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Native Americans

The term “Native Americans” refers to the descendants of people who inhabited what is now the United States in the era before European settlement. The term, as used statistically, includes ethnic Hawaiians and the Eskimos and Inuit of Alaska. For the most part, however, the term refers to members of one of the many Native American tribes formerly called “American Indians.” Many Native Americans themselves continue to prefer and use the term “Indian.”

In virtually every instance, European settlement of the American continent did severe damage to the native peoples. Violence and disease wiped out many tribes. Governmental pressure, backed often by military force, forced nearly every other tribe to move, often west, to less desirable land.

Some Native American tribes exist without formal recognition by the American government, while over 500 others have sanctioned legal status and federal recognition. Nearly all Native Americans are United States citizens, although many tribes enjoy the status of independent nations. Some even issue their own passports. Depending on the circumstance, although Native Americans have full citizenship rights, the federal government is often limited in the power it can exercise over recognized Native Americans lands and the people who live on them. The Navajo, Cherokee, Choctaw, Sioux, Chippewa, Apache, Blackfeet, Iroquois, and the various Pueblo peoples of the Southwest are the largest Native American groups in the United States.

The special legal status of a number of Native American tribes allows them to run gambling casinos, sometimes combined with elaborate resorts. A few tribes, mostly small, have used these advantages to become relatively well off. In general, however, Native Americans are among the poorest of Americans. Drug and alcohol use, youth suicide, and other social problems are significant in Native American communities. Health issues such as poor nutrition and diabetes are also substantial.

As with any minority group, Native Americans often find themselves subject to stereotyping and discrimination. Generations of stereotyping in films and on television, usually using non-native peoples as the actors, have had their effect. A particularly sensitive issue today is the use of tribal names or other designations for sports teams, such as the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves in baseball or the Washington Redskins in Football, as well as literally hundreds of college and high school teams in all sports. Native American activists also object to the giving of tribal names to weapons as in the case of the Apache helicopter. The use of the term “Operation Geronimo” for the May 2011 American military operation that killed terrorist Osama bin Laden also raised Native American voices in protest. The Chiricahua Apache Geronimo was an important figure in 19th century Native American resistance to European persecution.

Although Native Americans do cooperate with each other for political and cultural purposes, it is important to realize that, over the stretch of a full continent, the tribes are culturally very different from one another. Members of some tribes have integrated into and often intermarried with the general American population. Others live apart from the general American culture on reservations, large and small. The languages and cultural traditions of some tribes are artifacts, mainly of interest to anthropologists, while in the case of other tribes, the original language and cultural traditions remain vital. The largest cross-cultural gathering of Native American people in the United States is the annual “Gathering of Nations” that takes place each spring in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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