While we think of the United States as a land of fifty states, it was a very different land centuries ago, with over 20 million Native Americans living here in more than 1,000 distinct tribes and ethnic groups.
Of course, much of that history has been lost to the ravages of time and Euro-Christian conquerors, both unintentionally and intentionally. Currently, Native Americans make up only 1.5% of the American population, and we likely retain even a smaller portion of Native American history.
There isn’t even, for that matter, a single map of tribal territories for the entire United States that is accurate at any one given time. How is that even possible?
While we can’t remedy this grave injustice, we can try to keep the knowledge we haven’t lost yet. For instance, consider that:
- Even in 2016, there are still more than 500 tribes recognized in the United States by the Bureau of Indian Affairs
- From that population peak of roughly 20 million, Native American tribes were decimated by the twin killers of war and disease, such that the Native American population dropped to only a quarter-million. The present Native American population in North America is still less than 3 million.
- The largest tribal groups currently, by population, are Navajo, Cherokee, Choctaw, Sioux, Chippewa, Apache, Blackfeet, Iroquois, and Pueblo.
- Before Europeans arrived in North America, many scholars say more than a thousand languages may have been spoken here; only 296 indigenous languages remain, and only 8 of those languages are practiced by enough people to fill even a small town. It’s likely that within the next century, fewer than 20 Native American languages will remain.
- While none of those native languages had written components, many of them were quite complex – as complex as Russian or Latin, in many cases.
- Because of the wide range of languages, many bordering tribes communicated and traded via sign language components.
- Those eight languages with a chance of surviving? Navajo, Cree, Ojibwa, Cherokee, Dakota, Apache, Blackfoot, and Choctaw.
We can also consider some of the similarities tribes of each region shared – the diversity and history we’ve lost is simply astounding.