16 Facts to Learn for Native American Heritage Month

There are over 9 million Native Americans and Native Alaskans living in the United States today. And with over 500 federally recognized tribes, there are hundreds of different cultures that are as unique as the people they represent. From artwork and literature, to cuisine and music, there is much to appreciate and learn.

While many refer to Native people as Native American, the National Museum of the American Indian notes that it’s best to use the individual tribal name, when possible. In the United States, Native American is the most common term, but many Native people prefer the terms American Indian or Indigenous American instead. When in doubt, always ask people what they prefer to called.

Every November, we celebrate Native American Heritage Month, also known as American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month. It’s a chance to celebrate the rich and diverse cultures, traditions and histories and important contributions of Native American people, along with acknowledging their hardship and struggles both throughout history and in the present day.

In case your education on Native American populations and the reasons we celebrate their heritage this month needs a refresher (or you’re looking for some trivia to share around the Thanksgiving table), here are some fascinating facts about Native American Heritage Month and the people it’s meant to celebrate.

Navajo sisters gallop across a desert in Arizona


American Indian Day started in the early 1900s

In 1916, Red Fox James, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, rode horseback from state to state to get endorsements from 24 state governments to establish a day to honor American Indians. This resulted in the very first American Indian Day. It was held in New York and took place on the second Saturday in May 1916. Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca Indian, who was the director of the Museum of Arts and Science in Rochester, N.Y. persuaded the Boy Scouts of America to set aside a day for the “First Americans” in 1915.

Native American Heritage Month evolved from a week

Native American Heritage Month first evolved from “American Indian Week,” which President Reagan proclaimed on the week of November 23-30, 1986. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush approved a joint resolution designating November 1990 as “National American Indian Heritage Month.” It was later changed to Native American Heritage month under President Barack Obama.

Indigenous People’s Day also recognizes Native heritage

President Joseph Biden was the first to recognize Indigenous People’s Day as a National Holiday, which will now be held each year on October 11. For many people, it’s a counter-celebration to Columbus Day, a federal holiday which falls on the same day

Columbus did not “discover” the Americas

When Europe “discovered” the Americas, there were already 50 million Native Americans and Indigenous peoples living there. Of that, 10 million were in what was to become the United States.

Native people were forcibly relocated in the early 1800s

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which empowered the federal government to take Native-held land east of Mississippi and forcibly relocate Native people from their homes in Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Florida and Tennessee to “Indian territory” in what is now Oklahoma.

The Trail of Tears marks important history

The Trail of Tears was part of a series of forced displacements of approximately 60,000 Native Americans between 1830 and 1850. During that time, nearly 4,000 died of disease, exposure and malnutrition. To recognize and remember their history, you can walk parts of the Trail of Tears in Springfield, Missouri.

Native Americans were granted citizenship in the 1920’s

It wasn’t until 1924 that Native Americans were granted citizenship after Congress enacted the Indian Citizenship Act. While Native Americans were also given the right to vote in 1924, it took another 40 years for all 50 states to allow them voting rights.

terry st john, of dakota tribe of minnesota, puts make up on the face of rick cleveland, jr, of ho chunk tribe of wisconsin, during the smithsonian's pow wow marking the continuing construction of the national museum of the american indian
Terry St. John, of Dakota Tribe of Minnesota, puts make-up on the face of Rick Cleveland, Jr., of Ho-Chunk Tribe of Wisconsin during a pow wow.

Alex Wong

Native populations continue to grow

In 2020, 9.1 million people in the United States identified as Native American and Alaska Native, an increase of 86.5% increase over the 2010 census. They now account for 2.9% of the population. By 2060, the Native American and Alaska Native population is expected to be 10.1 million and account for 2.5% of the population. Alaska has the largest population of Native Americans in the United States, followed closely by Oklahoma.

Tribal lands occupy a huge swath of the U.S.

There are approximately 326 Indian land areas in the U.S. administered as federal Indian reservations, covering more than 56 million acres. Currently, there are 574 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages.

Cherokee is the largest tribal grouping

The three largest Native American tribal groupings are Cherokee, Navajo and Latin American Indian tribes. The three largest Alaskan Native groupings are Yup’ik, Inupiat, and Tlingit-Haida.

Native people have many unique languages

There are approximately 175 Indigenous languages spoken in the United States today.

a helmet for the national football team from washington dc
The Washington Football team recently changed its name

Patrick Smith

Football teams are changing offensive names

In 2020, The Washington Redskins changed their name to The Washington Football team, dropping “Redskins” which is a derogatory term often used for those of Native American descent. The Cleveland Indians followed suit and are now known as the Cleveland Guardians.

Navajo people were crucial during the WWII effort

During World War II, the United States government enlisted the help of Native Americans, known as code talkers, who used the Navajo language to transmit top-secret information to allied forces. Much of this information was classified until 2002 when congress passed the Code Talkers Recognition Act. Overall, some tribes had as much as 70% participation in the war effort.

view of corporal henry bake, jr, left, and private first class george kirk, navajo indians serving with a marine signal unit, as they operate a portable radio set in a clearing theyve hacked in the dense jungle close behind the front lines on the island of bougainville, papua new guinea, december 1943 photo by usmcinterim archivesgetty images
View of Corporal Henry Bake, Jr, left, and Private First Class George Kirk, Navajo Indians serving with a Marine Signal unit, as they operate a portable radio set in a clearing they’ve hacked in the dense jungle close behind the front lines on the island of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, December 1943.

Interim ArchivesGetty Images

We owe lots of things to Native innovation

Things that we might take for granted, like rubber, corn, kayaks, modern-day farming and even mouth wash, all find their roots in Native American design.

The U.S. government helps with preserving tribal lands

National Park Services heads the Tribal Preservation Program to assist tribes preserving their historic lands and important cultural heritage.

We owe the Iroquois our Constitution

Historians believe that the United States Constitution was modeled after the “The Great Law of Peace” the constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy. It is believed that Benjamin Franklin studied it in detail.

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