• Notes From The Frontier

Today’s Largest Indian Tribes

Imagine this: An entire continent—from one vast ocean to the other—in its natural state: valleys to rolling hills, swamps to mountains, prairies to deserts. No concrete cities, no concrete superhighways, only dirt paths worn by moccasins. No steel bridges, rivers free-flowing, steams winding on their own will, finding their meandering path as they will. And on these rivers and streams, prairies and marshlands, even deserts, indigenous people lived for thousands of years. For ten thousands of years. Blending into the land as naturally as its flora and fauna.

The land was so vast and abundant that these people flourished and multiplied. They developed elaborate religions and cultures and spectacular dress, all inspired from the land and the animals with which they shared the earth. All across the land the native people lived and divided into more than 650 tribes with nearly as many languages and cultures. These people numbered in the many millions. Historians and scientists today think their populations numbered between 10-100 million people. (Modern research continues to increase the estimated numbers.)

But when white Europeans came to the New World, the Natives were pushed from their land, the game they relied upon for food was destroyed, disease and war decimated their civilizations. By 1800, their numbers across the continent were reduced to about 600,000. By 1900, those numbers were only 250,000. It was the largest and most sustained genocide in human history. And it happened on our own continent.

But, today, Native populations are rebounding, as are their sense of identity, cultures and global recognition. According the 2010 the total population that identified as full or part Native had grown 27% from 2000 to 2010, which exceeded the national average. The Cherokee Nation was, by far, the largest tribe with over an 819,000 population. Navajo were second at 332,000. The next six tribes in size were the Choctaw, Mexican American Indian, Chippewa (also known as Ojibwe), Sioux, Apache, and Blackfeet, all with populations between 100,000 and 200,000. (See graph of 25 Largest Tribal Groups in the U.S.)

At its height, the Cherokee Nation had a huge range, from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River, and from the Ohio River to the Piedmont of present-day Georgia and Alabama, an estimated area of 100,000 square miles. By the time of the first European epidemic (1697) there may have been more than 50,000 members of the tribe. As they watched the English and later, the American society grow, their society dwindled, as did their land. After the 1738 smallpox epidemic it is possible that the Cherokee Nation had fallen to a total population of 7,000 to 10,000. After that, the next 100 years, they began to rebound slightly. By the time of the Cherokee Removal in the 1830's and the Trail of Tears, their population estimates were perhaps 20,000, with most of them tribal members in northern Georgia and northern Alabama. Today the majority of Cherokee live in Oklahoma where they had been "relocated" in the 1830s.

The Cherokee were considered one of the “Five Civilized Tribes” by whites. The other four were the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek (also called Muscogee), and Seminole. These were the first five tribes that early Colonists considered “civilized,” mostly because these tribes tried to maintain stable political relations and peace with early Europeans. They even adopted, to some extent, Christianity, literary, active trading, centralized government, and written constitutions. They also intermarried with whites, which no doubt helped their standing among Europeans settlers. It’s interesting to note that all five tribes remain in the 25 largest tribal populations today.

Today there are now 573 federally recognized tribes. A shocking number of tribes did not survive the gauntlet of white expansion and settlement and some no longer have any living descendants. (More on this topic in a future post.) Our continent is full of ghosts of lost Native civilizations. And it is likely that, on the very lands most of us live today, Native Americans trod for thousands of years in the past. Luckily, many tribes have survived the most brutal tests of time and tyranny. They are now coming back to celebrate and perpetuate again their cultures and traditions as they did for thousands of years.

Other posts you might like:

- Native Americans: Back from the Brink


-The Vanishing Race


-Kill the Indian, Save the Man


-The Mystery of Missing & Murdered Native Women



  • Notes From the Frontier