Indian Country

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INDIAN COUNTRY is a multifaceted term that historically has been used as a geographical designation, as a legal term, and as a cultural concept that encompasses the past, present, and future of American Indian people. It embodies the idea that there is "a place" for Indians. The existence of Indian Country, through the many evolutions of that term, represents an acknowledgment and agreement that Indian people will survive. It is a concession to the notion that the melting pot is not everyone's idea of the American dream, and that many Indian people desire to live in that place they call Indian Country.

The term "Indian Country," as a designated place and boundaryline, appeared first in the Proclamation of 1763, the British edict that prohibited the survey, purchase, or settlement by colonists of lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. This Proclamation Line was meant to ensure that the Native tribes would be guaranteed sufficient territory so that trade and commerce, rather than war, would dominate Indian-white relations.

After its war of independence, the new United States saw the value of boundaries as a solution to ever increasing conflict between Natives and non-Natives. Exercising its authority under concepts of international law and diplomacy, the United States quickly began negotiating with various tribes to secure treaties that established, among other things, borders between the United States and Indian Country. Many early treaties affirmed the underlying principle of the Proclamation Line, that the integrity and separateness of Indian territory would be maintained and preserved. For example, the 1795 Treaty of Greenville, signed by the United States and the tribes of the Great Lakes, demarcated which lands were available for settlement and which would remain the territory of the tribes.

The belief that America would include a place for its native inhabitants was also affirmed by the U.S. Congress in the trade and intercourse acts passed between 1790 and 1834, which governed white interaction with tribes in the newly reorganized Indian Country. As the non-Native population grew, the boundaries of what constituted Indian Country were continually changing and moving west, and by the time of passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830, Congress had decided to eliminate any Indian Country east of the Mississippi River. By the end of the nineteenth century, Indian Country as a place had been fractioned off into the many exclusive jurisdiction Indian reservations dotting the United States, along with the area known before Oklahoma statehood as Indian Territory. In 2002, American Indian reservations remain the most visible portions of Indian Country.

Congress's current definition of Indian Country dates from 1948. Essentially, it defines Indian Country as (a) all lands within the boundaries of an Indian reservation whether or not Indian owned; (b) all dependent Indian communities within the United States—that is, any land set aside by the federal government for the use, benefit, or occupancy of Indian people whether or not within the boundaries of a reservation; and (c) all "trust" and "restricted" allotments of lands for Indians whether or not these trust or restricted lands are within the boundaries of a reservation. This definition often determines whether jurisdiction in both criminal and civil lawsuits will be with the federal, state, or tribal courts. The definition also determines the applicability of many statutes meant to apply in some way specifically to Indian communities, such as the Indian Civil Rights Act (1968), the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (1988), and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990). Furthermore, in such civil matters as divorce, inheritance, taxation, child custody, and contract disputes, the question of whether the matter arose in Indian Country is important to the determination of rights and responsibilities when Indians are involved.

Reflecting the fact that the 2000 national census showed that well over half of the American Indians in the United States no longer lived on reservations, Indian Country has also come to stand for whatever area supports living, indigenous cultures. Whether at the American Indian Centers in cities such as Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Oakland, at any of the more than one thousand powwows held each year throughout the United States, or at any place where Indian people gather in ceremonies or social events, Indian Country is wherever Indian spirit, pride, and community are found. It resides not only in law books and historical treatises but also in the earth of Indians' ancestors, in their homes, and in the hearts of Indian people everywhere.


Deloria, Vine, Jr., and Clifford M. Lytle. The Nations Within: The Past and Future of American Indian Sovereignty. Rev. ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

Oswalt, Wendell H. This Land Was Theirs: A Study of Native Americans. 7th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

Pevar, Stephen L. The Rights of Indians and Tribes: The Basic ACLU Guide to Indian and Tribal Rights. 2d ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992.

Prucha, Francis Paul. American Indian Treaties: The History of a Political Anomaly. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.


See alsoIndian Land Cessions ; Indian Policy ; Indian Removal ; Indian Reservations ; Indian Treaties .