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Frequently Asked Questions about Native Americans

Native Americans

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. No single federal or tribal criterion establishes a person's identity as an Indian. Government agencies use differing criteria to determine eligibility for programs and services. Tribes also have varying eligibility criteria for membership.

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.

American Indians and Alaska Natives 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.

American Indians and Alaska Natives have the same right to vote as all United States citizens. American Indians and Alaska Natives vote in state and local 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.

American Indians and Alaska Natives have the same rights as all citizens to hold public office. In this century, American Indian and Alaska Native men and women have held elected and appointed offices at all levels of state, local, and federal government.

Charles Curtis, a member of the Kaw Tribe of Kansas, served as Vice President of the United States under President Herbert Hoover. Indians have also been elected to the United States Congress. Tom Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, has represented Oklahoma in the United States House of Representatives since his election in 2002. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe of Montana, represented Colorado as in the United States House of Representatives from 1987 until 1993 and in the Senate from 1993 until 2005. Brad Carson, a member of the Cherokee Nation, represented Oklahoma in the United States House of representatives from 2001 until 2005.

American Indians and Alaska Natives speak many diverse languages. At the end of the 15th Century, more than 300 American Indian and Alaska Native languages were spoken. Some were linked by "linguistic stocks" which meant that widely scattered tribal groups had similar languages. Today, some 250 tribal languages are spoken and many are written.

Government-to-Government Relationship

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."

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.

"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.


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.

Reservations are territories reserved as permanent tribal homelands. Some were created through treaties while others were created by statutes, or executive orders.

Updated August 24, 2023