Indigenous Peoples

Throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, scholars and policymakers predicted the disappearance of Native Americans and indigenous peoples in general (see Dippie 1982 for many examples). Global patterns of urbanization, industrialization, and resource extraction indeed have led to a reduction in the number of indigenous people living traditional lifestyles on ancestral lands. However, those who predicted the demise of indigenousness did not anticipate the global resurgence of indigenous consciousness, political mobilization, and cultural renewal of the past several decades (Wilmer 1993; Nagel 1996; Bodley 1994, 2003; Hall & Fenelon 2004). Indigenous groups in North and South America, Australia and New Zealand, Central Europe and Central Asia, Asia and Africa are making land claims, petitioning for political rights, and demanding control of resources; many are doing so with remarkable success given their limited votes, money, or military capacity. To illustrate the resurgence in indigenous identities, communities, and cultures, after a brief discussion of terminology and the sociological significance of studying indigenous peoples, we focus here on contemporary demographic, economic, and political trends among Native Americans.

We use the term “indigenous” to refer to those peoples who either live or have lived within the past several centuries in non state societies, though virtually all indigenous communities are located within state societies. We note that the diversity of types of non state societies is far greater than the diversity of states. Attempts to organize this diversity have generated a plethora of terms: clans, bands, macro bands, tribelets, tribes, chiefdoms, segmentary lineages, etc. (see Chase Dunn & Hall 1997).

The term “tribe” is one of the most common designations for indigenous peoples, but it is also one of the most controversial because of its connotation of primitiveness and savagery. Despite its baggage, the term “tribe” has political utility for those peoples who inhabited North America before Europeans arrived, since the tribe-nation distinction often has been used politically to support or to deny autonomy or sovereignty for indigenous groups and because some indigenous communities informally and officially refer to themselves as tribes, though many have replaced “tribe” with “nation.” Even ”Native American” can be problematic, since legally, anyone born in the United States is a ”native” [born] American. We use ”indigenous” peoples or communities throughout this discussion, and for peoples indigenous to North America, we alternate among Native Americans, American Indians, native, or Indian.

When referring to a specific indigenous community, we use the name of the group, but we note that official names are political and historical constructions that do not necessarily reflect some prior, pristine indigeneity. For instance, there are the historical accidents of naming and the vagaries of spelling that stemmed from colonial powers’ lack of clear understanding of indigenous languages. Sometimes a name derived from a derogatory term, while other changes mark indigenous peoples’ efforts to reclaim their name in their own language, such as Dine for Navajo, Ho Chunk for Winnebago, or Tohono O’odham for Papago.

Changes and disputes over indigenous peoples’ names stem also from historical changes in group boundaries in response to internal processes or encounters with outsiders. In early contact periods with Europeans, North American native peoples often shared a broad sense of identity but were not ruled by any single social or political organization (Cornell 1988). The need for unified resistance to European, then American, encroachments led to the formation of sociopolitical structures that encompassed new groupings of individuals and communities. Out of these alliances new names and identities emerged.

The modern organization of many historical indigenous cultures and communities has arisen, ironically, from efforts to destroy them, either by outright genocide, the devastations of disease, by assimilation into European societies, or by merger or amalgamation with other indigenous groups. At times these amalgamated communities were examples of “ethnogenesis,” i.e., the creation of new ethnic groups whose contemporary names may or may not reflect their historical origins. In fact, a great deal of ethnographic and ethnohistorical research shows that the symbolic, demographic, and social boundaries of non state groups are extremely permeable (Brooks 2002). This suggests that the presumption of fixed, clear, rigid boundaries or borders is an artifact of contact with European states – the expectations of outsiders about the timeless nature of indigeneity and the needs of European and later postcolonial negotiators to identify ”leaders” of native societies for purposes of treaty making and land acquisition.

Indigenous peoples are of special interests to sociology and to sociologists for several reasons. First, in the United States, the Americas, and in many other countries, indigenous peoples comprised the earliest human settlements and interactions with indigenous peoples by immigrant or colonial populations were important in shaping contemporary legal, cultural, political, economic, and social organization. In many countries indigenous peoples are central to national images of past and present and components of ethnically diverse national populations.  Thus,  despite their relatively small numbers, they should be included in any general discussion of race or ethnicity, particularly since the historical treatment and contemporary status of native peoples are central to national questions of group rights, nation formation, justice, group formation, group transformation, and social change.

The study of indigenous peoples represents an invaluable opportunity for theory building and evaluation since indigenous peoples represent a wide variety of social structures that are not found among immigrant or settler groups. In the United States, the varieties of indigenous languages, kinship structures, political organization, or cultural formations present unique opportunities for understanding human pasts and presents. Further, since the founding of the United States, Native Americans have had a unique political and social relationship with the US government. They are the only ethnic community with legal rights connected directly to the federal government, rights that bypass county, city, and state governmental authority. This ”government to government” tribal-federal relationship generates many politically and sociologically interesting interactions and exceptions that have led to controversies about gaming, Indian hunting and fishing rights, or the right to sell gasoline or tobacco on reservations without charging state taxes (see Bays & Fouberg 2002).

Finally, consideration of indigenous peoples is vital to understanding long term social change and social evolution. On the one hand, omitting such groups biases the sample. On the other hand, it is erroneous to assume indigenous people, even those who live ”traditionally,” are models or ”living artifacts” of earlier societies. Contemporary indigenous peoples have survived centuries, and in parts of Asia, millennia of contact and interaction with state societies. Their contemporary social structures have been shaped by their responses to those interactions. Ferguson and Whitehead (1992) caution against too much reliance on historical ”first contact” accounts for information about change in indigenous societies. This is because intergroup contacts change both societies so profoundly that even the earliest first hand accounts must be approached with considerable skepticism. By the time a representative of a literate state society observes an indigenous group, typically there already has been considerable prior contact and consequent social change. Thus, while firsthand accounts can be useful, they cannot be presumed to be unbiased snapshots of the pre contact past. The rate of change resulting from intergroup contact in North America, for example, has led scholars to be cautious about assuming the accuracy of early nineteenth century depictions of western US tribes by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (see Fenelon & Defender Wilson 2004).

Contemporary Indigenous American Issues and Trends

The demography of indigenous peoples is another complex topic. First is the politics of numbers and their uses. Stiffarm and Lane (1992) argue that there is a tendency to under estimate the population of the Americas prior to European contact in order to minimize the decimation of the indigenous population. While estimates for the indigenous population of North American (US and Canada) range from 1 million to 30 million, Thornton (1987) argues for a figure in the neighborhood of 7 million, based on careful reconstruction of population densities, early population counts, and the effects of known epidemics. Native populations declined drastically, but not exclusively, from ”old world” diseases. Native populations in the United States reached a nadir of about one quarter million around the turn of the twentieth century. Since then the Native American population has grown so that, at the beginning of the twenty first century, it is well over 2 million -between one third and one half of what it was in 1492. It is important to note that more than disease was involved in the depopulation of indigenous Americans; colonial and US land policies, population removals, and wars took on genocidal proportions and were major factors in the steep population decline.

Population recovery since World War II has been considerable: from 1960 to 1970 the number of Americans who reported their race to be ”American Indian” in the US census grew 51 percent (from 523,591 to 792,730); from 1970 to 1980, the American Indian population grew faster, 72 percent (to 1,364,033); from 1980 to 1990, the American Indian population increased 37 percent (to 1,878,285); and from 1990 to 2000, the American Indian population increased 26 percent (to 2,366,639). The increase is due to improved enumeration techniques, a decrease in death rates, and an increasingly willingness of individuals to identify themselves as Native American. Native Americans intermarry with other groups more than any other ethnic group, giving rise to three different categories of “Indians”: (1) ”American Indians,” persons who claim to be Indian racially and have a specific tribal identification; (2) ”American Indians of multiple ancestry,” persons who claim to be Indian racially, but who have significant non Indian ancestry; and (3) ”Americans of Indian descent,” who do not claim to be Indian racially, but who report an Indian component in their background (Snipp 1986). This gives rise to questions about membership in Indian tribes and definitions of who is and is not ”Indian” by tribal governments, federal officials, and Indian communities and individuals. The financial successes of some native communities (e.g., due to gaming or natural resources) makes identity an economic issue as well.

Urbanization, intermarriage, education, and increased participation in the paid labor force since World War II have spurred the most politically active period in American Indian history: formation of activist organizations such as the American Indian Movement and Women of All Red Nations, legal defense organizations such as Native American Rights Fund and Native Action, and lobbying groups such as National Congress of American Indians and National Tribal Chairmen’s Association. These organizations comprised a backdrop and, in some cases, the infrastructure for Indian rights movements in cities and on reservations that took root and blossomed in the fertile political soil of the civil rights era in the US. Beginning in the 1960s, American Indians staged a variety of protest events: ”fish ins” in the Pacific Northwest in the mid 1960s, the 19 month occupation of Alcatraz Island beginning in 1969, the 71 day siege at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1973, the occupation of Camp Yellow Thunder in the Black Hills in the 1980s, and protests against Indian athletic mascots since the 1980s. Out of such protests and the legal battles they gave rise to came a new ”self determination” era in federal Indian policy. This opened the way to increased tribal control of budgets and decision making, to the development of tribally owned natural resources, to the establishment of casinos and gaming on tribal land, and to opportunities for self rule and economic development by Indian communities. These changes, in turn, have raised questions about how Native Americans fit into United States society.

In the twentieth century, access to wealth from mineral resources, gaming, and tourism has helped economic development on reservations and in American Indian communities. Although Snipp (1988) has shown that the differences between energy resource Indian nations and those without such resources tend to be minimal, gaming has brought profits and change to many native communities (Jorgensen 1998; Napoli 2002). A key problem facing Native American nations has been how to participate in economic development without undermining traditional Indian values (Cornell & Kalt 1992, 2005). The tension between development and tradition also are central to debates in many indigenous communities globally (Wilmer 1993; Gedicks 2001).

Economic development and the practice and preservation of traditional cultures are enmeshed in two important contemporary issues facing American Indians: the internal and external consequences of gaming as a strategy of economic development in Indian communities and non native interest in American Indian spiritual practices. Because of their special relationship with the US federal government, reservation governments are able to sponsor gaming, to sell gasoline and cigarettes without paying local and state taxes, and to sell other typically locally or state interdicted or regulated products such as fireworks. The growth of Indian casinos and the desire of non Indian governments and businesses to compete with Indian enterprises, which they see as having unfair tax advantages, has spawned social movements that are nominally anti gaming, but are often thinly disguised anti Indian movements. In some cases they reflect conflicts of interest among local non Indians, Indians, and local and state governments. Similar non Indian opposition has resulted from renewed Indian land claims (such as by the Passamaquoddies in Maine in the 1980s and the Oneidas in New York in the 1990s). These controversies have heightened identity politics both within Native groups and between Native groups and the general population.

While American Indian gaming might be viewed negatively by some non Indians, American Indian religions and traditions (real or imagined) have attracted many non Indians. Some religions welcome, and indeed, seek to convert others and expand their membership. This generally is not the case with Native American spiritual leaders and practitioners. Non Indian appropriation of Indian spiritual traditions often is perceived by native people as theft – one in a long series of ”Indian giving” by non Indians. The presence of charlatans and hucksters (a few of whom are of native ancestry) involved in assorted ”new age” appropriations of Indian cultural elements lifted from their indigenous context has heightened the controversy (Churchill 1996).

The spread of new age and ”world music” that uses elements and occasionally performers from various indigenous populations has spawned analogous controversies at a global level (Feld 1991). Not the least of the subcontroversies is that it is non Indian performers and producers who are making the large profits from the use of indigenous instruments, themes, music, and performances. Such controversies will not disappear quickly. They have, however, generated a new interest in relations with indigenous peoples and new attempts to reexamine the long, and often tawdry, history of Indian/ non Indian relations.


  1. Bays, B. A. & Fouberg, E. H. (Eds.) (2002) The Tribes and the States: Geographies of Intergovernmental Interaction. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD.
  2. Bodley, J. H. (1994) Cultural Anthropology: Tribes, States, and the Global System. Mayfield, Mountain View, CA.
  3. Bodley, J. H. (2003) Power of Scale: A Global History Approach. E. Sharpe, Armonk, NY.
  4. Brooks, J. F. (2002) Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Border lands. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.
  5. Chase-Dunn, C. & Hall, T. D. (1997) Rise and Demise: Comparing World Systems. Westview Press, Boulder, CO.
  6. Churchill, W. (1996) Spiritual Hucksterism: The Rise of the Plastic Medicine Men. In: Churchill, W. (Ed.), From A Native Son: Selected Essays on Indigenism, 1985 1995. South End Press, Boston, pp. 355 65.
  7. Cornell, S. (1988) The Return of the Native: American Indian Political Resurgence. Oxford University Press, New York.
  8. Cornell, S. & Kalt, J. (1992) What Can Tribes Do? Strategies and Institutions in American Indian Economic Development. American Indian Studies Cen­ter, University of California, Los Angeles.
  9. Cornell, S. & Kalt, J. (2005) Constitutions, Culture, and the Wealth of Nations: Economic Development on American Indian   Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  10. Dippie, B. W. (1982) The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and US Indian Policy. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence.
  11. Feld, S. (1991) Voices of the Rainforest. Public Culture 4, 1 (Fall): 131 40.
  12. Fenelon, J. V. & Defender-Wilson, M. L. (2004) Voyage of Domination, Purchase as Conaues, Ska-kawea for Savagery: Distorted Icons from Misre­presentation of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Wicazosa Review 19(1): 85 104.
  13. Ferguson, R. B. & Whitehead, N. L. (Eds.) (1992) War in the Tribal Zone: Expanding States and Indigenous Warfare. School of American Research Press, Santa Fe, NM.
  14. Gedicks, A. (2001) Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations. South End Press, Cambridge, MA.
  15. Hall, T. D. & Fenelon, J. V. (2004) The Futures of Indigenous Peoples: 9 11 and the Trajectory of Indigenous Survival and Resistance. Journal of World Systems Research 10(1): 153 97.
  16. Jorgensen, J. G. (1998) Gaming and Recent American Indian Economic Development. American Indian Culture and Research Journal 22(3): 157 72.
  17. Meyer, M. L. (1994) The White Earth Tragedy: Ethnicity and Dispossession at a Minnesota Anishinaabe Reservation, 1889 1920. University Press of Nebraska, Lincoln.
  18. \Nagel, J. (1996) American Indian Ethnic Renewal: Red Power and the Resurgence of Identity and Culture. Oxford University Press, New York.
  19. Napoli, M. (2002) Native Wellness for the New Millennium: The Impact of Gaming. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare 29(1): 17 25.
  20. Snipp, C. M. (1986) Who are American Indians? Some Observations About the Perils and Pitfalls of Data for Race and Ethnicity. Population Research and Policy Review 5: 237 52.
  21. Snipp, C. M. (Ed.) (1988) Public Policy Impacts on American Indian Economic Development. Native American Studies, Development Series No. 4, Albuquerque.
  22. Stiffarm, L. A. with Lane, P., Jr. (1992) The Demography of Native North America: A Question of American Indian Survival. In: Annette Jaimes, M. (Ed.), The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance. South End Press, Boston, pp. 23 53.
  23. Thornton, R. (1987) American Indian Holocaust and Survival. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.
  24. Wilmer, F. (1993) The Indigenous Voice in World Politics: Since Time Immemorial. Sage, Newbury Park, CA.

Back to Sociology of Race