Există 310 de rezervații ameri-indiene în Statele Unite, însemnând că nu toate cele 550 triburi recunoscute au o zonă recunoscută ca rezervație; dar unele dintre triburi au mai mult decât o rezervație, unele folosesc unele dintre rezervații în comun, iar alte triburi nu au niciuna. În plus, datorită structurării și întabulării foarte diferite în timp a diferitelor porțiuni de pământ, care permisese vinderea pământului din unele rezervații către persoane care nu sunt de origine ameri-indiană, unele rezervații sunt masiv fragmentate, prezentând bucăți de pământ care sunt deținute individual și colectiv tribal ca enclave sau exclave. Această fragmentare a zonelor imobiliare, care ar fi trebuit să fie continue, crează probleme foarte complicate de natură administrativă, juridică și organizatorică.
Suprafața geografic ocupată de toate rezervațiile amerindiene este de 225,410 km² (sau 55.7 de milioane de acri), reprezentând circa 2,3 % din suprafața integrală a Statelor Unite, care este de 9.629.091 km² (sau 2.379.400.204 de acri). Twelve Indian reservations are larger than the state of Rhode Island (776,960 acres; 3,144 km²) and nine reservations larger than Delaware (1,316,480 acres; 5,327 km²). The territory of the Navajo Nation compares in size to West Virginia. Reservations are unevenly distributed throughout the country; the majority are west of the Mississippi River and occupy lands that were first reserved by treaty or 'granted' from the public domain.
Because tribes possess tribal sovereignty, even though it is limited, laws on tribal lands vary from the surrounding area. These laws can permit legal casinos on reservations, for example, which attract tourists. The tribal council, not the local or federal government, generally has jurisdiction over reservations. Different reservations have different systems of government, which may or may not replicate the forms of government found outside the reservation. Most Indian reservations were established by the federal government; a limited number, mainly in the East, owe their origin to state recognition.
The name "reservation" comes from the conception of the Indian tribes as independent sovereigns at the time the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Thus, the early peace treaties (often signed under duress) in which Indian tribes surrendered large portions of land to the U.S. also designated parcels which the tribes, as sovereigns, "reserved" to themselves, and those parcels came to be called "reservations." The term remained in use even after the federal government began to forcibly relocate tribes to parcels of land to which they had no historical connection.
At the present time, a slight majority of Native Americans and Alaska Natives live somewhere other than the reservations, often in big western cities such as Phoenix and Los Angeles. Today there are over 2.5 million Native Americans with about 1 million living on reservations.
The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, also known as the Howard-Wheeler Act, was sometimes called the Indian New Deal. It laid out new rights for Native Americans, reversed some of the earlier privatization of their common holdings, and encouraged tribal sovereignty and land management by tribes.
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