Indigenous Peoples Essay

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”Indigenous peoples” refers to those peoples who either live or have lived within the past several centuries in nonstate societies, though now nearly all have been absorbed into state societies. For North America, we alternate among Native Americans, American Indians, native, or Indian. Many groups have reasserted their traditional names: Dine for Navajo, Ho-Chunk for Winnebago, or Tohono O’odham for Papago. The modern organization of many indigenous cultures has arisen from efforts to change or destroy them. Much ethnographic and ethnohistorical research shows that the symbolic, demographic, and social boundaries of indigenous groups have been quite flexible. The presumption of fixed or clear boundaries grew from the needs of European negotiators to identify ”leaders” for purposes of treaty-making.

The study of indigenous peoples is invaluable to understanding social change because they exhibit a wide range in variation. It is erroneous to assume, however, that indigenous people are ”living artifacts” of earlier times even though they have survived centuries of contact and interaction with state societies. The processes that brought first-hand accounts of indigenous societies also engendered rapid social change, thus, even the earliest accounts of Indian-European encounters cannot be presumed to reliably describe precontact situations. Global patterns of urbanization, industrialization, and resource extraction have led to a reduction in the number of indigenous people. Despite this trend there has been a global resurgence in indigenous political mobilization and cultural renewal in recent several decades. Indigenous peoples who are making land claims, petitioning for political rights, and demanding control of resources have had remarkable success given their limited resources. Many indigenous groups have a strong Internet presence.

Contemporary Indigenous American Issues and Trends

A complex politics of numbers permeates the demography of indigenous peoples, and a desire to minimize the destruction due to European contact has led to a tendency to underestimate the precontact population of North America which ranges from one million to thirty million with seven million considered a conservative estimate. Native populations in the USA reached a nadir of about one-quarter million around the turn of the twentieth century. The decline from early contact resulted from diseases, land policies, forced population removals, and wars. Since then the Native American population has grown to well over two million. Population growth was greatest from 1960 to 2000 due to improved enumeration techniques, decreased death rates, and changes in self-identification. Because of high rates of intermarriage and changes in identity, questions about who is and is not ”Indian” have continued, especially where gaming profits or natural resources may have important economic consequences.

Urbanization, education, participation in the paid labor force since World War II have facilitated political activity and formation of activist organizations such as the American Indian Movement, Women of All Red Nations, Native American Rights Fund, National Congress of American Indians, and National Tribal Chairmen’s Association. Since the 1960s American Indians have 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. The resulting increased awareness of ”Indian issues” led to more autonomy for Indian groups, and to more individuals reclaiming their Indian heritage (Nagel 1996).

A challenge for Native American groups has been how to participate in economic development without undermining traditional Indian values. The tension is central to debates in many indigenous communities globally. Indian successes have spawned social movements that are often anti-Indian movements, further increasing identity politics. Ironically, such controversies have generated a new interest in indigenous peoples around the world.


  1. Gedicks, A. (2001) Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil orporations. South End Press, Cambridge, MA.
  2. Hall, T. D. and Fenelon, J. V. (2008) Indigenous movements and globalization: what is different? What is the same? Globalizations 5 (1): 1-11.
  3. Mann, C. C. (2005) 1491: New Revelations of the Americans before Columbus. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
  4. Nagel, J. (1996) American Indian Ethnic Renewal: Red Power and the Resurgence ofIdentity and Culture. Oxford University Press, New York.
  5. Wilmer, F. (1993)  The Indigenous  Voice in World Politics:  Since   Time     Sage, Newbury Park, CA.

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