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United States Respects Indian Tribes' Right to Self-Determination

Indian tribes retain unique sovereign status as “domestic dependent nations”

By Peggy B. Hu and Jeffrey Thomas | Staff Writers | 31 October 2008
Indian child blowing bubbles (AP Images)

Elise Phillips, 5, of Reno, Nevada, and a member of the Omaha tribe, blows bubbles during a powwow at the University of Nevada.

Washington -- Many people are puzzled when they hear the U.S. president use such phrases as “government-to-government basis with tribal governments,” “tribal sovereignty” or “self-determination” for American Indians. Isn’t the United States “one nation ... indivisible," as the Pledge of Allegiance says?

The answer is more interesting than a simple “yes” or “no.” According to the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Tribal Justice, American Indian tribes are considered "domestic dependent nations" within the United States. As such, they retain sovereign powers over their members and territory except where such powers specifically have been modified by U.S. law. American Indians are more than members of a racial minority group in the United States; they are indigenous people of the Americas with a status akin to dual citizenship.

In his October 30 proclamation marking National American Indian Heritage Month, 2008, President Bush reaffirmed his administration's commitment “to protecting tribal sovereignty and the right to self-determination and to working with tribes on a government-to-government basis.” This national policy of self-determination for Indian tribes began under President Richard Nixon.

The U.S. federal government currently recognizes 562 Indian nations. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) within the U.S. Department of the Interior manages 227,000 square kilometers held in trust by the United States for American Indians. The BIA also is responsible for maintaining tribal schools serving nearly 46,000 American Indian primary, secondary and university students.


Each tribe determines who qualifies as a member, and an individual can qualify as a member of more than one tribe. As a result, many of the nearly 5 million U.S. citizens -- or 1.6 percent of the total population -- identified as full- or part-American Indians or Alaska Natives in the most recent U.S. Census Bureau estimate (July 1, 2007), might claim membership in more than one Indian nation.

In general, tribes use the blood-quantum system, the descent system or a combination of the two to determine membership. Tribes also might have residency or other requirements for those who seek membership.

In the blood-quantum system, a prospective member must prove he or she has inherited a certain percentage of “Indian blood” from the tribe he or she wishes to join. The Nez Perce Nation, for example, will grant membership only to those who are "at least one fourth (1/4) degree Nez Perce Indian ancestry born to a member of the Nez Perce Tribe.”

The descent system does not set a minimum blood requirement. Instead, prospective members must demonstrate that they are directly descended from a tribal member from a particular time period. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, for example, requires that prospective members trace their lineage to at least one person listed on the Dawes Rolls of 1899-1907, the official list of people accepted by the Dawes Commission as members of the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole Indian tribes.

American Indians are active participants in all aspects of American life. Among the more famous American Indians are Representative Tom Cole (Chickasaw); former senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Northern Cheyenne); physicist Fred Begay (Navajo/Ute); astronaut John Herrington (Chickasaw); Olympic medalists Billy Mills (Lakota) and Jim Thorpe (Saux/Fox); pro golfer Notah Begay III (Navajo/Pueblo); composer Louis Ballard (Quapaw/Cherokee); ballerina Maria Tallchief (Osage); poet Simon Ortiz (Acoma); rapper Litefoot (Cherokee/ Chichimecca); actress Irene Bedard (Inupiat Eskimo/Cree); director Chris Eyre (Cheyenne/Arapaho); artist John Nieto (Apache); authors Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene), Louise Erdrich (Anishinaabe/Ojibwa) and N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa); and activist and writer Winona LaDuke (Anishinaabe/Ojibwa).

For a timeline of key legal developments affecting the status of the American Indian in the United States, see fact sheet.

For more information on U.S. society, see Diversity.

National Museum of the American Indian (AP Images)

The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington opened in September 2004.

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