American Indians developed a variety of economic systems that reflected their cultures and managed their
relationships with others. Prior to European arrival in the Americas, American Indians produced and traded goods
and technologies using well-developed systems of trails and widespread transcontinental, intertribal trade
routes. Today, American Indian tribes and individuals are active in economic enterprises that involve production
- For thousands of years American Indians developed and operated vast trade networks throughout the Western
- American Indians traded, exchanged, gifted, and negotiated the purchase of goods, foods, technologies,
domestic animals, ideas, and cultural practices with one another.
- American Indians played influential and powerful roles in trade and exchange economies with partners in
Europe during the colonial period. These activities also supported the development and growth of the United
- Today, American Indians are involved in a variety of economic enterprises, set economic policies for their
nations, and own and manage natural resources that affect the production, distribution, and consumption of
goods and services throughout much of the United States.
8. Science, Technology, and Society
American Indian knowledge resides in languages, cultural practices, and teaching that spans many generations.
This knowledge is based on long-term observation, experimentation, and experience with the living earth.
Indigenous knowledge has sustained American Indian cultures for thousands of years. When applied to contemporary
global challenges, Native knowledge contributes to dynamic and innovative solutions.
- American Indian knowledge can inform the ongoing search for new solutions to contemporary issues.
- American Indian knowledge reflects a relationship developed over millennia with the living earth based on
keen observation, experimentation, and practice.
- American Indian knowledge is closely tied to languages, cultural values, and practices. It is founded on
the recognition of the relationships between humans and the world around them.
- American Indian knowledge allowed American Indians to live productive, innovative, and sustainable lives
in the diverse environments of the Western Hemisphere.
- American Indian knowledge and related innovations, goods, and technologies (e.g., agriculture) have had
enormous global impact.
- Major social, cultural, and economic changes took place in American Indian cultures as a result of the
acquisition of goods and technologies from Europeans and others.
- Much American Indian knowledge was destroyed in the years after contact with Europeans. Nevertheless, the
intergenerational transfer of traditional knowledge, the recovery of cultural practices, and the creation of
new knowledge continue in American Indian communities today.
9. Global Connections
Much American Indian knowledge was destroyed in the years after contact with Europeans. Nevertheless, the
intergenerational transfer of traditional knowledge, the recovery of cultural practices, and the creation of new
knowledge continue in American Indian communities today.
- Interactions among American Indian communities across the Americas contributed to the change, growth, and
vitality of Native nations.
- Global interactions with Europeans and others had both positive and negative consequences for American
- The knowledge and perspectives of American Indians and other indigenous people around the world have the
potential to inform solutions as global interdependence intensifies and change accelerates.
- As sovereign independent nations, American Indian tribes and their citizens are participants in global
politics, economies, and other facets of contemporary life.
10. Civic Ideals and Practices
Ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship have always been part of American Indian societies. The rights
and responsibilities of American Indian individuals have been defined by the values, morals, and beliefs common
to their cultures. American Indians today may be citizens of their tribal nations, the states they live in, and
the United States.
- As citizens of their tribal nations, American Indians have always had certain rights, privileges, and
responsibilities that are tied to cultural values and beliefs and thus vary from culture to culture.
- Not all American Indians today are citizens of their tribes.
- American Indians have acquired U.S. citizenship through a variety of means, including certain treaties and
military service. Citizenship for all American Indians did not occur until the passage of the Indian
Citizenship Act of 1924.
- Some American Indian people have neither desired nor accepted U.S. citizenship.
- American Indians today may be citizens of their tribes, the United States, and the states in which they
- As U.S. citizens, American Indians have often been denied the same rights and privileges as other U.S.
citizens. They have formed movements to gain equitable rights and privileges.
- More than 560 tribal governments are recognized by the United States as having rights of sovereign
self-government. Dozens of other tribes are recognized by various state governments, whose authorities and
responsibilities differ according to the laws of the states.