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American Indians and Alaska Natives - Who is Indian? What is an Indian Tribe?

Published: March 19, 2014
Fact Sheet
  • There is no single definition of the term Indian.  Each government—tribal, federal, and state—determines who is an Indian for purposes of that government’s laws and programs.  This can result in someone being an Indian under tribal law but not under federal law, an Indian under federal law but not tribal law, and so forth.
  • In 1924 Congress extended U.S. citizenship to all Indians born in the United States.  Prior to that, Indians became citizens only by treaty or federal statute.  It is now settled law that an individual Indian can be both a citizen of the United States and a member of an Indian tribe and have all the benefits and obligations that arise out of that dual status.
  • As with the term Indian, the term Indian tribe can have more than one definition.  To qualify for the many benefits that Congress has made available to federally recognized tribes, a group of Indians must satisfy the seven requirements for federal recognition established by the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs.  There are 566 federally recognized Indian tribes, including 229 Alaska Native entities.
  • Federal recognition by the Interior Department guarantees that an Indian tribe will qualify to participate in virtually all federal Indian programs.  However, a denial of federal recognition does not necessarily disqualify a tribe from all federal programs because it may participate in federal programs that Congress has not specifically limited to federally recognized tribes. (See separate Fact Sheet on Federal Recognition)
  • Examples of tribes that may be defined by their legal/political character is the Fort Belnap Indian Community in Montana, which is one tribe politically but is composed of two ethnological tribes, the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine.  Also, single ethnological tribes may have been divided and placed by the federal government on different reservations and have obtained separate political identities.  For example, various bands of Sioux (Lakota), Chippewa, and Shoshone were placed on separate reservations and now are treated as separate tribes politically.
  • IMPORTANT LEGAL NOTE: In Morton v. Mancari, the Supreme Court established that American Indians and Alaska Natives can be treated differently from other U.S. citizens by the federal government despite anti-discrimination laws.  The Court held that members of tribes must be considered political rather than racial groups as long as the law or action is based on longstanding legal responsibilities toward Native American interests and promote tribal self-governance.  This is significant because it means that when members of Indian tribes receive special treatment from the federal government (as tribes do under the ACA) under the trust doctrine, that treatment cannot be considered racial discrimination because tribes are political groups, not racial groups.