Indigenous peoples of the Americas

Indigenous peoples of the Americas
Indigenous peoples of the Americas
NSRW Natives of North America.png
NSRW Natives of South America.png
Total population
approximately 48 million
Regions with significant populations
(not including Mestizo or Zambo population)
 Peru 13.8 million [1]
 Mexico 10.1 million [2]
 Bolivia 6 million [3]
 Guatemala 5.4 million [4]
 Ecuador 3.4 million
 United States 2.5 million [5]
 Colombia 1.4 million [6]
 Canada 1.2 million [7]
 Brazil 700,000 [8]
 Chile 692,000 [9]
 Argentina 600,000 [10]
 Venezuela 524,000 [11]
 Nicaragua 443,847 [12]
 Panama 204,000 [13]
 Paraguay 95,235 [14]
 El Salvador ~70,000 [15]
Indigenous languages of the Americas
Inuit religion
Native American mythology
Native American religion

The indigenous peoples of the Americas are the pre-Columbian inhabitants of North and South America, their descendants and other ethnic groups who are identified with those peoples. The indigenous peoples of the Americas also include Iñupiat, Cup'ik/Yup'ik, Alutiiq, Aleut, Inuit, Aboriginal peoples,[16] and Native Americans,[17] also known in Canada as First Nations,[16] (by Christopher Columbus' geographic mistake) Indians,[17] Red Indians, American Indians, or Amerindians. Indigenous peoples are also known by their specific tribal and cultural ancestry and citizenship.

According to the New World migration model, a migration of humans from Eurasia to the Americas took place via Beringia, a land bridge which connected the two continents across what is now the Bering Strait. The most recent point at which this migration could have taken place is ca. 12,000 years ago, with the earliest period remaining a matter of some unresolved contention.[18][19] These early Paleo-Indians soon spread throughout the Americas, diversifying into many hundreds of culturally distinct nations and tribes.[19] According to the oral histories of many of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, they have been living there since their genesis, described by a wide range of traditional creation accounts.

Application of the term "Indian" originated with Christopher Columbus, who thought that he had arrived in the East Indies, while seeking Asia.[20][21][22][23][24][25] Later the name was still used as the Americas at the time were often called West Indies. This has served to imagine a kind of racial or cultural unity for the aboriginal peoples of the Americas. Once created, the unified "Indian" was codified in law, religion, and politics. The unitary idea of "Indians" was not originally shared by indigenous peoples, but many over the last two centuries have embraced the identity.

While some indigenous peoples of the Americas were historically hunter-gatherers, many practiced aquaculture and agriculture. The impact of their agricultural endowment to the world is a testament to their time and work in reshaping and cultivating the flora indigenous to the Americas.[26] Some societies depended heavily on agriculture while others practiced a mix of farming, hunting, and gathering. In some regions the indigenous peoples created monumental architecture, large-scale organized cities, chiefdoms, states, and empires.

Many parts of the Americas are still populated by indigenous Americans; some countries have sizable populations, especially Bolivia, Peru, Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, and Ecuador. At least a thousand different indigenous languages are spoken in the Americas. Some, such as Quechua languages, Aymara, Guaraní, Mayan languages, and Nahuatl, count their speakers in millions. Many also maintain aspects of indigenous cultural practices to varying degrees, including religion, social organization and subsistence practices. Some indigenous peoples still live in relative isolation from Western society, and a few are still counted as uncontacted peoples.



Migration into the continents

The specifics of Paleo-Indian migration to and throughout the Americas, including the exact dates and routes traveled, are subject to ongoing research and discussion.[28] The traditional Western theory has been that these early migrants moved into the Beringia land bridge between eastern Siberia and present-day Alaska around 40,000—16,500 years ago,[29][30][31][32] when sea levels were significantly lowered due to the Quaternary glaciation.[28][33] These people are believed to have followed herds of now-extinct Pleistocene megafauna along ice-free corridors that stretched between the Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets.[34] Another route proposed is that, either on foot or using primitive boats, they migrated down the Pacific Northwest coast to South America.[35] Evidence of the latter would since have been covered by a sea level rise of hundreds of meters following the last ice age.[36]

The time range of 40,000—16,500 years ago is a hot source of debate and will be for years to come. The few agreements achieved to date are the origin from Central Asia, with widespread habitation of the Americas during the end of the last glacial period, or more specifically what is known as the late glacial maximum, around 16,000 — 13,000 years before present.[32][37]

Stone tools, particularly projectile points and scrapers, are the primary evidence of the earliest human activity in the Americas. Crafted lithic flaked tools are used by archaeologists and anthropologists to classify cultural periods.[38] Scientific evidence links indigenous Americans to Asian peoples, specifically eastern Siberian populations. Indigenous peoples of the Americas have been linked to North Asian populations by linguistic factors, the distribution of blood types, and in genetic composition as reflected by molecular data, such as DNA.[39]

Pre-Columbian era

Language families of North American indigenous peoples

The Pre-Columbian era incorporates all period subdivisions in the history and prehistory of the Americas before the appearance of significant European and African influences on the American continents, spanning the time of the original settlement in the Upper Paleolithic to European colonization during the Early Modern period.[40]

While technically referring to the era before Christopher Columbus's voyages of 1492 to 1504, in practice the term usually includes the history of American indigenous cultures until they were either conquered or significantly influenced by Europeans, even if this happened decades or even centuries after Columbus' initial landing.[41] Pre-Columbian is used especially often in the context of the great indigenous civilizations of the Americas, such as those of Mesoamerica (the Olmec, the Toltec, the Teotihuacano, the Zapotec, the Mixtec, the Aztec, and the Maya) and the Andes (Inca, Moche, Chibcha, Cañaris).

Paleo-Indians hunting a glyptodont

Many pre-Columbian civilizations established characteristics and hallmarks which included permanent or urban settlements, agriculture, civic and monumental architecture, and complex societal hierarchies.[42] Some of these civilizations had long faded by the time of the first permanent European and African arrivals (ca. late 15th–early 16th centuries), and are known only through oral history and archaeological investigations. Others were contemporary with this period, and are also known from historical accounts of the time. A few, such as the Maya, Olmec, Mixtec, and Nahua peoples, had their own written records. However, the European colonists of the time viewed such texts as heretical, and much was destroyed in Christian pyres. Only a few hidden documents remain today, leaving contemporary historians with glimpses of ancient culture and knowledge.

According to both indigenous American and European accounts and documents, American civilizations at the time of European encounter possessed many impressive accomplishments.[43] For instance, the Aztecs built one of the most impressive cities in the world, Tenochtitlan, the ancient site of Mexico City, with an estimated population of 200,000. American civilizations also displayed impressive accomplishments in astronomy and mathematics. Inuit, Alaskan Native, and American Indian creation myths tell of a variety of originations of their respective peoples. Some were "always there" or were created by gods or animals, some migrated from a specified compass point, and others came from "across the ocean".[44]

So far, the only verifiable site of "pre-Columbian" European settlement anywhere in the Western Hemisphere is L'Anse aux Meadows, located near the very northern tip of the Canadian island of Newfoundland. It was settled by the Norse around the end of the 10th century.

European colonization

Cultural areas of North America at time of European contact

The European colonization of the Americas forever changed the lives, bloodlines and cultures of the peoples of the continent. The population history of American indigenous peoples postulates that infectious disease exposure, displacement, and warfare diminished populations, with the first the most significant cause.[26][45] The first indigenous group encountered by Columbus were the 250,000 Taínos of Hispaniola who were the dominant culture in the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas. In thirty years, about 70% of the Taínos died.[46] They had no immunity to European diseases, so outbreaks of measles and smallpox ravaged their population.[47] The increased ignorance towards the practice of punishing the Taínos for revolting themselves from forced labour, despite the measures brought by the encomienda which included religious education and protection from warring tribes,[48] eventually helped conceived the last great Taíno rebellion.

Mistreated, the Taínos began to adopt suicidal behaviors, with women aborting or killing their infants, men jumping from the cliffs or ingesting manioc, a violent poison.[46] Eventually, a Taíno Cacique named Enriquillo managed to hold out in the mountain range of Bahoruco for thirteen years conducting serious damage to the Spanish, Carib-held plantations and their Indian auxiliaries.[49] After hearing of the seriousness of the revolt, Emperor Charles V sent captain Francisco Barrionuevo to negotiate a peace treaty with the ever increasing number of rebels. Two months later, with the consulting of the Audencia of Santo Domingo, Enriquillo was offered any part of the island to live in peace.

The Laws of Burgos, 1512-1513 were the first codified set of laws governing the behavior of Spanish settlers in America, particularly with regards to native Indians. They forbade the maltreatment of natives, and endorsed their conversion to Catholicism.[50] The Spanish crown found it difficult to enforce these laws in a distant colony.

Drawing accompanying text in Book XII of the 16th-century Florentine Codex (compiled 1540–1585), showing Nahuas of conquest-era central Mexico suffering from smallpox

Reasons for the decline of the Native American populations are variously theorized to be from epidemic diseases, conflicts with Europeans, and conflicts among warring tribes. Scholars now believe that, among the various contributing factors, epidemic disease was the overwhelming cause of the population decline of the American natives.[51][52] After first contacts with Europeans and Africans, some believe that the death of 90 to 95% of the native population of the New World was caused by Old World diseases.[53] Half the native population of Hispaniola in 1518 was killed by smallpox.[54] Within a few years smallpox killed between 60% and 90% of the Inca population, with other waves of European disease weakening them further.[55] Smallpox was only the first epidemic. Typhus (probably) in 1546, influenza and smallpox together in 1558, smallpox again in 1589, diphtheria in 1614, measles in 1618—all ravaged the remains of Inca culture. Smallpox had killed millions of native inhabitants of Mexico.[56][57] Unintentionally introduced at Veracruz with the arrival of Pánfilo de Narváez on April 23, 1520, smallpox ravaged Mexico in the 1520s,[58] possibly killing over 150,000 in Tenochtitlan alone (the heartland of the Aztec Empire), and aided in the victory of Hernán Cortés over the Aztec empire at Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City) in 1521.[59]

Over the centuries, the Europeans had developed high degrees of immunity to these diseases, while the indigenous Americans had no such immunity.[60] Europeans had been ravaged in their own turn by such diseases as bubonic plague and Asian flu that moved west from Asia to Europe. In addition, when they went to some territories, such as Africa and Asia, they were more vulnerable to malaria.

Indians visiting a Brazilian farm plantation in Minas Gerais c.1824

The repeated outbreaks of influenza, measles and smallpox probably resulted in a decline of between one-half and two-thirds of the Aboriginal population of eastern North America during the first 100 years of European contact.[61] In 1617–1619, smallpox reportedly killed 90% of the Massachusetts Bay Colony Native American residents.[62] In 1633, in Plymouth, the Native Americans there were exposed to smallpox because of contact with Europeans. As it had done elsewhere, the virus wiped out entire population groups of Native Americans.[63] It reached Lake Ontario in 1636, and the lands of the Iroquois by 1679.[64][65] During the 1770s, smallpox killed at least 30% of the West Coast Native Americans.[66] Smallpox epidemics in 1780–1782 and 1837–1838 brought devastation and drastic population depletion among the Plains Indians.[67][68] In 1832, the federal government of the United States established a smallpox vaccination program for Native Americans (The Indian Vaccination Act of 1832).[69][70]

In Brazil, the indigenous population has declined from a pre-Columbian high of an estimated three million to some 300,000 in 1997.[71][72]

Later explorations of the Caribbean led to the discovery of the Arawak peoples of the Lesser Antilles. The culture was destroyed by 1650. Only 500 had survived by the year 1550, though the bloodlines continued through the modern populace. In Amazonia, indigenous societies weathered centuries of colonization.[73]

The Spaniards and other Europeans brought horses to the Americas. Some of these animals escaped and began to breed and increase their numbers in the wild.[74] The re-introduction of the horse had a profound impact on Native American culture in the Great Plains of North America and of Patagonia in South America. By domesticating horses, some tribes had great success: they expanded their territories, exchanged many goods with neighboring tribes, and more easily captured game, especially bison.


A bison hunt depicted by George Catlin

Over the course of thousands of years, American indigenous peoples domesticated, bred and cultivated a large array of plant species. These species now constitute 50–60% of all crops in cultivation worldwide.[75] In certain cases, the indigenous peoples developed entirely new species and strains through artificial selection, as was the case in the domestication and breeding of maize from wild teosinte grasses in the valleys of southern Mexico. Numerous such agricultural products retain native names in the English and Spanish lexicons.

The South American highlands were a center of early agriculture. Genetic testing of the wide variety of cultivars and wild species suggest that the potato has a single origin in the area of southern Peru,[76] from a species in the Solanum brevicaule complex. Over 99% of all modern cultivated potatoes worldwide are descendants of a subspecies indigenous to south-central Chile,[77] Solanum tuberosum ssp. tuberosum, where it was cultivated as long as 10,000 years ago.[78][79] According to George Raudzens, "It is clear that in pre-Columbian times some groups struggled to survive and often suffered food shortages and famines, while others enjoyed a varied and substantial diet."[80] The persistent drought around 850 AD coincided with the collapse of Classic Maya civilization, and the famine of One Rabbit (AD. 1454) was a major catastrophe in Mexico.[81]

Natives of North American began practicing farming approximately 4,000 years ago, late in the Archaic period of North American cultures. Technology had advanced to the point that pottery was becoming common, and the small-scale felling of trees became feasible. Concurrently, the Archaic Indians began using fire in a widespread manner. Intentional burning of vegetation was used to mimic the effects of natural fires that tended to clear forest understories. It made travel easier and facilitated the growth of herbs and berry-producing plants, which were important for both food and medicines.[82]

In the Mississippi River valley, Europeans noted Native Americans' managed groves of nut and fruit trees as orchards, not far from villages and towns, in addition to their gardens and agricultural fields. Wildlife competition could be reduced by understory burning. Further away, prescribed burning would have been used in forest and prairie areas.[83]

Many crops first domesticated by indigenous Americans are now produced and/or used globally. Chief among these is maize or "corn", arguably the most important crop in the world.[84] Other significant crops include cassava, chia, squash (pumpkins, zucchini, marrow, acorn squash, butternut squash), the pinto bean, Phaseolus beans including most common beans, tepary beans and lima beans, tomato, potatoes, avocados, peanuts, cocoa beans (used to make chocolate), vanilla, strawberries, pineapples, Peppers (species and varieties of Capsicum, including bell peppers, jalapeños, paprika and chili peppers) sunflower seeds, rubber, brazilwood, chicle, tobacco, coca, manioc and some species of cotton.

Studies of contemporary indigenous environmental management, including agro-forestry practices among Itza Maya in Guatemala and hunting and fishing among the Menominee of Wisconsin, suggest that longstanding "sacred values" may represent a summary of sustainable millennial traditions.[85]


Quechua woman and child in the Sacred Valley, Andes, Peru

Cultural practices in the Americas seem to have been mostly shared within geographical zones where otherwise unrelated peoples might adopt similar technologies and social organizations. An example of such a cultural area could be Mesoamerica, where millennia of coexistence and shared development between the peoples of the region produced a fairly homogeneous culture with complex agricultural and social patterns. Another well-known example could be the North American plains area, where until the 19th century, several different peoples shared traits of nomadic hunter-gatherers primarily based on buffalo hunting.

Writing systems

Maya glyphs in stucco at the Museo de sitio in Palenque, Mexico

An independent origin and development of writing is counted among the many achievements and innovations of pre-Columbian American cultures. The Mesoamerican region produced a number of indigenous writing systems from the 1st millennium BCE onwards. What may be the earliest-known example in the Americas of an extensive text thought to be writing is by the Cascajal Block. The Olmec hieroglyphs tablet has been indirectly dated from ceramic shards found in the same context to approximately 900 BCE, around the time that Olmec occupation of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán began to wane.[86]

The Maya writing system (often called hieroglyphs from a superficial resemblance to the Ancient Egyptian writing) was a combination of phonetic symbols and logograms. It is most often classified as a logographic or (more properly) a logosyllabic writing system, in which syllabic signs play a significant role. It is the only pre-Columbian writing system known to completely represent the spoken language of its community. In total, the script has more than one thousand different glyphs, although a few are variations of the same sign or meaning, and many appear only rarely or are confined to particular localities. At any one time, no more than around five hundred glyphs were in use, some two hundred of which (including variations) had a phonetic or syllabic interpretation.

Aztec codices (singular codex) are books written by pre-Columbian and colonial-era Aztecs. These codices provide some of the best primary sources for Aztec culture. The pre-Columbian codices differ from European codices in that they are largely pictorial; they were not meant to symbolize spoken or written narratives.[87] The colonial era codices not only contain Aztec pictograms, but also Classical Nahuatl (in the Latin alphabet), Spanish, and occasionally Latin.

The Wiigwaasabak, birch bark scrolls on which the Ojibwa (Anishinaabe) people wrote complex geometrical patterns and shapes, can also be considered a form of writing, as can Mi'kmaq hieroglyphics.

Aboriginal syllabic writing, or simply syllabics, is a family of abugidas used to write a number of Aboriginal Canadian languages of the Algonquian, Inuit, and (formerly) Athabaskan language families.

Music and art

An Inukshuk ("Like a man") from Resolute Bay.

Native American music in North America is almost entirely monophonic, but there are notable exceptions. Traditional Native American music often centers around drumming. Rattles, clappersticks, and rasps were also popular percussive instruments. Flutes were made of rivercane, cedar, and other woods. The tuning of these flutes is not precise and depends on the length of the wood used and the hand span of the intended player, but the finger holes are most often around a whole step apart and, at least in Northern California, a flute was not used if it turned out to have an interval close to a half step. The Apache fiddle is a single stringed instrument.

Music from indigenous peoples of Central Mexico and Central America often was pentatonic. Before the arrival of the Spaniards and other Europeans it was inseparable from religious festivities and included a large variety of percussion and wind instruments such as drums, flutes, sea snail shells (used as a kind of trumpet) and "rain" tubes. No remnants of pre-Columbian stringed instruments were found until archaeologists discovered a jar in Guatemala, attributed to the Maya of the Late Classic Era (600–900 CE), which depicts a stringed musical instrument which has since been reproduced. This instrument is astonishing in at least two respects. First, it is one of the very few string instruments known in the Americas prior to the introduction of European musical instruments. Second, when played, it produces a sound virtually identical to a jaguar's growl.[88]

Visual arts by indigenous peoples of the Americas composes a major category in the world art collection. Contributions include pottery, paintings, jewellery, weavings, sculptures, basketry, carvings and beadwork.[89] Due to the many artists posing as Native Americans, the United States passed the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, requiring artists prove that they are enrolled in a state or federally recognized tribe.

Demography of contemporary populations

The following table provides estimates of the per-country populations of Amerindian people, and also those with partial Amerindian ancestry, expressed as a percentage of the overall country population of each country that is comprised by Amerindians, and of people of partial Amerindian descent. The total percentage obtained by adding both of these categories is also given.

Note: these categories are inconsistently defined and measured differently from country to country. Some are based on the results of population wide genetic surveys, while others are based on self identification or observational estimation.

Indigenous populations of the Americas
as estimated percentage of total country's population
Country Amerindian Ref. Part Amerindian Ref. Combined total Ref.
North America
Canada 1.8% [90] 3.6% [90] 5.4% [90]
Mexico 9.8% [2] 60% [91] 69.8% [91]
United States 0.9% [92] 0.6% [92] 1.5% [92]
Central America
Belize 16.7% [93] 33.8% [93] 50.5% [93]
Costa Rica 1% [94] 15% [94] 16% [94]
El Salvador 1% [95] 90% [95] 91% [95]
Guatemala 40.8% [96]  %  %
Honduras 7% [97] 90% [97] 97% [97]
Nicaragua 5% [98] 69% [98] 74% [98]
Panama 6% [99] 84% [99] 90% [99]
Antigua and Barbuda  %  %  %
Barbados  %  %  %
The Bahamas  %  %  %
Cuba  %  %  %
Dominica 2.9% [100]  %  %
Dominican Republic  %  %  %
Grenada ~0% [101] ~0% [101] ~0% [101]
Haiti ~0% [102] ~0% [102] ~0% [102]
Jamaica  %  %  %
Puerto Rico 0.4% [103] 84% [104] 84%
Saint Kitts and Nevis  %  %  %
Saint Lucia  %  %  %
Saint Vincent and
the Grenadines
2% [105]  %  %
Trinidad and Tobago 0.8% 88% 80%
South America
Argentina 1.0% [106] 2% 3% [107]
Bolivia 55% [108] 30% [108] 85% [108]
Brazil 0.4% [109]  %  %
Chile 4.6% [110]  %  %
Colombia 1% [111] 58% [111] 59% [111]
Ecuador 25% [112] 65% [112] 90% [112]
French Guiana  %  %  %
Guyana 9.1% [113]  %  %
Paraguay 1.7% [114] 95% [115] 96.7%
Peru 45% [116] 37% [116] 82% [116]
Suriname 2% [117]  %  %
Uruguay 0% [118] 8% [118] 8% [118]
Venezuela  %  %  %

History and status by country


Amerindian children walking by the streets of Purmamarca, Jujuy Province, Argentina.

Argentina's indigenous population in 2005 was about 600,329 (1.6% of total population); this figure includes 457,363 people who self-identified as belonging to an indigenous ethnic group, and the remaining 142,966 who recognized themselves as first-generation descendants of an Amerindian people.[10] The ten most populous indigenous peoples are the Mapuche (113,680 people), the Kolla (70,505), the Toba (69,452), the Guaraní (68,454), the Wichi (40,036), the Diaguita-Calchaquí (31,753), the Mocoví (15,837), the Huarpe (14,633), the Comechingón (10,863) and the Tehuelche (10,590). Minor but important peoples are the Quechua (6,739), the Charrúa (4,511), the Pilagá (4,465), the Chané (4,376), and the Chorote (2,613). The Selknam (Ona) people are now virtually extinct in its pure form. The languages of the Diaguita, Tehuelche, and Selknam nations are now extinct or virtually extinct: the Cacán language (spoken by Diaguitas) in the 18th century, the Selknam language in the 20th century; whereas one Tehuelche language (Southern Tehuelche) is still spoken by a small handful of elderly people.


Mestizos (European with indigenous peoples) number about 34 percent of the population; unmixed Maya make up another 10.6 percent (Ketchi, Mopan, and Yucatec). The Garifuna, who came to Belize in the 19th century, originating from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, with a mixed African, Carib, and Arawak ancestry make up another 6% of the population.[93]


Bolivia and Perú have a dominant Native American population

In Bolivia, a 62% majority of residents over the age of 15 self-identify as belonging to an indigenous people, while another 3.7% grew up with an indigenous mother tongue yet do not self-identify as indigenous.[119] Including both of these categories, and children under 15, some 66.4% of Bolivia's population was registered as indigenous in the 2001 Census.[120] The largest indigenous ethnic groups are: Quechua, about 2.5 million people; Aymara, 2.0 million; Chiquitano, 181 thousand; Guaraní, 126 thousand; and Mojeño, 69 thousand. Some 124 thousand pertain to smaller indigenous groups.[121] The Constitution of Bolivia, enacted in 2009, recognizes 36 cultures, each with their own language, as part of a plurinational state. Others, including CONAMAQ (the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qollasuyu) draw ethnic boundaries within the Quechua- and Aymara-speaking population, resulting in a total of fifty indigenous peoples native to Bolivia.

Large numbers of Bolivian highland peasants retained indigenous language, culture, customs, and communal organization throughout the Spanish conquest and the post-independence period. They mobilized to resist various attempts at the dissolution of communal landholdings, and used legal recognition of "empowered caciques" to further communal organization. Indigenous revolts took place frequently until 1953.[122] While the National Revolutionary Movement government begun in 1952 discouraged self-identification as indigenous (reclassifying rural people as campesinos, or peasants), renewed ethnic and class militancy re-emerged in the Katarista movement beginning in the 1970s.[123] Lowland indigenous peoples, mostly in the east, entered national politics through the 1990 March for Territory and Dignity organized by the CIDOB confederation. That march successfully pressured the national government to sign ILO Convention 169 and to begin a still-ongoing process of recognizing and titling indigenous territories. The 1994 Law of Popular Participation granted "grassroots territorial organizations" recognized by the state certain rights to govern local areas.

Radio and some television in Quechua and Aymara is produced. The constitutional reform in 1997 for the first time recognized Bolivia as a multilingual, pluri-ethnic society and introduced education reform. In 2005, for the first time in the country's history, an indigenous descendant Aymara, Evo Morales, was elected as President.

Morales began work on his “indigenous autonomy” policy which he launched in the eastern lowlands department on 3 August 2009, making Bolivia the first country in the history of South America to declare the right of indigenous people to govern themselves.[124] Speaking in Santa Cruz Department, the President called it "a historic day for the peasant and indigenous movement", saying that he might make errors but he would "never betray the fight started by our ancestors and the fight of the Bolivian people".[124] A vote on further autonomy will take place in referendums which are expected to be held in December 2009.[124] The issue has divided the country.[125]


Brazilian Indigenous chiefs of the Kayapo tribe: Raony, Kaye, Kadjor, Panara

The Amerindians make up 0.4% of Brazil's population, or about 700,000 people.[72] Indigenous peoples are found in the entire territory of Brazil, although the majority of them live in Indian reservations in the North and Centre-Western part of the country. On 18 January 2007, FUNAI reported that it had confirmed the presence of 67 different uncontacted tribes in Brazil, up from 40 in 2005. With this addition Brazil has now overtaken the island of New Guinea as the country having the largest number of uncontacted tribes.[126]


Bill Reid's sculpture The Raven and The First Men. The Raven represents the Trickster figure common to many mythologies.

Aboriginal peoples in Canada comprise the First Nations,[127] Inuit[128] and Métis;[129] the descriptors "Indian" and "Eskimo" are falling into disuse.[130] Hundreds of Aboriginal nations evolved trade, spiritual and social hierarchies. The Métis culture of mixed blood originated in the mid-17th century when First Nation and native Inuit married European settlers.[131] The Inuit had more limited interaction with European settlers during that early period.[132] Various laws, treaties, and legislation have been enacted between European immigrants and First Nations across Canada. Aboriginal Right to Self-Government provides opportunity to manage historical, cultural, political, health care and economic control aspects within first people's communities.

Although not without conflict, European/Canadian early interactions with First Nations and Inuit populations were relatively peaceful, compared to the experience of native peoples in the United States. Combined with relatively late economic development in many regions, this peaceful history has allowed Canadian Indigenous peoples to have a relatively strong influence on the national culture while preserving their own identity.[133] National Aboriginal Day recognises the cultures and contributions of Aboriginal peoples of Canada.[134] There are currently over 600 recognized First Nations governments or bands encompassing 1,172,790 2006 people spread across Canada with distinctive Aboriginal cultures, languages, art, and music.[135][136][137]


According to the 2002 Census, 4.6% of the Chilean population, including the Rapanui of Easter Island, was indigenous, although most show varying degrees of miscegenation.[138] Many are descendants of the Mapuche, and live in Santiago, Araucanía and the lake district. The Mapuche successfully fought off defeat in the first 300–350 years of Spanish rule during the Arauco War. Relations with the new Chilean Republic were good until the Chilean state decided to occupy their lands. During the Occupation of Araucanía the Mapuche surrendered to the country's army in the 1880s. Their land was opened to settlement by Chileans and Europeans. Conflict over Mapuche land rights continued until present days.

Other groups include the Aimara who live mainly in Arica-Parinacota and Tarapacá Region and has the mayority of their alikes living in Bolivia and Peru and the Alacalufe survivors who now reside mainly in Puerto Edén.


Sculpture of a Chibchan-Sutagao Native American standing at the entrance of Fusagasugá, Colombia

A small minority today within Colombia's overwhelmingly Mestizo and Afro-Colombian population, Colombia's indigenous peoples nonetheless encompass at least 85 distinct cultures and more than 1,378,884 people.[139][140] A variety of collective rights for indigenous peoples are recognized in the 1991 Constitution.

One of these is the Muisca culture, a subset of the larger Chibcha ethnic group, famous for their use of gold, which led to the legend of El Dorado. At the time of the Spanish conquest, the Chibchas were the largest native civilization between the Incas and the Aztecs.

Costa Rica

There are over 60,000 inhabitants of Native American origins, representing 1.5% of the population. Most of them live in secluded reservations, distributed among eight ethnic groups: Quitirrisí (In the Central Valley), Matambú or Chorotega (Guanacaste), Maleku (Northern Alajuela), Bribri (Southern Atlantic), Cabécar (Cordillera de Talamanca), Guaymí (Southern Costa Rica, along the Panamá border), Boruca (Southern Costa Rica) and Térraba (Southern Costa Rica).

These native groups are characterized for their work in wood, like masks, drums and other artistic figures, as well as fabrics made of cotton.

Their subsistence is based on agriculture, having corn, beans and plantains as the main crops.


Otavaleña girl from Ecuador

Ecuador was the site of many indigenous cultures, and civilizations of different proportions. An early sedentary culture, known as the Valdivia culture, developed in the coastal region, while the Caras and the Quitus unified to form an elaborate civilization that ended at the birth of the Capital Quito. The Cañaris near Cuenca were the most advanced, and most feared by the Inca, due to their fierce resistance to the Incan expansion. Their architecture remains were later destroyed by Spaniards and the Incas.

Approximately 96.4% of Ecuador's Indigenous population are Highland Quichuas living in the valleys of the Sierra region. Primarily consisting of the descendents of Incans, they are Kichwa speakers and include the Caranqui, the Otavaleños, the Cayambi, the Quitu-Caras, the Panzaleo, the Chimbuelo, the Salasacan, the Tugua, the Puruhá, the Cañari, and the Saraguro. Linguistic evidence suggests that the Salascan and the Saraguro may have been the descendants of Bolivian ethnic groups transplanted to Ecuador as mitimaes.

Coastal groups, including the Awá, Chachi, and the Tsáchila, make up 0.24% percent of the indigenous population, while the remaining 3.35 percent live in the Oriente and consist of the Oriente Kichwa (the Canelo and the Quijos), the Shuar, the Huaorani, the Siona-Secoya, the Cofán, and the Achuar.

In 1986, indigenous people formed the first "truly" national political organization. The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) has been the primary political institution of the Indigenous since then and is now the second largest political party in the nation. It has been influential in national politics, contributing to the ouster of presidents Abdalá Bucaram in 1997 and Jamil Mahuad in 2000.

El Salvador

Much of El Salvador was home to the Pipil, Lenca, and a number of Maya. The Pipil lived in western El Salvador, spoke Nahuat, and had many settlements there most noticeably the Señorío of Cuzcatlán . The Pipil had no treasure but held land that had rich and fertile soil, good for farming. This both disappointed and garnered attention from the Spaniards who were shocked not to find gold or jewels in El Salvador like they did in other lands like Guatemala or Mexico, but later learned of the fertile land El Salvador had to offer and attempted to conquer it. Noticeable Meso-American Indigenous warriors to rise militarily against the Spanish are Prince Atonal and Atlacatl of the Pipil people in central El Salvador, and Princess Antu Silan Ulap of the Lenca people in eastern El Salvador, who saw the Spanish not as gods, but as barbaric invaders. After fierce battles, the Pipil successfully retreated the Spanish army lead by Pedro de Alvarado along with their mexican indian allies the (tlaxcalas) sending them back to Guatemala for some time. At first the Pipil people had repelled Spanish Attacks but after many other attacks and reinforcing their army with Guatemalan indians allies, the Spanish were able to conquer Cuzcatlán, later the Spanish after many struggles, were also able to conquered the Lenca people and eventually racial intermingling between the Spaniards and the Pipil and Lenca women resulted in Mestizo population which later would become today's El Salvador descendants. Today many Pipil and Indigenous populations live in small towns of El Salvador like Izalco, Panchimalco, Sacacoyo, and Nahuizalco.


Many of the indigenous peoples of Guatemala are of Maya heritage. Other groups are Xinca people and Garifuna.

Pure Maya account for some 40 percent of the population; although around 40 percent of the population speaks an indigenous language, those tongues (of which there are more than 20) enjoy no official status. Guatemala's majority population holds a percentage of 59.4% in White or Mestizo (of mixed White and Amerindian ancestry) people. The area of Livingston, Guatemala is highly influenced by the Caribbean and its population includes a combination of Mestizos and Garifuna people.


About 5 percent of the population are of full-blooded Amerindian descent, but upwards to 80 percent more or the majority of Hondurans are mestizo or part-Amerindian with Caucasian, and about 10 percent are of Amerindian and/or African descent.[141] The main concentration of Amerindians in Honduras are in the rural westernmost areas facing Guatemala and to the Caribbean Sea coastline, as well on the Nicaraguan border.[141] The majority of indigenous people are Lencas, Miskitos to the east, Mayans, Pech, Sumos, and Tolupan.[141]


Benito Juárez, an indigenous Zapotec and President of Mexico from 1858 to 1872. He was the first president with indigenous roots in the Americas.

The territory of modern-day Mexico was home to numerous indigenous civilizations prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores: The Olmecs, who flourished from between 1200 BCE to about 400 BCE in the coastal regions of the Gulf of Mexico; the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs, who held sway in the mountains of Oaxaca and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec; the Maya in the Yucatán (and into neighbouring areas of contemporary Central America); the P'urhépecha or Tarascan in present day Michoacán and surrounding areas, and the Aztecs/Mexica, who, from their central capital at Tenochtitlan, dominated much of the centre and south of the country (and the non-Aztec inhabitants of those areas) when Hernán Cortés first landed at Veracruz.

In contrast to what was the general rule in the rest of North America, the history of the colony of New Spain was one of racial intermingling (mestizaje). Mestizos quickly came to account for a majority of the colony's population; however, significant numbers and communities of indígenas (as the native peoples are now known) survive to the present day. The CDI identifies 62 indigenous groups in Mexico, each with a unique language.[142]

In the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca and in the interior of the Yucatán peninsula the majority of the population is indigenous. Large indigenous minorities, including Aztecs or Nahua, P'urhépechas, Mazahua, Otomi, and Mixtecs are also present in the central regions of Mexico. In Northern Mexico indigenous people are a small minority.

The "General Law of Linguistic Rights of the Indigenous Peoples" grants all indigenous languages spoken in Mexico, regardless of the number of speakers, the same validity as Spanish in all territories in which they are spoken, and indigenous peoples are entitled to request some public services and documents in their native languages.[143] Along with Spanish, the law has granted them — more than 60 languages — the status of "national languages". The law includes all Amerindian languages regardless of origin; that is, it includes the Amerindian languages of ethnic groups non-native to the territory. As such the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples recognizes the language of the Kickapoo, who immigrated from the United States,[144] and recognizes the languages of the Guatemalan Amerindian refugees.[145] The Mexican government has promoted and established bilingual primary and secondary education in some indigenous rural communities. Nonetheless, of the indigenous peoples in Mexico, only about 67% of them (or 5.4% of the country's population) speak an Amerindian language and about a sixth do not speak Spanish (1.2% of the country's population).[146]

The indigenous peoples in Mexico have the right of free determination under the second article of the constitution. According to this article the indigenous peoples are granted:[147]

  • the right to decide the internal forms of social, economic, political and cultural organization;
  • the right to apply their own normative systems of regulation as long as human rights and gender equality are respected;
  • the right to preserve and enrich their languages and cultures;
  • the right to elect representatives before the municipal council in which their territories are located;

amongst other rights.


The Miskito are a native people in Central America. Their territory extended from Cape Camarón, Honduras, to Rio Grande, Nicaragua along the Mosquito Coast. There is a native Miskito language, but large groups speak Miskito Coastal Creole, Spanish, Rama and other languages. The Creole English came about through frequent contact with the British who colonized the area. Many are Christians.

Traditional Miskito society was highly structured with a defined political structure. There was a king, but he did not have total power. Instead, the power was split between himself, a governor, a general, and by the 1750s, an admiral. Historical information on kings is often obscured by the fact that many of the kings were semi-mythical.


Indigenous population in Peru make up around 30%[116] Native Peruvian traditions and customs have shaped the way Peruvians live and see themselves today. Cultural citizenship—or what Renato Rosaldo has called, "the right to be different and to belong, in a democratic, participatory sense" (1996:243)—is not yet very well developed in Peru. This is perhaps no more apparent than in the country's Amazonian regions where indigenous societies continue to struggle against state-sponsored economic abuses, cultural discrimination, and pervasive violence.[148]

United States

A Choctaw Belle in 1850, painted by P. Romer

Indigenous peoples in what is now the contiguous United States are commonly called "American Indians", or just "Indians" domestically, but are also often referred to as "Native Americans". In Alaska, indigenous peoples, which include Native Americans, Yupik and Inupiat Eskimos, and Aleuts, are referred to collectively as Alaska Natives.

Native Americans and Alaska Natives make up 2 percent of the population, with more than 6 million people identifying themselves as such, although only 1.8 million are recognized as registered tribal members. Tribes have established their own rules for membership, some of which are increasingly exclusive. More people have unrecognized Native American ancestry together with other ethnic groups. A minority of U.S. Native Americans live in land units called Indian reservations. Some southwestern U.S. tribes, such as the Yaqui and Apache, have registered tribal communities in Northern Mexico. Similarly, some northern bands of Blackfoot reside in southern Alberta, Canada, in addition to within US borders.

An Inuit woman

A number of Kumeyaay communities may be found in the Mexican State of Baja California.


Most Venezuelans have some indigenous heritage, but the indigenous population make up only around 2% of the total population. They speak around 29 different languages and many more dialects, but some of the ethnic groups are very small and their languages are in danger of becoming extinct in the next decades. The most important indigenous groups are the Ye'kuana, the Wayuu, the Pemon and the Warao. The most advanced native people to have lived in present-day Venezuela is thought to have been the Timoto-cuicas, who mainly lived in the Venezuelan Andes. In total it is estimated that there were between 350 thousand and 500 thousand inhabitants, the most densely populated area being the Andean region (Timoto-cuicas), thanks to the advanced agricultural techniques used.

The 1999 constitution of Venezuela gives them special rights, although the vast majority of them still live in very critical conditions of poverty. The largest groups receive some basic primary education in their languages.

Other parts of the Americas

Indigenous peoples make up the majority of the population in Bolivia and Peru, and are a significant element in most other former Spanish colonies. Exceptions to this include Costa Rica, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Dominican Republic, and Uruguay. At least four of the native American languages (Quechua in Peru and Bolivia; Aymara also in Peru, Bolivia and Chile, Guaraní in Paraguay, and Greenlandic in Greenland) are recognized as official languages languages (or Aymara in Chile, by regional basis).

Native American name controversy

The Native American name controversy is an ongoing dispute over the acceptable ways to refer to the indigenous peoples of the Americas and to broad subsets thereof, such as those living in a specific country or sharing certain cultural attributes. Once-common terms like "Indian" remain in use, despite the introduction of terms such as "Native American" and "Amerindian" during the latter half of the 20th century.[149][150][151]

Rise of indigenous movements

In recent years, there has been a rise of indigenous movements in the Americas (mainly South America). These are rights-driven groups that organize themselves in order to achieve some sort of self-determination and the preservation of their culture for their peoples. Organizations like the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin and the Indian Council of South America are examples of movements that are breaking the barrier of borders in order to obtain rights for Amazonian indigenous populations everywhere. Similar movements for indigenous rights can also be seen in Canada and the United States, with movements like the International Indian Treaty Council and the accession of native Indian group into the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization.

There has also been a recognition of indigenous movements on an international scale, with the United Nations adopting the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, despite dissent from the stronger countries of the Americas.

In Colombia, various indigenous groups protested the denial of their rights. People organized a march in Cali in October 2008 to demand the government live up to promises to protect indigenous lands, defend the indigenous against violence, and reconsider the free trade pact with the United States.[152]

Legal prerogative

With the rise to power of governments in Venezuela, Ecuador, Paraguay, and especially Bolivia where Evo Morales was the first indigenous descendant elected president of Bolivia, the indigenous movement gained a strong foothold.

Amerikanska folk (American people), from the Nordisk familjebok (1904), vol. 1., accredited to the Bibliographisches Institut, Leipzig

Representatives from indigenous and rural organizations from major South American countries, including Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile and Brazil, started a forum in support of Morales' legal process of change. The meeting condemned plans by the European "foreign" power elite to destabilize the country. The forum also expressed solidarity with the Morales and his economic and social changes in the interest of historically marginalized majorities. Furthermore, in a cathartic blow to the US-backed elite, it questioned US interference through diplomats and NGO's. The forum was suspicious of plots against Bolivia and other countries, including Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Paraguay and Nicaragua.[153]

The forum rejected the supposed violent method used by regional civic leaders from the called "Crescent departments" in Bolivia to impose their autonomous statutes, applauded the decision to expel the US ambassador to Bolivia, and reafirmed the sovereignty and independence of the presidency. Amongst others, representatives of CONAIE, the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, the Chilean Council of All Lands, and the Brazilian Landless Movement participated in the forum.[153]


Schematic illustration of maternal geneflow in and out of Beringia.Colours of the arrows correspond to approximate timing of the events and are decoded in the coloured time-bar. The initial peopling of Berinigia (depicted in light yellow) was followed by a standstill after which the ancestors of indigenous Americans spread swiftly all over the New World while some of the Beringian maternal lineages–C1a-spread westwards. More recent (shown in green) genetic exchange is manifested by back-migration of A2a into Siberia and the spread of D2a into north-eastern America that post-dated the initial peopling of the New World.
Schematic illustration of maternal (mtDNA) gene-flow in and out of Beringia, from 25,000 years ago to present.

Genetic history of indigenous peoples of the Americas primarily focus on Human Y-chromosome DNA haplogroups and Human mitochondrial DNA haplogroups. "Y-DNA" is passed solely along the patrilineal line, from father to son, while "mtDNA" is passed down the matrilineal line, from mother to offspring of both sexes. Neither recombines, and thus Y-DNA and mtDNA change only by chance mutation at each generation with no intermixture between parents' genetic material.[154] Autosomal "atDNA" markers are also used, but differ from mtDNA or Y-DNA in that they overlap significantly.[155] AtDNA is generally used to measure the average continent-of-ancestry genetic admixture in the entire human genome and related isolated populations.[155]

The genetic pattern indicates Indigenous Amerindians experienced two very distinctive genetic episodes; first with the initial-peopling of the Americas, and secondly with European colonization of the Americas.[29][156][157] The former is the determinant factor for the number of gene lineages, zygosity mutations and founding haplotypes present in today's Indigenous Amerindian populations.[156]

Human settlement of the New World occurred in stages from the Bering sea coast line, with an initial 15, 000 to 20,000-year layover on Beringia for the small founding population.[29][158][159] The micro-satellite diversity and distributions of the Y lineage specific to South America indicates that certain Amerindian populations have been isolated since the initial colonization of the region.[160] The Na-Dené, Inuit and Indigenous Alaskan populations exhibit haplogroup Q (Y-DNA) mutations, however are distinct from other indigenous Amerindians with various mtDNA and atDNA mutations.[161][162][163] This suggests that the earliest migrants into the northern extremes of North America and Greenland derived from later migrant populations.[164][165]

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