At the time the colonists arrived on the American continent, there were estimated to have been 12 million Native Americans living within the boundaries of what is now known as the United States of America. These Native Americans were in one of more than a thousand kinship groups or tribes.
The introduction of European diseases caused the death of many of these original inhabitants whilst survivors steadily lost access to land being appropriated by the invaders for farming, ranching and mineral development. The tension caused by the settlers encroaching on territory and natural resources led the US Congress to pass the Indian Appropriations Act in 1851. This authorised the creation of parcels of land, known as Indian reservations, to each of the Indian tribes. Most of the reservations had land unsuitable for cultivation and lacking any valuable resources. Today, there are one or more Indian reservations in every US state.
The Indian reservation is the spiritual and cultural centre for all tribal members, including those who do not live on the site. Tribal members living on the reservation take responsibility for preserving the native language, their cultural traditions and their religious ceremonies.
Tourists are able to visit Indian reservations, though some may require visitor registration at the tribal office. Photography may not be permitted on some reservations. There is usually little to see in native Indian reserves, since only a small minority of natives live in the traditional dwellings of their ancestors. The Indian pueblos in New Mexico and Arizona are the rare exception where some of the native peoples still live in the ancient adobe communal buildings of their ancestors. On these sites, and in some others, tribes have built visitor centres, museums, stores or casinos on their reservations to which tourists are invited.
Indian powwows are Native American social gatherings, usually held at the weekend, that typically attract attendees from various tribes and are sometimes open to the public in a spirit of peace and friendship. They usually feature communal dancing, storytelling and contests in dance and drumming. At every powwow, family, tribe and friendship are celebrated. Tribal elders are always held is high regard as are the warriors. Children are cherished. Ceremonies are treated with respect, but not at the expense of humour and fun. Some religious ceremonies and cultural events are not open to the public.
Indian reservations are legal sovereign nations within the United States of America. They govern themselves, maintaining their own police force and their own system of justice. When you visit a reservation, you are under the laws of the tribe rather than the laws of the USA.
Since the 1970s, some Indian tribes have taken advantage of their tribal sovereignty, by allowing gambling on their reservations. States have limited ability to forbid gambling on reservations even if it is illegal elsewhere in the state. The issue of gambling on Indian reservations has gone through the courts for several years. In 1986 The Supreme Court again ruled that Native gaming was to be regulated exclusively by Congress and the federal government, not state government.
In 1988 Congress passed, and President Ronald Reagan signed, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act keeping tribal sovereignty to create casino-like halls. However, the Act added that the states and Natives must be in Tribal-State compacts and the federal government has the power to regulate the gaming. These compacts have been used by state officers to confiscate Native casino revenue as a "special" tax. Tribes still retain exclusive rights to all classes of gambling, but not when states dispute the gambling class or it clashes with federal law. Currently all attempts to challenge the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act on constitutional grounds have failed.
Native reservation casinos attract many tourists from surrounding states where gambling is illegal. In addition, some reservations pass on their exemption from state taxes by selling cigarettes, alcohol or gasoline at reduced prices. States where gambling was allowed, became fearful that having a significant competitive advantage over other regulated gambling establishments in the state which were regulated, would make tribes incredibly wealthy and increase organised crime. A US Department of Justice report from 1992 concluded that over several years, organised crime had not infiltrated Native gambling and that there was no link between criminal activity in native gambling and organised crime.
Gambling on native Indian reservations has significantly changed some tribal economies, but had little impact in other tribes. Despite the political victories by tribes over the governmental and cultural oppression in the 1950s, an economic success did not follow since only a small number of tribes made economic changes. Unemployment was down and personal income had increased, but for most tribes, their lands were not very productive and, infrastructure was poor. Many were far away from potential visitors who would want to gamble.
In order to address the issue of poverty, Native tribes were required by the state to start some type of economic develop to address the issue of poverty on the reservations. Some tribal lands were sold to non-Natives in order to stimulate economic growth, but it is tribal gambling operations that has proven to be the single largest amount of income in the Native community that has caused controversy as mentioned earlier. A small number of tribes have been able to distribute large per-capita payments, generating considerable public attention.
In more recent years, tribal governments have seen substantial improvements in their ability to provide public services to their members. Reservations have been building schools, improving infrastructure, and working to retain and pass on native traditions.
One of the most recent issues with regards the national expansion of Native Gaming has led to a practice critics call ‘reservation shopping’. Reservation shopping is when tribes join with casino investors to launch a casino away from their reservation and usually near a large urban centre. These are legal under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, but concerns are that numbers will grow.