Lead Author:
Maureen I. McCarthy, University of Nevada, Reno, and Desert Research Institute
Contributing Authors:
Beverly Ramsey, Desert Research Institute and Wa-Hi-La, LLC
John Phillips, First Americans Land-Grant Consortium
Margaret H. Redsteer, University of Washington
Science Lead:
Sasha C. Reed, U.S. Geological Survey
Review Editor:
Rachel Melnick, USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture
Federal Liaisons:
Nancy Cavallaro, USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture
Gyami Shrestha, U.S. Carbon Cycle Science Program and University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

Tribal Lands

Summary Descriptions of Indigenous Communities in North America

7A.1 Location and Populations

According to the 2010 Census, the United States is home to 5.2 million people of American Indian or Alaskan Native heritage. Together, they comprise the 567 federally recognized tribes, 229 of which are in Alaska and the remaining 338 in 34 other states (NCAI 2015; U.S. Census Briefs 2012). About 41 million hectares (ha) are under American Indian or Alaskan Native control, with approximately 5.2 million people identified as American Indian/Alaskan Native (alone or in combination with other races). Approximately 22% of Native Americans live on tribal lands and 78% live in urban or suburban environments, with 19.5% of Native people living in Alaska (Norris et al., 2012).

Most American Indians and Alaskan Natives live in the western United States (40.7%), followed by the South (32.8%), Midwest (16.8%), and Northeast (9.7%; Norris et al., 2012). States with the highest populations of Native Americans living on or near tribal reservations are Oklahoma (471,738), California (281,374), and Arizona (234,891; BIA 2013). The largest reservation in the United States is the Navajo Nation Reservation of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah (about 7 million ha), with a population of 169,321. The second most populated reservation is Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and Nebraska, with 16,906 Native Americans (Norris et al., 2012).

According to the 2011 National Household Survey, Canada is home to 851,560 First Nation people that collectively comprise more than 600 First Nation and Indian bands. Of these, most live in Ontario and the western provinces. For example, about 23.6% of Canada’s First Nation people live in Ontario (201,100), 18.2% in British Columbia (155,020), and 13.7% in Alberta (116,670; Statistics Canada 2011). First Nation people make up about one-third of the total population in the Northwest Territories and one-fifth of the population in the Yukon. Of the 851,560 people who self-identify as First Nations, 637,660 are officially registered under Canada’s Indian Act. Nearly half of those registered (49.3%, or 316,000) live on reserves or Indian settlements (Statistics Canada 2011).

Mexico’s Indigenous community consists of 16.9 million people, the largest such community in North America. These people represent 15.1% of the national population and together speak 68 Indigenous languages and 364 dialects (Del Val et al., 2016). Although Mexico does not have a system of reserves or reservations for Indigenous people, the majority (80%) of all people who speak an Indigenous language live in the southern and south-central regions of Mexico (Cultural Survival 1999; Minority Rights Group International 2017). About 18.1% of Mexico’s Indigenous people live in the state of Oaxaca, followed by Veracruz (13.5%), Chiapas (13%), Puebla (9.42%), Yucatán (8.2%), Hidalgo (5.7%), state of Mexico (5.6%), Guerrero (5.2%), San Luis Potosí (3.2%), and Michoacán (2.9%; (Cultural Survival 1999).

7A.2 Summary Descriptions by Geographical Region

7A.2.1 Native Americans in the United States

Alaskan Native

Alaska is home to only one federally designated reservation, and most Alaskan Natives are associated with village or regional “corporations” (created by the 1971 federal Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act). Many of the native communities reside in coastal areas where commercial fishing and tourism are two major sources of income (Tiller 1995). Some of these communities face imminent relocation due to rising sea levels (Melillo et al., 2014).

Pacific Northwest

The Yakama Nation specializes in agricultural production across 57,500 ha of irrigated land and in forestry on 125,000 managed ha of timber. Fisheries along the Columbia River are primarily for subsistence and ceremonial use, and tourism supports other members of the tribe (Tiller 1995). Along the coast, the Quinault Indian Nation uses its reservation’s resources primarily for fisheries, timber harvesting, and tourism related to trout and salmon fishing (Tiller 1995).


The southwestern United States is home to some of the country’s largest reservations, including the Navajo Nation (6,566,000 ha in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah); Hopi (632,000 ha surrounded by the Navajo Nation in Arizona); and Tohono O’odham (1.1 million ha straddling the U.S.-Mexico border). Major industries and land uses on these reservations include mining of coal, oil, and natural gas and tourism in parks, monuments, and recreation areas (Tiller 1995). For other southwestern reservations, main industries and land uses are production agriculture and livestock (Gila River Indian Community in Arizona and Walker River Paiute Tribe in Nevada), fisheries (Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe in Nevada), and mineral mining (Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah; Tiller 1995).

Intermountain West

The large Blackfeet, Flathead, and Crow reservations in Montana contain rich farmland; extensive livestock grazing areas; commercial timberland; and coal, oil, and natural gas resources that, along with tourism, support the local economies. Land leases for energy extraction, hydroelectric power generation, and timber harvesting provide significant revenue streams for the tribes (Tiller 1995).

Great Plains

Some of the largest reservations in this region are in the Dakotas (e.g., Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, and Pine Ridge), where major industries and sources of tribal income include agriculture, oil and natural gas mining, forestry, and tourism (Tiller 1995).


Most tribal reservations in the Midwest are in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota where timber harvesting, agriculture, big game hunting, fisheries, and tourism are major industries. In Wisconsin, the economy of the Menominee Indian Tribe revolves around sustainable forestry practices, with 95% of tribal lands forested after more than 100 years in the forestry industry (Tiller 1995). The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwa in Minnesota is the largest wild rice producer in the United States, with 4,000 ha of wild rice fields (Tiller 1995).

East Coast

Tribal reservations in the eastern United States are generally much smaller than those in the West because of European settlement, assimilation, and forced relocation. The Cherokee are the largest tribe in the United States, and their ancestral territory spanned over eight southeastern states. Most of the Cherokee Nation was forced to relocate to Oklahoma under an 1835 treaty. The Eastern Band of the Cherokee, who resisted removal during the 1800s, maintain a reservation in western North Carolina where tourism is a major industry and some commercial revenues are produced from small-scale farms and ranches. Tribes in the Northeast, such as the Allegany Reservation in New York, rely on agriculture, livestock, and some commercial forestry (Tiller 1995).

7A.2.2 First Nations of Canada

Eastern Canada: Quebec, Ontario, Newfoundland, and Labrador

In Canada’s eastern woodlands region, First Nation tribes traditionally consisted of small groups (fewer than 400 people) who migrated in search of food, subsisting via hunting and trapping of migratory animals. In fertile regions of southeastern Canada, the Iroquoian First Nations founded permanent communities where they farmed food crops, including corn, beans, and squash (AANDC 2013). Today, forestry provides opportunities for Indigenous people. In Newfoundland, Labrador, Quebec, and the Yukon, modern treaties have resulted in the transfer of more than 6 million ha to First Nation people. In Ontario, a 2014 to 2015 forest tenure modernization project provided funding to support sustainable forest licenses for Indigenous communities (Natural Resources Canada 2016a).

Central Canada: Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba

On the plains, First Nation people traditionally lived as migratory groups of hunters who followed the buffalo herds (AANDC 2013). Today, geothermal energy produced on the Peguis First Nation and Fisher River Cree Nation Reserve in Manitoba heats reserve homes, and First Nation people are trained and certified in geothermal trades (Paul 2015). On the remote Opaskwayak Cree First Nation reserve, where fresh produce is expensive, community members are experimenting with a method for indoor farming called “vertical farming” (CTV News 2016).

Western Canada: British Columbia

Along the Pacific Coast, First Nation people traditionally settled in permanent villages and subsisted on food resources from the ocean such as salmon, shellfish, sea lions, otters, whales, and seaweed. Red cedar from forests along the coast was used to build homes (AANDC 2013). Today, fisheries are an important industry for First Nations located in western Canada, where salmon, halibut, herring, and other fish are caught and processed in canneries (Notzke 1994). Forestry is also an important industry in this region. The First Nations Forestry Council of British Columbia works to support First Nation forestry activities through training programs, business support, policy development, mountain pine beetle action plans, ecosystem stewardship planning, and more (B.C. First Nations Forestry Council 2015). In central British Columbia, a liquid natural gas pipeline called Pacific Northwest LNG is under development. For environmental reasons, some First Nation groups oppose the pipeline while others support it for the economic benefits it will bring their First Nation communities (Jang 2016).

The Far North: Yukon and Northwest Territories

First Nation people of northwestern Canada traditionally hunted for game animals such as caribou across large territories (AANDC 2013). Today, the Yukon and Northwest territories are used for renewable and nonrenewable energy projects such as crude oil, natural gas, thermal electrical facilities, hydroelectric plants, and wind energy projects. Several pipelines carry crude oil and natural gas through the region (Canada National Energy Board 2011). Some First Nation people oppose energy development projects. For example, in the Yukon Territory, members of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation live along the migration route of the Porcupine caribou herd and rely on resources provided by the herd for food, clothing, and crafts. Their traditional way of life is being threatened by oil and gas companies that want to develop the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, N.D.).

7A.2.3 Indigenous Communities in Mexico

Oaxaca and Guerrero

In the La Mixteca region of Mexico, which covers portions of the states of Oaxaca, Puebla, and Guerrero, centuries of destructive land-use practices have converted forest into desert. Here, Mixteca Indian farmers are reviving pre-Hispanic farming practices to restore and farm the land. Actions taken by these farmers include terracing hillsides, plowing with oxen, and farming via a technique called “milpa,” where corn, squash, and beans grow together and increase soil nutrients (Malkin 2008).

Yucatán Peninsula and Quintana Roo

In Quintana Roo, forest resources provide a major source of income for the Mayan people, who make up about 25% of the population (Bray et al., 1993). Traditionally, the Maya used the forest for nontimber products such as palms for roof thatching, fruits and herbs for food and medicine, and deer and peccary for meat. In the 1970s, the Maya and members of local Ejidos (communally farmed lands) began to harvest trees for railroad ties. In the 1980s, a forestry pilot program helped members of the Ejidos learn timber marketing strategies and sustainable management techniques. The Ejidos of central Quintana Roo occupy more than 400,000 ha of forest, much of which is permanent forest reserve (Bray et al., 1993).

Sierra Madre Occidental (Jalisco, Nayarit, Zacatecas, and Durango)

In the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains, Huichol people live as subsistence farmers, using slash-and-burn practices to convert forest into agricultural land. They produce mostly maize, but also beans, squash, and sometimes livestock. Some Huichol are cattle ranchers, and others sell lumber. The quality of Huichol land is harmed by the slash-and-burn farming, and cattle grazing further damaged soil quality (Cultural Survival 1992).

Central Highlands, Sierra Norte de Puebla, and the Gulf Coast

The Nahua, speakers of the Nahuatl language, live near what was once the center of the Aztec empire. Most Nahua farm, growing maize, beans, chili peppers, squash, camotes, onions, tomatoes, and other cash crops such as sugarcane and coffee. Most families supplement farming with other sources of income (Sandstrom 2008).

7A.3 Land Tenure and Water Rights

U.S. reservation lands not “allotted” to individual tribal members under laws enacted in the late 1800s and early 1900s are held “in trust” by the U.S. government, meaning that the federal government must manage the lands and resources in a manner most beneficial to tribes (NCAI 2016). While tribal governments have the authority to manage their land base, the complexities of overlapping jurisdictions and land-use customs can delay crucial resource management decisions. For this reason, tribally owned lands may face greater obstacles to achieving sustainable resource management than public or private lands (Anderson and Parker 2008; Russ and Stratman 2013).

Land-tenure issues create challenges for tribal communities managing natural resources on reservation lands. Some reservations consist entirely of trust land, but, as a result of the General Allotment Act of 1887, many reservations also include other types of land, such as land owned by individual Indian families or land owned by non-Indigenous people who acquired the land from tribal families (Frantz 1999). The resulting checkerboard pattern of land ownership on many reservations is problematic for farming, ranching, and other activities—including developing and implementing carbon management plans—that require access to or management of large land tracts (Indian Land Tenure Foundation 2016). On trust lands, approval by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior is required for most land-use decisions, complicating tribes’ ability, for example, to sell, lease, or develop their lands (Indian Land Tenure Foundation 2016).

In addition to land-tenure issues, Native American tribes in the United States have historically faced challenges in obtaining water for their reservations (Colby et al., 2005; McCool 2002; Thorson et al., 2006). In arid regions of the West, early settlers began a tradition of removing water from rivers via dams, diversions, and canals for agriculture, mining, and other purposes. Native American reservations downstream from western civilizations had no guarantee of sufficient water delivery during much of the 1800s. A 1908 Supreme Court decision known as the Winters Doctrine set the priority use date for water rights on tribal reservations as the same date that each reservation was established regardless of whether the tribe was using water for irrigation or other purposes at that time (Frantz 1999). The Winters Doctrine means that, today, tribes hold some of the most senior (highest-priority) water rights (referred to as “paper water”) on river systems in the West. However, gaining access to actual water allocations (“wet water”) can still be a long and arduous process for tribes that involves legal settlements or adjudication agreements with federal and state governments.

On Canadian First Nation reserves, land is held in trust by the crown for use by specific bands. A “First Nation band” (or First Nation) is a recognized self-governing Indigenous community under the Indian Act of 1876 (Canada Indian Act 1985). The Canadian government may assign individual Indians the right to use land via certificates of possession (CP), but they do not have full legal ownership. Land not assigned by CP to an individual is held as community property of the band. Although bands may not sell reserve land, they may lease it to non-Indigenous people for uses such as natural resource development, farming, ranching, recreation, or rights-of-way for transportation or transmission (McCue 2011). Canadian First Nation tribes face land-tenure challenges similar to those confronting many Native Americans in the United States. Land-use opportunities may be limited by a reserve’s location (e.g., areas with limited economic opportunities) or resource scarcity. Governmental regulations on access to fish, timber, mineral, subsurface, and other resources may restrict band members’ efforts to develop land. In addition, reserve lands often are intersected by government rights-of-way for power lines, railroads, and highways, dividing useable spaces and making land use more difficult (Hanson 2009).

Water rights laws differ by province across Canada and consist of either prior allocation, public authority, riparian rights, or civil code. In addition, Indigenous and Canadian water rights laws co-exist. Prior to colonization, Indigenous cultures governed water use via their own customs and practices. The Constitution Act of 1982 protects any Indigenous rights (including water) not taken away from First Nations by 1982 (Canada Program on Water Governance 2010).

Unlike the United States and Canada, Mexico does not have a system of federal reserves or reservations. Rather than setting aside land and resources for Indigenous people, the Mexican government historically focused on cultural integration via assimilation (Minority Rights Group International 2017). Today, Mexico’s constitution guarantees Indigenous people the right to self-determination, including the right to autonomy, education, infrastructure, and freedom from discrimination (Aban 2015). Each state has its own constitution, and some states have established legislation that limits the rights recognized by the national constitution (OHCHR 2011). Rights of Indigenous people vary from state to state; in Chiapas, Michoacán, and Oaxaca, Indigenous people have formed autonomous Indigenous governments (Minority Rights Group International 2017).

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