27 January 2005

American Indians, Alaska Natives Number 4.4 Million

Fact Sheet includes U.S. relationship to tribes, frequently asked questions


The following fact sheet is based on U.S. government sources:

(begin fact sheet)

U.S. Department of State
International Information Programs
Washington, D.C.
January 28, 2005

Fact Sheet

"Since our Nation's birth, pluralism and diversity have been hallmarks of the American experience and success.  In 1782, the Founding Fathers chose as our national motto ‘E Pluribus Unum,’ which means ‘out of many, one.’  Today, America's unity, derived from a mix of many diverse cultures and people, grandly embodies the vision expressed by our Founders.  American Indian and Alaska Native cultures have made remarkable contributions to our national identity.  Their unique spiritual, artistic, and literary contributions, together with their vibrant customs and celebrations, enliven and enrich our land."

                                            -- President Bush

Number of federally recognized tribal governments in the United States: 562.

Estimated number of people who are American Indian and Alaska native or American Indian and Alaska native in combination with one or more other races: 4.4 million (as of July 1, 2003).

Percentage of total U.S. population: 1.5 percent


Percentage of American Indians and Alaska natives age 25 and over with at least a bachelor's degree: 14 percent

Percentage of American Indians and Alaska natives age 25 and over with at least a high school diploma: 75 percent

Percentage of American Indian and Alaska native households who own their own home: 56 percent

Median income of households where the householder reported she or she was American Indian or Alaska native, either alone or in combination with other race groups: $34,740. The median income is based on a three-year average (2001-2003).

Percentage of American Indians and Alaska natives age 16 and over who work in management, professional and related occupations: 24 percent

Total area of American Indian reservation and off-reservation trust land: 112,637.29 square miles (291,729.24 square kilometers)

The term “Native Americans” in modern usage includes Native Hawaiians, Chamorros, and American Samoans in addition to American Indians and Alaska natives.

American Indians and Alaska natives are citizens of the United States and of the states in which they reside and have the same right to vote as any other citizens. They are also citizens of the tribes to which they belong according to the criteria established by each tribe.

President Bush has spent more than $1 billion for American Indian and Alaska native school construction or renovation projects. His administration has also significantly increased economic development, tribal services and law enforcements programs.


The United States has a unique legal and political relationship with Indian tribes and a special relationship with Alaska Native entities as provided in the Constitution of the United States, treaties, and federal statutes.

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution of the United States vests the federal government with the authority to engage in relations with the tribes. When the governmental authority of tribes was first challenged in the 1830s, Chief Justice John Marshall articulated the fundamental principle that has guided the evolution of federal Indian law to the present: tribes possess a nationhood status and retain inherent powers of self-government.

President Bush has committed his administration to continuing to work with federally recognized tribal governments on a government-to-government basis and strongly supports and respects tribal sovereignty and self-determination for tribal governments in the United States, which has been the basis of federal Indian policy since the 1970s.

Tribes possess the right to form their own government; to enforce laws, both civil and criminal; to tax; to establish membership; to license and regulate activities; to zone; and to exclude persons from tribal territories.

Limitations on tribal powers of self-government are few and include the same limitations applicable to states; for example, neither tribes nor states have the power to make war, engage in foreign relations, or coin money.

In formulating or implementing policies that have tribal implications, U.S. agencies are guided by the following fundamental principles:

(a) The United States has a unique legal relationship with Indian tribal governments as set forth in the Constitution of the United States, treaties, statutes, executive orders and court decisions. Since the formation of the Union, the United States has recognized Indian tribes as domestic dependent nations under its protection. The federal government has enacted numerous statutes and promulgated numerous regulations that establish and define a trust relationship with Indian tribes.

(b) The United States, in accordance with treaties, statutes, Executive Orders, and judicial decisions, has recognized the right of Indian tribes to self-government. As domestic dependent nations, Indian tribes exercise inherent sovereign powers over their members and territory. The United States continues to work with Indian tribes on a government-to-government basis to address issues concerning Indian tribal self-government, tribal trust resources, and Indian tribal treaty and other rights.

(c) The United States recognizes the right of Indian tribes to self-government and supports tribal sovereignty and self-determination.

The Department of Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has responsibility for the administration and management of 55.7 million acres of land (22,540,990.27 hectares) held in trust by the United States for American Indians, Indian tribes and Alaska natives. Developing forestlands, leasing assets on these lands, directing agricultural programs, protecting water and land rights, developing and maintaining infrastructure and economic development are all part of BIA's responsibility. In addition, BIA provides education services to approximately 48,000 Indian students.

On the approximately 56 million acres held in trust, BIA manages over 100,000 leases for individual Indians, who own more than 10 million acres, and for tribes, which own nearly 45 million acres. In FY 2003, the trust collected revenues from leasing, use permits, sales, and interest of approximately $195 million for 240,000 individual Indian accounts, and approximately $375 million for 1,400 tribal accounts.

The Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians (OST) manages investments of approximately $2.9 billion of tribal trust funds and $400 million in individual accounts. OST meets with tribal representatives to best determine investment objectives, constraints, and preferences in order to achieve the best return.


American Indian tribal groups with more than 50,000 members: Apache, Cherokee, Chippewa, Choctaw, Lumbee, Navajo, Pueblo, and Sioux. Cherokee and Navajo are easily the largest, with populations of 234,000 and 204,000, respectively.

Largest Alaska native tribal group: Eskimo, with 37,000 members.

Number of American Indian and Alaska native families: 484,000

Number of American Indians and Alaska natives alone or in combination with one or more other races living on reservations or other trust lands: 538,300. Of this number, 175,200 reside on Navajo nation reservation and trust lands, which span portions of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. This is by far the most populous reservation or trust land.

Percentage of American Indians and Alaska natives who live in metropolitan areas: 57 percent

The American Indian and Alaska native population in California as of July 1, 2003: 683,900 (the highest total of any state in the nation). California is followed by Oklahoma with 394,800, and Arizona with 327,500.

The percentage of Alaska's population identified as American Indian and Alaska native as of July 1, 2003: 19 percent (the highest rate for this race group of any state in the nation). Alaska is followed by Oklahoma and New Mexico with 11 percent each.

Poverty rate of people who reported they were American Indians and Alaska natives, either alone or in combination with another race group, based on a three-year average (2001-2003): 20 percent

Number of American Indians and Alaska natives age 25 and over with an advanced degree (i.e., master, doctorate, medical or law): 50,500

Number of American Indian and Alaska native veterans of the U.S. armed forces: 159,000

Number of people 5 years of age and older who speak a native North American language: 381,000

Of these languages, the most commonly spoken is Navajo, with 178,014 speakers.


Who Is an American Indian or Alaska Native?

According to the U.S. Department of Interior, as a general principle an Indian is a person who is of some degree of 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 understand the difference 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. This special trust relationship entails certain legally enforceable obligations and responsibilities.

What Is a Reservation?

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

What Is Meant by Tribal Self-determination and Self-governance?

Under the self-determination and self-governance laws, tribes have been accorded the authority to control and operate federally funded and administered programs whenever tribal governments choose to do so. Moreover, these laws affirm the fundamental American belief that local problems are best resolved at the local level using the collective resources of the nation.

What Is the Relationship Between Tribal and State Governments?

Because the Constitution vests authority over Indian Affairs in the federal government, generally states have no authority over tribal governments. Tribal governments retain the right to enact and enforce stricter or more lenient laws and regulations than those of the neighboring state(s).

However, although tribes possess both the right and the power to regulate activities on their lands independently from the neighboring state government, in practice they frequently collaborate and cooperate with states through compacts or other agreements. The Tribal-to-State relationship is also one of a government to a government.

What Is the Federal Indian Trust Responsibility?

The Federal Indian Trust Responsibility is a legal obligation under which the United States "has charged itself with moral obligations of the highest responsibility and trust" toward Indian tribes (Seminole Nation v. United States, 1942). It was first discussed by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, (1831). Over the years, the trust doctrine has been the center of numerous other Supreme Court cases. It is one of the most important principles in federal Indian law.

The federal Indian trust responsibility is a legally enforceable fiduciary obligation, on the part of the United States, to protect tribal lands, assets, resources and treaty rights, as well as a duty to carry out the mandates of federal law with respect to American Indian and Alaska native tribes. In several cases discussing the trust responsibility, the Supreme Court has used language suggesting that it entails legal duties, moral obligations, and the fulfillment of understandings and expectations that have arisen over the entire course of dealings between the United States and the tribes.


The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington opened its doors to the public on September 21, 2004. It is the first national museum in the country dedicated exclusively to American Indians. The Web site features nearly two-dozen exhibitions on-line as well as a wealth of educational resources:


The National Congress of American Indians was founded in 1944 and is the oldest and largest tribal government organization in the United States. NCAI serves as a forum for consensus-based policy development among its membership of over 250 tribal governments from every region of the country. The NCAI Web site: http://www.ncai.org/

Information on individual native nations - including links to the Web sites of each individual tribe - can be found at the following address: http://www.nativeculturelinks.com/nations.html

For information on Native American treaties, history and other documents, see http://ucblibraries.colorado.edu/govpubs/us/native.htm

(end fact sheet)

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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