The term "Indian reservation" refers to the ancestral territory still occupied by a Native American nation. While there are approximately 565 federally recognized tribes in the U.S., there are only about 326 reservations.
This means that almost one-third of all currently federally recognized tribes have lost their land bases as a result of colonization. There were well over 1,000 tribes in existence prior to the formation of the U.S., but many faced extinction due to foreign diseases or were simply not politically recognized by the U.S.
Contrary to popular opinion, reservations are not lands given to Indians by the United States government. Quite the opposite is true; land was given to the U.S. by the tribes through treaties. What are now reservations is the land retained by the tribes after the treaty-based land cessions (not to mention other mechanisms by which the U.S. seized Indian lands without consent). Indian reservations are created in one of three ways: By treaty, by executive order of the president, or by an act of Congress.
Land in Trust
Based on federal Indian law, Indian reservations are lands held in trust for tribes by the federal government. This problematically means that the tribes technically do not own title to their own lands, but the trust relationship between tribes and the U.S. dictates that the U.S. has a fiduciary responsibility to administer and manage the lands and resources to the best advantage of the tribes.
Historically, the U.S. has failed miserably in its management responsibilities. Federal policies have led to massive land loss and gross negligence in resource extraction on reservation lands. For example, uranium mining in the southwest has led to dramatically increased levels of cancer in the Navajo Nation and other Pueblo tribes. The mismanagement of trust lands has also resulted in the largest class-action lawsuit in U.S. history known as the Cobell case; it was settled after 15 years of litigation by the Obama Administration.
Generations of lawmakers have recognized the failures of federal Indian policy. These policies have consistently resulted in the highest levels of poverty and other negative social indicators compared to all other American populations, including substance abuse, mortality rates, education, and others. Modern policies and laws have sought to promote independence and economic development on the reservations. One such law-the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988-recognizes the rights of Native Americans to operate casinos on their lands. While gaming has produced an overall positive economic effect in Indian country, very few have realized significant wealth as a result of casinos.
Among the outcomes of disastrous federal policies is the fact that most Native Americans no longer live on reservations. It's true that reservation life is very difficult in some ways, but most Native Americans that can trace their ancestry to a particular reservation tend to think of it as home. Native Americans are place-based people; their cultures are reflective of their relationship to the land and their continuity on it, even when they have endured displacement and relocation.
Reservations are centers of cultural preservation and revitalization. Even though the process of colonization has resulted in much loss of culture, much is still retained as Native Americans have adapted to modern life. Reservations are places where traditional languages are still spoken, where traditional arts and crafts are still created, where ancient dances and ceremonies are still performed, and where origin stories are still told. They are in a sense the heart of America-a connection to a time and place that reminds us how young America really is.