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It's Time to Take Back Our Cultural Sovereignty

David Wilkins, Lumbee Nation, has said that Tribal Sovereignty is arguably the most important, unifying concept across Indian Country. It is about more than political boundaries; it defines nothing less than our living, collective power which is generated as traditions are respectfully developed, sustained, and transformed to confront new conditions. We as Native peoples have been too lax with these words, allowing their power to be misused and even turned against our own relatives.

Vine Deloria Jr. popularized the term “Tribal Sovereignty” in his 1969 book, Custer Died for Your Sins. Placing the word tribal – meaning, the people – before the word sovereignty, he reasoned, “can be said to consist more of continued cultural integrity than of political powers,” and he emphasized, “to the degree that a tribal nation loses its sense of cultural identity, to that degree it suffers a loss of sovereignty.” Thirty six years later and the term no longer has the same impact as it has lost its “political moorings” said Vine. Sam Deloria, board chairman of the American Indian Law Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, cautioned tribal leaders to take care of how they wielded their delegate authority, lest they begin to act as powerful individuals whose behavior comes to threaten the sovereign people they are sworn to represent. Sovereignty is what allows tribal governments to abuse their power. Tribal governments do this through selective banishment of tribal members, manipulation of tribal employment rights, treating band members as their “subjects”, etc.

A closer examination of Vine Deloria, Jr.’s definition of tribal sovereignty reveals the intent of the term; continued cultural integrity. To the degree that a tribal nation loses its sense of cultural identity equates a loss of sovereignty. Tribal sovereignty was never about the tribal government, in Vine’s definition, it was about the cultural integrity of the people and their ability to hold tribal government accountable for their words and deeds. Viewed through this lens Native Nations must reclaim their culture to achieve cultural sovereignty and ensure the survival of their tribes. But reclaiming our culture isn’t solely the responsibility of our tribal leaders. We must as families, communities and tribal government work on this together. We can do this through practicing our ceremonies, speaking our language and practicing our traditional ways. Cultural sovereignty is something we can give ourselves and is separate from the trust responsibility of the federal government.

In her 2015 State of the Band Address, Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Chief Executive Melanie Benjamen, focused on the theme of cultural sovereignty.

“Cultural Sovereignty is ancient, and predates the arrival of non-Indians. It is a kind of sovereignty that we can only lose if we choose to give it up…Cultural Sovereignty is our inherent right to use our values, traditions, and spirituality to protect our future. It goes much deeper than legal sovereignty, because it’s a decision to be Anishinaabe, to not just protect a way of life, but to practice living Anishinaabe, every day… In 2015, we still deal with the aftermath of 150 years of attempts to destroy our culture and our identity. Forced assimilation, attempted genocide, relocation and boarding schools might be a thing of the past, but the ghosts of those policies still haunt us today…There are no federal policies forcing our children into boarding schools. There are no laws against us practicing our religion. Our cultural existence cannot be lost, or destroyed, unless we allow it…Upon the advice of spiritual leaders and Elders, I am convinced that we must practice cultural sovereignty all day, every day, if we are to protect the gifts of our future generations.”

There is a widespread federal attitude that supports our Native Nations sovereignty but only when it is politically advantageous to the colonists. It is disregarded when it is unprofitable. Indigenous people have shown incredible diversity in the face of centuries of federal policy aimed at the extermination of our people and yet our survival is in our own hands. The solution is to develop our cultural resources both our traditional ones and our new ones. Let’s put sovereignty back in the hands of the indigenous community and out of the hands of the government.

Donna Ennis is the Community Center Manager for Fond du Lac Reservation where she is also a respected Tribal Elder. She is working on her Master’s degree in Tribal Administration and Governance at the University of Minnesota Duluth.