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Reservation System

Reservation System







Colonial and imperial governments tend to view subordinate populations as problems to be solved, and they design political, legal, and administrative instruments to manage such populations. The Native American reservation system in the United States is one such instrument. The reservation system grew out of earlier colonial policies dealing with land acquisition, access to resources, and the forced relocation of Native American groups. The reservation system is not a necessary or evolutionary stage in the management of Native American peoples, however, but rather a contingent historical development that grew out of prior policies, practices, and ideological formations. In order to understand the reservation system as it exists in the early twenty-first century, one must trace the political and legal antecedents that produced it.


The colonial roots of the reservation system can be traced to Elizabethan England’s expansionist ventures into Ireland and the administration of colonial government there in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One of the key objectives of the colonial apparatus was the “civilizing mission,” which sought to bring subordinate populations into conformity with English norms of economy, political and legal standards, social organization, and religion. Civility was held to be coextensive with an agricultural lifeway, democratic governance, common law, and Anglican Christianity. The forced capitulation of the native populations of colonized regions to these criteria was a mandate adhered to by English colonizers. Indigenous populations were uniformly presumed to be inferior races in need of the civilizing institutions and values of Anglo society.

Colonial experiments also sought to develop new mechanisms for dealing with domestic problems, including criminality; population growth and urbanization; changes in political, economic, and social structures that resulted from industrialization; and the transition from mercantilism to capitalism. The colony provided seemingly appropriate avenues for the resolution of both domestic and external political problems. Colonial initiatives fostered an emphasis on the profit motive and competition, which were key ideological frames for colonization and the expropriation of land and resources in colonized areas. These motives provided the basis for expansion, opened new avenues of thought for resolving political problems, and structured interactions between English colonizers in Ireland and North America (and between English colonizers and their European colonial adversaries, including France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Russia).

The invention of reservations must be understood against a background of political economy. Under mercantilism, London merchants engaged in long-distance trade, opened markets, and supplied patronage for the development of fleets and the recruitment of labor. These efforts allowed for the effective penetration of trade sites abroad. The market structures that were created were subsequently fulfilled through the enterprises of trading companies, chartered companies, joint stock companies, and various public-private alliances tasked with the extraction and export of resources and reimportation and sale of manufactured goods. This political economy was designed to shift English dependence away from European competitors and toward the supply of its own raw materials through colonial extraction and exchange. The patterns established in Ireland and exported to North America resulted in the system of population management recognized today as the reservation system.


The ideology of difference that prevailed in Elizabethan England maintained that the Irish were a savage and inferior race, and the colony was developed to civilize the native population and extract resources for investors and the Crown. Colonial administrators, such as the poet and novelist Edmund Spenser, were assiduous in propagating racial ideas of Irish inferiority and savagery, as well as the absolute necessity of introducing the institutions of civilization to the island. To achieve their objectives, the architects of colonial policy relied upon several instruments of control, including warfare, slaughter, and terror; the confiscation of land and plantations; and forced capitulation to English rule.

In order to accomplish these goals, colonial administrators perpetrated extreme violence against the Irish and transplanted English and Scotish populations to confiscated lands. The English justified these activities by invoking Roman law and Roman and Renaissance precedents. According to precedent, colonization was a normative and civilized mode of governing for putatively superior peoples. In addition, the natural law doctrines that underwrote colonization were sufficient to enable England’s invasion and occupation of Ireland and to defend the brutality committed against its inhabitants. Conquest and res nullius (empty things) were key principles by which English conquerors subsequently justified their practices in Ireland.

The colonized world was thus designed to create situated replicas of model English settlements. Much of the early colonial effort in Ireland in the late sixteenth century was sanctioned by the Crown, though without its financial support. These were primarily private military and economic adventures, many of which failed. This created the perceived need to improve the colonial project and make the Crown more responsible for oversight and investment. It was under these circumstances that larger-scale plantations were undertaken. Early movements toward centralization were ad hoc and inchoate, however, and it was not until much later, in North America, that the effort became systematic and consequential.


In North America, the English imported the principles of conquest, res nullius, and the just war. Colonists continued to instrumentalize these principles to legitimize the theft of indigenous lands and resources. The English drew heavily upon their experience in Ireland, continuing with successful elements and improving upon the unsuccessful. They were also required to innovate in their interactions with and management of Native American populations. One of these important innovations was the creation of reserves.

Reserves as such had not been created or implemented in Ireland, although the native Irish had been subject to forcible relocation and exclusion from previously held lands. Reserves emerged quickly in North America, however, and they were often established as terms of peace negotiations. Reserves were created for the explicit purpose of bounding populations of Native Americans, of compelling them to remain in designated geographical spaces where their behavior could be supervised. In North America, the English encountered peoples who practiced fundamentally different economic forms and required large land areas to support those forms. To the English mind, this was the apex of the racial concept of savagery, and the civilizing mission in North America necessitated a more intensive approach. It required settlement and domestication of the indigenous populations, the introduction of row agriculture instead of horticulture, and Christianization. The result was the development of the reserve, or, increasingly, the “reservation,” and this element was routinely included in treaty terms by the seventeenth century.

Treaty making was a common and enduring instrument for negotiating relations. Typically, treaties stipulated that reserves would be protected from encroachments by the English, but agreed-upon boundaries and other terms were rarely observed by the English, and they were even more rarely enforced by the Crown or colonial governments. Aggressive encroachment thus became constitutive of English settlers’ practice. This fostered frequent hostilities, and conquest and just war came to be claimed as the rationale for virtually every conflict over land. The extent of such hostilities increased in frequency and intensity over the course of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and by the mid-eighteenth century relations with Native Americans were so fractious that their administration was removed from colonial management and centralized under the Crown. This placed the management of Native American relations in royal departments vested with full royal authority, and it also introduced new requirements regarding the acquisition of lands from Native Americans. In particular, colonial governments and individuals could no longer write treaties with Native people, nor could they acquire title directly from Native nations.

Regardless of the Crown’s mandate, the colonies refused to comply, and by 1764 it had become obvious that a new policy to regulate commercial and political relations with the Indians was needed. The Crown’s key concerns were warfare, the fur trade, land speculation, land encroachments, the frontier, and the boundary negotiations that would permanently separate Native American lands from settler lands along the watershed of the Appalachians. Once formalized, this line was not to be transgressed, but it was constantly moved westward as new treaties, settlements, and purchases were concluded. Thus, the settler frontier moved steadily westward. This policy and the boundary concept were abandoned in 1768 because the costs to the imperial government were too high. Individual colonies, therefore, continued to establish and maintain relationships with Native Americans within their borders, and some of these relationships persisted after the conclusion of the American Revolution. These persisting relationships were codified in the recognition of certain Native American nations by state governments. Many of these state-recognized tribes have state reservations, although these contain significantly fewer inhabitants than federal reservations.


The formal relationships between England and Native Americans were carried forward into the purview of the United States, and the new nation continued the practice of negotiating treaties with Native Americans as the frontier moved west. Following English precedent, these treaties were primarily land cession arrangements in which Native Americans acquiesced to remain on reserved lands or relocate to new reservations. These cessions were usually purchase agreements, in which the United States committed to annuity payments and maintained control of the funds through a trust arrangement. Most reservations were created through treaties, but Congress has created several by statute, while some were negotiated through executive order. Presidential power to create reservations was eliminated by Congress in 1919, and the secretary of the interior received the capacity to create, expand, or restore reservations. Native American tribes must be recognized by the federal government in order to qualify for federal benefits, but there is no direct correlation between recognition and reservation status, and state recognition does not of itself qualify a tribe for federal benefits.

The U.S. Constitution situated the responsibility for the management of Native American relations with the Congress. The initial constitutional relationship with Native Americans was structured around the idea that indigenous polities were independent sovereign nations, equal in political weight to the United States. Formal relations were centered on trade and intercourse. As the American desire for land and resources increased, however, and as this desire was fulfilled at the expense of Native American peoples, the federal government altered its recognition of Native American sovereignty. After Supreme Court chief justice John Marshall’s decision in the 1831 Cherokee Nation v. Georgia case, Native Americans came to be seen as “domestic dependent nations” in a trust relationship with the United States government. This political and ideological reorganization enabled the practice of wholesale expropriation of Native American lands, the destruction and forcible relocation of their peoples to suit U.S. needs, and the consolidation of the reservation system. The political and ideological shifts were accompanied by new legal understandings of Native Americans and new initiatives for the management of their populations.

The earliest of these initiatives was called “removal.” This idea was promulgated by Thomas Jefferson as an alternative to failed efforts to assimilate and civilize Native American peoples. Removal became federal policy under Andrew Jackson with the Indian Removal Act of 1830, and thereafter it resulted in extreme hardship for many Native Americans. Many groups were either conduced to sign treaties to relinquish land claims east of the Mississippi or compelled by military threat to abandon their lands. The justification for removal and subsequent U.S. policies vis-à-vis Native Americans built upon the ideas imported to colonial America by the English; namely conquest, discovery, and terra nullius (empty land). The English, and subsequently the United States, maintained the juridical fiction that they had discovered and conquered a land inhabited by peoples who they believed did not cultivate it, and therefore had no claim to ownership of the land on which they resided. This observation ignored the reality and extent of precontact indigenous agriculture, as well as the fact that Native Americans had domesticated more than half the cultigens then in existence. The putative “civilizing mission” was brought fully forward as well. Native Americans were explicitly described as an inferior race, and only those who would accede to an agricultural and Christian lifeway were considered civilizable (if not quite civilized). Those who would not do so were an obstacle to the success of the fledgling American nation, and such obstacles required elimination. Whether through assimilation or destruction, the goal was the same: the eradication of the difference embodied by Native American individuals and nations.

Removal was replaced in the nineteenth century with reservation policy. Early U.S. reservation theory preferred consolidated reservations and envisioned two large areas (north and south) on which all Native Americans were to reside. The rationale was to eliminate multiple agencies and reduce military obligations, thus shrinking government costs. There was also a desire to create a system in which Indians could be more easily surveilled and controlled. Advocates believed that fewer reservations would reduce tensions between Native Americans and encroaching settlers; facilitate control of the illicit trade in liquor, arms, and ammunition; and make it easier to impose agriculture and education. Reservation theory was deeply influenced by the idea that education and agriculture were the most effective means of civilizing, and it was assumed that, once civilized, Native Americans would no longer want to live as tribal members on reservations. They would instead leave the reservations and assimilate, and their former reservation lands would revert to federal title, to be opened to resale and reentry.

As the frontier was pushed westward and aggressive settler encroachment intensified, U.S. policymakers began to favor a scattered approach. By the mid-nineteenth century, the United States had embarked upon a policy of concentrating Native Americans onto fixed reservations with lands deemed sufficient for actual occupancy. The

federal government also decided at this time to discontinue money annuities in favor of goods, including stock animals, plows, and tools, as well as facilities for schools to teach industrial and manual labor skills. It was also during this period, in 1871, that the federal government ended the practice of treaty making and instead relied upon treaty substitutes, such as statute and executive orders, to govern the formal relations between the federal government and Native American groups.

By the 1880s, the civilizing and assimilationist mission of the reservation agenda was modified to mandate the allocation of lands in severalty (individual ownership), thus encouraging private property ownership and discouraging tribal relations. The Dawes Act (1887) and the Curtis Act (1898) were the primary legislative documents that implemented the terms of individual ownership. These acts provided for the allotment of small, specific parcels of land to Native American families and individuals, and they provided for non-allotted lands to be opened to non-Indian settlement. The net result was the loss of approximately 90 percent of Native-controlled lands to non-Native ownership.

Since the end of the treaty era, federal Indian policy has vacillated between assimilationist and eradicationist alternatives. Some measure of autonomy and self-government was attained following the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934, but these small successes were soon lost. Following House Concurrent Resolution 108, passed in 1953, the federal government embarked on the termination and relocation policy, according to which Congress sought to terminate the federal relationship with Native Americans and compel their relocation to urban centers. In addition, Public Law 280 (also 1953) conferred on the governments of five states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, California, Nebraska, and Oregon, with Alaska added by amendment in 1958) full criminal and limited civil jurisdiction over reservations. Termination and relocation were catastrophic for Native peoples in the United States, and their effects continue to be felt.

Termination and relocation were followed by the development of self-determination policy. Initially proposed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, self-determination was fostered by sovereignty initiatives and Indian activism and resulted in the recognition by the federal government of the unique status of Indian tribes and individuals. President Richard Nixon arrogated to his administration the development of self-determination policy, and it was enacted as law under President Gerald Ford as the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act in 1975. It was amended in 1988, 1994, and 2000, and there are still problems with its implementation, but it continues to garner political support within the federal government and among many Native Americans. Sovereignty and autonomy on the reservation are critical and contentious issues, and the management of reservation resources and populations is fundamental to the concept and practice of self-determination. The ambivalent histories and the multifarious relationships between the United States and Native Americans continue to center on the reservation system and the unequal burdens and benefits that accrue to the differential power positions occupied by each group.


The reservation system had unforeseen effects outside of the United States. For example, Adolf Hitler’s efforts to contain and eliminate unwanted groups in Nazi Germany required the importation of American technologies, including punch card technology (developed by IBM), the application and instrumentalization of data systems, and the machinery for creating and implementing systems of containment and eradication, such as the reservation system. Nazi administrators, academics, and scientists studied the reservation system and other procedures and mechanisms for managing unwanted populations, including eugenics, euthanasia, and forced sterilization. American theory and practice were well known in Germany by the 1920s, so much so that many appeared in Hitler’s manifesto, Mein Kampf, including containment, incarceration, isolation, monitoring and surveillance, antimiscegenation, and identifying, circumscribing, and eliminating populations according to race criteria.


Canny, Nicholas. 2001. Making Ireland British, 1580–1650. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Castile, George Pierre. 2006. Taking Charge: Native American Self-Determination and Federal Indian Policy, 1975–1993. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

_____, and Robert L. Bee, eds. 1992. State and Reservation: New Perspectives on Federal Indian Policy. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Cohen, Felix. 2005. Cohen’s Handbook of Federal Indian Law. Newark, NJ: LexisNexis.

Philp, Kenneth, ed. 1995. Indian Self-Rule: First-Hand Accounts of Indian-White Relations from Roosevelt to Reagan, 2nd ed. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Prucha, Francis Paul. 1984. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Wilkins, David. 2002. American Indian Politics and the American Political System. Boston: Rowman and Littlefield.

Wilkinson, Charles. 1987. American Indians, Time, and the Law: Native Societies in a Modern Constitutional Democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

A. Scott Catey

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