March 19th, 2021 Last Updated on: March 3rd, 2022
What’s the biggest Native American tribe in the U.S. today?
Well, Native Americans and Alaska Natives now account for more than 2 percent of the total U.S. population, and that number continues to grow each year. By the year 2060, the U.S. Census projects that the indigenous peoples population could surpass 10 million.
Though some Native American customs and traditions have been lost to war and European colonization, many tribal members still proudly represent their unique cultures, languages and identities. With over 574 federally recognized tribes, 64 state-recognized tribes, and many more tribes that are currently unrecognized, Native Americans continue to honor their rich ancestral histories.
Using data from the 2010 Census, the most recent comprehensive population report on the United States' Native American population, we compiled a list of the 10 biggest indigenous tribes in the U.S. today.
Note: The top 10 biggest tribal populations are ranked based on the number of people who identify as a member of this tribe alone or in combination with another tribe or race. So, someone who is Choctaw and white would be included in the Choctaw population. The list also includes people who identify as each tribe in combination with other Native American groups (Cherokee and Comanche tribes) as well as those who identify only as a tribal member of a single Native American group.
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In North Carolina, near the dark waters of the Lumbee River, you'll find the descendants of the Algonquian, Iroquoian, Hatteras, Tuscarora, and Cheraw. The Lumbee Tribe has approximately 55,000 members who live primarily in Robeson, Hoke, Cumberland, and Scotland counties. The ancestors of the present-day Lumbee people spoke several different languages, including Croatan, Cheraw, Tuscarora and Catawba. Only nine indigenous tribes are bigger.
The nations in the Iroquois Confederacy located in New York State are Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca. These nations are known for their matrilineal society and for providing the U.S. its basic model of democratic government. They also created a popular pastime in North America: lacrosse. Approximately 28,000 tribal members live in New York State and another 30,000 live in Canada. That's nearly 60,000 American Indians across the continent of North America. Only eight indigenous tribes are bigger.
8. Creek (Muscogee)
Do you know where the Creek got their name? The European settlers named these indigenous peoples the Creek Indians after Ocmulgee Creek in Georgia. The tribal members originally called themselves Isti or Istichata, but began to identify as Muscogee or Muskogee after European settlers arrived. Only seven indigenous tribes are bigger.
7. Blackfeet (Siksikaitsitapi)
Montana's federally recognized Blackfeet Nation of approximately 17,321 people is currently working to preserve its culture, language, and traditions for generations to come. Tribal members are also fighting to preserve Montana’s Rocky Mountains which have been threatened by developers. The four bands of the Blackfeet share a common culture and language but like many indigenous tribes, are politically independent. Only six federally recognized tribes are bigger.
The Apache are believed to be one of the first American Indian tribes to learn to ride horses. Shortly after learning to ride, the Apache tribal members began using horses to hunt buffalo, which also served a pivotal role for the tribe.
Today, the Apache call Oklahoma, Texas, and Arizona home. Tribal members have retained their culture, language, and many of their traditions, including special dances and ceremonies. The Apache are also known for their intricate beadwork which uses shells, glass, and turquoise. Only five indigenous tribes are bigger.
The Sioux Indians were known as some of the fiercest warriors—and not just among native peoples. Only male tribal members who had earned the right through an act of courage could wear a grizzly bear claw necklace.
The name “Sioux” itself means “allies,” which includes seven bands: Oglala, Hunkpapa, Sicangu, Miniconjous, Sihasapa, Oohenumpa, and Itazipacola. Approximately 170,110 people or 7 Council Fires live across North America in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Canada—which has 13 autonomous political subdivisions. Only four indigenous tribes are bigger.
Mainly from Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Canada, the Chippewa are approximately 170,742 strong with at least 150 different bands, including the Shawnee, Delaware, Kickapoo, Huron, and Seneca. Chippewa tribal members were originally known as the largest and most powerful tribe of American Indians in the Great Lakes area. The Chippewa or Ojibwe native peoples were colonized by European-descended Canadians. Only three indigenous tribes are bigger.
With nearly 200,000 people, the Choctaw is one of the three biggest tribes. Choctaw Nation spans 12 tribal districts and eight Oklahoma counties, with its headquarters in Durant, Oklahoma. Early Choctaw tribal members were best known for building mounds and lived in a matriarchal society.
According to PBS, the Choctaw were the first Native American tribe forced to relocate under the Indian Removal Act. The Choctaw tribe was exiled because the U.S. government wanted access to the native peoples' natural resources. Only two indigenous tribes are bigger.
Coming in as one of the two largest Indian tribes, the Navajo or Dinè tribal members are close relatives of the Apache tribes. The Navajo are also natives of the Four Corners region (Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado). This Indian tribe is well known for its artistry, jewelry, and contributions to the military. During World War II, the Navajo Code Talkers were able to help the U.S. defeat the Germans in a critical showdown.
The Navajo Nation is the largest American Indian reservation in the United States, spanning roughly 16 million acres, or about 25,000 square miles—approximately the size of the state of West Virginia. Only one indigenous tribe is bigger than Navajo Nation.
Cherokee is the biggest of the biggest Native American tribes. Before European settlers arrived, they lived in an area of the Southeastern United States which is now North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. In 1835, some of the Cherokee signed a treaty with the United States giving the government all of the Cherokee lands in return for a new plot of land in Oklahoma plus $5 million. While many tribal members were opposed to the decision, they had few options. In 1838, the U.S. Army forced Cherokee Nation to uproot and move their homes from the Southeast all of the way to Oklahoma. Over 4,000 Cherokee Indians died on this march, which is now known as the “Trail of Tears.”
Today, tribal members are working to preserve their unique cultures, traditions, and language. Before COVID-19 hit the Cherokee, only about 2,000 Cherokee tribal members remained that could speak the language fluently, and many of these members were considered elders. To help reverse course, the tribal government made a quick decision once they began to receive shipments of COVID-19 vaccines: Cherokee-speaking individuals would be the first to receive the vaccine. As more Cherokee-speaking American Indians got vaccinated, the risk of the language going extinct gradually lowered.
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