Native American Lands

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Date: 2021
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 1,514 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1140L

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Native American Lands are lands on which Native Americans live or lived. The history is complicated, involving centuries of Native Americans being forced to leave their land and being sequestered on reservations. Today the federal government holds a large amount of Indian land in trust for Native American tribes. These include federal Indian reservations, which are still home to many Native Americans.

Pre-Colonial Period

Before Europeans arrived in North America starting in the fifteenth century, Native Americans lived throughout the continent. The Inuit and the Aleut lived in the Arctic area in Alaska and Canada. Iroquois and Algonquin lived in the Northeast. Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole peoples lived in the Southeast, from the Carolinas down into Florida. Numerous tribes inhabited Texas and the Great Plains, including the Sioux, the Blackfeet, the Comanche, and the Cheyenne. The Navajo, Hopi, and Apache lived in the Southwest. The west coast was home to the greatest number of Native Americans, an estimated 300,000 people at the time the Europeans arrived. Tribes include the Hupa, Pomo, Shastan, and many others. The Pacific Northwest was home to the Tlingit, the Chinook, the Nootka, and the Nez Perce.

These groups had extremely diverse cultures and social organizations. The Plains Indians are the ones famous for their giant feathered headdresses and the teepees they lived in while on their buffalo hunts across the prairies. The groups in the Southeast lived in small towns with wooden houses and grew beans, squash, and tobacco. The Iroquois and Algonquin also lived in small farming towns, and were known for their wars with one another. The Tlingit lived in painted wooden houses and erected totem poles. The people of the Southwest lived in giant adobe houses with multiple stories. All of these groups had their own distinctive languages and religious traditions.

Native American cultures were never static. They evolved and changed both before and after Europeans began colonizing the continent. Many adopted European technologies such as guns. The Plains Indians are known for riding horses everywhere, but horses were actually introduced to North America by European colonists. They became a part of Native American culture only after Europeans arrived and quickly became vital to the Plains Indians' buffalo hunting.


The arrival of Europeans was generally bad news for Native Americans. Europeans had come to North America to set up colonies. They were engaged in what is known as settler colonialism, in which a group of settlers moves into a colonized territory and gradually displaces the native residents. The settlers are immigrants into the new land. They usually choose to leave their homelands in search of new economic opportunities or religious freedom. In the United States and Canada, European settlers took over the agricultural land of the Native Americans and told the Native Americans to move. It did not matter to the Europeans where the Native Americans went, only that they went away and allow the settlers to set up farms.

In the early days of European settlement, armed conflict was common, going in both directions. In many cases, Indian tribes tried to help the new arrivals, and there are famous cases of European-Native American cooperation and friendship, but the overall trend was of pushing the American Indians off the best land. The colonists used various means to do this. In some cases, they purchased land. Colonial governments enacted treaties under which both parties ostensibly agreed that the Indians would move, though typically the agreement was more a matter of compulsion. On the East Coast, Native Americans were gradually pushed westward. This created conflicts among the Native Americans as well, as tribes moved into areas occupied by other tribes.

Reservations and Indian Removal

After the formation of the United States, the federal government took responsibility for allocating Indian lands. The U.S. Constitution vests the national government with the authority to handle negotiations with Indian tribes. Tribes are considered to hold the status of nations and to possess the right of self-government.

Between 1778 and 1871, the government and Indian tribes entered into numerous treaties called "contracts among nations," based on the recognition that Native American tribes constituted nations with their own governments. Tribes generally agreed to relinquish their traditional lands to the United States in exchange for protection by the national government. These treaties were and are considered the supreme law of the land, and still apply today. The federal government holds Indian trust responsibility, a legally enforceable obligation to protect tribal lands and resources.

In 1825, the Office of Indian Affairs was founded to manage land distribution. This later became the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Over the years, presidents signed various treaties with Indian tribes to create reservations, tracts of land on which Native Americans were to live segregated from settlers. In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which enshrined the national government's policy of moving Indians away from the areas that were becoming populated by European colonists. The act gave the government the right to allocate land west of the Mississippi to Indian tribes and to pay to resettle the tribes in these new homes.

The history of Indian treaties was plagued with dishonesty and alteration of terms, as governments broke their promises and took lands they'd promised to Native Americans. Large-scale movements of groups produced tragedies such as the Trail of Tears, in which Cherokee, Choctaws, and other Southeastern tribes were forced to leave their homelands and move west of the Mississippi to Indian Territory. Between 1830 and 1850, some 60,000 Native Americans left Southeastern states and traveled on foot to what is now Oklahoma. Thousands died of exposure and disease.

The reservation system was created by the Indian Appropriations Act of 1851. Indians were given reservations to live on. They were not allowed to leave reservations without permission. Reservations were often situated on land that was poor farmland. Tribes resettled on reservations often struggled to provide for themselves or maintain their traditional cultures.

Reservations and Allotments

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the federal government broke up a number of reservations and parceled out the land to individuals. This was the result of the Dawes Act, or General Allotment Act, passed in 1887. In general, each tribal member would receive either 80 or 160 acres. The federal government held this land in trust for 25 years, after which the member would receive outright title to the land. The stated intention was to help Native Americans improve their standard of living and to assimilate into American society.

This had the unfortunate consequence of making the land subject to state and local taxation. Native American owners often could not pay these taxes, and in consequence lost their land, which generally ended up being purchased by European homesteaders.

Between the passage of the General Allotment Act in 1887 and 1934, tribal lands were reduced from 138 million to 48 million acres. At that point, the federal government ended the allotment program. It passed the Indian Reorganization Act, which was intended to turn back years of colonialism and restore land to tribes in the hope that Native Americans might restore their old cultures and self-government. This Act extended the trust period indefinitely.

The allotment period left Indian lands broken up into small parcels with complicated webs of ownership. Dividing the land among multiple descendants caused the parcels to break up even more in a process known as fractionation. This presents significant limitations on economic use of the land, including the exploitation of mineral rights.

Land Ownership Today

By the twentieth century, most Native Americans were living on designated Indian lands. Indian land is mostly federal trust land, in which the federal government holds the legal title to the land and operates it for the benefit of tribes or individuals.

Indian reservations are federal land reserved for a tribe or tribes according to some legal document such as a treaty or federal statute. There are over 52 million acres of federal land held in trust for Native Americans by the federal government as Indian reservations. This is divided into 326 separate areas administered as Indian reservations, which might also go by the names pueblos, missions, communities, villages, or other names. Some reservations are on a tribe's original land, but many are on land to which tribes were forcibly relocated. The largest is the 16 million acre Navajo Indian Reservation. Most reservations are under 1000 acres. Most Indian reservations are exempt from federal and state taxes.

The federal government still holds some allotment lands in trust for individual Native Americans. Other lands have what is known as restricted status. They are owned by individual Native Americans or by tribes, but can only be sold or encumbered with permission of the Secretary of the Interior.

Similar schemes govern the ownership and exploitation of natural resources on tribal lands. Tribes are allowed to develop natural resources on land held in trust without first getting approval from the federal government.

States also hold some Indian lands in trust for tribes. State reservations are the result of agreements between tribes and state governments or, in some cases, earlier colonial governments.

Indian tribes also own land in their own right, as private landowners.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|YAVNTS727092394