The History of Native American Reservations

Native American reservations are lands that are set aside by the U.S. government for Native American tribes to live on. These lands are considered sovereign territories where the tribes can govern themselves according to their own laws and traditions.

Early History

When the first European settlers arrived in North America, they encountered a diverse Native American population with their own cultures, traditions, and land ownership practices. Over time, however, the European settlers began to expand their territory, often taking lands that belonged to the Native American tribes through treaties and military force. By the mid-19th century, many Native American tribes were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands and moved to reservations.

The Reservation System

The reservation system was established by the U.S. government in the mid-19th century as a way to control and assimilate Native American populations. Native American tribes were forced to move to reservations, usually in areas that were considered undesirable for settlement by white settlers. The government believed that by confining Native Americans to reservations, they could force them to adopt European-American ways of life and assimilate into mainstream American society.

The reservation system was also designed to facilitate the exploitation of Native American lands and resources by the U.S. government and private companies. The government often took control of reservation lands and resources such as timber, minerals, and oil, and exploited them for their own economic gain.

Challenges Facing Reservations Today

Despite the original intent of the reservation system to assimilate Native Americans, many tribes were able to maintain their own traditions and cultures. However, reservations face many challenges today, including poverty, lack of economic opportunities, and social and health issues.

Native American reservations have some of the highest rates of poverty in the United States, with unemployment rates often exceeding 50%. This is due in part to the lack of economic opportunities available in many reservation communities. Many reservations are located in remote areas with little access to infrastructure and basic services such as healthcare and education.

The social and health issues facing Native American reservations are also alarming. Substance abuse, suicide, and domestic violence are all much higher among Native American populations than among the general population.


The history of native American reservations is a complex and often painful one. While reservations were established with the stated goal of assimilating Native Americans into mainstream American society, they instead became places of confinement and exploitation. Today, reservations continue to face many challenges, but many tribes are working to improve life for their communities by promoting economic development, preserving their cultures, and fighting to protect their rights.

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