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Honoring Native Americans

28 October 2011
American Indian boy in tribal regalia (AP Images)

A boy glances into the crowd during the Milk River Indian Days Pow Wow at the Fort Belknap Agency, Montana.

Washington — Every November, National Native American Heritage Month celebrates the enduring contributions of the first Americans to the history and culture of the United States.

The month is designated by Congress and the president as a time to reflect on the rich traditions and accomplishments, as well as the suffering and injustices, that mark the history of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Today, there are 5.2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives in the United States. They make up 1.7 percent of the total population, according to the 2010 census. Their numbers are expected to increase to 8.6 million, or 2 percent of the population, by 2050.

Most American Indians live in metropolitan areas and not on the 227,000 square kilometers of land held in trust for reservations. The states with the largest numbers of American Indians and Alaska Natives are California, Oklahoma and Arizona.

There are 565 federally recognized Indian tribes in the United States. The largest tribes, by far, are the Cherokee and Navajo nations. Navajo is the most widely spoken American Indian language. Only one-half of the 300 or so native languages once spoken in North America are still spoken. (See “Navajo Textbook Aims to Preserve Language, Culture.”)

The history of U.S. legislation regarding American Indians reveals changing societal attitudes on their status. American Indian tribes are considered “domestic dependent nations” within the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. They retain sovereign powers over their members and territory except where such powers have been modified by U.S. law. American Indians are more than members of a racial minority group in the United States; they are indigenous people of the Americas with a status akin to dual citizenship.


What started as an effort to gain a special day of recognition for the first Americans has resulted in a whole month being designated for that purpose.

In 1914 Red Fox James, a Blackfoot Indian, rode horseback from state to state, getting endorsements from 24 state governments, to set aside a day to honor American Indians. The American Indian Association approved the plan a year later. The first state to adopt the celebration was New York, in 1916. Congress called for weeklong observances in the mid-1980s, and in 1990 National American Indian Heritage Month was designated under a joint congressional resolution approved by President George H.W. Bush.

Each year the sitting president designates November as National Native American Heritage Month. (The National Museum of the American Indian calls it National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month.)

Non-Indians have little knowledge of the vibrant culture of American Indians today, a recent study found. Both Indians and non-Indians said they want to see American Indians’ history and contemporary life better understood by non-Indians.

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington plans special heritage month activities. Federal agencies such as the National Park Service, the Indian Health Service, and the U.S. Library of Congress display web pages honoring Native American Heritage Month. The Library of Congress Veterans History Project includes interviews and a listing of American Indian and Alaska Native military veterans.

The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs has published a history of National American Indian Heritage Month and answers to Frequently Asked Questions.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/iipdigital-en/index.html)

Exterior of National Museum of the American Indian (AP Images)

The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian opened in Washington in 2004.