Native Americans



Native American History: The Cambridge Dictionary defines a Native American person as "a member of one of the groups of people who were living in North and South America before Europeans arrived." (Cambridge Dictionary) Native Americans have a long and complicated history with the United States. Since the founding of the U.S., Native American tribes, incredibly diverse in language, government, religion, and culture, were barred from U.S. citizenship and treated as independent nations with whom the U.S. was required to act only through mutually agreed upon treaties and diplomatic measures. However, in practice, United States frequently employed deceit and violence to accomplish its aims with Native Americans.

While Native Americans had lived on North American soil throughout the continent and in every part of what would become the U.S. since long before European settlers arrived, Native American-U.S. relations in the nineteenth century became the story of how the U.S. sought to remove Native Americans from that ancestral land and to colonize it for its own purposes. The largest, though certainly not the only, of these efforts came with the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which in seeking to open the rich soil of southeastern states like Mississippi to enslaved labor required Native Americans living there to relocate to reservations west of the Mississippi River. Indian Removal was a brutal process including extensive forced marches in terrible conditions.

While Native Americans fought on both sides of the American Civil War, the U.S. Army continued to violently force Native Americans further even from their reservation lands throughout the nineteenth century in a series of conflicts known generally as the "Indian Wars." Despite facing enormous legal, political, and military adversity as well as racism from the American populace, Native Americans often remained both in their original homelands as well as in reservations, working continually to right the historical wrongs committed by the federal government, establishing more equitable relationships to the U.S., and remaining an integral part of American history and life into the twenty-first century. (Library of Congress; Mississippi Encyclopedia)

Native American Naming Conventions: Native Americans, also referred to as Indigenous people or American Indians, are the original inhabitants of North America. When Columbus sailed from Portugal, he intended to reach the Dutch East Indies, or what is today Singapore. Instead, he landed in the Caribbean and labeled the inhabitants “Los Indios.” (James A. Campbell, “Columbus and Los Indios as ‘God’s People’,” Los Angeles Times) Thus, the name became anglicized and “Indian” became common usage by Europeans after they arrived in North America. The term “American Indian” is used by the United States Federal Government and by the U.S. Census Bureau. The term Native American and Indigenous are more recent terminology that developed in the latter half of the 20th century, but not all Indigenous people in the U.S. agree to a single unified term.

Legal Terminology: Native Americans are incorporated into the U.S. legal system, as they are the only ethnic group explicitly mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. The commerce clause restricts individual states from dealing with “Indian Tribes.” (U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3) Instead, only the federal government can ratify treaties made with American Indians. While treaties are legally binding documents that outline how two governments should honor each other’s promises, they were ratified into law but rarely honored due to corruption or general ill-will. The case Cherokee v. Georgia in the 1830s ruled that American Indians are “Domestic Dependent Nations,” therefore, they have the ability to govern themselves (sovereignty), but with curtailed authority. As a result, Native American sovereignty is frequently determined and redetermined by social events, court decisions, and politicians.

In 1934, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act also known as the Howard-Wheeler Act, giving tribes the ability to adopt constitutions by democratic vote. Some tribes adopted constitutions, while others rejected it. Each tribal community or nation has to be recognized by the U.S. Federal Government to receive services through the Bureau of Indian Affairs or to benefit from certain rights afforded to American Indians.

Native American’s Today: The question of who is considered Native American is a controversial topic, as each tribal community has the sovereignty to determine their own membership. Some use lineal descent, residency, or Blood Quantum—or the calculation of full-blooded “Indian” ancestors in an individual’s lineage to determine a fraction like 1/4)—to determine enrollment in a federally recognized tribe. Today, Native Americans continue to work to achieve and protect sovereignty and the ability to direct their future for their communities. In the 1960s and 1970s, American Indians achieved self-determination—or the ability for tribes to govern themselves with minimal federal oversight—especially regarding treaty rights.

CWRGM recognizes the immense diversity of Native American tribes and their unique experiences and therefore uses the "Native Americans" tag to make those experiences more discoverable only in the absence of references to specific tribal names within its documents.

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