19 Facts Many People Don’t Know About Native Americans

You probably studied Native American culture in school, but chances are your teacher only covered a fraction of Indigenous history. Native American tradition and accomplishments are vast and steeped in incredible feats. 

From women warriors to your favorite movie snack, Native American tribes have contributed more to society than you probably realize. Without them, we might not even have the U.S. Constitution. 

While many have a monolithic view of Native Americans, they are hardly a single-minded group. Tribes vary in language, tradition, and culture. As these 19 facts reveal, there’s a lot more to Native Americans than what you learned in school. 

1: There Were Over 300 Languages

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According to WorldAtlas, there were somewhere between 300 and 500 native languages spoken across the North American continent before colonization. Sadly, government-forced assimilation practices meant that many of these languages disappeared over time. 

As of 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau recorded 169 spoken Native languages. Though many of these languages have a small number of speakers, Congress has passed the Native American Language Act, which supports Native American language preservation and revitalization. 

2: Female Warriors

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In many cultures throughout history, women have stayed behind during times of war. They cook, clean, and tend to family life while men fight. However, in Native American culture, this wasn’t always the case. 

The most famous Native American female to fight alongside men is probably Buffalo Calf Road Woman, who fought for the Cheyenne tribe in the Battle of Little Bighorn. The young mother and warrior supposedly dealt General George Custer his final blow. 

3: The First Native American Language Newspaper

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Before Europeans arrived in North America, Native American languages were orally transmitted. After colonization began, many tribes adopted writing systems. 

One member of the Cherokee tribe, named Sequoyah, spent twelve years developing an 86-syllable writing system that closely resembled Cherokee spoken words. Because of its simplicity, the majority of the tribe could learn the written language within three years, and in 1828, the first edition of The Cherokee Phoenix was published. 

4: Little Tree’s Not Who You Think

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For many years, The Education of Little Tree was taught in American schools. It was supposedly a memoir about Forest Carter, who grew up with his Cherokee grandparents. 

However, in 1991, a historian revealed the memoir was a hoax. The book was actually written by Asa Carter, a white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan member. 

5: There Are 574 Recognized Tribes

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Though many Americans can only name a few Native American tribes that they learned about in school, there are 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States. The majority reside on the West Coast, with Alaska and California being home to over 300 tribes. 

Federally recognized tribes have government-to-government relationships with the U.S. However, they are by no means the only tribes in existence. Many Native American tribes do not have federal recognition, making them ineligible for government assistance. 

6: Crucial Crop Cultivation

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Many Native American tribes were skilled at agriculture, and if it were not for them, our food supply might look very different. Researchers believe up to 60% of the world’s food supply comes from crops originally cultivated in North America. 

For example, Native Americans had been cultivating corn for thousands of years before Europeans reached the continent. They also produced squash, beans, and tomatoes. 

7: Variety of Housing Types

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If Hollywood is to be believed, Native Americans mostly lived in teepees. But, as with so many things, the silver screen isn’t accurate in this regard. Native American housing choices were as diverse as the tribes themselves. 

In Taos, New Mexico, local tribes lived in pueblos. The Iroquois had longhouses, and tribes in the Mesa Verde region lived within the cliffs. Many tribes also utilized pit-houses or dugouts built into the ground for shelter. 

8: One of the Oldest Living Democracies

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The Haudenosaunee Confederacy may have been founded as early as 1142, making it one of the oldest democracies in the world. Called the Iroquois Confederacy by the French, this group of five tribes was united by the Great Law of Peace, which acted as a constitution. 

The confederacy believed sovereignty belonged to the people and that there should be a separation of powers. And, unlike the U.S. Constitution, women played an active role in the development of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. 

9: Forcibly Displaced

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In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, forcibly displacing Native Americans from their homes across Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. White settlers who wanted valuable tribal lands to grow more cotton pushed the act forward. 

Native Americans in these regions were sent to the so-called “Indian Country” in Oklahoma. Forced to march thousands of miles, many passed away along the way.  

10: No Citizenship Until 1924

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It wasn’t until 1924, when President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act, that all Native Americans gained U.S. citizenship. Even then, many states denied Native Americans the right to vote. 

Until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed, states also found discriminatory ways to block Native Americans at the polls. Some states initiated literacy tests, which blocked tribe members who did not speak English fluently. 

11: Inventors of Popcorn 

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If you enjoy popcorn, you should thank a Native American. In 1612, French explorers reported that Native tribes in the Great Lakes region were popping corn in heated clay vessels. 

Colonists quickly embraced the practice of corn popping. They often enjoyed popcorn doused in cream and sugar for breakfast. 

12: Largest Landowners 

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The largest tribal landowners are the Navajo. The Navajo Nation extends 25,000 square miles, making it about double the size of Maryland. 

The Navajo Nation also has the largest native population. With over 400,000 registered members, it has the most native language speakers. 

13: Pioneering Women

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Many Native American women were pioneers in their own right. One of the most famous examples is Maria Tallchief. 

Tallchief, a member of the Osage nation, wanted nothing more than to be a ballerina. Though racism stood in her way at almost every turn, Tallchief’s hard work and incredible skill were undeniable. She became the first American to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet and the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.

14: Hockey’s Creators

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Multiple Native American tribes, including the Saux, Chumash, and Assiniboine, played a game called “shinny.” It involved a buckskin ball that players hit with a curved stick, and when winter came, the tribes enjoyed the game over ice. 

White settlers observed and enjoyed the game themselves. Eventually, it transformed into modern hockey. 

15: Not All Tribes Have Land

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There are approximately 326 tribal lands in the U.S., which is far less than the number of federally-recognized tribes. Of the tribes with land, it accounts for only about 2.6% of the territory they occupied pre-colonization. 

According to a 2014 study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, most Native Americans live near their tribal homes. However, according to U.S. Census data, only 22% reside on reservations. 

16: Responsible For the U.S. Constitution

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Ben Franklin and the other founding fathers used the Haudenosaunee Confederacy as inspiration when writing the U.S. Constitution.  A 1987 Senate resolution recognized this, stating, “The original framers of the Constitution, including most notably, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, are known to have greatly admired the concepts, principles and governmental practices of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.” 

The symbols of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy included an eagle and a cluster of arrows. The U.S. similarly uses an eagle and thirteen arrows bound together to symbolize the original union. 

17: Legally Protected Artifacts

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According to the Native Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, certain objects don’t belong to the general public. So, think twice before you take a found object as a souvenir from your visit to tribal lands. 

Selling or purchasing a known cultural item is punishable by imprisonment, a fine, or both. The act applies to all tribal lands as well as the state of Hawaii. 

18: The Greatest Athlete of All Time 

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If you admire athletic achievements, you probably know about Jim Thorpe. Thorpe was a member of the Sax and Fox nation. He was also the first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal. 

To be specific, Thorpe won two medals: one for the decathlon and one for the pentathlon. He also played professional football, baseball, and basketball.

19: The Real Story of Squanto 

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Many American children learn the story of Squanto in elementary school. However, your second-grade teacher’s tale probably left out a few important details. 

Usually, Americans paint Squanto as a “good guy” interpreter who helped the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. However, what’s not discussed is how he learned English. Historians believe Squanto was sold into slavery in Europe in the early 1600s. 

When he returned to North America, his tribe was no longer there, probably because of disease. So, he aligned with the Wampanoag nation, but many among them viewed him as a traitor for helping the English. 

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