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Civil Rights and American Indians: History and Law

American Indians have a unique relationship with the U.S. government. This is because American Indians are dual citizens — they are U.S. citizens and tribal citizens. This relationship creates complex laws about civil rights protections.

This article provides summaries of laws and events relevant to the civil rights of Native Americans. The article discusses the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Indian Civil Rights Act (ICRA). It addresses the American Indian Movement and the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975. Finally, the article covers the Religious Freedom Act of 1978 and the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978.

Indian Citizenship Act of 1924

The Indian Citizenship Act is the federal legislation responsible for giving citizenship to Native Americans born in the United States. Before the Citizenship Act, the citizenship status for many Native Americans was ambiguous.

Before the Civil War, the U.S. limited Native American citizenship to those with one-half or less Indian blood (ancestry). Ratification of the 14th Amendment, making all those born here U.S. citizens, did not clarify citizenship for Native Americans. Instead, the federal government granted American Indians citizenship under limited circumstances. These circumstances included:

  • Marrying a U.S. citizen
  • Serving in the military
  • Treaties

The Voting Rights Act of 1965

The Voting Rights Act (VRA) bans discrimination based on race and color. The act's extension in 1975 provided more protection and help to language minorities, including Indigenous people.

This legislation was significant because states used literacy tests and poll taxes as barriers to Native Americans voting despite their eligibility under the Indian Citizenship Act.

The Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 (ICRA)

The Indian Civil Rights Act (ICRA) became federal law in 1968. Congress passed it in response to hearings on the authority of Native American tribes and discovered abuses from the tribal governments. Sections of the law mirror the United States Constitution's Bill of Rights. As a result, the Act is sometimes called the "Indian Bill of Rights." The ICRA offers some, but not all, of the same protections.

The ICRA is Congress's attempt to balance the complicated issue of protecting the civil rights of American Indians while recognizing the authority of tribal governments. But, the Supreme Court held that the United States government has no authority over enforcing tribal governments. Instead, Native American tribes are free to exercise self-governance.

The American Indian Movement

The American Indian Movement (AIM) began in 1968 as a Native American advocacy group. AIM brings attention to such issues as:

  • Treaty rights
  • Living conditions
  • Racism

AIM has taken part in many high-profile, sometimes violent occupations and protests, including the Wounded Knee incident. Wounded Knee helped bring attention to AIM's agenda of protecting Native American rights.

The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975

The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 authorizes government agencies to enter into contracts with (and make grants to) American Indian tribes. The act also gives authority to the tribes to administer funds from grants.

Religious Freedom Act of 1978

Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Act of 1978 to protect and preserve the traditional religious rights of American Indians, Inuits, Aleuts, and Native Hawaiians. The Act includes:

  • Access to sacred sites
  • Return of sacred objects held in museums
  • Freedom to worship through ceremonial and traditional rites (including in prisons)
  • Use and possession of objects considered sacred

The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978

The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 requires American Indian children to get placed with extended family members, other tribal members, or other Native American families for foster care or adoption purposes. The law protects Native American tribes' interest in retaining custody of Native American children.

Get Help from an Attorney Specializing in American Indian Rights

As dual citizens, American Indians have unique rights. Understanding how to protect them requires an attorney skilled in Native Peoples law. If you're concerned about your civil rights, get help from an attorney familiar with federal courts, tribal courts, and tribal land. A skilled attorney can help you understand state laws and tribal laws, whether you live in New York, Oklahoma, Washington, D.C., or elsewhere. Protect your constitutional rights to due process and equal protection.

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