According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010, there were roughly 5.2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) living in the U.S., representing approximately 1.7 percent of the total U.S. population.1 This represents an 18 percent increase since the last decennial census. Of this group, more than 2.1 million American Indians and Alaska Natives are under the age of 24.2 This is approximately 42 percent of the total AI/AN population.
- Nearly half of AI/ANs live on reservations or designated tribal lands in the western states, with the largest populations in Arizona, California, Oklahoma, and New Mexico,3 and 60 percent live in urban communities.
- The states with the largest proportion of AI/ANs include Alaska with nearly 15 percent of the state population,4 California with 14 percent, and Oklahoma with nearly 10 percent.5
There are 566 federally-recognized tribes in 35 states in the United States.6 Each tribe is distinct, with its own form of self-governance, culture, traditions, language, and community infrastructure. In the state of Alaska there are 229 federally-recognized tribes.7
Sovereignty is a legal word for the authority to self-govern and to protect and foster the health, safety, and welfare of AI/AN peoples within tribal territory. Essentially, tribal sovereignty refers to tribes’ inherent rights to manage their own affairs and to exist as nations. Currently, the 566 sovereign tribal nations (variously called tribes, nations, bands, pueblos, communities, and Native villages) have a political government-to-government relationship with the U.S. government.
Tribal governments exercise jurisdiction over 100 million acres of land, that would make Indian Country the fourth largest state in the nation.8 Tribal governments are an important and unique member of the American family of governments, which includes tribal governments, the U.S. federal government, and the U.S. states. The U.S. Constitution recognizes that tribal nations are sovereign governments.
As members of tribes, AI/AN people have both an ethnic and political status. As governments, tribes exercise substantial governing powers within their territory, including regulating research. Similar to federal and state governments, tribes have sovereign power over their lands, citizens, and related affairs.
As a result of the government-to-government relationship between tribes and the federal government, the federal government is obligated by a responsibility relationship to protect tribal resources. Federal policies are designed to further the trust relationship including offering certain social services such as education and health, and support for tribal services provision. Previous federal policies of forced removal of AI/AN tribes from their traditional homelands, and forced assimilation of AI/AN people into mainstream America have exacerbated some of the social service needs of AI/AN youth.
Although tribes and their governments vary widely, to be a member of a tribe means to share a common bond that may include ancestry, kinship, language, culture, ceremonies, and political authority with other members. AI/AN tribes are working diligently to reverse the negative impacts of poverty, historical and intergenerational trauma, health, education, and justice disparities to ensure the future, health, and well-being of their members.
Native American Youth 101: Information on the Historical Context and Current Status of Indian Country and Native American Youth (PDF, 10 pages)
This resource provides information on the historical context and current status of Indian country and Native American youth.
The Center for Native American Youth
The Center for Native American Youth was developed to improve the health, safety, and overall well-being of Native American youth through communication, policy development, and advocacy.
The National Congress of American Indians
The National Congress of American Indians provides several channels to support Native youth, including the NCAI Youth Commission, the National Native Youth Cabinet, NDN Spark, and internships and fellowships. In 2011 and 2012 NCAI collaborated with the Department of Justice to host the National Indian Youth Summit.
1 American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes in the United States and Puerto Rico: 2010, 2011
2 Native American Youth 101, n.d.
3 Status and Trends in the Education of American Indians and Alaska Natives: 2008
4 U.S. Census Bureau, 2015, race counted as ‘Native American and Alaska Native alone’
5 U.S. Census Bureau, 2012, race counted as ‘Native American and Alaska Native alone or in combination’
6 Bureau of Indian Affairs, 2014
7 U.S. Department of the Interior, Indian Affairs, 2016
8 National Congress of American Indians, n.d.