In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Native Americans

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Textbooks
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • History
  • Culture and Identity
  • Health and Mental Health
  • Spirituality
  • Sovereignty and Governance Issues
  • Economic and Community Development
  • Activism
  • Policies
  • Research
  • Education

Social Work Native Americans
Hilary N. Weaver
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • 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 American 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 such as 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 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, cited in Introductory Works).

Introductory Works

While not all 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 modern scholarship from various disciplines to describe what is known about indigenous societies in the Americas prior to the arrival of Christopher 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 because it influences modern realities of Native Americans. Alvarez 2016 and Samson and Gigoux 2017 expand on this foundation, with an emphasis on human rights and social justice, concepts that provide the foundation of the social work profession. Norris, et al. 2012 presents census data in a narrative format. The hard data are available through US Census Bureau.

  • Alvarez, Alex. 2016. Native America and the question of genocide. Studies in Genocide. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

    This book uses specific historical examples to examine how these incidents compare to various definitions of genocide. Further, the impact of warfare, disease, and education on various Native American tribes is explored through a lens of genocide.

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

    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.

    This engaging book incorporates then-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.

    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.

  • Samson, Colin, and Carlos Gigoux. 2017. Indigenous peoples and colonialism: Global perspectives. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    This book brings a global and comparative perspective to colonialism as a modern phenomenon. The authors examine issues of identity, colonization, land, environment, rights, and culture of early-21st-century indigenous peoples.

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

    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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