INDIAN RESERVATIONS. Reservations have been a fundamental aspect of Native American existence for more than two centuries. For some, reservations are a living reminder of Euro-American colonialism and nation building exacted against indigenous people. Others insist that reservations today are the last remaining stronghold of sovereignty and cultural traditions, a reservoir that insures the perpetuation of Native American survival.
While the competing European colonial powers evolved political and legal mechanisms to deal with questions of Native American land title, the United States essentially followed the British model. The core principle was that Native American societies possessed a natural right to the soil as its original occupants. Thus, indigenous lands must be acquired by purchase, primarily negotiated through treaties and agreements. In addition to the treaties, the United States government used the concept of discovery, the rite of conquest, and military force to incorporate indigenous lands into the national fold.
In both the colonial period and the years that followed the American Revolution, reservations were an outgrowth of government land acquisition. Before the Revolution, various colonies created reservations that were subsequently recognized by legislatures as Indian reserves. The Second Continental Congress in 1775 established an Indian Department to deal with Indian affairs. After independence, the United States adopted a national policy of Indian administration by Constitutional mandate. The Constitution granted Congress plenary powers over Indian affairs in trade, treaties, warfare, welfare, and the right to take Indian lands for public purposes.
After 1778, Congress established federal Indian reservations by federal treaty or statute, conferring to the occupying tribe(s) recognized title over lands and the resources within their boundaries. Despite government promises of protection in exchange for land cessions, Secretary of War Henry Knox in 1789 lamented, "that all the Indian tribes once existing in those States, now the best cultivated and most populous, have become extinct … in a short period, the idea of an Indian on this side of the Mississippi will only be found in the page of the historian." Policy makers in the early republic believed that the attrition of Native Americans and the extinguishing of their reservations was an inevitable consequence of civilization's progress.
Indian Removal, 1816–1846
After the War of 1812, increasing conflicts between Native Americans and expanding Euro-American settlements demanded a solution. In 1830, Congress acted to create a policy of removal that would relocate Native Americans to "reserved lands" west of the Mississippi. President Andrew Jackson was the principal advocate of this policy, declaring in 1830 that "Humanity has often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country,… but its progress has never for a moment been arrested, and one by one have many powerful tribes disappeared from the earth. … What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranges by a few thousand savages to our extensive republic… occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?"
Between 1828 and 1838, more than 80,000 Native Americans, particularly from the Southeast and the Old Northwest, were removed west of the Mississippi River. After relocation, the U.S. government acquired 15,355,767 acres of Indian lands for its citizens. Tribes suffered population losses when they were forced west and many tribal governments were weakened and disrupted as they attempted to create new governments on their western territories. The removal of Native American societies continued until 1877, although most relocations occurred before 1846.
Reservation Period, 1851–1880
While the removal created temporary space between "American civilization" and Indian Territory, that space quickly disappeared. As Euro-America pushed beyond the Mississippi river, policy makers had to devise new ways of alienating indigenous societies from their lands. To accomplish this task, on 3 March 1849 Congress created the Department of the Interior to manage public land, Indian land, and Indian affairs. The Indian Office moved quickly to address the "Indian problem." Under pressure from an expanding American population and American industry's demand for more natural resources, the new department took direct administrative responsibility for reservations. Beginning in 1851 and continuing for three decades, federal bureaucrats developed a series of policies for the final solution to the "Indian problem." Using treaties, coercion, and military force, the government actively consolidated Native American societies. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Luke Lea set forth the doctrine in 1851 by calling for the Indians' "concentration, their domestication, and their incorporation." Reservations came to be seen as instruments for the achievement of this goal. In a new flurry of treaty making, the United States acquired millions of acres of Indian land and assigned the tribes to reservations on a portion of their former territory.
In the years following the publication of the Origin of Species (1859), the desire to "domesticate" and "incorporate" Indians into American society was driven by the application of Darwinian evolutionary principles to the development of social life. Native Americans, like all non-Europeans, were believed to be intellectually, emotionally, and culturally inferior, but social evolution predicted that it might be possible to push Native Americans along the societal hierarchy toward civilization if they were forced to adopt Euro-American ways of life. For the remainder of the nineteenth century, this reasoning encouraged further acquisition of tribal land and the creation of additional reservations.
Although treaties were the primary mechanism for creating reservations, Congress suspended formal treaty making in 1871.Thereafter, federal reservations would be established by executive order, congressional act, or any legal combination recognized by the federal government. Before the turn of the century, 56 of 162 federal reservations were established by executive order. After 1919, however, only an act of Congress could establish reservations.
Forced Assimilation, 1880–1934
The rationale behind the twentieth-century reservation system was two fold: Native American resources could be further exploited with a minimum of cost and effort and, the controlled environment of the reservation would provide for a laboratory in social engineering. The reservation was conceived as a refuge for a declining race that could be elevated from their inferior status by assimilation. The Indian Office promoted these objectives by breaking up the "habits of savage life" by instilling "civilized" values through forced education, by insisting on agricultural labor, and by pushing the notion of private property and the development of monetary funds. To this end, the reservation was conceived as a controlled society where the habits of civilization could be molded under the direction of the Indian agent and agency personnel. From 1880 to 1934, ethnocide became an officially sanctioned policy.
The principal legal instrument for these new policies was the General Allotment Act, passed in 1887. After the
law's passage, more than one hundred reservations saw their lands fragmented into individual tracts of 160 acres or less. In 1906, the Burke Act granted local Indian Office officials the power to transfer land from trust status to fee patent status through application. The act expedited the transfer of Indian lands into Anglo hands. Over the next fifty years, the U.S. government was able to divest Native Americans of about 90 million acres. Indian lands decreased from 136 million acres in 1887 to about 48 million acres in 1934, when the act was finally repealed.
Despite oppressive government policies and actions, Native Americans were not passive victims of this new authoritarian reservation system. Native Americans continued to practice their cultural traditions and invent new ones. The Ghost Dance and the Native American Church stand as examples of Native American cultural persistence during this bleak period. In addition, the boarding school experience brought together young from various tribes who laid the seeds for the emergence of a pan-ethnic identity that cut across tribal lines. Some tribes also resisted government policies in court or before Congress.
Federal officials pressed their assimilationist agenda through the first decades of the twentieth century. The 1910 Omnibus Act, for example, though designed to solve heirship problems, authorized the Secretary of Interior to lease Indian lands, whether allotted or unallotted, and sell Indian resources. Between 1916 and 1920, Commissioner Cato Sells encouraged Indian Office personnel to force fee patent status of trust land of all competent Indians. By the 1920s, most tribes had lost the ability to control their resources and were in danger of losing valuable reservation resources.
As the federal government was dismantling Native American lands and societies, it also pressed them to volunteer for military service and to become U.S. citizens. After World War I, Indian veterans were granted U.S. citizenship under the Act of 1919. Five years later, all American Indians would be granted citizenship after the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act. Both pieces of legislation were intended to undermine Indian ties to their tribes.
Tribal Reorganization, 1928–1945
By the mid-1920s Native American leaders, sympathetic Indian rights organizations, and even some federal officials began to question the effectiveness of forced assimilation policies. In 1928, the Meriam Report, a nationwide study sponsored by the Indian Office, found that federal legislation injured American Indian progress. The report also noted that reservation life was plagued by endemic poverty, ill health, poor education, and social and economic dependency. The failures of allotment, forced assimilation, and deplorable living conditions on reservations outlined in the Meriam Report led to the passage of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. The legislation repealed the General Allotment Act, affirmed certain Native
American cultural traditions and practices, and authorized a political mechanism for strengthening self-government for federally recognized tribes. Two years later, the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act of 1936 restored tribal governments (but did not reestablish reservations) to Oklahoma tribes. Alaskan Natives achieved similar reforms under the 1936 Alaskan Native Reorganization Act. One hundred and seventy-four tribes, bands, and communities incorporated themselves by this legal mechanism. While such legislative acts held the potential for economic and social development, the most important portion of the act suspended allotment and returned formerly ceded lands that remained in the public domain to trust status. Between 1935 and 1937, over 2 million acres of land reverted back to Indian holdings. Tribes also regained control of 7 million acres of leased grazing lands.
Many policies strengthening Native American reservation societies were reversed following World War II. In addition to general hostility to all New Deal reforms, there was a growing belief among federal officials that the Bureau of Indian Affairs had outlived its purpose because it actually kept Indians from assimilating into American society.
To "get out of the Indian business," Congress passed the Indian Land Commission Claims Act of 1946, a measure designed to settle outstanding legal claims as a prelude to severing the government's ties to tribal nations. The desire to withdraw federal trusteeship for federally recognized tribes also led to a series of legislative acts that undermined reservation life. House Concurrent Resolution 108, adopted in 1953, declared Congress's intent to make the Indians subject to the same laws and entitled them to the same privileges and responsibilities as are applicable to other U.S. citizens. Soon thereafter Congress passed Public Law 83-280 transferring civil jurisdiction and criminal control of certain reservations to local state authorities. The next year, the Indian Health Service Branch was transferred from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the U.S. Public Health Service. At the same time, the Bureau of Indian Affairs launched a relocation program to move Indians from reservations to target urban centers.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Congress acted to abolish (or "terminate") about 120 reservations. These included the Alabama-Coushatta of Texas, several California rancherias and reservation tribes, the Klamaths and the scattered tribes of Oregon, the Menominees of Wisconsin, and three Oklahoma tribes. For those terminated tribes the impact of the policy was devastating.
Although Congress did not officially reverse its termination policy until 1973, the program effectively ended in the early 1960s. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Phileo Nash, an anthropologist, introduced new programs to strengthen reservation political and economic development by building an economic infrastructure, promoting education, and on-the-job-training programs. By 1965, approximately fifty-six industrial plants were located on or near reservations.
Self-Determination, 1961 through the Early Twenty-first Century
From 1961 through the early 2000s, Native American political and legislative policies moved toward the general principle of self-determination on Indian reservations. Native American reaction against termination, combined with a growing sense of an indigenous pan-ethnic consciousness led to a reassertion of treaty rights among a number of tribes. Reservation-based tribes demanded greater authority over their affairs and urban Indians began to form organizations to bring attention to indigenous issues, including the need for strong reservation governments. The most successful urban protest group was the American Indian Movement, an organization that called for tribal sovereignty on reservations.
At the federal level, Lyndon B. Johnson's administration developed the War on Poverty to improve conditions in neglected areas of the country. Several tribes used these programs to take control of their own social welfare programs and to strengthen the administrative structure of their governments. The Bureau of Indian Affairs routinely opposed these efforts.
On the legislative front, congressional leaders grew increasingly sympathetic to tribal rights and reservation governments. The termination policy was officially renounced and several previously terminated tribes (most prominently the Menominees and Klamaths) were returned to tribal status. In 1975, Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, which established the principle that reservation governments could administer their own education and social service programs. While resisted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, this new law opened the possibility that tribes could function as autonomous governments within the boundaries of their reservations.
Other pieces of legislation were passed to address social and cultural issues. In 1978, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act with the intent to provide constitutional protection of indigenous religious freedom under the First Amendment. That same year, the Indian Child Welfare Act ended the practice of placing Indian children in non-Indian households and gave tribal courts a prominent role in adoption proceedings involving tribal members.
While reservation policies changed little in the 1980s, Congress approved two important pieces of legislation. The 1982 Indian Tribal Governmental Tax Status Act that permitted tribal governments to issue tax-exempt revenue bonds and the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act permitted gaming on reservations.
During the Clinton Administration the government-to-government relations between reservations and the United States was affirmed. President Clinton acknowledged that reservation communities were still plagued by poverty, poor health care, and unemployment, but he outlined a program for improvement that included greater tribal control over education, health care, and economic policy. Despite these declarations, throughout the 1990s, political attacks against Native American tribal sovereignty on reservations increased. Efforts were made to weaken the Indian Child Welfare Act and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Amendments were made to the Clean Air Act to dissolve tribal authority over water policies on tribal lands. Funding for legal services and health care were cut. Proposals were made by states to tax gaming revenues.
It was discovered that billions of dollars held in trust by the federal government had been grossly misused and mismanaged. Many reservations and culturally sensitive sites off reservation were being targeted again for natural resource development. The federal government's relationship with tribes wavered between respect for tribal sovereignty and rights and attempts to extinguish tribal existence. The administration of George W. Bush was in the process of "downsizing" in order to meet balanced budget promises. Despite these attacks, reservation communities continued to persist into the twenty-first century.
The Reservation Situation in the Early Twenty-first Century
Census data since the 1960s reveals that the Native American population is growing at a tremendous rate. According to the 2000 census, there are 2,475,956 Native Americans in the United States, but only a portion of those individuals are citizens in one of the 510 federally recognized Native American tribes. Of that number, 437,079 American Indians, 182 Eskimos, and 97 Aleuts resided on 314 reservations and trust lands. About 50 percent of the 437,358 American Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts reside on the ten largest reservations and trust lands.
A total of 56.2 million acres of land are held in trust by the United States for various tribes and individuals. About 82 percent of trust lands are owned by tribes, with 140 reservations entirely owned by tribes; approximately 17 percent are held by individuals; and less than one percent is held by the federal government. The largest reservation is the sixteen-million-acre Navajo reservation. It is home to about 269,202 Navajos. The Navajo reservation is unique in that since its establishment in 1868, it has progressively grown in size by executive orders and Congressional acts. In stark contrast, California rancherias and smaller reservations, primarily in California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, are less than 1,000 acres each.
The number of Native Americans living on reservations and trust lands vary substantially. According to the 2000 census, only ten reservations had a resident population of more than 7,000. These were the Navajo, Fort Apache, Gila River, Papago, Rosebud, San Carlos, Zuni Pueblo, Hopi, and Blackfeet reservations. Most had fewer than 1,000 residents. Since most reservation and trust lands are in the West, more than one-half of American Indians reside in Oklahoma, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Washington.
Indian reservations in the early 2000s, despite progress in health care and socio-economic development, remained a contradiction across the U.S. landscape. As reservation tribes struggled toward greater sovereignty and self-determination, they had to contend with numerous issues on a number of fronts. Many reservation communities struggled with a fragmented land base because of allotment, a growing hostility from non-Indian residents living on or near reservations, the need for greater economic self-sufficiency, and the task of building stronger cultural identities. Despite these challenges, many Native Americans continued to live on reservations. Reservations offered a strong sense of place and cultural identity. There is, across native North America, a new pride in tribal identity and a renaissance of traditions. Reservations have emerged as the focal point for the retention of unique cultural identities and for issues of sovereignty and self-determination, even for Indians who live in cities far from their tribal homelands. Across the Americas, indigenous people are recognizing that political struggle is essential to their basic right to exist as sovereign nations. Resistance and struggle are a part of daily existence for Native American people. A part of that resistance is not only surviving but also building a secure future for coming generations by enforcing basic human rights within a secure reservation land base. Reservations provide a geographical and political platform to expand their rights on a number of fronts.
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See alsoBureau of Indian Affairs ; Dawes General Allotment Act ; Indian Policy, Colonial ; Indian Policy, U.S. ; Indian Political Life ; Indian Removal ; Indian Reorganization Act ; Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act ; Indian Territory ; Removal Act of 1830 ; Westward Migration .