How Many Native American Tribes Are There? | Native Tribes

Across the United States, hundreds of Native American tribes continue their traditional lifeways to sustain their inherent sovereignty.

Today’s Native American tribes descend from the original inhabitants of North America who have been making history for more than 20,000 years.

In early American history, tribes were forcibly removed from their lands and onto reservations so the U.S. Indian Agents could control and eventually exterminate them. From there, treaties formed, but not with honest intentions. In the last 180 years, most federally recognized tribes have survived on reservations. Some tribes escaped removal and distanced themselves from encroaching foreigners and their beliefs.

Native American tribes in the U.S. still acknowledge their sacred sites, such as the Blackhills, the Puebloan Ruins, Yellowstone National Park, Moundville, and Poverty Point World Heritage site, which some originally called home. In treaties, some sacred sites are under the trust of the U.S. government. Other sacred sites have faced destruction due to prejudices against Native Americans and ongoing colonization and industrialization.

Native American tribes’ ability to preserve history, land, water, language, ceremony, culture, food, and music has allowed them to embrace and maintain their sovereignty. Today, tribes are categorized as federally recognized, state-recognized, or unrecognized. Native Americans are citizens of their state, country, and tribe.

Native American Tribes of North America | How many are there today in the U.S.?

How many federally recognized tribes are there? There are 574 federally recognized Native American tribes in the U.S., including 229 in Alaska. These “nations within a nation” are the only tribes that have a formal nation-to-nation relationship with the U.S. and its federal agency, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

What does it mean to be a federally recognized Native American tribe?

Federal recognition offers tribes opportunities for self-government, self-determination assistance, and Federal-Tribal trust. 

It is the U.S. government’s moral responsibility for strengthening the federally recognized tribe’s sovereignty under the BIA mission. Health services are available to federally recognized tribes through the Department of Health & Services, U.S. Indian Health Service. Federally recognized tribes are eligible to obtain personal, business, and college loans that are unavailable to other tribes and U.S. citizens. Federally recognized tribes may be eligible for hunting, fishing, eagle feather use, and burial ground privileges based on their treaty rights. Federal recognition can also lead to tribes opening casinos through a separate approval process.

Tribes that are not formally acknowledged by the BIA face a lack of complete self-governance, assistance, finances, fishing and hunting rights, land rights, health services, and are at risk of government mistreatment of their sovereignty.

How hard is it to become a federally recognized Native American tribe?

The federal acknowledgment process can take decades and millions of dollars for state tribes that have little finances. Tribes must compile historical, anthropological, and genealogical information which can be costly and timely. From there, the tribe must meet all of the requirements of the BIA, including proof of descending from a historic tribe.

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However, the easiest and least expensive way to obtain federal recognition is for tribes to enter a process of Congressional legislation.

According to the BIA, since 2010, 10 Native American tribes have gained federal recognition. The most recent tribe to gain this status was the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa.

What are the largest Native American tribes?

Cherokee, Navajo, and Choctaw are the largest Native American tribes in the U.S., according to All three tribes have ties to their historical territories since pre-European contact: the Navajo (the Four Corners), the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (Mississippi), and the Eastern Band of Cherokee (North Carolina).

What about state-recognized Native tribes?

How many state-recognized tribes are there? There are 63 state-recognized Native American tribes in 13 states and 10 of these tribes have state-recognized reservations.

However, state-recognized tribes are treated as “second class citizens” in Indian Country. They suffer from suppression by local authorities and communities that never accept tribes’ origins.

The countless unrecognized Native American tribes living among us likewise live with “second-class status” in Indian Country and remain vulnerable to local authorities.  

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About the Author: Tung Chi