94 Interesting Facts about Native Americans

By Karin Lehnardt, Senior Writer
Published September 15, 2016Updated October 6, 2016
  • The term “Native American” does not usually refer to Native Hawaiians or Alaskan Natives, such as Aleut, Yup’ik, or Inuit peoples.[1]
  • Most indigenous people in the U.S. use “American Indian,” while most indigenous people in Canada use “First Nations.” “Native Americans” or “indigenous Americans” are often used for people in both countries.[2]
  • Ishi (c. 1860–1916) is widely known as the “last wild Indian” in America. He lived most of his life outside modern culture after his tribe, the Yahi (of the Yana group) became extinct in the late 1800s because of the California Gold Rush. He lived alone in the wilderness after his family died. In 1911, starving and with nowhere to go, he walked out of the wilderness into the town of Oroville, where he would be later studied by anthropologists.[14]
  • The Sequoia tree is named in honor of the Cherokee leader Sequoyah, who helped his people develop an alphabet.[14]
  • Even though more than 500 years have passed, the native people of the Americas are still often referred to as “Indians”
  • The term “Indian” originated with Christopher Columbus who thought he had landed in the East Indies. He called the indigenous people “Indians.”[4]
  • Native Americans and First Nations people speaking a language of the Algonquian group were the first to meet English explorers and, consequently, many words from these languages entered English—for example, caribou (“snow-shoveler”), chipmunk (“red squirrel”), moccasin, moose, muskrat, opossum (“white dog”), papoose (“baby”), pecan (“nut”), powwow (“to dream, to have a vision”), raccoon, skunk (“to urinate” + “fox”), squaw, toboggan, totem, wigwam, and woodchuck.[10]
  • The word “avocado” is Nahuatl, a Central Mexican/Aztec Indian language, for “testicle.”[10]
  • Half of the names of U.S. states are derived from Amerindian words, such as Arizona, Connecticut, Kentucky, and Missouri.[15]
  • Many Native American words have entered the English language, such as chia, chili, chocolate, coyote, guacamole, mesquite, peyote, shack, tamale, tomato, abalone, bayou, cannibal, Chinook, manatee, poncho, and potato.[10]
  • The word “barbecue” is from the Arawakan Indian language meaning “framework of sticks.”[10]
  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that Native Americans derive from the Middle East and were Jewish in origin. Native Americans are referred to as “Laminates” in their scripture called The Book of Mormon.[11]
  • The Indian Citizenship Act (Snyder Act) of 1924 granted full U.S. citizenship to America’s indigenous peoples. It was enacted in part due to the recognition of thousands of Native Americans who served in WWI.[15]
  • Native Americans have been living on the American continent since about 12,000 B.C. They were not a single nation but a rich variety of cultures, peoples, and languages. Some historians believe people have been living in South America for more than 30,000 years.[2]
  • In the early 1600s, five tribes who were former enemies formed the Iroquois Confederacy. An all-male council who was elected for life made decisions; however, women had the right to fire any councilor.[15]
  • Many Native American tribes consider the eagle to be sacred
  • Benjamin Franklin, coauthor of the Constitution, thought the idea of a government like the Iroquois Confederacy could be used by the English colonies. The eagle on the U.S. shield is the Iroquois bald eagle—also a symbol for the Iroquois.[14]
  • The word “Sioux” was adopted by French explorers who picked it up from the Chippewa tribe. “Sioux” is the Chippewa word for “enemy,” who actually were the Lakota people. So the Sioux are actually the Lakota, a name that means, “Where the people of peace dwell.”[14]
  • The Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole tribes were called the “Five Civilized Tribes” by early white settlers. They were considered more civilized because of the similarities between their cultures and those of the Europeans, such as planned villages and farms—and some Native Americans were wealthy enough to even own slaves.[14]
  • Utah is named after the Utes, a people who lived on the edge of the Plains and the Great Basin. Oklahoma is from the Choctaw okla homma, which means “red people.”[14]
  • In both the U.S. and Canada, governments sought to eradicate Native cultures and identities both militarily and through the aggressive assimilation regimes of boarding schools.[2]
  • The Nez Perce people helped Lewis and Clark explore the Northwest Territory. They built canoes for them, drew maps of the rivers, and helped them reach the Pacific.[14]
  • Sacagawea (1788–1812) was a Lemhi Shoshone woman who helped the Lewis and Clark expedition as an interpreter and a guide. She traveled thousands of miles with them from North Dakota to the Pacific Ocean between 1804 and 1806.[4]
  • Some of the Plains tribes built scaffolding or used trees to hold a dead body above ground to protect it from wild animals while it decayed. The Huron people placed the dead body in a coffin and kept it above the ground on poles for up to 12 years before the bones were buried.[14]
  • Native Americans would use porcupine hairs to make hairbrushes. Sometimes a stick was cut into the right shape and frayed at the edges to make a toothbrush.[14]
  • The Iroquois called maize, beans, and squash the “three sisters.” They were so important as sources of food that they were thought of as female sprits.[14]
  • "Mohawk" means "man-eaters"
  • The Mohawk hairstyle is named after the Mohawks, one of the tribes that made up the Iroquois nation. The Mohawk people also liked to keep one side of their scalp cleanly shaven while the other side was painted a bright color.[14]
  • The elaborate eagle-feather headdress of the Lakota (Sioux), which reached from head to toe, could be worn only by a warrior who had proven his courage in battle. Eagle feathers were high prized because they were thought to be full of spiritual power.[14]
  • Some papooses (originally an Algonquian word) were built with sharp, projecting points so that if a papoose fell off while the mother was riding a horse, the points would stick in the ground and protect the baby.[14]
  • A pregnant Iroquois woman would stop eating turtles so that her baby would not grow up clumsy on land, like a turtle. In Navajo communities, pregnant women would untie their braided hair and free animals like horses in hopes of creating free passage and safe birth for the baby.[14]
  • When a Plains man killed his first buffalo, he would be given the tastiest part, the tongue. He was expected to decline the offer, however, and instead share it with his friends as a mark of generosity.[14]
  • The Iroquois celebrated a winter festival similar to trick-or-treating. A small group of teenagers were led singing and dancing around the village by an older woman. They stopped outside people’s houses and waited for presents to be brought out to them.[14]
  • Some Native Americans created a “Cry Shed,” which was built of earth and represented the troubles and wishes of the community. It was set on fire, and as it burned, it was believed misfortunes were blown away on the wind and hopes were carried to the spirit world.[14]
  • Probably the most painful Native American ceremony was the Sun Dance of the Plains people. This involved dancers having skewers implanted in their chest muscles and being attached by rope to the sacred cottonwood tree. In return for their pain, they hoped for a plentiful supply of buffalo.[1]
  • The Green Corn ceremony is a harvest thanksgiving ceremony that took place, and still does, among Native Americans in the Southeast and Northeast. Thirty or more people dance in pairs, give thanks to the spirits, and then eat a large feast.[1]
  • Totem poles often depict animals that are special to the family
  • Native Americans of the Northwest like the Haida built totem poles as tall as 40 feet outside their homes to advertise their families’ status. The pole would usually depict animals or birds that were special to the family. Totem poles were also built as a memorial to a family’s ancestors. Christians mistakenly thought that totem poles were statues of the gods.[14]
  • Sand paintings are grains of colored sand that are painstakingly positioned to form a complicated design of geometric shapes and symbols. The most famous paintings are the sand paintings of the Southwestern Native Americans, such as the Navajo. They view the paintings as spiritual, living beings to be treated with respect.[14]
  • Warriors of most Plains tribes thought that being able to touch an enemy during a raid without being touched in return was a great honor. This was known as a “coup” and was regarded more highly than actually injuring the enemy or even stealing his horse.[14]
  • Approximately 22% of America’s 5.2 million Native Americans live on tribal lands.[8]
  • Approximately 28.2% of American Indians are living below the federal poverty line.[8]
  • The average life expectancy for Native Americans trails other Americans by almost five years.[8]
  • Approximately 36% of Native peoples with heart disease will die before age 65 compared to 15% of Caucasians.[8]
  • Americans Indians are 177% more likely to die from diabetes than non-Natives. About 500% are more likely to die from tuberculosis, and 82% are more likely to die from suicide.[8]
  • Native American infant mortality rates are 60% higher than for Caucasians.[8]
  • Many Native American women were sharpshooters and able horsewomen.[14]
  • Early settlers of the Americas had hunted horses to extinction thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. The reintroduction of horses by the Europeans dramatically influenced the American Indian culture. They used the horse for travel, hunting, and warfare.[14]
  • Even though they were not citizens, over 8,000 Native Americans served during WWI.[4]
  • Native American "code talkers" helped turn the tide of the war
  • Over 24,000 Native Americans served during WWII. One of the most notable groups was the Navajo Code Talkers, who were a special group of volunteers who created an unbreakable secret code.[4]
  • The U.S. army was defeated by a combined force of Lakota (Sioux), Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors at the Battle of Little Big Horn (Custer’s Last Stand). The Native Americans were resisting government demands to move to reservations.[14]
  • The last major battle between Native American Indians and the U.S. government occurred in 1890 at the Battle of Wounded Knee near the Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. An estimated 300 Sioux Indians were killed.[14]
  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the largest tribal groups in the U.S are the Cherokee, Navajo, Chippewa (Ojibwa), Apache, Choctaw, Iroquois, Lumbee, Pueblo, and Sioux (Lakota).[3]
  • There are about 4.5 million people of Native American and Alaska Native heritage in the U.S. This group makes up about 1.5% of the U.S. population.[3]
  • Most scientists believe that the ancestors of today’s Native Americans migrated from Asia to North America. It is purported that as many as 20,000 years ago, they walked across a land bridge that existed at today’s Bering Strait.[16]
  • The first contact between Native Americans and European people occurred in the 11th century when Norse seafarers encountered indigenous people along the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. The Vikings called the Native American people skraeling, which means “barbarian” or ‘foreigner.’[9]
  • Europeans introduced several new and fatal diseases to the Native Americans. The most well-known disease was small pox, which decimated the Native Americans. Others killers included cholera and measles.[9]
  • Lacrosse received its name from the shape of the sticks originally used by Native American players
  • Lacrosse was first played by people of the Southeast, especially the Choctaw. French settlers thought the stick looked like a Bishop’s crosier (hooked staff), so when they introduced it to Europe, they called it La Crosse, which became lacrosse.[14]
  • The U.S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830 that forced American Indians tribes to agree to cede land east of the Mississippi River. In 1838, the U.S. military forced the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole Indians to walk from Georgia to Louisiana, which has become known as the “Trail of Tears.” Thousands of those who walked died from disease, starvation, and exposure to bitterly cold weather.[2]
  • The Ghost Dance was a late addition to Native American belief systems, appearing around 1890. It was believed that the ritual dance would help restore the old way of life before the arrival of the Europeans. The dance promised the return of the buffalo and communication with the spirits of the dead. Although the Ghost Dance was peaceful, army authorities outlawed its performance.[14]
  • The top ten leading causes of death for Native Americans and Alaska Natives in 2010 were 1) cancer, 2) heart disease, 3) unintentional injuries, 4) diabetes, 5) chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, 6) chronic lower respiratory diseases, 7) stroke, 8) suicide, 9) nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis, and 10) influenza and pneumonia).[3]
  • When Christopher Columbus reached the New World in 1492, there were between 2-18 million Native Americans living there. By 1900, conflict and disease reduced the population to about 250,000 in the U.S and 100,000 in Canada.[9]
  • There are 566 federally recognized Native American tribes, in addition to an unknown number of tribes that are not federally recognized.[3]
  • The projected U.S. population of American Indians and Alaska Natives for July 1, 2060, is estimated to be 11.2 million, which will make up about 2.7% of the U.S population.[3]
  • As of 2013, there were 14 states with more than 100,000 American Indian and Alaska Native Residents: California, Oklahoma, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, Washington, New York, North Carolina, Florida, Alaska, Michigan, Oregon, Colorado, and Minnesota.[3]
  • In 2013, the states with the highest percentage of American Indian and Alaska Native population were Alaska (14.3%), Oklahoma (7.5%), New Mexico (9.1%), South Dakota (8.5%), and Montana (6.8%).[3]
  • The number of suicides of young Native Americans is more than 3 times the national average and up to 10 times the average on some reservations. Researchers note that several factors contribute to the high rate, including poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, sexual assault, alcoholism, and drug addiction.[7]
  • Native American young adults are twice as likely as any other ethnic group to die before the age of 24.[7]
  • Approximately 28.2% of American Indians are living below the federal poverty line
  • One quarter of Native American children live in poverty, compared to 13% in the United States. Native American teens graduate high school at a rate 17% lower than the national average while substance-abuse rates are higher.[7]
  • Over 75% of residents on Indian reservations in the U.S. are non-Indians.[6]
  • A young girl born on an Indian reservation has a 1 in 3 chance or higher that she will be abused during the course of her life. Native women experience the highest rates of assault of any group in the United States. This is partly because of complex jurisdiction laws of non-Native Americans who persecute Native women on tribal lands.[6]
  • The Battle of Kelley Creek, also known as Last Massacre, is considered to be one of the last known massacres between Native Americans and forces of the United States and a closing event of the American Indian warfare era. In 1911, a small group of Shoshones and Bannocks killed four investigative agents on a ranch.[14]
  • “Geronimo” (1829–1909) means “one who yawns.” He helped the Apache defend their land against the encroachment of the U.S. on their tribal lands for over 25 years.[14]
  • Sitting Bull (1831–1890) is one of the most famous Native Americans in history. He was a Hunkpapa Lakota medicine man who became famous for his major victory at the Battle of Little Bighorn. He later became friends with Annie Oakley, calling her “Little Sure Shot.”[14]
  • Pocahontas (c. 1595–1617) was born Matoaka and was also known as Amonute. The name “Pocahontas” (meaning “the naughty one” or “spoiled child”) was a childhood nickname that referred to her frolicsome nature. In her last days, she went by Rebecca Rolfe. The marriage between John Rolfe and Pocahontas was the first recorded interracial marriage in American history.[14]
  • Several First Families in Virginia trace their roots to Pocahontas, such as Edith Wilson (wife of Woodrow Wilson) and Nancy Reagan.[14]
  • The average African-American genome is 73.2% African, 24% European, and 0.8% Native American. Latinos have an average of 18% Native American ancestry, 65.1% European ancestry, and 6.2% African ancestry.[16]
  • Cher is one of many celebrities claiming to have Native American ancestry
  • Many celebrities claim to have Native American ancestry, including Cher, Anthony Quinn, Ava Gardner, James Earl Jones, Lou Diamond Phillips, Anne Hathaway, Megan Fox, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Billy Bob Thornton, Bob Barker, Burt Reynolds, Johnny Depp, Rosa Parks, Kevin Costner, Whitney Houston, Dolly Parton, Ludacris, Jimi Hendrix, the Jonas Brothers, Elvis Presley, and Oprah Winfrey.[5]
  • Elizabeth Warren, a U.S. senator, claimed minority statues during law school, insisting she is 1/32 Native American.[13]
  • Linguist Joseph Greensburg studied over 1,500 American Indian languages. He claimed that all could be placed into one of three groups. His work, plus studies done on blood types and teeth, suggests that there were three separate migrations from Asia into the Americas.[9]
  • Native Americans are more likely to be overweight or obese than their white, non-Hispanic counterparts.[8]
  • “Alabama” is from the Alibamu, the name of the Muskogean tribe, meaning “those who clear land for agricultural purposes.”[12]
  • “Arizona” is from the Papago word airzonac, which means “small springs.”[12]
  • “Arkansas” is from the Quapaw, also known as the Akansea, a tribe whose name means “downstream people.”[12]
  • “Dakota” is the tribal name of the Sioux, meaning “allies.”[12]
  • “Illinois” is the French spelling of the term iliniwok, which means “superior men” or “warriors” in the Illinois and Peoria languages and is the name of the confederacy of the Algonquian tribes.[12]
  • “Iowa” is the name of a Native American tribe meaning “sleepy ones.”[12]
  • “Massachusetts” is the name of an Algonquian tribe meaning “at or about the great hill.”[12]
  • "Kentucky" is one of the nearly half of U.S. states' names derived from Amerindian words
  • “Kentucky” is believed to be derived from the Native American word kenta, meaning “field” or “meadow.”[12]
  • “Michigan” is from the Native American word michigamea, meaning “great water.”[12]
  • “Mississippi” is from the Algonquian word misi, meaning “great,” and sipi, meaning “water.”[12]
  • “Minnesota” is a Dakota word meaning “whitish or sky-tinted water.”[12]
  • “Missouri” is from the name of a Native American tribe meaning “great muddy,” which refers to the Missouri River.[12]
  • “Ohio” is an Iroquois word meaning “beautiful river.”[12]
  • “Texas” is the name of a group of Native American tribes meaning “friends” or “allies.”[12]
  • The Native language origin of “Wisconsin” (the name of a group of tribes living on the Wisconsin River) is now obscure, but one theory holds it comes from the Miami word meskonsing, meaning “it lies red” and another says it originates from an Ojibwa word meaning “red stone place.”[12]
  • “New Mexico” is derived from the name of an Aztec god, Meritili.[12]
  • Sites of Native American villages became trading posts, and then forts or villages, and later major cities—for example, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Pocatello, and many others.[12]

1 Barnes, Ian. The Historical Atlas of Native Americans. Edison, NJ: Chartwell Books, Inc, 2009.

2 Brandon, William. The Rise and Fall of North American Indians: From Prehistory through Geronimo. New York, NY: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2003.

3Health of American Indian or Alaska Native Population.” CDC. Updated February 3, 2015. Accessed: March 25, 2015.

4 Hirschfelder, Arlene. Native Americans: A History in Pictures. New York, NY: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc, 2000.

5 Horne, Jeffrey. “Native American Celebrities!” IMDB. Updated April 24, 2013. Accessed: March 25, 2015.

6 Horwitz, Sari. “New Law Offers Protection to Abused Native American Women.” The Washington Post. February 8, 2014. Accessed: March 25, 2015.

7 Horwitz, Sari. “The Hard Lives—and High Suicide Rate—of Native American Children on Reservations.” The Washington Post. March 9, 2014. Accessed: March 25, 2015.

8Living Conditions.” Native American Aid. 2015. Accessed: March 25, 2015.

9 Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.

10More than Just Moccasins: American Indian Words in English.” Oxford Dictionaries. 2015. Accessed: March 25, 2015.

11Mormon Scientist Concedes Native American Origins.” Signature Books. 2015. Accessed: March 25, 2015.

12Native American Contributions.” Natural Resources Conservation Services. 2015. Accessed: March 31, 2015.

13 Palmer, Brian. “How Many People Are at Least 1/32 Native American?” Slate. 2015. Accessed: March 25, 2015.

14 Sheehan, Sean. Native Americans: Over 100 Questions and Answers to Things You Want to Know. Bath, UK: Parragon Publishing Book, 2000.

15 Sundling, Charles W. Native Americans of the Frontier. Edina, MN: ABDO Publishing Company, 2000.

16 Wade, Lizzie. “Genetic Study Reveals Surprising Ancestry of Many Americans.” Science. December 18, 2014. Accessed: March 25, 2015.