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Frequently Asked Questions

FAQs about Native Americans

There are many questions about Native Americans that are asked quite frequently. This section addresses some of the commonly asked questions and provides an opportunity to ask and receive answers to additional questions.

Who is an American Indian?

There is no clear answer to this question, since different people apply different definitions. Most definitions are based on a cultural or racial context. No single Federal or tribal criterion establishes a person's identity as an Indian. Government agencies use differing criteria to determine who is an Indian eligible to participate in their programs. Tribes also have varying eligibility criteria for membership. To determine what the criteria might be for agencies or Tribes, you must contact each entity directly. 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 and/or the United States.

It is important to distinguish between the ethnological term "Indian" and the political/legal term "Indian." The protections and services provided by the United States for tribal members flow not from an individual's status as an American Indian in an ethnological sense, but because the person is a member of a Tribe recognized by the United States and with which the United States has a special trust relationship.

What is the proper term to use: Native American, American Indian, Native, Indigenous People, First Nations, etc.?

The term, "Native American," came into usage in the 1960's to denote the groups served by the Bureau of Indian Affairs: American Indians and Alaska Native (Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts of Alaska). Later the term also included Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in some Federal programs. It came into disfavor among some groups.

The preferred term is American Indian. The Eskimos and Aleuts in Alaska are two culturally distinct groups and are sensitive about being included under the Indian designation. They prefer Alaska Native.

Other names include First Peoples, Indigenous Peoples and the tribal names. In Canada, First Nations and aboriginal are getting more popular. In Central America, many people use indigeno or indigenous. It is a controversy in itself and very complex, and cannot be solved here.

Below are some of the definitions used in the USA:

  • Department of Defense Definition IAW DoD Directive 1350.2 - A Native American or Alaskan Native is a person having origins in the original peoples of North America, and who maintains cultural identification through tribal affiliation or community recognition.
  • Bureau of the Census - Anyone who declares himself/herself to be a Native American is considered a Native American.
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) - The BIA has 30 different definitions of a Native American. According to the BIA, to be designated as a Native American you must:
    • Be one-fourth Native American--at a minimum.
    • Live in or near trust lands.
    • Be on a tribal roll recognized by the federal government.
    • Trace ancestry back three generations.
    • Be approved by BIA officials.
  • Individual Tribes - Individual tribes have their own ways of establishing a person's Native American identity. A person can marry into some tribes and become a member while in other tribes offspring of mixed marriages are not considered members of the tribe. So, individual tribes even vary greatly.


What was Native American culture like in the past? What is it like now?

There are hundreds of indigenous American cultures, from California to Maine, from the Yukon to Argentina. These cultures can be as different from each other as Chinese culture is from French. If you want to learn about Native American culture, the best idea is to pick a specific Native American tribe to learn about. Then, if you are very interested, you can learn about a second tribe and compare their societies and traditions.

What did Native Americans look like in the past? What were their clothes and hairstyles like?

They didn't all look the same. For one thing, different tribes had different typical clothing styles. As you can imagine, Gwich'in people in Alaska didn't dress the same as Calusa Indians in southern Florida! For another thing, individual Native American people in the same tribe often looked quite different from each other. All their clothes were made by hand, and they were usually decorated with designs, beadwork, and other art, so no two people in the tribe had the same dress.

Are American Indians citizens of the U.S.?

American Indians are citizens of the United States and of the states in which they reside. They are also citizens of the Tribes according to the criteria established by each Tribe.

Can American Indians vote in State and Federal elections?

American Indians have the same right to vote as all United States citizens. American Indians vote in local, State and Federal elections, as well as in tribal elections. Just as state, federal, and local governments have the sovereign right to establish voter eligibility criteria; each Tribe has the right to decide its voter eligibility criteria for tribal elections.

What is the legal status of American Indian Tribes?

Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution of the United States vests the Congress with the authority to engage in relations with the Tribes. When the governmental authority of Tribes was first challenged in the 1830's, Chief Justice John Marshall articulated a fundamental principle that has guided the evolution of federal Indian law -- Tribes retain certain inherent powers of self-government as "domestic dependent nations."

What is the relationship between the United States and the Tribes?

The relationship between the Tribes and the United States is one of a government to a government. This principle has shaped the history of dealings between the federal government and the tribes.

What does the term "Federally-Recognized Tribe" mean?

Recognition is a legal term meaning that the United States recognizes a government-to-government relationship with a Tribe and that a Tribe exists politically in a "domestic dependent nation" status. Federally-recognized Tribes possess certain inherent powers of self-government and entitlement to certain federal benefits, services, and protections because of the special trust relationship.

How are tribes organized?

Tribes have the inherent right to operate under their own governmental systems. Many have adopted Constitutions, while others operate under Articles of Association or other bodies of law, and some still have traditional systems of government. The chief executive of a Tribe is generally called tribal chairperson, principal chief, governor, or president. A tribal council or legislature often performs the legislative function for a Tribe, although some Tribes require a referendum of the membership to enact laws. Additionally, a significant number of Tribes have created tribal court systems.

What is a reservation?

A reservation is federally designated land "reserved" by Indian Tribes; land that has always been owned by the Tribes. The exterior boundaries of the reservations have historically been limited through Congressional acts, Executive Orders and administrative acts. There are approximately 275 Indian land areas in the U.S. administered as Indian reservations (reservations, pueblos, rancherias, communities, etc.). The largest is the Navajo Reservation of some 16-million acres of land in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Many of the smaller reservations are less than 1,000 acres with the smallest less than 100 acres. On each reservation, the local governing authority is the tribal government. The States in which reservations are located have limited powers over them, and only as provided by Federal law. On some reservations, however, a high percentage of the land is owned and occupied by non-Indians. Some 140 reservations have entirely tribally owned land.

Do all Indians live on reservations?

Indians can and do live anywhere in the United States that they wish. Many leave their home reservations for educational and employment purposes. Over half of the total U.S. Indian and Alaska Native population now live away from reservations. Most return home often to participate in family and tribal life and sometimes to retire. They are furthermore not required to stay on reservations (as they may have been historically), but are free to move about like all other Americans. Contrary to popular belief, Indians are not required to acquire passport s to leave or enter reservations although some Tribes, as sovereign nations, do issue and utilize their own passports.

How many Tribes are there in North Dakota?

There is no easy answer to this question either. The answer depends on the way in which you use the word "Tribe". In a cultural sense, there are five Tribes in North Dakota ( Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, L/Dakota, and Ojibway/Chippewa). Each Tribe has their own distinct customs, language, and norms.

In a political sense, there are four Tribes in North Dakota (Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Spirit Lake Tribe, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and the Three Affiliated Tribes). Each Tribe has its own governing body made up of elected leaders and negotiates with the U.S. government on an individual basis.

In a geographic sense, the Tribe may also mean the people who live on the reservation. In North Dakota, there are four or five "Tribes" in this sense (the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation, the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation and the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation). The land base of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate (or the Lake Traverse Reservation) also extends into North Dakota so - depending on how you define Tribe - it can also be included.

To reiterate, the answer to the question ‘How many Tribes are there in North Dakota?' depends on the way in which you use the word "Tribe". For example, the Lakota/Dakota (cultural "Tribe") live on the Standing Rock Indian reservation (geographic "Tribe") and are governed by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (political "Tribe").


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