What Does It Mean To Be a Native American?

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Being a Native American means being a member of one of the indigenous tribes that inhabited North America before the arrival of Europeans. Native Americans have a rich cultural heritage that is deeply connected to their land and traditions. They have faced significant challenges throughout history, including colonization, forced relocation, and discrimination. Today, Native Americans strive to preserve their culture, languages, and tribal sovereignty. They contribute to modern society in various fields, while also advocating for their rights and fighting for social and economic equality. Being a Native American is a source of pride and identity, rooted in a resilient and diverse ancestral heritage.

Every November, Native American Heritage Month is observed in the United States. During this month, people across the country celebrate and acknowledge the significant contributions made by the first Americans in establishing and developing the nation.

Most of our knowledge about American history comes from records made by European colonists who arrived in America in the early 17th century. However, long before that, Native Americans, the indigenous people of North America, had been living on these lands for thousands of years.

Experts believe that the first Native Americans originated from Asia. Thousands of years ago, what is now Siberia in Russia was connected to present-day Alaska in the U.S. by a land bridge called Beringia, which spanned the Bering Sea.

Through Beringia, people were able to migrate into what is now Alaska. Over time, various tribes and ethnic groups crossed into this new territory and spread across North America. Many of these tribes still exist today.

The early Native Americans primarily relied on hunting and gathering of wild plants and animals to sustain themselves. They shared and occupied land collectively, unlike the European colonists who believed in individual ownership and property rights.

After the arrival of European colonists, Native Americans suffered greatly from diseases brought from overseas. They also faced increasing conflicts with the colonists who aimed to “civilize” them and introduce unfamiliar farming methods.

With westward expansion after the Civil War, conflicts between western Native American tribes and the colonists escalated, leading to a series of “Indian wars.” As a result, many tribes were forced to give up their lands through treaties. Some were relocated to reservations.

Today, there are approximately two million Native Americans living in the U.S. and around one million in Canada, referred to as “First Nations.” Combined, they speak over 150 different Native American languages.

The terminology used to refer to Native Americans has been controversial at times. However, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, most Native Americans prefer to identify themselves as American Indians or simply Indians.

The Native Americans in the U.S. can be categorized into more than 560 distinct tribes. While they share a Native American identity, their languages, clothing, customs, and cultures can vary significantly from one tribe to another.

These diverse tribal cultures celebrate their unique identities and contributions through various means. They have independent newspapers, community schools, tribal councils, native colleges, museums, arts and crafts programs, and initiatives for language preservation. The modern descendants of these tribes continue to thrive and contribute to the society they helped build.

Try It Out

We hope you enjoyed learning more about the first Americans today! Get a friend or family member to join you and explore the following activities:

Native American Animal Names

Explore the links provided below to discover how to say the names of various animals in the languages of five distinct Native American tribes. Select an animal and a tribe to uncover the corresponding Native American term.


  • Cherokee
  • Navajo
  • Lakota Sioux
  • Kickapoo
  • Blackfoot

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