How has the U.S. treated Native Americans? Most see a history of mistakes and injustice

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
November 15, 2023, 4:11 PM GMT+0

Most Americans believe the U.S. government has historically treated Native Americans unfairly, and majorities regard its past decisions regarding Native tribes in this country as the wrong ones, according to a new YouGov Poll. Large shares of Americans support various efforts to preserve Native American sovereignty and traditions, but fewer want a ban on Native American-themed sports mascots. In comparisons to polls conducted at other points in the past century, we find some increase over the past 75 years in the share who believe the U.S. has not treated Native Americans fairly; there has been less change in the last 50 years.

Colonizing and decolonizing

Far more say that European colonization in the U.S. had an overall negative effect on Native Americans (60%) than a positive one (11%). Half of Americans estimate that 60% or more of the original Native American population died from disease, starvation, war, or other causes resulting from European colonization of the U.S. Actual estimates vary widely, with some sources claiming it was as high as 95%.

More Americans describe the relationship between early European settlers and Native Americans in the U.S. as mostly confrontational and violent (30%) than as mostly peaceful and collaborative (8%), though the largest share (48%) say it was mixed, with some collaboration and some confrontation. More believe Native Americans were resistant to settlers (39%) than welcoming of them (17%).

The survey also asked Americans about seven concepts related to U.S. relations with Native Americans. The concept that the largest share — 65% — has a positive view of is self-determination, and about half (47%) view tribal sovereignty positively. Americans hold mixed views on assimilation and manifest destiny. More hold negative views of colonization than of decolonization, though opinions on both terms are generally divided. People with a positive view of colonization are equally likely to hold positive and negative views of decolonization, but people with a positive view of decolonization are largely negative toward colonization.

A history of wrong decisions

Most Americans believe the U.S. government has a history of bad decision-making in regard to its treatment of Native Americans:

  • 76% say it was the wrong decision to deny U.S. citizenship and voting rights to Native Americans
  • 75% say it was wrong to force the relocation of tribes from their ancestral homes in what became known as the Trail of Tears
  • 75% say it was wrong to remove Native American children from their families and send them to boarding schools
  • 72% say it was wrong to extract natural resources from Native lands without equitable compensation
  • 62% say it was wrong to discourage Native American languages and pressured tribes to adopt English
  • 60% say it was wrong to establish reservation systems that confined Native tribes to specific plots of land

The one exception, and also the most recent decision asked about, is allowing Native American tribes to operate casinos on tribal lands free from state regulations: only 19% say doing this was wrong.

How opinions have changed

To understand how opinions on the treatment of Native Americans have changed, we adapted older questions on the topic from past polls (archived by the Roper Center) and included them in our recent survey — with some wording changes.

In 1947, Gallup asked Americans whether the U.S. government has treated Native Americans fairly, and found that more said yes than no (44% vs. 38%). Today, far fewer Americans say treatment has been fair than unfair (15% vs. 67%).

Looking back 50 years — to a 1973 poll conducted by Louis Harris & Associates — we find fewer differences in how Americans assess the treatment of Native Americans in this country. Over this period, there has been a slight decline (8 percentage points) in the share who say Native Americans have been treated poorly.

The same 1973 survey by Louis Harris & Associates gauged agreement with five statements relating to how the U.S. has treated Native Americans. We've compared responses between this and the more recent survey — which included a higher share of "not sure" responses — by calculating net agreement, which is the result of subtracting the share of people who disagree with each statement from the share of people who agree.

In the past 50 years, net agreement with the statement "the U.S. government has lived up to the treaties signed with Native Americans" has increased to +51 from +28. At the same time, fewer now believe that "Native Americans have not been given a chance to determine their own future through self-government" (down to +24 from +35).

Current laws and debates

When it comes to the current laws, Americans are far more likely to strongly or somewhat agree (59%) than to disagree (21%) with Native American reservations being treated as sovereign nations, which was described in the survey as meaning that they are independent of state law and that the actions of tribal citizens are subject only to tribal courts and federal law. Majorities also strongly or support a variety of other efforts to increase tribal sovereignty and preserve Native American history and traditions.

On policies related to family preservation, a total of 79% are in favor of "strengthening laws to prevent the unwarranted removal of Native children from their families" and 73% favor "giving Native American families and institutions priority in the adoption of Native children." On the subject of Native history and traditions, 78% support "increasing the amount that is taught about Native American history in public school curriculums" and 68% support "increasing government funding for the preservation of Native American languages and traditions."

While the vast majority of people (77%) agree with "requiring federal agencies to involve tribes in decision-making that affects their lands," just over half (55%) agree with "halting or rerouting infrastructure projects based on concerns raised by Native tribes." Policies that involve giving a direct benefit or advantage to Native Americans over other Americans are less popular, though are still supported by pluralities: 48% support "giving Native Americans an advantage in college admissions decisions" and 46% support "the government paying cash reparations to Native American tribal members."

The least popular policies are those aimed at addressing symbolic harms done to Native Americans. A plurality of 44% support "removing monuments dedicated to historical figures who supported mistreatment of Native Americans" and even fewer (30%) are in favor of "banning sports teams from using Native American-themed mascots."

While certain policies relating to Native Americans are popular among majorities of Democrats and Republicans — such as increasing requirements for school history about Native Americans, preventing child separations, and requiring tribal input on decisions involving their land — other proposals are more divisive. Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to support removing controversial monuments, paying cash reparations, instituting affirmative action in college admissions, and banning Native-themed sports mascots.

— Carl Bialik and Allen Houston contributed to this article

See the results for this YouGov poll

Methodology: This poll was conducted online on October 31 - November 3, 2023 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to November 1, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 31% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 4%.

Image: Getty