How much financial support do Indians get from the federal government?


Last Updated: 8 months

I am in my first year of college and I am currently trying to formulate a paper on the lack of support from the American government to the Native American community.

I would like to know what kind of benefits they offer people living on a reservation, and/or how often tribes get financial support from the government in order to make up for the lack of natural resources on the tribe’s “given” land.

I would really appreciate it if you got back to me A.S.A.P. I need to start my page.
–Submitted by Kayla B.

To begin with, this is a very broad subject, which has different answers depending on which specific tribe you are researching.

American Indians are not just one big community. They make up nearly 800 separate tribes in the United States, each with their own tribal governments and treaties with the Canadian or US Government.

Not all tribes have a reservation or land base. The size of reservations vary from a couple city blocks to millions of acres. Some reservations are shared by more than one tribe of Indians.

Membership in individual tribes varies from less than a dozen people to over 300,000 people. It would probably require months, if not years, of in depth research to fully answer your question for all indian tribes in the USA today. The information provided here is just a very general, broad overview of the subject.

The answer depends on the tribe and it’s treaties and to what degree the US Govt honors the terms of their particular treaties, not neccesarily the reservation they live on, if they live on a reservation at all. So far, the US Government has yet to live up to all the terms of any treaty made with an Indian tribe.

Although individual reservation social programs probably receive some funding from the US Government’s annual budget, it’s usually far from adequate for their needs. They also can apply for and may receive federal and private grants for various things, which are not neccesarily (and probably aren’t) related to treaty rights.

These are grants that any organization or individual can apply for, regardless of race. Many of the services on reservations are provided for with this sort of funding that has nothing to do with what the Federal Government disperses as part of treaty obligations.

44% of all Indians do not live on their reservation

Nearly half the Indian population in the United States does not live on their tribe’s reservation, and most of these live in urban areas, far from tribal health clinics and other tribal services.

If they cannot afford the time and travel expenses to reach these facilities, they must pay for those services themselves, or apply for the same assistance programs every other American in need uses.

Some tribes require tribal members to reside on the reservation, except for brief absences to attend school or serve in the military, in order to receive a share of tribal disbursements, others do not.

There are currently 561 federally recognized indian tribes who receive some sort of support from the Federal government as outlined by each individual tribe’s treaty. Each treaty has different terms. This may be in the form of hunting and fish harvesting rights, minimal health care, education, food, and housing.

Indian Education

Until the 1960s, Indian children were sent to boarding schools long distances away from their families for most of the year, where they were forbidden to speak their language or continue any of their cultural practices. Most of these boarding schools were run by churches, and many children were sexually abused and/or beaten while at the Indian boarding schools.

Today, most reservations have elementary and middle schools, which are no better than (and are often worse) than the public schools provided to the general US population. There are a few reservations who run total emersion schools where the children are learning their forgotten languages and cultures.

Many reservations still don’t have high schools of their own, and bus older students to high schools in nearby towns off the reservation.

College scholarships provided to Indian students are funded by the tribe or privately donated grants and scholarships, not the federal government. Many colleges have scholarships for minority students, (which are not just for Indian students).

But, being Indian does not mean the Federal Government will automatically provide you with a higher eduction beyond high school.

At the start of 1960 there were only 2,000 American Indians enrolled in higher education in the United States.

By 1980, 109,000 had completed four or more years of college and in 1995 more than 12,000 American Indian students were enrolled in tribally controlled colleges, or about 8 percent of all American Indian/Alaska Native post secondary students.

By 1997, there were 27 Indian-controlled accredited colleges operating in the United States and over 138,800 American Indians are enrolled in these and other colleges and universities throughout the U.S.

Indian Health Care

The medical care provided at tribal health clinics is often less than optimum. A friend of mine went to a Navajo clinic and told them her leg hurt and she couldn’t walk. Their “treatment” was to give her a crutch and send her home. No tests, no nothing, except a crutch.

Often doctors in reservation clinics are foreigners who don’t themselves have a good command of the English language, and who don’t speak or understand the native languages of their older patients who don’t speak English.

Many don’t understand the culture, which is a big barrier in treating traditional Indians, or they have been fired from more mainstream avenues of health care and come to the reservations because they can’t get work elsewhere.

Some health clinics don’t even have a full time doctor, but are staffed by nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants, with only occasional visits from a fully qualified physician.

The wait to see a health care professional for specialized services such as surgery, drug and alcohol dependency, or dental care can be months long.

Indians as an ethnic group have the highest rate of death from cancer of any race in the US. This is due in part because they wait longer to seek medical help due to poverty, and the wait for access to agressive treatments is so long that they often come too late.

They also have the highest rates of diabetes, which is attributed to poor diets associated with poverty, and the highest rates of teenage suicide. Alaskan Natives commit suicide at a rate six times higher than the US national average.

How payments to individual Indians work

A very few tribes receive disbursement of funds from lawsuits the tribe may have won from the US Government for past appropriation of their lands, and things like that, but usually those funds don’t go directly to individual members, or only a small portion of the settlement does.

The funds are instead used for infrastructure that supports the whole tribe, such as law enforcement, health care, community centers, roads, sewers, investments in tribally run businesses, etc.

Funds received from the annual US Federal Budget are dispersed in a similar manner, for the benefit of the whole tribe instead of being given directly to individual Indians.

A very few tribes have profitable casinos, which distribute profits in a similar manner.

The Dept of the Interior handles a trust of all funds received for leasing of Indian land by white people for farming, grazing leases, timber sales, sale of mineral rights or mineral leases, and things of that nature.

The amount charged for these leases is usually far below current market value, usually just pennies on the dollar. These funds are supposed to be dispersed to individual indians who received those rights through the allotments of the early 1900s, or to reservations collectively for use of communal lands owned by the tribe as a whole.

In reality, many of those funds are never dispersed, or are only partially dispersed, and when they are disbursed, they are often disbursed unevenly and not on a specific schedule.

See Tribes may lose on trust fund payments and Cobell vs. Norton, later called Cobell vs. Salazar, which is a lawsuit related to trust funds owed Indians originally filed by members of the Blackfeet tribe of Browning, Montana, as one example.

This lawsuit has been tied up in the legal system for over nine years now, and will probably take years still to settle. It involves billions of dollars owed to Indian people for land leases that the Department of the Interior cannot or will not account for.

The petitioners in this lawsuit recently sued the federal government for court costs and attorney fees associated with persuing this case to date, and won something like a $1.5 million dollar settlement to pay their lawyers.

The Interior Department is coming up with this money by cutting it from reservation health care funds and other programs that should benefit Indians. In the meantime, the larger issue of the missing trust funds continues to be tied up in the legal system.

(Editor’s Note: This lawsuit was finally settled in 2012 with a tribal trust settlement for $1.023 billion dollars, split between the 41 tribes who eventually joined this class action lawsuit.

This was just a fraction of the amount it was thought was collected on behalf of the Tribes by the Department of the Interior, who deliberately destroyed thousands of records during the course of this law case, so no one actually knows the exact amount now.

This sounds like a lot of money, but works out to less than $3,500 per tribal member for money collected for more than 100 years of leases.)

When tribal members receive individual (per capita) payments (and not all tribes do), the funds come from these trust fund payments, and from surplus money earned by tribally owned, community run businesses.

They are not “handouts” from the US Federal Government to make up for the lack of natural resources on the tribe’s “given” land. These payments may be dispersed monthly, quarterly, bi-annually or annually, depending on which tribe you are talking about and their available resources.

Members of tribes who have successful casinos in urban areas, or other tribally run businesses that are doing well may receive fairly large payments, as compared to poorer tribes located in remote areas with little or no tribally run enterprises, where disbursements may only be a couple hundred dollars a year.

Only a handful of the many tribally operated casinos actually make the big bucks. Tribes in rural areas don’t have the customer base to generate large amounts of money from their casino, and many casinos are developed in partnership with a non-indian investor, who reaps more of the profits than the tribe.

The number of members in a specific tribe will also affect the share each member of that tribe receives from payouts of extra tribal profits. Rich tribes with few members may receive large payments while poor tribes with many members and few assets would receive small payments.

Amounts received from land trusts also vary widely, not only from the poor accounting practices of the Department of the Interior, but because the family land base of allotments has been fractionated through inheritance.

With each generation, there are more people who have a share in that family’s original land claim, so each individual share of any trust payments paid out becomes smaller and smaller as each generation produces more heirs.

Indian Housing

Most reservations have some sort of housing program where housing is provided to tribal members living on the reservation on a low cost or no cost basis. However, almost all of them have housing shortages, and there aren’t enough houses to go around for all the people who need them.

This creates long waiting lists of people waiting to get assistance with housing needs. In the meantime, there are often large extended families of multiple generations living in one small mobile home or houses designed for a single family. On the poorest reservations, some people live in tents pitched in relative’s yards, or sleep in abandoned cars.

Some reservations have houses, but the houses don’t have basic things most of us consider necessities, like a heat source, plumbing and electricity, or even water on the premises. Half of all reservation homes don’t have phone service. A quarter don’t have kitchens with running water and electricity.

Indian Food and Welfare Programs

Poor people on reservations can apply for Welfare programs and commodity products provided by US State and Federal Governments, the same as poor people anywhere in the United States, regardless of their race.

They do not receive any special help with food other than that which is available to poor people of all races everywhere in the US. They must meet the same elegibility requriements and receive the same help a White person or Latino person or Black person anywhere in the US would receive if they qualify for such programs.

The only difference is that on some remote reservations, where there aren’t any local grocery stores, they get food distributed by the tribe instead of Food Stamps, because many don’t have cars or bus service to travel up to 100 miles one-way to a grocery store.

Non Federally Recognized Indian Tribes

There are a couple hundred tribes that are State Recognized but not recognized by the Federal Government. They receive no help from the Federal Government and have their own pacts with each state that recognizes them, which are different for each tribe. In general, State Recognized tribes receive far less benefits than Federally Recognized tribes.

On top of that,there are also almost 200 unrecognized tribes or terminated tribes and bands who continue to struggle to obtain Federal recognition that receive no support from either the Federal Government or their State Government.

So all together, we are talking about nearly 800 distinct Indian tribes, each with their own agreements (or lack of) and degrees of enforcement within the various US Government agencies.

“Indian Country” land base in the U.S. has been reduced to a total of about 53 million acres out of the 2,316,012,800 acres of land used by American Indians at the time of non-Indian contact – 2.3% of its initial land base. The 1990 U.S. census reports that just under two million U.S. citizens claim American Indian or Alaskan Native heritage.

The last 100 years

During the 1900s, there were major events that took place over the 20th Century that involved American Indian and Alaska Natives. Beginning in 1900 with Charles Curtis, (Kaw/Osage), who was named to chair the U.S. House Committee on Indian Affairs (he later served as a Congressman and Senator before being elected as Vice- President of the United States under President Herbert Hoover), there was a concerted effort to do away with American Indian Tribes and pursue a policy of assimilation.

Most reservations were either abolished or severely shrunk in size using the Dawes General Allotment Act to legitimatize those efforts.

In World War I, about 8,000 American Indians joined the armed services where they were most often assigned to reconnaissance duties on the assumption that they would be superior scouts. They suffered higher casualty rates because of stereotypes that continued to adversely affect them.

Two years after World War I, Congress passed a law granting citizenship to any honorably discharged non-citizen Indian veteran who served for the U.S. who chose to apply to an appropriate court for citizen status. It wasn’t until 1924 that Congress passed an Indian citizenship act to make citizens of all other American Indians not yet deemed citizens.

During World War II when over 25,000 Indians entered the Armed Forces, two Indians won the Congressional Medal of Honor, 51 received the Silver Star, 47 the Bronze Star, 34 the Distinguished Flying Cross, and 71 the Air Medal. The Navajo, Choctaw and other “Code Talkers” from 15 different tribes helped win the war with their unique language skills that were coded and proved indecipherable by the enemy – but were not formally honored for their work by Congress until 1999.

During the Vietnam War, 41,500 American Indians served in the U.S. combat forces with distinction. During the infamous My Lai massacre, Hugh Thompson (Cherokee) risked his life to protect civilians by repeatedly putting his helicopter between civilians and the firing of unfriendly troops.

During Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, 12,000 American Indians served in the U.S. volunteer military forces and made up almost 25% of the total complement of 48,300 active military personnel involved in the conflict.

In 1934 Congress passed legislation for the Johnson-O’Malley Act (JOM) which provided funds to states for having Indian students in public schools. Previously, Indian students did not attend public schools since their parents did not pay property taxes on reservation land holdings.

In the same year, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) that ended the practice of allotment of tribal lands to individual non-Indian ownership and repealed the Curtis Act of 1898 that outlawed legitimate Tribal governments.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs also did away with its efforts to eliminate traditional Indian ceremonial practices, although the Sun Dance and other ceremonies were still technically illegal until the 1960s.

In 1940 Felix S. Cohen published the Handbook of Federal Indian Law that summarized and analyzed statutes and case laws applicable to Indians in the U.S. Still used today in regularly updated editions.

It was followed the next year with the completion of another monumental compilation of Indian law documentation by Charles J. Kappler listing Indian treaties, statutes and leading Supreme Court cases that became the foundation for future Indian law efforts.

In 1944 the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) was formed and evolved eventually into a lobbying, networking and educational group to counter the Federal “termination” policies that began in 1953 to terminate the treaty-established, government -to-government trust relationships between the U.S. and Indian Tribes.

By the close of the active period of the U.S. Federal government’s policy of “termination” in the mid-1960s, 109 Indian Tribes and over 12,000 individual Indians lost official recognition of their treaty status as legally-recognized Indians.

Over 2.5 million acres of reservation land formerly protected by the trust relationship between treaty Tribes and the Federal government had passed into non-Indian control.

Among the largest Tribes affected were the Menominee in Wisconsin and the Klamath Tribe in Oregon. In all, 62 tribes in Oregon and 41 tribes in California were terminated, as well as others in Minnesota, Nebraska, Utah, and Wisconsin.

Confrontation increased in the 1960s to maintain treaty rights of Indian Tribes and their members. The American Indian Movement (AIM) and other Indian activist organizations were formed to maintain treaty rights, tribal sovereignty and traditional cultures.

By 1970 the U.S. census reported that 44.6% of American Indians were living in major urban centers – away from reservations.

In 1971 Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that took traditional village governments off their land base (almost 90% of Alaska) and eliminated many powers of self-rule by creating 13 regional corporations in their place that could be purchased by non-Native investors after 1991.

In 1972 Congress created the Office of Indian Education in the U.S. Department of Education to involve local Indian parent committees to work with local school districts in being more involved in the education of their Indian children.

A National Advisory Council on Indian Education (NACIE) was also formed. The National Indian Education Association (NIEA), the Oregon Indian Education Association (OIEA), and other Indian education organizations were formed.

In 1975, Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 which significantly increased tribal control over programs on Indian reservations and helped fund public school construction on and near reservations.

In 1977, the terminated Confederated Tribes of Siletz in Oregon were restored to their Federal recognition of their Tribal existence and government through an act of Congress.

In 1978 Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act that declared the public policy of the United States to “protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Inuit, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to access to sacred sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.”

Our US constitution guarantees us religion freedom, and Indians have been US citizens since 1924, yet it took a separate act of Congress to grant the same right to our American Indian citizens.

The same year, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act that gave Tribal courts jurisdiction over reservation Indian children in an effort to stop the placement of Indian children into non-Indian families.

Northwest Tribes conducted a long struggle to regain their recognition and honoring of their treaty fishing rights. In a landmark case, the “Boldt Decision” finally passed through the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 to recognize those treaty rights.

In 1982, President Reagan issued a statement reaffirming the government-to-government relationship between the U.S. and Indian Tribes and the Federal government’s policy of self-determination for Indian nations. Many more terminated indian tribes regained their federal status as Indian Tribes.

The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 made it illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced. In 2000 an ammendment was added to further clarify and strengthen this law.

There has been major progress for American Indians/Alaska Natives during the last one hundred years, and over the past thirty years, there has been more Indian litigation than in the previous two-hundred years.

The Native American Rights Fund has been involved in most of the major cases during this time. There is much more still to achieve in this new century!

Related Links on This Site:

Terminated Tribes
During the late 1940s to the early 1960s., in a move to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream America, the U.S. government ended federal trusteeship of roughly three percent of the country’s Native American population through a process called termination.

Truth and consequences on the reservation–the Elouise Cobell story
Elouise Cobell heard the stories for years: the government was cheating Native Americans on payments for land rights. She took up the cause, which has now turned into a class action suit representing 500,000 native americans. Litigation has now been ongoing for 9 years.

The Dawes Commission and the Enrollment of the Creeks
The story of the Dawes Commission

The Creeks were overwhelmingly opposed to allotment
Does any of this remind you of the Cobell vs Norton case that is pending today?

It was only 80 years ago that American Indians received the right to vote

The changing view of Indian law by the U.S. Supreme Court
The foundation of Indian law lies in the “Marshall trilogy” of cases that recognized the independence of tribes and the political relationship between the tribes and the United States.

Fact vs. fiction regarding Indigenous Red Nations and people
Some commonly held misconceptions about American Indians are explained.

External Links of the Week:

American Indian Relief Council
The American Indian Relief Council provides a variety of program services to hundreds of Native American communities on reservations in nine Northern Plains States. Due to the high rates of poverty and unemployment on these reservations, many Native Americans struggle to provide the necessities of life for their families. AIRC has developed a unique approach in helping to ease some of this hardship.

Friends of Pine Ridge Reservation
Pine Ridge Reservation is the poorest reservation in the United States, (with Rosebud Reservation a close second). Friends of Pine Ridge Reservation is made up of individuals like you who are interested in supporting the many social service organizations located on Pine Ridge Reservation. The reservation is large, and its needs immense, so it would be impossible to help individuals or individual families and do so equitably. For this reason, they send your donations only to those organized entities on the reservation that in turn serve many others. On this web site, you’ll discover numerous ways to help and specific instructions on how to send your donations directly to each organization on the reservation.

Native American Rights Fund
Founded in 1970, the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) is the oldest and largest nonprofit law firm dedicated to asserting and defending the rights of Indian tribes, organizations and individuals nationwide. Has a huge library of resources and documents including laws and treaties, court opinions, education, civil, cultural, historical, and religious topics, statistical information, and extensive research aids.

National Congress of American Indians (NCAI)
Information on upcoming NCAI events, policy issues, and resolutions.

Cobell vs. Norton
Who is telling the truth about the Indian Trust? You decide.Check brochures produced by the plaintiffs in Cobell vs. Norton against a taxpayer-funded brochure produced by Interior Secretary Gale Norton. You can find a timeline of news articles and the latest news regarding the Cobell vs. Norton case here.

Indian Arts and Crafts Board
The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990

United States Code: TITLE 25 – INDIANS
All of the current U.S. laws relating to American Indians are available here, organized by chapters (sub-topics), with brief descriptions for each. Several sections appear to overlap or deal with similar issues.

Internet Law Library – Indian Nations and Tribes
Collection of links to laws and articles on the relations between the U.S. Government and American Indians. Some are related to the issue of gaming. Includes some excellent historical analyses.