• Cite
  • Share
  • Print this Page

U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs Seal"It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly thirty years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements, is approaching to a happy consummation."

Andrew Jackson, address to the 21st Congress, 2nd Session, 1830-31


During the early 1800s the U.S. government adopted policies aimed at acculturating and assimilating Indians into European-American society. The policy of assimilation was an attempt to destroy traditional Indian cultural identities. Many historians have argued that the U.S. government believed that if American Indians did not adopt European-American culture they would become extinct as a people. This paternalistic attitude influenced interactions between American Indian nations and the U.S. government throughout the first half of the 1800s, and its effects continue to be felt today. Here is a summary of interactions: 

In 1806 the Federal office of the Superintendent of Indian Trade was created, specifically to monitor and control economic activity between Indian nations and the U.S. government. In March 1824, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun created the Bureau of Indian Affairs to replace the Indian Trade Office, officially placing responsibility for working with Indian communities under the control of the U.S. War Department. In addition to controlling trade, the Bureau was responsible for settling disputes between Indians and European-Americans, as well as for appropriating funds from Congress to fund efforts by the Indian agents to acculturate American Indians into European-American society.

The first legal justification for the removal and isolation of American Indians occurred as a result of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Most Indians living east of the Mississippi were relocated west of the river to what is now Oklahoma. Indians who didn't leave faced concentration onto smaller parcels and were pressured to sign treaties ceding larger amounts of land. As white population grew in the United States and people settled further west towards the Mississippi in the late 1800s, there was increasing pressure on the recently removed groups to give up some of their new land, and on Western nations, such as the Dakota, to enter into treaties.  The Indian Appropriations Act of 1851 authorized the creation of the first Indian reservations.

The term "reservation" comes from the belief that tribes were independent, sovereign nations at the time the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Early treaties for land also designated parcels which the tribes, as sovereign nations, "reserved" for themselves, and those parcels came to be called reservations. The term remained in use even after the federal government began to forcibly relocate tribes.  

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, reports about the poor quality of life on reservations led the federal government to change to a new  policy based on forced assimilation instead of concentration and isolation onto reservations. The Allotment Act, better known as the Dawes Act and passed by Congress in 1887, ended the general policy of granting land parcels to whole tribes by instead granting small parcels of land to individual tribe members. The goal was to pressure Indians into becoming  farmers or ranchers, thereby helping to assimilate them. In some cases, the alloted land was then further reduced by opening up the excess to white settlers. 

The individual allotment policy continued until 1934, when it became clear that the policy of disbanding reservations had failed. The new Indian Reorganization Act laid out new rights for Native Americans, and encouraged tribal sovereignty and land management by tribes. The act slowed the assignment of tribal lands to individual members, and reduced the assignment of "extra" holdings to nonmembers.

In 1953, legislation was enacted that was intended to terminate the relationship between Indian tribes and the federal government. Reservations would cease to exist as independent political entities. The government also instituted an employment and relocation program which gave financial assistance and social services to Indians who wanted to leave reservations for urban areas with supposedly better employment prospects. Only a few tribes were terminated before this approach was also abandoned. 

Today, tribes possess tribal sovereignty, even though it is limited by federal and state or local law. Laws on tribal lands vary from those of the surrounding areas. The tribal council, not the local or federal government, generally has jurisdiction over reservations. Different reservations have different systems of government.

A map of current reservations


A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 - 1875, Register of Debates, 21st Congress, 2nd Session. The Library of Congress. 

American Indian Policy Center

National Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center 

Waldman, Carl, and Molly Braun. Atlas of the North American Indian. Third ed. New York, NY: Checkmark Infobase, 2009.

Washington State Historical Society

Resources for Further Research: 


Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Adopted by Resolution 260 (III) A of the United Nations General Assembly on 9 December 1948.

American Indian Law. University of California Berkeley Law. 

U.S. Department of the Interior Indian Affairs


Indian Removal Act. The Library of Congress. 

A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 - 1875Register of Debates, 21st Congress, 2nd Session.The Library of Congress.

U.S. Government Printing Office


Jaeger, Lisa. Tribal Nations The Story of Federal Indian Law, 2007.

Kappler, Charles J. Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904. Oklahoma State Library, 2003. Web.

Waldman, Carl, and Molly Braun. Atlas of the North American Indian. Third ed. New York: Checkmark Infobase, 2009.

Washington State Historical Society. Federal Indian Policy


  • Cite
  • Share
  • Print this Page