Civil Rights for Indigenous Groups: Native Americans, Alaskans, and Hawaiians


Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians suffered many of the same abuses as Native Americans, including loss of land and forced assimilation. Following the discovery of oil in Alaska, however, the state, in an effort to gain undisputed title to oil rich land, settled the issue of Alaska Natives’ land claims with the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971. According to the terms of the act, Alaska Natives received 44 million acres of resource-rich land and more than $900 million in cash in exchange for relinquishing claims to ancestral lands to which the state wanted title.U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “Racism’s Frontier: The Untold Story of Discrimination and Division in Alaska,” (April 10, 2016).

Native Hawaiians also lost control of their land—nearly two million acres—after the Hawaiian Islands were annexed by the United States in 1893. The indigenous population rapidly decreased in number, and white settlers tried to erase all trace of traditional Hawaiian culture. Two acts passed by Congress in 1900 and 1959, when the territory was granted statehood, returned slightly more than one million acres of federally owned land to the state of Hawaii. The state was to hold it in trust and use profits from the land to improve the condition of Native Hawaiians.Ryan Mielke, “Hawaiians’ Years of Mistreatment,” Chicago Tribune, 4 September 1999.

In September 2015, the U.S. Department of Interior, the same department that contains the Bureau of Indian Affairs, created guidelines for Native Hawaiians who wish to govern themselves in a relationship with the federal government similar to that established with Native American and Alaska Native tribes. Such a relationship would grant Native Hawaiians power to govern themselves while remaining U.S. citizens. Voting began in fall 2015 for delegates to a constitutional convention that would determine whether or not such a relationship should exist between Native Hawaiians and the federal government.Brittany Lyte, “Historic Election Could Return Sovereignty to Native Hawaiians,” Aljazeera America 30 Oct. 2015, When non-Native Hawaiians and some Native Hawaiians brought suit on the grounds that, by allowing only Native Hawaiians to vote, the process discriminated against members of other ethnic groups, a federal district court found the election to be legal. However, the Supreme Court has ordered that votes not be counted until an appeal of the lower court’s decision be heard by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.Chloe Fox. 2 December 2015. “Supreme Court Blocks Native Hawaiians’ Attempt to Form Own Government,”

Despite significant advances, American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians still trail behind U.S. citizens of other ethnic backgrounds in many important areas. These groups continue to suffer widespread poverty and high unemployment. Some of the poorest counties in the United States are those in which Native American reservations are located. These minorities are also less likely than white Americans, African Americans, or Asian Americans to complete high school or college.Jens Manuel Krogstad. 13 June 2014. “One-in-Four Native Americans and Alaska Natives Are Living in Poverty,” Many American Indian and Alaskan tribes endure high rates of infant mortality, alcoholism, and suicide.Karina L. Walters, Jane M. Simoni, and Teresa Evans-Campbell. 2002. “Substance Use Among American Indians and Alaska Natives: Incorporating Culture in an ‘Indigenist’ Stess-Coping Paradigm,” Public Health Reports 117: S105. Native Hawaiians are also more likely to live in poverty than whites in Hawaii, and they are more likely than white Hawaiians to be homeless or unemployed.Kehaulani Lum, “Native Hawaiians’ Trail of Tears,” Chicago Tribune, 24 August 1999.