The Native Americans are the first inhabitants of the Americas. They view nature as Mother Earth. To them the spirit world is embodied in every part of the natural world, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral. They became our first environmentalists and horticulturists. Native Americans first survived as big-game hunters and as fishermen. They were excellent fishermen and invented the birch-bark canoe. It was not long before they became agricultural, adapting to climate changes and the discovery of the plant maize (corn). First harvesting wild plants with edible seeds, they gradually developed hybrids to increase productivity. Soon, maize, squash, and beans became major agricultural products.

The history of the Native Americans is a fascinating subject. Did they originate here, or did they migrate with the seafarers of Phoenicia, or from Siberia across Beringia, a land mass once connecting Siberia with Alaska, or perhaps a combination of the above? The oral tradition of the Native Americans must be respected along with the archaeological, linguistic and scientific studies of pre-Columbian history. An ancient civilization has been discovered in Caral in the SupĂ© Valley of Peru. The Inca of Peru, the Olmecs and Mayans of Central America, and then the Toltecs and Aztecs of Mexico were early Native American civilizations. The earliest peoples within our national borders were the Southwest Ancestral Puebloans, identified at sites such as Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, and the Mississippian Mound Builders at places such as Cahokia on the Mississippi River.


The Native Americans settled in different regions in the country and formed independent tribes with distinct cultures, such that by 1492 there were over 300 separate native american languages! When Christopher Columbus landed on October 12, 1492, he thought he had reached India, and called the native people Indians, a name which Native Americans appreciated until recently, as the term gave them a collective identity. The following table includes Mainland and Alaskan tribes of both historical and current interest.

Great LakesGreat PlainsCalifornia/
Great Basin
SeminoleLenapeFoxBlackfeetShoshone  Puget Sound Salish  ApacheAlutiiq
Catawba  Rappahannock  HuronComanche  Chemehuevi  ChinookHopiEyak
CoushattaIroquoisMiamiKiowaDieguenoNez PerceMojaveInupiat
HoumaNipmucOnondagaOmahaLuisenoQuileute  Tohono O’odham  Tanana
  Miccosukee  PokanoketPotawatomiPawneePomoSpokaneYumaTsimshian

Native Americans welcomed us to these shores in Florida, Virginia, and Massachusetts, and eventually the entire East coast. The Spanish ship Pelayo landed in St. Augustine, Florida on September 8, 1565, and the first Mass of Thanksgiving on American soil was celebrated with the Timucuans from Seloy village in attendance.

The Pilgrims, who sought religious freedom and crossed the Atlantic in the Mayflower in 1620, were treated kindly by the Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts. Samoset and Squanto showed the Pilgrims how to plant corn, beans, and pumpkins, and where to hunt and fish. William Bradford and the sachem Massasoit made a treaty which they honored as long as both were alive. The image of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth in 1621 with the Pilgrims, Massasoit of Pokanoket and the Wampanoag Nation is forever etched upon the American conscience.

The Pilgrims in Massachusetts, Roger Williams and the Baptists in Rhode Island, Leonard Calvert and the Catholics in Maryland, and William Penn and the Quakers in Pennsylvania began their religious settlements buying the land and treating the Native Americans with mutual respect. For example, Father Andrew White SJ, who was one of the first settlers to arrive in Maryland on March 25, 1634, worked patiently with the Piscataway of Maryland and prepared a grammar dictionary and catechism in their native tongue: this was the first time a Native American language was distilled into grammatical form. The Missionary Reverend John Eliot in Massachusetts translated the entire Bible in 1649 into the Algonquin language, the dialect of the Massachusetts tribe. Those who did convert lived mainly on Cape Cod and were known as Praying Indians.

The Pilgrims

However this harmonious relationship was short-lived.

First, Native Americans had no immunologic protection against such European diseases as smallpox, typhus, and measles. For those in frequent contact with European settlers, the effects were devastating: it is estimated that up to 90% of native Americans, perhaps numbering in the millions, died during the first century of contact with the Europeans.

Second, Native Americans had different spiritual beliefs than Europeans. They saw the land as a living being, as a mother who nurtured her children. The thought of buying and selling land was unthinkable to them. They saw the offers from Europeans for land to build and farm as joining an existing relationship, not to transfer ownership. Misperception ensued. Some tribes resented the attempts of the Europeans to convert them to Christianity.

And third, the Native American tribes, with the exception of the Five Nation Iroquois, lacked unity, and, as most of the European nations at the time, were often rivals with each other. This made them vulnerable to the Europeans with their superior weaponry.

The Virginia Company was the first to establish a permanent English colony in 1607 at Jamestown, named after King James I of England. The Anglicans barely survived the first winter, but antagonism quickly developed with the Powhatan tribe. The first of three Anglo-Powhatan Wars ensued as early as 1609, and did not resolve until the marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe in 1614. Tobacco brought survival to the English colony. The first meeting of the House of Burgesses in a Jamestown church on July 30, 1619 was the first representative government in the English colonies.

Atrocities between Colonists and Native Americans happened everywhere and were committed by both sides. Five Spanish Franciscans who attempted to introduce monogamous marriage to the Guale tribe were martyred in Darien, Georgia in September 1597. Five hundred Pequot men, women, and children were burned alive in May 1637 at Mystic River, Connecticut by a vengeful Puritan militia in the name of divine retribution. Isaac Jogues and seven French Jesuits were martyred by the Mohawks at Auriesville, New York in October 1646. Metacomet, known as King Philip, the son of the Pokanoket sachem Massasoit, tried to preserve Native American presence against the unprincipled land grab of colonial expansion in New England, and led the June 1675 – August 1676 King Philip’s War, but died August 12, 1676. But the worst devastation began in 1702, when James Moore, the English Governor of South Carolina, wrote his own Black Legend when he, his soldiers, and the Yemassees swept through Georgia to Florida and annihilated the Franciscan missions and massacred the Timucua and Apalachee Mission tribe of Florida, some by impaling them on stakes or burning them alive. He then attacked St. Augustine, but the townsfolk retreated to St. Mark’s Castle. Moore bombarded the castle for 50 days, but, unsuccessful, Moore finally gave up, but not before he torched most of the town. By his own writings, Moore captured several thousand Native Americans and reduced them to slavery. Disgraced, he stepped down as governor upon his return, not because of his extreme cruelty, but because of his failure to capture St. Augustine!

What began peacefully ended in aggression and conflict.

European settlers subsequently drove the Native Americans from their lands as settlers moved westward. Treaties were often drawn up after their leaders were plied with alcohol. Whether through intimidation, war, treachery, or outright fraud, the Native Americans were systematically dispossessed of their lands.

A Native American known as the Prophet advised the Shawnee to give up alcohol and the ways of the white men and return to their traditional ways. He founded a peaceful community in Prophetstown, Indiana. His brother Tecumseh organized surrounding tribes into a Confederation to resist the incursions of white settlers. In the Treaty of Fort Wayne in 1809, William Henry Harrison negotiated with only three of the many tribes and bought 3 million acres in Indiana and Illinois for less than one cent an acre! When an Illinois tribe raided a small village, Harrison took advantage of the situation and headed to Prophetstown, even though the Shawnee had nothing to do with the raid. Harrison defeated the Confederation at Tippecanoe on November 11, 1811.

The peak of disenfranchisement occurred with the enforcement of President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830. Four of the five “Civilized Tribes” were driven from their lands. These acts left the once proud and resourceful Native Americans a dispirited, heart-broken race. The Choctaws in Mississippi and Alabama were the first to be resettled in 1832, followed by the Creeks (1836) and the Chickasaws (1837). But it was the resettlement of Cherokees by Jackson’s Federal troops in 1838-1839 from Georgia to lands west of the Mississippi that left 5000 Cherokees dead on the Trail of Tears.

The fifth tribe, the only one to maintain presence in their native territory, were the Seminoles of Florida. In spite of three Seminole Wars, the Seminoles wisely never signed a treaty with the Federal Government and survived in Florida!

The tribes of the Great Plains and those resettled from the East faced a similar fate from the Western expansion of the Nation. The Lewis and Clark Expedition from 1804 made it to the Pacific Ocean because of the hospitality of the Mandans and their Shoshone guide Sacajawea.

Once again, this kindness was not returned.

Two different cultures would face off on the Plains for nearly a century: the “Manifest Destiny” of white settlers heading west versus the Plains tribes protecting their heritage. In an effort to confine them to reservations, Federal agents would sign treaties such as the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, granting extensive territory to the Native Americans, only to have other Federal agents break the treaties in support of the Homestead Act of 1862, which granted land to predominantly white settlers from the East. But the Native Americans put up incredible resistance under such figures as Red Cloud, the only one to have defeated the U. S Army in Red Cloud’s War of 1866-1868. In reaction to the US breaking the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse defeated George Custer and the Seventh Cavalry in Custer’s Last Stand at Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876. Using justified resistance as an excuse, Federal troops eventually drove the Nez PerceCrowsApacheSioux, and other Plains tribes from their lands. In response to the Ghost Dance, the final defeat occurred at Wounded Knee in December 1890, with the death of Sitting Bull, Big Foot, and a band of Lakotas.

The ultimate absurdity occurred on June 2, 1924 when the Natives of America were granted citizenship by the very people that drove them off their lands.

Manifest Destiny

The Navajo Nation played an invaluable role in the Pacific theater during World War II. When the Japanese had broken American codes and launched the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the U. S. Marines turned to the Navajo Nation to develop a code based on their language, a code which the Japanese never could decipher. The Navajo code talkers were instrumental to our victory in Iwo Jima in March of 1945. A Franciscan priest founded the Southwest Indian Foundation in Gallup, New Mexico in 1968. A memorial to the Navajo Code Talkers has been completed and is situated in the Gallup Cultural Center.

Fortunately, during the latter half of the twentieth century, beginning with President John F. Kennedy, long-overdue respect and concessions have been given to our Native Americans. Pope John Paul II beatified Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), the Lily of the Mohawks, in 1980, and she was canonized in 2012. The feast day of our first Native American Saint is July 14.

2020 U. S. CENSUS

There has been a flourishing of the Native American population: in 2020, 9.7 million people in the United States identified themselves as Native American or Alaska Native, either alone or in combination with one or more different races. Out of this total, 3.7 million people identified themselves as American Indian/Alaska Native alone. The total Native American population experienced an increase of 86.5% in 2020, the greatest growth of any population group since 2010.

The 2020 Census indicated that there are 574 federally recognized Native American Nations in the United States. Approximately 229 of these are located in Alaska. Alaska has the highest percentage of Native Americans at 14.8 percent of the total Alaskan population, followed by New Mexico, South Dakota, Montana, and North Dakota. The five states with the largest Native American population in order are California, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Alaska, Florida, North Carolina, North and South Dakota experienced the greatest growth. 41% of Native Americans live in the West, and 33% in the South.

The following chart lists the Top 30 Native American Tribes by estimated population for the year 2020. These are the original U. S. Census Bureau figures, which indicate those listing one tribe only. Whereas the Cherokee Nation has the largest overall population, over one million in combination with other races, the Navajo Nation has the largest population reporting one tribe only.

3  Mexican American  126,351
7Central American82,681
13Alaskan Yupik35,714
14Alaskan Inupiat29,179
18Tohono O’Odham23,843
21Alaskan Athabascan16,852
23South American14,927
25Puget Sound Salish14,229
26Alaskan Tlingit-Haida13,741
27Alaskan Aleut13,192


1 Doyle RC. American History. Class Lectures & Notes, Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio, 2001.
2 Berkin C, Miller CL, Cherny RW, Gormly JL. Making America. Fourth Edition, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2006.
3 Waldman C. Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. Checkmark, New York, 2006.
4 Morison, Samuel Eliot. Oxford History of the American People. Oxford University Press, New York, 1965.
5 Waldman C, Braun M. Atlas of the North American Indian. Checkmark Books, New York, 25-50, 2000.
6 Census 2020, United States of America.
7 Gannon M. Florida – A Short History. University Press of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, 2003.


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