Native American Migration to Reservations


3 minutes

The United States has a difficult history with the indigenous or Native American tribes that occupied the land before settlers from Europe arrived. Beginning in 1778, two years after the declaration of American Independence from the British, the American government established treaties with the Native American groups on the continent. Starting in 1830 under the administration of Andrew Jackson, the 17th president, the United States began a plan to remove native people from the areas in which they were living.

1830 was the year of the Indian Removal Act, a law designed to move a significant number of Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, and Seminole people from the Southeastern United States. The plan was popular with white Americans in southern states like Georgia, who were in constant dispute with the native people for ownership of the land.

In 1831, the U.S government began the forced removal of Native Americans. Beginning with the Choctaw people, tens of thousands were moved from their tribal homelands (parts of what we now know as Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana). The federal government saw some resistance from the Seminole people when they attempted to remove them from their lands in Florida, and the army had to be called in, but it is estimated that several hundred Seminole people managed to stay in Florida after putting up the resistance. By 1837, however, tens of thousands of Native Americans from other tribes had been removed from southeastern United States.

The most infamous removal occurred in 1838 when the Cherokee people were forcibly moved from their land in parts of Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas to what was known then as the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Almost 4,000 Cherokees are estimated to have died from disease and exposure to the elements during the trek. The journey was called the Trail of Tears.

As relations between Native Americans and white settlers grew increasingly worse during the mid 1800s, the U.S. Congress passed a bill called the Indian Appropriations Act, which created designated lands for Native Americans called Reservations.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is in charge of managing the reservation land. Reservations are largely sovereign. They are ruled by the Native American tribes themselves, who set up their own laws. State and local governments do have some limited authority over tribal lands, but tribes have their own authority over such things as economic development. A small number of Native Americans have become prosperous by allowing casinos and gambling on their reservations.

Today some 2 million Native Americans live on reservations, most of which are in the western United States, with a large concentration between Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. Other large reservations are in the Dakotas, which are historically Native American lands. Today people living on reservations face the same challenges as many Americans. Social problems such as alcoholism, drug use, domestic violence, and gang violence can be found on many reservations. The problem of poverty on reservations is a serious one. Enforcing contracts on tribal lands is difficult so investors a reluctant to do business on reservations. Tribal courts have historically not been reliable in contract disputes.

Some tribal lands are taking steps to improve their system of laws in order to encourage investment. The hope is that companies will want to build businesses on tribal lands. New jobs will raise the standard of living on these reservations, which will help reduce crime and drug use. The U.S. Government is trying to tackle the health problems on reservations through a division called the Indian Health Service, which aims to provide public services to those living on reservations.

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Ani Kington Ani Kington

Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Ani is a fan of exploring new places through photography and the local cuisine. After earning her BFA in photography from NYU and gaining communications experience at International Planned Parenthood Federation, she joined InterExchange in 2012, and worked as the Marketing Producer until 2016.

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