American Indians Today/Tribes, population and organization in and out the reservations

The Native American Population


For it is not easy to register American Indians and Alaska Natives without adding those of more than one race”, ( this makes up 1.6% of the whole US population). This proves a steady increase of the American Indian population: In 1900 epidemics, starvation and wars almost had wiped out the Native Americans and only 200,000 were left. But 50 years later the number had regrown to 350,000, in 1990 it exceeded 2 million and for 2050 it is projected to be almost double the present number.

The modern tribes and their home


The Indigenous people belong to 500~600 federally recognized tribes in the USA, including 225 in Alaska. These are often of little membership, except the Cherokee and the Navajo nation (the most populous tribes by far) which have both more than 300,000 members. A tribe is considered “federally recognized” if the members can prove their tribe's existence throughout the 20th century. Only then they may receive the services and benefits offered by the BIA, e.g. social services and assistance in economic development, etc.

However, there are also many tribes which are (partly) recognized by their state, but not by the BIA, for example the Wampanoag. These tribes do not get any governmental support by the BIA, so they are keen on changing their status: 150 tribes applied for federal recognition since 1978, but the Congress has signed positive only 12 petitions by now. But no matter if their tribe is federally recognized or not, each American Indian is a US citizen today and has (in most cases) the same rights and duties as any other American.

There are 56 million acres of land held in trust for American Indians and Alaska Natives by the Secretary of the Interior which contains the federal reservations, but not all Indian reservations and 223 Alaskan village groups. The latter have no reservation status, but are often of Indian inhabitants only. As a result of the expansion of the European civilization, which forced the American Indians to withdraw farther and farther to the West, the American Indian reservations and the areas preferred by the ones outside the reservations, are not evenly distributed over the USA. In fact most of the American Indian population is concentrated on a eleven states, most of them western the Mississippi (highest percentage among them California, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona), which are the home for two thirds of the American Indians.

American Indians outside the reservations


Despite a common assumption not all the American Indians live in reservations. Actually the American Indians living outside the reservations make up the vast majority: between 64% and 85% of the American Indians do not live in one of the reservations or Indian communities in the USA but in rural areas or in big cities.

From the beginning of the expulsion in the early 19th Century there have been a few Indian communities and single families who managed to escape the authorities' notice. But the big wave of American Indians leaving their reservations has been initiated by the supportive measurements of the US government (like special benefits)in the 1950's (Termination policy and Relocation policy). At this time, a lot of American Indians left their tribe to work in big cities ( Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York had and have especially many Indian inhabitants ) or in towns not far from the reservations ( for example Oklahoma City, Minneapolis, Seattle or Phoenix). This happened step by step: in 1970 about 45% of the American Indians already lived outside the reservations, twenty years later it were 54%. Nowadays the “rural exodus” is still a current topic, because young American Indians believe that the cities offer many opportunities to make money and that moving is the only possibility to change their life and to escape from the hopelessness in the reservations.

For some this dreams became reality, for example for the Iroquois, who typically have a good head for heights and profited from their unique quality by working as demanded steel construction workers or engineers on the building sites of skyscrapers in almost any big city. Now they have settled in a quarter of their own in Brooklyn in New York City, which is quite unusual because the majority of the “City Indians” is not living in ghettos.

Different from the Iroquois many other “City Indians” have been less successful: in the beginning of the Termination policy about three quarters of the American Indians returned to their reservations and today badly paid jobs and several social underclass problems in urban areas impede the life quality of many (young) American Indians. But altogether their social situation and their career prospects are better than in the reservations which can be seen in the fact that their rates of higher education (college degree and more) are constantly higher as those in the reservations, as well as their median age and their average income. This shows a slight rise on the social ladder compared to their past.

American Indians in Reservations


Only a little bit more than one third of the American Indians are residents at a reservation (or community, rancheria, pueblo etc.), which are no longer internment camps (like some reservations in the 19th century had been). However, sometimes there are still fences and “wards”, although the inhabitants legally are free to go and live anywhere they like. On the other hand, a reservation is no paradise for Indians: they are neither living in Tipis (, but in huts, council flats or in simple prefabricated houses), nor riding on horseback. Although they are often isolated from the modern industrial society, they adapted in many ways to the European culture, e.g. Fast-Food restaurants and supermarkets opened in the reservations and satellite TV and an Internet access are available in most cases.

Today, the reservations cover 52 million acres of the Indian trust land which appears infinitely small compared with their original tribal area, that is the entire North American continent. American Indian Areas (in the USA there are 270-300 federal reservations, mostly western the Mississippi, and about 21 state reservations, the majority in the East) exist in all sizes and compositions: Some of the reservations are quite small (partly less than 1000 acres, the smallest comprises only 100 acres), others are very large with the Navajo Nation in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah as the largest (containing 17 million acres); some are inhabited by only one tribe, others are the home of several different tribes. Many reservations are inhabited by non-Indians, too, and a lot of reservation land has White owners or tenants (actually only about 140 reservations consist of exclusively tribal-owned land). The US government used to handle any issues concerning the American Indians in the past. Yet since 1975( Indian Self-Determination Act) the reservations are free to form their own tribal governments, which are assembled by democratic elections or out of the elder councils. This self-government is limited only as far as the states' power, i.e. the reservations are legally treated like sovereign states and the state authorities only have scarce control over them. In many reservations laws (both criminal and civil) and law enforcement are more or less independent of the surrounding. The Navajo nation for example has replaced each law of the state of Arizona by own (except the traffic regulations) and the tribe folds its own courts and police, so that only dangerous criminals have to stand trial on a non-Indian court. The tribes also administer their own fire brigades and social programs and are allowed to manage the usage of their natural resources on their own (although the USA violate this right from time to time). This far-reaching self-sufficiency conveys a feeling of pride and security to some of the American Indians in the reservations and so they are keen on becoming completely self-sustaining some day. As a special privilege the American Indians in reservations do not have to pay taxes of any income or trade made upon their tribal land and they (officially) receive free health care. This supportive measures are badly needed because many are on federal welfare and social benefits.