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Are Native American Reservations Considered Federal Land?

RVers travel through all kinds of specially designated land, including Native American reservations. Like national parks, states don’t have jurisdiction over the property set aside for Indigenous Peoples.

The federal government established these areas to serve as home to Native nations. But how exactly do these lands operate?

Today, we’re looking into the troubled history and reality of daily life on reservations. 

Let’s dive in!

What Are Native American Reservations?

Reservations are parcels of land held in trust by the federal government for Indigenous nations. Whether through a treaty, federal action, executive order, or other means, a reservation belongs to the people. This system ensures that the property remains set aside and isn’t sold or otherwise broken up.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs managed 326 separate areas. Reservations, rancherias, pueblos, and cemeteries are all protected. 

It’s important to note that Indigenous nations are sovereign. This means they have the right to govern themselves. Federal programs are in place to ensure Indigenous peoples have access to healthcare and food assistance.

Lands held in trust are still open for certain types of eminent domain. Highways, powerlines, and oil and gas pipelines are usually allowed through reservations.

The Navajo Nation is the largest at 16.1 million acres in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. The smallest is only 1.32 acres preserving a cemetery in California. 

What Is the History of Native Reservations?

One of the uglier parts of American history is the treatment of Indigenous nations by the federal government. Possibly the darkest era happened under the presidency of Andrew Jackson. His treatment of Natives was so bad that, on some reservations, the $20 bill is worthless. 

Before this period, Indigenous nations signed treaties that relocated them. Most were moved west of the Mississippi River. By the time Jackson became president, America had ascribed to manifest destiny. A significant part of the philosophy included expanding to the Pacific Ocean. 

President Jackson’s beliefs about Native people are extremely offensive. The idea that they were inferior and needed governing was widespread at the time. Throughout his term, Jackson removed countless Indigenous nations from their ancestral homes. Many were sent to “Indian Country” in Oklahoma. 

Approximately 60,000 Natives relocated in the Trail of Tears. Thousands died in the process. The myth of the “vanishing Indian” justified these actions for many Americans. They believed that Indigenous people should either assimilate or disappear. 

In 1851, the Indian Appropriations Act established lands where Native nations could live. The federal government promised to support them with food and supplies but frequently left them without. Over the following decades, the areas were further restricted and split up.

Today, reservations reflect the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, which attempted to reverse the past. Nations were encouraged to manage themselves and their lands.

Pro Tip: If you’re considering a visit to Native American land, you’ll want to know Can You Camp on Native American Land?

Scenic view of Native American reservation
How Native American reservations came to be today is one of the darkest parts of American history.

What Is the Role of the Bureau of Indian Affairs?

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is one of the oldest federal agencies in the US. Historically, the BIA was the primary contact for Indigenous nations and the government. 

Far from a spotless past, the BIA oversaw some of the most heinous injustices against Indigenous nations. 

Since major restructuring in the 1960s and 1970s, things have changed for the BIA. Today, most employees are Native American, and the agency administers some essential programs. As an organization, the BIA supports the goals and work of Indigenous nations. They also support education programs, justice, and disaster relief. 

What Is Tribal Sovereignty?

Tribal sovereignty is the concept that Indigenous nations have the right to self-determination. Indigenous Peoples have the right to govern, preserve culture, and control the local economy. Further, the right to establish laws falls under tribal sovereignty. 

On the reservation, federal laws apply but may not be enforced by state-level organizations, depending on the state. Therefore, most Indigenous nations have their own laws, police forces, and courts. 

It’s not all perfect, though. Because of the maze of laws governing Indigenous lands, it’s hard to know who has jurisdiction. For non-Natives, violating the law on a reservation can seem like a free pass. Federal and Indigenous governments have partnered to ensure this isn’t the case. 

Where Are Reservations Located, and Can You Visit Them? 

As you’ve probably guessed, there are Native reservations around the country. These areas dot the map, especially in the western US. They preserve a sliver of their original territory from Florida to Washington.

Many Indigenous nations welcome visitors to their lands. For many, gaming serves as an essential revenue source for public programs. Large hotels and casinos draw tens of thousands of visitors each year. 

Beyond that, several Indigenous nations welcome visitors to enjoy the natural beauty. Indigenous arts and crafts, ceremonies, and rituals attract a smaller audience. 

Reservations aren’t quaint time capsules, though. For many Natives, these areas still serve as a cultural ghetto. Lack of services and support mean that local populations struggle to get by. Abject poverty, substance abuse, and lack of opportunity are common in some regions. 

Always check with the government of an Indigenous nation before your visit. Some welcome you with open arms, and some require registration and restrict movements.

Pro Tip: Visit the Spiro Mounds in Oklahoma to learn more about Indigenous history and traditions.

Woman on Native American reservation
It is possible to visit a Native American reservation, but it should always be done respectfully and thoughtfully.

Rules for Visiting Native Reservations

Once you have permission to visit, you’ve got some rules to follow. 

First of all, remember that Indigenous lands aren’t tourist stops. They’re places of work where people live and go about their lives. As such, don’t plan to photograph people or places. If you get permission to attend events, be polite and don’t take pictures. 

Be respectful if you visit historical or memorial sites. For many Natives, these sites hold strong emotional ties to the present. Don’t touch or take artifacts from Indigenous lands. In most cases, this is a federal crime. 

As a guest, you should always listen more than talk. Generally, Indigenous nations tend to give respect to elders, something we’d do well to learn. 

Follow the rules of the road just as you would anywhere else. In some areas, fines for speeding rise quickly. Driving through these areas still offers chances to learn something new. Roadside monuments and battlefields pepper some regions. Stop and read the roadside markers, plan ahead, and always respect the land. 

Acknowledgment of the Past and Reverence for All

For many folks, visiting or driving through a Native American reservation is a rare thing. But in the western US, it’s much more common. 

Understanding the complexity of history gives us a window into the past. Native American lands are held in trust by the federal government, but Natives make and enforce the laws. 

Neither 100% native nor 100% federal, these lands bear witness to our complicated history. 

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