Mythical Indian Benefits

By Denise H. Bareilles, CILS Eureka office Acting Directing Attorney

For the last ten years, I have enjoyed working with tribal communities and assisting Native Americans and tribal governments in advancing Indian rights, fostering Indian self-determination, and facilitating tribal nation building. It has been interesting and surprising when I hear common stereotypes repeated about “Indians” and “Why do they receive so many benefits?” There is a lack of understanding that tribal governments possess an inherent sovereign authority to govern their land and people similar to other government units.

Myth: Indians Have Casinos and Receive a lot of Per Capita Payments

The most common mythical statement is that Indians own casinos and have a lot of money through tribal per capita payments. Wouldn’t that be great if this was true? But no, it is not. Some tribal governments distribute discretionary per capita payments to their tribal citizens due to operating successful enterprises such as casinos or other business ventures, or through effective management of natural resources on tribal lands. However, there are a lot of tribal governments that have very minimal economic development. Non-gaming tribal governments may receive funds from gaming tribes through the Indian Gaming Revenue Sharing Trust Fund, but those monies may or may not be distributed to its enrolled tribal members.

Myth: Indians Don’t Pay Taxes

Another common myth is that Native Americans are not subject to taxes. This is not true. This myth may stem from the fact that Indians were historically not subject to state or ordinary federal taxes because they are citizens of their own politically organized government. Native Americans are subject to federal income taxes. On the other hand, the income or revenue of tribal governments is exempt from federal taxation.[1] This tax immunity is consistent with the unique sovereign status of tribes, given that the federal income tax likewise does not apply to state and local governments. This exemption may be extended to tribal revenue generated by tribally established entities depending on if the entity is organized under federal, tribal, or state law.

States presumptively lack jurisdiction to tax Tribes and Indians living and working on their reservation but may do so if a federal statute confers that power. For example, courts have found that Tribes and Indians are immune from: sales and use taxes for goods purchased or delivered and used on the reservation, registration fees for vehicles used on the reservation, net income taxes if the member lives and is employed on their reservation, and real property taxes on their Indian (restricted) lands.

Tribal governments may also levy taxes on individuals within their reservation – some do, and others do not.

Myth: Indians “Double Dip” From State and Tribal Government Public Benefits

Another surprising myth is the assumption that Indians “double dip” when it comes to applying for public benefits. Native Americans are dual citizens; they are citizens of the State of California and their tribal government. Native American families may elect to receive aid from the California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKS) program by applying in their county of residence or applying for Tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) with the appropriate Tribal TANF provider. The government agencies coordinate service delivery to avoid duplication of services. Native families may choose one program over the other based on culturally sensitive service delivery, type of services provided, and/or proximity of services to the reservation.

Please contact the California Indian Legal Services office closest to you if you have any further questions regarding benefits for Tribes and Indians.

[1] Rev. Rul. 67-284, 1967-2 C.B. 55.