Native American Reparations

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There is a long history of abuse between the American government and Native American nations. So, what's been done about it? In this lesson, we'll talk about reparations for Native Americans, and see why this is such a tricky subject.


In the United States, if somebody wrongs you, you can sue them. As Americans, we tend to enjoy this right, perhaps a little too much at times. But what if you were wronged systematically over generations by the federal government itself? One lawsuit may not be enough. Instead, we may turn to a system of reparations, which is a making of amends on an institutional level, generally through financial compensation. Now, while money is a part of this, reparations should never be understood purely in those terms. Reparations are also an admission of guilt, an acceptance of responsibility for wrongs committed, and that's why they mean so much to many people. Now, the group we most often hear about in this debate is America's African American community, in compensation for the legacies of slavery and segregation. But unfortunately, that's not the only group that's been systematically wronged by the federal government. Native Americans, or Amerindian people, can point to a deep legacy of mistreatment. So, is Amerindian reparation a thing? Let's take a look at this debate and find out.

History of Amerindian-American Relations

First and foremost, we need to talk about why Amerindian populations could be owed reparations. Ignoring the abuses of the English, Spanish, French, and Dutch empires, Amerindian complaints against the American government are as old as the country itself. Soon after the end of the Revolutionary War, the American government expanded its former borders into the Ohio River Valley, forcing out the Amerindians living there. By 1830, the United States had officially adopted a policy of Indian Removal, forcibly and often violently relocating Amerindians across the country. Later, after a half century of wars, broken treaties, and other abuses, the United States further increased the pressure on Amerindians to assimilate. The Dawes Act forced the Lakota Sioux and others already on reservations to give up communal property and adopt farming. At the same time, Lakota children were forcibly removed from their families and taken to Indian Schools, where they were taught that their traditional cultures were bad and made to adopt Anglo-American practices. All of this is just by the year 1900. So, there is a case to be made for reparations.

A class of Lakota children educated in the Carlisle Indian School

The Debate Over Reparations

So, with this long history, why don't we hear about Amerindian reparations more often? Well, there's actually a significant debate over this issue. For one, we need to look at an important difference between African American and Amerindian experiences. For the most part, African American experiences were similar to each other. This is a cultural group that speaks the same language, has similar traditions, and experienced a shared history of prejudice and segregation. Amerindians, on the other hand, encompass dozens of different cultural groups that speak different languages and have different histories. So, it's nearly impossible to issue a blanket-reparation for everyone.

On the other side, many Amerindian people today don't feel that reparations are necessary, or even appropriate. Since so much land was taken, some people think reparations would have to include land returned to Amerindian nations, land currently being used by American families who have called it their homes for decades. Plus, how do you actually make reparations for traditional cultural values being destroyed? In some cases, reparations have even been refused. For example, the Sioux nations have repeatedly turned down cash settlements as compensation for the loss of the Black Hills. According to them, their ancestral homeland isn't for sale, and no amount of money can replace it.

For the Lakota, no cash settlement could ever replace the Black Hills

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