Frequently Asked Questions
I. Why Tribes Exist Today in the United States
What are Indian treaty rights?
From 1778 to 1871, the United States’ relations with individual American Indian nations indigenous to what is now the U.S. were defined and conducted largely through the treaty-making process. These “contracts among nations” recognized and established unique sets of rights, benefits, and conditions for the treaty-making tribes who agreed to cede of millions of acres of their homelands to the United States and accept its protection. Like other treaty obligations of the United States, Indian treaties are considered to be “the supreme law of the land,” and they are the foundation upon which federal Indian law and the federal Indian trust relationship is based.
What is the legal status of American Indian and Alaska Native tribes?
Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution vests Congress, and by extension the Executive and Judicial branches of our government, with the authority to engage in relations with the tribes, thereby firmly placing tribes within the constitutional fabric of our nation. When the governmental authority of tribes was first challenged in the 1830's, U. S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall articulated the fundamental principle that has guided the evolution of federal Indian law to the present: That tribes possess a nationhood status and retain inherent powers of self-government.
What is the federal Indian trust responsibility?
The federal Indian trust responsibility is a legal obligation under which the United States “has charged itself with moral obligations of the highest responsibility and trust” toward Indian tribes (Seminole Nation v. United States, 1942). This obligation was first discussed by Chief Justice John Marshall in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831). Over the years, the trust doctrine has been at the center of numerous other Supreme Court cases, thus making it one of the most important principles in federal Indian law.
The federal Indian trust responsibility is also a legally enforceable fiduciary obligation on the part of the United States to protect tribal treaty rights, lands, assets, and resources, as well as a duty to carry out the mandates of federal law with respect to American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages. In several cases discussing the trust responsibility, the Supreme Court has used language suggesting that it entails legal duties, moral obligations, and the fulfillment of understandings and expectations that have arisen over the entire course of the relationship between the United States and the federally recognized tribes.
What is a federally recognized tribe?
A federally recognized tribe is an American Indian or Alaska Native tribal entity that is recognized as having a government-to-government relationship with the United States, with the responsibilities, powers, limitations, and obligations attached to that designation, and is eligible for funding and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Furthermore, federally recognized tribes are recognized as possessing certain inherent rights of self-government (i.e., tribal sovereignty) and are entitled to receive certain federal benefits, services, and protections because of their special relationship with the United States. At present, there are 566 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages.
How is federal recognition status conferred?
Historically, most of today’s federally recognized tribes received federal recognition status through treaties, acts of Congress, presidential executive orders or other federal administrative actions, or federal court decisions.
In 1978, the Interior Department issued regulations governing the Federal Acknowledgment Process (FAP) to handle requests for federal recognition from Indian groups whose character and history varied widely in a uniform manner. These regulations – 25 C.F.R. Part 83 – were revised in 1994 and are still in effect.
Also in 1994, Congress enacted Public Law 103-454, the Federally Recognized Indian Tribe List Act (108 Stat. 4791, 4792), which formally established three ways in which an Indian group may become federally recognized:
- By Act of Congress,
- By the administrative procedures under 25 C.F.R. Part 83, or
- By decision of a United States court.
However, a tribe whose relationship with the United States has been expressly terminated by Congress may not use the Federal Acknowledgment Process. Only Congress can restore federal recognition to a “terminated” tribe.
The Federally Recognized Indian Tribe List Act also requires the Secretary of the Interior to publish annually a list of the federally recognized tribes in the Federal Register.
What does tribal sovereignty mean to American Indians and Alaska Natives?
When tribes first encountered Europeans, they were a power to be reckoned with because the combined American Indian and Alaska Native population dominated the North American continent. Their strength in numbers, the control they exerted over the natural resources within and between their territories, and the European practice of establishing relations with countries other than themselves and the recognition of tribal property rights led to tribes being seen by exploring foreign powers as sovereign nations, who treatied with them accordingly.
However, as the foreign powers’ presence expanded and with the establishment and growth of the United States, tribal populations dropped dramatically and tribal sovereignty gradually eroded. While tribal sovereignty is limited today by the United States under treaties, acts of Congress, Executive Orders, federal administrative agreements and court decisions, what remains is nevertheless protected and maintained by the federally recognized tribes against further encroachment by other sovereigns, such as the states. Tribal sovereignty ensures that any decisions about the tribes with regard to their property and citizens are made with their participation and consent.
What is a federal Indian reservation?
In the United States there are three types of reserved federal lands: military, public, and Indian. A federal Indian reservation is an area of land reserved for a tribe or tribes under treaty or other agreement with the United States, executive order, or federal statute or administrative action as permanent tribal homelands, and where the federal government holds title to the land in trust on behalf of the tribe.
Approximately 56.2 million acres are held in trust by the United States for various Indian tribes and individuals. There are approximately 326 Indian land areas in the U.S. administered as federal Indian reservations (i.e., reservations, pueblos, rancherias, missions, villages, communities, etc.). The largest is the 16 million-acre Navajo Nation Reservation located in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. The smallest is a 1.32-acre parcel in California where the Pit River Tribe’s cemetery is located. Many of the smaller reservations are less than 1,000 acres.
Some reservations are the remnants of a tribe’s original land base. Others were created by the federal government for the resettling of Indian people forcibly relocated from their homelands. Not every federally recognized tribe has a reservation. Federal Indian reservations are generally exempt from state jurisdiction, including taxation, except when Congress specifically authorizes such jurisdiction.
Are there any federal Indian reservations in Alaska?
Yes, one. It is the Metlakatla Indian Community of the Annette Island Reserve in southeastern Alaska.
Are there other types of “Indian lands”?
Yes. Other types of Indian lands are:
- Allotted lands, which are remnants of reservations broken up during the federal allotment period of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although the practice of allotting lands had begun in the eighteenth century, it was put to greater use after the Civil War. By 1885, over 11,000 patents had been issued to individual Indians under various treaties and laws. Starting with the General Allotment Act in 1887 (also known as the Dawes Act) until the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, allotments were conveyed to members of affected tribes and held in trust by the federal government. As allotments were taken out of trust, they became subject to state and local taxation, which resulted in thousands of acres passing out of Indian hands. Today, 10,059,290.74 million acres of individually owned lands are still held in trust for allotees and their heirs.
- Restricted status, also known as restricted fee, where title to the land is held by an individual Indian person or a tribe and which can only be alienated or encumbered by the owner with the approval of the Secretary of the Interior because of limitations contained in the conveyance instrument pursuant to federal law.
- State Indian reservations, which are lands held in trust by a state for an Indian tribe. With state trust lands title is held by the state on behalf of the tribe and the lands are not subject to state property tax. They are subject to state law, however. State trust lands stem from treaties or other agreements between a tribal group and the state government or the colonial government(s) that preceded it.
American Indian and Alaska Native tribes, businesses, and individuals may also own land as private property. In such cases, they are subject to state and local laws, regulations, codes, and taxation.
Does the United States still make treaties with Indian tribes?
No. Congress ended treaty-making with Indian tribes in 1871. Since then, relations with Indian groups have been formalized and/or codified by Congressional acts, Executive Orders, and Executive Agreements. Between 1778, when the first treaty was made with the Delawares, to 1871, when Congress ended the treaty-making period, the United States Senate ratified 370 treaties. At least 45 others were negotiated with tribes but were never ratified by the Senate.
The treaties that were made often contain commitments that have either been fulfilled or subsequently superseded by Congressional legislation.
In addition, American Indians and Alaska Natives can access education, health, welfare, and other social service programs available to all citizens, if they are eligible. Even if a tribe does not have a treaty with the United States, or has treaties that were negotiated but not ratified, its members may still receive services from the BIA or other federal programs, if eligible.
The specifics of particular treaties signed by government negotiators with Indian tribes are contained in one volume (Vol. II) of the publication, Indian Affairs, Laws and Treaties: 1778-1883, compiled, annotated, and edited by Charles J. Kappler. Published by the United States Government Printing Office in 1904, it is now out of print, but can be found in most large law libraries and on the Internet at http://digital.library.okstate.edu/Kappler. The treaty volume has also been published privately under the title, “Indian Treaties: 1778-1883.”
Originals of all the treaties are maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration of the General Services Administration. For more information on how to obtain copies or for more information about the treaties visit NARA’s website at www.nara.gov .
II. The Nature of Federal-Tribal and State-Tribal Relations
What is the relationship between the tribes and the United States?
The relationship between federally recognized tribes and the United States is one between sovereigns, i.e., between a government and a government. This “government-to-government” principle, which is grounded in the United States Constitution, has helped to shape the long history of relations between the federal government and these tribal nations.
What is the relationship between the tribes and the individual states?
Because the Constitution vested the Legislative Branch with plenary power over Indian Affairs, states have no authority over tribal governments unless expressly authorized by Congress. While federally recognized tribes generally are not subordinate to states, they can have a government-to-government relationship with these other sovereigns, as well.
Furthermore, federally recognized tribes possess both the right and the authority to regulate activities on their lands independently from state government control. They can enact and enforce stricter or more lenient laws and regulations than those of the surrounding or neighboring state(s) wherein they are located. Yet, tribes frequently collaborate and cooperate with states through compacts or other agreements on matters of mutual concern such as environmental protection and law enforcement.
What is Public Law 280 and where does it apply?
In 1953, Congress enacted Public Law 83-280 (67 Stat. 588) to grant certain states criminal jurisdiction over American Indians on reservations and to allow civil litigation that had come under tribal or federal court jurisdiction to be handled by state courts. However, the law did not grant states regulatory power over tribes or lands held in trust by the United States; federally guaranteed tribal hunting, trapping, and fishing rights; basic tribal governmental functions such as enrollment and domestic relations; nor the power to impose state taxes. These states also may not regulate matters such as environmental control, land use, gambling, and licenses on federal Indian reservations.
The states required by Public Law 280 to assume civil and criminal jurisdiction over federal Indian lands were Alaska (except the Metlakatla Indian Community on the Annette Island Reserve, which maintains criminal jurisdiction), California, Minnesota (except the Red Lake Reservation), Nebraska, Oregon (except the Warm Springs Reservation), and Wisconsin. In addition, the federal government gave up all special criminal jurisdiction in these states over Indian offenders and victims. The states that elected to assume full or partial jurisdiction were Arizona (1967), Florida (1961), Idaho (1963, subject to tribal consent), Iowa (1967), Montana (1963), Nevada (1955), North Dakota (1963, subject to tribal consent), South Dakota (1957-1961), Utah (1971), and Washington (1957-1963).
Subsequent acts of Congress, court decisions, and state actions to retrocede jurisdiction back to the Federal Government have muted some of the effects of the 1953 law, and strengthened the tribes’ jurisdiction over civil and criminal matters on their reservations.
III. Tribal Government: Powers, Rights, and Authorities
What are inherent powers of tribal self-government?
Tribes possess all powers of self-government except those relinquished under treaty with the United States, those that Congress has expressly extinguished, and those that federal courts have ruled are subject to existing federal law or are inconsistent with overriding national policies. Tribes, therefore, possess the right to form their own governments; to make and enforce laws, both civil and criminal; to tax; to establish and determine membership (i.e., tribal citizenship); to license and regulate activities within their jurisdiction; to zone; and to exclude persons from tribal lands.
Limitations on inherent tribal powers of self-government are few, but do include the same limitations applicable to states, e.g., neither tribes nor states have the power to make war, engage in foreign relations, or print and issue currency.
How do tribal members govern themselves?
For thousands of years, American Indians and Alaska Natives governed themselves through tribal laws, cultural traditions, religious customs, and kinship systems, such as clans and societies. Today, most modern tribal governments are organized democratically, that is, with an elected leadership.
Through their tribal governments, tribal members generally define conditions of membership, regulate domestic relations of members, prescribe rules of inheritance for reservation property not in trust status, levy taxes, regulate property under tribal jurisdiction, control the conduct of members by tribal ordinances, and administer justice. They also continue to utilize their traditional systems of self-government whenever and wherever possible.
How are tribal governments organized?
Most federally recognized tribes are organized under the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934 (25 U.S.C. 461 et seq.), including a number of Alaska Native villages, which adopted formal governing documents under the provisions of a 1936 amendment to the IRA. The passage in 1971 of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (43 U.S.C. 1601), however, provided for the creation of regional and village corporations under state law to manage the money and lands granted to Alaska Natives by the act. The Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act of 1936 provided for the organization of Indian tribes within the State of Oklahoma.
Many tribes have constitutions, others operate under articles of association or other bodies of law, and some have found a way to combine their traditional systems of government within a modern governmental framework. Some do not operate under any of these acts, but are nevertheless organized under documents approved by the Secretary of the Interior. Contemporary tribal governments are usually, but not always, modeled upon the federal system of the three branches: Legislative, Executive, and Judicial.
The chief executive of a tribe is usually called a chairman, chairwoman or chairperson, but may also be called a principal chief, governor, president, mayor, spokesperson, or representative. The chief executive presides over the tribe’s legislative body and executive branch. In modern tribal government, the chief executive and members of the tribal council or business committee are almost always elected.
A tribe’s legislative body is usually called a tribal council, a village council, or a tribal business committee. It is comprised of tribal members who are elected by eligible tribal voters. In some tribes, the council is comprised of all eligible adult tribal members. Although some tribes require a referendum by their members to enact laws, a tribal council generally acts as any other legislative body in creating laws, authorizing expenditures, appropriating funds, and conducting oversight of activities carried out by the chief executive and tribal government employees. An elected tribal council and chief executive, recognized as such by the Secretary of the Interior, have authority to speak and act for the tribe as a whole, and to represent it in negotiations with federal, state, and local governments.
Furthermore, many tribes have established, or are building, their judicial branch – the tribal court system – to interpret tribal laws and administer justice.
What is the jurisdiction of tribal courts?
Generally, tribal courts have civil jurisdiction over Indians and non-Indians who either reside or do business on federal Indian reservations. They also have criminal jurisdiction over violations of tribal laws committed by tribal members residing or doing business on the reservation.
Under 25 C.F.R. Part 115, tribal courts are responsible for appointing guardians, determining competency, awarding child support from Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts, determining paternity, sanctioning adoptions, marriages, and divorces, making presumptions of death, and adjudicating claims involving trust assets. There are approximately 225 tribes that contract or compact with the BIA to perform the Secretary’s adjudicatory function and 23 Courts of Indian Offenses (also known as CFR courts) which exercise federal authority. The Indian Tribal Justice Act of 1993 (P.L. 103-176, 107 Stat. 2005) supports tribal courts in becoming, along with federal and state courts, well-established dispensers of justice in Indian Country.
What is meant by tribal self-determination and self-governance?
Congress has recognized the right of tribes to have a greater say over the development and implementation of federal programs and policies that directly impact on them and their tribal members. It did so by enacting two major pieces of legislation that together embody the important concepts of tribal self-determination and self-governance: The Indian Self-determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, as amended (25 U.S.C. 450 et seq.) and the Tribal Self-Governance Act of 1994 (25 U.S.C. 458aa et seq.). Through these laws, Congress accorded tribal governments the authority to administer themselves the programs and services usually administered by the BIA for their tribal members. It also upheld the principle of tribal consultation, whereby the federal government consults with tribes on federal actions, policies, rules or regulations that will directly affect them.
IV. Our Nation’s American Indian and Alaska Native Citizens
Who is an American Indian or Alaska Native?
As a general rule, an American Indian or Alaska Native person is someone who has blood degree from and is recognized as such by a federally recognized tribe or village (as an enrolled tribal member) and/or the United States. Of course, blood quantum (the degree of American Indian or Alaska Native blood from a federally recognized tribe or village that a person possesses) is not the only means by which a person is considered to be an American Indian or Alaska Native. Other factors, such as a person’s knowledge of his or her tribe’s culture, history, language, religion, familial kinships, and how strongly a person identifies himself or herself as American Indian or Alaska Native, are also important. In fact, there is no single federal or tribal criterion or standard that establishes a person's identity as American Indian or Alaska Native.
There are major differences, however, when the term “American Indian” is used in an ethnological sense versus its use in a political/legal sense. The rights, protections, and services provided by the United States to individual American Indians and Alaska Natives flow not from a person's identity as such in an ethnological sense, but because he or she is a member of a federally recognized tribe. That is, a tribe that has a government-to-government relationship and a special trust relationship with the United States. These special trust and government-to-government relationships entail certain legally enforceable obligations and responsibilities on the part of the United States to persons who are enrolled members of such tribes. Eligibility requirements for federal services will differ from program to program. Likewise, the eligibility criteria for enrollment (or membership) in a tribe will differ from tribe to tribe.
How large is the national American Indian and Alaska Native population?
According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the estimated population of American Indians and Alaska Natives, including those of more than one race, as of July 1, 2007, was 4.5 million, or 1.5 per cent of the total U.S. population. In the BIA’s 2005 American Indian Population and Labor Force Report, the latest available, the total number of enrolled members of the (then) 561 federally recognized tribes was shown to be less than half the Census number, or 1,978,099.
Why are American Indians and Alaska Natives also referred to as Native Americans?
When referring to American Indian or Alaska Native persons, it is still appropriate to use the terms “American Indian” and “Alaska Native.” These terms denote the cultural and historical distinctions between persons belonging to the indigenous tribes of the continental United States (American Indians) and the indigenous tribes and villages of Alaska (Alaska Natives, i.e., Eskimos, Aleuts, and Indians). They also refer specifically to persons eligible for benefits and services funded or directly provided by the BIA.
The term “Native American” came into broad usage in the 1970's as an alternative to “American Indian.” Since that time, however, it has been gradually expanded within the public lexicon to include all Native peoples of the United States and its trust territories, i.e., American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, Chamorros, and American Samoans, as well as persons from Canada First Nations and indigenous communities in Mexico and Central and South America who are U.S. residents.
Are American Indians and Alaska Natives wards of the Federal Government?
No. The Federal Government is a trustee of Indian property, not a guardian of all American Indians and Alaska Natives. Although the Secretary of the Interior is authorized by law to protect, where necessary, the interests of minors and adult persons deemed incompetent to handle their affairs, this protection does not confer a guardian-ward relationship.
Are American Indians and Alaska Natives citizens of the United States?
Yes. As early as 1817, U.S. citizenship had been conferred by special treaty upon specific groups of Indian people. American citizenship was also conveyed by statutes, naturalization proceedings, and by service in the Armed Forces with an honorable discharge in World War I. In 1924, Congress extended American citizenship to all other American Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States. American Indians and Alaska Natives are citizens of the United States and of the individual states, counties, cities, and towns where they reside. They can also become citizens of their tribes or villages as enrolled tribal members.
Do American Indians and Alaska Natives have the right to vote?
Yes. American Indians and Alaska Natives have the right to vote just as all other U.S. citizens do. They can vote in presidential, congressional, state and local, and tribal elections, if eligible. And, just as the federal government and state and local governments have the sovereign right to establish voter eligibility criteria, so do tribal governments.
Do American Indians and Alaska Natives have the right to hold public office?
Yes. American Indians and Alaska Natives have the same rights as other citizens to hold public office. Over the years, American Indian and Alaska Native men and women have held elected and appointed offices at all levels of federal, state, and local government. Charles Curtis, a member of the Kaw Tribe of Kansas, served in both houses of Congress before holding the second highest elected office in the nation – that of Vice President of the United States under President Herbert Hoover. American Indians and Alaska Natives also serve in state legislatures, state judicial systems, county and city governments, and on local school boards.
Do American Indians and Alaska Natives have special rights different from other citizens?
Any “special” rights held by federally recognized tribes and their members are generally based on treaties or other agreements between the tribes and the United States. The heavy price American Indians and Alaska Natives paid to retain certain rights of self-government was to relinquish much of their land and resources to the United States. U.S. law protects the inherent rights they did not relinquish. Among those may be hunting and fishing rights and access to sacred sites.
Do American Indians and Alaska Natives pay taxes?
Yes. They pay the same taxes as other citizens with the following exceptions:
- Federal income taxes are not levied on income from trust lands held for them by the U.S.
- State income taxes are not paid on income earned on a federal Indian reservation.
- State sales taxes are not paid by Indians on transactions made on a federal Indian reservation.
- Local property taxes are not paid on reservation or trust land.
Do laws that apply to non-Indians also apply to Indians?
Yes. As U.S. citizens, American Indians and Alaska Natives are generally subject to federal, state, and local laws. On federal Indian reservations, however, only federal and tribal laws apply to members of the tribe, unless Congress provides otherwise. In federal law, the Assimilative Crimes Act makes any violation of state criminal law a federal offense on reservations. Most tribes now maintain tribal court systems and facilities to detain tribal members convicted of certain offenses within the boundaries of the reservation.
Do all American Indians and Alaska Natives speak a single traditional language?
No. American Indians and Alaska Natives come from a multitude of different cultures with diverse languages, and for thousands of years used oral tradition to pass down familial and cultural information among generations of tribal members. Some tribes, even if widely scattered, belong to the same linguistic families. Common means of communicating between tribes allowed trade routes and political alliances to flourish. As contact between Indians and non-Indians grew, so did the necessity of learning of new languages. Even into the 20th century, many American Indians and Alaska Natives were bi- or multilingual from learning to speak their own language and English, French, Russian, or Spanish, or even another tribal language.
It has been reported that at the end of the 15th century over 300 American Indian and Alaska Native languages were spoken. Today, fewer than 200 tribal languages are still viable, with some having been translated into written form. English, however, has become the predominant language in the home, school, and workplace. Those tribes who can still do so are working to preserve their languages and create new speakers from among their tribal populations.
Must all American Indians and Alaska Natives live on reservations?
No. American Indians and Alaska Natives live and work anywhere in the United States (and the world) just as other citizens do. Many leave their reservations, communities or villages for the same reasons as do other Americans who move to urban centers: to seek education and employment. Over one-half of the total U.S. American Indian and Alaska Native population now live away from their tribal lands. However, most return home to visit relatives; attend family gatherings and celebrations; participate in religious, cultural, or community activities; work for their tribal governments; operate businesses; vote in tribal elections or run for tribal office; retire; or to be buried.
Do American Indians and Alaska Natives serve in the Armed Forces?
Yes. American Indians and Alaska Natives have a long and distinguished history of serving in our nation’s Armed Forces.
During the Civil War, American Indians served on both sides of the conflict. Among the most well-known are Brigadier General Ely S. Parker (Seneca), an aide to Union General Ulysses S. Grant who recorded the terms of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia that ended the war, and Brigadier General Stand Watie (Cherokee), the last of the Confederate generals to cease fighting after the surrender was concluded. American Indians also fought with Theodore Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War.
During World War I over 8,000 American Indian soldiers, of whom 6,000 were volunteers, served. Their patriotism moved Congress to pass the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. In World War II, 25,000 American Indian and Alaska Native men and women fought on all fronts in Europe and the South Pacific earning, collectively, at least 71 Air Medals, 51 Silver Stars, 47 Bronze Stars, 34 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and two Congressional Medals of Honor. Alaska Natives also served in the Alaska Territorial Guard.
Starting in World War I and again in World War II, the U.S. military employed a number of American Indian servicemen to use their tribal languages as a military code that could not be broken by the enemy. These “code talkers” came from many different tribes, including Chippewa, Choctaw, Creek, Crow, Comanche, Hopi, Navajo, Seminole, and Sioux. During World War II, the Navajos constituted the largest component within that elite group.
In the Korean Conflict, one Congressional Medal of Honor was awarded to an American Indian serviceman. In the Vietnam War, 41,500 Indian service personnel served. In 1990, prior to Operation Desert Storm, some 24,000 Indian men and women were in the military. Approximately 3,000 served in the Persian Gulf with three among those killed in action. American Indian service personnel have also served in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom) and in Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom).
While American Indians and Alaska Natives have the same obligations for military service as other U.S. citizens, many tribes have a strong military tradition within their cultures, and veterans are considered to be among their most honored members.
V. The Assistant Secretary - Indian Affairs, the BIA, and the BIE
Who is the Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs?
The Assistant Secretary - Indian Affairs (AS-IA) has responsibility for fulfilling the Interior Department’s trust responsibilities to American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and individuals, as well as promoting the self-determination and economic well-being of the tribes and their members. The Assistant Secretary together with the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs oversee the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA); the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE); the Office of External Affairs; the Office of Federal Acknowledgment; the Office of Regulatory Management, as well as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Economic Development; and the Deputy Assistant Secretary – Management.
There have been 12 assistant secretaries since the Office of the Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs was established by DOI Secretarial order in 1977. The current Assistant Secretary - Indian Affairs is Larry Echo Hawk, an enrolled member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, who was confirmed by the United States Senate on May 19, 2009. The assistant secretaries for Indian Affairs are:
Forrest J. Gerard, Blackfeet (1977-1980)
Thomas W. Fredericks, Mandan-Hidatsa (1980-1981)
Kenneth L. Smith, Wasco (1981-1984)
Ross O. Swimmer, Cherokee (1985-1989)
Dr. Eddie F. Brown, Tohono O’odham-Yaqui (1989-1993)
Ada E. Deer, Menominee (1993-1997)
Kevin Gover, Pawnee (1997-2001)
Neal McCaleb, Chickasaw (2001-2002)
David W. Anderson, Lac Courte Oreilles Chippewa-Choctaw (2003-2005)
Carl J. Artman, Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin (2007-2008)
Larry Echo Hawk, Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma (2009-2012)
Kevin K. Washburn, Chickasaw Nation (2012-2016)
What is the Bureau of Indian Affairs?
The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is the primary federal agency charged with carrying out the United States’ trust responsibility to American Indian and Alaska Native people, maintaining the federal government-to-government relationship with the federally recognized Indian tribes, and promoting and supporting tribal self-determination. The bureau implements federal laws and policies and administers programs established for American Indians and Alaska Natives under the trust responsibility and the government-to-government relationship.
What is the BIA’s history?
The Continental Congress governed Indian affairs during the first years of the United States – in 1775 it established a Committee on Indian Affairs headed by Benjamin Franklin. At the end of the eighteenth century, Congress transferred the responsibility for managing trade relations with the tribes to the Secretary of War by its act of August 20, 1789 (1 Stat. 54). An Office of Indian Trade was established in the War Department by an act of April 21, 1806 (2 Stat. 402) specifically to handle this responsibility below the secretarial level. It was later abolished by an act of May 6, 1822 (3 Stat. 679) which handed responsibility for all Indian matters back to the Secretary of War.
Secretary of War John C. Calhoun administratively established the BIA within the his department on March 11, 1824. Congress later legislatively established the bureau and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs post via the act of July 9, 1832 (4 Stat. 564). In 1849, the BIA was transferred to the newly created Interior Department. In the years that followed, the Bureau was known variously as the Indian office, the Indian bureau, the Indian department, and the Indian service. The name “Bureau of Indian Affairs” was formally adopted by the Interior Department on September 17, 1947.
Since 1824 there have been 45 Commissioners of Indian Affairs of which six have been American Indian or Alaska Native: Ely S. Parker, Seneca (1869-1871); Robert L. Bennett, Oneida (1966-1969); Louis R. Bruce, Mohawk-Oglala Sioux (1969-1973); Morris Thompson, Athabascan (1973-1976); Benjamin Reifel, Sioux (1976-1977); and William E. Hallett, Red Lake Chippewa (1979-1981).
For almost 200 years—beginning with treaty agreements negotiated by the United States and tribes in the late 18th and 19th centuries, through the General Allotment Act of 1887, which opened tribal lands west of the Mississippi to non-Indian settlers, the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 when American Indians and Alaska Natives were granted U.S. citizenship and the right to vote, the New Deal and the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which established modern tribal governments, the World War II period of relocation and the post-War termination era of the 1950s, the activism of the 1960s and 1970s that saw the takeover of the BIA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., to the passage of landmark legislation such as the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 and the Tribal Self-Governance Act of 1994, which have fundamentally changed how the BIA and the tribes conduct business with each other—the BIA has embodied the trust and government-to-government relationships between the U.S. and the tribal nations that bear the designation “federally recognized.”
What is the BIA's relationship today with American Indians and Alaska Natives?
The Bureau of Indian Affairs is a rarity among federal agencies. With roots reaching back to the the earliest days of the republic, the BIA is almost as old as the United States itself. For most of its existence, the BIA has mirrored the public's ambivalence towards the nation's indigenous people. But, as federal policy has evolved from seeking the subjugation of American Indians and Alaska Natives into one that respects tribal self-determination, so, too, has the BIA's mission evolved into one that is based on service to and partnership with the tribes.
The BIA Mission Statement, which is based on principles embodied in federal treaties, laws and policies, and in judicial decisions, clearly describes the bureau's relationship today with the American Indian and Alaska Native people:
"The BIA's mission is to enhance the quality of life, to promote economic opportunity, and to carry out the responsibility to protect and improve the trust assets of American Indians, Indian tribes and Alaska Natives. We will accomplish this through the delivery of quality services, maintaining government-to-government relationships within the spirit of self-determination."
How does the BIA carry out its mission?
Today, in keeping with their authorities and responsibilities under the Snyder Act of 1921 and other federal laws, regulations, and treaties, BIA employees across the country work with tribal governments in the administration of employment and job training assistance; law enforcement and justice; agricultural and economic development; tribal governance; and natural resources management programs to enhance the quality of life in tribal communities. The following are just some examples of what we do:
- We provide funding to and administer government program services for the federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes located in 34 states, and through them to their approximately 1.9 million members.
- We work with tribes in the administration of approximately 56 million acres of trust land, and the natural resources therein, for the use and benefit of the tribes and individual Indians.
- We maintain five law enforcement district offices nationwide to provide police protection and investigative services for both Indian and non-Indians living in Indian Country. We also directly operate or fund tribally operated law enforcement programs, courts, and detention facilities in tribal communities across the U.S.
- We build and maintain thousands of miles of roads, as well as bridges, dams, and other physical infrastructure throughout Indian Country which benefit both Indians and non-Indians alike.
- We work with other federal, tribal, state, and local emergency personnel in responses to wildland fires and other natural disasters.
- We administer the Guaranteed Indian Loan Program to stimulate, increase, and sustain Indian entrepreneurship and business development in tribal communities.
- We assist tribes in administering federal economic development and employment and training programs.
- We administer BIA programs for tribes unable or who choose not to operate those programs.
- We directly serve thousands of individual Indian trust beneficiaries by providing assistance in the probating of Indian trust estates, administering leases approved by the Secretary of the Interior, and performing other fiduciary duties.
Until 1955, the BIA’s responsibilities included providing health care services to American Indians and Alaska Natives. That year, the function was legislatively transferred as the Indian Health Service to the U.S. Public Health Service within the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, known now as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), where it has remained to this day.
What is the Bureau of Indian Education?
The Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), formerly known as the Office of Indian Education Programs (OIEP), is under the Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs. It is responsible for the line direction and management of all BIE education functions, including the formation of policies and procedures, the supervision of all program activities, and the approval of the expenditure of funds appropriated for BIE education functions.
The BIE mission, which can be found in 25 C.F.R. Part 32.3, states that the BIE is to provide quality education opportunities from early childhood through life in accordance with the tribe’s needs for cultural and economic well-being in keeping with the wide diversity of Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages as distinct cultural and governmental entities. The BIE also shall manifest consideration of the whole person by taking into account the spiritual, mental, physical, and cultural aspects of the person within his or her family and tribal or village context.
The BIE school system has 184 elementary and secondary schools and dormitories located on 63 reservations in 23 states, including seven off-reservation boarding schools and 122 schools directly controlled by tribes and tribal school boards under contracts or grants with the BIE. The bureau also funds 66 residential programs for students at 52 boarding schools and at 14 dormitories housing those attending nearby tribal or public schools. The school system employs approximately 5,000 teachers, administrators, and support personnel, while an estimated 6,600 work in tribal school systems. In School Year 2006-07, the schools served almost 48,000 students.
In the area of postsecondary education, the BIE provides support to 24 tribal colleges and universities across the U.S. serving over 25,000 students, and directly operates two institutions of higher learning: the Haskell Indian Nations University (HINU) in Lawrence, Kansas, and the Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It also operates higher education scholarship programs for American Indians and Alaska Natives.
There have been three major legislative actions that restructured the Bureau of Indian Affairs with regard to education since the Snyder Act of 1921. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 introduced the teaching of Indian history and culture in BIA schools, which contrasted with the federal policy at the time of acculturating and assimilating Indian people through the BIA boarding school system. The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 (P.L. 90-638) gave authority to the tribes to contract with the BIA for the operation of local schools and to determine education programs suitable for their children. The Education Amendments Act of 1978 (P.L. 95-561) and further technical amendments (P.L. 98-511, 99-89, and 100-297) provided funds directly to tribal schools, empowered Indian school boards, permitted local hiring of teachers and staff, and established a direct line of authority between the OIEP Director and the Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs.
In 2001, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act (P.L. 107-110) to bring additional requirements of accountability and academic achievement for supplemental program funds provided by the U.S. Department of Education through the OIEP to the schools. In 2006, the OIEP was formally elevated to bureau status by secretarial action and renamed the Bureau of Indian Education.
For additional information
To obtain contact information for the Federally recognized tribes, click on the “Tribal Leaders Directory” link. For information about tracing American Indian or Alaska Native ancestry to any of the federally recognized tribes, click on the “Trace Indian Ancestry” link. For information about the U.S. Indian Health Service, visit www.ihs.gov or call the IHS Public Affairs Office at (301) 443-3593.