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Ancestors and Descendants

Today’s Indigenous peoples of the Americas trace their origins to the First Peoples to ever live in Native North America. The early ancestors were here for many thousands of years before Europeans claimed “discovery” of the “New World” just 500 years ago.

Early Indigenous peoples of the Appalachians had functioning agricultural, engineering, environmental, governmental, and social systems. They had developed important scientific practices centuries before Europeans arrived and, despite institutionalized challenges due to colonialism, continue to have an impact on society today. (Did you know an estimated 60% of the world’s food supply originated in North America?) Today there are 574 federally recognized tribes in the U.S., each with its own distinct history, culture, and language traditions. Beyond self-identifying as having the personal (and/or familial) cultural identity of an Indigenous person, in the United States these individuals may simultaneously have tribal nation citizenship status, conferred upon them via the sovereign authority of an American Indian tribe or Alaska Native community, or tribal membership conferred by a state-recognized tribe. Though many states in Appalachia have no official tribes today, there are numerous federally recognized tribes throughout the East (see list below), state recognized tribes, and individuals whose ancestors were tribal members. This section briefly explores Indigenous cultural identities and the history of thirteen Native nations, recognizing that each is dynamic and has changed over time.

Indigenous people have a close relationship with the land.  The Seneca, Shawnee, Delaware, Cherokee, and other Tribes once lived and thrived on the natural bounty of Appalachia.  Most Tribal members were forced west after the first Treaty of Fort Stanwix, the Battle of Point Pleasant, and the tragedy of the Trail of Tears. However, the descendants of the Tribes that once lived here remember our history... and some of us have returned to live in and love Appalachia.
Christopher Chaney, WVU Native American Studies

No, all Indigenous people don’t live on reservations in teepees! The vast majority of Indigenous people live somewhere other than on a reservation, at a settlement, in a village community, or on land otherwise designated as Native Nation(s) land. The American Indian (AI) and Alaska Native (AN) population in the US is 2.9% of the total population:  9.7 million out of 329.5 million.  The AI/AN population in West Virginia amounts to 2.1% of the State pop., or 37,689 (out of a total WV pop. of 1,793,716). (Though the Census Bureau is refining some AIAN statistics) As of Spring Semester 2022, there are 374 main campus WVU students who self-identify as American Indian/Alaska Native/Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander. About 100 of these students indicated they are Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. Many, if not most, of these students describe themselves as multi-racial.

Keep in mind: the overall AI/AN pop. is larger than the combined populations of all the tribally enrolled citizens of the 574 sovereign Native Nations. Some people choose to list themselves as AI/AN on the Census because of their connection to ancestry, regardless of whether they are tribal citizens. Importantly, sovereign tribal nations each have their own citizenship laws-- individuals  enrolled and counted as citizens of a Native Nation, but can also be disenrolled. Only about 20% of AI/AN people live on the land of a designated Native Nation(s). The percentage is higher for individuals who identify solely as AI/AN and less for those who identify as AI/AN in combination with another race.

Choctaw Children at festival

College students often ask about considerations regarding Indigenous activism

“The overall AI/AN population is a small percentage of the total U.S. population and is widely distributed throughout the country and elsewhere. This can make it difficult for a substantial number of Native Americans and other Indigenous people to gather in a single public setting to discuss important concerns (though virtual town halls, symposia, etc., are popular means for informing large audiences). Turnout can be further hampered by concerns related to the ongoing pandemic; Native Americans, like some other demographic groups, have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 and other critical health problems.  Further still, coupling past experiences of marginalization with current social tensions, some Indigenous people (understandably) are concerned about racist backlash, hostile confrontation, and being subjected to harm based on their identity. More and more Indigenous candidates are being appointed or elected to public office, increasing opportunities for Native people to ‘have a seat at the table’ when policy is being debated and prioritized. Justice-minded people can commit to become educated and stay informed of Indigenous-identified  concerns, issues, and initiatives, respectfully supporting the priorities voiced by Native peoples, and acting as allies for civil and human rights, Indigenous rights, treaty rights, and tribal sovereignty. There are numerous Indigenous media outlets, and tribes do a good job of sharing public information on their websites, digital newsletters, etc. Excellent, contemporary resources for accomplishing successful allyship are found with the Illuminative* organization, which asks us to help “dismantle invisibility, erasure, and hate.” Just remember that Native leaders and their communities are in charge of setting their agendas and determining strategies, and these will vary from tribe to tribe.”

– Bonnie M. Brown, WVU Native American Studies Program Coordinator and Morgantown, WV Human Rights    Commissioner

Choctaw people walking

Native Nations in Appalachia today

As you read, reflect on how the various traditions and cultures relate to your own. Do you know about neighboring Indigenous communities?

  • Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians
New York
  • Cayuga Nation
  • Oneida Nation of New York
  • Onondaga Nation
  • Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe (formerly the St. Regis Band of Mohawk Indians of New York) 
  • Seneca Nation of Indians
  • Shinnecock Indian Nation
  • Tonawanda Band of Seneca
  • Tuscarora Nation of New York 
North Carolina
  • Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians 
South Carolina
  • Catawba Indian Nation (Catawba Tribe of South Carolina)
  • Pamunkey Indian Tribe
  • Chickahominy Indian Tribe
  • Chickahominy Indian Tribe-Eastern Division
  • Upper Mattaponi Tribe
  • Rappahannock Tribe, Inc.
  • Monacan Indian Nation
  • Nansemond Indian Tribe