Since 1990, each November has been set aside as Native American Heritage Month. During this month, people all over the United States celebrate and recognize the major contributions the first Americans made to the establishment and growth of the country.
Much of what we know about the history of America comes from events recorded by European colonists who first came to America in the early 17th century. However, Native Americans — the indigenous (native) peoples of North America — lived in these lands for thousands of years before that.
Experts believe the first Native Americans came from Asia. Thousands of years ago, what is now Siberia in Russia was connected to what is now Alaska in the U.S. by a land bridge. This area across the Bering Sea was called Beringia.
People were able to cross Beringia into what is now Alaska. Over thousands of years, many different and distinct tribes and ethnic groups crossed over into this new territory and began to spread across all of what is now North America. Many of these tribes still exist today.
These early Native Americans lived mainly off the land, relying upon hunting and gathering of wild plants and animals. They occupied land for use by the entire community. This is very different from the European colonists’ concept of ownership or individual property rights.
After the arrival of European colonists, Native Americans suffered many deaths due to diseases brought from overseas. There was also increasing conflict with the colonists who wanted to “civilize” them and teach them unfamiliar farming methods.
After the Civil War, westward expansion brought western Native American tribes into greater conflicts that resulted in a series of “Indian wars.” Over time, many tribes were forced to give up their lands as a result of treaties to end these wars. Many of these tribes were given new or different lands to establish as reservations to live on.
Today, there are approximately two million Native Americans living in the U.S. and about one million in Canada (where they’re called “First Nations” instead of Native Americans). These nearly three million Native Americans in the U.S. and Canada speak over 150 different Native American languages.
At times, the terms used to refer to Native Americans have been controversial. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, though, it appears that most Native Americans prefer to call themselves American Indians or simply Indians.
The Native Americans in the U.S. can be divided into over 560 separate tribes. Even though they’re all considered Native Americans, their languages, clothing, customs and cultures can vary greatly from one tribe to another.
These diverse tribal cultures celebrate their unique identities and contributions in many ways. Through independent newspapers, community schools, tribal councils, native colleges, museums, arts and crafts programs and language preservation, the modern descendants of these many tribes continue to survive and thrive in the modern society they helped to build.