We’re Still Here

Photo: Alamy


For more than 500 years the American Indian people have endured untold destruction and violence wrought by European settlers who came to this continent and claimed it as their own. The result for Indian people has been devastating in so many ways, and the impact of generational trauma, intense poverty and structural racism is very real. But we’re still here. And we aren’t going away. We are resilient. We are strong. And we are committed. As a result, Indian people have made tremendous progress in preserving our culture, educating our people, recovering our land and laying the groundwork for a brighter future. And that is a story worth telling.



Photo: John Ratzloff

1961 – Today

In a message to Congress in 1970, President Richard Nixon said, “the Federal government should begin to recognize and build upon the capacities and insights of the Indian people” on American Indian self-determination, focusing on efforts to return policy development and policy implementation to tribes and tribal leaders. Nixon strongly advocated for an end to the policy of termination. From a Native perspective, Nixon’s assertion that tribal governments should assume a greater role in making and administering federal Indian policy was an important step forward in the process of self-determination. The Self-determination and Education Act of 1975 was a turning point for relations between the U.S. government and Native nations. The legislation offered tribes many more opportunities for self-governance and decision making, including police services, education, social services, medical care and natural resource management. In the years that followed, Congress passed a series of laws intended to improve the lives of Native people and increase the amount of tribal input into the policy-making process.



Photo: Leonard McCombe, LIFE Images Collection/Shutterstock

1928 – 1945

In 1928, the Meriam Report (The Problem of Indian Administration) cited a long list of challenges facing Indigenous people as a result of the 1887 General Allotment Act and subsequent amendments and policies. Tribal nations had been left with little capacity for economic development on reservations, with much of the allotted land unsuitable for living or making a living. The report also addressed education for tribal youth. At the time, young people were forcefully removed from their families to attend far-away residential schools, which sought to “Americanize” them through Christian education, gender-role development, and acceptable social practices. The Meriam Report told of overcrowded conditions and serious deficiencies in nutrition and medical care. The economic collapse of 1929 led to the rise of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who ran on a platform addressing many of the issues in Meriam’s report. In 1934, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act which ended allotment as official federal policy while allowing some tribal nations to regroup, draft constitutions, and promote some forms of cultural revitalization. It would be another 40 years before most residential schools closed.


Allotment & Assimilation

Image: Library of Congress


As the United States expanded westward, the flood of settlers and introduction of railways caused political leaders to believe that Indian reservations were too large and disproportionate to the needs of tribal nations. Popular opinion said that tribal nations should be “civilized” and their communal existence terminated through promotion of individual property rights. Toward that end, Congress passed the General Allotment Act of 1887 to divide reservation lands into 40-160 acre allotments for heads of family and individuals. Because Indigenous peoples were deemed “incompetent,” the federal government held these allotments in trust for 25 years until the Natives became more “civilized” through assimilation. “Surplus” reservation land was then sold to non-Indians. In 1906, Congress amended the 1887 Act with the Forced Fee Patenting Act (Burke Act) which enabled the Secretary of the Interior to judge an individual allottee competent, granting them U.S. citizenship and full ownership of the allotment. which opened the land for taxation. From 1887 to 1934, Indian people lost two-thirds of their post-treaty landholdings, leaving tribal nations with 48 million acres, much of it of little economic value.


European contact and ‘discovery’

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Although European contact with the Indigenous peoples of the Americas dates back to Norse explorations in the 10th Century, the colonization of North America didn’t officially begin until Christopher Columbus met the Taino in the Caribbean in 1492. That “discovery” spawned a series of European voyages across the Atlantic as representatives of England, France, Portugal, Spain, and others met with Indigenous peoples upon their arrival, forming nation-to-nation treaties with tribal nations to ensure peaceful relationships and alliances, to gain access to land and other natural resources, and to establish fur-trading partnerships. As European populations and settlements in North America expanded, the pressure grew to claim more land. After winning its fight for independence in the Revolutionary War, the fledgling American nation negotiated new treaties with tribal nations as settlement expanded westward. To further secure its claims, the United States Supreme Court, in 1823, decided that the federal government has sole authority to negotiate with tribal nations, leaving Indigenous people with only the right to live on the land for which legal ownership belongs entirely to the United States.



Photo: Library of Congress.


Facing new financial challenges resulting from the U.S. involvement in World War II, Congress began making plans to cut the domestic budget. Tasking former President Herbert Hoover and a team of researchers with studying the administrative duties of the presidency, President Harry Truman received the recommendation from the Hoover Commission in 1948 that all services provided to tribal nations by the United States should be sent to the states, thereby eliminating its role as trustee. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the federal government dismantled a wide array of services provided, under both treaty and legislation, to tribal nations. In some instances, this included full termination of tribal nations as a distinct group of people. In supporting its right to do so, the Supreme Court affirmed an earlier court decision in 1955 that Congress has complete authority over tribal nations. Throughout the termination process, an additional million acres of Indigenous land was lost.


Removal & Relocation

Photo: James George Wharton (1903) via Wikimedia Commons

1828 – 1887

In 1828, candidate Andrew Jackson ran on a distinctly anti-Indian platform – the resettlement of tribal nations out of the Southeastern U.S. After winning in a landslide, President Jackson lobbied Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act in 1830, which gave the President authority to negotiate relocation with Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminole communities and tribal nations. In 1831 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Cherokee were a dependent domestic nation, making them essentially a ward of the U.S. government. The following year the Court reinforced its 1823 decision that only the United States had the right to deal with tribal nations. By this time, almost every treaty made between the U.S. and tribal nations included land cessions, removal and relocation, or both. Treaties promoting peaceful relations and economic partnerships were largely a relic of the past. The U.S. seized the opportunity to step up the pace of westward expansion by forcefully resettling tribal nations and communities, including the infamous Trail of Tears from 1830 to 1850. In 1871, Congress ended nation-to-nation treaty making and no longer considered tribal nations to be independent.