Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Encyclopedia of Social Work. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 28 June 2022

Native Americans Overviewfree

Native Americans Overviewfree

  • Hilary N. WeaverHilary N. WeaverUniversity at Buffalo, State University of New York


First Nations Peoples, the original inhabitants of what is now the United States, are a diverse and growing population. There are approximately 5.2 million First Nations Peoples within the boundaries of the United States. First Nations Peoples tend to be younger, poorer, and less educated than others in the United States. The contemporary issues faced by these Peoples are intimately intertwined with the history of colonization and federal policies that perpetuate dependency and undermine self-determination. Social workers must overcome the negative history of their profession with First Nations Peoples, in particular social work involvement in extensive child removals and coercive sterilization of Indigenous women. Social workers have the power and ability to make important differences in enhancing the social, economic, and health status of First Nations Peoples, but this must begin with an awareness of their own attitudes and beliefs, as well as an awareness of how social workers have contributed to, rather than worked to alleviate, the problems of First Nations Peoples.


  • Macro Practice
  • Populations and Practice Settings
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Culture

Updated in this version

Content and references updated for the Encyclopedia of Macro Social Work.

First Nations Peoples, also known as Native Americans, American Indians, and Indigenous Peoples, are the original inhabitants of what is now the United States. Indeed, Indigenous people are found throughout the world and some of their territories straddle international borders. For example, the Akwesasne Mohawk Reservation is partly within the United States and partly within Canada. This article focuses on First Nations Peoples within the United States, but it is important to keep in mind that Indigenous Peoples transcend national divisions.


There is no consensus as to which of the many terms that refer to Indigenous Peoples is best, but individuals often have clear preferences (Weaver, 2005). Additionally, there are regional differences as to commonly used terms. For example, the term American Indian is in common use in the Southwest and is the label generally used by the federal government, while the term Native American is more commonly used in the Northeast. The term First Nations, commonly used in Canada and increasingly prominent in the United States, is often associated with a strong sense of sovereignty and Indigenous nationhood. Given that all these terms group hundreds of diverse Peoples together, it is generally preferable to use more specific terms for particular tribes or nations such as Comanche, Seminole, or Odawa, whenever possible.

An individual's right to choose the term that is most comfortable for them is closely tied with cultural identity. This being the case, it is imperative that social workers accept and use terms that clients prefer. Throughout the history of contact with Europeans, First Nations Peoples have had terms imposed upon them. For example, the Ni Mii Puu were named Nez Perce by interpreters from the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1805 (Nez Perce Nation, 2007). This imposed term is the one most often used by those outside that nation today, thus continuing to undermine the inherent right to self-name and have identity respected. While many Native Nations have asserted their right to be called by their own names, this is typically not respected by federal entities such as the U.S. Census Bureau, which still uses terms that some Indigenous people find offensive, such as “Sioux.” In the discussions of Census data that follow, the terms used by the Census Bureau are presented initially to preserve accuracy, but are followed with more respectful terms.

An Overview of First Nations People

At the time of the 2010 Census, 5.2 million people (1.7% of the U.S. population) reported they were American Indian or Alaska Native (Norris et al., 2012). The largest Indigenous groups identified in the Census were Cherokee (819,105), Navajo (332,129; also known as Dine), Choctaw (195,764), Chippewa (170,742; also known as Anishinabe), Sioux (170,110; also known as the three interrelated groups Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota), and Apache (111,810). The largest Alaska Native group is the Yup’ik (33,889; Norris et al., 2012). Alaska is the state with the highest percentage of Indigenous people (27.9%), followed by Oklahoma (17.4%), New Mexico (14.5%), South Dakota (12%), and Montana (9.2%; NCAI, 2020).

First Nations (aka tribes) retain elements of sovereignty, including the right to determine criteria for citizenship (aka enrollment). Since each First Nation sets their own requirements for tribal membership there is significant variation across nations and many Indigenous people do not qualify for citizenship. For more information on Indigenous citizenship see Ratterjee and Hill (2017) and Forte (2013).

As nations, First Nations Peoples have their own systems of governance, education, social services, and legal systems that vary in structure and complexity across groups. As of 2021, there are 574 federally recognized First Nations in the United States, with territories comprising approximately 100 million acres. When taken collectively, Indigenous territories, often colloquially referred to as Indian Country, are larger than all but three of the states in the United States (Leichenko, 2018). Based on the ongoing government-to-government relationship between the United States and the tribal nations within its borders, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security works with tribal nations and it updated its tribal consultation policy in 2020 in recognition that “Indian Tribes exercise inherent sovereign powers over their members and territories” (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2020).

Native Americans have full right to participation as citizens of the United States. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2008) affirms that Indigenous Peoples have the right to participate in both Indigenous self-governance and be citizens of surrounding settler states. Some First Nations Peoples, however, see participation in U.S. systems (such as voting, jury duty, and participation in the Census) as inappropriate, a violation of traditional teachings such as the Two Row Wampum of the Haudenosaunee, and as something that undermines Indigenous sovereignty. The Two Row Wampum documents an understanding that while Native Americans and members of the settler society travel down the river of life together, they are in separate boats. It would be wrong for people in one boat to try to steer the other and vice versa. Based on this traditional understanding, Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team members travel with Haudenosaunee passports rather than United States or Canadian passports, although this has led to match forfeiture when they have been denied the ability to travel.

Indigenous people are a young and growing population in the United States. As of 2018, 20% are under 18 and 13.5% are age 62 or older (U.S. Census Bureau, 2018). Native Americans experience significant health disparities rooted in economic adversity and poor social conditions, leading to a life expectancy that is 5.5 years less than the overall U.S. population (Indian Health Service, 2020). Although speaking English is common, 27.6% of Native Americans speak a language other than English at home (U.S. Census Bureau, 2018).

Overall, Native Americans have the highest poverty rate in the United States at 23.7% compared to 9.5% for non-Hispanic White Americans (U.S. Census Bureau, 2018), although this varies substantially among Native people. In Minneapolis, MN, and Rapid City, SD, the poverty rate for Indigenous people exceeded 48% between 2007 and 2011 (Davis et al., 2016). Likewise, between 2008 and 2012, Gila River, Rosebud, Standing Rock, Spirit Lake, and Pine Ridge Reservations all had poverty rates over 50%, reflecting long-standing patterns of systematic disadvantage (Davis et al., 2016).

Many Native Americans are affected by the digital divide, only 73.1% have access to broadband internet service (U.S. Census Bureau, 2018). Adequate internet access is particularly problematic in remote areas. In Arizona, 95% of people residing on tribal land have either unserved or underserved telecommunication infrastructure needs (AIPI, 2020). Many depend on public spaces to access the Internet and when these spaces are unavailable, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic, many Native Americans were left without consistent internet access, further limiting educational and employment opportunities.

First Nations Peoples tend to have lower educational attainment than other people in the United States. As per the American Community Survey conducted by the Census Bureau in 2018, 80.8% of First Nations Peoples age 25 and older had at least a high school degree and 15.2% had a bachelor’s degree or higher. This compares with a 93.1% high school graduation rate and 36.3% college graduation rate for non-Hispanic White Americans (U.S. Census Bureau, 2018).

The majority of First Nations Peoples no longer live on land that is under the control of their nations, and this has been the case for decades. In 2010, 78% of First Nations Peoples lived outside of reservations or trust lands (Norris et al., 2012). The Indigenous population that lives on reservations tends to be younger, poorer, and less educated than their urban counterparts.


While the history of each Indigenous group varies, there are aspects of history common across most First Nations groups. Six key areas that roughly correspond to sequential historical eras are discussed here: the establishment of treaties, genocide, the reservation era, boarding schools, termination, and urban relocation.

When Europeans came to this continent they recognized the different First Nations groups as distinct sovereign nations (Cote, 2001). Treaties were established on a government-to-government basis, recognizing that nations such as the Cherokee and Onondaga were of equal stature with nations such as England and France. After the American Revolution, treaties were established between the United States and various Native Nations. The federal government reserved the power to make treaties exclusively for itself, thus affirming that individual states did not have standing to make legally binding agreements with First Nations Peoples (Venables, 2004). This government-to-government relationship continues today and, in most instances, unless specific legislation like Public Law 280 has been passed in a particular state, Native Nations are not subject to state jurisdiction. Public Law 280 is a controversial statute passed in 1953 that transferred criminal and civil jurisdiction over tribal lands from the federal government to six states and created an opportunity for other states to assume such jurisdiction (Tribal Court Clearinghouse, 2020).

Contact with Europeans brought campaigns of genocide and the spread of diseases that decimated Native populations. As the fledgling United States gained power, it waged wars against First Nations Peoples in order to take their lands and subsume them under the power of the United States. Ultimately, the wars perpetrated upon Indigenous Peoples and the spread of disease (both deliberate and unintentional) led to the annihilation of up to 99% of the Indigenous people in the United States (Stiffarm & Lane, 1992). The remnants of First Nations Peoples were relegated to reservations by the late 1800s (Venables, 2004).

Reservations were usually established on land considered undesirable by the people of the United States that may or may not have been a part of the traditional territories of the people placed there. For example, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 removed Southeastern tribes from their traditional lands to reservations in Oklahoma via a deadly journey now known as the Trail of Tears. Even these supposedly protected areas were encroached upon by White settlers and prospectors. The federal government took legal action to significantly reduce the size of some reservations followed by an allotment policy that allocated specific parcels of reservation land to nuclear families. The remaining “surplus” land was then opened to White settlement. Between 1887 and 1934, Native Americans lost nearly two-thirds of their land under the allotment policy (Winlow, 2013).

Once First Nations Peoples were relegated to ever-shrinking territories, the federal government increased its push for assimilation. This was tantamount to cultural genocide. The primary vehicle of this policy was a system of boarding schools with the slogan “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” This slogan reflected the belief that if Indigenous children were taken from their homes and communities they might be socialized into an American value system, thus no longer remaining culturally distinct (Tamburro & Tamburro, 2014). This educational system, which emphasized vocational skills and Christianity, was implemented after the U.S. Civil War and continued until the 1970s. In these institutions, generations of Native people had no non-institutional role models for parenting and were subjected to persistent physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, thus perpetuating widespread child abuse and neglect in subsequent generations.

By the 1950s, the federal government began to take different approaches to assimilate First Nations Peoples. Congress enacted legislation to terminate or legally end the existence of various Native Nations, thus extinguishing the reservation status of tribal lands and ending treaty rights for members of those nations (Kelly, 2010). At the same time the government began a major relocation program to move Native people from reservations to cities where, in theory, they were more likely to find employment (Miller, 2013). The relocation program resulted in the majority of Native people residing in urban areas, but training and job placement services were inadequate and did not take into account the loss of social support systems that Native people would experience when leaving their traditional homelands.

Key Issues

There are several key issues that social workers must consider when working with First Nations Peoples. Three that will be discussed here are diversity, sovereignty, and social or health status. These can be understood within a framework of trauma and resilience.


Extensive diversity exists among First Nations Peoples. While the federal government, as of 2021, recognizes 574 Native Nations, there are many others that are recognized under state law such as the Lumbee in North Carolina and Houma in Louisiana. Different Native Nations have different forms of government, social structures, languages, customs, and spiritual beliefs. Additionally, there is significant variance among people within a particular Native Nation and even within families. Some people are strongly grounded in their cultures and follow traditional ways, some strongly identify as being Indigenous but do not espouse traditional ways, still others express little connection to their cultures. A social worker must seek to understand not only tribally specific content, but also how a particular client experiences their cultural identity.


It is crucial for social workers to understand the concept of sovereignty. Because First Nations Peoples have always been recognized as members of distinct nations, they have a legal standing that is quite different from other ethnic or cultural groups in the United States. Native Nations often have their own legal, educational, and social service systems. This may open up a wealth of resources and services not available to non-Indigenous clients. It may also require additional protections that social workers must follow, such as in child welfare cases where a tribe has certain rights if a child is removed from their family. A fundamental understanding of sovereignty is necessary in order for a social worker to understand the policies and laws that apply specifically to First Nations Peoples (Cavalieri, 2013).

Social and Health Status

The restoration of the Menominee nation after they were legally terminated by the U.S. federal government provides a powerful example of sovereignty and nation-building. The activist group DRUMS (Determination of Rights and Unity for Menominee Shareholders), facilitated by social worker Ada Deer, took on the process of rebuilding the nation, including a thoughtful process of determining what type of government would best serve their needs (Weaver, 2019). Other First Nations have also examined their structures and processes. As members of sovereign nations, First Nations Peoples can develop their own models of governance based on Indigenous principles and values.

Native Americans experience a range of social and health disparities compared with much of the U.S. population. Violence, in its many forms, disproportionately affects Indigenous people. The violent crime victimization rate for Native Americans age 12 and older is two and a half times the national average while Native youth experience violent crime at up to 10 times the national average (AISC, 2015). Violence against Native women is also a significant issue, with 84.3% of American Indian and Alaska Native women experiencing violence and 56.1% experiencing sexual violence in their lifetime. Further, Native women have substantially less access to legal recourse and social services than non-Native women (NCAI, 2018; for a deeper understanding of jurisdictional issues for crimes against First Nations women, see NCAI, 2013).

First Nations Peoples suffer disproportionately from a variety of health problems. Death from heart disease occurs at a rate 1.3 times higher than the general population, diabetes occurs at a rate 3.2 times higher, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis occur at a rate of 4.6 times higher, and suicide occurs at a rate 1.7 times higher (Indian Health Service, 2020). Suicide rates for Native Americans are rising more quickly than for the general population. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10–24; two and a half times the rate for the general population (NICOA, 2019).

Historical or intergenerational trauma is increasingly recognized as a major concern for Native Americans. Indeed, traumatic experiences such as significant depopulation through violence and disease transmission, loss of land, and colonization are often conceptualized as at the root of many contemporary social and health disparities (Cavalieri, 2013). This trauma was compounded by forced assimilation through residential schools. Trauma is also a contemporary issue perpetuated by structural violence, discrimination, and inequities (for a deeper look at trauma and resilience see Weaver, 2019).

While the social and health statistics for First Nations Peoples are often very poor, it is important that social workers do not approach work with these populations from a deficit perspective. In fact, First Nations Peoples have displayed incredible strength and resilience, surviving colonization for more than 500 years. The fact that First Nations Peoples continue to exist as distinct Peoples is testament to their strength. In fact, culture itself can be a source of empowerment for many Native people.

Social and health concerns reflect systemic inequities and social determinants of health, not individual failures. For example, high rates of diabetes and obesity are directly related to inadequate access to traditional, nutritious, and fresh food options (Mihesuah & Hoover, 2019). Likewise, high rates of poverty and unemployment are exacerbated by systemic factors including discrimination. Attaining a college degree has much less of a positive impact on employment opportunities and earnings for First Nations Peoples than non-Indigenous people (Davis et al., 2016).

Systemic change is essential for enhancing the well-being of First Nations Peoples. Examples that highlight Indigenous resilience and ability to bring about macro-level change can be found in many arenas. For example, Indigenous communities in Alaska have established village-based networks of paraprofessionals that offer a variety of culturally congruent, basic services in remote communities. In a powerful assertion of sovereignty, the Swinomish Tribal Council in Washington State created their own licensing board to increase access to care for tribal members (Cladoosby, 2017). Many Native communities are striving for food sovereignty through a variety of initiatives such as seed saving, reclaiming traditional foods, and agricultural initiatives (for detailed descriptions see Mihesuah & Hoover, 2019).

Social Policy Issues

There are three major social policy issues discussed here that are critical for social workers to understand, all of which have their roots in the sovereignty of First Nations Peoples: the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA; 1978), the relationship of First Nations to the U.S. federal government, and economic development. Indeed, a law like ICWA is only possible because First Nations are legally distinct entities rather than ethnic groups.

The ICWA is a federal law that is binding on social workers, regardless of where they practice. ICWA was passed in response to the large numbers of Indigenous children separated from their families and communities through foster care and adoption. By the 1970s, 25–35% of First Nations children were in substitute care, with 85% of these placements being with non-Native families (Mannes, 1995). This led to massive disruption in the ability to transmit culture from generation to generation, thus threatening cultural continuity for many First Nations Peoples.

In response to this crisis, ICWA affirmed that Native Nations have a right to jurisdiction in any child welfare case where an “Indian child” (defined by law as a minor enrolled or eligible for enrollment in a federally recognized Native Nation) is being removed from home. A child welfare worker who recognizes there is a possibility of removing an “Indian child” from home must identify the child’s nation and contact that nation immediately. Many nations have websites that include contact information for their social service departments. Native Nations may choose to cede jurisdiction to a state or county department of social services, but a department of social services can never assert jurisdiction without the express permission of the child’s nation. Additionally, ICWA established a set of placement priorities for instances in which a child must be removed from home. Ideally, a child will be placed with the extended family. If this is not possible, the child can be placed with someone from his or her First Nation, any Native Nation, or any qualified foster or adoptive family, in that order. This set of placement preferences affirms that cultural continuity is in the best interest of the child and must be honored whenever possible.

It is important to note, however, that in spite of ICWA, significant numbers of Native American children continue to be removed and raised outside of Indigenous contexts. For example, Native American status offenders who could be afforded protection under ICWA are removed from their families and communities in disproportionate numbers (Gonzalez & Gonzalez-Santin, 2014). Additionally, case law citing an exemption when a court determines that there is no existing Indian family (i.e., an instance where a child is not living with a Native American parent or has had limited cultural contact) erodes coverage for Native American children and the power of the law itself. Indeed, this legal argument has been described as a backdoor maneuver used by states to circumvent the intent of ICWA (Jaffke, 2011). This exemption to ICWA was supported when a case of a non-Native family adopting a Native child against the wishes of both the tribe and the Native American father reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 (Gonzalez & Gonzalez-Santin, 2014).

The government-to-government relationship between First Nations and the United States has shifted as the latter gained stature and power. What initially began as legal agreements between equals became relationships of one group dominating others. Indeed, the United States has taken the position that First Nations are not only junior partners but are wards of the federal government or incompetents in need of protection. Under this legal stance the United States has created and perpetuated extensive dependency. For example, the U.S. government must grant permission to First Nations to establish casinos that have the potential to bring revenue to impoverished communities (NIGC, 2013). Additionally, the federal government handles leasing of Native land and mineral resources and holds the profits in government bank accounts rather than allowing First Nations Peoples to manage many of their own resources. This creation and perpetuation of dependency is contrary to social work values of empowerment and self-determination. Only through active involvement in monitoring U.S. social policy can social workers begin to understand the forces that undermine self-sufficiency among First Nations Peoples.

Economic development is a crucial issue for First Nations Peoples and is at the heart of addressing many social and health problems. Sovereignty is a powerful foundation for economic development that opens up avenues closed to others in the United States. As noted, however, sovereignty itself continues to be undermined, thus perpetuating poverty and dependency. First Nations need the ability to act like nations. Tribal economic development must be an integral component of revitalization grounded in community values and not simply a source of revenue. Exploiting energy resources and accepting payment for carbon credits can have long-term negative environmental consequences. Economic growth based on unsustainable practices cannot support communities in the long term and can exacerbate social and health problems. Many past and present development efforts, including mineral extraction, harvesting timber, and agriculture, have required commercial contracts negotiated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), thus undermining sovereignty. These have resulted in significant resources being exported from tribal lands (Mauer, 2017).

Federal programs designed to support the social and economic well-being of Native Americans continue to be underfunded, are often inefficient, and fail to keep consistent records of spending. State and federal entities, laws, and policies often fail to fully recognize tribal sovereignty. Through their actions and inactions, they undermine tribal self-determination and negatively impact health, criminal justice, education, housing, and economic outcomes (for further information see the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2018).

Social workers must recognize the crippling effect of colonization, not just as a historical artifact but as a contemporary and extraordinarily powerful force that stands in the way of enhancing the lives of First Nations Peoples. Informed social workers can be powerful allies working with First Nations Peoples to challenge the perpetuation of federal dependency by supporting tribal sovereignty and furthering opportunities to alleviate poverty and foster economic development. Since colonization is supported by laws, policies, and social and economic structures, a macro approach is essential in bringing about change.

Issues for Social Work Practice

Social workers must overcome the negative history of their profession with First Nations Peoples, in particular, social work involvement in extensive child removals and coercive sterilization of Indigenous women. Social workers often operate under the authority of entities sanctioned by the United States and state governments and thus are associated with colonizing and disempowering forces. Indeed, social workers must challenge social injustice, including that perpetuated by their employers. The core components of social work, social justice, empowerment, and a focus on the strengths and resilience of clients, must be a reality in working with First Nations clients rather than just vague principles lost in everyday practice.

While social workers have many important skills and talents, perhaps the most important they can bring to their work with First Nations clients is a strong sense of social justice. Advocacy skills are crucial in insuring that appropriate policies that respect sovereignty and promote the well-being of First Nations Peoples are enacted. Social justice and advocacy are important on the micro as well as the macro level. For instance, a social worker may need to advocate on behalf of an individual who is not receiving payments that the federal government has collected for leasing grazing rights on reservation lands. It is also important to advocate that the federal government relinquish its self-appointed role as guardian for Indigenous Peoples, which perpetuates dependency and disempowerment.

Social workers can also call for governmental accountability and change dysfunctional systems. Although health and social services for First Nations Peoples are guaranteed under many treaties, health infrastructure is fragmented, severely underfunded, and is particularly inaccessible for urban First Nations Peoples. The lack of coordinated services and accountability are particularly apparent during times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic and federal government shutdowns. Social workers are well positioned to negotiate complex systems and policies, ultimately enhancing services for individuals and tribal nations.

Stereotypical and paternalistic attitudes toward First Nations Peoples continue to be the foundation for federal oppression and perpetuation of problems such as poverty. Social workers can begin to work on challenging discrimination and oppression by reflecting on how their own attitudes and beliefs may contribute to these issues. As awareness of their own role in perpetuating problems increases, social workers will be better positioned to help work for societal change.

The Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW, 2019) and Canadian Association of Social Work Education (CASWE, 2019) have both publically acknowledged the role of social workers and the social work profession in implementing boarding schools that removed Native children from their families and communities as well as supporting and implementing child welfare approaches that led to large-scale removals and alienation of Native children from their cultures. They note the complicity of the social work profession in discriminatory policies designed to ultimately dispossess Indigenous Peoples from their land.

Social workers are called on to address a host of macro-level and structural issues in their practice with First Nations Peoples. Issues such as poverty, inadequate education, violence, malnutrition, and loss of children are rooted in structural determinants and unjust systems. Socially just social work practice requires working for systems and policy change. Social workers conducting research and working in academia must also recognize how their work has been shaped by colonial ways of thinking and acting. Significant scholarship on decolonizing social work practice, education, and research has been published since the late 1990s (see “Further Reading” for key examples).

Future Directions

The social and health status of Native Americans is typically poor compared to other populations in the United States. The lack of basic water and sanitation systems and a robust health infrastructure in many tribal communities, particularly in light of the federal responsibility for funding and services, is inexcusable. Ongoing federal failures have been made glaringly apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than relying on outside assistance that was slow in coming, First Nations Peoples took steps to close their borders, implement services, and educate themselves about this new challenge. Indeed, many Indigenous professionals, leaders, and policymakers viewed the COVID health crisis as an opportunity to redesign service delivery partnerships and help make mainstream services more responsive to the needs of Indigenous people. Health and social disparities must be eliminated.

These disparities must be viewed within the context of Native American struggles for self-determination and self-sufficiency (Cavalieri, 2013). Indicators of social and health status are likely to remain troubling as long as attempts at empowerment are hindered by a social environment that does not recognize sovereignty. Social workers have roles to play in supporting the development and implementation of services driven by the goals and priorities of First Nations Peoples, both on Indigenous territories and in urban areas. Government-to-government relationships that put full faith and credit in Indigenous Peoples must be maintained. This includes support for the ICWA that vests jurisdiction for removal of Indigenous children within their own tribal structures. Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination must be supported.

The disproportionate impact of violence in the lives of Native people is a direct reflection of colonial dynamics. Recognizing that violence is rooted in a colonial context that devalues Indigenous people is a prerequisite to reducing violence against women, stemming the tide of missing and murdered Indigenous women, eliminating police violence and disproportionate incarceration rates, and keeping Native children safe (see “Further Reading” for more information on each of these manifestations of violence).

The contemporary issues faced by First Nations Peoples are intimately intertwined with the history of colonization and federal policies that perpetuate dependency and undermine self-determination. Social workers have the power and ability to make important differences in enhancing the social and health status of First Nations Peoples but this must begin with an awareness of their own attitudes and beliefs and awareness of how social workers have contributed to, rather than worked to alleviate, the problems of First Nations Peoples.

Social workers have key roles to play in shaping policy, reforming systems, and delivering culturally congruent services. These must be done in partnership with First Nations Peoples. Through these partnerships it is possible to work to eliminate health and social disparities. As programs and policies are developed and implemented, Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination must be supported. As a foundation for social change social workers and others must decolonize their minds and actions so that violence is no longer fueled in this shared society.

Further Reading

  • Anderson, K., Campbell, M., & Belcourt, C. (2018). Keetsahnak: Our missing and murdered Indigenous sisters. University of Alberta Press.
  • Archibald, J., Lee-Moran, J. B., & De Santolo, J. (2019). Decolonizing research: Indigenous storywork as methodology. Zed Books.
  • Gray, M., Coates, J., Yellowbird, M., & Hertherington, T. (2016). Decolonizing social work. Routledge.
  • Smith, L. T. (2012). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Zed Books.
  • Smith, L. T., Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2018). Indigenous and decolonizing studies in education. Routledge.
  • Weaver, H. N. (2014). Social issues in contemporary Native America: Reflections from Turtle Island. Ashgate.


  • AIPI (American Indian Policy Institute). (2020). Tribal digital divide: Policy brief and recommendations.
  • AISC (American Indian Law and Order Commission). (2015). A roadmap for making Native America safer.
  • CASW (Canadian Association of Social Workers). (2019). Statement of apology and commitment to reconciliation.
  • CASWE (Canadian Association of Social Work Education). (2019). A statement of complicity and a commitment to change.
  • Cavalieri, C. E. (2013). Situating psychotherapy with tribal peoples in a sovereignty paradigm. Journal for Social Action in Counseling and Psychology, 5(3), 25–43.
  • Cladoosby, B. (2017). Indian Country leads national movement to knock down barriers to oral health equity. American Journal of Public Health, 107, 81–84.
  • Cote, C. (2001). Historical foundations of Indian sovereignty in Canada and the United States: An overview. American Review of Canadian Studies, 31(1–2), 15–23.
  • Davis, J. J., Roscigno, V. J., & Wilson, G. (2016). American Indian poverty in the contemporary United States. Sociological Forum, 31(1), 5–28.
  • Department of Health and Human Services. (2010). Surveillance for violent deaths: National violent death reporting system, 16 states, 2007. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 59(SS-4), 1–50.
  • Forte, M. (2013). Who is an Indian? Race, place and the politics of indigeneity in the Americas. University of Toronto Press.
  • Gonzalez, T., & Gonzalez-Santin, E. (2014). ICWA: Legal mandate for social justice and preservation of American Indian/Alaska Native heritage. In H. N. Weaver (Ed.), Social issues in contemporary Native America: Reflections from Turtle Island (pp. 129–141). Ashgate.
  • Indian Health Service. (2020). Disparities fact sheet.
  • Jaffke, C. L. (2011). Judicial indifference: Why does the “existing Indian family” exception to the Indian Child Welfare Act continue to endure? Western State University Law Review, 38, 127.
  • Kelly, C. R. (2010). Orwellian language and the politics of tribal termination (1953–1960). Western Journal of Communication, 74(4), 351–371.
  • Leichenko, R. (2018). Housing and economic development in Indian Country: Challenge and opportunity. Routledge.
  • Mannes, M. (1995). Factors and events leading to the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act. Child Welfare, 74(1), 264–282.
  • Mauer, K. W. (2017). Indian Country poverty: Place-based poverty on American Indian territories, 2006–2010. Rural Sociology, 82(3), 473–498.
  • Mihesuah, D. A., & Hoover, E. (2019). Indigenous food sovereignty in the United States: Restoring cultural knowledge, protecting environments, and regaining health. University of Oklahoma Press.
  • Miller, D. K. (2013). Willing workers: Urban relocation and American Indian initiative, 1940s–1960s. Ethnohistory, 60(1), 51–76.
  • NCAI (National Congress of American Indians). (2013). VAWA 2013’ s special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction five-year report.
  • NCAI (National Congress of American Indians). (2018). Research policy update: Violence against American Indian women and girls. Policy Research Center.
  • NCAI (National Congress of American Indians). (2020). About tribes: Demographics.
  • Nez Perce Nation. (2007). Nez Perce.
  • NICOA (National Indian Council on Aging). (2019, September 9). American Indian suicide rate increases.
  • NIGC (National Indian Gaming Commission). (2013). Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
  • Norris, T., Vines, P. L., & Hoeffel, E. M. (2012). The American Indian and Alaska Native population: 2010. US Census Bureau.
  • Ratterjee, K., & Hill, N. (2017). The great vanishing act: Blood quantum and the future of Native Nations. Fulcrum Press.
  • Stiffarm, L. A., & Lane, P., Jr. (1992). The demography of Native North America: A question of American Indian survival. In M. A. Jaimes (Ed.), The state of native America: Genocide, colonization, and resistance (pp. 23–53). South End Press.
  • Tamburro, A., & Tamburro, P. (2014). Social services and Indigenous peoples of North America: Pre-colonial to contemporary times. In H. N. Weaver (Ed.), Social issues in contemporary Native America: Reflections from Turtle Island (pp. 45–58). Ashgate.
  • Tribal Court Clearinghouse. (2020). Welcome to the Tribal Court Clearinghouse.
  • US Department of Homeland Security. (2020). Department of Homeland Security tribal consultation policy.
  • Venables, R. W. (2004). American Indian history: Five centuries of conflict and coexistence, 2 vols. Clear Light.
  • Weaver, H. N. (2005). Explorations in cultural competence: Journeys to the four directions. Thomson Brooks/Cole.
  • Weaver, H. N. (2019). Trauma and resilience in the lives of contemporary Native Americans: Reclaiming our balance, restoring our wellbeing. Routledge.
  • Winlow, H. (2013). “Strangers on their own land”: Ideology, policy, and rational landscapes in the United States, 1825–1934. Cartographica, 48(1), 47–66.