The United States Government’s Relationship with Native Americans

The United States Government’s Relationship with Native Americans

A brief overview of relations between Native Americans and the United States Government.


3 - 12


Social Studies, U.S. History


Lakota Delegation 1891

The Treaty of Ft. Laramie of 1868 "set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation" of the Black Hills for the Lakota Nation. But the discovery of gold in the area ultimately led to the treaty's annulment and the Black Hills War.

Photograph by Charles Bell
The Treaty of Ft. Laramie of 1868 "set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation" of the Black Hills for the Lakota Nation. But the discovery of gold in the area ultimately led to the treaty's annulment and the Black Hills War.
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Relations between Native Americans and the United States government have been tense. To many Native Americans, the history begins with their uneasy welcoming of the first European settlers, which was followed by times of opposition, defeat, and near-extinction. To Americans, the history includes both treating Native American tribes as equals and exiling them from their homes. Often, these efforts happened at the same time.

Many Native American tribes allied with the British during the Revolutionary War. However, the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war, was silent on the fates of these British allies. The new U.S. government was thus free to acquire Native American lands by treaty or force. Resistance from the tribes stopped the encroachment of settlers, at least for a while.

After the Revolutionary War, the United States maintained the British policy of making treaties with Native American tribes. In general, the treaties defined the boundaries of Native American lands. They also stated how much the government would pay the tribes for taking their land.

On occasion, the representatives of Native American tribes who signed the treaties were not authorized under tribal law to do so. For example, William McIntosh, chief of the Muscogee-Creek Nation, signed the Treaty of Indian Springs in violation of tribal law. The 1825 treaty ceded virtually all of the tribe's land in the state of Georgia. McIntosh was later assassinated.

Supreme Court Rules against Tribal Sovereignty

Treaty-making ended in 1871 when Congress ceased to recognize the tribes as groups capable of making treaties. The value of the treaties also came into question after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1903 that Congress had full power over Native American affairs and could override treaties. Many of the treaties made before then, however, remain in force at least to some extent. Occasionally, the Supreme Court is called upon to interpret them.

One treaty with ongoing consequences is the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868. The agreement was signed by the U.S. government and the Lakota Nation. In it, the United States pledged that the Great Sioux [Lakota] Reservation would be "set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation" of the tribe. The land included the Black Hills, a small mountain range in western South Dakota that is sacred to the Lakota.

Custer's Last Stand

Neither side ever fully complied with the treaty, and when gold was discovered in the area, the United States tried to buy back the Black Hills. The Lakota rejected the offer, resulting in the Black Hills War (1876-1877). In the famous Battle of the Little Bighorn (June 25-26, 1876), U.S. General George A. Custer led a group of soldiers against the Lakota and Cheyenne along the Little Bighorn River. Custer and his men were killed, and later the battle became known as Custer's Last Stand.

The United States continued its battle against the Lakota until reclaiming the Black Hills in 1877. In 1923, the Lakota sued, and 60 years later, the Supreme Court sided with them. It determined that the Lakota's constitutional rights had been violated. Under the Fifth Amendment, private land cannot be taken for public use without paying the landowner. The court ruled that the government owed the Lakota "just compensation" plus interest starting from 1877. As of 2018, the amount due is around $1 billion. The tribe has refused to accept the money, however, because it is still seeking return of the land.

In the early 19th century, the government's major aim with Native Americans was to remove and resettle them.

Trail of Tears

The Removal Act of 1830 authorized President Andrew Jackson to negotiate deals with Native American tribes for their removal and resettlement. The primary targets were the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole tribes from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. Although resettlement was supposed to be voluntary, ultimately, it was not. Thousands of Native Americans were forced from their homes and sent to Indian territory west of the Mississippi River. The forced relocation became known as the Trail of Tears.

In the mid-19th century, the U.S. government pursued a policy known as "allotment and assimilation." Under the General Allotment Act of 1887, the government was allowed to divide tribal land into small parcels for individual members. The goal was to pressure Indians into becoming farmers or ranchers, thereby helping to assimilate them into society. If land was left over, the government bought it back and sold it to non-Indian settlers. As a result, the act led to a significant loss of land by Native Americans.

A new approach was undertaken with the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. The law ended allotment, banned the sale of Native American land and returned some lands to the tribes.

After World War II, however, proposals arose in favor of termination of tribes and an end to reservations. A number of reservations were closed, including those of the Menominee in Wisconsin and the Klamath in Oregon.

Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975

The influence of the civil rights movement in the 1960s led to the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975. The law restored some sovereignty to the tribes and allowed them to handle federal funds more independently.

The status of Native American tribes with respect to the states in which they live is complicated. In general, Native Americans are sovereign within their territory. Tribal governments manage their own affairs with respect to their members, but lack authority over nontribal members.

In 1987, the Supreme Court determined that states cannot regulate Native American gaming enterprises. This ruling resulted in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. It provides the framework that governs casinos operating on reservations.

Media Credits

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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