Native Americans: Back from the Brink

White American historians for centuries have heralded the European explorer, Christopher Columbus, as having “discovered America.” They ignored the fact, of course, that the continent had already been settled by millions of Native Americans from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific and that they had inhabited the continent for at least 15,000 years (and more possibly 30,000-40,000 years, based on modern research and archeology). Furthermore, those millions of indigenous people were made up of more than 600 “nations” or tribes with vibrant civilizations.

Very early estimates in the 1800s of indigenous populations, before whites arrived in great numbers, varied wildly from one to two million. But, those census efforts were archaic and proved to be inaccurate. More contemporary archeology and research reveal that the numbers were much greater—between 7-18 million to perhaps as many as 100 million.

As soon as whites showed up on the continent and introduced disease and warfare, indigenous numbers plummeted. (Although inter-tribal fighting certainly existed before whites, white expansion brought war on a far more massive and devastating scale.) Diseases, such as smallpox, typhus, measles, malaria, influenza, and cholera, were massive killers. By 1800, the indigenous population of the present-day United States had been decimated to 600,000. By 1890, to 250,000. It was, in fact, a holocaust comparable to World War I, which killed about 17 million people—in our own country.

The first national census was conducted in 1790, but the guidelines included only free white men and women and African American slaves. Indians were not identified in census numbers from 1790-1840. In 1860, Indians living only in the general population were counted. Beginning in 1900, Native Americans were enumerated on reservations as well as the general population. In that year, the census revealed 237,196 Native Americans were left in the United States.

Throughout the entire 1900s, Native American mortality rates remained the highest of any ethnic group in the United States and remain so today. Reservation life exacerbated the high mortality rate among Native populations, where poverty, disease, and starvation were at epidemic rates and lack of medical care, educational opportunities, housing, infrastructure, and technology were nearly nonexistent in many reservation areas.


Although Native populations continue to have the highest mortality rates in the nation, good news for their population recovery began to show up in census numbers beginning around the 1980s. An ethnologist, Nancy Shoemaker, published an illuminating study through the University of New Mexico Press: American Indian Population Recovery in the Twentieth Century. In her study, she wrote:

Post-war sociocultural factors of self-identification, born from the collective struggle of racial minorities to achieve civil rights and interracial marriages, have added to the overall population statistics of American Indians as well. The issue of Indian self-activity in their own twentieth-century population recovery is significant because it elides the paternalistic view that formerly ascribed Indian population recovery to the success of Federal Indian Policy. 

Shoemaker looked at the vital statistics and material conditions (mortality, fertility, marriage, economic conditions, and cosmology) of five tribes to account for this population recovery, notably the Senecas of upstate New York, the Cherokees of Oklahoma, the Red Lake Ojibways of Minnesota, the Yakamas of Washington state, and the Navajos of Arizona. 

Shoemaker believed that the population recovery among Native Americans is significant because it not only signals "one of the most important events in American Indian history--it has once and for all vanquished the myth of the Vanishing Indian and laid the foundation for an American Indian political and cultural revitalization."

Shoemaker concluded: "With European diseases and dispossession of their lands and way of life, Indians came close to not surviving as a people. But they have survived and, indeed, with a current population of two million [as of 1999] are no longer at risk of being remembered in history as the 'vanished' Indians."

It has been twenty years since Shoemaker wrote of the revitalization of Native culture and the rebound of Native populations. Since then even more remarkable progress has been made in both areas. The Native population in the United States is now nearly seven million and growing. And the cultural revival of lifeways, traditions, languages, and civil liberties is experiencing a renaissance. To be sure, there are still many problems for Native Americans to overcome. But, like the Thunderbird that symbolized strength, rebirth, and resilience for thousands of years among Native cultures. they are rising from the ashes.


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