Indian Reservations in the US

Fifteen thousand years after the first inhabitants of the Americas arrived from Asia, Europeans came looking for space to conquer and settle. The newcomers swept aside Indigenous land ownership and claimed the New World as territory belonging to their sovereigns: one of the most extensive land grabs in history!

Indian Reservations in the US Indian Reservations in the US

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    Native Americans fought back. In the US, despite losing most land through broken treaties, not having citizenship (until 1924 in many cases), and not having full voting rights (until after 1968), hundreds of ethnic groups slowly began to recover.

    About Indian Reservations in the US

    The Indian reservation in the US is a specific type of sovereign territory resulting from centuries of interaction between the Indigenous inhabitants of the continent, known collectively as "Native Americans" or "American Indians," and people who are not native to the continent, principally people of white, European ancestry.

    Setting the Stage

    In southern parts of what was to become the US (California, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, and so forth), from the 1500s to the 1800s, Spanish rulers forced many Indigenous people to live in settlements known as pueblos, rancherias, and missions.

    Indian reservations in the US Taos Pueblo StudySmarterFig. 1 - Taos Pueblo in 1939. It has been continually inhabited for over a millennium and was dominated for centuries by Spanish and Mexican governments before becoming part of the US in the 1800s

    Powerful Indian states such as the Powhatan Confederacy and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy, which still exists today) established relationships as political equals with early French and English colonizers on the East Coast and in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Valley region.

    In the West, nomadic hunting societies acquired horses from early Spanish expeditions. They evolved into the Sioux and other horse cultures of the Great Plains, not recognizing outside authority until forced to at the end of the 1800s.

    Meanwhile, many Indigenous groups in the Pacific Northwest relied on the area's rich aquatic and marine resources, particularly the Pacific salmon; they lived in coastal towns.

    No More Freedom

    The forward march of European settlement never slowed. After the United States was established in 1776, Thomas Jefferson and others began to push for Indian Removal, whereupon all Native Americans wishing to retain their cultures, even those who already had Western-style governments, would be able to do so, but only west of the Mississippi River. This is how the "Five Civilized Tribes" of the southern US (Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole) were eventually removed (via the "Trail of Tears") to Indian Territory. Even there, they lost land and rights as well.

    By the end of the 1800s, Native Americans had lost nearly all their lands. Once-free Native Americans were consigned to the least productive and most remote areas. The US Federal government eventually granted them limited sovereignty as "domestic dependent nations," which included the rights to occupy and govern territories known generically as "Indian reservations."

    Number of Indian Reservations in the US

    There are 326 Indian Reservations in the US. We detail what this means below.

    What Is an Indian Reservation?

    The Bureau of Indian Affairs handles relationships between the 574 Indian tribal entities (nations, bands, tribes, villages, trust lands, Indian communities, rancherias, pueblos, Alaskan native villages, etc.) and the US federal government. These control 326 reservations (called reservations, reserves, pueblos, colonies, villages, settlements, and so forth) that have governments, law enforcement, and courts separate from the 50 states.

    The term Indian country is applied to Indian reservations and other types of land where state laws do not apply or apply in only a limited sense. This means that if you are geographically in Indian country, you are subject to its laws. Native American laws do not supersede Federal laws but may differ from state ones. These laws include who can occupy land, run businesses, and especially the consequences of criminal actions.

    You may be surprised to learn that the US has more than 326 territories set aside for Indigenous people, and more than 574 Indigenous groups. The state of Hawaii holds many homelands in trust for the exclusive use of Hawaiian Natives, in a somewhat equivalent fashion to Indian Reservations. Other systems are in place for Indigenous Pacific Islanders in the US territories of Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Marianas. In the 48 contiguous states, in addition to the 574 federally recognized Native American groups and their associated lands, there are also many state-recognized tribes and a few tiny state reservations.

    What is a Tribe?

    Many people claim American Indian ancestry or claim to belong to an Indian tribe. Indeed, because the US Census relies on self-identification to count who is Indigenous, there is a large discrepancy between people who claim Indian ancestry in whole or part and those who are members of the 574 Federally-recognized tribal entities in the Lower 48 states and Alaska.

    In the 2020 Decennial Census, 9.7 million people in the US claimed Indian identity in part or in full, up from 5.2 million claiming it in 2010. Those who claimed exclusive American Indian and Alaska Native identity numbered 3.7 million. By contrast, the Bureau of Indian Affairs administers benefits to around 2.5 million American Indians and Alaska Natives, around a million of whom live on reservations or in Alaska Native Village Statistical Areas.

    Becoming a member of an Indian tribal entity (as compared to claiming the identity on a Census questionnaire) is a process governed by each tribal entity. The most common requirement is to prove that one has a certain amount of Indian ancestry required by the tribe (at least a grandparent, for example).

    Tribal entities themselves must fulfill some of the seven prerequisites below to become officially recognized by the US Congress:

    • Must have identified as an Indian tribe or other entity since 1900, without breaks;
    • Must have been an actual community since then;
    • Must have had some form of political authority over its members, via some form of governing body, since that time;
    • Must possess some governing document (such as a constitution);
    • Members must have been descended from one or more historical Indian tribes;
    • Most members must not have been members of any other tribe;
    • Must not have been banned from Federal recognition in the past.1

    Map of Indian Reservations in the US

    As the map in this section shows, reservation land is scattered across most, but not all states, with a predominance of area in the Southwest and the northern Great Plains.

    It is important to note that the map does not include all of eastern and most of southern Oklahoma, which is now deemed Indian reservation land. McGirt vs. Oklahoma, a US Supreme Court case in 2020, ruled that the lands allotted to the Five Civilized Tribes and others in Indian Territory of the early 1800s did not stop being reservation land after Oklahoma became a state and whites were allowed to buy land. Given that the decision includes the land where the city of Tulsa is located, the consequences of this decision are pretty significant for Oklahoma. However, ongoing litigation by the state resulted in changes to McGirt vs. Oklahoma in 2022.

    Indian reservations in the US map of reservation lands StudySmarterFig. 2 - Reservation land in the US belonging to 574 tribal entities before 2020

    Largest Indian Reservations in the US

    In terms of area, by far the largest reservation in the US is the Navajo Nation, which at 27,413 square miles is larger than many states. Navajoland, in Navajo "Naabeehó Bináhásdzo," occupies most of northeastern Arizona as well as parts of neighboring Utah and New Mexico.

    Indian reservations in the US Navajo Nation flag StudySmarterFig. 3 - Navajo Nation flag, designed in 1968, shows the reservation area, the four sacred mountains, and the tribe's seal, with the rainbow symbolizing Navajo sovereignty

    The second-largest reservation is the Choctaw Nation in southeastern Oklahoma. Recent Supreme Court decisions have affirmed the Choctaw claim to the 1866 reservation lands they were allotted following the Trail of Tears. The total area now is 10,864 square miles.

    Third-and fourth-place reservations are also now in Oklahoma (note that online lists are often outdated and exclude them): the Chickasaw Nation at 7,648 square miles, and the Cherokee Nation, at 6,963 square miles.

    In fifth place is the Uintah and Ouray Reservation of the Ute tribe in Utah, with 6,825 square miles.

    Indian Reservations in the US are studied in political geography within AP Human Geography. They embody a specific type of sovereignty and relationship between government, autonomy, and territory. It is helpful to compare them to other kinds of special land tenure arrangements for semi-autonomous Aboriginal groups within nation-states; for example, they are directly comparable to reserves in Canada and other types of Indigenous lands in former white, UK-derived settler colonies such as New Zealand and Australia.

    Indian Reservations in the US Today

    Today, Indian reservations in the US face numerous cultural, legal, and environmental challenges. Still, they can also count many successes in their ages-old struggles to preserve or regain land, dignity, and cultural identity. We highlight just a few below.

    Challenges

    Perhaps the main challenges facing Native American reservations are the socioeconomic struggles that many who inhabit them experience. Isolation; dependency; lack of career and educational opportunities; substance addiction; and many other ills afflict many Indian reservations. Some of the most impoverished places in the US are on Indian reservations. This is in part geographical: as mentioned above, reservations are often located on the most remote and least productive land.

    Another major problem that reservations face is environmental contamination. Many tribes now have direct relationships with the US Environmental Protection Agency (rather than through the Bureau of Indian Affairs) to address the numerous hazardous waste sites and other environmental contaminations that exist on or near reservations.

    Successes

    The number and size of reservations are not fixed; it continues to grow. As mentioned above, recent US Supreme Court decisions back tribal claims that more than half of Oklahoma is reservation land. Though the reservations, the state of Oklahoma, and the federal government have recently been arguing over things like criminal jurisdiction, it seems unlikely that the recent re-affirmation of the Five Civilized Tribes' territorial sovereignty over Oklahoma, first given in the 1800s, will be eliminated again.

    Though not a total success per se, the widely publicized opposition of the Standing Rock Sioux of North Dakota to the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline under Lake Oahe, where the tribe gets its freshwater, is quite notable. Not only did it garner worldwide attention and attract thousands of protestors from many sympathetic groups, but also it resulted in a federal judge ordering the US Army Corps of Engineers to create a new environmental impact statement.

    Indian Reservations in the US - Key takeaways

    • There are 326 Indian reservations in the US governed by 574 Federally recognized tribal entities.
    • The largest Indian reservation in the US is the Navajo Nation in the southwest, followed by the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Cherokee nations in Oklahoma, and the Uintah and Ouray reservation of the Utes in Utah.
    • Indian reservations struggle with some of the highest poverty rates in the US and face many environmental problems.
    • A major recent success involving Indian reservations is the official recognition of reservation land inhabited by the Five Civilized Tribes in Oklahoma.

    References

    1. Legal Information Institute. '25 CFR § 83.11 - What are the criteria for acknowledgment as a federally recognized Indian tribe?' Law.cornell.edu. No date.
    2. Fig. 1 map of US Indian reservations (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Indian_reservations_in_the_Continental_United_States.png) by Presidentman (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Presidentman), Licensed by CC-BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Indian Reservations in the US

    How many Indian reservations does the US have?

    There are 326 reservations belonging to federally recognized tribal entities under the purview of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Additionally, there are Alaska Native Village Statistical areas, a few state reservations in the continental US, and Hawaiian Native home lands.

    Where is the largest Indian reservation in the United States?

    The largest Indian reservation in the US by land area is the Navajo Nation, known as Navajoland, with 27, 413 square miles. It is mostly in Arizona, with parts in New Mexico and Utah. It is also the most populous Indian reservation, with over 170,000 Navajo people who reside on it.

    How many Indian reservations still exist in the United States today?

    In the US today, 326 Indian reservations exist.

    How many people live on Indian reservations in the US?

    Over 1 million Native Americans live on reservations in the continental US.

    What are Indian reservations in the US?

    Indian reservations are lands one or more of the 574 Federally recognized Indian tribal entities occupy and govern. 

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