Social Work Native Americans
Hilary N. Weaver
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0098


Native Americans are the descendants of the original inhabitants of what has become the United States. As Indigenous Peoples who retain vestiges of sovereignty, they are not the equivalent of other ethnic or cultural groups, thus some laws and social policies apply only and specifically to this population. Readers should be aware that the definition of “Native American” used by one source may not be applicable to another. Each Native nation (or tribe) has the ability to determine criteria for membership in that nation. Some Native nations are not recognized by the federal government, thus their members may not be acknowledged as meeting the definition of Native American for purposes of programs like the Indian Child Welfare Act. In some cases states have extended recognition to Native nations within their boundaries that do not have federal recognition and have extended state laws and policies to cover these groups. There are approximately 5.2 million Native Americans in the United States, representing 1.7 percent of the population. Slightly more than half of these people list their race as only American Indian or Alaska Native, while the remainder report being another race in addition to being American Indian or Alaska Native. There are currently more than 560 federally recognized tribes within the United States. The largest Native American nations are the Cherokee (819,105) and the Navajo (332,129) (See Norris, et al. 2012 in Introductory Works).

Introductory Works

While not all of these references are specific to the field of social work, these publications provide a good overview of Native Americans and issues of interest to social workers. Mann 2006 sets the stage by drawing on contemporary scholarship from various disciplines to describe what is known about Indigenous societies in the Americas prior to the arrival of Columbus. Dunbar-Ortiz 2014 and Woolford, et al. 2014 provide historical accounts focusing on colonial times onward. This background information is important for social workers to understand as it influences contemporary realities of Native Americans. Norris, et al. 2012 presents census data in a narrative format. The hard data are available through United States Census Bureau.

  • Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. 2014. An Indigenous Peoples’ history of the United States. Boston: Beacon.

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    This book provides an Indigenous view of the colonial history of the United States. Dunbar-Ortiz combines the perspectives of historian and activist in her analysis of events and policies that have shaped interactions between Native Americans and the United States.

  • Mann, Charles C. 2006. 1491: New revelations of the Americas before Columbus. New York: Vintage.

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    This engaging book incorporates recent scholarship from a variety of disciplines to draw a picture of what America may have looked like prior to the arrival of Columbus. This book thoughtfully explores and challenges ideas about the numbers of Indigenous Peoples in the Americas, the types of knowledge they developed, and the types of civilizations they lived in. This book portrays various Indigenous societies as actively shaping and influencing their surroundings rather than passively existing with little impact.

  • Norris, Tina, Paula L. Vines, and Elizabeth M. Hoeffel. 2012. The American Indian and Alaska Native population: 2010. Washington, DC: US Census Bureau.

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    This brief narrative provides an accessible overview of census data on Native Americans. The material includes information on residential patterns and other demographic information. The sizes of various Native populations and changing demographic patterns are identified.

  • Woolford, Andrew, Jeff Benvenuto, and Alexander Hinton, eds. 2014. Colonial genocide in Indigenous North America. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

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    Chapter authors use the lens of genocide to examine the impact of European settlement on North America. In addition to physical violence and dispossession, the chapters examine how residential schools, child removal, and other social policies amounted to cultural genocide.

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