Course Hero Logo

Civil Rights in the United States

Native American Rights

After being forced from their homelands and onto reservations, Native Americans began a push for equal rights and recognition of tribal sovereignty beginning in the 1960s.

By the late 19th century, most Native Americans had been pushed off their traditional lands and forced onto reservations—areas specifically designated for particular Native American groups. The government promised to provide food and funds if Native Americans stayed on the reservations. This policy was flawed for many reasons. Many Native Americans disliked reservation life, preferring to pursue their traditional ways of life. Moreover, land-hungry white settlers often seized land promised to Native Americans. Further, agents of the Bureau of Indian Affairs—responsible for handling funds and supplies for reservations—often cheated Native Americans. On several occasions, groups of Native Americans left the reservations, which resulted in clashes with troops and forced return. These conflicts culminated in the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, in which U.S. soldiers killed some 150 to 300 Native American men, women, and children.

In 1887 Congress passed the Dawes Act, hoping to encourage Native Americans to assimilate into American society. It provided 160 acres of land to Native American families who agreed to give up their traditional way of life and become farmers. It also granted citizenship to those who accepted the offer. This policy also failed. Much of the land that was designated for Native Americans under the Dawes Act eventually was acquired by white people, thus diminishing Native American lands. In 1924 Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, a law extending U.S. citizenship to all Native Americans.

U.S. Supreme Court Rulings on Native American Rights

Case (Year) Decision
Worcester v. Georgia (1832) The Cherokee Nation is its own nation, and Georgia law did not apply in Cherokee territory; the ruling effectively struck down a Georgia law forcing the Cherokee to leave their lands.
Ex Parte Crow Dog (1883) U.S. courts do not have jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed on reservation lands.
Winters v. United States (1908) U.S. agreements and treaties establishing reservations include implied water rights for those reservations.
Williams v. Lee (1958) Tribal courts, not U.S. courts, have jurisdiction over civil cases arising on reservations.
White Mountain Apache Tribe v. Bracker (1980) States do not have authority over economic transactions on reservations.
Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protection Association (1988) Construction of a road and lumbering through land held sacred to Native Americans is permissible.
South Dakota v. Bourland (1993) Congress unconstitutionally violated treaties with the Cheyenne River Sioux with regard to hunting and fishing rights.

In the 1960s Congress held hearings on tribal governments, where members heard reports of corruption, incompetence, and abuses of power in tribal governments. In response Congress passed the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, a law establishing that many of the protections in the U.S. Bill of Rights apply to tribal governments. Native Americans were guaranteed equal protection of the law and the right to free speech, press, and assembly. Rights and protections that the accused have in the U.S. court system were also extended to tribal courts.

Even with citizenship and a civil rights act, poverty and high unemployment remained serious problems for Native Americans. As a result, a Native American civil rights movement emerged in the 1960s. One organization, the American Indian Movement (AIM), staged protests that included occupying Alcatraz, a closed federal prison, during 1969 and 1970. In 1973 a group of AIM activists took control of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, the site of the 1890 massacre, to protest the actions of the president of the Oglala Lakota Sioux nation and for continuing discrimination against Native Americans. While the occupation, which lasted more than two months and was marred by violence, did not result in the removal of the tribal leader, it did help spark increased Native American activism.

The Native American Rights Fund (NARF) was founded in 1970. This organization has used court cases to secure Native American rights. These include efforts to defend tribal sovereignty, protect voting rights, and guarantee religious freedom for Native Americans. The organization has worked to preserve Native Americans lands, protect fishing rights, and ensure the federal government's trust responsibilities to Native Americans are enforced. Native Americans have won several court cases involving access to or control of sites sacred to their religion.