Updated April 2009


Estimated population in 2000: 1.77 million

Ethnicity: Indigenous

First language/s: English, Navajo, Pueblo, Apache, other native languages

Religion/s: Christianity, native religions

Native Americans, the indigenous people of what is now the mainland USA, are not a homogeneous group but members of hundreds of nations with different linguistic, social, cultural and economic traits. In the 2000 US Census 1.77 million people reported being of Native American origin. An additional 1.1 million people reported Native American origin together with another race. Native Americans live throughout the USA, especially in the rural west, and most often speak English or their own traditional language. The majority were converted to Christianity in early colonial times, but some have always maintained traditional religious practices and traditional spirituality has experienced a revival in recent decades. Native Americans are also commonly called American Indians (a misnomer of historic proportions but a prevalent one), or by specific national designations such as Mohawk, Creek, Chippewa and Hopi. Recognized nations (‘tribes' in official parlance) live on reserved lands of varying sizes and populations. In 2000, the largest tribes were Cherokee (729,533), Navajo (298,197), Choctaw (158,774), Sioux (153,360), Chippewa (149,669), Apache (96,833), Blackfeet (85,750), Iroquois (80,822) and Pueblo (74,085). Around 33.5 per cent of Native Americans live in reservations and trust lands. They are represented in all sectors, but around a quarter work in sales and office occupations, and over a fifth are service providers.

Of the hundreds of original Native American languages, 154 are still spoken today, but many languages are disappearing and seven languages are now spoken by one person only. Navajo (or ‘Dine') is the most widely spoken Native American language, with an estimated 43.6 per cent of Navajo people speaking it at home, followed by Pueblo languages, spoken at home by 42.9 per cent of the Pueblo people, and Apache, spoken at home by 27.3 per cent of Apache people. Overall, 72 per cent of Native Americans speak English at home.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), part of the Department of Interior is the federal body charged with dealing with more than 500 reservations in mainland USA. More than 100 additional groups identify themselves as Native American, but are not officially recognized as such as they have less than the BIA's ‘blood quantum' of one-quarter Native ancestry, and so are not included in population counts or BIA services. Further, half of the Native American population do not receive direct BIA service, because they live in cities and towns, largely integrated with the general population. The US government has a financial interest in keeping the numbers of recognized Native Americans low, but critics say the right of self-identification is evident in other minorities' treatment and essential to Native sovereignty. In the past quarter-century, although the US government has restored limited recognition of Native sovereignty, government-Native relations are perhaps best described as those of internal neo-colonialism.

Historical context

From conquest to ‘termination' to self-determination, Native American nations were established in the present-day United States for thousands of years before European colonization. Estimates of the pre-contact population range between 3 million and 12 million people, living in over 600 different societies. Each region had nations with distinct cultures, languages and lifestyles – from nomadic hunting bands in arid regions to large agricultural settlements on the coasts. Common elements included complex social structures based on ceremonial and subsistence roles, communal stewardship of resources, collective decision-making (one of the models for US democracy) and a visionary spiritual tradition that emphasized history, ancestry and reverence for the land.

The first European conquerors were the Spanish, who invaded Mexico and the south-west in the late sixteenth century and for a time enslaved indigenous people there. The French and Dutch arrived in the seventeenth century, followed by the British. In most cases, initial relations were friendly, but with increased immigration and self-sufficiency by the 1630s, colonists began to covet and invade Native land, and attempt to impose European religion and culture on Native Americans. The Europeans had a devastating effect, bringing previously unknown diseases that wiped out whole Native American populations, including smallpox, syphilis and influenza. Over-hunting and land depletion caused famines. When negotiation was inconvenient, the Europeans used their superior weapons to force Natives off their own land. Native bands were divided and manipulated during wars between colonial powers.

After independence, Congress signed treaties with the surviving nations, recognizing and guaranteeing their title to lands remaining – the core of the ‘nation to nation' relationship Native Americans still struggle to revitalize today. The constitution grants the federal government exclusive jurisdiction over relations with Native Americans. From that point until 1975, government policy alternated between eradicating the ‘Indian Problem' through extermination/assimilation, and paternalistic programmes providing services and limited autonomy to reservation dwellers.

In the nineteenth century, Natives were herded from their lands to reservations, sometimes hundreds of miles away. Thousands died in such forced marches. Broken treaties, land frauds and military attacks were common. Some tribes responded with armed resistance, particularly in the ‘Indian Wars' of the 1880s, but at best achieved temporary stalemates. In 1887, the General Allotment Act (or ‘Dawes Act') nullified tribal land holdings, assigning each Native American 160 acres ‘in trust', while the rest was sold. As trustee, the government took legal title to the parcels, established an Individual Indian Trust and thereby assumed full responsibility for management of the trust lands. That included the duty to collect and disburse to the Indians any revenues generated by mining, oil and gas extraction, timber operations, grazing or similar activities. In all, 90 million acres of land, about 67 per cent of Native American land, was seized and the communal property system was destroyed. As documented in the Merriam Report of 1928, Native Americans on and off reservations were left destitute and prone to suicide, alcoholism and mental illness; housing and health conditions were abysmal. Cultures, languages and families were lost. In 1900, the total Native American population of the USA had fallen from several million to 237,000. This figure is often cited as evidence that policy on Native American peoples through most of US history was ethnocidal.

Outrage over the Merriam Report prompted the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt to attempt an ‘Indian New Deal'. The Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) became law in 1934 and was accepted by 191 tribes. It recognized limited sovereignty for Native American tribes and mandated elected councils to assume partial control over reservations. Monetary aid accompanied the new structures, as did on-reserve education and health care. Native religions were decriminalized. In 1946, the Indian Claims Commission was established to deal with outstanding land claims. Critics such as the American Indian Movement (AIM) point out that IRA reforms were imposed, often by underhanded manipulation of the referendum process, regardless of tribes' own traditional systems (several councils' first acts were to provide US companies with access to their resources.). Later, IRA structures fostered conflicts and even violence between council supporters and traditionalists. But they were the first step made in decades towards greater self-determination.

In the 1950s, Congress ordered that Native Americans should be cut off as soon as possible from all federal responsibility and forced to assimilate into white society. By 1960, 61 Native American tribes had been ‘terminated'. Development projects were dropped, loans frozen and federal services cut off. Termination threats spurred the first national Native organization, the National Congress of American Indians, and many new Native American leaders who had gained some experience of white politics in military service. They pressured government to halt the termination process, and by 1960 it unofficially stopped. In 1964, the Economic Opportunity Act gave Natives access to funds not controlled by the BIA, which helped launch businesses on some reservations. In 1968, the Indian Civil Rights Act ceased the termination policy, removed Native Americans from the jurisdiction of states, and set out the intention of involving Natives more directly as BIA employees.

Native American cultural nationalism had begun to emerge by the mid-1960s. The Native American Rights Fund organized tribes to pursue land claims and federal recognition. The National Indian Youth Council and, later, AIM, exposed broken treaties and corruption among BIA agents and IRA-style councils, and advocated traditionalist politics and Native civil rights. AIM's demonstrations, occupations and armed militancy were met with brutal repression by BIA and FBI agents, with tragic results in stand-offs at Pine Ridge and Wounded Knee. But this upsurge in Native visibility did much to raise US and international awareness of Native American rights and to put sovereignty on top of the Native agenda. In 1970, partly to head off AIM and its supporters, President Richard Nixon began to promote self-determination for Native American nations. The Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975 affirmed the rights of recognized tribes and allowed tribal governments to contract for federal funding to run former BIA services (education, health care, economic development and child welfare), although it did not provide for new programmes and standards defined by Natives themselves.

The history of Native America since 1975 is more fractured. By 1980, more than half the Native population had been urbanized, and to some degree assimilated, under the 1956 Relocation Act funds administered by the BIA. Meanwhile, political battles were fought to arrest or reverse the damage done by centuries of marginalization, and urban Natives advanced ‘pan-Indianism'. The revival of traditionalism and new self-determination structures have facilitated an unprecedented unity among Native Americans, and unprecedented support from non-Natives – especially during Native-led protests against the 1992 Columbus quincentennial (‘500 Years of Oppression') and in the environmentalist movement. Native Americans have also emerged as leaders defending indigenous rights worldwide, with an active role in the establishment of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1982 and in the formulation of the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Draft Declaration, however, was not endorsed by the UN General Assembly. On 15 June 2004, the Senate and House passed a Joint Resolution to send to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, to formally apologize to the Native Americans for years of depredations.

Socio-economic, political, legal and cultural issues 

While Native American income relative to whites' has risen dramatically in recent decades, they still have a high unemployment rate, and nearly 60 per cent of those with jobs work for tribal or US government agencies. On some reservations the unemployment rate is as high as 90 per cent. In 1999, 66.7 per cent of Native American men and 57.6 per cent of women were employed, but their median earnings were substantially lower than those of the general US population: $28,890 for men and $22,762 for women, compared to $37,057 and $27,194, respectively, of their counterparts in the general population. More than twice as many Native Americans lived in poverty, compared to the general population: 25.8 per cent of Native Americans compared to 12.4 per cent of the general US population. The level of educational attainments among Native Americans was also substantially lower than the general US population: 27.4 per cent of Native Americans did not graduate from high school (compared to 19.6 per cent of the general population), and only 12.1 per cent had a higher degree (compared to 24.4 per cent of the general population). Reserve housing is still substandard, often without electricity, indoor plumbing or refrigeration, except in the wealthiest nations. Although Native life expectancy has risen dramatically in recent decades, it is still the lowest of any group in the USA. The Native American population has a high incidence of communicable diseases, including tuberculosis and AIDS, and fatal infectious illnesses. The ratio of health care providers to patients is lower on reserves than in any other community. Suicide and accidents (often drug or alcohol related) are the two biggest causes of Native American deaths. Violence, drunkenness and despair are commonplace. A 2004 report by the Department of Justice's Bureau of Criminal Justice Statistics (BJS) found that American Indians experienced violence (101 violent crimes per 1,000 American Indians) at more than twice the rate for the US nationwide (41 per 1,000 persons). On average, American Indians experienced an estimated 1 violent crime for every 10 residents age 12 or older. Nearly a third of violent crime incidents involved an offender with a weapon, and overall about 62 per cent of violent incidents involved an offender using alcohol (compared to a national average of 42 per cent). Native American women suffer particularly high levels of violence, and are victimized by an intimate at rates higher than those of any other ethnic group in the USA: 23 Native American women per 1,000 women aged 12 or older, compared to 11 African American women and 8 white women.

Reservations are used as dumping grounds for toxic or nuclear waste. Lead poisoning, landfill sites, water pollution from nearby industries, cancers caused by nuclear weapons testing (nearly all of it on Native lands) and many more environmental problems plague Native communities. Natives also have the lowest high school and university graduation rates in the USA, partly because education has been an assimilationist tool since colonial times. Programmes such as bicultural education and Native-run schools under the Indian Education Act of the early 1970s have improved the situation, but only marginally – in part because of a shortage of qualified Native American teachers. Most Native children attend public schools. The Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act of 1978 was partially successful, establishing Native-run colleges and increasing grants for Native students, but its funding has been drastically cut back over the 1980s and 1990s. In 1995 the Office of Indian Education was threatened with closure by Congress.

Economic development efforts on reservations have been limited by issues like jurisdiction, financing, training and isolation, by internal disputes over direction and sometimes by obstruction by non-Native opponents and governments. Nevertheless, the 1980s and 1990s saw an upsurge in programmes for economic self-sufficiency, including mineral exploration, industrial parks, forestry, fisheries, hotels, agriculture, tobacco sales, casinos and high-stakes gambling on reserves. These enterprises could dramatically alter Natives' economic position, if they are allowed sufficient control over their administration, land and resources. However, each Native economic success is likely to meet with local resentment, especially when Native Americans use the legal benefits of tribal sovereignty to their advantage. Hunting and fishing disputes in the north-west, and controversies over casino operations in the north-east are typical examples.

Poverty, dispossession and drug abuse have made crimes of violence 10 times more frequent on reservations than among the population as a whole. The proportion of the Native population in prison is twice their proportion in the general population. Attempts at Native policing and reconciliation models have had some success at coping with Native offenders, but have been obstructed by jurisdictional issues. Suspicion of unfair law enforcement is widespread, and there are indications of political motives at work. The case of Leonard Peltier, the AIM leader convicted of involvement in the deaths of two FBI agents in a confrontation at Ogala reservation in 1973, is indicative. Over the years, the evidence against Peltier has been discredited, and Native Americans widely believe that the he was framed for his political activities, but he has consistently been refused a new trial. Several other reserves have complained of the same kind of police harassment that led to Peltier's arrest, and other prisoners have asserted that they are persecuted by police and prison authorities for their political or religious beliefs. Prohibitions in prisons include restriction on Native prisoners' hair length, sweat lodges, peace pipes, drums, headbands and other elements of traditional spirituality. Justice for Peltier would be a major step forward in USA-Native relations.

In 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed to ‘preserve and protect' the rights of Native Americans to pursue their traditional spiritual paths. But the Act has no real enforcement mechanisms, and while it has sometimes helped Natives to protect sacred sites and religious practices, courts have deprived plaintiffs of protection under the Act in all but four cases. The Supreme Court ruled in the Lyng case of 1988 that the US Forest Service was free to cut roads and timber in the sacred high country of Siskyou Mountain, saying that the government could not compel religious observance or deliberately interdict a religion for its own sake, but was under no obligation to protect anyone's religious practices. The Clinton administration was at work in 1995 on an Executive Order that would mandate stronger protections for sacred sites, but again there were no guarantees that the order would be interpreted as outweighing economic interests of business and government.

The persecution of the Native American Church's use of peyote – a controlled hallucinogen whose sacramental use by Natives dates back at least 1,400 years – is another case of the inadequacy of the Act. The Supreme Court ruled in Employment Division v. Smith (1990) that an employer was within his rights in firing two Native workers for their religious practice of using peyote, and that the decision of whether to bring criminal prosecution against Native American Church members would be left up to the states. This was a clear reversal of usual religious protection in the USA and touched off a rash of marginal prosecutions against other groups.

In 1990 Congress passed the Native American Languages Act (1990), which articulated a policy of protecting indigenous languages, and in 1992 passed an act which authorized a grant programme for the purpose. In 1994 the Clinton administration awarded $1 million for 18 language revitalization programs, but financial commitment to the issue remains limited, and the number of people who speak one of the surviving 154 Native American languages continues to decline rapidly.

Natives also protest against stereotypical or offensive appropriations of their culture, beginning with mid-century ‘cowboys and Indians' movies and today, including ‘Crazy Horse' malt liquor, the frequent use of Native names or pejoratives for sports teams, inaccurate museum displays and so on. There is concern about non-Native ‘New Age shamans', men's and women's movement groups, gay activists, environmentalists and anthropologists who mystify and caricature Native culture, especially spiritual practices, for their own ideological and/or therapeutic ends. Traditionalists also worry about the effects of businesses like mining, casinos and tobacco smuggling on Native values and culture. 

Self-determination, land resources 

Although the official policy of the United States is now to encourage Native Americans' self-determination, in reality the power of Native communities is severely limited. The self-determination process has also forced Native Americans to adopt structures foreign to their own traditions – including the current reconfiguration of traditional structures as ‘nations' comparable to the European nation-state. Even with this modification, Native nations are not viewed within US law as independent entities to which the USA has historically derived responsibilities, but as internal dependent nations or ‘wards'. Native Americans possess only ‘residual sovereignty' – power over what is not already regulated. US policy towards Native self-determination allows not much more autonomy than is given to a municipality or, at best, one of the states in the Union.

Tribal courts are often forbidden to deal with events on reservations involving non-tribal members, especially non-Natives (making jurisdiction racial rather than political or territorial), and cannot mete out sentences of more than one year's imprisonment. Native nations' ability to enforce their own land use and environmental regulations is not respected by the legal system. Their powers of taxation are also restricted. The BIA maintains ultimate control over Native American nations' constitutions, the composition of their governments, their power to make contracts, the disposition of their property and the funding and implementation of most programmes that affect them. It has authority to veto decisions made by the tribal councils. The concept of distributing self-determination funds for tribes to use at their discretion has been floated but never fully adopted.

Congress has always reserved ‘plenary power' over Native Americans, and the Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that tribal sovereignty exists ‘only at the sufferance of Congress', which at any time could ‘limit, modify or eliminate' it. There is also the fear that the current policy is ‘termination in disguise', and that once Natives achieve a certain degree of autonomy, Congress will cut off all aid. Both the BIA and the Indian Health Service have volunteered to dismantle services in the name of self-government, without proposing exactly how tribes would replace them; only Native protest forced Congress to forbid programme termination or contracting out without tribes' consent. Budget cuts have also severely impaired Native Americans' pursuit of self-sufficiency. In fiscal year 2006, for example, the Bush administration cut the budget allocation for the BIA by $110 million from the previous year.

The BIA has frequently been negligent and abused its function and authority, usually by contracting on Native Americans' behalf to lease land to resource companies, often at less than 2 per cent of the resources' real value. Political pressures make this rarer now – instead government simply pressures the tribal council to make the same decisions – but government has been reluctant to compensate for past admitted extortions of peoples like the Cheyenne and Navajo. In 1977, the American Indian Policy Review Commission called such leases ‘among the poorest agreements ever made'. It is now seen as politically correct to employ large numbers of Native Americans within the BIA, and in recent years it has been headed by Natives; but, aside from the direct employment benefits, the results of such affirmative action are debatable. By the mid-1980s there was widespread disapproval of how the Department of Interior, as trustee, was managing tribal and Individual Indian Monies (IIM) accounts. In 1994 the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act established the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians (OST) to improve the accountability and management of Indian funds held in trust by the federal government. On 10 June 1996, Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana, filed a class-action lawsuit (Cobell v. Norton) in the US District Court in Washington DC to force the federal government to account for billions of dollars belonging to approximately 500,000 American Indians and their heirs, and held in trust since the late nineteenth century, and to bring about permanent reform of the system. The case has revealed that the United States government has no accurate records for hundreds of thousands of Indian beneficiaries, nor of billions of dollars owed to the class of beneficiaries covered by the lawsuit. It exposed gross mismanagement, ineptness, dishonesty and delay by federal officials, leading US District Judge Royce Lamberth to declare their conduct ‘fiscal and governmental irresponsibility in its purest form'. In December 1999 Judge Lamberth ruled that the secretaries of the Interior and Treasury had breached their trust obligations to the Indians. The court retained judicial oversight of the system for a minimum of five years to ensure that it is overhauled, and ordered the Department of Interior to provide an historical accounting of all trust funds. An appeal by the government, arguing that the court had overreached its authority, was unanimously rejected by a three-judge appeals court panel in February, 2001. The court has appointed both a special master to oversee the preservation and production of trust documents, and a federal monitor, to provide the court with assessments of the truthfulness of the government's representations to the court regarding execution of trust reform. In his first report to the court, 19 months later, the federal monitor declared that the Department of Interior's stated efforts to provide an accounting in compliance with the order are a sham and have been marked by ‘unrealistic responses and evasion'.The second phase of the trial, accounting for the money, is yet to be scheduled.

US government actions have had other negative repercussions, for example when the Reagan administration adopted a policy of discouraging Native-run businesses in favour of contracts between tribes and resource companies. It was also suggested that tribes voluntarily relinquish their legal jurisdiction in civil disputes to encourage companies to locate on reserves. In 1988, amendments to the Indian Self-Determination Act allowed pilot projects for tribes to revise government structures away from the IRA model. By 1995, about half the reservations in the USA had somehow modified their systems to make them more compatible with traditional values, though conflicts over forms of government and economic direction at reserves still cause severe tensions. The most forward-looking policy direction coming from the US government was proposed in Hawai'i Senator Daniel Inouye's report from the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs in 1989. Documenting BIA mismanagement, Inouye and his colleagues suggest that every tribe adopt a democratically approved constitution, on the basis of which new treaties would be negotiated to transfer full governmental power and moneys in toto for use at tribal governments' discretion. The sole caveat was that tribal governments – which have sometimes been caught in scandals – remain subject to federal corruption laws.

These proposals are the closest the US government has come to the demands of such Native platforms as AIM's Twenty-Point Programme or the National Congress of American Indians' 1974 American Indian Declaration of Sovereignty. While they have not yet been enacted, US policy has slowly drifted in this direction. Many Native American activists and scholars argue that social justice can only be achieved with full sovereignty – complete control of land, resources and law in Native jurisdictions – perhaps through Native nations negotiating agreements for Commonwealth-type status within the USA. However, since the majority of Native Americans now live in cities, self-determination in Native territories may not by itself guarantee full equality for all the people affected by the legacy of colonization. The Dawes Act forced Native Americans to part with 64 per cent of the land that they retained at the end of the Native American wars of the 1880s and today less than 215,000 sq km remain. Reservations often include the poorest agricultural land, with severe water shortages and limited economic potential. At least 25 per cent of these lands are currently occupied by non-Natives, and on some reserves as much as 90 per cent of the land is held by outsiders. Meanwhile, the Native American population has increased nearly seven-fold over the last century and the land base is unable to sustain them.

From 1946 to 1978, the Indian Claims Commission adjudicated Native land claims, but could provide only monetary, not territorial compensation, and estimated land value based not on current market value but on its worth at the time of taking. Many nations, for example in New York state, were compensated at derisory levels for their lost land. Not until 1974 did the Supreme Court rule that Native Americans had the right to pursue land restoration. Thousands of square kilometres and millions of dollars have since been transferred, though an Act of Congress is required for each such settlement. In some cases, often due to the sacred significance of a particular site, Native nations have refused to accept monetary settlements. The most dramatic example has been the ‘Black Hills Are Not for Sale' campaign by the Lakota of South Dakota, who turned down US $105 million in compensation for their lands and sacred sites in the late 1970s, a case still in dispute today.

Other pending claims include: the Papago nation of Arizona's claim on the sacred Baboquivari Mountain Range, where mining has taken place; suits by the landless Schaghticoke and Mohegan peoples of Connecticut and Catawbas of South Carolina for recovery of their former reservations; the Western Shoshone's land claims, covering 80 per cent of Nevada; the San Carlos Apache of Arizona's attempt to block construction of the Mount Graham International Observatory on their ceremonial mountain grounds; and the several-sided dispute between traditional Dineh and Hopi, the Navajo and Hopi tribal councils, the federal government and the Peabody Coal Company over the Big Mountain/Black Mesa lands in Arizona, a case that, perhaps better than any other, indicates the complexity of Native land and sovereignty issues.

The sheer number of disputes reveals the inadequacy of US government mechanisms. These conflicts have been sharpened by the recent realization that Native land is one of the few untapped sources of natural resources left in the United States. Again, much of the richest land was stolen (for example by oil companies in Texas and Arizona) in years past, but large amounts remain. In 1975, 25 Native American tribes in the north-west joined together to form the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, modelled on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and some of these tribes have grown rich from mineral and oil profits. However, a 1989 Supreme Court ruling that tribal councils could not limit land uses by non-Natives on reservation land has hampered attempts to control development.

In 1982, 240 out of 300 federally recognized tribes had some energy resources, amounting to 25 per cent of US mineral wealth. Nearly all the uranium in the USA is under Native land. Other valuable forest and mining land is directly adjacent to reservation land, sometimes on traditional hunting and fishing or ceremonial grounds, and its use tends to pollute water tables, rivers, lakes, air and other life sources of Native peoples. For example, the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine peoples in Montana are threatened by the Zortman-Landusky goldmine expansion that could release over 1,000 million gallons of cyanide solution into the local watershed and also disrupt traditional religious and medical uses of the Little Rocky Mountains. Natives have had little success in disputing such corporate incursions, and have often not received the due financial benefits of their own holdings. Water diversion, pollution and damming around Native lands, as well as pollution of groundwater, has been sanctioned by the courts. The separation of land and water rights is contrary to international standards, besides being socially, economically and environmentally destructive. In recent years there has been some limited success regarding water rights, including the Zuni Indian Tribe Water Settlement Agreement, confirmed by Congress in June 2003, which recognized Zuni right to withdraw ground water, and the Shivwits Band of Paiute Indians Water Rights Settlement Act, which came into effect in September 2003.

Current issues

According to a 2006 Indian Health Services (IHS) report, although overall Native Americans now enjoy better health, there were still great health disparities between Native Americans and the US general population: the rate of tuberculosis amongst Native Americans was 600 per cent higher than among the US general population, the rate of alcoholism was 510 per cent higher, diabetes 189 per cent higher and accidental injuries 152 per cent higher than for the US general population. In addition, the rate of homicide was 61 per cent higher among Native Americans than among the general population, and the rate of suicide 62 per cent higher. Approximately 12 per cent of Native American homes were still lacking safe indoor water supplies, compared to less than 1 per cent of homes in the general US population. On 18 May 2005, Senator John McCain put forward the Proposed Indian Health Care Improvement Bill, which seeks to extend the existing Indian Health Care Act in order to improve the provision of community and home health care and long-term care, and to enhance children's health programmes.

The number of Native American languages speakers continues to decline, and a growing number of Native American children are monolingual English-speakers. The Native American communities also still face issues of cultural and religious freedoms, including the denial of access to religious sites, prohibitions on the use or possession of sacred objects, and restrictions on their ability to worship through ceremonial and traditional means.

Disputes over land rights also continue. Responding to urgent requests from the Western Shoshone people, in March 2006 the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued a decision under its Early Warning and Urgent Action Procedure on behalf of the Western Shoshone peoples, calling on the US government to: ‘freeze any plan to privatize Western Shoshone ancestral lands for transfer to multinational extractive industries and energy developers; desist from all activities planned and/or conducted on the ancestral lands of Western Shoshone or in relation to their natural resources, which are being carried out without consultation with and despite protests of the Western Shoshone peoples; and to stop imposing grazing fees, trespass and collection notices, horse and livestock impoundments, restrictions on hunting, fishing and gathering, as well as arrests'. The government's response is expected sometime in the course of 2006.

The trend of federal budget cuts also continues, with the budget request for fiscal year 2007 shifting money from education, welfare, construction and economic development programs to trust reform efforts. The BIA budget was cut by $65 million (2.8 per cent) to $2.3 billion, while the budget for the Office of the Special Trustee (OST) grew by $21.7 million (9.7 per cent) to a total of $244.5 million. The only exception was in law enforcement. In response to the controversy over the poor conditions of Native American jails and high rates of violent crime on reservations, the budget included a request for an additional $19.2 million to expand law enforcement services, maintain new detention centres and place juvenile inmates in safer facilities.

In January 2008 the first female Native U.S. attorney was formally sworn into office. Diane J. Humetewa of the Hopi nation was previously a tribal liaison in the office she now heads and was responsible for opening communications with the 21 Indian tribes in Arizona with regard to the work of the Department of Justice About 90 percent of the violent crime cases from Indian communities in Arizona involve a tribal member and a tribal victim.

Also in Arizona, in a gesture of support and solidarity with indigenous people in the rest of the Americas and worldwide, the the Gila River Indian Community Council passed a Resolution ratifying the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Gila River Indian Community is the first federally recognized tribal nation within the United States to support and ratify the United Nations Declaration of September 2007.

Gila River Community leaders have indicated that by adopting the United Nations Declaration they are affirming their own inherent right to self-determination and also demonstrating solidarity with Pee-Posh, Salt River, Thono O'otham, Ak-Chin and other ethnically related indigenous groups located south of the US Border in Mexico.

In a move towards greater recognition, the US Congress in 2007 adopted the Native American One Dollar Coin Act, which requires ''the Secretary of the Treasury to mint and issue coins in commemoration of Native Americans and their important contributions to the development of the United States. In consultation with the National Museum of the American Indian and other Native groups, the mint decided to focus on Indian agricultural achievements and for the first year of its Native American one dollar coin program selected a design portraying a female American Indian figure planting seeds in a cornfield.

The obverse side of the Golden Dollar coin which will officially launch in 2009, will feature Sacagawea, the Shoshone Indian guide who in 1804 assisted Lewis and Clark on their pioneering expedition west.