Native Americans, also called American Indians or Indians, are the indigenous peoples who, before colonization, first inhabited the territory now encompassed by the United States. Today, their descendants make up many distinct tribes or nations, many of which still exist as political communities. Some of these communities are officially recognized by the federal government or the government of the state in which they live and have been granted specific economic, political, social, and cultural rights. Many layers of laws govern these communities, called nations or peoples by their members.
Native American law in the United States encompasses a wide variety of issues. The main issues concern control over land and tribal sovereignty, or Native Americans' right to self-determination. Other statutes address the protection of tribal natural resources, sacred sites, cultural property, religious freedom, cultural history and practices, and civil and economic rights.
Westward expansion of the United States in the 19th century gradually forced large numbers of Native Americans to move further west. The federal Indian Removal Act of 1830 authorized the President to conduct treaties to exchange Native American land east of the Mississippi River for lands west of the river. Tremendous pressure was put on Native American leaders to agree to these treaties, and although many Indians moved west, they made long, hard journeys under duress. Native Americans lost their land, homes, and many members of their tribes along the way. An estimated 4,000 Cherokee Indians died from disease on what became known as the Trail of Tears, when 17,000 Cherokees were forced westward by federal troops enforcing the Treaty of New Echota.
Conflicts broke out between tribal nations and U.S. troops as a result of the Indian removal policy, and on January 31, 1876, the United States government ordered all remaining Native Americans to move into reservations or reserves. Later, the General Allotment Act of 1887, called the Dawes Act, authorized the division of Indian tribal land into allotments for each Native American, replacing the tribal system of common property. The Dawes Act had disastrous effects on tribal identity and culture, and Native Americans lost much of their land to non-members living in tribal areas.
The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, also known as the Wheeler-Howard Act, reversed the Dawes Act's privatization of common holdings and signaled a return to tribal self-government. The Act also restored to Native Americans the management of their land and attempted to provide economic benefits for American Indians. Tribes regained over two million acres of land in the first 20 years after passage of the Act, although relocation policies resumed when additional provisions of the Act were implemented and American Indians continued to lose their land.
Native Americans continue to struggle to hold onto and reclaim land now held by the federal and state governments as well as private individuals. There are approximately 300 Indian reservations in the U.S. today, although many Native Americans do not live on a reservation.
Over 2.5 million Native Americans reside in the United States. The federal government recognizes over 550 tribes, making them eligible for funding and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Indian tribes are considered by federal law to be "domestic, dependent nations." The federal government has a trust responsibility to protect tribal lands, assets, resources, and treaty rights. Numerous federal statutes deal with Indian rights and governance, such as the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 (also known as the Indian Bill of Rights) and the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975.
The U.S. recognizes the right of these tribes to tribal sovereignty and self-government. Federally recognized tribes have the right to form their own governments and courts, enforce civil and criminal laws, establish membership and tax members, license and regulate activities, and decide their own fates. Limitations on tribal powers of self-government are the same as constitutional limits on state sovereignty. Tribes do not have the power to make war, engage in foreign relations, or coin money.
A tribe may exist and be recognized by a state without being recognized by the federal government. Courts and legislatures examine such factors as the extent of tribal control over individual lives and activities, the extent of political control exercised over specific territory, and the continuity of the group's history.
Native American religions have frequently conflicted with federal laws. Some laws, such as those protecting endangered species or national parks, have unintentionally caused problems such as denial of access to sacred sites or bans on possession of animal-derived sacred objects, such as eagle feathers and bones, by Native Americans.
The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (AIRFA) marked a shift in U.S. policy toward protecting Native American religious freedom. AIRFA acknowledged that Native American religious freedom had been restricted, and it established a policy of protecting the right of Native Americans to believe in and practice their traditional religions. It set forth a new federal policy that laws passed for other purposes were not meant to restrict the rights of Native Americans, who would have rights of access to religious sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and freedom to worship through traditional ceremonies and rites.
Congress has also enacted statutes to protect cultural artifacts of American Indians. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA) allows Native Americans to request the return of human remains and other culturally sensitive items in the possession of federal agencies, museums, or institutions. Many religious artifacts and ancestral remains have been returned to tribes, but others remain in museums and institutions.
American Indians have attempted to use NAGPRA to protect sacred sites with mixed results. Northern California tribes sued the Forest Service in the 1980s to stop a logging road through a sacred forest and won, but the Supreme Court overturned their victory. But some protections have been granted; for example, at Devil's Tower in Wyoming, the park requests rock climbers not climb in June, when the Lakota hold several ceremonies.
In California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, 480 U.S. 202 (1987), the U.S. Supreme Court held that federally recognized Native American tribes, as sovereign political entities, could operate gaming facilities without being subject to state regulation or jurisdiction. Congress then enacted the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), which governs how Indian Nations can operate casinos and gaming establishments.
Does a state hold authority over tribal nations within its borders? No, a state generally does not hold authority over tribal nations within its borders. The principle of tribal sovereignty gives authority over relations with tribes to the federal government. In recent generations, though, the federal government has allowed states to influence certain activities on reservations to a limited extent.
What do tribal governments do? Tribal governments create and enforce laws, and they provide public safety services, such as police departments and emergency responders. They regulate businesses on tribal lands, collect taxes, build infrastructure, and oversee land use, education, and health care. A tribal government can decide who is a member of the tribe and exclude certain non- members from entering their lands.
What is the jurisdiction of independent tribal courts? Independent tribal courts hold civil jurisdiction over Native Americans and non-Native Americans who live or do business on reservations. They hold criminal jurisdiction over alleged violations of tribal laws by tribal members who live or do business on reservations. Independent tribal courts also handle matters related to divorce, family law, guardianships, and trusts.
Which types of cultural property can be repatriated to Native American tribes? These include human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. Funerary objects are items that contained human remains or were placed with them for burial. Sacred objects are ceremonial items essential to Native American religions. Objects of cultural patrimony are items owned by a tribe as a whole that would have been inalienable when the tribe lost possession of them.
When do Native American tribes have a right to hunt and fish off their reservations? Some tribes have a right to hunt and fish off their reservations through a treaty with the federal government that specifically provides for this right. Other tribes have this right if the federal government reduced or eliminated a reservation but did not terminate tribal hunting and fishing rights for the original area of the reservation.
Religious Freedom for Native Americans First Amendment rights to freedom of religious belief, exercise, and expression apply to Native American religions, and the government generally must permit tribes to access and use religious sites.
Cultural Property of Native Americans Federal, state, and tribal laws provide certain protections, but limited scope and inconsistent enforcement have resulted in persistent threats to the survival of some tribal cultures.
Hunting and Fishing Rights of Native Americans Tribes may have rights to hunt and fish off reservations, but states can regulate these activities if they do not discriminate against Native Americans and allow them a fair apportionment of fish.
Gaming Regulations for Native Americans Tribes generally can conduct gaming operations on reservations without complying with state regulations, but they must reach agreements with states to operate most standard types of casino games.