Why do Indian reservations still exist in North America?



Both Canada and the US still have weird quasi-states on their territory for citizens of Native American/First Nation origins. However in the 21st century this appears to be quite an archaic concept, since in theory there shouldn't be any more areas restricted to members of a certain race or ethnicity.

So why do these Indian reservations still exist in North America? Are there any plans to reform them into regular villages/towns/cities without a special status?


Posted 2018-06-14T02:40:53.317

Reputation: 36 466


Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.

– Philipp – 2018-06-15T11:09:13.830


Just a quick note: while the name is often the source of a bit of confusion, First Nations isn't an umbrella term for all native tribes, but a specific group of indigenous peoples.

– 0xdd – 2018-06-15T20:11:39.617

"...in the 21st century this appears to be quite an archaic concept, since in theory there shouldn't be any more areas restricted to members of a certain race or ethnicity. " One could maybe see it as a separate nation, a quasi-country within another country. Citizenship based on inheritance is actually not outdated in the 21st century, otherwise there wouldn't be any borders at all. – Trilarion – 2018-06-18T07:26:40.847

That's a very good question. – Acid Kritana – 2020-06-26T15:44:08.933



However in the 21st century this appears to be quite an archaic concept, since in theory all citizens are supposed to be equal rather than receiving certain privileges simply because of their race or ethnicity.

All citizens of a nation, perhaps - and this is by no means a universally held or implemented belief. (Just ask Saudi women, people under 18, Arab Israelis, etc.)

The fundamental status of federally-recognized Native American tribes is that of a separate nation ("domestic dependent nations", i.e. with exceptions; see below), and hence, we US citizens don't get to demand the rights of another nation, just like I can't demand to vote in Mexico.

Per the US Bureau of Indian Affairs:

The relationship between federally recognized tribes and the United States is one between sovereigns, i.e., between a government and a government. This “government-to-government” principle, which is grounded in the United States Constitution, has helped to shape the long history of relations between the federal government and these tribal nations.

Tribes possess all powers of self-government except those relinquished under treaty with the United States, those that Congress has expressly extinguished, and those that federal courts have ruled are subject to existing federal law or are inconsistent with overriding national policies. Tribes, therefore, possess the right to form their own governments; to make and enforce laws, both civil and criminal; to tax; to establish and determine membership (i.e., tribal citizenship); to license and regulate activities within their jurisdiction; to zone; and to exclude persons from tribal lands.

Limitations on inherent tribal powers of self-government are few, but do include the same limitations applicable to states, e.g., neither tribes nor states have the power to make war, engage in foreign relations, or print and issue currency.

They continue to exist for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to:

  • They want to continue to exist.
  • The government and courts have recognized their right to exist.
  • The federal government has little interest in a small-and-short-but-violent civil war.


Posted 2018-06-14T02:40:53.317

Reputation: 822

13This is of course a particular use of "sovereign". A sovereign might bind itself by treaty, by a sovereign is not bound by another government's Congress or courts. – MSalters – 2018-06-14T19:23:55.123


Interesting note here about the US constitution and treaties with Indian nations: Article 2, Section 2, Clause 2. The 1871 Indian Appropriate Act "closed" the issue and prevented any future recognition of Indian nations (not already recognized) or future treaties.

– BradC – 2018-06-14T20:28:03.577

34The BIA quote is classic doublespeak, and the practice goes way back. Reservations are not sovereign, although they have limited sovereignity. For instance, the reference to "those (powers) that Congress has expressly extinguished" is neither more nor less than a tacit admission that the tribes are not sovereign. A nation which has its powers controlled by another nation is not sovereign. Sovereignity is "the authority of a state to govern itself or another state." If governed, even in part, by another state, it is not (without qualification) sovereign. – WhatRoughBeast – 2018-06-14T23:21:58.077


Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.

– Sam I am says Reinstate Monica – 2018-12-24T21:13:17.343


To remove such rights would be unfair. But while the reservations have a particular context, self-determination for ethnic minorities is not so unusual.

The Native American and First Nation peoples were moved to reservations as a deliberate policy of "ethnic cleansing" in the 19th century.

The various tribes were given limited rights to self-governance on their new reservations. Now if we propose to remove those rights, justice would expect that the lands that were taken should be returned. However this is not a practical idea: the original inhabitants are long dead, the land has been dramatically changed and there are several hundred million new people living on those lands. The Indian nations currently living on reservations want to preserve such rights as they have. There is, of course, no legal barrier to leaving a reservation, and many people of Native American and First Nation descent don't live on reservations.

As such, removing such limited rights that the Native American nations have to self-determination without giving something in return would be an extension of a historical injustice.

By way of analogy: A school bully steals a fountain pen worth $20 from another boy. Laughing at the boy the bully gives the boy $1 and says "It's not stealing, I'm buying the pen". 20 years later, and both the bully and the boy have grown up. The bully says "It was wrong of me to steal your pen and give you a dollar in exchange. So I'm going to take back the dollar."

The idea of certain peoples having limited self-determination is not so unusual. The Welsh (who were perhaps victims of an earlier ethnic cleaning by the invading Saxons) have an assembly and the Scots have a parliament. Other regions in Europe have similar arrangements. It is quite common for an ethnic minority that is geographically limited to be granted some form of limited self-determination.

James K

Posted 2018-06-14T02:40:53.317

Reputation: 70 324

9Up voted, however the notion that the 'original inhabitants are long dead' is not persuasive. The analogy is a good one, but suppose that the period of time was 200 years, and the bully's descendants say: "It was wrong to steal your great grandfather's pen, here's a dollar to in exchange" (now justice has prevailed ??) – BobE – 2018-06-14T14:37:10.357

30This comment thread is at risk of becoming a discussion about "What Jonathan thinks about the Native American reparations". Rather than about "What James can do to improve his answer. Keep it focused, or take it to chat. – James K – 2018-06-14T16:33:44.973

1Overall a good answer, but I think the analogy paragraph should be removed. It's not quite right, since the bully should be giving something continuously as rights/privileges persist across time, unlike a single payment. If the bully was giving a dollar a year, then after 20 years, it would make sense to stop it. Of course valuations of rights are not so clearcut, and large timescales make it that much more subjective, so I think drawing a monetary analogy will always fall short and just confuse the issue. – Vivek Chavda – 2018-06-15T14:36:54.567

6Comments deleted. Please keep the comments relevant to this answer. This question is about North America. It is not the place to discuss the history of the British Isles. – Philipp – 2018-06-16T10:34:34.223

3"To remove such rights would be unfair." This is a moral dimension and morality is very subjective. I guess some people may see it as fair, others as unfair. It would be helpful for the answer to specify who actually thinks it would be unfair (and who doesn't). – Trilarion – 2018-06-18T07:32:32.013

1+1 for the fountain pen analogy. It's not perfect but I think it does illustrate the lopsidedness of the treatment. – WBT – 2018-07-09T15:27:44.083

Why not just give them the proper money and help, and reunite the US with the reservations? – Acid Kritana – 2020-06-26T15:57:24.090

A failure of the Fountain pen analogy is that the pen had a clear monetary value. The land doesn't. The various Native American tribes occupied the whole of the territory that is now the USA. What is the "proper money"? How much is the Land of the USA worth? – James K – 2020-06-26T19:08:17.440


James K's answer is excellent, but I want to expand further on how tribes are organized presently.

However in the 21st century this appears to be quite an archaic concept, since in theory all citizens are supposed to be equal rather than receiving certain privileges simply because of their race or ethnicity.

I know you are from Europe, so you may be unfamiliar with the history of reservations/reserves in the US and Canada, but this is a misconception of the arrangement. ("Reserves" is the Canadian term, but I'll use "reservations" because I'm American.)

It's also a little unclear which privileges you refer to. The only one I can think of associated with reservations is the ability to run their own court system, which is of course, available to every municipality, county, and state in the US, so far from limited to tribal governments. In fact, their court systems are more limited than others, as they cannot prosecute non-members.

The point is, though, that the arrangement exists not between the federal government and US citizens of certain descent, but between the US federal and state governments and the "domestic dependent nations" that represent Native American/First Nations peoples. This concept is known as tribal sovereignty.

Tribal sovereignty in the United States is the concept of the inherent authority of indigenous tribes to govern themselves within the borders of the United States.

America is sometimes considered to be a nation organized around shared ideals, rather than ethnic history, like most other countries are. (There was a good Politics question about that, but I can't find it.) However, tribal nations are, an issue that causes no end of contention within the nations (look up "disenrollment.") Even though the US is set up this way, it can still have relationships with ethnic nations, and it does.

So it's best not to consider the relationship not one between America/Canada and its citizens of Native American descent, but one between the respective governments and their dependent (ethnic) nations.

Simply put, disorganizing a reservation would be disorganizing a nation with (limited) sovereignty, and perpetrated by the nation(s) that stole their land and forced them into the reservation in the first place.

* All that said, this is very heterogeneous. British Columbia has a lot of unceded land and unsigned treaties. Alaska has a different set-up than the lower 48, which I'm not qualified to discuss, but the notion holds at a high level for why the reservations continue to exist.

Azor Ahai -him-

Posted 2018-06-14T02:40:53.317

Reputation: 4 700

14Excellent re-framing. OP is basically proposing that tribes get the land (which they already have), but lose their tribal sovereignty. That isn't an improvement. – BradC – 2018-06-14T16:30:19.927

2I've since edited my question to be more specific. If I understand correctly non-Indians are not allowed to permanently settle on at least some of the Indian territories (which includes owning land and voting in local elections). There are also some financial assistance programs which are based on ethnicity (again, correct me if I'm wrong). – JonathanReez – 2018-06-15T18:23:02.517

2@JonathanReez: WRT "permanently settle", that's more of a matter of land ownership. Land on reservations can either be owned by individuals (in which case anyone can buy it), or by the tribe as an organization. If the organization doesn't want to sell or lease the land, it doesn't have to. Same with a lot of land in the west owned by railroads, lumber companies, or FTM family-owned ranches. WRT assistance programs, no doubt you've heard of affirmative action? – jamesqf – 2018-06-15T20:45:43.863


In some parts, such as in British Columbia, the First Nations never signed any treaties with the Government of Canada. For example, see this page on the Kitselas Administration. Even if the government declares a particular reservation, some native tribes may decline to acknowledge that the Government of Canada has the sovereign right to do so. In British Columbia, there are regular conflicts when it comes to constructing pipelines, with First Nations tribes arguing that the Government of Canada has no right to build a pipeline on their land without their consent, partly because they never signed a treaty with the Government of Canada to begin with.

In the context of such conflicts, a Government decision to take away the little breadcrumbs that are native rights acknowledged by the Government, would almost certainly escalate the conflict. It would also violate the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (of which Canada was one of only four nations to oppose, although since then different governments have expressed different views on whether to adopt those rights into Canadian law).


Posted 2018-06-14T02:40:53.317

Reputation: 40 843

5The UNDRIP is an excellent point to bring up. Worth noting the other 'nays' are Australia, New Zealand, and the US; that all four of those states have since informally approved of the treaty w/o allowing it to become binding law; and that the UK (which did sign it) denies any minority in its territories constitute 'indigenous people' under the treaty's terms and refuses to allow appeals on the treaty's basis from indigenous people litigating in Canadian courts. – lly – 2018-06-15T13:10:57.250


That said, it's worth noting that those five countries' resistance is predicated on their fairly strong adherence to open and impartial courts; it's fairly easy for the PRC to agree to widespread rights for its minorities when it may sadly find they are 'not fully implemented' or 'in conflict with still more fundamental rights' in any troublesome situation.

– lly – 2018-06-15T13:17:16.353

1Actually, the Government of Canada does have a treaty in place with First Nations in northern BC via the federal numbered treaties specifically Treaty No. 08. It's almost a THIRD of BC! In 2005/2006, BC decided to challenge the western boundary of Treaty 8 almost 100 years after its ratification (it also spans across northern alberta, parts of northern saskatchewan and a piece of the north west territory) and the First Nations (defendants) won that case and the boundary remains as is. I'm an adherent to Treaty 08. – SaultDon – 2018-06-18T22:40:09.883

1@SaultDon I don't know the legal details, I go by what I've read. – gerrit – 2018-06-19T06:56:49.527

1@gerrit I'm guessing those history books are slightly incorrect cause almost a 1/3rd of BC has been under Treaty since at least 1899 :) – SaultDon – 2018-07-12T02:47:04.697


The relationship between the Native American nations (there are many, not just one) and the US are (theoretically) at least vaguely similar to those between the nations of Europe and the European Union. Each of them is a separate nation that has signed treaties to cede some specific rights to the "larger" government entity.

There are certainly differences--the rights the Native American tribes ceded to the US federal government were largely those of things like foreign relations, while those ceded in the case of the EU treaties tended to relate more to economics and trade.

Regardless of those differences, your question is roughly similar to asking why the EU hasn't just become the sole government of the entire European continent. That answer is fairly simple: because EU only have the rights ceded to them by treaty, and that doesn't include the right to dissolve the separate nations and take over all governance of those people.

Many of the same issues arise in both cases

  1. very few people entirely understand exactly what rights were ceded by those treaties.
    • In fact, it's doubtful that anybody knows all of them with real certainty--sometimes there's enough disagreement that it needs to be decided by a court.
  2. It's almost certain that in most cases, the people who signed those treaties on behalf of their people didn't understand what rights they were ceding.
    • In the case of the Native Americans, there were almost certainly some pretty blatant lies told to...encourage exactly the misunderstandings that occurred.
  3. In the case of Native American tribes, there were fairly clear-cut cases where tribal leaders were coerced into signing treaties they didn't want.

Nonetheless, I think in both cases, the overarching government entity currently makes at least some minimal attempt at following (its interpretation of) the treaties it signed. Unilaterally dissolving a nation it has recognized in a treaty would be a clear violation that's unlikely to happen.

There are exceptions to those rules as well, of course--in particular, there are cases where the natives did not sign any treaty ceding any rights to the larger government. I suppose that leaves a little more room for the overarching government to simply treat that nation as not existing--but it would certainly violate current expectations about how native nations should be treated to the point that most would find it unacceptable anyway.

Jerry Coffin

Posted 2018-06-14T02:40:53.317

Reputation: 995


In Europe, there are some small nations. Denmark is a postage stamp. Luxembourg is a rounding error. Why doesn't Germany just annex them?

For the same reason Canada doesn't dissolve the reserves. Historically, the multitude of native tribes are distinct nations with distinct histories. Canada has no more right to consume the reserves than Russia has to absorb Crimea.

Functionally, we can consider the reserves to be enclaves with limited sovereignty.


Posted 2018-06-14T02:40:53.317

Reputation: 199

12This comparison isn't a very good one. Denmark and Luxembourg are internationally recognized sovereign states. The reservations in the US and Canada just have partial sovereignity and no international recognition as independent states. One could try to make an argument that they should be, but the de-facto situation right now is that they are not. – Philipp – 2018-06-15T13:50:04.867


  • I didn't call the sovereign. 2) Canada/USA recognizes them as distinct nations, that is sufficient for this conversation.
  • < – Lan – 2018-06-15T15:29:10.903

    11(-1) Actually Germany did occupy both Luxembourg, Denmark and even France, which has a bigger surface area. And I don't see any possible reasonable relation between those examples and the indigenous reserves. Plus the US recognizes them as "domestic dependent nations" which is often compared to other states, not nations. To make matters worse you haven't given a single source that could help put your answer into context and decided to arbitrarily mock other nations (by size). Therefore I must conclude that this is a prime example of what would be called in my native language "potato logic". – armatita – 2018-06-15T16:14:46.040

    The Native reservations are IN the US, and it is somewhat connected, which is why many, including me, believe that it should be put back together. Maybe make it a state (as @armatita said that they were compared to), which would still mean that it stays there and they can govern themselves, they'll just be apart of the US (completely) now. It's like a partial nation within a nation: It doesn't make sense. – Acid Kritana – 2020-06-26T16:02:44.693