Protecting the Civil Rights of American Indians and Alaska Natives

A number of federal statutes prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, and religion. These federal laws prohibit discrimination against American Indians and Alaska natives in education, employment, credit, housing, public accommodations, voting, and in certain federally-funded and conducted programs, among other areas. Tribal governments and State and local governments may also have laws or procedures protecting civil rights. At the federal level, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice is responsible for enforcing federal statutes that prohibit discrimination against American Indians and Alaska natives. The following areas of discussion may be of particular interest to American Indians and Alaska natives.

Criminal Statutes Protecting American Indian and Alaska Natives’ Civil Rights

As citizens and residents of the United States, American Indians and Alaska Natives have many rights protected by the Constitution and laws of the United States. You have, for example, a right to live and to associate in your home with any person without being subjected to force on the basis of your race, nationality, or religion. You also have a right to apply for or engage in employment; to enroll in or attend public school; to use the services offered by hotels, restaurants, and places of entertainment; to vote; and to use certain public facilities and to participate in any activity provided or administered by a locality, such as using a public park, without being subjected to force or threats of force. You have a right to obtain reproductive health services and information without being subjected to force or threats of force or physical obstruction. These are only some of the federally-protected rights which are most commonly subjected to criminal interference.

Education Rights

Federal law prohibits public elementary and secondary schools and public institutions of higher education from denying students equal educational opportunities because of their race, color, national origin, sex, religion, or disability. The denial of equal educational opportunities includes the failure by public school districts to provide programs and assistance to students with limited English-proficiency in learning English so that they can participate fully in the educational process.

Discrimination can occur in the assignment of students to schools and classes and academic programs, the transportation of students, the hiring and placement of faculty and administrators, the condition of educational facilities, and the distribution of school district resources.

American Indian children who reside within a school district, and who live on an Indian reservation where the land is not taxed, have the right to the same educational opportunities that are offered to all other children living in the school district.

Employment Rights

Federal law prohibits employers from discriminating against persons because of their race, sex, color, religion, national origin, or citizenship status. Thus, an employer cannot refuse to hire or promote you, nor can an employer discipline, harass, or fire you, on the basis of your being an American Indian or Alaska Native. Please note that Indian tribes in their capacity as employers are not subject to the law’s prohibition on employment discrimination. However, charges of employment discrimination may be filed against any employer that is not itself an Indian tribe, regardless of the tribal membership of the individual owner.


Discrimination in the provision of housing because of a person’s race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, or familial status is illegal under federal law. If you believe you have been discriminated against in the process of renting or buying an apartment or a house because you are an American Indian or Alaska Native, you can file a complaint of housing discrimination.


Discrimination in lending practices because of race, color, sex, or national origin is prohibited by Federal law. If you believe that you have been denied a loan merely because you are an American Indian or Alaska Native, you can ask the lender for an explanation in writing about the reasons why you were denied the loan. You may also file a complaint for lending discrimination.

Police Misconduct

Federal law makes it unlawful for State or local law enforcement officers to engage in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives persons of rights protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States. The types of conduct covered by this law include, among other things, excessive force, discriminatory harassment, false arrest, coercive sexual conduct, and unlawful stops, searches, or arrests. The statutes do not apply to tribal police officers or Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs police officers.

VotingAs citizens of the United States and the State in which you live, the Constitution and federal laws guarantee your right to vote free of discrimination in federal, state, and local elections. American Indians and Alaska Natives are protected from discrimination and intimidation in exercising the right to vote and in becoming candidates for and serving in federal, state, and local (including city, county, and school district) elected offices. Federal law requires all states to allow citizens to register to vote at public service agencies such as driver’s license and public assistance offices.The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division or private citizens can bring lawsuits to challenge electoral systems or practices (such as at-large elections) when they dilute the votes of American Indians or Alaska Natives and prevent a fair opportunity for representation on elected bodies such as State legislatures, county commissions, or school boards.

From the U.S. Department of Justice

Civil Rights in Public Accommodations and Facilities: Law and History

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man who had boarded the bus after she did. At that time, public buses in the South were segregated, and African-Americans not only had to ride in the back of the bus, but also had to give up their seats to any white person who wanted to sit. Ms. Parks was arrested and taken to jail for refusing to give up her seat. On December 5, 1955, African-Americans in Montgomery began a boycott of the public buses led by a minister who had recently come to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The peaceful boycott continued for 381 days during which time 90% of the African-Americans in Montgomery refused to ride the buses. At the end, the buses in Montgomery were desegregated.

Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in places of public accommodation because of race, color, religion, or national origin. Places of public accommodation are hotels, motels, restaurants, movie theaters, stadiums, and concert halls.

Until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, persons from minority groups were excluded from, or segregated in, restaurants, motels, theaters, and other places of public accommodations. On February 1, 1960, 4 African-American students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College went into the Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat down at the lunch counter and ordered cups of coffee. The waitress refused to serve them coffee unless they stood up to drink it because only whites were allowed to sit at the lunch counter. The black students sat at the lunch counter until the store closed, but were never served their coffee. The next day they returned with more students and the peaceful protest called a “sit-in” was begun. Across the South, peaceful sit-ins by students took place in more than 100 cities in 1960. Although the protesters were beaten, and sometimes sent to jail, they continued to peacefully sit-in until they achieved their goals – desegregation of places of public accommodation.

In 1961, a new phase of the movement to desegregate places of public accommodation began – the “Freedom Rides.” African-Americans were still sitting in the back of the buses in the South and were not permitted to use “whites only” restroom facilities in the terminals even though the Supreme Court had outlawed segregation on interstate buses (buses that traveled between states) in 1946. In May 1961, the first group of 13 Freedom Riders, white and black ranging in age from college students to a 60-year-old professor and his wife, left Washington, DC, on their way via Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi to New Orleans, Louisiana. They went in 2 buses. Riders in the first bus were attacked in both Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama. The Freedom Riders on this bus were beaten by men with pipes. The second bus was firebombed just outside of Anniston, Alabama.

Title III of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in public facilities because of race, color, religion, or national origin. Public facilities are facilities owned, operated or managed by state or local governments, like courthouses or jails. At the same time as the sit-ins and Freedom Rides, other protesters demonstrated against segregation in public facilities.