- Outline the history of discrimination against Native Americans.
- Describe the expansion of Native American civil rights from 1960 to 1990.
- Discuss the persistence of problems Native Americans face today.
Native Americans have long suffered the effects of segregation and discrimination imposed by the U.S. government and the larger white society. Ironically, Native Americans were not granted the full rights and protections of U.S. citizenship until long after African Americans and women were, with many having to wait until the Nationality Act of 1940 to become citizens.
This was long after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, which granted citizenship to African Americans but not, the Supreme Court decided in Elk v. Wilkins (1884), to Native Americans.
White women had been citizens of the United States since its very beginning even though they were not granted the full rights of citizenship. Furthermore, Native Americans are the only group of Americans who were forcibly removed en masse from the lands on which they and their ancestors had lived so that others could claim this land and its resources.
Native Americans Lose Their Land and Their Rights
From the very beginning of European settlement in North America, Native Americans were abused and exploited. Early British settlers attempted to enslave the members of various tribes, especially in the southern colonies and states.
Following the American Revolution, the U.S. government assumed responsibility for conducting negotiations with Indian tribes, all of which were designated as sovereign nations, and regulating commerce with them. Because Indians were officially regarded as citizens of other nations, they were denied U.S. citizenship.
As white settlement spread westward over the course of the nineteenth century, Indian tribes were forced to move from their homelands. Although the federal government signed numerous treaties guaranteeing Indians the right to live in the places where they had traditionally farmed, hunted, or fished, land-hungry white settlers routinely violated these agreements and the federal government did little to enforce them.
Consider the Original
The Cherokee Nation
The Papers of Chief John Ross, vol 1, 1807-1839
“It is well known that for a number of years past we have been harassed by a series of vexations, which it is deemed unnecessary to recite in detail, but the evidence of which our delegation will be prepared to furnish. With a view to bringing our troubles to a close, a delegation was appointed on the 23rd of October, 1835, by the General Council of the nation, clothed with full powers to enter into arrangements with the Government of the United States, for the final adjustment of all our existing difficulties. The delegation failing to effect an arrangement with the United States commissioner, then in the nation, proceeded, agreeably to their instructions in that case, to Washington City, for the purpose of negotiating a treaty with the authorities of the United States.
After the departure of the Delegation, a contract was made by the Rev. John F. Schermerhorn, and certain individual Cherokees, purporting to be a “treaty, concluded at New Echota, in the State of Georgia, on the 29th day of December, 1835, by General William Carroll and John F. Schermerhorn, commissioners on the part of the United States, and the chiefs, headmen, and people of the Cherokee tribes of Indians.” A spurious Delegation, in violation of a special injunction of the general council of the nation, proceeded to Washington City with this pretended treaty, and by false and fraudulent representations supplanted in the favor of the Government the legal and accredited Delegation of the Cherokee people, and obtained for this instrument, after making important alterations in its provisions, the recognition of the United States Government. And now it is presented to us as a treaty, ratified by the Senate, and approved by the President [Andrew Jackson], and our acquiescence in its requirements demanded, under the sanction of the displeasure of the United States, and the threat of summary compulsion, in case of refusal. It comes to us, not through our legitimate authorities, the known and usual medium of communication between the Government of the United States and our nation, but through the agency of a complication of powers, civil and military.
By the stipulations of this instrument, we are despoiled of our private possessions, the indefeasible property of individuals. We are stripped of every attribute of freedom and eligibility for legal self-defence. Our property may be plundered before our eyes; violence may be committed on our persons; even our lives may be taken away, and there is none to regard our complaints. We are denationalized; we are disfranchised. We are deprived of membership in the human family! We have neither land nor home, nor resting place that can be called our own. And this is effected by the provisions of a compact which assumes the venerated, the sacred appellation of treaty.
We are overwhelmed! Our hearts are sickened, our utterance is paralized, when we reflect on the condition in which we are placed, by the audacious practices of unprincipled men, who have managed their stratagems with so much dexterity as to impose on the Government of the United States, in the face of our earnest, solemn, and reiterated protestations.
The instrument in question is not the act of our Nation; we are not parties to its covenants; it has not received the sanction of our people. The makers of it sustain no office nor appointment in our Nation, under the designation of Chiefs, Head men, or any other title, by which they hold, or could acquire, authority to assume the reins of Government, and to make bargain and sale of our rights, our possessions, and our common country. And we are constrained solemnly to declare, that we cannot but contemplate the enforcement of the stipulations of this instrument on us, against our consent, as an act of injustice and oppression, which, we are well persuaded, can never knowingly be countenanced by the Government and people of the United States; nor can we believe it to be the design of these honorable and highminded individuals, who stand at the head of the Govt., to bind a whole Nation, by the acts of a few unauthorized individuals. And, therefore, we, the parties to be affected by the result, appeal with confidence to the justice, the magnanimity, the compassion, of your honorable bodies, against the enforcement, on us, of the provisions of a compact, in the formation of which we have had no agency.”
In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which forced Native Americans to move west of the Mississippi River.
Not all tribes were willing to leave their land, however. The Cherokee in particular resisted, and in the 1820s, the state of Georgia tried numerous tactics to force them from their territory. Efforts intensified in 1829 after gold was discovered there. Wishing to remain where they were, the tribe sued the state of Georgia.
In 1831, the Supreme Court decided in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia that Indian tribes were not sovereign nations, but also that tribes were entitled to their ancestral lands and could not be forced to move from them.
The next year, in Worcester v. Georgia, the Court ruled that whites could not enter tribal lands without the tribe’s permission. White Georgians, however, refused to abide by the Court’s decision, and President Andrew Jackson, a former Indian fighter, refused to enforce it.
Between 1831 and 1838, members of several southern tribes, including the Cherokees, were forced by the U.S. Army to move west along routes shown in the map below. The forced removal of the Cherokees to Oklahoma Territory, which had been set aside for settlement by displaced tribes and designated Indian Territory, resulted in the death of one-quarter of the tribe’s population.
The Cherokees remember this journey as the Trail of Tears.
By the time of the Civil War, most Indian tribes had been relocated west of the Mississippi. However, once large numbers of white Americans and European immigrants had also moved west after the Civil War, Native Americans once again found themselves displaced. They were confined to reservations, which are federal lands set aside for their use where non-Indians could not settle. Reservation land was usually poor, however, and attempts to farm or raise livestock, not traditional occupations for most western tribes anyway, often ended in failure. Unable to feed themselves, the tribes became dependent on the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in Washington, DC, for support. Protestant missionaries were allowed to “adopt” various tribes, to convert them to Christianity and thus speed their assimilation. In an effort to hasten this process, Indian children were taken from their parents and sent to boarding schools, many of them run by churches, where they were forced to speak English and abandon their traditional cultures.
In 1887, the Dawes Severalty Act, another effort to assimilate Native Americans to white society, divided reservation lands into individual allotments. Native Americans who accepted these allotments and agreed to sever tribal ties were also given U.S. citizenship. All lands remaining after the division of reservations into allotments were offered for sale by the federal government to white farmers and ranchers. As a result, Indians swiftly lost control of reservation land.
In 1898, the Curtis Act dealt the final blow to Indian sovereignty by abolishing all tribal governments.
The Fight for Native American Rights
As Indians were removed from their tribal lands and increasingly saw their traditional cultures being destroyed over the course of the nineteenth century, a movement to protect their rights began to grow. Sarah Winnemucca, member of the Paiute tribe, lectured throughout the east in the 1880s in order to acquaint white audiences with the injustices suffered by the western tribes.
Lakota physician Charles Eastman also worked for Native American rights. In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act granted citizenship to all Native Americans born after its passage. Native Americans born before the act took effect, who had not already become citizens as a result of the Dawes Severalty Act or service in the army in World War I, had to wait until the Nationality Act of 1940 to become citizens. In 1934, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act, which ended the division of reservation land into allotments. It returned to Native American tribes the right to institute self-government on their reservations, write constitutions, and manage their remaining lands and resources. It also provided funds for Native Americans to start their own businesses and attain a college education.
Despite the Indian Reorganization Act, conditions on the reservations did not improve dramatically. Most tribes remained impoverished, and many Native Americans, despite the fact that they were now U.S. citizens, were denied the right to vote by the states in which they lived. States justified this violation of the Fifteenth Amendment by claiming that Native Americans might be U.S. citizens but were not state residents because they lived on reservations. Other states denied Native Americans voting rights if they did not pay taxes. 
Despite states’ actions, the federal government continued to uphold the rights of tribes to govern themselves. Federal concern for tribal sovereignty was part of an effort on the government’s part to end its control of, and obligations to, Indian tribes.
In the 1960s, a modern Native American civil rights movement, inspired by the African American civil rights movement, began to grow. In 1969, a group of Native American activists from various tribes, part of a new Pan-Indian movement, took control of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, which had once been the site of a federal prison. Attempting to strike a blow for Red Power, the power of Native Americans united by a Pan-Indian identity and demanding federal recognition of their rights, they maintained control of the island for more than a year and a half. They claimed the land as compensation for the federal government’s violation of numerous treaties and offered to pay for it with beads and trinkets. In January 1970, some of the occupiers began to leave the island. Some may have been disheartened by the accidental death of the daughter of one of the activists. In May 1970, all electricity and telephone service to the island was cut off by the federal government, and more of the occupiers began to leave. In June, the few people remaining on the island were removed by the government. Though the goals of the activists were not achieved, the occupation of Alcatraz had brought national attention to the concerns of Native American activists.
In 1973, members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), a more radical group than the occupiers of Alcatraz, temporarily took over the offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, DC. The following year, members of AIM and some two hundred Oglala Lakota supporters occupied the town of Wounded Knee on the Lakota tribe’s Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the site of an 1890 massacre of Lakota men, women, and children by the U.S. Army. Many of the Oglala were protesting the actions of their half-white tribal chieftain, who they claimed had worked too closely with the BIA. The occupiers also wished to protest the failure of the Justice Department to investigate acts of white violence against Lakota tribal members outside the bounds of the reservation.
The occupation led to a confrontation between the Native American protestors and the FBI and U.S. Marshals. Violence erupted; two Native American activists were killed, and a marshal was shot. After the second death, the Lakota called for an end to the occupation and negotiations began with the federal government. Two of AIM’s leaders, Russell Means and Dennis Banks, were arrested, but the case against them was later dismissed.
Violence continued on the Pine Ridge Reservation for several years after the siege; the reservation had the highest per capita murder rate in the United States. Two FBI agents were among those who were killed. The Oglala blamed the continuing violence on the federal government.
The official website of the American Indian Movement provides information about ongoing issues in Native American communities in both North and South America.
The current relationship between the U.S. government and Native American tribes was established by the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975. Under the act, tribes assumed control of programs that had formerly been controlled by the BIA, such as education and resource management, and the federal government provided the funding.
Many tribes have also used their new freedom from government control to legalize gambling and to open casinos on their reservations. Although the states in which these casinos are located have attempted to control gaming on Native American lands, the Supreme Court and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 have limited their ability to do so.
The 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act granted tribes the right to conduct traditional ceremonies and rituals, including those that use otherwise prohibited substances like peyote cactus and eagle bones, which can be procured only from vulnerable or protected species.
Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians Regain Some Rights
Forms part of: Frank and Frances Carpenter collection (Library of Congress).- Gift; Mrs. W. Chapin Huntington; 1951.
Format HeadingsPhotographic prints–1890-1940.Notes- Title transcribed from caption accompanying item.- Forms part of: Frank and Frances Carpenter collection (Library of Congress).- Gift; Mrs. W. Chapin Huntington; 1951.Medium1 photographic print.Call Number/Physical LocationLOT 11453-5, no. 20 [P&P]RepositoryLibrary of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USADigital Idppmsc 02437 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.02437Library of Congress Control Number99615185Reproduction NumberLC-DIG-ppmsc-02437 (digital file from original)Rights AdvisoryNo known restrictions on publication.
Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians suffered many of the same abuses as Native Americans, including loss of land and forced assimilation. Following the discovery of oil in Alaska, however, the state, in an effort to gain undisputed title to oil rich land, settled the issue of Alaska Natives’ land claims with the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971. According to the terms of the act, Alaska Natives received 44 million acres of resource-rich land and more than $900 million in cash in exchange for relinquishing claims to ancestral lands to which the state wanted title.
Native Hawaiians also lost control of their land—nearly two million acres—after the Hawaiian Islands were annexed by the United States in 1893. The indigenous population rapidly decreased in number, and white settlers tried to erase all trace of traditional Hawaiian culture. Two acts passed by Congress in 1900 and 1959, when the territory was granted statehood, returned slightly more than one million acres of federally owned land to the state of Hawaii. The state was to hold it in trust and use profits from the land to improve the condition of Native Hawaiians.
In September 2015, the U.S. Department of Interior, the same department that contains the Bureau of Indian Affairs, created guidelines for Native Hawaiians who wish to govern themselves in a relationship with the federal government similar to that established with Native American and Alaska Native tribes. Such a relationship would grant Native Hawaiians power to govern themselves while remaining U.S. citizens. Voting began in fall 2015 for delegates to a constitutional convention that would determine whether or not such a relationship should exist between Native Hawaiians and the federal government.
When non-Native Hawaiians and some Native Hawaiians brought suit on the grounds that, by allowing only Native Hawaiians to vote, the process discriminated against members of other ethnic groups, a federal district court found the election to be legal. However, the Supreme Court has ordered that votes not be counted until an appeal of the lower court’s decision be heard by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Despite significant advances, American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians still trail behind U.S. citizens of other ethnic backgrounds in many important areas. These groups continue to suffer widespread poverty and high unemployment. Some of the poorest counties in the United States are those in which Native American reservations are located. These minorities are also less likely than white Americans, African Americans, or Asian Americans to complete high school or college.
Many American Indian and Alaskan tribes endure high rates of infant mortality, alcoholism, and suicide.
Native Hawaiians are also more likely to live in poverty than whites in Hawaii, and they are more likely than white Hawaiians to be homeless or unemployed.
At the beginning of U.S. history, Indians were considered citizens of sovereign nations and thus ineligible for citizenship, and they were forced off their ancestral lands and onto reservations. Interest in Indian rights arose in the late nineteenth century, and in the 1930s, Native Americans were granted a degree of control over reservation lands and the right to govern themselves. Following World War II, they won greater rights to govern themselves, educate their children, decide how tribal lands should be used—to build casinos, for example—and practice traditional religious rituals without federal interference. Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians have faced similar difficulties, but since the 1960s, they have been somewhat successful in having lands restored to them or obtaining compensation for their loss. Despite these achievements, members of these groups still tend to be poorer, less educated, less likely to be employed, and more likely to suffer addictions or to be incarcerated than other racial and ethnic groups in the United States.
Question to Consider
- What was one impact of the Dawes Act?
Show Answerseparation of families; discrimination against Native American culture; division of land; etc.
- Why was there seemingly extra controversy over the rights of Native Americans?
Show Answerlack of a clear legal understanding between citizenship in the United States and citizenship as an independent nation was exploited
Terms to Remember
American Indian Movement (AIM)–the Native American civil rights group responsible for the occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973
Dawes Severalty Act–another effort to assimilate Indians to white society, divided reservation lands into individual allotments
Trail of Tears–the name given to the forced migration of the Cherokees from Georgia to Oklahoma in 1838–1839
- Theodore Haas. 1957. "The Legal Aspects of Indian Affairs from 1887 to 1957," American Academy of Political Science 311, 12–22. ↵
- Elk v. Wilkins, (1884)112 U.S. 94. ↵
- Medium: 1 photographic print. Summary: Four Atsina women and a dog, their backs to camera, sitting some distance from tipis and others. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-66670 (b&w film copy neg.) Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication. No renewal in Copyright office. Call Number: LOT 12322-A [item] [P&P] Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA; Library of Congress at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002722343/. ↵
- See Alan Gallay. 2009. Indian Slavery in Colonial America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ↵
- See James Wilson. 1998. The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America. New York: Grove Press. ↵
- Ibid; Gloria Jahoda. 1975. Trail of Tears: The Story of American Indian Removal, 1813–1855. New York: Henry Holt. ↵
- The Cherokee Nation at https://www.cherokee.org/remembertheremoval/ and The Library of Congress presents America's Story from America's Library at http://www.americaslibrary.gov /jb/nation/ jb_nation_tears_1.html. ↵
- See Wilson. 1998. The Earth Shall Weep. ↵
- See John Ehle. 1988. Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation. New York: Doubleday; Theda Perdue and Michael Green. 2007. The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears. New York: Penguin Books. ↵
- Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, 30 U.S. 1 (1831). ↵
- Francis Paul Prucha. 1984. The Great Father: The United States Government and American Indians, vol. 1. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 212; Robert V. Remini. 2001. Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars. New York: Viking, 257; Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. 515 (1832). ↵
- Prucha, 241; Ehle, 390–392; Russell Thornton. 1991. "Demography of the Trail of Tears," In Cherokee Removal: Before and After, ed. William L. Anderson. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 75–93. ↵
- "Indian Reservations," http://ic.galegroup.com/ic/uhic/ReferenceDetailsPage/ReferenceDetailsWindow?zid=2a87fa28f20f1e66b5f663e76873fd8c&action=2&catId=&documentId=GALE%7CCX3401802046&userGroupName=lnoca_hawken&jsid=f44511ddfece4faafab082109e34a539 (April 10, 2016). ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- "Curtis Act (1898)," http://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=CU006 (April 10, 2016). ↵
- See Gae Whitney Canfield. 1988. Sarah Winnemucca of the Northern Paiutes. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ↵
- Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (P.L. 73–383); "Indian Reservations," http://ic.galegroup.com/ic/uhic/ReferenceDetailsPage/ReferenceDetailsWindow?zid=2a87fa28f20f1e66b5f663e76873fd8c&action=2&catId=&documentId=GALE|CX3401802046&userGroupName=lnoca_hawken&jsid=f44511ddfece4faafab082109e34a539 (April 10, 2016). ↵
- Daniel McCool, Susan M. Olson, and Jennifer L. Robinson. 2007. Native Vote. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 9, 19. ↵
- "Indian Reservations," http://ic.galegroup.com/ic/uhic/ReferenceDetailsPage/ReferenceDetailsWindow?zid=2a87fa28f20f1e66b5f663e76873fd8c&action=2&catId=&documentId=GALE|CX3401802046&userGroupName=lnoca_hawken&jsid=f44511ddfece4faafab082109e34a539 (April 10, 2016). ↵
- See Troy R. Johnson. 1996. The Occupation of Alcatraz Island: Indian Self-Determination and the Rise of Indian Activism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. ↵
- Emily Chertoff, "Occupy Wounded Knee: A 71-Day Siege and a Forgotten Civil Rights Movement," The Atlantic, 23 October 2012. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/10/occupy-wounded-knee-a-71-day-siege-and-a-forgotten-civil-rights-movement/263998/. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Public Law 93–638: Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, as Amended. ↵
- W. Dale Mason. 2000. Indian Gaming: Tribal Sovereignty and American Politics. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 60–64. ↵
- Public Law 95–341: American Indian Religious Freedom, Joint Resolution. ↵
- U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, "Racism’s Frontier: The Untold Story of Discrimination and Division in Alaska," http://www.usccr.gov/pubs/sac/ak0402/ch2.htm (April 10, 2016). ↵
- Ryan Mielke, "Hawaiians’ Years of Mistreatment," Chicago Tribune, 4 September 1999. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1999-09-04/news/9909040141_1_hawaiians-oha-land-trust. ↵
- Brittany Lyte, "Historic Election Could Return Sovereignty to Native Hawaiians," Aljazeera America 30 Oct. 2015, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/10/30/historic-election-could-return-sovereignty-to-native-hawaiians.html. ↵
- Chloe Fox. 2 December 2015. "Supreme Court Blocks Native Hawaiians’ Attempt to Form Own Government," http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/supreme-court-hawaii-election_us_565f6849e4b079b2818d1767. ↵
- Jens Manuel Krogstad. 13 June 2014. "One-in-Four Native Americans and Alaska Natives Are Living in Poverty," http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/06/13/1-in-4-native-americans-and-alaska-natives-are-living-in-poverty/. ↵
- Karina L. Walters, Jane M. Simoni, and Teresa Evans-Campbell. 2002. "Substance Use Among American Indians and Alaska Natives: Incorporating Culture in an ‘Indigenist’ Stess-Coping Paradigm," Public Health Reports 117: S105. ↵
- Kehaulani Lum, "Native Hawaiians’ Trail of Tears," Chicago Tribune, 24 August 1999. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1999-08-24/news/9908240280_1_native-hawaiians-hawaiian-people-aleuts. ↵