By the age of 10, most children in the United States have been taught all 50 states that make up the country. But centuries ago, the land that is now the United States was a very different place. Over 20 million Native Americans dispersed across over 1,000 distinct tribes, bands, and ethnic groups populated the territory.
Today, Native Americans account for just 1.5 percent of the population, and much of their history has been lost, particularly as today’s education system is sadly lacking when it comes to teaching the rich and complex history of the United States.
As of January, 2016, there are 566 legally recognized Native American tribes in the United States, as determined by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Prior to European contact, there were over 1,000 tribes, bands or clans, but sadly, some were completely extinguished as a result of disease epidemics or war.
Today, there is not a single accurate historical map that reflects the location of Native American tribes in North America in a single time period, as the post-European contact situation was ever changing, with contact occurring at different times in different areas.
From the 16th through the 19th centuries, the population of Native Americans sharply declined from approximately 20 million, to a low of 250,000. Today, there are approximately 2.9 million Native Americans in North America.
As of 2000, the largest groups in the United States by population were Navajo, Cherokee, Choctaw, Sioux, Chippewa, Apache, Blackfeet, Iroquois, and Pueblo.
Native American tribes in the United States are typically divided into 8 distinct regions, within which tribes had some similarities across culture, language, religion, customs and politics.
Northwest Coast – Native Americans here had no need to farm as edible plants and animals were plentiful in the land and sea. They are known for their totem poles, canoes that could hold up to 50 people, and houses made of cedar planks.
California – Over 100 Native American tribes once lived there. They fished, hunted small game, and gathered acorns, which were pounded into a mushy meal.
The Plateau – The Plateau Native Americans lived in the area between Cascade Mountains and the Rocky Mountains. To protect themselves from the cold weather, many built homes that were partly underground.
The Great Basin – Stretching across Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, the Native Americans of the Great Basin had to endure a hot and dry climate and had to dig for a lot of their food. They were one of the last groups to have contact with Europeans.
The Southwest – The Natives of the Southwest created tiered homes made out of adobe bricks. Many of the tribes had skilled farmers, grew crops, and created irrigation canals. Famous tribes here include the Navajo Nation, the Apache, and the Pueblo Indians.
The Plains – The Great Plains Indians were known for hunting bison, buffalo and antelope, which provided abundant food. They were nomadic people who lived in teepees and they moved constantly following the herds.
Northeast – The Native Americans of the Northeast lived in an area rich in rivers and forests. Some groups were constantly on the move while others built permanent homes.
The Southeast – The majority of the Native American tribes here were skilled farmers and tended to stay in one place. The largest Native American tribe, the Cherokee, lived in the Southeast.
It is estimated that there were around one thousand languages spoken in the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans.
Today, there are approximately 296 indigenous languages across North America. 269 of them are grouped into 29 families, while the remaining 28 languages are isolates or unclassified.
None of the native languages of North America had a writing system. However, the spoken languages were neither primitive nor simple. Many had grammar systems as complex as those of Russian and Latin.
There was (and is) enormous variety between the languages. Individuals from clans or tribes just one hundred miles apart may have been completely unable to communicate by speech. Neighboring tribes often used a form of sign language to communicate with each other.
According to UNESCO, most of the indigenous languages in North America are critically endangered, and many are already extinct.
In the United States, the Navajo language is the most spoken Native American language, with more than 200,000 speakers in the Southwestern United States.
Only 8 Native American languages in the United States have a population of speakers large enough to populate a medium-sized town. These are Navajo, Cree, Ojibwa, Cherokee, Dakota, Apache, Blackfoot and Choctaw.
Less than 20 Native American languages in the United States are projected to survive another 100 years.