Power & Market

Not All Indian Reservations Are Alike

Back when I taught political science, a phrase I used when preparing students for the tests was “he who makes distinctions well, teaches well.”

That is, if we’re talking about regime types, dear student, you better know the difference between a totalitarian regime, and a regime that is merely authoritarian. If we’re talking about eighteenth-century American ideologies, you better know the difference between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. If we’re talking economic policy, know the difference between fiscal policy and monetary policy.

And when it comes to different groups of Americans often considered to be homogeneous, it is often helpful to dig a little deeper to see some of the differences.

One such group is indigenous Americans. Or in the common parlance: “Indians.”

Often, whenever one reads a news-media article about Indians, it usually begins with a few sentences about how poor they are, and how terrible the reservations are in terms of their standards of living. Usually, the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota is mentioned.

But at all reservations equally poor?

After all, some reservations have forests and ample access to water. Others are in the middle of deserts with few natural resources. Some relatively near metro areas and all the services they provide. Some reservations are hours from good healthcare and good shopping.

Well, it turns out that all reservations certainly aren’t all the same.

Looking at the top-25 most populous reservations, we find that the median income among people who self-identify as Indians varies from $18,890 on the Gila River reservation (AZ) to $79,167 on the Agua Caliente reservation (CA). That’s for the period from 2013 to 2017.

The overall US median income during the period was about $57,000, which means the median income for Indians on the Isabella and Tulalip reservations were about equal to everyone else.

Indeed, given that many reservations are in rural areas, it’s helpful to compare incomes not to the US overall, but to the incomes of Rural Americans. The rural median income for the same period is $44,020. That means income for the median household on the Agua Caliente, Isabella, Tulalip, Uintah and Ouray, Osage, Wind River, and Puyallup reservations are all higher than the median household in rural America.

A the lower end, however, we do indeed find grinding poverty and remarkably low median incomes that are less than half of the national median income.


Even on the reservations with higher median incomes, poverty rates at the lower end remain elevated. The overall US poverty rate of 14.6 percent (against, from 2013-2017) was lower than all of the 25-largest reservations. The US rural poverty rate of 17.2 percent was lower than all but two (Osage and Tulalip) of the reservations.



One aspect of reservation populations that is often ignored, however, is the fact that on many reservations, people who self-identify as Indian are in the minority.

Among the 25-most populous reservations, the portion of the resident population that was Indian ranged from 1.7 percent on the Agua Caliente reservation to 96.8 percent on the San Carlos reservation.1



Reservations with lower proportions of non-Indian residents tend to be poorer. This may reflect several factors:

  • Residents on reservations that are more geographically isolated tend to encounter fewer non-Indian residents, thus leading to less intermarriage, and fewer residents who are not Indians.
  • Geographically isolated reservations tend to be poorer, and poorer reservations tend to attract fewer non-Indians engaged in commerce and employment on or near a reservation.
  • In many cases, reservations with more laissez-faire economic policies have more “checkerboarding,” or mixing of privately owned and tribally-owned lands within this reservation. Checkerboarding may correlate with higher incomes.

In general, rural reservations are often affected by many of the same problems that rural communities in general encounter. There are fewer jobs, and the jobs that do exist often pay lower wages than in metropolitan areas. The US rural median income, for instance is approximately $44,000, while the urban median income is approximately $59,900.

Geographic isolation tends to be a clear factor in cases where the tribe owns a casino. When the casino is near a metropolitan area, it attracts large numbers of visitors to the reservation who spend freely. The most extreme case of this, perhaps, is the Mdewakanton Sioux of Minnesota (a group of under 1,000 people) which owns two casinos within the Minneapolis metro area. Members of the tribe receive nearly one million dollars per year in payments from tribal business organizations.

Another extreme case is the Agua Caliente reservation which is adjacent to Palm Springs, California. The tribe and is one of the city’s largest land owners. Only a tiny percentage of residents are actually enrolled in the tribe.

Less-extreme examples of relatively prosperous reservations include the Southern Ute reservation — near the college and resort town of Durango Colorado — and the Tulalip reservation, which owns a casino and business park near I-5 in Washington State, near the Seattle-Tacoma metro area.

[A note on the data: In the first and second graphs, I’ve used median incomes that correspond to the group labeled  “AIANa,” which according to the Minneapolis Fed’s report on reservation incomes, “includes only individuals who self-identify racially as American Indian or Alaska Native alone.” In the third graph, the Indian population corresponds to “AIANac” which “includes AIANa individuals and also those who self-identify as American Indian or Alaska Native in combination with other races.” See report here: https://www.minneapolisfed.org/indiancountry/resources/reservation-profiles/]

Photo credit: I-5 Design & Manufacture via Flickr (image cropped)

  • 1The number of residents who are members of the tribe governing the reservation is lower than the number of residents who self-identify as Indian.
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Image Source: I-5 Design & Manufacture via Flickr (image cropped)
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