What is Tribal Sovereignty?

Lately, there has been much focus on sovereignty, a huge issue for tribes. And this is important in that it can perhaps bring to light the unique relationships that exist between the United States and the Indian nations.

This starts with the need to understand just what “sovereignty” is and how that meaning is interpreted, for sovereignty is a complex juggernaut of legal and ethical issues involving Native American tribes and state governments, as well as the federal government.  Consider this:

  • For many tribes, sovereignty means the ability to manage their own affairs and exist as nations that are recognized as having control over their own destinies. It means to live unencumbered by the yoke of an outside power determining and re-determining their fate. Unfortunately, this has been the nature of the relationship between Native American tribes and the United States since the very earliest treaties.
  • For the federal government,  U.S. tribal sovereignty means that Native American tribes are “domestic dependent nations” that exist within the boundaries of the U.S. and that they are wards of the U.S., even though they may operate and manage some internal tribal affairs. From the U.S. viewpoint, tribes do not exist as truly sovereign and independent nations.

Because of this disconnect about what tribal sovereignty means, there are those non-Natives that feel Native Americans are “super citizens” or have special rights that they themselves do not have. This could not be further from the truth. Historically, Native Americans have had to fight tooth and nail for recognition and to compel the United States to live up to its treaty obligations.

A disconnect also exists in the way various tribes may conduct business. Throughout history, some tribes have been selected to act “as sovereign government entities similar to states within our federal system.” Yet, other tribes have not been given this opportunity. So, the  levels of experience tribes have in independently managing their affairs varies greatly due to extreme economic and social injustices imposed upon these tribes by the U.S.

There are, however, both positives and negatives to the issue of tribal sovereignty:

  • Positives:  To allow tribes to live and exist as truly sovereign nations is to give them back dominion they had before the arrival of Europeans. It allows them to manage and control their own destinies and to operate without incursions into their legal and business affairs by the states and the United States.
  • Negatives:  After centuries of conflict and relocation and removal and assimilation, many Native American tribes no longer have rights to the natural resources in their original homelands. Just how does a tribal nation that has become dependent on federal assistance now become self-sufficient and self-determining in the truest sense of the word… not just internally for select tribal affairs, but in all aspects of tribal management?

Given these realities, how do we move forward, define and enact sovereignty for all Native American tribes? That is a very complex and open-ended question. Perhaps we need to start by agreeing on what “sovereignty” means. Then move forward from that definition to define what it means for the tribes and for the U.S. Yet, even the definition of “sovereignty” is a complex quandary. As a former chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee stated:

“Many people still have a hard time today understanding sovereignty. What does this sovereignty of Indian nations mean? I have a hard time with it too because we’re not sovereign in this nation. If we were sovereign in this nation we would not have to depend on federal government dollars. We would not have to go to the state for gaming approvals. We would be able to live independently in our own nation, which is what we were doing in 1838 at the time of the removal.”

Thus, we need to educate tribal members as well as non-Natives about what sovereignty truly means. An ongoing discussion of tribal sovereignty can perhaps define, through new legal precedents, the way that the federal government and the states can interact with tribes… can perhaps project a clearer understanding of why sovereignty is important, and how it does not encroach on the rights of other Americans but rather complements the very ideal on which the U.S. was founded – independence.

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