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10 Largest Indigenous Groups in the US

How large are the indigenous groups living in the United States today? And what is their financial situation? Even the statistics are not reliable and clear. This summary offers a starting point to understand the size and scope of the major indigenous nations and groups in the U.S. It reviews, in order of population, the country’s largest groupings of indigenous peoples—the Navajo, Cherokee, Choctaw, Indigenous Mexican Americans, Chippewa, Sioux, Apache, Blackfeet, Creek, and Iroquois.

We have used the most up-to-date numbers we could find for individual nations—some from the 2020 Census, some from the nations themselves. Some specific-nation population numbers we found date back to the 2010 Census. And, as the National Congress of American Indians reported in March 2022, “the 2020 Census results for American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/ANs) living on reservation lands were estimated by the PES to be undercounted by 5.6%.” Consider this a picture that is still being developed and is incomplete at best. We will update it as we find better data and we welcome input.

There are 574 federally recognized Native American “tribes” in the U.S. Overseen by their own sovereign governments, they have a strained relationship with the United States, defined by contentious treaties and based on a history that includes U.S. government-led genocide and colonial expropriation stretching back centuries. Identifying which peoples are biggest depends on how you count them—as a single nation or multiple groups. Some nations, moreover, are not single entities but historical groups that are today split across multiple federally recognized “tribes.”

Now a word about the word “tribe,” a term that can be viewed as an invention of the U.S. government meant to further devalue indigenous communities. As the Onandaga Nation states on its website: “When discussing/writing about us, please use Onondaga, Onondaga Nation, Onondaga people, Haudenosaunee, or oñgwehoñwe’ (indigenous). Please refrain from using the term Indian (we are not from India) nor tribe/tribal (as this term was begun by the US to devalue our treaty/land rights).” In this article, we will use “tribes” only when we are referring to U.S. government classifications or when the word is part of a direct quote or name.

Key Takeaways

  • Indigenous peoples are fighting for greater recognition of their sovereignty.
  • There are 574 federally recognized “tribes” in the U.S.
  • Each nation has a unique culture and history.
  • Casinos and resorts are only one sector of the economic enterprises created and controlled by indigenous nations.

Today, many indigenous groups are still fighting for greater recognition of their sovereignty and the ability to use their own voice in political matters. Part of that fight is legal and cultural, but another part is for resources: COVID-19 accelerated the push for structural investments in indigenous communities. The pandemic was particularly devastating, not just in its disproportionate health impacts on indigenous groups, but also for shuttering the gaming and tourism sectors, on which many relied for tax revenue.

Indigenous investment professionals such as Nikki Pieratos and Chrystel Cornelius, argue that these communities need improved relationships with impact investing that aren’t extractive but that can offer a means for sustainability and growth.

Below are the 10 largest indigenous groups, according to population statistics.

1. Navajo Nation

The Navajo Nation is currently the largest recognized tribe in the country, having passed the Cherokee Nation in the 2020 U.S. Census count as the most populous in the U.S.

The Navajo Nation has 399,494 enrolled members. It has a significant presence in three states—Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

Leadership

Since 1989, the Nation has been governed by three branches: the executive, legislative, and judicial. The executive is elected, and the president works out of the Nation’s capital, in Window Rock, Arizona.

Currently, Jonathan Nez is the president (he helmed the Nation through COVID-19). Myron Lizer is the vice president. The president has a limit of two consecutive terms (Nez assumed his first term in office in 2019; he’s the ninth president).

The requirement for the president of the Navaho Nation to be fluent in the Navajo language was dropped in 2016.

President Nez describes his heritage as: “Áshįįhí (Salt People) born for Ta’neeszahnii (Tangle clan), maternal grandfather’s clan is Tódích’íi’nii (Bitter Water Clan), and paternal grandfather’s clan is Táchii’nii (Red-Running-Into-The-Water Clan).”

Vice-president Lizer describes his heritage as: “Numunu (Comanche) born for Tó’áhání (Near-To-Water Clan), maternal grandfather’s clan is Numunu (Comanche), and paternal grandfather’s clan is Tł’ááshchí’í (Red Bottom People).”

Finances/Economy

The Navaho Nation has a budget of more than $198 million, according to FY2023 budget projections.

Historically, the Nation has been the site of coal and uranium mining. But this resource extraction hasn’t really translated to infrastructure investments in the Nation, in part because they’ve been paid far below market rate by the companies doing the extraction. During COVID-19, the Nation suffered acutely as much of it was without basic infrastructure like electricity.

Like many indigenous groups, the Navaho Nation suffered sharply from the pandemic—in part due to lacking infrastructure, the leadership is quoted as saying. It received relief funds through the CARES Act (about $714 million) and more than $2 billion from the American Recovery Rescue Plan Act. Most of that funding—for example, more than $1 billion from the Recovery Act funding—is going toward basic infrastructures such as water, electricity, and broadband internet.

Guiding Principles

The Navajo Nation’s government describes its mission as protecting and promoting the human rights of its citizens by advocacy at the local, state, national, and international levels.

In its advocacy, the Nation relies on Diné principles of Sa’a Naaghai Bik’e Hozhoo, Hashkéejí, Hózhóójí, and K’é.

They describe these principles as “being resilient, content, disciplined and maintaining peaceful relationships with all creation,” as well as “being humble and to preserve and honor our beliefs.”

2. Cherokee Nation

The Cherokee Nation was, until recently, considered the biggest federally recognized tribe in the U.S. It has about 392,000 enrolled members.

Leadership

The Cherokee Nation is governed by a constitution and is split across three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial.

The highest-ranking position is the principal chief. Currently, the principal chief is Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. The deputy principal chief is Bryan Warner.

The Cherokee Nation is currently trying to enforce a provision of the 1835 Treaty of Echota, which provided the legal basis for the nefarious Trail of Tears, that would give them a representative in the U.S. Congress. Principal Chief Hoskin appointed Kimberly Teehee as the delegate, though she has yet to be recognized by the U.S. government. Until 1975, according to Teehee, the Cherokee Nation was prevented by the U.S. government from even electing its own chief.

Finances/Economy

The Nation has a $2.17 billion impact on the Oklahoma economy, according to an economic impact report conducted by Russell Evans, an associate professor of economics from Oklahoma City University.

Through the Cherokee Nation Business, the nation runs ventures in a number of industries, including consulting, health, hospitality, real estate, and engineering. The Nation also runs casinos—including the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa and nine Cherokee Casinos—through Cherokee Nation Entertainment.

Guiding Principles

The Cherokee Nation describes its mission as to protect “our inherent sovereignty, preserving and promoting Cherokee culture, language and values, and improving the quality of life for the next seven generations of Cherokee Nation citizens.”

3. Choctaw Nation

The Choctaw claims more than 200,000 tribal members.

Leadership

The Choctaw Nation is governed by a constitution that splits the government into executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

Chief Gary Batton heads the executive branch (the 47th person to hold that position). Jack Austin, Jr. is the assistant chief.

Finances/Economy

The Nation’s budget for the FY2023 is $2.1 billion, a 15% increase over the previous year. The budget reported an increase in revenue, driven mostly by healthcare and commerce, including, the Nation notes, a new Sky Tower that was added to the Choctaw Casino & Resort-Durant.

Guiding Principles

The Choctaw Nation describes its mission as “offering opportunities for growth and prosperity.”

4. Indigenous Mexican Americans

A collection of indigenous peoples from modern-day Mexico, rather than a single “tribe,” the 2010 U.S. Census reported that there were 175,494 people claiming this heritage in the U.S. Native American press noted that this may have been an undercount since the forms were “deliberately disorienting” and census-takers were allegedly “encouraging Mexicans to identify as white.”

Many of these people live along the US-Mexican border, including peoples like Cocopah, Pai, and Yaqui. They often cross the border which partitioned their traditional homelands and suffer from border policing, writes Christina Leza, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado. Further, many live on Mexican side of the border which doesn’t have an enrollment system.

Leadership

The Tohono O’odham Nation, to focus on one example, is a federally recognized tribe with lands in Arizona, though there are also O’odham living in Mexico. It claims 28,000 members.

It’s governed by an executive branch, spelled out in a constitution that was passed in 1986. There are three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial.

Currently, Ned Norris Jr. leads the executive branch as the chairman, with Wavalene Saunders as the vice chairwoman.

Finances

For the fiscal year 2022, the budget for the Tohono O’odham Nation’s executive branch was $180,435, which was funded by a surplus.

The Nation makes money from Nation-owned businesses, such as the Desert Diamond Casino. The Nation also has a micro-loan program for members, meant to encourage entrepreneurship.

Guiding Principles

The Tohono O’odham Nation strongly emphasizes economic development in its public-facing website. It describes the purpose of its Nation-owned enterprises as aiming to “foster economic development while simultaneously maintaining control over the enterprises’ impacts on the environment, natural resources, and tribal cultural values.”

5. Ojibwe (Chippewa)

There are many Ojibwa tribes across the U.S. and Canada, each with a unique history, structure, and culture: the U.S. recognizes at least 16 tribes across Minnesota, Michigan, Montana, North Dakota, and  Wisconsin.

For example, the Mille Lacs Band, a federally recognized band of the Minnesota Chippewa in East Central Minnesota has 4,800 enrolled members.

Older population estimates suggest that there are more than 170,000 Chippewa living in the U.S., though that’s based on the 2010 Census, which was probably undercounted.

Leadership

The Ojibwa tribes are distinct in their structures.

The Mille Lacs Band is governed by a constitution—which it shares with five distinct sovereign bands. Each band, though, has its own structure and laws. The Mille Lacs Band is separated into executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

The executive branch is headed by Chief Executive and Chairwoman Melanie Benjamin.

Finances/Economy

The Mille Lacs Band runs two casinos: the Grand Casino Mille Lacs and the Grand Casino Hinckley in Minnesota, which it operates through Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures.

Based on the success of the casinos, it has developed about 30 other businesses, including banks, hotels, and resorts, among other industries. For example, it operates a government contracting business (Makwa Global, LLC.) and a marketing business (Foxtrot Marketing Group).

Guiding Principles

The Mille Lacs Band describes itself as committed to “safeguarding our culture, language, rights and way of life as well as promoting a future of prosperity for our Band Members and future generations that also benefits surrounding communities.”

6. Sioux

Sioux encompasses numerous bands in North America, today. Having been forced west and north by the U.S., they’re spread across 16 federally recognized tribes in the American west and Canada, including the states of Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana.

An estimated 170,110 people self-reported as Sioux in the 2010 U.S. Census.

Leadership

There are different bands of the Sioux, including numerous federally recognized tribes.

The Mdewakanton Sioux Indians in Minnesota, for example, are led by a General Council, comprised of all enrolled members of the tribe older than 18. That council, which meets bimonthly, elects members for its other decision-making bodies: Business Council, Gaming Commission, and Gaming Board of Directors.

Finances/Economy

Annually, the Mdewakanton Sioux Indians pay out $300 million to regional vendors, and they have a $177 million annual payroll, according to their own estimates, which would make them the largest employer in Scott County, Minnesota.

Mdewakanton Sioux Indians run a number of businesses, including two casinos (Mystic Lake Casino Hotel and Little Six Casino), hotels, a tribal garden, and Mazopiya, an all-natural food market.

Guiding Principles

The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux community says that it seeks to “embody Dakota values each day,” which it describes as being “a good neighbor, good employer, and good steward of the earth.” 

Being a good neighbor, the Nation further explains, entails working with local governments on “mutually beneficial projects.” Good employer, meanwhile, means “bolstering” the local economy.

7. Apache Nations

Apache refers to a group of peoples that share a cultural heritage. There are a number of groups recognized by the U.S. government, with reservations in Arizona and New Mexico. The Apache has an estimated population of 111,810 in the 2010 U.S. Census.

Leadership

The Apache includes many distinct but related cultures.

To take one example: The White Mountain Apache, in Arizona, is led by the Tribal Chairman Kasey Velasquez. Velasquez describes his heritage as “Bear Clan (Nagodishgizh’n) and Roadrunner (Biszaha).

The vice chair is Jerome Kasey, III, who describes his heritage as “Tlohk’aa’Dogain (Row of White Corn People) born for Iyahaiye (Mesquite People) Having Roots in Carrizo and raised in Whiteriver.”

Finances/Economy

The White Mountain Apache, many of whom live on the Fort Apache Reservation in Arizona, has an economy based on tourism, forestry, and ranching. They run the Hon-Dah Resort Casino in Arizona, which, according to local reporting in 2020, employed 50 people and drew in $19.4 million in annual revenue.

Guiding Principles

Like many other groups, the Apache are focused on both economic development and the preservation of their culture.

For instance, the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma describes its mission as “the preservation of our culture, heritage and past while ensuring the success, furtherance and increased opportunities for each tribal member as we move to establish a brighter future which will provide enrichment and hope.”

8. Muscogee Nation

A self-governed tribe in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, the Muscogee Nation claims 97,000 citizens.

Leadership

The Muscogee Nation’s Constitution separates its government into three branches with separation of powers: executive, legislative, and judicial.

The executive branch is overseen by the Office of the Principal Chief. Currently, David Hill is the principal chief (the Nation’s seventh overall). He was elected in 2019. During the pandemic, in 2020, Principal Chief Hill was recognized as one of the “Most Influential People” by TIME Magazine.

Finances/Economy

Muscogee’s economic impact on Oklahoma has been estimated to be $866 million (about $1.4 billion nationally). A large share of that comes from the gambling industry.

The Nation’s largest dollar impact was in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In that city, in the third quarter of FY2022, it had gaming distributions of $28,158,599.

Guiding Principles

Muscogee emphasizes that it’s a diverse and sovereign nation on its site, describing itself as “a self-governed Native American tribe located in Okmulgee, Oklahoma.”

9. Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Nations

The Haudenosaunee is not a single indigenous group, but an alliance of sovereign nations that’s been around for several hundred years (it is also called the Iroquois Confederacy or Six Nations). Today, they exist across the U.S. and Canada. One member of the Haudenosaunee, for example, the Onondaga Nation, maintains territory south of Syracuse, in New York State.

According to one estimate, there are roughly 80,822 members belonging to these groups, though this is likely inaccurate (the Onondaga Nation, as discussed below, does not participate in the U.S. Census).

Leadership

Across the Haudenosaunee, there are 50 Hoyane , or chiefs, all considered equal. Each nation has a certain number of chiefs. The Onondaga Nation—where the chiefs meet in a Grand Council, for example—has 14 chiefs. The position, selected by the Clan Mothers, is for life, though they can be deposed.

Finances/Economy

The Onondaga Nation doesn’t get funding from the U.S. government. It runs several businesses, from which it gets much of its income. The main one is the Onondaga Smoke Shop, which sells tax-exempt cigarettes. The nation has intentionally avoided participating in gaming.

Guiding Principles

The Onondaga emphasizes its sovereignty. The Nation comments on its site that it, “maintains it sovereignty and operates outside the general jurisdiction of New York State.”

10. Blackfeet Nation

Set up by an 1855 treaty, the Blackfeet Nation has 17,321 members, according to its site. It has a reservation in Montana.

Leadership

The Blackfeet Nation is overseen by the Tribal Business Council.

Illiff “Scott” Kipp Sr. took over as chairman earlier this year after the former chairman was removed by a unanimous vote following a drug-related search warrant. Lauren Monroe Jr. is the vice chair.

Finances/Economy

The Nation runs several businesses inducing the Glacier Peaks Hotel & Casino, Blackfeet Heritage Center and Art Gallery, Glacier Family Foods, Oki Communications, and Star Link Cable.

In 2017, the tribe agreed to the Blackfeet Water Compact and Settlement Act, related to water rights, which supplied the tribe with $471 million in U.S. federal and state funding for water infrastructure projects.

Guiding Principles

The Blackfeet Tribal Business Council describes its organizational goal as to “represent, develop, protect, and advance the views, interests, education and resources of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.”

Who is a Native American?

A Native American is someone who has blood from indigenous peoples on the American continent, and who is recognized by a tribe, a village, or the United States government, according to the Native American Rights Fund.

What’s the biggest Native American group?

According to the 2020 census count, the Navajo Nation is the largest indigenous nation.

Do some reservations span more than one state?

Yes, some tribal lands span multiple U.S. states. For example, the Navajo reservation geographically spans Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

The Bottom Line

There are many tribes in the U.S., each with its own unique culture and history. The relationship between the U.S. and these tribes is fraught, with tribes fighting for greater recognition of their sovereignty. It’s important to consider each of these tribes in their own context and words. This article briefly examined a few of the bigger tribes, though it makes no claim to have done so exhaustively.

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