Indian Reservations as Sovereign Nations

Did you know that Indian reservations are independent nations?  Indian Nations are allowed, within limits to govern themselves.  Many have their own police forces and courts. 

Tribal sovereignty in the United States refers to the inherent authority of indigenous tribes to govern themselves within the borders of the United States of America. The federal government recognizes tribal nations as “domestic dependent nations” and has established a number of laws attempting to clarify the relationship between the federal, state, and tribal governments. The Constitution and later federal laws grant local sovereignty to tribal nations, yet do not grant full sovereignty equivalent to foreign nations, hence the term “domestic dependent nations”.

However, in times of war, all men, including Indians have to register.  In WWI, this caused some consternation.  Each registrar had to record the county name in which the registrant registered.  If they registered on an Indian Reservation, even if the reservation was located within a county, the reservation itself was not part of the county, as it is considered a separate Nation.

This bureaucratic anomaly became apparent in New York in states East of the Mississippi.  In New York, Indians who registered on the reservation are listed in our old friend, Miscellaneous County.  In other places, Miscellaneous is a sign that someone is either hospitalized, institutionalized or returned a late registration after the county office had closed.  In this case, it’s not necessarily a sign of any of those things, but each return has to be looked at individually to determine the individual circumstance.  Just as I was about to decide that all New York entrants in Miscellaneous County were Reservation Indians, I found one who lived on a reservation, followed by someone of the same name, also an Indian, in prison.  No assumptions allowed.

The map below is a very different map of the US.  It’s a map of the US minus the sovereign Indian nations within the continental US.  Sort of looks like Swiss Cheese doesn’t it.  Some of these areas are much larger than one might expect. 

Of course all of this has not been without issues.  You can read more about applicable laws here:


About Roberta Estes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
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21 Responses to Indian Reservations as Sovereign Nations

  1. says:

    I am learning so much on here. I sure didn’ know about this sovereign nation thing.

    Thanks so much Roberta.

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  4. “Indian Reservations as Sovereign Nations | Native Heritage Project” was a superb post.
    If perhaps it included alot more photographs it would
    likely be possibly even even better. Regards -Freda

  5. mildred ardell lee says:

    born in north dakota, direct decendant of general Robert E. LEE., WONDERING if we have any indian bloodline in our family?

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  9. First it is more accurate to say “Domestic Dependent Nations”. Whatever the doctrinal underpinnings of tribal sovereignty may be, it is clear that the sovereignty of American Indian tribes has been progressively and systematically diminished by the actions of the federal government, including the Supreme Court. In my state, Oklahoma, no one is allowed to live on any of these reservations. The Court said that tribes are “…prohibited from exercising both those powers of autonomous states that are expressly terminated by Congress and those powers inconsistent with their status.” The danger of such an approach is that it allows the Supreme Court, at its own discretion, to determine which attributes of internal tribal sovereignty are inconsistent with the tribes’ status as “domestic dependent nations.” The assumption of this role by the Court not only changes the usual division of power in the federal government (where Congress has the primary power to deal with Indian tribes), but also enhances the power of the Court to diminish the scope of tribal sovereignty.

    • got2bjb says:

      Basically it allows the U.S. Government the ability to override the sovereignty of any American tribe? So, if they want to build a pipeline that gives them the right to do so. Reservation or not?!
      Hmmmm, You would think that the U.S. Government would at least honor what little bit of land and American Natives right to Govern over themselves. Why not try to preserve what culture is left? Right?.
      I feel that someday this great misfortune will happen again. And this time it will be done to the ones that took away the land the first time.
      We all know that history has a way of repeating itself. Especially if it has been forgotten..

  10. Not to mention that wiki link does not show any of the current legal changes. It stops in the 1950’s and they have made changes to sovereignty up till 2012…

  11. Jacqueline Baird says:

    Hi! I believe my grandmother was half Cherokee and half French-Canadian, although she and her enormous family grew up in Illinois. She would never discuss her Cherokee side, it was a forbidden topic in her family I believe. They were strict Catholics and incredible snobs, I’m afraid.
    I’m just curious if I would be eligible to obtain a card if I took a DNA test, whether it was my grandmother or her mother who was half Cherokee? Everywhere I go I’m recognized by Native Americans by my cheekbones. I’ve worked on reservations because my supervisor and coworkers at the time assumed I was Native. I was the only person the people on the reservation liked from the road construction job I was working on. I used to barter with them, I loved them!
    We also lived on an Indian Reservation for a while, and they assumed I was Native.

  12. fifthwarder says:

    Thanks. This issue needs to be discussed at the United Nations since the Native American nations are “independent nations.” Their voices need to be heard in the world forum.

  13. Cynthia Fletcher Campbell says:

    How can I find MyHeritage through my dna how much percentage matters

  14. Manual A Becerra says:

    I just did a DNA test and I was miso American and 1.7 Eskimo am I eligible to enroll into tribe I am 27.5% mesoamerican

  15. I would like to know how much percentage. My current grandmother is part of India so I would like to know percentage i do have please.

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