Driving into the Hopi Indian Reservation in Northeast Arizona, you don't even know you're there until you see the ancient stone houses clinging to the tops of rocky mesas, villages the Hopis founded centuries ago. There's little in the way of development here; just a handful of stores, restaurants and the occasional gas station. Unemployment here is a staggering sixty five percent.
Outside the tribe's cultural center, Kip, who only gave his first name, carves a kachina doll out of a dried cottonwood root with smooth strokes of his jackknife. Like many Hopis, and many other Native Americans in the southwest, he scrapes by selling arts and crafts to tourists. He has arranged his brightly painted dolls in front of him.
"I've got a shalico, white chin planter, crow mother, storyteller, virgin butterfly…"
Kip says he sometimes sits in the shade of this juniper pine for days before he sells a single doll. His situation isn't unusual. Household income on the Hopi reservation, and the Navajo Nation next door, lags far behind surrounding towns. But while life on the 'rez,' as locals call it, can be hard, the land is extremely important to Hopis. Loris Taylor is general manager of KUYI, Hopi Radio.
"It defines geographically and politically our space within the universe. It's a place where tribes can assert their jurisdiction, not just over their people but over resources, they can exercise government, they can be their own voice."
Taylor says how Native Americans view their land is often quite different from how others see it.
"I think some people think that reservations are like holding pens, where they put people away from larger society, and where we were placed for our own good. But the reservation is more than that. It's a place where it recognizes the ties of history and language and family and culture. It's a place where we have the freedom to choose our way of life."
The first Indian reservations were created in the 1840s. At that time there was a huge push by European-Americans to settle in the western parts of the country. Tribes gave up huge chunks of their aboriginal homeland in exchange for smaller "reservations," as well as promises from the federal government to provide education and health care. Some reservations, like the Hopi and Navajo, are on tribes' original land. But many eastern Indian tribes were forcibly removed from their homes and settled elsewhere -- many in Oklahoma, half a continent away.
Peter Iverson, who teaches Native American history at Arizona State University, says reservations have outlasted everyone's expectations.
"If you were to bring back some of the policy makers, officials and show them the map of America today they would be astonished, there are more American Indians now than there were one hundred years ago. This is not what people anticipated."
What they anticipated, says Professor Iverson, was that Native Americans would assimilate, or blend into mainstream society. But reservations, by segregating Indian tribes, in many cases actually helped preserve their identity.
"The irony is that these reservations did not turn out to be temporary enclaves, but permanent establishments, that's made a real difference in terms of cultural continuity."
While reservations are important culturally to Indian tribes, they also have crucial legal and political implications. Octaviana Trujillo is a member of the Pascua Yaqui tribe in southern Arizona. She chairs Northern Arizona University's Applied Indigenous Studies Program.
"I think it's very, very important for people to realize that we're not like any other ethnic, cultural minority community here in the United States, that we do have a special status because of our land, and the many treaties established between the tribal nations and the United States government that are still upheld to this day in federal courts."
What the courts have ruled based on those treaties is that Indian tribes are sovereign they have the right to govern themselves on their reservations, as well as deal with the United States on what's often called a nation-to-nation basis. Peter d'Errico, retired Indian law professor at the University of Massachusetts, says in an odd way, that actually puts Indian tribes on firmer footing than the nation's states.
"The nation within the nation, are peoples, nations that existed prior to the formation of any other nation here so nation to nation for Indian people rings a bell that says we are separate from that whole state/ federal system."
Still, the whole notion of being put on reservations has left many Native Americans bitter. At the opening of the new National Museum of the American Indian last month in Washington D.C. Joe Shirley Junior said he doesn't even like the word "reservation." Mr. Shirley is president of the country's largest tribe, the Navajo Nation.
"That name was coined way back when tribes were put under the war department under the U.S. government when they drove some of us off of our land and picked a piece of ground over here, believing that we were savages, barbaric, warlike, lower than the four legged beasts: 'let's get this piece of land over here and call it the wildlife reserve.' Well, I'd like to have the people know that my land is not a wildlife reserve and never has been. It has always been Navajo Land."
The Navajo reservation was created in 1868 one of the last treaties the United States government signed with an Indian tribe. Now there are well over three hundred thousand Navajo people, and over four million Native Americans, who have clung on to their land, their culture, and their identity.