(January 2004) Providing an overview of American Indians and Alaska Natives* is difficult because it is such a diverse population and the complexities of past and current native life-ways and social customs are so vast. As a result, this overview will only touch on a few aspects of America’s First Nations.

There are 558 federally recognized tribes with historical roots that stretch from the wilds of Alaska to the swamps of southern Florida. Some indigenous groups developed major centers of civilization while others were nomads. Native cultures often had different life-ways, languages, and religious belief systems. While American Indians are often associated with tribal reservations, significant numbers live in urban America.

Over the past 500 years, the indigenous people of North America have suffered from the loss of their land and culture, including the loss of many indigenous languages and other cultural elements. Changes over the past 500 years have resulted in a breakdown in many of their tribal systems, families, and communities compared to what existed before European contact. Military attacks, the devastating effects of diseases brought by Europeans, the intrusion of boarding schools and missions, and adoption and foster-care practices that separated children from their tribe and families all added to the ruin of many individual Indians, cultures, and customs. It is not surprising, therefore, that Americans Indians suffer the highest rates of most social problems in the United States.

From the time of contact to the turn of the 20th century, these once large and flourishing American Indian communities and settlements reached a population low of about 250,000 in 1900. But in spite of the continued threats to their well-being, the population has grown significantly during the 20th century. In many places Indian people, communities, and cultures are now thriving, reflecting the great resiliency of this populace.

In Census 2000, respondents were allowed to mark more than one race for the first time, and this new convention for identifying race had a major impact on identifying American Indian and Alaska Native children. In Census 2000, there were 1.4 million children (under age 18) identifying as American Indian either alone or in combination with some other race. This amounts to about 1.9 percent of all children. On the other hand, there were about 840,000 who marked only American Indian or Alaska Native — 1.1 percent of the child population.

While American Indians can be found throughout American society, the following patterns emerge: The American Indian and Alaska Native population is relatively young, with a median age of 28 years; and they have comparatively large families (see table). American Indians and Alaska Natives have lower median incomes than the general population, but they need to provide for a proportionately larger pool of dependent youths and children. Furthermore, the high school dropout rate for American Indians is much higher than average and they experience a much higher rate of child poverty than is the case in the general population.


  American Indian/

Alaska Native alone
Total U.S. Population
Median age (in years) 28.0 35.3
Population younger than 18 (percent) 33.9 25.7
Average family size 3.6 3.1

The American Indian/Alaska Native population spans a highly diverse array of tribes spread throughout the United States, but most of the population resides west of the Mississippi River. While the prominent image of American Indians depicts people living in remote Indian reservations, about 60 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives actually live in America’s urban areas. Due to the U.S. relocation polices of the 1950s, many American Indian and Alaska Natives are born and raised off reservations. Also, many American Indian and Alaska Natives move between their reservations and urban areas primarily because there are more employment opportunities in urban areas. Even so, the success of some tribal casinos has brought many needed jobs and other resources to the areas surrounding reservations, thereby enabling numerous American Indians to remain in their native communities.

American Indians and Alaska Natives are the only racial/ethnic group that has a special legal and jurisdictional relationship with the U.S. government granted via treaties, contracts, and agreements. For example, to address the concern that American Indian children were typically placed in non-Indian homes and raised as non-Indians, the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 was enacted to protect the heritage rights of these children and to encourage the cultural integrity of tribes by stipulating that American Indian children remain in their own families and within their own tribes. Treaties have provided American Indians and Alaska Natives with guarantees for health care and education. Indian Health Services and tribally run health centers provide health care services, and numerous types of educational systems are available, such as those provided through tribal contract schools, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and private mission schools. However, most American Indian youths are enrolled in public schools throughout the United States.

While Americans Indians often have the highest rates of various negative outcomes, it is important to underscore the continuing strength of the descendants who have survived over the past 500 years. Their population has rebounded in substantial ways: Life expectancy has increased significantly and population size has risen dramatically. Although some native languages have been lost, many tribal communities are undertaking language and culture revitalization efforts. In First Nation cultures, the elders and children play pivotal roles. The wisdom of the elders combined with the energy of the young allow these resilient people to look toward the 21st century with much promise.

Note: *The terms American Indian and Alaska Native, American Indian/Alaska Native, American Indian, Native, Native American, Indian, and First Nations are used interchangeably to refer to the indigenous people of the United States.

Angela A.A. Willeto is a sociology professor and Charlotte Goodluck is a social work professor in the department of sociology and social work at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. They are both enrolled members of the Navajo Nation. Among their publications are Native American Children and Youth Well-Being Indicators: A Strengths Perspective (Seattle: Casey Family Programs and National Indian Child Welfare Association, 2002) and Native American Kids 2002: Indian Children’s Well-Being Indicators Data Book for 13 States (Seattle: Casey Family Programs and National Indian Child Welfare Association, 2002).

This article is excerpted from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT Pocket Guide “American-Indian Children: State-Level Measures of Child Well-Being From the 2000 Census,” to be published in February 2004. The full text of this publication will be on the foundation’s KIDS COUNT website: www.kidscount.org.