The Silent Heritage: 15 Facts About Native American History Every One Should Know

In honor of Native American Day, we took a moment to check some of our misconceptions and common biases about the Native American culture.

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Though most people probably don’t know it, September 26 is Native American Day. What we know, or what we think we know, about Native American culture is often a mix of folklore, actual facts and misinformation from the media, thanks to the portrayal of Native Americans on television, in movies and our schools’ history books. For example, it’s interesting to know how Spotted Tail Brule, a Sioux leader in 1877, viewed the war his people fought.

He said, “This war did not spring up here in our land. It was brought upon us by the children of the Great Father (whites) who came to take our land from us without price, and who do many evil things…It seems to me that there is a better way than this. When people come to trouble it is better for both parties to come together without arms, to talk it over, and find some peaceful way to settle.” In honor of Native American Day, we took a moment to check some of our misconceptions and common biases about the indigenous people of North America. Here are 15 facts about Native American culture and history that everyone should know.

1. Pocahontas is just a Disney movie

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Matoaka was her real name and the Powhatan Nation vehemently disagrees with the Disney version of her story. They allege that at age 17, she was actually taken prisoner by the English and agreed to marry John Rolfe in exchange for her freedom.

2. The term “Indian” came from Christopher Columbus

When good old Chris set sail, he thought he had reached South Asia or the West Indies upon collision with North America. He dubbed the people he encountered “Indians” accordingly.

3. There are 562 federally recognized Indian Nations in the U.S.

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Know what’s even cooler than the sheer number of them? The fact that women led a quarter of these tribes. Rock on, sisters!

4. In 1600, 60 million buffalo roamed North America; by 1890 they were nearly extinct

According to some stories about Native American culture, this sacred animal was used horn to hoof by many Native American tribes. Upon the arrival of the ‘white man’, it became game to hunt for sport and they were nearly wiped out. Without this precious resource, Native Americans suffered as they lost a major source of food, tools, clothing and shelter.

5. Native American art isn’t just found in the Smithsonian


Paintings, pottery and jewelry can be found on display in many museums but also for sale in local markets thanks to artisans who have learned their craft from the elders who came before them.

6. Sacagewea was 17 when she guided Lewis and Clark and died at 25

It was this powerful woman’s knowledge of the land and the language that made Lewis and Clark’s journey successful. PBS says, “Sacagawea turned out to be incredibly valuable to the Corps as it traveled westward, through the territories of many new tribes. Some of these Indians, prepared to defend their lands, had never seen white men before. As Clark noted on October 19, 1805, the Indians were inclined to believe that the whites were friendly when they saw Sacagawea. A war party never traveled with a woman—especially a woman with a baby. During council meetings between Indian chiefs and the Corps where Shoshone was spoke, Sacagawea was used and valued as an interpreter.”

7. Navajo frybread has a painful past

Navajo bread of the Navajo native american culture

While delicious and an authentic staple of Native Americans, Navajo frybread owes its origins to the rations given to Native Americans living in Arizona, when the U.S. forced them to walk 300 miles to New Mexico over rough terrain. Today, this high-fat traditional food is thought to contribute to high rates of obesity and diabetes on reservations.

8. The Trail of Tears

In 1838, the U.S. government forced 16,000 Cherokee people to leave their homes and relocate to Indian Territory—now Oklahoma. Hundreds died along the way. You can actually walk the Trail of Tears today if you’re feeling both adventurous and sympathetic.

9. Navajo Code talkers helped us win WWII


The Navajo language was used in secret international communication to create codes that the Japanese couldn’t break. The Code Talkers weren’t publicly recognized until 1992 despite being integral to every assault by the United States Marines in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945.

10. Sacheen Littlefeather refused Marlon Brando’s Oscar

In 1973, the always unpredictable Marlon Brando sent 26-year-old activist Sacheen Littlefeather to reject his Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather on his behalf. Entertainment Weekly says, “It was one of the most memorable moments in the history of the Academy Awards—and one of the most controversial…Littlefeather explained that Brando was regretfully turning down the award to protest ‘the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry’ and the ongoing siege of 200 American Indian Movement activists by armed authorities in Wounded Knee, S.D.”

11. Native American languages are disappearing


As the Native American population dwindles, so do their many languages. There were once approximately 20 million Native Americans in North America and now there are less than two million. At one time, there were as many as 250 indigenous languages spoken in the U.S. and Canada—today only eight remain.

12. Thanksgiving

In 1621, one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations was with the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, but no turkey was served. The Native Americans often consumed wild turkey but it wasn’t mentioned at all in the eyewitness account from Edward Winslow. He did say, however, that the hunters brought back waterfowl like ducks and geese.

13. White settlers brought guns and disease to Native Americans


As the settlers made their way west, they decimated the Native American population by hunting buffalo to near extinction and introducing new diseases. With dwindling land and limited resources, the Plains natives were relegated to government reservations.

14. Sequoyah’s Talking Leaves

Sequoyah was a Cherokee who developed a writing system of the Cherokee language. After the war, he created a phonetic alphabet that included 86 symbols. It was the first time the Cherokee language had been written in such a way and created the means to literacy for thousands.

15. Jim Thorpe was a Native American


Olympic gold medalist and professional football player, Jim Thorpe, grew up in the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma.

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