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Defining sovereignty

A simple but seductive word lies at the heart of Indian law. Sovereignty
means the inherent power to self-govern. But the devil is in the fine
print: Govern whom? How much? Under whose thumb? From Congress to the
United Nations, august assemblies struggle in vain to define it.

For the honorable Charles W. Blackwell, ambassador of the Chickasaw Nation
to the United States, "one's sovereignty begins with one's self," a credo
of personal conviction. A Choctaw/Chickasaw raised in southern Oklahoma and
northern New Mexico, Blackwell also directs Native Affairs and Development
Group, a consulting and advisory firm he founded in 1976 and a leader today
in the business world of private sector/tribal partnerships.

Blackwell, who earned a J.D. and served as assistant dean at the University
of New Mexico Law School before going to work on Wall Street, is an
advocate of entrepreneurial sovereignty, a savvy mixture of hard work,
enlightened self-interest and tribal community service.

Seated in a leather armchair in Pushmataha House, the mission leased by the
Chickasaw in a wealthy neighborhood of Washington D.C.'s Capitol Hill,
Blackwell put the case for diplomatic recognition bluntly: "We didn't ask
anybody if we could have an envoy here, and we didn't need to." Appointed
ambassador, a formal position most tribes eschew, in 1988, Blackwell said
one consequence has been that the Chickasaw haven't needed a lobbyist for
10 years, thus saving money and avoiding reliance on political outsiders.

The Oklahoma Chickasaw have climbed out of the red ink in a hurry. Class II
gaming, a chocolate company, information technology and a tribally-owned
commercial bank make for "one of the most successful and diverse tribal
economies in the country," said Blackwell. Progressive tribal governance
for 20 years has remarkably reduced reliance on federal funding. "The time
will come, I'm sure, when the Chickasaw Nation will be an independent
dependent sovereign nation," Blackwell said proudly. "That will take us
back to the state of independence we had before white contact."

The aggressive self-help version of sovereignty appeals to many of the
haves, if not the have-nots, in Indian country. For some tribes, explosive
economic growth has encouraged participation in national politics and
markets to an extent unforeseeable a generation ago.

"When the Oglalas coalesced their vote" in the 2002 U.S. Senate election in
South Dakota, said Blackwell, "they made a tremendous difference. It helped
every tribe in the country. Every politician in the country was sitting up
thinking, 'oh wait a minute, maybe we better take a second look at the
Indian vote.'"

A strong advocate of the trust relationship, Blackwell subscribes to
Justice John Marshall's concept of "domestic dependent nations." People
don't grasp that tribes, like states, can exercise sovereign
responsibilities, said Blackwell. "Tribes can't separate themselves from
the fabric of America," he added. "The better states and tribes get along,
the stronger that part of America will be."

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Some observers regard state compacts and federal elections as a diminution,
not an affirmation, of Indian sovereignty. An advocate of strong tribal
autonomy is Robert Odawi Porter, a Seneca Nation member and professor of
law at Syracuse University, where he directs the Center for Indigenous
Citizenship, Law, and Governance.

Sovereignty begins, said Porter, with identification. "Nations do not enter
into treaties with their own people. And when all Indians identify as
American citizens, I think it puts at great risk our status and our claim
to be treaty Indians governed by a separate legal document rooted in
history. People look at us and say, 'You all think you're Americans. I
guess the Indians we entered into those treaties with are gone.' And there
goes your sovereignty."

Porter, a former attorney general of the Seneca, cited gaming as a powerful
lure to assimilate. To get a casino, he explained, a tribe has to give up
authority in a state compact, an idea that would have been anathema in
Indian country 20 years ago. "The money is so great [the gaming tribes]
don't look at the bottom line of what they're giving up in terms of control
to the state."

Blackwell, who supported multi-tribal negotiation of the Indian Motor Fuels
Tax Agreement in 1996, a "modern-day treaty" for revenue sharing, sees
state accords differently - and knows the fallout they can engender. "I was
called everything but an Indian by some tribal leaders who said we'd sold
our sovereignty because we were sharing taxes. Well, you know what?
Chickasaws are also Oklahomans. What's good for Oklahoma ought to be good
for the Chickasaw Nation, and what's good for the Chickasaw Nation ought to
be good for Oklahoma."

Porter, who spoke by telephone from his office in Syracuse, has advocated a
"strong sovereignty" model where Native people would choose between tribal
and federal citizenship. "We're citizens of our own nations. We don't need
to be citizens of the U.S. We're at peace with the U.S., we have a treaty
with the U.S., but we don't need to be Americans. And the consequence is
grave. Our people have been conscripted against their will, they have been
required to pay confiscatory taxes to the U.S. for income earned in our
territory. None of this has been consented to."

Sovereign tribes even merit a seat at the United Nations, added Porter,
given the body's recognition of states such as Tuvalu, a group of Pacific
islands with 10,000 inhabitants. "American citizenship for indigenous
people only exists as an act of colonialism in an effort to destroy our

Different schools notwithstanding, the word has magic still. "Sovereignty
can be taken as a 21st century ghost dance shirt in which people hold it
up, as people of the 19th century would a ghost dance shirt, believing as
long as they had it they were invincible," noted Rennard Strickland,
professor of law at the University of Oregon. But "what you're dealing with
is often contests between sovereigns. Often, I think, the highest use of
sovereignty is to use it to work with others."

Porter, who defends the trust doctrine, agreed in principle. Any sovereign
nation should be able to care for its people, he said, and not every dollar
can be tied to a treaty obligation. But every country in the world gets
help from America, he added. Why not the Navajo, too?