10 Things You Didn’t Know About Life on an Indian Reservation

If you do not live near an Indian reservation, you may wonder what life is like for the people who live there. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is the U.S. government agency responsible for the relationship between Native or Indian nations and the federal government.

According to the BIA, there are approximately 326 Indian land areas in the U.S., and not all are called “reservations.” Some are called rancherias, pueblos, or missions based on Spanish colonial outposts in the Southwest. The largest reservation, the Navajo Nation’s reservation, spans New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. The smallest is a 1.3 acre cemetery in California, belonging to the Pit River Tribe.

Here are 10 surprising things you probably didn’t know about living on an Indian reservation:

Tribal Names

Many tribal names printed on maps or used in public or government-provided materials differ from the names that indigenous tribes call themselves. The Fort Belknap reservation in Montana is home to 7,000 members of two different tribes: Gros Ventre and Assiniboine. The reservation is near the Canadian border and both names derive from French traders. Gros Ventre tribe members’ refer to their tribe as Aaniiih, and Assiniboine, Nakoda. Two of the most familiar indigenous tribal names are Lakota and Dakota, but there are many others.

Remote Locations and Travel Options

Most Indian reservations are located far from big cities and amenities. Many roads leading to reservations pass through desolate areas with few services. In addition, reservations belong to and are governed by Native tribes, and not every reservation is open to other members of the public without permission. Some large Indian nations welcome travelers, including the Navajo and Cherokee reservations. The Navajo Nation operates three hotel properties within its boundaries to welcome travelers who come for powwows, tribal dances, and to view historical sites such as Anasazi ruins.

Tribal License Plates

Have you ever entertained children or yourself looking for license plates from different states? You could find some unique license plates on reservation vehicles. Some states issue reservation-specific plates on behalf of tribes. The Erie Indian Nation in Pennsylvania has a unique plate featuring a canoe, and there are so many tribal license plates in Oklahoma that a map featuring more than 40 plates has been created to help identify them.

Traditional Food Varieties

For many years, Native Americans ate typical American foods and created their own versions of Mexican foods like the Navajo taco, served on fry bread instead of a corn tortilla. Corn (maize) is a native food that ranges from blue corn to giant hominy kernels. Indigenous foods are growing in popularity, with reservations bringing back traditional ways of cultivating corn and other grains like wild rice. New recipes from traditional foods like squash, corn, bean, chiles and vegetables like catttails are growing in popularity. Meats like venison and bison are also served.


Indigenous people now refer to regaining their traditions and ways of life as “decolonization.” Decolonization includes learning and using native languages, practicing their native religion and educating children and adults using native models of learning. One sign of decolonization involves the “medicine wheel,” a stone monument you might see while visiting a Plains nation reservation. Many Native Americans use versions of the medicine wheel image to guide healing and recovery from colonization and cultural assimilation.

Homes and Property Rights

People who have never visited a reservation might think that Native people live in tipis, the traditional structure made from poles covered by animal hide. Other traditional structures include wigwams or wetus, longhouses, and lodges. You could find longhouses and lodges, including sweat lodges, in use on some reservations today, and all traditional structures could be featured as part of museum exhibits or historic areas.

Most people on reservations live in typical American houses ranging from small cabins to large estates. Reservation poverty exists, along with manufactured housing and similar portable structures. Many Native Americans use manufactured homes because they do not own the land where the manufactured home sits. Mortgages and home equity loans are seldom available on reservations because they are based on individual land ownership. Many reservations’ land is held in trust by the federal government.

Tribal Sovereignty

Sovereignty was granted to Native American tribes on their own land after the U.S. government stopped making treaties with Indian tribes. Now, the relationship between the federal and state government and tribes and their land is governed by administrative law and executive orders. Tribes are sovereign in their own lands, so once you travel onto reservation property, you must obey the tribal law, which is “organic” — in other words, not influenced by the law of the state or federal government.

Indian Gaming

More than 130 tribes in 24 states now offer some type of gambling or gaming on their land. Gaming has provided a new source of funds for the tribes, which can legally operate casinos, card clubs, bingo and other wagering through a tribal-state gaming compact. Indian casinos can be large travel and tourism destinations, especially in states where gambling isn’t legal or is severely limited. Gaming has built up many Indian reservations. One example is the Morongo Band of Cahuilla Mission Indians in Southern California. Their reservation lacked housing and basic amenities, all of which were built after they won the rights to operate their landmark resort and casino off Interstate-10 between Los Angeles and Palm Springs.

Native American Crafts

Artistic expression is a part of Native American culture and spirituality as well as for beauty and decoration. Many people know about bead, feather and leather crafts used for moccasins, jackets and purses. You will find artwork and crafts on reservations that aren’t sold via commercial dealers. Original, precious woven crafts like Navajo chief’s blankets can sell for up to $100,000 and more.

Unemployment and Poverty

There’s no way to avoid the truth: Indian reservations have some of the highest poverty rates in America. Job opportunities are limited because of remote location, difficult access, and lingering racism and stereotypes. About 25% of Native Americans live below the poverty line in general, and the rate is even higher on many reservations.

Charles Carlyle, Chairman of the Ak-Chin Industrial Park board, wrote in the Phoenix Business Journal that reservations needed infrastructure development such as improved water, roads, power and internet. Life on an Indian reservation is different from life outside the reservation in many ways, but it is also evolving and changing.

See also: 10 Indigenous Studies Graduate Degree Programs

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