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What is an Indian Reservation?

Niki Acker
Updated May 17, 2024
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An Indian reservation is a piece of land in the United States designated as federal territory and managed by a Native American tribal council. Many reservations are not the ancestral land of the tribe that inhabits them, as Indians were forcibly moved to undesirable lands throughout the 19th century. There are around 300 overall, covering 55.7 million acres (225,410 square km) total, or about 2.3% of the entire United States. Well over 200 of the country's recognized Native American tribes do not have a reservation, and a small majority of Native Americans live outside of reservations.

The first Indian reservations were created in modern-day Oklahoma under the Indian Appropriations Act of 1851. While the purported goal of the act was to protect Indians from the encroachment of whites, in reality, the Oklahoma reservations began to shrink as whites moved west. President Ulysses S. Grant, who served from 1869 to 1877, stepped up the creation of reservations, relocating many tribes and placing religious officials in charge of the territories in an effort to "civilize" and Christianize Native Americans. Many of the new reservations were not amenable to traditional farming methods, leading to severe malnutrition. While the U.S. government promised many tribes a stipend in return for living in these designated areas, they did not always follow through.

Native Americans put up significant resistance to Grant's policy, while whites on the frontier often objected that the reservation lands were too large, prompting the government to reduce their size. Many Native Americans were forcibly relocated, and bloody wars resulted. The United States Army was brought into the frontier to control Indian tribes. By the end of Grant's time in office, his Native American policies were considered a failure, and Rutherford B. Hayes, his successor, began phasing them out.

In 1887, the Dawes Act instituted a policy of giving parcels of land to individual Native Americans, rather than to tribes as a whole. "Excess" land could then be given to whites. This policy was halted in 1934 by Franklin D. Roosevelt's Indian Reorganization Act, which heralded a return to tribal ownership of lands, increased the amount of total Indian reservation land in the country, and included government investment in education, health care, and infrastructure within the reservations. Some tribes were also relocated as a result of the act, and 61 tribal nations were dismantled.

The quality of life on a typical reservation is extremely poor, similar to that of developing countries. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service are the two federal government organizations that interact with tribal leaders. Many reservations now have casinos to attract tourists and draw in revenue. The right of Native American tribes to run a casino on an Indian reservation was established in 1987 in the California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians case and formally recognized in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.

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Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a America Explained editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By anon992657 — On Sep 21, 2015

I'm just wondering. The Indians lived off the land, and that was their way of survival. Was that taken into consideration with the locations of the reservations? If not, then they had to learn a whole new way of living altogether. It would make sense as to why they need what never played much of a part of their life before "money". Now some water is becoming contaminated which means, bringing in paid for water. It's all making more sense as to why!

By anon980268 — On Dec 03, 2014

I can't seem to find the answer to this question: were the first Indians allowed to live in tipis on the reservations or did they have to live in houses?

By anon963374 — On Jul 29, 2014

I just finished reading "1,000 White Women." Even though the book is fictional, some of the names and events are very real. I have found that with the completion of this book and some additional research, I am left saddened and speechless over what has come of this beautiful culture, their heritage and lineage. Yes, with these "reservations" we have built them prisons.

By anon264684 — On Apr 29, 2012

I still don't understand why native Americans still live on reservations. Are they still a threat to the U.S? If not, why does the government not help them? Are they only an amusement for people? Do they deserve to be treated like that?

As gregg1956 said, people come to see these Indian's reservations just like an amusement park. A lot of people ignored the quality of life in these reservations. They live in a super power and wealthy country but live in poverty. Weren't they the ones who first live on this land? Can we forget the past and try to help them? They were the ones who owned this land, but we robbed their land and then ignored them. Do we all forget American history?

By gregg1956 — On Oct 08, 2010

I'm glad that you mentioned how poor the quality of life is on these reservations. It really blows your mind to step into a little bit of the third-world in your own country.

Unfortunately, so many people either ignore it or see the whole thing as an amusement park or something -- I know that many reservations have cultural centers and performances that can make it feel like that. I've been to several of them at the Seminole Indian Reservation and the Cherokee Indian Reservation, in fact.

But it's important to recognize that these are not actors who get to leave at the end of the day -- this is a way of life for some people, and their way of life is still being punished 200 years later.

By naturesgurl3 — On Oct 08, 2010

I've always wondered about the whole relationship of Indian reservations and gambling. I mean, I totally understand having a trade, making money from that, all well and good.

But I wonder why it was gambling? I mean, what about cooperative farming or something? It just seems that there could be other ways to make money and still preserve the culture that is your heritage without building a casino.

Again, I say this with all humility, because I'm not in that world in any way, but I'm just really and truly curious as to how the whole Indian reservations/gambling relationship got started, and how those who participate in it actually feel about it.

By rallenwriter — On Oct 08, 2010

I grew up in Asheville, so we would go up to the Cherokee Indian reservation every summer, and that was really my first introduction to any kind of life different than the "WASP" one.

I always came away with mixed feelings, because I was fascinated by the culture, but it seemed so poor, and even then I felt that it wasn't right for people to have to live in poverty because of who they were born to be. Of course, this was before Indian reservation gambling took hold, but still.

I'm not going to get up on my soapbox, but it's just something to think about.

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a America Explained editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide...
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