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About the College Fund

What is the mission of the American Indian College Fund?
The American Indian College Fund (the College Fund), a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit that consistently earns high ratings from national charity watchdog organizations, was established in 1989. Headquartered today in Denver, Colorado, we provide scholarships and programming for American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) students to access and succeed in higher education. We also support tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), located on or near Indian reservations, with funding, training, and programs. Our tagline is “Education is the answer” because research shows higher education creates greater economic sustainability, better health outcomes, and more for Indigenous students. After graduation, many of our scholars serve their sovereign nations in a variety of roles.

Who are the Indigenous students the College Fund serves?
The College Fund provides scholarships and other programs and services to enrolled members of federally recognized
and state-recognized Indian tribes and descendants of enrolled tribal members living in the United States, along with
Alaska Natives.

What academic criteria must students meet to qualify for a scholarship or support?
Students must be enrolled or enrolling in an accredited nonprofit higher education institution, such as a tribal college or university (TCU) or other private or state college or university to study for a certificate program, associate, bachelor’s, master’s, or terminal degree (such as a Master of Fine Arts, Juris Doctorate, or doctorate degree). Applicants must demonstrate a cumulative 2.00 grade point average and maintain full-time enrollment in an accredited, nonprofit higher education institution to be eligible. Applicants will automatically be considered for other scholarships based on their eligibility. Applications and instructions can be found at:

How many Native students does the American Indian College Fund serve?
In 2022-2023, the College Fund supported more than 4,000 Native scholars residing in 43 states to attend 267 colleges and universities. They received scholarships totaling over $17 million. Sixty-seven percent of College Fund scholarship recipients in 2022 had financial need. Of them, 2,718 were the first in their families to attend college. We can only currently support 1 in 10 applicants with scholarships. We continue to fundraise because we know we can help even more students.

Why do Indigenous students need financial assistance and other support? Don’t they get a free education?
While some tribes offer stipends or scholarships to their tribal citizens, Native Americans as a group do not receive a free college education. In the academic year 2019-2020, the average percentage of students attending TCUs located on or near Indian reservations who received a Federal Pell Grant was 79%. Pell Grants are a major indication of financial need.

The College Fund, as part of the National Native Scholarship Providers, the first cross-organizational partnership of its kind, conducted research that showed college affordability is the leading barrier to AIAN students earning a certificate or degree. Conversely, having money to go to school and stay in school increases college completion. Summer school scholarships maintain students’ ties to their institutions year-round, increasing persistence and graduation rates, allowing them to graduate sooner with less debt, and helping them launch their careers sooner.

Our program support, which includes coaching, mentoring, and other support to help students plan, prepare, and succeed in college and in their careers, is the most important support we offer. Programs include high school to college programs, FAFSA application assistance and instruction, college readiness programs, an annual Summer of Success Conference, TCU Transfer programs, career planning programs, and resources for applying to college and career prep.

What is a Tribal College and University (TCU)?
TCUs are higher education institutions typically chartered by their tribal nations. The Navajo Nation established the first tribal college (Diné College) to provide an affordable, culturally based college education close to home for its people.

All TCUs receive support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture as land-grant institutions and from the U.S. Department of Education. They often receive competitive grants, foundation money, and private support. But the TCUs receive little or no state funds and are not supported through property taxes like many mainstream community colleges.

Today, the College Fund serves 35 TCUs located on or near Indian reservations. TCUs help revitalize their sovereign tribal nations’ languages, cultures, and spiritual practices by educating the next generation of leaders. In addition to providing college-level courses, TCUs provide high school equivalency programs, skilled trades certification, continuing education, cultural offerings, health centers, community gathering space, early childhood education programs, and libraries to the
whole community.

The TCUs are located in 16 different states. One offers a doctoral program, eight offer 13 master’s degree programs, and 19 offer 125 bachelor’s degree programs. All TCUs offer 464 associate degree programs and 283 certificate programs, diplomas, and endorsements.

About Indigenous People

How many American Indian and Alaska Native languages are still spoken?
It is estimated that about 200 languages are spoken of the 350 languages that existed at the time of European contact. Native American languages are classified geographically rather than linguistically since they do not belong to a single linguistic family, as do Indo-European languages. Language revitalization is an important part of the work the American Indian College Fund finances at the TCUs.

Why do Native Americans object to the use of mascots and Indigenous symbols, in U.S. sports and on Halloween?
Many Native Americans believe the use of mascots objectifies them and their ways of life. According to the National Congress of American Indians, founded in 1944, “unsanctioned sports mascots are symbols of disrespect that degrade, mock, and harm Native people, particularly Native youth. NCAI’s work to retire ‘Indian’ or Native ‘themed’ mascots, used interchangeably, is guided by our numerous resolutions pertaining to cultural appropriation and the harmful effects of these mascots.

The College Fund supports programming in immersive language instruction, Native arts, computer science, high school equivalency, early childhood education programs, environmental science, faculty and staff leadership training, fellowships for faculty and staff professional development and degree attainment, and more to develop both the curriculum and intellectual capacity of the TCUs. We also fund, publish, and participate in innovative and groundbreaking research about TCU education and Indigenous research frameworks and methodologies. This work challenges the U.S. higher education system’s erasure of Indigenous peoples through its lack of collection of, and attention to, data about and by Indigenous peoples, and can be found in our research repository.

Who is an American Indian or Alaska Native?
An American Indian is an individual who is recognized by their tribal nation and the federal government as a member of a federally recognized tribe, or their state as a member of a state-recognized tribe. Individual tribal nations have the exclusive right to determine their own membership. Tribal governments formally list their members, who must meet specific criteria for enrollment. In addition to officially enrolled tribal members, the American Indian College Fund also offers scholarships to descendants of enrolled tribal members.

Which term is preferred? American Indian, Native American, or Indigenous?
Individuals may have differing preferences regarding the use of these terms. Indigenous people in the United States were first referred to as Indians because history tells us Columbus believed he had reached the East Indies when he made landfall in the Caribbean. Today, many Native people prefer the term American Indian, while others use Native American, which was first used in the 1960s for American Indians and Alaska Natives. Native Hawaiians prefer the term Native Hawaiians.

Alaska Natives include the culturally distinct Iñupiat, Yupik, Athabascan, Haida, Tlingit, Eyak, Thimshian, and Aleut peoples. Because of their cultural distinctions, these tribal groups prefer to be called Alaska Native instead of American Indian.
The American Indian College Fund uses the terms American Indian and Alaska Natives (AIAN), Native, and Indigenous interchangeably about the communities it serves.

How many federally recognized Indian tribes/Alaska Native entities are there?
As of 2023, the federal government recognizes 574 Indian tribes and Alaska Native entities in the United States, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Federal recognition acknowledges the government-to-government relationship a tribe has with the United States and provides for federal services to Nations.

Are Indigenous Nations similar?
Native tribes are culturally distinct. The best comparison would be contiguous European or African nations with different cultures, languages, and traditions.

How many American Indian and Alaska Native people are there today in the United States?
There are 9.7 million AIAN people in the United States, according to U.S. Census estimates for 2021, or roughly 2.9% percent of the overall population. Today’s population is young and growing steadily, with 26.9 percent of AIAN people under the age of 18, compared to 22.6% of the overall population. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2021).

Before Europeans arrived in the Americas, the AIAN population may have been at minimum 10-12 million people,
stretching from the present-day Mexican border northward. Contact with Europeans brought disease, war, famine, forced labor, and displacement, which reduced the number of the population to just over 237,000 before 1900, according to government records.

Sovereignty and Citizenship

What is the definition of Indian nation sovereignty?

Federally recognized tribes (also called Indian or Native nations) are considered self-governing—or sovereign nations—by Congress. Because Indian tribes are federally recognized as political entities with sovereign political status in the U.S. Constitution, they are not seen as persons of a particular race. The relevant section of the Constitution is Article I, which deals with the legislative powers granted to Congress. Article I Section 8 of the Constitution affords Congress the power “… to regulate commerce with foreign nations…and with the Indian tribes.”

Can any tribe be federally recognized?
Many Nations were recognized by treaty-making in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, there is a rigorous application
process to attain federal recognition. The federal agency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior maintains a directory of federally recognized tribes.

How does tribal sovereignty work?
The doctrine of tribal sovereignty was affirmed in three Supreme Court rulings in the 1800s. The doctrine recognizes the right of Native nations to self-govern and run their internal affairs as so-called “domestic, dependent nations.” It also prevents states from interfering with these rights while allowing Congress to override Native nations’ authority.

Sovereignty is a fundamental principle of the U.S. Constitution with increasing legal significance for Native nations. The United States recognizes the tribes’ rights to form their own governments, determine membership criteria for their nations, administer justice, levy taxes, establish businesses, and regulate the use of Indian land (reservations), resources, and the conduct of tribal members on their territory.

What is an Indian reservation?
There are three types of reserved federal lands: military, public, and Indian. Indian reservations are areas of land reserved by the federal government as permanent tribal homelands. A federal Indian reservation is an area of land reserved for a tribe or tribes under a treaty or other agreement with the United States, executive order, or federal statute or administrative action as permanent tribal homelands, in which the federal government holds title to the land in trust on behalf of the tribe.

Approximately 56.2 million acres are held in trust by the United States for various Indian tribes and individuals. There are approximately 326 Indian land areas in the U.S. administered as federal Indian reservations (i.e., reservations, pueblos, rancherias, missions, villages, communities, etc.). The largest Indian reservation is the Navajo Nation Reservation located in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. The smallest is the Pit River Tribe’s cemetery in California. Some reservations are the remnants of a tribe’s original land base. Others were created by the federal government for the resettling of Indian people forcibly relocated from their homelands. Not every federally recognized tribe has a reservation. Federal Indian reservations are generally exempt from state authority, including taxation, except when Congress specifically authorizes it.

Do all American Indians and Alaska Natives live on reservations?
No. According to the 2020 Census, 87 percent of people who identify as AIAN alone or in combination with another racial or ethnic identity live outside of tribal statistical areas; only 13 percent live on reservations or other trust lands.

How has the government tried to take away tribal lands that were reserved for AIAN people?
From the 1880s to the 1930s, Congress opened tribal lands for sale. As a result, Indian tribes lost two-thirds of their reservation land base. In the 1950s, the federal government adopted what was called a “termination” policy, closing many Indian reservations with the goal of assimilating Indians into white society. Although this goal failed, many of those tribes who lost their federal recognition during this era have been fighting to regain it ever since.

What does the term Indian Country mean?
Indian Country is a legal term used in Title 18 of the U.S. Code. It broadly defines federal and tribal jurisdiction in crimes affecting American Indians on reservations. But the term also describes reservations and areas with American Indian populations. The phrase has come into the popular lexicon to describe not just lands designated for Native use, but all of America, Native culture, fashion, literature, music, and more. In 2020, the American Indian College Fund released a PSA to educate people about the history of the United States and its land, as well as the contributions of Indigenous people through history to the present day, titled “This is Indian Country.”

Do states have jurisdiction over American Indians on reservation lands located within their borders?
States do not have civil or criminal jurisdiction in Indian Country unless Congress delegates jurisdiction or the federal courts determine it exists. Most recently, the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, adopted by Congress, requires tribes and states to enter compacts, or agreements, before gambling operations can open on Indian land.

Do American Indians have to obey the same laws as non-Indians?
Off reservation lands, tribal members are generally subject to local, state, and federal laws. While on reservation lands, tribal members are subject only to federal and tribal laws. Under federal law, known as the Assimilative Crimes Act, any violation of state criminal law on a reservation is a federal crime.

Are Indians American citizens?
Yes. Indians have dual citizenship as tribal members and as American citizens. Congress extended citizenship to American Indians in 1924.

Can American Indians vote?
American Indians and Alaska Natives have the same right to vote as other American citizens. They vote in local, state, federal, and tribal elections. Each tribe has the right to determine its criteria for eligible voters in tribal elections.

Do Native Americans pay state or federal taxes?
Native people pay the same taxes as other American citizens, with the following exceptions:
• Native Americans employed on reservations do not pay state income taxes.
• American Indian and Alaska Native people living on trust land are free from local and state property taxes.
• Generally, state sales taxes are not levied on transactions made on reservations. Indians do not pay federal income taxes on money earned from trust lands, such as fees received for grazing rights and oil drilling.


What are treaties?
From 1777 to 1871, U.S. relations with Indian nations were negotiated through legally binding agreements called treaties. These treaties, or agreements, between tribal governments and the United States, transferred and created property rights and service obligations. The United States signed 371 treaties with American Indian tribes, usually to gain land rights.

What agreements did the treaties contain?
The treaties often promised Indians protection, goods, services, self-governing rights, and a tribal homeland in exchange for their cooperation and vast acres of land.

Why did European settlers sign treaties with the tribes?
Tribes were powerful because of their military strength and knowledge of the land. Colonists also knew that under European law, land transactions required legal documentation.

Why did tribes agree to enter treaties with the federal government?
Indian Nations entered into agreements rather than losing more people to war and disease.

Were the treaties broken?
The federal government has broken all treaties signed with Native nations. Conflicting federal policy and court rulings resulted in Native peoples losing some of their civil rights and lands. An early example of a broken treaty resulted in the Trail of Tears, the forced march of 14,000 Cherokees from Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, to Oklahoma, despite a 1791 treaty granting the Cherokee a permanent homeland. About 4,000 Cherokee people —mostly babies, children, and elders — died from starvation, exposure, and disease.

What is a trust responsibility?
The federal Indian trust responsibility is considered one of the more important principles in federal Indian law. It is a legally enforceable, fiduciary obligation by the United States to protect tribal lands, assets, resources, and treaty rights.

Are treaties still valid?
The federal government stopped entering treaties with Indian tribes in 1871, but once a treaty is signed, it stays in effect unless it is superseded by acts of Congress or other treaties.

Do treaties grant Native Americans special rights today?
In the Pacific Northwest, treaties grant tribes the right to hunt, fish, and gather food as their ancestors did. On all reservations, treaties grant tribes access to K-12 education and medical care to be provided by the federal government. These are examples of Indian rights based on treaties signed years ago. These treaties did not grant tribes or individual tribal members rights to monetary compensation from the federal government, and individuals do not receive checks from the government.

Are treaties being challenged?
There have been efforts in modern times to dilute and challenge treaty rights. Most recently, bills introduced in Congress seek to limit the ability of tribes to govern themselves and give authority to states over the tribes. No major changes have been enacted, however.


Who regulates Indian casinos?
The National Indian Gaming Commission, established by Congress, oversees bingo operations, casinos, and certain other gambling on tribal land. It sets rules for licensing, reviews yearly audits, and approves tribal ordinances for their gaming operations. The U.S. Departments of Treasury, Justice, and Interior have authority over aspects of Indian gaming. Indian nations also have gaming commissions.

What is the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act?
Federal law requires states to enter compacts with tribal governments to engage in casino gambling. The gaming must be conducted on tribal land, and the states’ control is limited to terms in the compacts. Compacts are approved by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.
The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act requires tribal governments to spend revenues on operations, welfare, economic development, and charity. Once tribes meet those obligations, they can seek permission from the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to set up a per capita distribution plan to benefit individual members.

Are all tribes successful at gaming?
No. The most successful operations are usually located in or near large metropolitan areas.

How can a person trace his or her Indian ancestry?
Individuals can conduct basic genealogical research to obtain specific information on ancestors’ names, birth dates, marriages, deaths, and residence. To learn if your ancestors are on official tribal rolls, write to the National Archives and Records Administration, Natural Resources Branch, Civil Archives Division, 8th and Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. 20408. After determining tribal heritage, individuals can contact individual tribes to learn about membership. Tribes have the final say as to who qualifies for citizenship in their nations.


The information in this piece was compiled from data from the American Indian College Fund, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, the U.S. Census, National Congress of American Indians, and the National Indian Gaming Association.