Civil Rights and American Indians: History and Law

American Indians have a unique relationship to the U.S. government because they are dual citizens: U.S. citizens and tribal citizens. This relationship creates complex laws regarding civil rights protections. Below are summaries of laws and events relevant to the civil rights of American Indians.

Indian Citizenship Act of 1924

The Indian Citizenship Act conferred citizenship to Indians born in the country. Before the Citizenship Act, the citizenship status for many Native Americans was ambiguous. Prior to the Civil War, Indian citizenship was typically limited to Indians of one half or less Indian blood. The ratification of the 14th amendment, making all those who were born here U.S. citizens, did not clarify citizenship for Indians. Native Americans were granted citizenship under limited circumstances such as marrying a U.S. citizen, serving in the military, or through treaties.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965

The Voting Rights Act (VRA) prohibited discrimination on the basis of race and color, and the extension of the act in 1975 provided additional protection and assistance to language minorities. This legislation was significant because states used literacy tests and poll taxes as barriers to Indian voting despite their eligibility under the Indian Citizenship Act.

The Indian Civil Rights Act (ICRA)

Congress held hearings regarding the authority of Indian tribes and discovered abuses from the tribal governments. In response, the Indian Civil Rights Act was passed in 1968. Because sections of the law mirror the Bill of Rights, the act is sometimes referred to as the "Indian Bill of Rights;" it offers some, but not all of the protections. The ICRA is Congress' attempt to balance the complicated issue of protecting the civil rights of American Indians while recognizing the authority of the tribal governments. However, the Supreme Court held that the federal government had no authority over the enforcement of tribal governments.

The American Indian Movement

The American Indian Movement (AIM) formed in 1968 as a Native American advocacy group, bringing attention to such issues as treaty rights, living conditions, and racism. AIM has been involved in many high profile, sometimes violent, occupations and protests including the Wounded Knee incident which helped bring attention to their agenda.

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) Indian tribes and gives authority to the tribes to administer the funds.

Religious Freedom Act of 1978

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

  • Access of sacred sites
  • Repatriation of sacred objects held in museums
  • Freedom to worship through ceremonial and traditional rites (including within 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 be placed with extended family members, other tribal members, or other Native American families for foster-care or adoption purposes. The law protects the tribes' interest in retaining custody of their 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 are concerned about your civil rights, get help from an attorney right away.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified civil rights attorney to help you protect your rights.

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