Hello, and welcome to Native Languages of the Americas! We are a non-profit organization working to preserve and promote American Indian languages,
particularly through the use of Internet technology. Because of our website's mission, most of the information we provide is about individual tribes.
There are many different Indian tribes and nations, and they all have unique cultures and traditions. On this page we have provided the answers to
questions about Native Americans in general that we are frequently asked by younger readers. If you have a question that is not addressed on this
page, please contact us with it and we may add the answer to this page!
Q: What is the difference between "American Indian," "Native American," "First Nations," and "indigenous people"?
Which one should I use?
A: "American Indians," "Native Americans," and "First Nations people" are synonyms. They all refer to the same people. "Indigenous
people" is a broader term that refers to any culture that lived in a place first. So Native Americans are all indigenous people, but not all indigenous
people are Native Americans. For example, native African cultures are also indigenous.
Most indigenous people in the US use "American Indian," and most indigenous people in Canada use "First Nations." "Native Americans" or
"indigenous Americans" are frequently used to refer to people in both countries. Some native people have a preference for one term or the
other, but none of them are offensive. Most Native Americans identify themselves primarily by their tribe (such as Cherokee) anyway.
It's better to avoid using "Red Indian," for two reasons: first, this name originally referred to a specific tribe, the
Beothuks, who painted their bodies and faces with red ochre.
So it may cause confusion if you use it to refer to all Native Americans. Second, the term "Red Indians" has been used by racists in the United States,
so using it may hurt somebody's feelings or give them the wrong impression. Please do not call native people "savages," "primitives" or
"redskins." Those are always rude words.
Q: Are Inuit/Eskimos Native American? What about Hawaiians? What about the Metis?
A: No. Like the Native Americans, these three groups are indigenous peoples of Canada and the United States. However, they have unique
histories and cultures and consider themselves distinct from Native Americans. The
Inuit are polar people who live in the far north of Canada, Alaska,
and Greenland. (The word "Eskimo" is considered rude by many Inuit.) The
Hawaiians are Polynesian people who are considered indigenous Americans for
political reasons (the Hawaiian islands are very far from the North American mainland, but were annexed by the United States). The
mixed-race people whose ancestors were primarily Cree Indians and
French Canadians. They have developed a unique culture from these two influences.
The Native Americans, Metis, Inuit, and Hawaiians all face similar problems for their languages and cultures, but they consider themselves
Q: What were Native American cultures like in the past? What are they like now?
A: There are hundreds of indigenous American cultures, from California to Maine, from the Yukon to Argentina. These cultures can be
as different from each other as Chinese culture is from French. If you want to learn about Native American culture, the best idea is to pick a specific
Native American tribe to learn about. Then, if you are very interested, you can learn
about a second tribe and compare their societies and traditions.
Q: What did Native Americans look like in the past? What were their clothes and hairstyles like?
A: They didn't all look the same. For one thing, different tribes had different typical clothing styles. As you can imagine, Gwich'in people in
Alaska didn't dress the same as Calusa Indians in southern Florida! For another thing, individual Native American people in the same tribe often
looked quite different from each other. All their clothes were made by hand, and they were usually decorated with designs, beadwork, and other art,
so no two people in the tribe had the same dress. But here are some pictures of Indian clothes
and moccasins to give you a general idea of what traditional Native American clothing looked like.
And here is a page showing several different Native American hair styles.
Q: What kinds of houses did Native Americans live in?
A: Many different kinds. Each Native American tribe needed a type of housing that would fit their lifestyle and their climate.
Tribes that moved from place to place needed houses that were portable or easy to build, while tribes that stayed in one place
wanted to build houses that would last a long time. Tribes from cold areas needed houses that would protect them from the weather,
while tribes in warm areas didn't have to worry about that. Here is a page with pictures and descriptions of
Native American homes
from many different parts of North America.
Q: How many Native Americans are there today?
A: According to the census reports, there are about 2 million Native Americans in the United States and 1 million in Canada.
Q: How many Native American languages are there, and how many people speak them?
A: There are about 150 Native American languages in Canada and the United States, and another 600-700 languages in Central and South
America. We don't know exactly how many languages there are because not everyone agrees on which languages are unique. If two languages are
similar enough that speakers can usually understand each other, they are called dialects of the same language. For example, American
English and British English are dialects. On the other hand, English and German are different languages, because even though they are related,
an English speaker can't necessarily understand a German speaker. However, sometimes there are borderline cases. For example, Spanish and Italian
speakers can often understand each other. And sometimes speakers of two dialects of English can hardly understand each other at all (especially
when they're talking quickly!) So although most linguists consider East Cree and Plains Cree to be dialects of the same Cree language, some people
believe they should count as two languages because Cree speakers can't always understand each other. So depending on how you count them,
there are between 750-850 indigenous languages spoken in North, Central, and South America. There are about half a million speakers of indigenous
languages in Canada and the US, and as many as 25 million speakers in Central and South America.
Q: What does it mean when you say Native American languages are endangered?
A: If children stop learning their native language, the languages can die out just like endangered species. Some Native American
communities are bilingual, but in most places parents have stopped teaching children their native language. In the past, the United States
and Canadian governments used to take Indian children away from non-English-speaking homes, without their parents' permission, and put them
into boarding schools. This was extremely traumatic for the children, so many parents stopped using their native languages to try and
protect them. This bad policy was eliminated, but now many Native Americans have grown up without their language, and it is difficult to
try to learn a new language as an adult. Some communities are trying to recruit elders to teach the youngest generation the language before it is too late.
Q: Is there anything I can do to help preserve Native American languages?
A: If you are Indian, learn your language! More than anything else, this is in the hands of the kids. Young people can learn
a language more quickly and easily than older people. Visit older relatives and record them talking. You can make a difference.
If you are not Indian, or if you have distant Native American relatives but nobody you could learn the language from, you can still
learn some words the same way you learn any other foreign language. You could even study linguistics when you grow up, and help
Native American communities preserve their languages first-hand!
Q: Will you help me write a report about Native Americans?
A: We cannot do your homework for you, however, we can show you where to find some useful American Indian information. See our
Native American Kids Menu for our answers to kids' questions about thirty different
Native American tribes (more coming soon). You can also see our main Native American
Culture Menu for information and links on more tribes; though these pages do not have kids' sections yet, they do have linguistic
material and good links to valuable American Indians information.
Q: Can you translate something into a Native American language for me?
A: Unfortunately, no. We don't have time to provide free translation services. However, you can find links to various online
dictionaries and vocabulary sites from our list of Native American tribes and their languages.
There is also a nice page here that lists the word "Hello!" and other common
phrases in many languages, including Native American languages.
Q: Can you help me find a good book about Native Americans?
A: You can have a look at our list of Native American Books.
Depending on your age, some of these books may be too hard or just right for you. I especially recommend the
Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes
for younger readers--if your library doesn't have it, ask them to get it!
Q: Can you help me find a good Native American arts and crafts project for my class?
A: Please avoid projects that mimic Native American religious objects like kachinas or spirit masks. These objects
are sacred to many Native Americans, and making inaccurate imitations out of toilet paper tubes and paper mache is offensive to them.
One of the best choices for a Native American art project for kids is making
dreamcatchers. This traditional Ojibway craft is an appropriate project for kids,
is easy to make, and doesn't have a single culturally acceptable form (so kids can use their creativity.) Here are some online
instructions for making a dreamcatcher, but you can adapt it in many different ways.
Corn husk dolls are another great choice that can be decorated in multiple ways. Here's
one way to fold them and here's
another. Finally, another possibility for older kids is
trying their hand at Native American beading. Many Indian beadwork styles are
too complicated for beginners, but even kids can often make a nice design on a square of suede or felt using the
lazy stitch style, or you could try making simple jewelry with one of
Q: I'm supposed to do my homework about Native American religion but I can't find anything but ads?
A: It is almost impossible to learn anything about Native American religions online. First of all, every tribe has slightly different
traditions. Second, many of these traditions are private and Native Americans don't talk about them on the Internet. And third, there is a lot
of spam (mass-produced, incorrect information trying to fool people) on the web about Native American religions--
white people who are dishonest sometimes pretend to be Native American in order to trick people into giving them money for fake Indian rituals.
That is why you see all the webpages making strange claims or trying to sell you things.
There is a good overview of traditional American Indian religion
here. It is a little hard for younger students to
read, but it is the most accurate thing we have seen online on this topic. There is some more information about American Indian religions
Q: How did Native Americans get to the Americas?
A: Native American tradition says that Indians were always here. Most of the scientific evidence suggests that Indian ancestors
came from Asia in prehistoric times, either by foot over a land bridge or using ancient boats. This would have happened more than 20,000 years ago,
and no human culture has good records of what it was doing 20,000 years ago, so perhaps we're both right.
Q: Did Viking explorers meet the Native Americans before Columbus did?
A: Yes. There are archaeological remains of their settlements in Newfoundland, and both Norse sagas and Indian oral history describe the
encounter. The Indians the Vikings met were probably the Beothuk, though
they may also have encountered the Micmac.
Q: Where do Native Americans live today?
A: Most still live in North America, in what are now Canada and the United States. Some Indians live in cities and towns with Americans and
Canadians of other races, while others live on reservations or reserves--special villages and lands which are under Indian jurisdiction, and
therefore have some different laws than the rest of the state or province. For example, on many Indian reservations, alcohol is illegal. On some gambling is
legal. The Hopi reservation doesn't follow Daylight Savings Time. Tax laws are different. Native Americans living on reservations/reserves are citizens of the
United States or Canada, obeying federal laws, voting, and serving in the armed forces, but they are also subject to tribal laws and elect tribal leadership.
Q: Aren't there Native Americans in Central and South America, too?
A: Definitely! In fact, there are many more indigenous people in Central and South America than there are in Canada and the United States.
Here is a nice website about Central and South American Indian cultures.
Q: Why don't Native Americans like sports teams with Indian mascots?
A: Some Native Americans find the concept of using humans as mascots spiritually offensive, but most native people who object to sports teams
are doing it because of specifically racist aspects of the teams. For example, "Redskins" and "Squaws" are such crude words I really hesitated to use them
on this page at all, but major professional and college sports teams use them as their names. Other teams with non-offensive names, like "Indians" or
"Warriors," still use offensive pictures (like the Cleveland Indian mascot)
or have white dancers mimicking Native American religious rituals. These things are hurtful and make Indians feel angry, just as mocking pictures and names making fun
of you would. Most Native Americans do not have a problem with sports teams that have non-offensive names and do not include rude pictures or religious insults. Some
Native American tribes have welcomed local sports teams named in their honor when those teams treat them respectfully.