Nation, State or County?

On January 31, 2010 · 5 Comments

The sovereignty of Native American nations in the United States presents a complicated set of issues, wrapped in various viewpoints and interwoven with the past, present and future. This entry isn’t about the historical or political situation, however, it’s about a bit of current geography. Please excuse me as I sidestep the sensitivities while focusing on boundaries determined by people of European descent. I’m hoping to present this in a neutral fashion. Comments are always welcome.


I think it’s self-evident that Native American managed themselves just fine in Pre-Columbian times. They may not have been organized in accordance with European governance but so what. They formed into sovereign and independent units as tribes, confederations and other arrangements. Many advocates for Native Americans maintain that this sovereignty continues to exist today, that the Nations are literally nations, even though they are not respected as such by a dominating power.


The United States government presents a confusing view. It says it recognizes tribal sovereignty but not on an international level. The interaction takes place primarily through the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. The United States ceased forming treaties with the Native American nations in 1871 and granted citizenship to all Indians (who had not already attained citizenship) in 1924. The Federal government views the Native Americans nations within its boundaries as integral but subordinate to the Federal government.

The United States retains title to the reservation lands within its boundaries and holds it in trust on behalf of its Native American occupants. To them it’s just another parcel of U.S. government land like a military base or a national park, albeit with a special purpose. This land comprises more than 55 million acres held on behalf of 562 recognized tribal governments.

Indian reservations have been allowed to retain a level of self-government. While a reservation is part of the surrounding state(s) that it occupies territorially, it is exempt from state encroachments unless specified by Federal law. Thus, reservations do not generally pay state taxes. Tribal governments can also have significant authorities including systems of laws with police power and courts to enforce them. Many of them levy taxes, license motor vehicles, provide social services and perform a wide variety of functions one would normally expect from a state. But they are not states.

The interrelationship between the Native American nations and the various levels of government in the U.S. can be extremely complicated. The FAQ on the BIA website does help sort out some of the more common issues from a U.S. Government perspective.


There is one more level of complexity, and this is the instance that fascinates me because I have no idea how it might work in practice. These are instances when the third level of government, the county level, is completely occupied by an Indian Reservation. It’s not found frequently. Counties in the eastern United States are smaller in size, but Native Americans were pushed out of those areas primarily during the Colonial era. There are many reservations out west but there the counties are huge and it’s hard for anything to cover one completely. Thus, we need need to look towards the middle of the country, where Native Americans retained a foothold but where the counties are still relatively compact.

I found several. I’m presenting them in Mapquest format rather than my customary Google Maps because, unbelievably, Google still doesn’t display county lines. This may not be the complete list of county-reservation combos but these were the easiest ones to spot. I’ll add more if I find them.

Menominee County, Wisconsin

This is the instance that got me thinking about the subject originally. I’ve spent a lot of time traveling in Wisconsin and I noticed a map of Menominee County. It struck me that the entire county carried the label of the Menominee Indian Reservation, the home of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin. The two were conterminous, that is, they shared the exact same borders. The county is the reservation and the reservation is the county.

I did a little research and discovered that wasn’t exactly the case. The county was created in 1959 in anticipation of the disestablishment of the reservation, which did indeed happen in 1961. However the reservation was subsequently reestablished a few years later, in 1973. Non-Indian peoples purchased some of the land during that brief window so that 1.14% of Menominee County actually passed into private hands and is not part of the reservation.

Osage County, Oklahoma

Osage County is the largest in Oklahoma. It is also conterminous with the Osage Indian Reservation, the home of the Osage Nation. This one bumps right up to the northwest corner of Tulsa. In fact, the map seems to show that the Tulsa Country Club is located within the reservation boundaries.

Todd County, South Dakota

There are five counties in South Dakota completely covered by Indian Reservations, by far the most of any state.

The first is Todd County which is conterminous with the main Rosebud Indian Reservation (other lands are held outside of this as well). The reservation provides a home to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Interestingly, this county has no county seat. Those functions are handled by an administrative center in neighboring Tripp County.

Shannon County, South Dakota

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home of Oglala Sioux Tribe, engulfs the entirety of Shannon County within its extensive borders. Like Todd County, Shannon County does not have a county seat. Those functions are performed from neighboring Fall River County.

Dewey and Ziebach Counties, South Dakota

This is an interesting situation. The Cheyenne River Indian Reservation of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe is almost conterminous with Dewey and Ziebach Counties. However there is an extremely narrow strip at the northern edge of both counties that is not part of the reservation. Rather, it’s part of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation so the entirety of both counties is still part of Indian Country but with an unusual twist.

Corson County, South Dakota and Sioux County, North Dakota

Speaking of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, adjoining counties on opposite sides of state borders, Corson County in South Dakota and Sioux County in North Dakota form the final instance I observed. This reservation is the home of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. It covers about a million acres. The portion in North Dakota includes about a third of the reservation with the balance south of the state line.

On January 31, 2010 · 5 Comments

5 Responses to “Nation, State or County?”

  1. Jesse says:

    Interesting subject! This got me wondering whether the enormous Navajo nation had any counties completely inside of it. It doesn’t, though it occupies more than 60% of several counties in Arizona and New Mexico.

    The county seats for all of those counties appear to be outside of the reservations. Their demographics (according to Wikipedia) are fairly striking, e.g. Apache County in Arizona has more than 75% Native population, but the county seat, St. John’s, is less than 7% Native American.

    That might suggest something about the role of those counties in relation to the reservation in those cases. But it does make me curious as well about the practical role of county governments in cases where the county and the reservation are coterminous or the county is entirely inside the reservation.

  2. pfly says:

    There’s a good–if a bit dry–book on the odd nature of American Indian Treaties and their history. It’s called “American Indian Treaties: The History of a Political Anomaly”, by Francis Paul Prucha. It doesn’t get into the county-issues you raise, as far as I know. It does get into how and why treaties between the federal government and Indian tribes/nations/whatever were conducted as if they were international treaties, but fully within the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States. In early times, if I have it right, Indian nations were treated (‘treated’->treaty) as sovereign bodies. But one of the key rights reserved by colonial era powers (eg, the early USA, Britain, Spain, France, etc), was that within the domain recognized as under the jurisdiction of a particular colonial power only that power could negotiate treaties with the Indians. It was messier in earlier colonial times, when the borders between colonial powers were not yet nailed down, and the powers depended upon Indians to do much of the fighting in proxy. By the middle 19th century the long tradition of treating Indians as sovereign states requiring federal international-like treaties had become rather anachronistic, especially as the power relation between the USA and the various tribes fell far out of balance.

    I have wondered about how counties operate when they are wholly within a reservation. Post more if you learn more. I’ve long suspected that although reservations are usually mapped as solid blocks they are usually, perhaps always more accurately a patchwork of parcels, some part of the reservation, some not, with many shades of gray between. At least, in the Pacific Northwest that is often the case. Maps will show solid blocks of reservation land, but if you get down to the parcel level you’ll find the actual lands under reservation jurisdiction may be less than 50%.

  3. Jesse says:

    I just came across a map that takes all the fun out of looking for these overlaps:

    Looks like there’s at least one more case where a county is entirely contained in a reservation (in Montana), as well as several near-misses across the mountain West.

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