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Tribal and Native American Issues

There are over 570 federally recognized Indian tribes. Federal agencies could better address some of the social and economic challenges faced by these tribes.

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Indian tribes are distinct political entities whose inherent sovereignty predates the United States but has been limited in certain circumstances by treaty and federal law. This sovereignty is reflected in the government-to-government relationship between federally recognized tribes and the U.S. government.

Reservation and Trust Land

Reservation and Trust Land

There are over 570 ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse federally recognized tribes in the United States. An estimated 6.9 million people identified as American Indian or Alaska Native (AI/AN) in the United States based on 2018 U.S. Census population estimates. While most Native Americans live in urban areas, Native Americans may represent a larger percentage of the population in some rural communities.

Map of Native Americans in the United States as a Percentage of County Population, according to the 2014-2018 American Community Survey

Map of Native Americans in the United States as a Percentage of County Population, according to the 2014-2018 American Community Survey

As Congress found in the Indian Trust Asset Reform Act, "the United States has undertaken a unique trust responsibility to protect and support Indian tribes and Indians." As stated in the Act, "the fiduciary responsibilities of the United States to Indians also are founded in part on specific commitments made through written treaties and agreements securing peace, in exchange for which Indians have surrendered claims to vast tracts of land." Nevertheless, U.S. policy towards tribes and their members has varied widely over hundreds of years.

In 2018, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights reported that—due to things like historical discriminatory policies, insufficient resources, and inefficient federal program delivery—Native Americans continue to rank near the bottom of all Americans in terms of health, education, and employment. Further, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on the health and economies of tribal communities.

Several federal agencies are responsible for providing direct services or funding to federally recognized tribes and their members—including the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), and the Indian Health Service (IHS). These agencies face a number of challenges to improving the effectiveness and efficiency of their tribal programs.

For instance:

  • A high number of staff vacancies, inadequate funding, and management weaknesses limit effective delivery of some federal programs managed by BIA, BIE, and IHS. (In fact, federal management of programs that serve tribes is on the High Risk List.)
  • Federal agencies are required, in certain circumstances, to consult with tribes on infrastructure projects (like pipelines) that may harm tribal natural and cultural resources. However, a number of factors may hinder federal agencies' processes for carrying out these consultations—such as difficulty obtaining the contact information needed to start consulting. Developing a central system to identify and notify tribes of such consultations could help.
  • Tens of thousands of American Indians and Alaska Natives do not have safe drinking water or wastewater disposal in their homes. Federal agencies provided about $370 million for tribal water and wastewater projects in 2016. However, federal agencies with tribal-specific programs for water infrastructure (e.g. IHS, EPA, and USDA) didn't always prioritize projects in areas that lacked safe drinking water or wastewater disposal.
  • Roads on tribal lands are of particular importance for connecting people to essential services, such as schools, because of the remote location of some tribes. These roads are often unpaved and may not be well maintained. The federal government funds two programs to improve and maintain roads on tribal lands. However, the databases these programs use contained some incomplete and inaccurate information on road conditions and road maintenance needs.
  • About 35% of Americans living on tribal lands lack access to broadband service—which can limit economic opportunity, education, and public safety. Tribes can apply for federal funding for broadband projects, but often have trouble meeting requirements (such as completing project design studies or getting matching funds). The Rural Utilities Service, which provides broadband funding, could identify barriers to funding access and help tribes overcome them.
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  • portrait of Anna Maria Ortiz
    • Anna Maria Ortiz
    • Director, Natural Resources and Environment
    • ortiza@gao.gov
    • 202-512-3841