The "Peculiar" Relationship of Indigenous Peoples to the U.S. Government

David Wilkins (University of Minnesota)

'The people of the Pueblos, although sedentary rather than nomadic in their inclinations, and disposed to peace and industry, are nevertheless Indians in race, customs, and domestic government. Always living in separate and isolated communities, adhering to primitive modes of life, largely influenced by superstition and fetichism [sic], and chiefly governed according to the crude customs inherited from their ancestors, they are essentially a simple, uninformed and inferior people.' (United States v. Sandoval, 1913)[1]

'The preference is not directed towards a “racial” group consisting of “Indians”; instead, it applies only to members of “federally recognized” tribes. This operates to exclude many individuals who are racially to be classified as “Indians”. In this sense, the preference is political rather than racial in nature.' (Morton v. Mancari, 1974)[2]


These two epigraphs, written six decades apart, describe a most complicated scenario in which race and racism factor heavily in both the historic and ongoing relationship between native peoples and the U.S. federal government, but in ways that differ fundamentally from other ethnic groups. These differences arose because of several pre-existing realities, e.g., native nations were already in North America when Europeans first arrived and, for a time, wielded powerful military forces that warranted a measure of respect; and because of several distinctive political, legal, cultural, and property issues to be addressed below.