Elizabeth Rule: Indigenous DC
On Indigenous Peoples' Day, learn more about the history of Indigenous populations in Washington DC through an except from Indigenous DC: Native Peoples and the Nation's Capital by Dr. Elizabeth Rule.
The Washington Monument. The National Mall. The White House. Capitol Hill. These are the iconic images most people call to mind when visualizing the capital of the United States. Lesser known are the sites of Indigenous importance found throughout the city testifying to the historic tribal nations that have lived on this land since time immemorial as well as the contemporary Indigenous communities that call the District of Columbia home to this day. While imposing government buildings, striking national monuments, and a cosmopolitan urban culture aptly characterize the District, these elements are a far cry from society’s stereotypical Native American imagery of the Wild West. Make no mistake, however: Washington, DC, is Indian land.
Although Indigenous peoples lived upon the lands now known as the District of Columbia for thousands of years prior to European settlement, Native Americans represent the least populous racial demographic in the District today. DC Health Matters Collaborative reports that out of DC’s more than 717,000 residents in 2021, a total of 2,573 identify as American Indian/Alaska Native, and 513 identify as Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, composing 0.36 percent and 0.07 percent of the population, respectively.1 One can reasonably assume that these numbers are low and that additional Indigenous individuals are not captured in this data but rather fall under the nonspecified “2 or more races” category.2 These local racial demographics also fall below the national average, where the American Indian and Alaska Native communities reach 9.7 million, or 2.3 percent of the total United States population.3 Of those included in this count, 3.7 million, or approximately 1 percent, reported American Indian or Alaska Native as their single racial identifier and 5.9 million, or roughly 1.8 percent, identified being American Indian or Alaska Native in combination with one or more other races; those who identify as Native Hawaiians alone or in combination with other races compose just under one half of a percentage point of the nation’s population.4
While this community may be relatively small, especially in Washington, DC, we remain mighty and proud. Well over a dozen organizations and advocacy groups in the DC area—including the Native American Rights Fund, the Native American Contractors Association, the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Education Association, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Council of Urban Indian Health, the National American Indian Housing Council, the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Indian Gaming Association, the Indian Law Resource Center, the American Indian Society of Washington DC, the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, the Association on American Indian Affairs, the Native American Financial Services Association, and more—serve the Indigenous community across all sectors of business and life. Nearly all of these offices operate on a national scale and perform the essential task of furthering Indigenous issues in the United States’ capital city. They are staffed by Native people representing tribal nations headquartered throughout the country, and many intentionally come to DC precisely to affect positive change through these positions. Cohorts of Indigenous students similarly flock to the halls of Congress each summer, joining the ranks of DC’s well-known intern cadres in order to grow professionally and become the next generation of tribal leaders. Visiting delegations of tribal government officials regularly make their way to DC for business negotiations, professional conferences, and agency meetings. Ho-Chunk anthropologist Reyna K. Ramirez identifies such urban places frequented by intertribal Native communities as “hubs” imbued with the “power to strengthen Native identity and provide a sense of belonging, as well as to increase the political power of Native peoples.”5 Nowhere in the world is the essence of the nation-to-nation, government-to-government relationship shared between sovereign tribal nations and the US federal government more readily apparent. In this way, too, Washington, DC, exists as the political capital of Indian Country as a whole.
In addition to the diaspora of Native people who call this city home, these lands remain the traditional ancestral homelands of Indigenous groups whose lives here predated the very existence of Washington and even the United States. From delegates to monuments, activism to arts, visitors and residents of the United States’ capital city alike can conclude: Washington, DC, is Indian land.
1. “American Indian / Alaskan Native Population,” DC Health Matters, accessed October 18, 2021, https://www.dchealthmatters.org/demographicdata/index/view ?id=1503&localeId=130951.
2. “American Indian / Alaskan Native Population.”
3. “2020 Census: Native Population Increased by 86.5 Percent,” Indian Country Today, August 13, 2021, https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/2020 -census-native-population-increased-by-86-5-percent.
4. “Hawaiian/ Pacific Islander Population in US Grew Nearly 28% in 2020 Census,” KITV, August 12, 2021, https://www.kitv.com/story /44514564 /hawaiian-pacific-islander-population-in-us-grew-nearly-28-in-2020-census; and “2020 Census: Native Population Increased.”
5. Renya K. Ramirez, Native Hubs: Culture, Community, and Belonging in Silicon Valley and Beyond (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 3.