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Dancing with a Brave Spirit:
Telling the Truth About Native America

Thoughts from the editor

There are many myths about Native people. Some are meant to support the historical perception of Native people as wise, noble, and long-suffering. Some are negative stereotypes. Native people have endured both. Information is a powerful tool.

Information has the ability to alter perception. Perception is how we view the world, or a portion of it. Native America, that vast multicultural expanse of Native people, is changing remarkably. With those changes come changes in perception. How do we view historically marginalized people who are suddenly impacting American society in new ways?

New questions. Aren’t all Native people becoming rich from gaming revenues? Why are Native people treated special? Is it true that Native people don’t pay taxes?

Last spring, the Native American Economic Development and Empowerment Task Force of The United Methodist Church met in Washington, D.C. From that meeting came an awareness of a pressing need to answer basic questions about Native America.

This special issue of Voices is the result.

Ray Buckley, director
Native American Communications
United Methodist Communications

A Clearer View of Native People in America

According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in 1999, there are 554 federally recognized tribes in the United States. Of that number, 226 are Native villages in Alaska.

Native tribes or people groups are as diverse as the people of Norway and Spain. Traditionally, they speak different languages, and have different religions and social customs.

When Europeans arrived in North America, Native people spoke nearly 350 languages. It is estimated that today about 200 Native languages are still spoken. More than a third of these are spoken only by a handful of elders and may not survive. Among the Navajo, nearly 80,000 persons speak Navajo. Among the Ojibwa there are counted 40,000 speakers.

Slavery in the Americas began with Native people. In California, until the Emancipation Proclamation, young women sold for $300, while children sold for as low as $50. California law allowed non-Indians to indenture Native people for up to sixteen years for a fee of $2. 1 Along the Pacific coast, in the Southwest, and the Southeast whole population groups were destroyed by slavery. In Alaska, many communities were confined and compelled into forced labor at the threat of death.

Many Native people were forced to convert to Christianity by European colonists. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Native children were sent to church-sponsored boarding schools where they were not allowed to speak their languages or practice their religions and customs. As a result, many customs, languages, and religious practices were lost. The federal government banned some practices of Native religions.

In this decade, two-thirds of Native people identify themselves, at least marginally, as Christians. Some of these combine Christianity with traditional religious practices, while others practice both religions.

What does it mean to be federally recognized?

To be federally recognized means that the Congress of the United States considers a tribe to be a sovereign nation. Many tribes were "recognized by treaty" during the 1700s and 1800s.

Today a difficult application process through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the United States Department of the Interior, is required.

Currently 14 tribes are being considered for federal recognition. The last tribe to receive federal recognition was the Huron Potawatomi people of Michigan in 1996.

What is a sovereign nation?

The Congress of the United States recognizes the rights of tribes to determine their own form of government, determine criteria for tribal membership, provide for systems of justice, tax, establish business and determine who may be excluded from reservations. Treaties, case law, and the United States Constitution uphold the status of tribes as self-governing nations. Tribes are granted a nationhood status, with powers of government, except those expressly taken away by Congress or by action of the United States Supreme Court.

Three significant Supreme Court rulings in the 1800s validated the rights of tribes to self-government.  Those rulings prohibit states from infringing upon those rights, while allowing Congress to override a tribal nation’s authority.

More limitations on tribal sovereignty have occurred within the past 20 years than within the past 200 years. 2 The current climate of the U.S. Congress toward tribes is the worst since the 1950s. The current U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against tribes in every case brought before it, usually without regard to the historic volume of related cases.

Most tribal governments are based on democratic election systems. Tribal governments may contain tribal councils which usually consist of a tribal chairperson or other recognized leader. The tribal council administrates the legislation of tribal government.

Some tribes occupy a reservation with another. In many cases, they each maintain a separate tribal government.

How do Native people function as U.S. citizens?

Native people are U.S. citizens, having been extended citizenship in 1924. They have dual citizenship as tribal members and as U.S. citizens.

Some tribes or nations have their own passports. These passports are recognized by other nations of the world as having been issued by a sovereign nation.

Native people have the right to vote in local, state, and federal elections. Each tribe determines who is an eligible voter in tribal elections.

Generally speaking, when tribal members are off reservation land, they are subject to local, state and federal laws. When they are on reservation land, they are subject to tribal and federal laws.3   The Assimilative Crimes Act, a statute of federal law, makes any violation of state criminal law on a reservation a federal crime.

Native people have fought in every war since the Revolutionary War. One out of every four Native men is a veteran. The bravery of Native military personnel prompted the U.S. Congress to pass the Indian Citizen Act of 1924.

Native people serving in elected office have included Charles Curtis, a registered member of the Kaw tribe, who served as vice president under President Herbert Hoover.   U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Northern Cheyenne, served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, and now serves as a U.S. Senator from Colorado.

Do Native people pay taxes?

In the United States, Native people pay the same taxes as all other Americans with a few exceptions: 1) Native people employed on reservations do not pay state income taxes.
2) Native people living on land held in trust do not pay state or local property taxes.
3) State sales taxes are usually not required on Native transactions made on reservation land.
4) Native people do not pay federal income tax from money earned from land held in trust (drilling, grazing rights, etc).4

Nearly 60% of all Native people in the United States live in urban areas. They pay the same taxes as other American citizens.

Tribes, as sovereign nations, do not pay taxes on tribal revenues to state or federal governments, unless negotiated in gaming compacts. States have the ability to assess fees upon tribes for reimbursement of cost for gaming regulation and administration. Individual tribal employees in casinos generally pay the same payroll and federal income tax as all other Americans.

What benefits do Native people receive?

The United States government entered into negotiations with tribal governments in the form of treaties. From 1777 to 1871, these agreements created and transferred rights to property in exchange for services. Such rights and services included protection, tribal sovereignty, and a homeland, as well as basic needs. These rights were granted by the U.S. government in exchange for large quantities of land and promises of cooperation. Under the U.S. Constitution, treaties are "the supreme law of the land".

One of the strongest principles of U.S. law is the federal Indian trust responsibility. Under such law, the United States is required to protect tribal lands, all assets, resources, and treaty rights.

The American Indian Policy Review Commission, in its final report (1997) ascertained, "the relationship of the American Indian tribes to the United States is founded on principles of international law…". It further stipulated that all future policies must be fenced by the two following principles:

1. Indian tribes are sovereign political bodies, having the power to determine their own membership and power to enact laws and enforce them within the boundaries of their reservations.

2. The relationship which exists between the tribes and the United States is premised on a special trust that must govern the conduct of the stronger toward the weaker.5

Education--The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was given the responsibility for the education of Native children on reservations. In 1978 the federal government began turning over the control of schools to tribal governments while still providing funding and oversight of programs.

87% of Native children attend public schools operated by states.

Today approximately 60,000 students go to 187 schools. Many school buildings are in severe disrepair as funding and budget have been reduced. style="mso-spacerun: yes"

The General Accounting Office reports that BIA schools lack appropriate facilities for education, have unsafe environmental conditions, and are less likely to provide computer/communications training than any other schools in the United States. Some operate in condemned facilities.

Health care-- Native persons from federally recognized tribes are eligible to receive medical care through Indian Health Service (IHS). IHS treatment facilities and hospitals are primarily located on reservations or urban centers near large Native populations.

The death rate of Native children is more than 3 times the national average. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that 13% of American Indian/Alaska Native deaths occur among those under age 25. The death rate from injury for Native children is twice the national average.6

Recent studies indicated that only one mental health provider exists in IHS for every 25,000 Native children.

In fiscal year 1999 the funding for Indian Health Service (IHS) will be far below what is needed. In a recent report, the National Indian Health Board cites suffering and premature deaths that are associated with cuts in the IHS budget.

Why do many tribes pursue gambling as a form of economic development?

Gaming or gambling was an accepted part of many Native cultures long before the arrival of Europeans. It was an important part of celebrations and ceremonies for thousands of years.

Only about one-third of tribes own gaming facilities. Many are limited to bingo. Many tribes believe that gambling as a business damages their cultures and that many tribes with organized gaming facilities also exhibit a decline in their tribal traditional values and religion.

According to the National Indian Gaming Association, Native gaming represents about 8% of the total revenues from gaming in the United States.  Nearly half of the $6.4 billion earned through Native gaming is from the six largest tribes, which are generally located near urban areas.

A small number of tribes are becoming wealthy. However, based on every social and economic measure, Native people, as a whole, are the poorest population in the United States. “According to a ‘Survey of Grant Giving by American Indian Foundations and Organizations’ by Native Americans in Philanthropy, the needs of reservation Indians are so great that even if the total annual Indian gaming revenue in the country could be divided equally among all the Indians in the country, the amount distributed ($3,000) per person would still not be enough to raise Indian per capita income (currently $4,500) to anywhere near the national average of $14,400.00”. -- Dispelling the Myths About Indian Gaming, The Native American Rights Fund.

Tribal governments are required by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to spend gaming revenues on tribal operations, welfare, charity, and economic development. Tribes who meet that criteria may petition the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to develop a "per-capita" plan to benefit individual tribal members. As of 1998, only 47 tribes have reached that status. Most individuals benefiting from per capita income receive less than $1,500 per year.

How do Native casinos function?

Congress established the National Indian Gaming Commission which has the mission of overseeing casinos, bingo, and specific forms of gambling on tribally controlled lands. The NIGC establishes rules for the licensing of gaming facilities, reviews yearly audits, and approves ordinances that individual tribes develop for gaming operations.

In addition, the U.S. departments of Interior, Treasury, and Justice have authority in specific areas of Indian gaming. Native tribes and nations also have individual gambling/gaming commissions, as well as tribal police forces and tribal court systems.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act is a federal law, which requires states to enter into compacts with tribes or nations wishing to engage in gambling (including black-jack and slot machines).  Tribes may engage in gambling only if the state in which they are located also permits gambling. Gaming must be contained on tribal land. Any control of the state is limited to the terms of the compact, which must be approved by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

Are there other Native people who are not members of federally recognized tribes?

Yes. The status of Native people in the United States is based solely on an individual’s membership in a federally recognized tribe and on that tribe’s sovereign right to define who shall make up its membership. In short, the federal government relates to sovereign nations, not Native people as racial/ethnic groups.

Qualifications for membership in a federally recognized tribe are as diverse as the tribes themselves. Some stipulate that full-blood (percent of Native blood= 4/4) persons born off of the reservation cannot be tribal members. Others restrict from membership the children of female members who marry a Native/non-Native person from outside of the tribe. A few stipulate that only children born from an enrolled mother may be members. Some require that one can only join a tribe at birth; some at birth and age 18. Some tribal rolls are closed to membership. Some require only that one prove ancestry to a specific tribal role, while others require 1/64th (one great-great-great-grandparent) Native blood.

Until the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (signed), Indian children were adopted from tribal communities, often without the permission of their parents. Many Native families were divided and sent to various parts of the country under policies of Indian relocation .  Many full-blood children are denied membership and are therefore not “recognized” by the federal government.

It is estimated that the numbers of non-status, primarily-Native blood individuals from federally recognized tribes is probably more than 500,000. In the mid-1990s a little over 1 million persons were registered with federally recognized tribes. At that time, Ross Swimmer, who headed the BIA, estimated that there were at least another half million ethnic Native people who received no benefits because, for one reason or another, they were not members of a federally recognized tribe.7

Tribes may take action to effectively remove Native status from individuals. In 1992, when the Tonawanda Band of Senecas banished five persons who criticized the tribal government, it effectively made them non-Indian. The council clerk told the local press, “Make no mistake...They’re to be treated as non-Indians. Their names have been removed from our rolls.”8

In addition to these are persons from state recognized tribes. Such individuals are from tribes that are granted status by and within an individual state. State-recognized tribes and their individual members have no status with the federal government of the United States.

As violence against Native people persists in Mexico, Central America, and South America, refugees continue to pour into the United States. Aboriginal people (Native) from Canada, whose local economies are in collapse, are immigrating within U.S. borders. They are not recognized by the United States as Native people because they are not from U.S. federally recognized tribes. They, like non-status Native people of the United States, are drawn to urban areas, where they become people in limbo.

While the government of Canada has an established bureaucracy to deal with the welfare of non-status Aborigines (Natives), the United States does not.

What are the key issues affecting Native people today?

Certainly, poverty. Native people still remain the poorest of all Americans. Misinformation, based on gaming revenues from a handful of wealthy tribes, results in underfunding of programs for the vast majority of Native people who live in desperate conditions.

Increased violence and overt racism against Native persons are on the increase nationwide. Since many issues affecting Native communities deal with questions of sovereignty and the use of natural resources, racism and violence are expected to increase.

Native people suffer violent crime at twice the rate of African Americans, and 2 1/2 times the national average. Native people are twice as likely as African Americans and three times more likely than whites to be victims of rape or aggravated assault.

Unemployment among Native persons is at 15%, about 3 times the national average.

While some tribes have been successful in the area of economic development, most remain critically poor. There is a pressing need to develop long-term economic opportunities that will strengthen the stability of tribes and Native individuals.

The use or, rather, misuse of legislative riders attached to spending bills in the U.S. Congress circumvents due process for tribes.

“Appropriations committees are technically barred from including policy language in their spending bills. Authorizing committees are supposed to write the laws governing the use of federal money. Yet it has become a common practice to attach carefully crafted legislative riders to must-pass spending bills. In Indian affairs, this tactic is often used to circumvent consultation with tribal leaders to avoid scrutiny by lawmakers familiar with the unique concerns of Indian Country, or to reduce the likelihood of a presidential veto. The increasing use of policy riders represents a particularly unsettling trend in a policymaking arena where intergovernmental consultation is so very critical.”--Indian Report, I-58, summer 1988, Friends Committee on National Legislation.

The undermining of tribal sovereignty has become a critical issue for Native people as states and other groups seek to benefit from potential taxation of tribal revenues. Rep. Istook (OK) has sought for nearly two years to attach a rider to the House Interior Appropriations bill that would block the Secretary of the Interior from taking “in trust” any tribal lands, unless tribes entered into tax agreements with state and local governments.

Historically, tribal land bases have been significantly and continually reduced. Such a rider would make it nearly impossible for tribes to restore land base to any degree. It would, in essence, hold tribes captive to state or local governments, which could impose unreasonable levels of taxation. It primarily violates the government-to-government relationship that has historically existed between tribes and the Congress of the United States.

“As the Supreme Court has stated, ‘(Tribes) owe no allegiance to the states, and receive from them no protection...the states where (tribes) are found are often their deadliest enemies’ (U.S. v. Kagama, 1886). --FCNL Indian Report, summer 1998.

Along with the issues surrounding tribal sovereignty, are the large numbers of ethnic Native people who do not qualify for tribal membership with an individual federally recognized tribe. While supporting the sovereignty of tribes, many Native people also express concern at the unique, legally non-existent, status of ethnic non-tribal members.

The violation of sacred sites has become a significant issue impacting both Native and non-Native alike. Sites held sacred by various Native people groups are now falling prey to highway construction, recreational vehicle usage and general disrespect.  Many Native religions are intricately linked to the land and some to specific sites. Often, Native people within the same tribe will disagree on which are specific sacred sites. Most Native people are tolerant of others visiting or using sacred sites as long as they are not altered, damaged, or treated in a demeaning manner.

Substance abuse and resulting addiction have deep roots in the Indian policies of our governments. Native communities, with strong systems of tribal structure, religion, and economics, were devastated when they were forced onto small enclosures of land and compelled to adopt European/American systems of agriculture and government. Three generations of Native children raised in boarding schools, away from their parents and grandparents and denied access to their traditional cultures, were left with little but remnants of social connection. Strongly linked to substance abuse and addiction is an increase of child abuse among Native people. As the national rate of child abuse and neglect was declining, reports of child abuse and neglect among Native people increased 18% between 1992 and 1995.

Native gangs, relatively unheard of until 1992, have become visible in urban areas and on reservations. More than 180 gangs have been identified in Indian Country within the last few years. While Native gangs have been relatively unsophisticated in the past, they will pose an increasing problem as they become more organized. Many tribes still remain in denial regarding gang problems in both tribal and urban communities. As Native gangs gain more access to fully automatic weapons, their manpower and firepower will exceed that of tribal law enforcement. With reduction in the funding for tribal law enforcement, Native gangs will become more confrontational.9

A recent Justice Department study indicated that there were 1,600 BIA and tribal police officers patrolling 56 million acres of Indian land. This represents less than half the number of police officers per 1000 residents in non-Native rural communities.

Homicide rates have increased 80% since 1992, and youth suicide has risen dramatically on rural reservations.

There has been a renewed interest in the restoration of tribal traditions and languages among Native youth. Traditional values and ceremonies are effective tools toward restoring self-esteem and Native pride.


Voices acknowledges the excellent volume of work produced in 100 Questions, 500 Nations: A Reporter’s Guide to Native America; The Wichita Eagle in conjunction with Knight Ridder and NAJA (Native American Journalists Association), 1998. Portions of this work were adapted, with permission, for this special edition. We are most grateful.

FCNL (Friends Committee on National Legislation), Indian Report, and FCNL Legislative Updates: Friends Committee on National Legislation, 245 Second St., N.E., Washington, DC 20002-5795

Dispelling the Myths About Indian Gaming, published by the Native American Rights Fund; 1506 Broadway, Boulder, CO 80302-6296

Additional resource materials:

A Guide to America’s Indians, Arnold Marquis

As Long As the Waters Flow, text by Frye Gaillard, photographs by Carolyn DeMeritt; John F. Blair, publisher, 1998

Killing the White Man’s Indian, Fergus M. Bordewich; Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1996

States and Tribes Building New Traditions, compiled by James B. Reed and Judy Zelio for the National Conference of State Legislatures

Agencies/organizations consulted include:

  • Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Department of Interior
  • Dreamweavers Inc.; Waunetta Lone Wolf, director; Tempe, AZ
  • Friends Committee on National Legislation
  • Indian Law Resource Center National Indian Law Library, Native American Rights Fund


1  In California until the: Jack Norton, Genocide in California, 81-85.

2 More limitations on tribal sovereignty: Aura Kanegis, Friends Committee on National Legislation, speaking before the Native American International Caucus, Syracuse, NY, Sept. 1998.

3Generally speaking: 100 Questions, 500 Nations: A Reporter’s Guide to Native America, The Wichita Eagle, p.7

4In the United States: 100 Questions, 500 Nations: A Reporter’s Guide to Native America, The Wichita Eagle, p. 7

5The American Indian Policy Review: Final Report of the American Indian Policy Review Commission, May 17, 1977.

6The death rate of Native children: Indian Report, I-59, Fall 1998, Friends Committee on National Legislation

7In the mid-1990s: Testimony before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, August 12, 1988.

8In 1995 when the Tonawanda Band: “Banished Seneca Sue Tribe Over Treason”, Indian Country Today, January 7, 1993.

9Native Gangs: Interview with Waunetta Lone Wolf, Director, Dreamweavers, Inc., Tempe, AZ A publication of the Native American Communications Office, United Methodist Communications, P.O. Box 320, Nashville, TN, 37202-0320; (615)742-5414

This Voices special edition is produced in cooperation with:

The Native American Economic Development and Empowerment Task Force,
sponsored by the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church
100 Maryland Ave. N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002; and

The Native American Comprehensive Plan of The United Methodist Church
P.O. Box 4609, Tulsa, OK 74159

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