Why Were Indian Reservations Created?

The United States government created Indian reservations in 1851 to prevent disputes about land boundaries and rights between white citizens and Native Americans. While the federal government intended reservations to serve as refuges that provided housing and employment to tribes, the reality was often far from the ideal.

The 1851 Indian Appropriations Act, which created the reservation system, forced Native Americans to move to and remain living on reservations. This prevented many Native Americans from being able to sustain themselves in traditional ways, such as hunting, fishing and gathering food. The move made many Native Americans dependent on the diet of white settlers, including sugar and wheat flour.

The Indian Appropriations Act was preceded in 1831 by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall declaring Indian tribes "domestic dependent nations" of the U.S. According to Marshall, the relation of tribes to the federal government resembled "that of a ward to his guardian." He suggested that the government had an obligation to protect and care for the Native American people who lived within U.S. borders, setting the stage for the formation of reservations.

Modern reservations are considered federal lands. However, Native American tribes possess some sovereignty on their respective reservations, which is why gambling, which is in illegal in most states, is often permitted on reservations.