10 Pieces of Legislation Affecting America’s Indigenous People

Despite the fact that they occupied the land for centuries before European arrival, America’s indigenous peoples have had little say in the legislation that has affected them since.

Jun 12, 2024By Kassandre Dwyer, M.Ed History

legislation affecting america indigenous people


Ever since the arrival of European immigrants on the shores of the North American continent, Indigenous peoples from numerous tribes fought to maintain their sovereignty and independence. However, by the late nineteenth century, the Native peoples of what was now the United States were considered subjugated. The US began to use governmental legislation to “manage” the people whom many considered less civilized than their white counterparts. Even today, lawmaking is a tool used by the federal government in interactions with those of Indigenous affiliation, affecting the social, economic, and legal rights of millions.


1. Indian Removal Act (1830)

Though he was the president and not a legislator, Andrew Jackson was a key player in pushing the Indian Removal Act through Congress. Source: The White House


Signed into law on May 28, 1830 by President Andrew Jackson, this law gave the president of the United States new powers: the ability to grant lands west of the Mississippi River to Native Americans in exchange for lands within current state borders. The Native American tribes would have no say in these potential exchanges, and as a result, many resisted this law. This included many members of the Cherokee Nation, resulting in the infamous “Trail of Tears” during the winter of 1838-39, in which thousands died on a forced march to Oklahoma territory after being forced from their homelands in the Southeast. The Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole tribes would also be greatly affected, with many losing their lives as a result of forced relocation from this law.


The Trail of Tears by Robert Lindneux. Source: National Geographic


As a result of the Indian Removal Act, almost 50,000 Indigenous Americans were forced from their homes to Jackson’s “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma. Twenty-five million acres of land in the east were then opened to white settlement, allowing for the establishment of farms, homes, and plantations, contributing to the expansion of slavery in the US.


2. 25 U.S. Code § 71 (1871)

The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. Paul Mirigi Photo. Source: Smithsonian Magazine

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The US, or entities representing it (or claiming to), had been creating treaties with Native American tribes since before the nation was even born. Nearly half of these treaties had not been ratified by Congress, and many, if not most, were unethical, made via interpreters who falsified or left out information with people who were unable to read the information in the document for themselves.


Viewpoints on land ownership between parties varied drastically, and treaties were often signed by individuals who had no authority within a tribal government. This code of law, 25 U.S. Code § 71, would prevent the US from making any further treaties with tribes and instead directed that all Indigenous people should be treated as individuals from that point and, in legal terms, were wards of the government.


3. Indian General Allotment Act (1887)

A 1911 poster advertising “Indian land” for sale, a result of the Dawes Act. Source: History Link


Known simply as the General Allotment Act or the Dawes Act for its sponsor and writer, Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts, this piece of legislation passed Congress on February 8th, 1887. This law authorized the president to break up reservation land into parcels that could then be designated to individuals. Native Americans would be required to register on tribal “rolls” to gain access, and parties got a certain amount of land depending on whether they were a man, woman, or child.


A 2012 political cartoon by Marty Two Bulls depicting the Dawes Act. Source: Indian Country Today


Some tribes, including the “Five Civilized Tribes” that had suffered tremendously under the Indian Removal Act, were exempt due to preexisting laws that ruled that they owned their reservation land outrightly. However, later amendments and negotiations resulted in the Dawes Act applying to these groups as well.


The Dawes Act was a key tool in Federal Indian policy of the period, of which a main goal was to encourage the adoption of agriculture and the ultimate target: assimilation into white culture.


4. Snyder Act (1924)

Before 1924, Native Americans were not considered US citizens. Source: Boundless


Almost oxymoronic in that it admitted the land’s first people into the country, officially, the Snyder Act of 1924 (not to be confused with the Snyder Act of 1921) gave Native Americans born in the United States full US citizenship. Although the US Constitution had given all US citizens the right to vote in 1870, Native Americans had been unable to enjoy this freedom until the Snyder Act granted them citizenship. Even with the passage of this bill, it took over forty years for all fifty states to appropriately comply.


5. Indian Reorganization Act (1934)

John Collier served as secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs as the IRA was implemented. He is pictured here with Dewey Beard, left, and James Pipe-on-Head, right, survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. 1938 AP photo. Source: Indian Country Today


The Wheeler-Howard Act of June 18, 1934, more commonly recognized as the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), illustrated a shift in how the US government made policy toward its tribes. The IRA ended the process of allotment that was instituted by the Dawes Act, creating a process for lands to be restored to tribal ownership. Funds were set aside for education, and metrics for Native American preference in hiring practices in the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) were created.


Tribal governments earned recognition through the IRA, and the legislation incentivized tribes to adopt constitutional-style governments. Overall, the bill helped to restore some measures of tribal sovereignty. However, many felt it ignored some critical aspects of traditional organization and leadership among some tribes, placing all groups under one umbrella and assuming all could operate using the same methods.


6. Indian Civil Rights Act (1968)

Robert Kennedy visited the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota just five days after the ICRA was signed into law. He is pictured here speaking with 84-year-old Alfred Pilsmore on April 16, 1968. AP Photo. Source: New York Times


The Indian Civil Rights Act, or ICRA, is a federal law that acts as an extension to the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights. It prevents tribal governments, though sovereign, from violating individual rights, including through the passage of law. These rights include free exercise of religion and speech, protection from unreasonable search and seizure, and the right to a speedy and public trial, among others. This act protects not only tribal members but also non-Indians from any potential violations by a tribal governmental entity. Though many of the rights do echo, there are a few differences between the ICRA and the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. For example, the ICRA does not require a tribal government to provide a lawyer to a defendant who cannot afford one.


7. American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978)

Peyote. Source: Lucid News


Religion is one way that many contemporary Indigenous people are able to connect to their traditional way of life and heritage. This law enables the protection of these sacred ways by ensuring access to religious sites, certain religious objects, and freedom of worship. For example, peyote, a hallucinogen, is classified as an illegal drug in the United States. However, this act permits the possession, use, and transportation of peyote by Indigenous people for “bona fide traditional ceremonial purposes.” Originally passed in 1978, the law was further amended in 1994 to add additional rights.


8. Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act (1990)

Repatriation can be a time-consuming, frustrating, and emotional process for all involved parties. Source: Cogstone


NAGPRA, passed in 1990, gave descendants, tribes, and related organizations the rights to certain Indigenous human remains, funerary objects, sacred items, and similar cultural objects. At the time, these items were in museums, storage, or federal collections and could not be accessed by those who felt connected to them by family lineage or culture.


The Department of the Interior, which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was given responsibility for making sure the repatriation outlined in the act was carried out. However, the act has proved difficult to enforce, and work is moving slowly. At its current rate of return, it is estimated that it would take about 238 more years to repatriate all human remains inventoried in NAGPRA’s latest reporting.


9. Federally Recognized Indian Tribe List Act (1994)

The Chickahominy Tribe is one of the most recent to be federally recognized (2018). US Indian Affairs Photo. Source: Indianz


Not all tribes existing on what is now US soil are considered official, according to the American government. According to the law, tribes must follow certain steps to become federally recognized and receive sovereignty. In 1978, an official process for recognition known as FAP (Federal Acknowledgement Process) was created. In 1994, these steps were revised into Public Law 103-454 or the Federally Recognized Indian Tribe List Act. According to the Act, which remains in effect today, there are three ways in which an Indigenous group may become recognized by the federal government of the United States: by an act of Congress, by certain administrative procedures as listed, or by the decision of a US court.


Over 220 of the federally recognized tribes are located in Alaska. Source: Travel Alaska


When a tribe becomes federally recognized, they have a government-to-government relationship with the United States, and they also become eligible for services and funding opportunities from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. At the time of publishing, there are 574 federally recognized Indigenous tribes in the United States.


10. Savanna’s Act (2020)

Lovina Louie paints the face of Amya Sines before the start of an MMIW awareness event in 2021. A red handprint over the mouth has become a symbol for MMIW across the country. Colin Mulvany photo. Source: The Spokesman-Review


Instances of violence, including murder and rape, are higher among Indigenous women than national averages across the board. Native women make up a significant portion of those reported missing and murdered in the United States each year, so many that an abbreviation, MMIW (missing and murdered Indigenous women), has been created to refer to this glaring problem. Many of these women are part of the “vulnerability pipeline,” and the crimes against them are underreported across the country.


Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind in a photo supplied to the AP by the Fargo Police Department. Source: People Magazine


Savanna’s Act, passed in 2020, was named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a member of the Spirit Lake Nation. Savanna was 22 years old and eight months pregnant when she was violently murdered in 2017. Savanna’s Act aims to improve data collection on MMIW (and men) and empower tribal governments by giving them more resources to respond effectively in cases like Savanna’s. The data collected by these efforts will then be used to compile statistics and educate law enforcement nationwide along with the public about the very real problem at hand.


Savanna’s boyfriend, Ashton Matheny, holds their daughter in court as Savanna’s murderer is sentenced. David Samson photo. Source: The Guardian


Savanna also inspired the Not Invisible Act, which required the Department of the Interior and the Department of Justice to create a joint commission focused on solving the problem of violent crime against missing and murdered Indigenous persons. This commission was tasked with creating recommendations to combat violent crime against Indigenous people in the US going forward, including “identifying, reporting, and responding to” these cases. Savanna’s killer was caught and is serving life in prison without parole. Her baby girl survived the murder and lives with Savanna’s boyfriend and family.

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By Kassandre DwyerM.Ed HistoryKassie is a farmer with a passion for history who has a day job teaching middle school social studies in her hometown. In addition to earning NBCT certification and M.Ed. in History, she holds an M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction and a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture/Animal Science. She is particularly interested in telling the stories of often overlooked historical perspectives or hidden truths, and is especially intrigued by the history of America’s Indigenous peoples, war, and the “wild west.”