What Does It Mean To Be a Native American?

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Being a Native American means belonging to one of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. It encompasses diverse tribes, cultures, languages, and traditions. Native Americans have a deep connection to their ancestral lands and a rich history that predates European colonization. They have faced displacement, forced assimilation, and discrimination, but have also preserved their heritage and fought for their rights. Today, Native Americans continue to strive for self-determination, cultural preservation, and sovereignty. Being a Native American is about embracing one’s identity, honoring their ancestors, and contributing to the diverse tapestry of American society.

Since 1990, every November has been designated as Native American Heritage Month. During this month, individuals all throughout the United States come together to celebrate and acknowledge the significant contributions made by the original inhabitants of America to the establishment and development of the country.

A large portion of our knowledge regarding the history of America comes from accounts written by European settlers who arrived in America during the early 17th century. However, Native Americans, the indigenous people of North America, resided in these lands for thousands of years prior to that.

Experts believe that the first Native Americans originated from Asia. Thousands of years ago, what is now Siberia in Russia was connected to what is now Alaska in the U.S. through a land bridge. This region, spanning the Bering Sea, was known as Beringia.

People were able to migrate from Beringia into what is now Alaska. Over the course of thousands of years, numerous diverse tribes and ethnic groups crossed over into this new territory and began to spread throughout all of what is now North America. Many of these tribes still exist today.

These early Native Americans relied on hunting and gathering of wild plants and animals to sustain themselves. They occupied land for the benefit of the entire community. This was vastly different from the European settlers’ concept of ownership and individual property rights.

Following the arrival of European settlers, Native Americans suffered greatly from diseases brought from overseas. Additionally, conflicts with the settlers increased as they attempted to “civilize” the Native Americans and introduce unfamiliar farming methods.

After the Civil War, westward expansion led to heightened conflicts with western Native American tribes, resulting in a series of “Indian wars.” Over time, many tribes were compelled to relinquish their lands as a result of treaties aimed at ending these wars. Numerous tribes were allocated new or different lands to establish reservations for their communities.

Presently, there are approximately two million Native Americans residing in the U.S. and around one million in Canada (referred to as “First Nations” rather than Native Americans). These nearly three million Native Americans in the U.S. and Canada speak more than 150 different Native American languages.

At times, the terms used to refer to Native Americans have sparked controversy. However, according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, it appears that most Native Americans prefer to identify themselves as American Indians or simply Indians.

The Native Americans in the U.S. can be categorized into over 560 distinct tribes. Despite being collectively recognized as Native Americans, their languages, clothing, customs, and cultures can vary significantly from one tribe to another.

These diverse tribal cultures celebrate their unique identities and contributions in a variety of ways. Through independent newspapers, community schools, tribal councils, native colleges, museums, arts and crafts programs, and language preservation efforts, the modern descendants of these numerous tribes continue to thrive and flourish in the contemporary society they helped build.

Try It Out

We hope you enjoyed learning more about the first Americans today! Grab a friend or family member and continue exploring the following activities:

Native American Animal Names

Below, you will find links to discover the Native American words for specific animals in the languages of five distinct tribes. Select an animal and a language to determine its Native American name.


  • Cherokee
  • Navajo
  • Lakota Sioux
  • Kickapoo
  • Blackfoot

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