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Protecting the Civil Rights of American Indians and Alaska Natives

American Indians and Alaskan natives occupy an odd legal space: they're simultaneously U.S. citizens and citizens of their tribes, which are considered separate nations. While Native Americans are protected under the same federal civil rights laws as other U.S. citizens, the enforcement of these rights is complicated by this form of almost dual citizenship. Below, you'll find explanations of American Indians' rights under both the federal and tribal systems.

Native Americans' Civil Rights and the U.S. Government

As U.S. Citizens, American Indians are protected by the Bill of Rights, anti-discrimination laws, and all other statutes protecting the rights of American citizens. These rights include:

  • Freedom from violence and hate crimes: Although this right is not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, Americans enjoy the right to be free from discriminatory violence. Laws that guard against hate crimes protect this right. In addition, Native Americans are specifically named as a protected group under most hate crime laws.
  • Freedom of speech, press, and assembly: Native Americans are protected by the rights provided in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
  • Freedom from police misconduct: Under the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable search and seizure, police and other law enforcement officials must respect the rights of individuals, including Native Americans.
  • Freedom from discrimination in employment, housing, and lending: Native Americans are protected under federal anti-discrimination laws as well. However, since Native American-owned businesses located on reservations are governed by tribes and not by the U.S. government, these businesses may discriminate and cannot be prosecuted under U.S. laws.
  • Right to education: Native American children living within a school district have the right to attend the schools within the district, regardless of whether they live on U.S. soil or on a reservation.
  • Right to vote: Native Americans have the right to vote free from harassment.

In addition, Native American citizens have a specially protected right to religious freedom under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. The Act provides that Native American citizens must have access to sacred sites and may use drugs, such as peyote, in religious ceremonies. In addition, sacred artifacts must be removed from museums and repatriated if possible.

Native Americans' Civil Rights and Tribal Governments

Although the Constitution and U.S. anti-discrimination laws provide Native Americans protection against many different kinds of civil rights abuses, they were created without Native American representation and did not apply to tribal governments. Since tribal governments did not always have reliable court systems, many Native Americans were left without an effective means to enforce their own civil rights. As a result, in 1968, Congress created the Indian Civil Rights Act (ICRA) which listed several rights that tribal governments must respect, including:

However, unlike with other federal civil rights laws, the Department of Justice has little authority to enforce the provisions of the ICRA over tribal governments. Consequently, tribal governments are free to make their own laws that have the practical effect of limiting these rights.

For more information, see FindLaw's sections on Discrimination and on Enforcing Civil Rights.

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