Civics 101: National Native American Heritage Month

J. H. Osborne • Nov 18, 2019 at 3:15 PM

November is National Native American Heritage Month. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions, provided by the Native American Rights Fund website.

Since 1971, the Native American Rights Fund, a non-profit organization, has provided legal assistance to Indian tribes, organizations, and individuals nationwide.

Q: Who is a Native American?

A: “As a general principle an Indian is a person who is of some degree Indian blood and is recognized as an Indian by a tribe/village and/or the United States. There exists no universally accepted rule for establishing a person’s identity as an Indian. The criteria for tribal membership differs from one tribe to the next. To determine a particular tribe’s criteria, one must contact that tribe directly. For its own purposes, the Bureau of the Census counts anyone an Indian who declares to be such. By recent counts, there are more than 2.4 million Native Americans, including Native Alaskans and Native Hawaiians.”

Q: Why are Indians sometimes referred to as Native Americans?

A: “When referring to American Indians or Alaska Natives, it is appropriate to use the terms American Indians and Alaska Natives. These terms denote the cultural distinction between the indigenous people of the continental United States and those of Alaska. While the term “Native Americans” came into usage in the 1960s out of respect to American Indians and Alaska Natives, usage of the term has expanded to include all Native people of the United States and its territories, including Native Hawaiians and American Samoans.”

Q: What is an Indian Tribe?

A. “An Indian tribe was originally a body of people bound together by blood ties who were socially, politically, and religiously organized, who lived together in a defined territory and who spoke a common language or dialect. In the eyes of the US government a body of people as described above must be officially recognized in order to be considered a tribe.”

Q: What does the term “federally recognized” mean?

A: “Only tribes who maintain a legal relationship to the US government through binding treaties, acts of Congress, executive orders, etc., are officially “recognized” by the federal government. Once “recognized” a tribe has a legal relationship with the United States. There are currently more than 550 federally recognized tribes in the United States, including some 200 village groups in Alaska. However, there are still hundreds of tribes undergoing the lengthy and tedious process of applying for federal recognition.”

Q: What is a reservation?

A: “In the U.S., there are only two kinds of reserved lands that are well-known — military and Indian. An Indian reservation is a landbase that a tribe reserved for itself when it relinquished its other land areas to the U.S. through treaties. More recently, Congressional acts, executive orders and administrative acts have created reservations. Some reservations, today, have non-Indian residents and land owners.”

Q: Are Indians U.S. citizens?

A: “Not until 1924 were all Native Americans granted citizenship. Before this juncture only individuals who were members of federally recognized tribes and “naturalized” individuals were given the rights of a United States citizen. Presently all Native Americans born within the territorial limits of the United States are by law citizens. Native Americans have had the privilege of voting in national elections since 1924; however, until recently some states prohibited Native Americans from voting in local elections. New Mexico, for example, did not extend the vote to Native Americans until 1962. Most native people, of course, also are members of their respective sovereign tribes. Native Americans, despite tribal sovereignty, have the same obligations for military service as all other U.S. citizens. All Indians are subject to federal income taxes.

Q: Do Native Americans receive any special rights or benefits from the U.S. government?

A: “Contrary to popular belief, Indians do not receive payments from the federal government simply because they have Indian blood.”

Source: NARF, (adapted from the United States Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs’ publication American Indians Today: Answers to Your Questions, Third Edition, 1991.)