Indian nations are the original sovereigns of this land. Our people established the first democracies, respecting free speech and the rights of men and women. From its first days, the United States recognized the status of Indian nations as sovereigns. During the winter of 1777 – 78, the Oneida Nation gave General George Washington and his starving troops corn and supplies at Valley Forge. In 1778, the United States signed a treaty of military alliance with the Delaware Nation during the Revolutionary War.
The Constitution’s Commerce Clause acknowledges Indian tribes as governments alongside states and foreign nations. The Supremacy Clause ratifies prior Indian treaties, recognizing Indian tribes as sovereigns with a treaty-protected right to self-government. In his 1791 State of the Union address, President Washington urged Congress to enforce Indian treaties and restrain U.S. citizens, who by “violating” Indian rights, “infringe on the treaties and endanger the peace of the Union.”
From its first days, the United States recognized the status of Indian nations as sovereigns.
When the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, President Jefferson recognized that American laws would not govern the conduct of tribal citizens within Indian nation territory because, under international law, tribal citizens were governed by tribal law. Jefferson pledged to honor existing international treaties with Indian tribes in the Treaty of Purchase with France, until such time as the United States negotiated its own treaties.
In 1863, Abraham Lincoln reaffirmed the King of Spain’s pledge to honor the sovereignty of pueblo Indian nations and respect pueblo lands. President Lincoln presented the pueblos with governor’s canes to symbolize the enduring nature of his promise. On the 400th anniversary in 1998, President Clinton reaffirmed America’s pledge to honor the sovereignty of the pueblo Indian nations. In 2000, Clinton affirmed the United States’ treaty guarantees of tribal self-government.
As all Americans know between the Constitution’s ratification and Clinton’s presentation of the canes, the United States often ignored its promises to Indian tribes and in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries committed genocide, removal, land theft, economic destruction, and devastation upon Indian nations. Throughout the generations, our Indian nations fought for our sovereignty, our lands and our people. Today, it is our duty to defend sovereignty for future generations.
Attacks on Indian sovereignty no longer start with a charge of the 7th Cavalry. Instead, these attacks start with bureaucratic ignorance. In the debate over the National Labor Relations Act, after treating Indian tribes as governments for almost 70 years, the National Labor Relations Board flip-flopped and decided to treat tribal governments as “quasi-commercial.”
The IRS, for its part, has decided to audit tribal government health care programs to determine if tribal citizens should pay income tax on health care. Federal health care benefits are not taxable, state health care benefits are not taxable, so why does the IRS discriminate against tribal health care – after all, tribal governments are providing care because the federal government has never adequately funded its treaty and statutory obligations for the IHS.
As Indian nations, we must stand firm. The Constitution acknowledges our status as prior sovereigns, treaties guarantee our status as governments, and federal statutes must treat Indian tribes as sovereigns. So, we reject the NLRB ruling that Indian nations are less than other governments. We reject the IRS actions that discriminate against tribal health care benefits. It is wrong for agency bureaucracies to act contrary to the Constitution’s recognition of Indian tribes as governments, contrary to congressional enactments and contrary to executive orders. Yet, it may take further acts of Congress to once again set these wayward agencies back on the straight path. Because we honor our grandfathers and grandmothers and those who have gone before, we cannot and will not negotiate away our status as the first sovereigns of this great land.
We call upon all of Indian country to join the fight to protect Indian sovereignty! Call your senators and congressmen and tell them to honor their pledge to uphold the Constitution by treating Indian tribes as governments under the NLRA, the Internal Revenue Code and all federal statutes. Thank you for your strong support of Indian sovereignty.
Joe A. Garcia is president of the National Congress of American Indians and chairman of the All Indian Pueblo Council. Ernest L. Stevens Jr. is chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association.