Teaching & Learning about Native Americans
Check out the answers to some of the questions that educators frequently ask about Native Americans. Can't find what you're looking for? Send a question to: email@example.com.
What is the correct terminology: American Indian, Indian, Native American, Indigenous, or Native?
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. Native peoples often have individual preferences on how they would like to be addressed. When talking about Native groups or people, use the terminology the members of the community use to describe themselves collectively.
Why is the museum named the National Museum of the American Indian?
The name of the museum can be traced back to the collection of George Gustav Heye (1874–1957) and a 1989 Act of Congress that established the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
George Gustav Heye founded the Museum of the American Indian in New York City in 1916 and served as its director until 1956. His personal collection of nearly one million objects from Native communities throughout the Western Hemisphere, gathered over a forty-five-year period and considered one of the most comprehensive in the world, formed the basis of the collections at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian today.
The collection of the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, was transferred to the Smithsonian in 1989 (amended in 1996) when President Bush signed legislation to establish the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution. The name of the museum was retained in the transfer of the museum from a private institution to the Smithsonian Institution.
What do Indigenous people in Canada call themselves?
The Canadian Indian Act specifies that the aboriginal people of Canada consist of Indians, Métis, and Inuit people. (The Métis have both Native and French Canadian ancestors, and the Inuit, once known as the Eskimo, are a Native people of the Artic.) First Nation came into use in the 1970s in Canada to replace the word Indian. However, as with Native people in the United States and Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas, it is always preferable to be as specific as possible when describing someone’s cultural affiliation.
What terms are used to describe Indigenous people in Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas?
In Central and South America, the direct translations for Indian and tribe have negative connotations. As a result, Spanish speakers use indígenas and comunidad respectively. However, as with Native people in the United States and Canada, it is always preferable to be as specific as possible when describing someone’s cultural affiliation.
Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day
How can I teach a more accurate narrative about Christopher Columbus?
Many students learn the phrase, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” But Columbus was not the first foreign explorer to land in the Americas. Neither he nor those that came before him discovered America—because Indigenous peoples have populated the Western Hemisphere for tens of thousands of years. European contact resulted in devastating loss of life, disruption of tradition, and enormous loss of lands for Indigenous peoples in the Americas.
Indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere immediately experienced enslavement and theft of resources by the explorers turned settlers. Colonies created by the Portuguese, Spanish, French, Dutch, and English grew throughout the Americas and increasingly encroached upon Native lives and lands. Warfare, disease, enslavement, and forced relocation disrupted and altered the lives of Indigenous peoples in the Americas. Celebrating Columbus and other explorers like him dismisses the devastating losses experienced by Indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere in the past and the ongoing effects of colonialism today. We promote including Indigenous perspectives, like those of the Taíno peoples, to provide a more complete narrative when teaching about Columbus.
What is Indigenous Peoples’ Day and how should I teach it in my school or classroom?
More and more states are replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This effort is in recognition of the devastation that Columbus wreaked on Native communities in the Caribbean and beyond and that Indigenous peoples are survivors and continue to thrive.
Contemporary Native Americans have led numerous movements to advocate for their own rights. 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. Native peoples, students, and allies are responsible for official celebrations of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in such states as Maine, Oregon, Louisiana, New Mexico, Iowa, as well as Washington, DC. Indigenous Peoples’ Day is celebrated on the second Monday of October and recognizes the resilience and diversity of Indigenous peoples in the United States.
We promote including Indigenous perspectives to provide a more complete narrative when teaching about Columbus. We encourage students to advocate for Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a replacement for Columbus Day in their school, city, state, and beyond.
Native Perspectives on Thanksgiving
How should I teach about Thanksgiving traditions from Native people today?
Many people teach about Native Americans in the fall, especially around Thanksgiving. If you teach about the “First Thanksgiving,” try to be as tribally specific as possible and present the history accurately.
Giving thanks is a longstanding and central tradition among most Native groups that is still practiced today. Learn about different thanksgiving traditions among Native people. We also encourage you to teach about the vibrancy of Native cultures through Native American art, literature, and foods while you celebrate Thanksgiving.
What should I know about the “First Thanksgiving,” in 1621?
The First Thanksgiving is often portrayed as a friendly harvest festival where Pilgrims and generic, nameless “Indians” came together to eat and give thanks. In reality, the assembly of the Wampanoag peoples (a Native nation based in Massachusetts) and the English settlers in 1621 was about political alliances, diplomacy, and a pursuit of peace. The Wampanoag peoples had a long political history of dealing with other Native nations before the English arrived. The Wampanoag shared their land, food, and knowledge of the environment with the English. Without help from the Wampanoag, the English would not have had the successful harvest that led to the First Thanksgiving. However, cooperation was short lived, as the English continued to attack and encroach upon Wampanoag lands in spite of their agreements. Interactions with Europeans and Americans brought accelerated and often devastating changes to American Indian cultures.
Policy and Laws
What is the Allotment Act?
The General Allotment Act of 1887 (The Dawes Act) provided that the president, at his discretion, could allot (divide up) reservation land to Indians, with the title to be held in trust by the United States for twenty-five years. This law mandated the conversion of Indian lands that tribes previously held in common into small parcels open to individual ownership. It granted that full citizenship for Indians would accompany the allotment, and conferred citizenship upon two classes of Indians born within the limits of the United States: Indians to whom land allotments were made and Indians who had voluntarily taken up residence separate from any Indian tribe and who adopted the “habits of civilized life.” Besides these two categories of Indians, Indian women who married citizens could become citizens beginning in 1880, and under the Act of November 1919, Congress made all Indian veterans who served in World War I U.S. citizens.
When were Native Americans granted U.S. citizenship?
Under the Indian Citizen Act (1924), all Indians born in the United States were declared citizens of the United States. By then, two-thirds of Indian people (women who married U.S. citizens, for example) had gained citizenship through laws enacted during the previous fifty years, such as the Allotment Act.
What is the Indian Reorganization Act?
In 1934, Congress passed the Wheeler-Howard Act (Indian Reorganization Act) to secure rights for Native Americans on reservations, ending the policy of allotment. Its main provisions were to restore to Native Americans management of their assets (mostly land), to prevent further depletion of reservations’ resources, to build a sound economic foundation for Indian people on reservations, and to return local self-government to Native American tribes.
What is the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978?
This act states the policy of the United States to “protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonial and traditional rites.” The American Indian Religious Freedom Act is an important legal protection for Native rights to religious expression.
What is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)?
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990), or NAGPRA, is a federal law that provides a process for museums and federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items, human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony to lineal descendants, culturally affiliated Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations. It empowers tribes to claim their human remains and cultural items from federal collections and non-Smithsonian museums.
How and why are Native arts protected?
The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 is a truth-in-advertising law that prohibits misrepresentation in the marketing of Indian arts and craft products within the United States. It makes it illegal to offer, display for sale, or sell any art or craft product “in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian tribe or Indian arts and craft organization, resident within the United States.”
What is the Canadian Indian Act of 1876?
This is the Canadian federal legislation, first passed in 1876, that sets out certain federal government obligations and regulates the management of Indian reserved lands. The act has been amended several times, most recently in 1985. The Canadian constitution recognizes three groups of aboriginal people—Indian, Métis, and Inuit.
What are land acknowledgments?
Land acknowledgments are oral or written statements used to recognize Indigenous peoples as the original stewards of the lands on which a person may live, work, or go to school. Land acknowledgment is a traditional custom that dates back centuries for many Native nations and communities. For example, in Coast Salish communities along the Pacific Coast, another tribe or nation would ask permission to come ashore, thus acknowledging they were visitors to the lands. Acknowledging original Indigenous inhabitants today is often complex because of the centuries of displacement experienced by many Native peoples through (broken) treaties, government policy, and relocation efforts. Throughout their histories, Native groups have relocated and successfully adapted to new places and environments. Many Native peoples are active members of city communities today and many cities are built on top of Indigenous villages and towns.
What should I keep in mind about land acknowledgments?
Remember that land acknowledgments can be complex. Most Indigenous peoples, nations, and communities do not reside on the land to which they have ancestral ties. Through colonization, treaties, forced removal, allotment, and other acts of displacement, Native peoples have experienced devasting losses in life, land, and civil rights. The dispossession of Native land has been particularly devastating to traditional practices that sustain Native life. Despite these losses, Native peoples protect their connections to ancestral homelands through Indigenous languages, oral traditions, ceremonies, and other forms of cultural expression. We ask that if you or your school community decides to do a land acknowledgment, it is genuine and there is a self-reflective process around what this truly means.
Here are some questions you might discuss with your colleagues:
- Do these words honor the original peoples whom we are acknowledging?
- Might this translate into further action?
- If so, what is appropriate in our educational setting?
How can I incorporate a land acknowledgment in my school or classroom?
We suggest reaching out to local and forcibly removed Indigenous peoples directly and asking how they would like to be acknowledged. Land acknowledgments can be spoken verbally at the beginning of classes, sporting events, fundraisers, school assemblies, town halls, and all other public and private gatherings. It is also appropriate to publicly display land acknowledgments on plaques or panels.
Land acknowledgments, in which words of recognition are spoken and heard, are a first step in creating collaborative, accountable, continuous, and respectful relationships with Indigenous nations and communities. We ask that you don’t stop with a land acknowledgment but continue to teach about Native histories, cultures, and contemporary life throughout the year and in meaningful ways that are relevant to today’s most pressing issues.
Learn more: Search NK360° Educational Resources
Do Indians have to pay taxes?
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 nonmembers—living on their reservations.
What is tribal sovereignty?
Sovereignty means the authority to self-govern. Long before Europeans arrived, the Western Hemisphere was highly populated with autonomous (self-governing) Native nations that engaged in trade and diplomacy and made agreements with one another. Native nations made many treaties with European governments and the United States. Native American leaders showed courage and insight in these treaty negotiations by reserving certain rights while ceding lands. As nation-to-nation agreements, treaties confirmed the sovereign status of Native nations in the United States. The inherent powers of self-government within the United States have also been affirmed by United States Supreme Court decisions, presidential orders, and laws enacted by Congress.
The United States still recognizes this unique political status and relationship today.
What does tribal sovereignty mean for Native nations within the United States?
Tribal nations exercise sovereignty within the geographic borders of the United States. They have the ability to govern and protect their citizens and lands. Tribal nations establish their own governmental systems, create their own laws, set citizenship criteria, and operate law enforcement and judicial systems. They run education, health, housing, and other kinds of social programs and services. Their responsibilities include the management of tribal lands, natural resources, environmental protection, and complex relationships with local, state, and federal governments. Many tribal nations operate a variety of economic enterprises to provide employment for tribal members, and some tribal businesses also provide jobs and economic strength for neighboring non-Native people and communities. Tribal nations often find themselves in the role of protecting themselves from ongoing challenges to their sovereign rights.
Is there such a thing as cultural sovereignty?
Yes, sovereignty is more than a political term. Cultural sovereignty relates to the inherent responsibilities and practices associated with a community’s language, spirituality, values, traditions, and other cultural factors. Culture informs Native nations’ actions of political sovereignty—of how the people choose to govern themselves, how they interact with other governments and care for their lands. Indigenous peoples express their cultural sovereignty through relationships within the community, with other people, and with the natural world. Indigenous communities must work very hard to protect and preserve their cultural sovereignty.
What is food sovereignty?
Food sovereignty means that a community chooses those foods they will use to sustain themselves and their cultures. Traditional foods support physical, mental, and spiritual health. For many Native communities, their food systems were disrupted due to European settlement and forced removal from their lands. Then, as part of treaty negotiations with Native nations, the U.S. government issued foodstuffs to Native Americans. The food was unhealthy and substantially different from traditional diets. Unhealthy food, combined with uneven quality of and access to medical care, continues to leave many American Indians fighting an uphill battle for their health. Still, American Indians are working to restore their environments and original food sources.
Native American Cultures and Lifeways
Do all Indians live in tipis?
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. Today over 70 percent of Native Americans live in urban or suburban areas.
Before contact with Europeans, did Indians make all their clothes from animal skins?
Long before 1492, many Indian cultures made clothing from plant fibers and from the wool and hides 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 traditional materials—including animal skins used before Contact. For everyday life, Native people wear all kinds of modern clothing, just like everyone else.
Do Indians do rain dances?
Yes, some tribes maintain the tradition of rain dances. Like all human beings, the Native peoples of the Americas recognize the importance of rain. Some Native cultures see rain not only as a support for life, but also 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. Today, many ceremonies are closed to people outside the community.
What is a powwow?
The word powwow comes from the Algonquian word pau-wau, which means a curing or healing ceremony. Today the English term is used as a noun to mean any Native gathering or as a verb meaning “to confer council.” To Native people throughout North America, the term refers to important tribal gatherings and celebrations, and it signifies the survival of Native identity and culture. Powwows are social events that are open to all people, Native and non-Native.
Native American Reservations
Do Native communities still hold land and why is this important?
Yes, Native nations still have lands within the United States. There is a long-standing and deeply rooted relationship between Native people and their lands and a strong personal sense of belonging to those places. Native knowledge systems resulted from long-term occupation and observation of tribal homelands and interaction with them. Native Americans understand and value the relationship between local environments and cultural traditions and recognize that human beings are part of the environment.
Long before contact with Europeans, Indigenous people populated the Americas and were successful stewards and managers of the land. Native nations have always fought to defend and keep their lands. Some tribes still retain portions of their historical homelands while others were removed and relocated to other lands by the United States. Many Native communities still rely upon hunting, fishing, and gathering for survival. The economies of Native communities are supported through land-based activities such as agriculture, forestry, mining, and energy production. Native lands are the base from which Native governments exercise their sovereignty and self-determination. The majority of Native lands are reservations, which are areas defined by boundaries negotiated with and recognized by the United States.
What are Native American reservations?
Native American land holdings were greatly reduced by the development and growth of the United States. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, a Native American reservation is defined as “an area of land reserved for a tribe or tribes under treaty or other agreement with the United States, executive order, or federal statute or administrative action as permanent tribal homelands, and where the federal government holds title to the land in trust on behalf of the tribe.” Some Native nations were able to retain a portion of their original homelands as reservations. Others were able to negotiate for reservation lands in new locations as a result of being forcibly removed from their original lands. Not all federally recognized Native nations have a reservation, but there are other mechanisms by which they can acquire lands. Many Native Americans do not live on tribal lands, choosing instead to live in other urban and rural locations.
There are also reservations in some states where the state, not the federal government, holds the lands in trust for the Native nation.
What other kinds of Native lands are there?
As part of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, Native nations and the federal government can place additional land in trust for Native communities. Trust lands provide additional living space and access to a variety of cultural and natural resources. Sometimes trust lands are used to help stimulate the economic development of Native communities. Native nations must either purchase trust lands or acquire them from federal surplus lands. Trust status can be conferred only by the Secretary of the Interior or the U.S. Congress.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the federal government implemented an allotment policy designed to break up Native American reservations. This was accomplished by allotting a specified amount of acreage of the tribal lands to individual tribal citizens. The remaining lands were then sold by the government or opened for homesteading by non-Natives. Some Native people still live on lands allotted during this era.
Finally, many individual Native Americans, Native businesses, and Native nations also purchase private property.
Federal Recognition and State Recognition
What is federal recognition?
Federal recognition means that the United States government recognizes a Native nation’s political status and its government. In effect, federal recognition is an affirmation of the sovereignty of Native nations. Federally recognized Native nations engage in a variety of government-to-government relations and activities with the United States. The citizens of federally recognized Native nations are eligible for a number of federal programs that stem from the promises and agreements that the United States has historically made with Native nations. There are currently 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States.
How do tribal nations become federally recognized?
Most of the 574 federally recognized Native nations have been historically recognized as a result of treaties, acts of Congress, presidential executive orders, or other federal actions or court decisions. Native nations who are not currently recognized have three ways to obtain the designation. These procedures were established by the United States Congress in 1994 in Public Law 103-454 (Federally Recognized Tribe List Act).
- An Act of Congress
- A decision of a United States court
- A petition to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Office of Federal Acknowledgment (OFA). To be recognized using this process, Native nations must address seven criteria and provide extensive documentation. The process is long, complex, costly, and very strict.
What is the relationship between Native nations and the United States?
The relationship between federally recognized Native nations and the United States is one between nations. This relationship is founded in the United States Constitution. It has been reaffirmed by acts of Congress, presidential orders, and court decisions. Native nations and the federal government interact with one another on a variety of matters, such as legal jurisdiction, land and natural resources management, economic activities, health and human services, and education.
What is state recognition?
Some Native nations are recognized by the states in which they live. State-recognized Native nations are not necessarily federally recognized, but federally recognized nations may also be recognized by states. Native nations and states enter officially recognized relationships for various internal state government purposes. There are currently sixty-six state-recognized Native nations in twelve states (National Conference of State Legislatures, March 2020).
What is the relationship between Native nations and the states?
The primary government-to-government relationship for Native American nations is with the United States, not the individual states. This relationship was formally established in the U.S. Constitution, which grants plenary power (complete power over a particular area with no limitations) over Indian affairs to the legislative branch. Native nations are not subordinate to the states, and states generally have no authority over Native governments unless it is expressly authorized by Congress. Federally recognized Native nations have the right and the authority to regulate activities on their own lands. They can create and enforce laws that might differ from those of neighboring states. However, Native nations and state governments frequently establish agreements, compacts, and formal recognition that allow them to cooperate on matters of mutual concern, such as environmental protection and law enforcement.
When did institutions start using Native Americans as mascots?
In the early twentieth century, universities and colleges began to take on nicknames. Some adopted names such as “Indians” and “Warriors.” This phenomenon was influenced in large part by society’s understanding of events in United States and Native American history, especially the aftermath of the Battle of Little Big Horn (1876).
When tribes in Montana wiped out general George A. Custer and 200 of his men, Americans were shocked. Indian conflicts were understood as a distant problem that would inevitably disappear as manifest destiny played out its course. The Lakota and Northern Cheyenne victory challenged this understanding and brought American Indians back into the consciousness of American society. Eight months after the Battle of Little Big Horn the United States won the Great Sioux War. The U.S. government confined the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne and nearly all other Indian adversaries of the United States to reservations. Little Bighorn, however, never really ended. It was replayed over and over through official hearings, staged presentations, and elaborate reenactments. The idea of Native Americans as “brave” and “strong” and their depiction as Plains Indians in a very generic sense started to cement in popular culture and imagination.
As former museum director Kevin Gover noted in the October 2018 symposium “Mascots, Myths, Monuments, and Memory,” Americans “kind of liked Indians, even though they were afraid of them. They had to make up imaginary Indians to be friends with.” Those “imaginary Indians” started to be tied to a physical mascot for colleges and universities in the late 1920s and 1930s. By the 1950s, the practice was widespread. When those images of Native Americans were created in the ’20s and ’30s, as historian Jennifer Guiliano notes, the purpose was to “create fans, bring people together, and get donors.” Institutions relied on generic images—images invented from the time of the Battle of Little Big Horn. These images are part of a longer history of symbols that represent violence towards Native Americans.
What is the museum’s stance about the use of Native Americans as mascots?
Native Americans are people, not mascots. Native mascots are primary offenders in perpetuating stereotypes about American Indians. At the National Museum of the American Indian, we serve a public that has been deeply influenced by inaccurate, incomplete, and often inappropriate information about Native Americans that is imbedded in our education systems and popular culture. The existence of Native American mascots is partly responsible for this misinformation. Mascots stereotype Native people by employing imagery and ideas that arose from the racism of the nineteenth century.
Learn more: Read former director of the museum Kevin Gover’s full article, Native Mascots and Other Misguided Beliefs.
My school uses generic Native American references and imagery, including caricatures and stereotypes, in our name/mascot. What research and/or resources do you recommend I use to try and change this practice?
First, thank you for wanting to make a change and asking for support. We know that shifting ideas about Native Americans can be difficult and take time.
Mascots perpetuate stereotypes and further reinforce misguided thinking about Native peoples and cultures. You may want to direct school/district leadership to the scholarship of Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, University of Washington (how social representation of race, culture, and social class impact the development of self, psychological well-being, and educational attainment). Additionally, we invite you to share the recorded symposium from October 2018: Mascots, Myths, Monuments, and Memory. There are several scholars who unpack the history of adopting Native Americans as mascots and the harmful effects that mascots have on society at large. Another resource you may want to consider is an article by former director of the museum Kevin Gover in which he gives helpful historical context and offers contemporary meaning about the phenomenon of mascots.
We also invite you to encourage your school to strive towards more inclusive education about Native Americans. One way to start could be to learn about local issues or topics related to Native peoples.
- If Native people are not very visible in your state or region, research with your students why that is.
- Consider thinking about the legacies of Native peoples to places that are common to students and invite the school community to learn more about that history.
Dressing Up/ Reenactments
Should I allow dressing up as a Native American in my classroom?
Dressing up as a Native American is never appropriate. For years, classrooms across the country have included special days where students "dress up" as Native Americans for different celebrations and lesson activities. Often, the outfits people wear to look "Indian" have nothing to do with Native people and cultures. Native American cultures are vastly diverse and have a wide range of traditions that determine the clothing and adornment Native people wear. "Dressing up" as Native Americans gives students a generalized and inaccurate perspective on Native cultures and identities. Often, these costumes suggest that Native cultures exist only in the past. We promote lessons and activities that share the continuance and creativity of Native American life and cultures.
Learn more about approaches and resources teachers should use in their classroom here: Native American Cultures and Clothing: Native American Is Not a Costume | Helpful Handout Educator Resource
Myth vs. History
Did Indians really use smoke signals?
How important was Sacagawea to the Lewis and Clark Expedition?
Between 1804 and 1806, Sacagawea—a Shoshone girl who had been kidnapped at the age of 12 and sold into marriage—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.
Is it true that Pocahontas saved John Smith from execution?
The first person to describe the details of Pocahontas’s life and her rescue of John Smith was Smith himself in his “Generall Historie” of his time in America. Since its publication, many have questioned his story. According to Smith, Pocahontas begged her father, Chief Powhatan, to spare Smith’s life when Powhatan was about to kill him with a stone ax.
Historians disagree, but most argue that this story of Smith’s rescue is false. Some scholars believe that Chief Powhatan was actually including Smith in a traditional adoption ceremony, bringing him into the tribe, and Smith misunderstood what was occurring. Other historians believe that the events could have taken place as Smith described them. At this point we cannot know for certain if Pocahontas saved John Smith’s life; however, we do know that Pocahontas was much younger than she is generally depicted in modern-day movies, and her connection to Smith was most likely not romantic.
Were the Americas a vast, untouched wilderness when Europeans arrived?
Thousands of cultures, each with unique languages, beliefs, and lifeways, called the Americas home prior to European colonization and had been thriving there for centuries. This was not the mythical, empty wilderness colonizers imagined. In fact, prior to European colonization, there were many cities in the Americas that were larger than many major European cities.
What are the Indian populations of the United States, Canada, and Latin America?
The 2020 U.S. Census listed the American Indian and Alaska Native population as 3.7 million people. The 2020 census allowed people to describe themselves as being of more than one race. As a result, 9.2 million people identified themselves as American Indian or Alaska Native in combination with other races.
The 2016 Canadian Census reported 1,673,780 Indigenous people in Canada.
Native people of Latin America do not have the same kind of relationships with local and federal governments that tribes in the United States have, so Native populations there can only be calculated approximately. The United Nations estimates that there are about 50 million people in Latin America today who identify as Indigenous. The largest populations are in Bolivia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru.
Who are the Taíno?
Arawak-speaking peoples from South America began settling the Caribbean islands more than 2,000 years ago. Their descendants, the Taíno, reside on the Greater Antilles and surrounding islands. The Spanish first recorded the term Taíno in 1493. Today many Caribbean people with Native ancestry embrace calling themselves Taíno.