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.

What is Tribal Sovereignty - Rez-Other-Navajo Landscape 11This 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?
1st woman Chief, Eastern Band of Cherokee, http://bit.ly/JoyceDuggan

1st woman Chief, Eastern Band of Cherokee, http://bit.ly/JoyceDuggan

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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  1. John Green
    Posted June 22, 2015 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    Both my mother’s and father’s families have been here since before the USA came into existence so I have benefitted from my ancestors mistreatment of those who were here before the arrival of the Europeans. How can we work together to come up with a just solution? I really want to help. How?

    • Posted July 7, 2015 at 7:32 am | Permalink

      John, the single most impactful thing you can do is get informed and be a voice of social equality in support of Native Americans. I also mentioned a few other things under your other comment. Hope this helps! We are moved by your sincerity.

  2. John Green
    Posted June 22, 2015 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    How can I or other non-indigenous people help to make the situation just?

    • Posted July 7, 2015 at 6:19 am | Permalink

      John, you ask a great question. There are many ways to help. For instance, you can learn a lot by following our blog where we discuss realities about life on the reservations, misconceptions and stereotypes held by the public about reservation life and Native Americans in general, and policies that help or hinder tribal economic and social development. You can also help the cause by donating to our programs or to other charities serving Native Americans, as fewer than one percent of philanthropic support goes to support Native causes.

  3. Posted March 17, 2016 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    By law we are all sovereign. We consent our own rights away. If you look at things like the drivers license and birth certificate we are legally giving ownership to the government. A legal corporation. I am with you on this and Native Americans have far more sovereignty than us European immigrants. You’re country was hijacked by the Catholic Church, via the Pope and Jesuits in 1776.

  4. Troy Owens
    Posted October 22, 2018 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    Hello, my name means just what our government permits us as Indigenous peoples. Why this happens is how we all perceive our own rights to justify our past causes. War was that reciprocity of lands for fighting for others’ rights. When Indians chose to fight, the outcome would initially be the rights a federal justice would have to protect on basis of the approval, with those that settled by agreements as payments. Today, all the oaths given meant nothing. To a traditional Indian, respect and truth is to honor and keep as forever. It seldom was broken as a promise. So a national appropriation has always been broken, the Biggest promise not met in the stake of Americans first Indigenous people. Today this nation has not kept a promise, not even presidents or senate. Sad manipulations often occur… that’s history.

  5. Adam Cook
    Posted May 2, 2019 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    I think this article is very good. I believe we need to look at a few different styles of sovereignty that has popped up in the EU though and remodel. Firstly, treaties need to be renegotiated. The European Union maintains the sovereignty of the nation but allows for the use of the same currency and open borders for people and goods. This means that the nation has the right to self determinate and to make decisions within its own block but outside of that block it is not possible. Tribes should be given the rights of self determination, including the ability to enact justice through their own legal system separate and apart from the US system. This would also mean that nations should also be able to raise there own defensive forces, police forces and collect their own taxes without federal and state taxation. This would be truly sovereign. Further case studies need to be looked into as a means of determining the model. Unfortunately, native nations, in most cases, are not in a place to set the tone for negotiations. Many tribes like my mothers tribe, the Lumbee, and my fathers tribe, the Pee Dee, look for federal recognition to gain access to aid programs. The first movement needs to be towards self sustainability through egalitarian activity, moving back to agricultural and including service sector based economies. Tribal unity and the sponsorship of children that excel at certain standards need to be rewarded by sending them to universities to study political science, my current field, and economics so they can work on developing stronger economies and developing a self sustainable nation. The point here is that we need to participate in the action of nation building as a people. Seeing how bad the US Govt is with this, look at Afghanistan and Iraq, not my first suggestion to get their help.

  6. Dawn Peterson
    Posted September 17, 2019 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    I continue to believe that Native Americans are close to getting close to getting back what the U.S. Gov’t took away from them- Greed! Give them sovereignty!

  7. Lon melton
    Posted September 27, 2019 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    You tribal nations will never become independent sovereign nations until you stop accepting federal dollars. You are taking in millions of the white eyes dollars at your casinos. Is that not sufficient to declare yourself free from the yoke of the federal government?

    • Posted September 30, 2019 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      Lon, thank you for your note. Only the 573 federally recognized tribes are eligible to conduct gaming, and roughly 242 tribes do. But only 15% of them earn enough profit to assist individual tribal members and other tribes. In addition, more than 400 tribes exist in the U.S. that are not federally recognized and thus not eligible to conduct gaming. We will be publishing a new video on the “Economics of Indian Gaming” soon. Stay tuned to the PWNA blog for this!

  8. follow our laws
    Posted November 15, 2019 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    natives should have the same laws as everyone else
    just cause they think their special doesn’t mean they are

    • Posted November 18, 2019 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      Under the treaties signed by the U.S. government, federally recognized tribes are recognized as sovereign nations unto themselves. As such, they have tribal laws specific to their citizens and lands. However, citizens of all tribes are also citizens of the United States and, as such, many federal and state laws also apply to them. The greatest importance of tribal sovereignty has less to do with laws and more to do with self-governance and the ability to build tribal economies, infrastructure and services that work within their cultures and their nations’ governments. You can learn more by viewing our PSA series at http://www.nativepartnership.org/PSA.

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