Do You Live in an American Indian Area (AIA)?

Kevin A. Thompson
March 2, 2023

(Chickasaw Hika Sign, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Do You Live in an American Indian Area (AIA)?

You might live in Indian Country and not know it. The U.S. government has expanded the definition of Indian Country. In the broadest sense, Indian Country stretches from the Arctic Circle south to Tierra Del Fuego in Chile, but until recently the US government only considered federally-recognized reservations as Indian Country. That has now changed. Officially-designated Indian Country has grown considerably larger since 2010.

Surprised? I certainly was. This is one of those policy changes that seems to have sneaked in during the cover of night, or perhaps just under the nose of people who weren’t looking. You might be residing in one of these “American Indian Areas” and not realize this fact. 

In 2010, the US Census Bureau adopted a new term, American Indian Area (AIA), which includes federally-recognized reservations, Alaska Native Corporations, State-recognized reservations, and Off-reservation Tribal Lands or ORTL, often trust land purchased by federal tribes. 

American Indian Area (AIA) is an expansive term, because it includes regions around reservations and tribal areas, to include whole counties where Indians live in significant numbers but aren’t necessarily the majority. There’s a whole alphabet-soup of categories (which I will list later), but a better way to explain this is to cite a personal example. 

Some decades ago I resided in Cumberland County, North Carolina, which has a sizable population of Lumbee Indian people. Lumbee people are the largest ethnic group in neighboring Robeson County, with about 50,000 members. However, Cumberland and Robeson counties are both included in the Lumbee State Designated Tribal Statistical area, with an estimated 2015 population of 507,718 people.

The Lumbee AIA is only 11.35% Indigenous. It includes the city of Fayetteville, US Army post Fort Bragg, and even spills over into parts of South Carolina where Lumbee folks live across the state line. It includes the historically Lumbee college, UNC-Pembroke; and even an HBCU (Historically Black College or University), Fayetteville State University. 

Other AIA’s may include several Indian reservations, if they are in close proximity to each other, and also includes off-reservation people who still live near, but not on, their Tribal lands. The goal of the AIA is to expand Indian Country to more places where Indigenous people actually reside. Unlike a reservation, the AIA can expand in physical size if more Indian people move into a region.

The largest AIA by population is the Creek Oklahoma Tribal Statistical Area, with 784, 627 people.  The Alaska Native Areas appear to be the largest in geographic size, comprising about a third of Alaska’s massive territory. 

In a booklet “Understanding and Using American Community Survey Data,” the Census Bureau details how the annual American Community Survey (ACS) collects data on all communities, and has designated the AIA’s to better understand Indigenous people and the services they might need. There is $675 billion dollars of federal money to be distributed to state and local agencies. (page 3).

 Grant writers should take notice. 

And who gets to count as American Indian or Alaska Native? On page 7, it requires having origin in any of the original peoples of North, Central and South America; and even such entries as Canadian Indian, French American Indian or Spanish American Indian. Also included are people who check off the “race” box for Indian, as well as White and/or Black, who are already counted on the US Census as American Indian, based on 2010 and 2020 rules.  And, of course it includes citizens of the sovereign Tribal Nations within US borders.

There are currently 38 AIA’s that receive an annual update from the American Community Survey. There are many smaller AIA’s that receive updates only every five years.  (the website has the most detailed list I've found. See below)

What does this mean for non-Indians who live within the AIA’s? What will be the relationship be for non-Indians to these entities?

Some kind of change is happening. We are past the point where Indigenous people maintain their status only if they reside on the Rez. When enough of us move to a place, a nearby AIA may expand to include our new neighborhood. Indian Country will grow with us, instead of being trapped within outdated Reservation borders.  

See below for the types of AIA’s there are, and my reference for this article, a U.S.Census guide published in 2019. 

Types of American Indian Areas (AIA’s):

Legal Entities

Alaska Native Regional Corporations ANRC’s

American Indian Reservations AIR’s

State American Indian Reservations SAIR’s

American Indian Off-reservation Lands ORTL’s

Statistical Entities

Alaska Native Village Statistical Areas ANVSA’s

Oklahoma Tribal Statistical Areas OTSA’s

Tribal Designated Statistical Areas TDSA’s

State Designated Tribal Statistical Areas SDTSA’s

Tribal Tracks and Block Groups 


“Understating and Using American Community Survey Data: What Users of Data for American Indians and Alaska Natives Need to Know” by U.S. Census Bureau, April 2019.

For a complete listing of all American Indian Areas, with a population breakdown, look here

For an interactive map of State Designated Tribal Statistical Areas, look here

For a map of the Lumbee Tribal Statistical Area, look here