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Definition of Indian Country

This page provides information regarding the definition of Indian country used in the EPA Plan for the Federal Certification of Applicators of Restricted Use Pesticides within Indian Country. This information may help you determine if a particular parcel of land is Indian country.  Please note that this page provides general guidance only.  Specific situations for individual parcels of land may present unique issues.

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Definition of Indian Country

The term Indian country is defined in 18 U.S.C. § 1151 and 40 C.F.R. § 171.3 as:

  1. all land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States Government, notwithstanding the issuance of any patent, and, including rights-of-way running through the reservation;
  2. all dependent Indian communities within the borders of the United States whether within the original or subsequently acquired territory thereof, and whether within or without the limits of a state; and
  3. all Indian allotments, the Indian titles to which have not been extinguished, including rights-of-way running through the same.

Consistent with the statutory definition of Indian country, as well as federal case law interpreting this statutory language, lands held by the federal government in trust for Indian tribes that exist outside of formal reservations are informal reservations and, thus, are Indian country.

Additional Details on Defining Indian Country

The following provides additional information regarding each of the components that make up the legal definition of Indian country.

  1. All land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States Government, notwithstanding the issuance of any patent, and, including rights-of-way running through the reservation.

    Land that is located within the exterior boundaries of an Indian reservation is Indian country. Ownership of these lands may vary.

    For example, reservation lands may:

    • be held by the U.S. Government in trust for an Indian tribe;
    • be owned outright by a tribe;
    • be privately owned (by a nonmember of the relevant tribe); or
    • have other ownership.



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    All such land is reservation land, and thus Indian country. In addition, the definition includes rights-of-way for such things as highways, railroads, power lines and pipelines that run through a reservation.

  2. All dependent Indian communities within the borders of the United States whether within the original or subsequently acquired territory thereof, and whether within or without the limits of a state.
     

    Dependent Indian communities are a category of Indian country that are not Indian reservations or individual Indian allotments and that satisfy two basic criteria. First, they must have been set aside by the U.S. Government for the use of Indians as Indian land. Second, they must be under federal superintendence – that is, the federal government must exercise a degree of control or oversight of these lands for Indian purposes.

  3. All Indian allotments, the Indian titles to which have not been extinguished, including rights-of-way running through the same.

    Allotments are parcels of land held in trust by the United States for individual Indians or held by Indians and otherwise subject to a restriction on alienation. That is, there would be a restriction on the Indian owner’s ability to sell or transfer the allotment to another party. Allotments may exist within an Indian reservation, but may also be located outside of any reservation.

Clarifying Questions on Indian Country Status

  1. A tribe has a formal Indian reservation (for example, a reservation established pursuant to a treaty, federal statute, or Executive Order). The U.S. Government also holds additional land in trust for the tribe outside of the exterior boundaries of the formal reservation. Is the additional trust land Indian country?
     

    Yes, even though the additional trust land has not formally been designated as an Indian reservation, it is an informal reservation and is Indian country under 18 U.S.C. § 1151(a).

  2. I own private property within the exterior boundaries of an Indian reservation. Is my land Indian country?
     

    Yes, all lands within the exterior boundaries of an Indian reservation, including private property and rights-of-way, are reservation land and, thus, Indian country.


  3. Are fee-owned lands – sometimes also referred to as deeded lands – within the exterior boundaries of Indian reservations included in the Indian country definition?
     

    Yes. It is not uncommon for some Indian reservation lands to be owned in fee (for example, in accordance with a deed), including by nonmembers of the relevant Indian tribe. As noted above in the answer to question 2, as long as the land is within the exterior boundaries of an Indian reservation, it is reservation land and, thus, Indian country, regardless of the fact that someone holds a deed of ownership to the land.

  4. Are Alaska Native Villages Indian country?
     

    Generally speaking, land located in Alaska would not qualify as Indian country based solely on its association with, or ownership by, an Alaska Native Village. Much of the current Native landholding in Alaska has been established through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which extinguished the prior reservation status of most Native lands. Because Alaska Native Village lands also do not qualify as dependent Indian communities, they are generally not Indian country.

  5. Is there any Indian country in Alaska?
     

    Yes, currently there is one Indian reservation located in Alaska (the Annette Islands Reserve), and there are individual Indian allotments that are Indian country.


  6. An Indian tribe has purchased non-Indian country land located outside of its reservation. Is this land now Indian country?
     

    Not necessarily. Land bought by an Indian tribe does not generally acquire Indian country status by virtue of tribal ownership alone. Tribes may own non-Indian country land in much the same way as other entities may own such land. Tribes may be able to convert such land into Indian country.

    For instance, a tribe can request that the U.S. Government take the land into trust for the benefit of the tribe. Such trust status would qualify the land as an informal Indian reservation and, thus, Indian country.

    There may also be other mechanisms through which tribes are authorized to purchase land and have it acquire Indian country status. Generally speaking, however, tribal ownership of land that does not otherwise qualify as Indian country would not, by itself, convert the land into Indian country.


  7. Where can I find more information to help me determine whether I need a federal certification under the EPA Plan because my RUP application will occur in Indian country?
     

    If you need additional guidance, you should contact your appropriate EPA Regional Office to discuss your specific situation.