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date: 14 June 2021

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 diverse and growing populations. There are approximately 5.2 million First Nations Peoples within the boundaries of the United States, accounting for 1.7% of the general population (Norris, Vines, & Hoeffel, 2012). First Nations people 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 current federal policies that perpetuate dependency and undermine self-determination. Social workers must overcome the negative history of the 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 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.


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

Updated in this version

References expanded and updated.

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 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, like “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, Vines, & Hoeffel, 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, Vines, & Hoeffel, 2012).

First Nations Peoples tend to have lower educational attainment than other people in the United States. In 2011, 78.9% of First Nations Peoples age 25 and older had at least a high school degree, compared with 85.9% of the total population. Only 13.3% had a bachelor's degree or higher, compared with 28.5% of the general population (US Census Bureau, 2012). In 2012, median income for First Nations households was substantially lower than that of their nonindigenous counterparts ($35,310 compared to $51,371).

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, Vines, & Hoeffel, 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 several key 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, 2007).

As the fledgling United States gained power, it increasingly waged wars against First Nations Peoples. These were often campaigns of genocide designed to decimate Native Peoples in order to take their lands, subjugate them, 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 be a part of the traditional territories of the people placed there. 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. The legacy of these institutions are Native communities where generations of people have no non-institutional role models for parenting, thus leading to widespread child abuse and neglect.

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.

Extensive diversity exists among First Nations Peoples. There are well over 500 different Native Nations that continue to exist within the United States. 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. 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 tribal-specific content, but also how a particular client experiences his or her 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 legal standing that is quite different from other ethnic or cultural groups in the United States. Native Nations typically have their own governments, systems of law enforcement, and social service systems. This may open up a wealth of resources and services not available to nonindigenous clients. 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).

The social status and health status of First Nations Peoples are significantly worse than other populations on most social indicators. Native people experience high rates of violence, trauma, and imprisonment (Department of Health and Human Services, 2010), much of which is associated with alcohol use (Sugarman & Grossman, 1996). First Nations Peoples suffer disproportionately from health problems such as diabetes, tuberculosis, and alcohol-related problems, as well as suicide (Indian Health Service, 2014). Indigenous people are also overrepresented in the homeless population (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001).

Poverty is a major concern for First Nations Peoples. Native Americans have the highest rate of poverty of any group in the United States: 29.1%, compared to 15.9% for the general U.S. population (National Indian Education Association, 2014). There are, however, significant tribal differences in poverty status. The First Nations groups who experience the greatest amounts of poverty are the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota at 38.9%, the Dine at 37%, and the Apache at 33.9%. Among Alaska Natives, Athabaskans are the poorest population, with 22.9% living in poverty, followed by the Inuit, with 21.3% in poverty (Ogunwole, 2006).

Historical or intergenerational trauma is increasingly recognized as a major concern for Native Americans. Indeed, traumatic experiences such as forced assimilation through residential schools, taking of land, and significant depopulation through violence and disease transmission are often conceptualized as at the root of many contemporary social and health disparities (Cavalieri, 2013).

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 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 (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 Indian Child Welfare Act (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 call that nation immediately. Many nations have Web sites 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 stance 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 (National Indian Gaming Commission, 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 (Vezolla, 2010). 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 not open to others in the United States. As noted above, however, sovereignty itself continues to be undermined, thus perpetuating poverty and dependency. First Nations need the ability to act like nations. 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 and furthering opportunities to alleviate poverty and foster economic development.

Issues for Social Work Practice

Social workers must overcome the negative history of the 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 value 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.

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.

Future Directions

The social and health status of Native Americans is typically poor compared to other populations in the United States and may in fact be declining in some areas such as increased incidence of chronic diseases like cancer (Intercultural Cancer Council, 2002). Social workers must also be attentive to issues of drugs and violence in both reservation and urban communities. These serious concerns 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.

The contemporary issues faced by First Nations Peoples are intimately intertwined with the history of colonization and current 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.


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Further Reading