About this Dashboard

This data story summarizes data from the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture for American Indian Reservations as it relates to racial disparity that exists between native and non-natives agricultural operators on Native Lands. 

About the Data

It was not until 2002 when the USDA began conducting a special census for American Indian Reservation. The first year was only a pilot study that included Reservations in Montana, South Dakota, and North Dakota and this expanded in 2007 and 2012.  The 2012 Census included data for only 76 reservations and the 2017 census includes data for only 75. The Census for American Indian Reservations includes all farms and ranches within the boundaries of the Reservation but does not not distinguish between farmers and ranchers operating on Trust land with those operating in fee or deeded lands within Reservation boundaries.

The published Census reports only quantified each variable for “Native” and “Reservation Total” and failed to report statistics for “Non-native” which conceals the extreme disparity that exists on Native American Reservations. While we have submitted a special tabulation request to the USDA NASS for the data on non-native operators, in the mean time, we have included a provisional calculation for “Non-native” producers, making it possible to analyze the racial disparity in agriculture on Native Lands. Additionally, the way the data is presented by the USDA it makes it difficult to aggregate the data for one or all reservations (e.g. the big picture). 

Why is this Data and Dashboard Important?

While Native Americans and Native American Tribes enjoy a degree of political sovereignty it is compromised by the fact that most tribal lands and resources are held in trust by the Federal Government. Because of this unique relationship, the US Supreme court has repeatedly affirmed and upheld the responsibility that the federal government has to protect the tribal lands and assets and ensure they are used for the benefit of native people. This responsibility the federal government has to native peoples and tribes is known as the Trust Doctrine. In 1977, the Senate report of the American Indian Policy Review Commission described the federal government’s trust obligation as follows:

The purpose behind the trust doctrine is and always has been to ensure the survival and welfare of Indian tribes and people.  This includes an obligation to provide those services required to protect and enhance tribal lands, resources, and self-government, and also includes those economic and social programs which are necessary to raise the standard of living and social well-being of the Indian people to a level comparable to the non-Indian society.

The United States Bureau of Indian Affair mirrors this doctrine on its website.

The federal Indian trust responsibility is a legal obligation under which the United States “has charged itself with moral obligations of the highest responsibility and trust” toward Indian tribes (Seminole Nation v. United States, 1942). This obligation was first discussed by Chief Justice John Marshall in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831). Over the years, the trust doctrine has been at the center of numerous other Supreme Court cases, thus making it one of the most important principles in federal Indian law.

The federal Indian trust responsibility is also a legally enforceable fiduciary obligation on the part of the United States to protect tribal treaty rights, lands, assets, and resources, as well as a duty to carry out the mandates of federal law with respect to American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages. In several cases discussing the trust responsibility, the Supreme Court has used language suggesting that it entails legal duties, moral obligations, and the fulfillment of understandings and expectations that have arisen over the entire course of the relationship between the United States and the federally recognized tribes.

Considering the federal government’s “legally enforceable fiduciary obligation” to native Americans and tribes, how can we assess the performance of the federal government in their capacity as trustee without timely and accurate data? As mentioned above, the Federal Government has collected agriculture data for every US county since 1840 but this data did not include data about race (beyond “colored” and “white”) until 1976. However, data collection on American Indian Reservations has been sporadic at best. In a 1997 researchers at Colorado State University and with the State of Wyoming cited the poor quality of data on Native Agriculture in the peer reviewed article “Inadequate agricultural database for American Indians?.”

“It is clear that some or all of the Census and/or BIA data on Native American agriculture are totally invalid and fail to provide a representative description of Indian agriculture… Serious misinformation is provided by existing government databases on American Indian agriculture. Faulty data on Indian agriculture damages tribal planning. Government programs based on erroneous data also may be seriously flawed. The federal government should improve its data collection and verification procedures to adequately survey American Indians in an accurate and timely manner.”


This dashboard aggregates data using the external boundaries of native lands and tribal statistical areas and does not differentiate between fee and trust lands within those boundaries.

Download the Raw Data