Did you know that within the United States there exist sovereign nations? That’s right – they are the Native American Reservations. But just how sovereign are they? Before we delve into life on reservations, let’s cover the basics.
First, what is a reservation?
According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, “A federal Indian reservation is an area of land reserved for a tribe or tribes under treaty or other agreement with the United States, executive order, or federal statute or administrative action as permanent tribal homelands, and where the federal governmtient holds title to the land in trust on behalf of the tribe” (BIA).
How many are there?
On the BIA’s website, it states that “there are approximately 326 Indian land areas in the U.S. administered as federal Indian reservations” (BIA). However, there are over there are over 560 federally recognized tribes in the United States. (Scholar Harvard). This equates to some tribes having no land of their own and others having to share.
Where are they?
In regards to the land itself, about 56 million acres have been allotted for reservations (BIA). The BIA explains that “some reservations are the remnants of a tribe’s original land base. Others were created by the federal government for the resettling of Indian people forcibly relocated from their homelands.”
This map indicates how many and the location of the federally recognized reservations within the United States.
How do tribes become federally recognized?
The BIA explains that “most of today’s federally recognized tribes received federal recognition status through treaties, acts of Congress, presidential executive orders or other federal administrative actions, or federal court decisions” (BIA).
Now, let’s consider tribal sovereignty – a continued controversial topic. Tribal sovereignty, plainly put, is the inherent right of each tribe to govern itself (Legal Dictionary). However, sovereignty is more than that - “it is the life-blood of Indian nations. . . sovereignty is a key lever that provides American Indian communities with institutions and practices that can protect and promote their citizens’ interests and wellbeing” (Scholar Harvard).
That being said, the current policy of the United States, and has been so for forty years – "to recognize tribes’ sovereignty and to ensure its continued existence” (Scholar Harvard). However, “When it has wanted to, the United States has conscripted citizens of tribes into its armies, terminated the legal status of tribes and their property holdings, provided for law and order in communities of Native individuals, protected tribes from the exercise of sovereignty over tribal citizens by other sovereigns within its borders (i.e., states and municipalities), authorized the exercise of sovereignty over tribal citizens by other sovereigns within its borders (i.e., states and municipalities); unilaterally determined the applicability of its tax levies on individual Indians and tribes” (Scholar Harvard). So though reservations may be called sovereign, it is still up to the U.S. government to decide whether or not a tribe is federally recognized, thereby determining a tribe’s right to sovereignty.
And even if a tribe is federally recognized, then what?
Many reservations have been “compared to the developing world” (World Atlas). Common health problems found amongst reservations include: “malnutrition, diabetes, high infant mortality, and alcoholism” (World Atlas). All of which are “driven by the rampant poverty and lack of economic opportunities available on tribal lands” (World Atlas). This is not a trivial matter - 22% of the country’s 5.2 million Native Americans live on tribal lands and 28.2% are living below the federal poverty line (Native Partnership). Depending on the reservation, job scarcity leads to “four to eight of ten adults on reservations being unemployed”(Native Partnership). This leads to many adults seeking jobs off of the reservation, leaving the grandparents to raise the children (Native Partnership). There is also a housing crisis and consequent, homelessness due to lack of not just homes, but inadequate ones according to the US Commission on Civil Rights (Native Partnership).
So, where does this leave Native Americans today?
The answer varies, depending on the reservation, the tribe, and the individual. However, it must be highlighted that while some tribes hold sovereignty, not all do. And for those that do hold federally recognized sovereignty, there still exist societal walls that confine their livelihood.
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