Native American Indians
US Culture

Native American Indians

Indians or Native Americans?

Our Native American inhabitants were incorrectly called Indians by early European explorers who mistakenly believed that they had reached India. Unfortunately, the mistake persists to this day, and many people still refer to all Native Americans as Indians. Even some Native Americans call themselves Indians, but most of them prefer using their legitimate tribal names. To avoid offending, you should ask a Native American if he or she minds being called Indian. I am using the term here to avoid confusing our non-American readers, and I mean no offense to my Native American neighbors.

The terms Native American and Indian are both misleading, as they suggest a homogeneous population. The original inhabitants of the United States at the time of the European invasion were composed of hundreds of different tribes. Many of the tribes did not share a common language or similar culture. In fact, some of the tribes were constantly at war with each other. Perhaps that is why many Native Americans today do not call themselves Indians or Native Americans, but prefer to say for example, "We are the Lakota people. Some call us the Sioux."

Statue of Indian © Michelle Leco
A statue of a Native American Indian adorned in a ceremonial costume.

There are many diverse tribes

When the first European explorers arrived in this land, Native American tribes populated every part of the continent. Early settlers found the Delawares, Iroquois, Seneca, Cayuga, Mohawk, Algonquin and other tribes in the northeastern part of the USA. They met Seminoles, Cherokees and Miccusuki in the south. The Spanish explorers in California encountered the Shoshone, Paiute, Cahuilla, and Mewuk and additional tribes. By the nineteenth century, the European invaders began to migrate westward and to push the Native American tribes off of their traditional homelands. This was the period of our shameful western Indian wars against the Apache, Sioux, Comanches and others. Superior numbers and advanced technology soon prevailed, and the few surviving natives were forcibly restricted to small areas known as Indian reservations.

Today, there are hundreds of Indian reservations across the USA, and many descendants of the Native Americans still live on them. Some tribes have managed to profit from the natural resources on their lands and the inhabitants have become rather wealthy. On other reservations, the residents exploit thriving tourist businesses. Unfortunately, many tribes own few resources and the inhabitants of their reservations live in poverty.

Not all Native Americans live on Indian reservations

Not all of the descendants of the original Native Americans live on reservations. Many of them have chosen to become integrated into the dominant culture of the newcomers. As you travel across the USA, you may meet many descendants of the original natives. The woman behind the hotel desk may be a Pueblo or a Cheyenne. The banker changing your money may be a Shoshone. The boy at the fast food restaurant may be part Cherokee.

You can learn about our Native American's culture by visiting an Indian Reservation. Some reservations are open to the public and the inhabitants welcome visitors. At certain reservations, the tribes offer museums, cultural exhibits, hotels, resort accommodations, even gambling casinos. (They learned to take advantage of their unique political status by providing gambling in states where it is otherwise prohibited.) A few of the tribes even allow visitors to view or participate in their cultural ceremonies and dances.

Teepee © IMSI
Traditional tipis (also teepees) are typically made from animal skins. With their nomadic lifestyle, Native American tribes of the Great Plains employed the tipi because of its portability.

Only some reservations welcome visitors

Not all reservations are open to the public. The inhabitants at some reservations wish to preserve the privacy of their homes, so they discourage visitors. Sometimes, tribes ban all outside visitors from their dances and religious ceremonies. Please respect their wish for privacy!

A really wonderful way to learn about Native American culture is by attending a powwow or tribal gathering. A Powwow is a social gathering and ceremonial festival for all the scattered members of a tribe. Some powwows are held on Indian reservations, others are held at locations all over the USA. The larger powwows usually attract Native Americans from many different tribes.

Learn about Native American culture at a powwow!

Most powwows are open to the public and include contests and competitions in singing, drumming, ceremonial dancing and native dress. You can see many Native American people in full ceremonial costume. You can watch the traditional dances and enjoy the singing and drumming. Sometimes, you can even participate in the dancing. There is normally an admission fee, and you will have a chance to purchase Native American handicrafts as well as food and drink. It is traditional to donate a few dollars to the drummer at some dances. Photography is usually permitted, but you should always ask permission. In some cases, a small gratuity is expected.

When you plan your visit to the USA, check a schedule of powwows in the area you intend to visit and check for Indian reservations that accept visitors. Maybe you can include a visit to a reservation or attendance at a powwow in your itinerary.

Written by: Mike Leco
Top Photo Credit: ©
Photo Description: Native American Indians perform at a poowoow.