Facts About American Indians Today

Updated September 9, 2022 | Infoplease Staff

There are more than 550 federally recognized tribes in the United States, including 223 village groups in Alaska. “Federally recognized“ means these tribes and groups have a special, legal relationship with the U.S. government. This relationship is referred to as a government-to-government relationship.

A number of Indian tribes and groups in the U.S. do not have a federally recognized status, although some are state-recognized. This means they have no relations with the BIA or the programs it operates. A special program of the BIA, however, works with those groups seeking federal recognition status. Of the 150 petitions for federal recognition received by the BIA since 1978, 12 have received acknowledgment through the BIA process, two groups had their status clarified by the Department of the Interior through other means, and seven were restored or recognized by Congress.

Reservations. In the U.S. there are only two kinds of reserved lands that are well-known: military and Indian. An Indian reservation is land reserved for a tribe when it relinquished its other land areas to the U.S. through treaties. More recently, Congressional acts, Executive Orders, and administrative acts have created reservations. Today some reservations have non-Indian residents and land owners.

There are approximately 275 Indian land areas in the U.S. administered as Indian reservations (reservations, pueblos, rancherias, communities, etc.). The largest is the Navajo Reservation of some 16 million acres of land in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Many of the smaller reservations are less than 1,000 acres with the smallest less than 100 acres. On each reservation, the local governing authority is the tribal government.

Approximately 56.2 million acres of land are held in trust by the United States for various Indian tribes and individuals. Much of this is reservation land; however, not all reservation land is trust land. On behalf of the United States, the Secretary of the Interior serves as trustee for such lands with many routine trustee responsibilities delegated to BIA officials.

The states in which reservations are located have limited powers over them, and only as provided by federal law. On some reservations, however, a high percentage of the land is owned and occupied by non-Indians. Some 140 reservations have entirely tribally owned land.

Taxes. Indians pay the same taxes as other citizens with the following exceptions: federal income taxes are not levied on income from trust lands held for them by the United States; state income taxes are not paid on income earned on an Indian reservation; state sales taxes are not paid by Indians on transactions made on an Indian reservation; and local property taxes are not paid on reservation or trust land.

Laws. As U.S. citizens, Indians are generally subject to federal, state, and local laws. On Indian reservations, however, only federal and tribal laws apply to members of the tribe unless the Congress provides otherwise. In federal law, the Assimilative Crimes Act makes any violation of state criminal law a federal offense on reservations. Most tribes now maintain tribal court systems and facilities to detain tribal members convicted of certain offenses within the boundaries of the reservation.

Indian Gaming Regulations. Indian land is not under state law unless a federal law places it under state law. The Supreme Court held that even if a tribe is under state law the state gaming regulations do not apply on Indian trust land. In 1988 Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. This law allows traditional Indian gaming as well as bingo, pull tabs, lotto, punch boards, tip jars, and certain card games on tribal land. However, it requires a tribal/state compact for other forms of gaming such as cards or slot machines. Today there are about 145 tribal-state gaming compacts. Nearly 130 tribes in 24 states are involved in some kind of gaming. The National Indian Gaming Commission was established by Congress to develop regulations for Indian gaming. For more information contact the National Indian Gaming Commission, 9th Floor, 1441 L Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20005, 202-632-7003.

How does one trace Indian ancestry and become a member of a tribe?

The first step in tracing Indian ancestry is basic genealogical research if one does not already have specific family information and documents that identify tribal ties. Some information to obtain is: names of ancestors; dates of birth; marriages and death; places where they lived; brothers and sisters, if any; and, most importantly, tribal affiliations. Among family documents to check are Bibles, wills, and other such papers. The next step is to determine whether one's ancestors are on an official tribal roll or census by contacting the tribe.

See also: American Indian versus Nation American and Who is an Indian?

Source: Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Department of the Interior
Most Populous Indian Reservations, 2000 American Indians American Indian Languages Spoken at Home by American Indian Persons 5 Years and Over in Households: 1990
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