Modern Day Native Americans: A Story of Survival and Sovereignty

From the course: Native Peoples of North America

By Daniel M. Cob, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Since the advent of colonialism in the late 15th century, Native Americans repeatedly faced what seemed like impossible odds, and all through this history non-Native Americans predicted that tribal lands, polities, and cultures would eventually disappear. But that hasn’t happened. Modern day Native Americans are seeing a renaissance in culture, population, and most of all, sovereignty.

image of dreamcatcher for article on modern day native americans

Recovery and Renaissance

To be sure, the impact of colonialism is still evident all across Indian Country. But Native America has also experienced not only recovery but a renaissance, as well. This recovery and renaissance is, of course, rooted in a long tradition of resilience and perseverance, but it gained momentum in the second half of the 20th century, and it continues to this day.

In fact, 567 tribal nations have a formal nation-to-nation relationship with the United States government. Two hundred and twenty-nine of these nations are located in Alaska, though referred to as villages and corporations. Three hundred and thirty-eight of these nations are in the Lower 48 states. Additionally, there are more than 60 state-recognized tribes; and in Hawaii, Native Hawaiians or Kanaka Maoli assert a separate national identity.

This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Along with enduring tribal nations are enduring tribal homelands. In 2010, there were 334 federal- and state-recognized American Indian reservations located in 35 states. And the total land mass controlled by American Indians and Alaska Natives equaled approximately 100 million acres.

Despite the cataclysmic loss of land over the course of 500 years of colonialism, Indian Country, taken together, would still be the fourth largest state in the United States in terms of total acreage.

Learn more about American Indian experiences during the early Cold War period

Population Numbers Increase

There’s also been a population recovery. According to the 2010 United States census, 5.2 million people identified as American Indian or Alaska Native alone or in combination with other races, amounting to 1.7 percent of the total population. It’s estimated that the number may increase to 8.6 million or 2 percent of the total population by 2050.

When compared to the estimated 250,000 American Indians who remained in the wake of the demographic collapse that took place between 1500 and 1900, these figures become all the more remarkable.

While reservations are considered ancestral homelands and carry an importance that can’t be overestimated, approximately 78 percent of the people who identified as American Indian or Alaska Native during the 2010 census lived outside of American Indian or Alaska Native areas as they are legally defined.

Learn more about how tribal nations haven’t settled for survival alone

Sovereignty Drives Recovery

At the heart of Native recovery and renaissance is sovereignty. Since the initial encounters with European colonial powers, tribes have been recognized as sovereign nations. And, upon its founding, the United States continued to recognize the political status of tribal nations, as well. This can be seen no more clearly than in the 370 treaties with tribal nations that the United States signed and ratified between 1778 and 1871.

Treaties are nation-to-nation agreements and considered under the U.S. Constitution to be the supreme law of the land and therefore they supersede any state or local law. They afford tribal nations a status higher than the states and are the foundation for the tripartite federal system in the United States today, which includes the federal government, tribes, and the states.

American Indians have citizenship status in all three of these sovereigns. Treaties accomplished a lot of different things. For instance, they often established peace, defined boundaries, and affirmed hunting, fishing, and water rights both on and off reservation lands.

The latter, called reserved rights, are crucially important and not infrequently contested today. Often in return for land cessions, treaties obligated the federal government to provide health care, education, housing, and economic development, too.

What’s more, treaties established a fiduciary or trust relationship, in which the federal government accepted the responsibility to assist tribes in the protection of their lands and resources, to honor their treaty rights, and to promote self-government and economic development. This includes all branches and agencies of the U.S. government.

It’s absolutely essential to recognize, though, that treaties didn’t give Native nations anything—especially sovereignty. Rather, they acknowledged it. But what is sovereignty? In its simplest form, we might think of it as the authority to self-govern. But tribal sovereignty is more than that. In fact, the Lumbee legal scholar David Wilkins offers another definition of tribal sovereignty that I find particularly illuminating and worthy of a long quotation. So, here it goes. Wilkins defines tribal sovereignty as:

The spiritual, moral, and dynamic cultural force within a given tribal community empowering the group toward political, economic, and, most important, cultural integrity, and toward maturity in the group’s relationships with its own members, with other peoples and their governments, and with the environment.

This definition is important because it highlights the extraconstitutional and inherent nature of tribal sovereignty. In other words, sovereignty is something that can’t be granted or given by someone else. Tribal sovereignty, then, is a generative force that manifests itself in any number of ways.

Learn More: Native America: A Story of Survival

Sovereignty in Action

For instance, here are some of the ways that tribal governments manifest sovereignty: determining the form government should take; establishing criteria for citizenship; creating and exercising jurisdiction over civil and criminal laws; taxing, licensing, and regulating business; promoting economic development; and providing basic services, including health, housing, education, social welfare, law enforcement, and roads.

Like the strengthening of tribal governments, the resurgent economies of many tribal nations certainly speak to recovery and renaissance. Studies published in 2012 found that the 38 tribal nations in Oklahoma supported 87,700 jobs—5 percent of all jobs in the state. In Washington State, 29 tribal nations created 27,300 jobs in tribal government. These jobs produced $1.3 billion in employee wages and benefits that generated $255 million in state and local taxes annually.

Tribal gaming, the single most important engine for economic growth and diversification in Native America, produced $28.5 billion in gross revenues in fiscal year 2014 alone. These were the returns generated by 459 gaming operations, most of which are small to moderate in size and run by more than 200 tribes.

But sovereignty, as David Wilkins suggests, isn’t just about self-government and economic development. It has a broader cultural dimension as well. In contemporary Native America, sovereignty expresses itself in education; in literature, architecture, music, and film; in putting traditional ecological knowledge into practice and recovering foodways; in revitalizing Indigenous languages; and in reclaiming history. But, of course, it takes people working individually and in concert to make it happen.

Learn More: The American Revolution through Native Eyes

We see evidence of all these acts of sovereignty and self-determination today in the tribal college movement, post-secondary American Indian and Indigenous Studies programs, and the development of culturally relevant elementary and secondary school curricula. We see sovereignty in the writings of contemporary authors, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning N. Scott Momaday; the National Book Award winners Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie; and the moving verses of acclaimed poets Simon Ortiz and Ofelia Zepeda, to name just a few.

Image of Caddo pot by Jereldine Redcorn
Caddo pot by Jereldine Redcorn (2005), collection of the Oklahoma History Center.

We see expressions of sovereignty in the motion pictures produced and directed by Chris Eyre, including the precedent-setting 1998 feature Smoke Signals; Sandra Osawa’s wonderful and powerful documentary films, such as Lighting the Seventh Fire; the subversive comedic work of the 1491s; and the innovative electric powwow music of A Tribe Called Red. We see expressions of sovereignty in the pottery of Jeri Redcorn, and the public art of Edgar Heap of Birds.

Learn more: The Native South and Southwest in the 1600s

We see expressions of sovereignty in small businesses, like Tribal Grounds Coffee, a Cherokee-owned roaster located in the Qualla Boundary in North Carolina that uses beans grown and harvested exclusively by Indigenous people. The meals served by Oglala Lakota chef Sean Sherman, whose Sioux Chef restaurant in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area contributes to the food sovereignty movement by serving Indigenous foods in modern culinary contexts.

And we see aesthetic sovereignty in the innovative designs of Patricia Michaels from Taos Pueblo, a finalist on the popular television show Project Runway, who is at the leading edge of the movement to reclaim Native fashion.

In a brilliant summary of where all these examples lead, the Comanche writer Paul Chaat Smith expressed the dynamism and diversity of contemporary Native America, Native nations, and Native people this way:

Just as they did in 1491, Native Americans today live in a land that is ancient and modern, diverse and always changing. They number in the tens of millions and live in the hemisphere’s most remote places and its biggest cities. They fly spacecraft and herd llamas, they write software and grow orchids, fight wars and teach chemistry. They trade stocks from Park Avenue apartments, drive taxis through Lima’s rush hour, and sell shoes in Kentucky strip malls. Modern American Indians are not shadows of their ancestors, but their equals.

It’s worth asking: Why is it still so common for Indian people not to be seen in these ways? And, without diminishing the fact that statistics on poverty, joblessness, and health, education, and income all point to profound ongoing challenges, it’s worth asking another question: Why isn’t Native America typically imagined as a place experiencing recovery and renaissance? No small part of the answer to these questions resides in the power of history. History shapes memory, and memory shapes both the present and the future.

Common Questions About Modern Day Native Americans

Q: How many Native Americans are alive today?

In the 2010 census, there were 5.2 million claimants to Native American blood.

Q: How did Native Americans get to the Americas?

The most popular theory is that Native Americans migrated over a land bridge called Beringia from Siberia into Alaska and spread throughout the Americas.

Q: How many Native Americans perished after European colonization?

Through disease, slavery, rape and murder, the Native Americans lost nearly 130 million people in around 200 years.

Q: After colonization, what percentage of Native Americans are left?

Post colonization, the Native American population has been reduced to about 2 percent of the U.S. population.

This article was updated on 8/8/2019

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