As a general principle an American Indian is a person who is of some degree Indian blood and is recognized as an Indian by a tribe/village and/or the United States. There exists no universally accepted rule for establishing a person’s identity as an American Indian. The criteria for tribal membership differ from one tribe to the next. To determine a particular tribe’s criteria, one must contact that tribe directly. For its own purposes, the Bureau of the Census counts anyone as an Indian who declares to be such. By recent counts, there are currently more than two million American Indians, including Native Alaskans and Native Hawaiians.
When referring to American Indians or Alaska Natives, it is appropriate to use the terms American Indians and Alaska Natives. These terms denote the cultural
distinction between the indigenous people of the continental United States and those of Alaska. While the term “Native Americans”
came into usage in the 1960s out of respect for American Indians and Alaska Natives, usage of the term has expanded to include all Native people of the United States and its
territories, including Native Hawaiians and American Samoans.
An Indian tribe was originally a body of people bound together by blood ties who were socially, politically, and religiously organized, who lived together in a defined territory and who spoke a common language or dialect. In the eyes of the U.S. government a body of people as described above must be officially recognized in order to be considered a tribe.
Only tribes who maintain a legal relationship to the U.S. government through binding treaties, acts of Congress, executive orders, etc., are officially “recognized” by the federal government. Once “recognized” a tribe has a legal relationship with the United States. There are currently more than 550 federally recognized tribes in the United States, including some 200-village groups in Alaska. However, there are still hundreds of tribes undergoing the lengthy and tedious process of applying for federal recognition.
Tribal sovereignty describes the right of federally recognized tribes to govern themselves and the existence of a government-to-government relationship with the United States. Thus a tribe is described as dependant nations with the right to form its own government, adjudicate legal cases within its borders, levy taxes within its borders, establish its membership, and decide its own future fate. The federal government has a trust responsibility to protect tribal lands, assets, resources and treaty rights.
In the U.S., there are several kinds of reserved lands two more well known include military and Indian reservations. An Indian reservation is a land base that a tribe reserved for itself when it relinquished its other land areas to the U.S. through treaties. More recently, Congressional acts, executive orders and administrative acts have created reservations. Some reservations, today, have non-Indian residents and land owners.
Not until 1924 were all American Indians granted citizenship. Before this juncture only individuals who were members of federally recognized tribes and “naturalized” individuals were given the rights of a United States citizen. Presently all American Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States are by law citizens. American Indians have had the privilege of voting in national elections since 1924; however, until recently some states prohibited American Indians from voting in local elections. New Mexico, for example, did not extend the vote to American Indians until 1962. Most native people, of course, also are members of their respective sovereign tribes.
American Indians, despite tribal sovereignty, have the same obligations for military service as all other U.S. citizens.
All American Indians are subject to federal income taxes. As sovereign entities, tribal governments have the power to levy taxes on reservation lands. Some tribes do and some don’t. As a result, Indians and non-Indians may or may not pay sales taxes on goods and services purchased on the reservation depending on the tribe. However, whenever a member of an Indian tribe conducts business off the reservation, that person, like everyone else, pays both state and local taxes. State income taxes are not paid on reservation or trust lands.
Contrary to popular belief, American Indians do not receive payments from the federal government simply because they have Indian blood. Funds distributed to a person of Indian descent may represent mineral lease income on property that is held in trust by the United States or compensation for lands taken in connection with governmental projects. Some Indian tribes receive benefits from the federal government in fulfillment of treaty obligations or for the extraction of tribal natural resources – a percentage of which may be distributed as per capita among the tribes membership.