By Jessica Dunkel, Reference Department
Native American Heritage Month (also known as “National American Indian Heritage Month” and “National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month”) hasn’t been around for very long. Although Native Americans have resided on the continent for approximately 12,000 years, it wasn’t until November 1990 that President George H. W. Bush declared November to be “National American Indian Heritage Month”.
Honoring the month
Many of us are not exposed to Native American culture and do not know much about Native people, their way of life, and the issues they face. In order to honor this month, I’ve compiled some facts and figures, as well as answers to questions some of us may have about Native Americans and their culture. This list is far from complete, and I encourage you to discover what you’ve always wanted to learn about Native people and their history.
Below you will also find ways to celebrate Native American Heritage Month for yourself, plus Fiction and Non-Fiction books from Native American authors – and a few movies, too. All titles are available at our library, so get to celebrating!
Census information as of 2014
Population: American Indians and Alaska Natives made up 2% of the US population (5.4 million people), including those that are more than one race.
Race: Of the 5.4 million, only 48% are fully American Indian or Alaska Natives. The other 52% are American Indian or Alaska Natives in combination with at least one other race.
Reservations and Tribes: As of 2015 there were 326 federally recognized American Indian reservations and 566 federally recognized American Indian tribes.
Income: The median income for single-race Native American and Alaska Native households was $37,227 (compared to $53,657 for the United States as a whole).
Poverty: Single-race Native Americans and Alaska Natives had a poverty rate of 28.3%, the highest rate of any race group in America.
Higher Education: 13.9% of single-race Native Americans and Alaska Natives, ages 25 and over, had a bachelor’s, graduate, or professional degree.
Language: 26.8% of single-race Native Americans and Alaska Natives ages 5 and older spoke a language other than English at home.
More interesting facts here
FAQ about Native Americans
Are all Native Americans considered US citizens?
- In 1924, all Native Americans who were born in the US were granted citizenship, although not all states allowed them to vote until 1957.
Do all Native Americans live on reservations?
- According to the 2010 census, only 22% of the country’s 5.2 million Native Americans live on tribal lands. Many Natives have left reservations seeking jobs and higher education.
Do any Native Americans still live on their original tribal land?
- There are some reservations that are located on a tribe’s original land, while others were created by the Federal government for the tribes forced from their land.
Do tribes make their own laws, or live under the laws of the US?
- Federally recognized tribes have a sovereign, government-to-government relationship with the United States. They legally govern themselves aside from some restrictions from Congress, federal courts, and treaties with the U.S. They are able to form their own governments, make and enforce laws, tax, provide licenses and regulate activities, and more. They are unable to print their own currency, start wars, or take part in foreign relations.
What is life like on a reservation?
- Living on a reservation has been compared by some to living in a Third World country. For many there are few jobs, a lack of employment opportunity, and inadequate and substandard housing including a lack of running water, phones, and electricity.
Can anyone visit a reservation?
- All reservations have their own laws and therefore different policies on visiting. Make sure to contact the proper tribe to ask about their policy and be aware of etiquette if given permission to visit. Here is a link to the Tribal Leaders Directory that provides contact information for each tribe. Here is a link to some tips on visiting a reservation.
Do Native Americans still speak their tribe’s language?
- Before European influence, it is estimated that there were over 100,000 different Native languages. Today, over 70% of Native Americans say they only speak English at home. Navajo is the most-spoken Native language, at 150,000 people.
What is the history behind Native American names?
- This is a fascinating topic that cannot be fully represented by a short answer. The brief version is that many Native Americans have a complex naming tradition. Their names are said to speak to an individual’s personality and even change over the course of their lives.
What was the Native American population before 1492?
- No one knows for sure. Not many population records were kept at all during that time period. All scientists have to go on are historical writings, and even then they can only guess. At the low end, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber estimated 8.4 million. At the high end, anthropologist Henry Dobyn estimated 112.5 million. What almost everyone can agree on is that the Native population decreased significantly after 1492.
Do Native Americans celebrate Thanksgiving?
- In 2015, Huffington Post published an article that interviewed the ancestors of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, the first tribe to make contact with the Massachusetts Pilgrims of 1620. This is a quote from their current tribal president and chairman on how he celebrates the holiday: “We are Americans as well, and so even today, I sit down at Thanksgiving with family.” He goes on to note that Thanksgiving is equally a time to reflect on the tragedies they suffered then and ones they continue to suffer today. So while many consider it a day to give thanks, it is also seen as a national day of mourning.
What are some current issues facing Native Americans today?
- The Dakota Access Pipeline has been in the news recently. The construction of the pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation may potentially threaten their water supply. The Sioux also say the pipeline would disrupt sacred land.
- Click here for a Smithsonian article about the current controversy, and here to visit the Standing Rock Sioux website.
How can I find out if I have Native American ancestors?
- If you believe you may have Native American ancestry, here is a guide provided by the Office of Public Affairs – Indian Affairs on how to begin genealogical research as well as tribal enrollment information.
- Visit us at the Williamson County Public Library to get free access to Ancestry.com with your library card.
How can I participate in Native American Heritage Month?
- Click here for some creative ideas on how to celebrate.
- Read a book or watch a movie – all available @WCPL!
- The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West by Peter Cozzens (978.02 COZ)
- Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan (770.92 EGA)
- Empire of the Summer Moon : Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne (978.004974572 GWY)
- 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann (970.011 MAN)
- With My Own Eyes: A Lakota Woman Tells Her People’s History by Susan Bordeaux Bettelyoun (973.04975 BET)
- On the REZ by Ian Frazier (978.366 FRA)
- Killing Custer by James Welch (973.82 WEL)
- Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie (F ALE)
- House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday (F MOM)
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (YA F ALE)
- Smoke Signals (DVD SMOKE)
- Dances with Wolves (DVD DANCES)
- The Last of the Mohicans (DVD LAST)
- Longmire – TV series (DVD LONGMIRE)
- Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee – (DVD BURY)
- More Suggested Reading:
Other Resources for Native American History Month
- Click here for audio and video resources from the Library of Congress, Smithsonian, and more.
It is impossible to accurately represent an entire people in a single blog while retaining the real essence, beauty, and complexity of their culture. I urge everyone who is interested in any aspect of Native American life to read more, learn more, and attempt to truly understand the lives and history of America’s Native people.