In 1914, Red Fox James, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, rode across the country on horseback seeking approval from 24 state governments for a day to honor Native Americans.
More than 75 years later, in 1990, then-President George H.W. Bush signed a joint congressional resolution designating the month of November “National American Indian Heritage Month.” In 2009, President Barack Obama went a step further, designating the Friday after Thanksgiving as “Native American Heritage Day.”
The move encouraged all Americans to “understand the rich culture, tradition, and history of Native Americans and their status,” and to “appreciate the contributions that First Americans have made and will continue to make to our Nation.”
Below is a data snapshot of the American Indian and Alaskan Native population in the U.S.
Where Most Native Americans Live
The nation is home to around 8.75 million people who identify at least partially as American Indian or Alaska Native, making up around 2.6% of the total population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 American Community Survey.
Western states have the highest density of American Indians and Alaska Natives, while states in the Northeast and down the East Coast have lower population shares.
These are the states with the highest population share of Native Americans, according to the Census Bureau:
- Alaska, 20.7%
- Oklahoma, 14.6%
- New Mexico, 12.8%
- South Dakota, 10.5%
- Montana, 8.3%
- North Dakota, 7.1%
- Arizona, 6.0%
- Wyoming, 4.2%
- Oregon, 4.2%
- Washington, 3.5%
Tribal Affiliations of American Indians and Alaska Natives
Among the 6.4 million people for whom the American Community Survey specified an American Indian tribal affiliation, 24.3% were Cherokee, 7.0% Navajo, 4.6% Blackfeet and 4.5% Choctaw. Mexican American Indian tribes accounted for 14.2% of the group, and another 9.2% were listed as Central American Indian tribes.
Among the 171,000 respondents who identified with a specific Alaska Native tribe, 27.9% were Inupiat, 24.4% Yup’ik, 16.2% Tlingit-Haida, 14.8% Alaskan Athabascan and 13.8% Aleut.
The United States also recognizes approximately 326 federal Indian reservations, the largest of which is the Navajo Nation Reservation, sprawling across 16 million acres in the American Southwest. Around 56 million acres are held in trust by the federal government for various Indian tribes and individuals, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Indigenous Representation in Congress Has Increased Over Time
American Indian and Alaska Native representation in Congress has increased over the last few years. There are currently a record six Indigenous representatives in Congress, though some will be leaving by the time the new legislature convenes in January 2023, and all are currently in the House. They include Hawaii Rep. Kaiali’l Kahele, Kansas Rep. Sharice Davids, New Mexico Rep. Yvette Herrell, Alaska Rep. Mary Peltola, and Oklahoma Reps. Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin.
This cycle, Mullin vacated his seat in the House to run for the Senate and won, meaning he’ll become the first Native American in the U.S. Senate in almost two decades. Josh Brecheen, who is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, will fill his seat in the House.
Former New Mexico Rep. Debra Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, was appointed to be President Joe Biden’s Secretary of the Interior in 2021, becoming the first Native American to serve in a presidential cabinet.
“Since stepping into office, we have followed through on our promises to strengthen tribes’ and their cultures’ economies and lands,” Haaland said at a Nov. 15 Native American Heritage Month reception at the White House. “In just 20 months, we have invested more than $45 billion into Indian Country.”
Health Disparities in Native Communities
American Indian and Alaska Native communities face higher rates of some health risks than the general population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For example, in 2021, 22.9% of Native American adults reported fair or poor health status, compared to 13.6% of the general adult population.
Per the CDC survey, 10% of Native American adults had asthma, compared to 8% of the general populace. Over 17% of American Indian and Alaska Natives had diagnoses of diabetes, compared to less than 10% of the general adult population. While 4.5% of Americans regularly reported feelings of depression, this affected 6.5% of Native American adults.
According to the CDC, 12.7% of Native American adults aged 18-64 had been uninsured for more than a year, 4 percentage points higher than Americans at large.
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