American Indians are the indigenous peoples of North American and South America. The name "Indian" was first applied to them by Christopher Columbus, who believed mistakenly that the mainland and islands of America were part of the Indies, in Asia.
A prominent American Indian is the libertarian indigenous rights/constitutional rights activist and actor Russell Means.
At the time of first European contact, North and South America may have been peopled by more than 90 million American Indians: about 10 million in America north of present-day Mexico; 30 million in Mexico; 11 million in Central America; 445,000 in the Caribbean islands; 30 million in the South American Andean region; and 9 million in the remainder of South America. These population figures are a rough estimate (some authorities cite much lower figures); exact figures are impossible to ascertain. When colonists began keeping records, the American Indian populations had been drastically reduced by war, famine, forced labor, and epidemics of European diseases.
American Indians are physically most similar to Asians and appear to have descended from East Asian peoples who began migrating across the Bering land bridge during the Pleistocene epoch, or Ice Age, of the Quaternary Period, some 30,000 years ago. Like other Mongoloid peoples, American Indians tend to have light brown skin, brown eyes, and dark, straight hair. They differ from Asians in their characteristic blood types. Because many American Indians today have had one or more European-Americans or blacks among their ancestors, numerous people who are legally and culturally American Indian may look fairer or darker than Mongoloids or may have markedly non-Mongoloid facial features.
Over the thousands of years the Indians have lived in the Americas, they have developed into a great number of local populations, each differing from its neighbors. Some populations (such as those on the Great Plains of North America) tend to be tall and heavy in build, whereas others (for example, many in the South American Andes and adjacent lowlands) tend to be short and broad chested; furthermore, every population includes persons who vary from the average. Some physical characteristics of American Indian populations have been influenced by diet or by the environmental conditions of their societies. For example, the short stature of Guatemalan Indian peasants seems to result at least in part from diets poor in protein; the broad chests and large hearts and lungs of Andean Indians represent an adaptation to the low-oxygen atmosphere of the high mountains they inhabit.
The Native American population in the U.S. has increased steadily since the beginning of the 20th century, due in part to improved census taking and more self-identification in the 1990s. By 1990 the number of American Indians, Alaska Natives (Inuits, or Eskimos; and Aleuts) was almost 2 million, or 0.8 percent of the total U.S. population. The 2000 census showed that out of the total U.S. population of 281.4 million, a number of 4.1 million, or 1.5 percent, reported American Indian and Alaska Native descent. Of this number, 2.5 million, or 0.9 percent, reported American Indian and Alaska Native, the remainder reported a combination of that ancestry with one or more other races. Slightly more than one-third of these people live on reservations; about half live in urban areas, often near the reservations. The U.S. government holds about 23 million ha (about 56 million acres) in trust for more than 560 federally recognized Indian tribes (that is having a government-to-government relationship) in the U.S., including 223 village groups in Alaska. There are approximately 275 Indian land areas in the U.S. administered as Indian reservations (reservations, pueblos, rancherias, communities, etc.) in 35 states. The Navajo, with nearly 6.4 million ha (nearly 16 million acres) in Arizona (mostly), New Mexico, and Utah, is the largest reservation in land area, but, according to the 2000 census, second in population to the Cherokee. The smallest is the state reservation of Golden Hill in Connecticut, with 0.1 ha (0.25 acre) and 6 people. In Alaska there are 48 additional tribal groups and the situation is different.
Statistics of health, education, unemployment rates, and income levels continue to show Indians as disadvantaged, compared to the general population.