American Indians

Historically, American Indians tend to fall at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. American Indian reservations have been consistently among the poorest areas in the United States. The standard of living on many reservations, in terms of sanitary conditions, running water, paved roads, and other public facilities is not very different from that in some third-world countries (Ruffing, 1978). Ruffing notes that compared with other minority groups, American Indians, rural or urban, are still among the most poorly housed, poorly nourished, least educated, least healthiest, and most unemployed (See Dillard & Manson, chapter 12, this volume, for additional demographic characteristics of the American Indian and the Alaskan Native population).

The estimates and changes in the American Indian population have been very dramatic from pre-Columbian to modern times. The population of American Indians living above the Rio-Grande river at the time of contact (1492) is estimated to range from a low of 900,000 to a high of 18 million. The Indian population declined sharply from epidemics and warfare after the arrival of Europeans. This decline was precipitous in the early years of European settlement and continued through the late 19th century. Since then, the Indian population has staged a remarkable comeback. As a race, American Indians declined to their smallest number in 1890, at which time their population was about 228,000. From this low point, the population has grown throughout the 20th century (see Table I).

Fear and hostility prevailed in early Euro-American attitudes towards American Indians. Negative statements about Indians as enemies by high-level U.S. military officials served to inflame an existing history of hostile attitudes. In some cases, California tribes were, reportedly, hunted down like animals (Snipp, 1989).

Modern medicine, including vaccines and antibiotics, helped stimulate the expansion of Indian populations, which had been reduced by high incidence of tuberculosis and diabetes (Sorkin, 1971). Sorkin also notes that between 1955 and 1967, IMR among the Indians dropped from 61 per 1000 live birth to 30 per 1000 live births. In 1955, Indian deaths from TB were 41 per 100,000 population, and by 1967 death rates had fallen to 17.

TABLE I Growth of the American Indian Population during the 20th Century"


Number (in 100,000s)

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