To learn more about Native American and Indigenous Affairs, we have put together some frequently asked questions below (last updated | 2020 04 14):

Who are Indigenous peoples?

Indigenous peoples are the descendants of the peoples who inhabited the Americas, the Pacific, and parts of Asia and Africa prior to European colonization. Indigenous peoples continue to thrive throughout the world today.


What is the proper terminology: Indigenous, Indigenous Peoples, Native American, or American Indian?

Generally, Indigenous refers to those peoples with pre-existing sovereignty who were living together as a community prior to contact with settler populations, most often – though not exclusively – Europeans. Indigenous is the most inclusive term, as there are Indigenous peoples on every continent throughout the world – such as the Sami in Sweden, the First Nations in Canada, Mayas in Mexico and Guatemala, and the Ainu in Japan – fighting to remain culturally intact on their land bases. Indigenous Peoples refers to a group of Indigenous peoples with a shared national identity, such as “Navajo” or “Sami,” and is the equivalent of saying “the American people.” Native American and American Indian are terms used to refer to peoples living within what is now the United States prior to European contact. American Indian has a specific legal context because the branch of law, Federal Indian Law, uses this terminology. American Indian is also used by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget through the U.S. Census Bureau. Whenever possible, it is best to use the name of an individual’s particular Indigenous community or nation of people; for example, “Tongva,”  “Tataviam” and “Chumash” are the Indigenous Peoples of the Los Angeles area, and they are also “American Indian,” “Native American,” and “Indigenous.”


Who are the Indigenous peoples of Los Angeles?

UCLA sits on the land of the Gabrielino/Tongva, the original caretakers of the Los Angeles Basin. The Fernandeño Tataviam are also close in relationship to UCLA, with their ancestral villages located in the San Fernando, Santa Clarita, eastern Simi and Antelope Valleys. The Chumash and Ajachamen are part of the LA county area as well, to the north and south of UCLA respectively. At UCLA, we recognize all original peoples of the Los Angeles area and to the north, east, south and west whose lands are connected to where we now learn, work, and live. From the point of European contact until present day, many other Indigenous peoples – including American Indians from across the United States, Pacific Islanders, and Indigenous peoples from Latin America, among others — came to call Los Angeles their home. In the 1950’s and 60’s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) instituted the termination and relocation programs that brought many American Indians to Los Angeles. Others came for economic reasons or fleeing conflict in their home countries. Los Angeles now has the largest population of Native American and Indigenous peoples of any other city in the United States. To learn more about the original peoples of Los Angeles County, refer to the Mapping Indigenous LA website created by UCLA professors and researchers.


What is the current population of Indigenous, U.S. American Indians and Alaskan Natives?

Determining the number of Indigenous peoples in the United States is complex. The U.S. Census carries the category American Indian/Alaska Native, but this does not encompass all Indigenous peoples. The number of Indigenous peoples from other countries is also difficult to estimate, as immigration records document their national origin, not their status as Indigenous peoples. However, some data are available. For direct information regarding American Indian, Indigenous, and Pacific Islander information, see the most current United States wide 2010 Census and the California 2010 Census.


What is land acknowledgement and why is it important? How can I appropriately acknowledge the land that I am on?

Gabrielino/Tongva Acknowledgement

UCLA, like all campuses in the UC system, are land grant institutions. This means that they reside on lands provided by the state that historically were the homelands of indigenous peoples. Living descendants of those peoples continue to understand these lands as their ancestral homelands, and to live and thrive in these areas, as the Gabrielino/Tongva people do in Los Angeles. For this reason, it is a respectful first step to acknowledge and pay respects to those whose ancestral lands we enjoy as we work, teach, and learn at UCLA.

To that end, we suggest the following language created in conjunction with Tongva cultural leaders, which can be adapted for the needs of any class, event, office, department, center, or institute:

Option 1: As a land grant institution, the _____ at UCLA acknowledges the Gabrielino/Tongva peoples as the traditional land caretakers of Tovaangar (Los Angeles basin, So. Channel Islands).

Option 2: The _______ at UCLA acknowledges our presence on the on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Gabrielino/Tongva peoples.

Option 3: The ____ at UCLA acknowledges the Gabrielino/Tongva peoples as the traditional land caretakers of Tovaangar (the Los Angeles basin and So. Channel Islands). As a land grant institution, we pay our respects to the Honuukvetam (Ancestors), ‘Ahiihirom (Elders), and ‘Eyoohiinkem (our relatives/relations) past, present, and emerging.

Listen to the pronunciation of Gabrielino/Tongva language words on UCLA’s American Indian Studies Center Homepage.

Recognizing the Gabrielino/Tongva can be communicated in a variety of ways that work best for your particular event. We encourage all UCLA schools, departments, institutes, units and other campus entities to include a similar acknowledgement at any significant public events that you host on campus property, particularly events of 50 people or more. This should also apply to all UCLA Medal ceremonies, department/school/institute/center anniversary celebrations, or lectures that are part of an ongoing series (e.g. Thurgood Marshall or Doby lectures), even if they are not open to the campus community. For welcoming events and first meetings of the year, the acknowledgement is encouraged as it grounds newcomers and could initiate further discussion throughout the year. You may include the language in a printed event program or, if you prefer, you can ask your emcees to make a brief verbal acknowledgement during their welcome remarks.

This request should only apply to events physically located on UCLA campus property and hosted by an official campus unit. For off-campus events, it has become much more common practice to find out who should be acknowledged in that place. Events that are hosted on campus by an entity other than UCLA are not expected to include the acknowledgement, but should be provided the information and encouraged to take this important step.

The most effective acknowledgements will take this moment as a point of reflection, integration and acknowledgement of how we came to gather in this place.


How does the United States define Indigenous Peoples/American Indians?

The United States’ Constitution, more than 300 treaties, and over two centuries of Federal law recognize Indian tribes as domestic dependent nations with degrees of sovereignty existing within the confines of the United States. Please see the American Indian Digital Archive or the Smithsonian National Museum of American Indians for access to these treaties. The U.S. Census defines American Indian or Alaska Native as “A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment.” Individual American Indians are, by legal definition, citizens of their federally recognized tribal nations, the United States, and the state in which they are domiciled. Tribal membership is a political designation, not a racial one. That is to say, merely having an ancestor who is American Indian is not sufficient to make someone a member or citizen of an American Indian tribe. Accordingly, it is inaccurate to identify American Indians solely as “racial minorities” even though ancestry and kin relations are core features of American Indian tribal membership.


What is federal recognition?

Federal recognition is the “legal acknowledgement” of the sovereign and separate political status of tribal nations by the U.S. Federal government. It establishes a political and legal relationship between an Indian tribe and the U.S., which carries particular rights and responsibilities for both parties, potentially entitling tribes to certain federal resources that trigger the operation of an entire body of Federal law. These resources may include: health care, housing, and education services; the possibility of the recognized tribe’s implementing their own forms of economic development including gaming; establishing their own justice system; and eligibility for advancing repatriation claims under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Regulations for federal recognition, formally called the Federal Acknowledgement Process (FAP), were established in 1978, in response to recommendations made in the American Indian Policy Commission Report of 1977, which concluded that the United States was not adequately fulfilling its trust obligations to tribal nations. Before the adoption of these regulations, federal recognition status was based on federal treaties and accomplished through Congressional Acts, Presidential Executive Orders, or other U.S. law. Current procedures, known as “Procedures for Establishing that an American Indian Group Exists as an Indian Tribe,” (25 CFR Part 83) govern the Department of the Interior’s administrative process for determining which groups are “Indian tribes” within the meaning of Federal law. Administered by the Office of Federal Acknowledgment (OFA), current procedures require petitioning tribes to meet a seven mandatory criteria to become federally recognized. In order to qualify for acknowledgement, groups must establish a substantially continuous tribal existence and have functioned as autonomous entities throughout history until the present. By the Department of the Interior’s own words, when it acknowledges an Indian tribe, it is acknowledging that an inherent sovereign continues to exist.  The Department is not “granting” sovereign status or powers to the tribe, nor creating a tribe made up of Indian descendants.

There are currently 574 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages, 109 of those are in the state of California. In addition, many Native California tribes remain unacknowledged and are currently petitioning the US government for recognition.  Unfortunately, in practice the current FAP functions as a barrier to federal recognition as much as a pathway to it. The process is long, taking over 30 years to consider some applications. Non-recognized tribes face the arduous task of submitting applications that satisfy the extensive and often confusing criteria demanded by the OFA, a process that is expensive and time consuming. In many instances, non-recognized tribes find it difficult or impossible to compile the historical data and “legitimate” evidence expected to supplement applications for acknowledgement. The FAP is widely understood to be dysfunctional – it has been the subject of over 30 Senate and House subcommittee hearings, and the regulations have been revised three times (in 1994, 2007, and 2015). The Office of Federal Acknowledgement was restructured and renamed twice, and twelve Secretaries of Indian Affairs have come and gone over time. 

In the four decades since the FAP was established, 356 “groups” have sought federal acknowledgment. Of that number, 269 have not been able to submit documented petitions. Of the 87 that have submitted documented petitions, the agency has resolved 55. Only 18 have resulted in acknowledgement and only one tribe in CA has successfully secured federal recognition through 25 CFR Part 83.


What is state recognition?

There are 14 states that have recognition processes for American Indian tribes, usually through legislative processes. Currently, there are more than 60 state-recognized tribes in 11 states. While this is an important recognition of inherent sovereignty, state recognition does not confer upon the tribes and their members legal status as American Indian Tribes under U.S. law, which negatively affects their ability to receive funds and resources issued through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.


How are Indigenous Peoples recognized internationally?

In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Article 3 of the UNDRIP states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” As such, each nation of Indigenous peoples has an internationally recognized right to freely exercise its own origins, system of organization and political formation. Having self recognition in the definition was a victory, as nation-states had fought for the right to retain the power to define who is Indigenous. The United States (along with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) initially voted against the Declaration, reversing its position two years later.


Are Indigenous peoples a racial minority?

Indigenous peoples are frequently classified as a racial minority. However, it is important to understand that “Native American” or “American Indian” are not strictly racial categories. Being a member of a tribal nation provides a membership status. Because of tribes’ status as sovereign nations, Indigenous peoples/tribes are political entities. Whether an individual is a member of a federally recognized Indian tribe depends on the membership rules of each individual tribe. Those requirements usually have some basis in “blood quantum” ancestry, however, other criteria may also be used. A DNA test cannot tell you that you are Native American, because that status is defined by belonging to a tribal nation or community. “Native American” or “American Indian” thus differs from racial minority groups because it entails membership and that membership connotes a distinct historical and political relationship with the federal government.


What does “sovereignty” mean? What does “self-determination” mean?

Sovereignty is a type of political power, exercised through some form of government. Native American sovereignty is the ability of tribes to assert independent nationhood with the right to self-governance, including the ability to govern their territories, tax, and incarcerate. U.S. law recognizes that each federally recognized tribal government’s sovereignty is inherent, that it pre-dates the U.S. government, and it is not derived from an outside legal source, such as the U.S. government or earlier colonial government. Tribal nations’ sovereignty existed prior to colonization by Europeans. Many tribal nations continue to recognize their inherent sovereignty on their land bases regardless of federal recognition status. Self-determination is the ability of a tribe to assert control over its own affairs. According to the UNDRIP, self-determination refers to the right to, “freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”


What is the Doctrine of Discovery? What does “terra nullius” mean?

Originating in a 1455 papal bull (a decree issued by the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church) and amended in the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, The Doctrine of Discovery gave title for lands to the European nation that (ostensibly) “discovered” it. Because the 1494 treaty stated that only non-Christian lands fell under the jurisdiction of the doctrine, places inhabited by non-Christians were considered terra nullius (empty lands), open for the taking. The Doctrine of Discovery has been twice affirmed as law in the United States: in 1792, by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and in 1823, by Chief Justice John Marshall when writing for the majority in Johnson v. McIntosh. A central feature of the fight for the recognition of Indigenous rights is to overturn the doctrine of discovery as a matter of religious and civil law.


What is a treaty?

A treaty is a contract between nations. In the context of American Indians and Alaskan Natives, treaties are contracts between tribal governments and the U.S. federal government. Before treaties come into effect, they must be ratified by the Senate. 370 treaties with tribes were ratified by the U.S. Senate from 1776 to 1871, 45 were negotiated but never ratified. In 1871, the United States ceased treaty-making with tribes. Virtually all of the treaties that were signed and ratified were eventually broken by the U.S. government. One of the worst cases of dishonor by the U.S. government in regard to its treaties took place in California, where the California legislature asked the U.S. Senate not to ratify 18 treaties that had been made in 1851-52 between tribal representatives and federal commissioners.


Why do the treaties matter today?

Although the United States has failed to live up to its treaty obligations to American Indian tribes, treaties are nevertheless important in defining the relationship between the tribes and the U.S. government. Treaties serve as the basis for Indigenous rights to territory, water, jurisdiction, religious freedom, hunting grounds, and many other rights. Most significantly, because ratified Indian treaties had the status of an agreement made by the United States with a sovereign nation, treaties signify the fact that the U.S. understands that Native nations are sovereign political entities and that there is an on-going obligation to recognize the agreement.


Why do International Conventions matter today?

International conventions matter as well, especially because of the high density and historic nature of communities established by Indigenous Peoples in migrant status from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and the rest of Latin America in Los Angeles and indeed throughout California. Such is the case of the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention established in 1989 by the International Labour Organization (C169 Convenio sobre Pueblos Indígenas y Tribales) and the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.


Do California Indians have treaties?

There are 18 unratified treaties with California tribes. In 1850, three delegates sent by the U.S. Senate negotiated treaties with Natives in Southern, Central, and Northern California. According to judge William Bauer, “The government provided instruments of assimilation (domesticated livestock, teachers, farm implements, etc.), and the Natives recognized the United States as their protector.”  Seven and a half million acres of land were set aside for California Natives, however, the treaties faced opposition by non-Natives and were not ratified. Today, the state of California recognizes a government-to-government relationship with all “California Native American Tribes.” “California Native American Tribe” is defined as all federally recognized tribes and all non-federally recognized tribes on the contact list maintained by the California-governor appointed Native American Heritage Commission. For more information you may also see the California Office of the Tribal Advisor: “The Tribal Advisor … is responsible for overseeing and implementing effective government-to-government consultation between the Governor’s Administration and California Tribes on policies that affect California tribal communities.”


What are land grant institutions?

On July 2, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law “An Act Donating Public Lands to the Several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts.” Also called the Morrill Act (named after its sponsor, Vermont Congressman Justin Morrill), the Act granted 30,000 acres of federal land to each state, based on congressional seats. These public lands were obtained during the treaty making processes of the 1700’s through to 1871 and thus came into federal holdings through Native land dispossession. The states in turn often sold these valuable lands to fund the establishment of military education, public agricultural and mechanical arts colleges. The University of California system is one of the largest land-grant schools created under this act, the mission of which was to educate the public in a burgeoning nation.


What does it mean that UCLA is a land grant institution?

UCLA is built on the ancestral homelands of the Gabrielino/Tongva. Because UCLA is an institution that benefited from the dispossession of Native people from these lands, it bears a moral responsibility to the peoples impacted. It is important for the UCLA community to recognize that their presence and the university’s existence are a result of Native peoples’ displacement and land dispossession. UCLA recognizes the Gabrielino/Tongva’s ancestral relationship to the lands in which we now learn, teach and engage on. As a large population of Indigenous peoples now live in Los Angeles, it is also our public mission to serve all the local Indigenous populations and those who have made their home in California.


What is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), and what has UCLA done to ensure its implementation?

Passed in 1990, NAGPRA “provides a process for museums and Federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items – human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony – to lineal descendants, and culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations.” It also “authorizes Federal grants to Indian tribes, Native Hawaiian organizations, and museums to assist with the documentation and repatriation of Native American cultural items,” and “establishes the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Review Committee.” For more information see the National Park Service website. Federally funded institutions such as federal agencies, public museums and universities, including the UC system, are subject to NAGPRA. UCLA has made a concerted effort to return human remains and funerary objects to Indigenous peoples despite a complicated and controversial process. NAGPRA experts at UCLA reiterate both a legal and ethical obligation to repatriation with respect for disinterred ancestors as well as their present day relatives.

To learn about NAGPRA, the repatriation process and best practices at UCLA, visit the Carrying Our Ancestors Home (COAH) website. COAH is a collaborative project between UCLA’s NAGPRA coordinator, Special advisor on Native American and Indigenous affairs, and repatriation practitioners from across the world, that aims at highlighting the tribal voices and best practices for return of ancestors and cultural patrimony to their home communities. The project’s website provides information about the process and impact of NAGPRA and repatriation efforts through primary resources, news articles, publications, and original videos. COAH will eventually be adding  material on international repatriation to Indigenous peoples that fall outside the boundaries of U.S. law. You may go to the National NAGPRA website to find specific legal information and find repatriation Notices involving UCLA and to the California Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC) website to learn about California specific Native American burial protection laws.


I am from the press and would like to contact an expert who could provide me information on a current topic or insight into a situation.

We recommend that you consult the American Indian Studies Interdepartmental faculty list, who carry specific forms of disciplinary and regional expertise. We suggest being clear in your request and providing a deadline as we know the media often moves quickly on timely topics.


I am a teacher and would like to have someone come to the classroom. Do you know of appropriate teaching material on Indigenous Peoples for K-12th grade?

The teaching resources guide at UCLA’s Mapping Indigenous LA website offers links to educational materials and recommendations on how to assess teaching sources. The Mapping Indigenous LA website is updated regularly and assessed by community members and tribal nations. As for approaching community members, we recommend the following: contact them with adequate advance notice of a minimum of two months; provide an honorarium or speakers fee for their time and expertise; arrange parking and send directions with a clear map to rooms; ask if any accommodations are needed as some are elderly; and make sure water is available as well. In Native cultures it is often common to gift, even if just in a small meaningful way, as an act of reciprocity for sharing knowledge.


I want to find out more about my ancestry. Who can I contact?

UCLA does not work on individual genealogies. Tribes have a formal process or often an appointed person who works on membership. Turning to the tribe you believe you have a relationship to and respectfully requesting the information is the appropriate step in the process.