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Frequently Asked Questions

Check out the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions by educators and students at the National Museum of the American Indian. Can't find what you're looking for? Send a question to:

No, most American Indians live in contemporary homes, apartments, condos, and co-ops just like every other citizen in the twenty-first century. Tipis are the traditional home of Plains Indians, but in other regions of the Western Hemisphere Native people lived in many kinds of dwellings, such as hogans, wigwams, longhouses, or igloos.

All of these terms are acceptable. The consensus, however, is that whenever possible, Native people prefer to be called by their specific tribal name. In the United States, Native American has been widely used but is falling out of favor with some groups, and the terms American Indian or indigenous American are preferred by many Native people.

This is sometimes called an unanswerable question that historians nevertheless must try to answer. There is sadly little clear information about populations to be found in historic records or archaeological evidence. Even careful estimates differ widely, as they are based largely on assumptions. For America north of Mexico around 1491, these estimates range from perhaps 1.8 million people to more than 18 million—a difference of ten times. More recent population figures are clearer. Many historians believe that the Native population of the United States reached its lowest point—about 250,000—at the end of the 19th century. By the end of the 20th century, the population had rebounded to 4.1 million. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2010 Census, 5.2 million people identified as American Indian or Alaska Native.

Between 1804 and 1806, Sacagawea, a young Shoshone woman; her husband, a French Canadian fur trader; and their infant son accompanied the U.S. expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark from Fort Mandan on the Missouri River in present-day North Dakota to the mouth of the Columbia River on the Pacific Coast and back. The purpose of the expedition was both to study the area's geography—its plants, animals, waterways, etc.—and to learn how it could be developed for trade. Over time, Sacagawea's importance to the expedition has taken on legendary proportions. It is true, however, that she was a valuable member of the expedition, identifying landmarks in her homelands and helping to communicate with other Indians. Her brother also provided the expedition with horses and supplies, and saved them from a dangerous winter in the Rocky Mountains. Sacagawea's accompanying Lewis and Clark with her baby let other tribes know that this was not a war party. She also shared her knowledge of a great number of local plants, useful sources of medicine, and food.

Long before 1492, many Indian cultures made clothing from plant fibers and from the wool of indigenous mammals. Between 3500 BC and 2300 BC, Native people living in Mesoamerica and on the eastern slopes of the Andes in present-day Peru domesticated many varieties of cotton (a plant Native to every continent other than Antarctica). Communities in what is now the American Southwest began cultivating cotton by 1500 BC. As early as AD 300, the ancestors of modern Pueblo Indians were gathering other plant fibers, such as yucca, willow, and juniper bark, processing them, and weaving them into blankets, sandals, and other articles of clothing. The museum's collections include yucca-fiber sandals more than 2,500 years old. Today, Indians make traditional and dance clothing, worn on social and ceremonial occasions, of modern fabrics, in addition to materials—including animal skins—used before Contact. For everyday life, Native people wear all kinds of modern clothing, just like everyone else.

Yes, some tribes maintain the tradition of rain dances. Like all human beings, the Native peoples of the Americas recognize the importance of rain. In addition to supporting life, rain is seen by some Native cultures as a blessing and cleansing of the earth. Ceremonies, prayers, ritual art, songs, and dances are among the many ways Native people acknowledge and help to maintain balance in the natural world. These spiritual and culturally important traditions are part of complex religious cycles that take place throughout the year, year after year. It's hard to know when or why these observances were first caricatured or made fun of. The reality of cultural practices such as rain dances is much more meaningful and humanly rich than the popular images convey.

Yes, Indians have to pay federal income taxes, the same as other American families. The confusion may lie in the different status of Indian tribes, which are governments and, as such, not taxable by states or the federal government. In addition, U.S. taxes are not levied on federal payments used to compensate individual Indians for the taking of private land, such as treaty land, or the income from trust land, which is held by the United States. With regard to state taxes, Indians do not pay taxes on income earned on reservations or state sales taxes for goods purchased on reservations, but Indians who live and work off reservations do pay those taxes. And because tribes are governments, they have the right to tax people—tribal members and non-members—living on their reservations.

Read more frequently asked questions from the NMAI-published Do All Indians Live in Tipis: Questions and Answers from the National Museum of the American Indian.