Native Americans - Past, Present and Future

When settlers first came to the Americas, Native Americans comprised 100 percent of the population here. Today, they account for roughly one percent of the total population. This drop in proportion of the population is due to territorial conflicts, disease and re-settlement, combined with the rapid growth of other population groups. Currently, remaining Native American areas of population density lie within federally designated reservations. Alaska and Hawaii are the only two states in the US that have not pursued a policy with Native Americans that sought to restrict them to the confines of reservations.

Most Native American cultures were comprised of what are now referred to as "nations" or "confederacies". Larger groups of natives with similar geographic ranges and lifestyles generally came together to form nations, with more specific denominations created in some instances. For example, the Iroquois were technically classified as a nation or a confederacy in European terms, however they also broke into five unique nations as well. The cultural heritage of Native Americans is truly diverse, with unique belief systems and languages being used by each individual nation. These differences led to both unity and division within native communities long before the arrival of white settlers.

Today, much of that cultural heritage is lost. The US policy of "Indian Removal" fragmented whole tribes and nations, placing them in land with little agricultural value which they were not accustomed to. Native children were forced out of their homes and placed into boarding schools created specifically for them. In these schools, children were forced to speak English and were punished for practicing their traditional spiritual beliefs. This effectively destroyed most of the oral history surrounding Native Americans, eliminating any chance at a substantive record being kept of their past. Most Native Americans live on reservations now, however they are naturalized citizens and are provided with the same constitutional rights as any other citizen

Economically, Native Americans have attained an uneven level of success across the nation. Some reservations exist in states with lax gaming laws, which has provided an opening for some native casinos to thrive. In Alaska, native peoples were not approached with the "reservation" mentality as was the case in the lower 48 states. There, natives are in control of "native corporations", which control immense tracts of land throughout the state. This land is essentially part of the state of Alaska, however these native corporations retain monies earned through the development of the resources of that land. These earnings are then distributed amongst the Native Americans that are part of the corporation. In other parts of the country, Native American communities have not been so fortunate.

The future of Native Americans is precarious. With much of their cultural heritage destroyed forever, many have completely abandoned their historical roots and have assimilated completely into American society. The population of Native Americans is steadily declining, with their numbers dwindling on every census taken over the past fifty years. Young Native Americans move out of reservations in larger numbers every year. These young natives are the minority in any community they enter outside of a reservation, and they often marry non-native people.

In response to the issues facing Native American heritage, economic prosperity, and health, a number of government programs have been put in place to level the playing field for people of native descent. These range from grant programs for cultural programs to education trusts for Native American students. These programs have significantly improved the numbers of Native American students that complete college, and have in a sense contributed to the economic advancement of those students. The overall efficacy and full value of these education programs, however, will not truly be understood for quite some time.