Skip to main content

Renew sovereignty lessons for a new generation

About a decade ago, Indian Country Today invited its Native readership to engage in meaningful discussions of common-held principles – community, cultural lifeways and matters of sovereignty among them. It may have become a cliché to declare “Indian country is at a crossroads,” but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. When matters of jurisdiction, continual encroachment, assimilation policies, and barriers to Native lifeways rear their heads, we must always consider ourselves to be at a crossroads.

The deliberations in which Native people are now engaged will affect the lives of our children and their grandchildren. So it is in that spirit that we offer a reminder. The original call-out, from the excerpted editorial “Let’s learn about sovereignty” that follows, is an effort to encourage the people to renew, update and expand the conversation to address today’s most pressing issues. For those already on this important path, kudos are much deserved.

“The proper understanding of tribal and indeed any type of sovereignty is lost to most of the American public. Even among Native people there is a wide variety of definitions on what constitutes sovereignty. By all accounts, there is a great deal of education needed on this subject.

“Indian Country Today encourages all nations, leaders, community citizens, young and old, to discuss and define the significance of sovereignty in our lives. What are the bases of the Indian argument for tribal sovereignty considering the realities of living in a modern North American society?

“Respect for nation and even local and other sovereignties is an established methodology of international law. But for this type of inherent respect, what would keep any government, or all governments, from constantly overrunning and/or taxing one another? Thus, on national, state or provincial, tribal and municipal levels, various ranges of sovereign jurisdiction have been and continue to be exercised by varieties of political entities.

“Sovereignty, we would offer by way of a start, is completely inherent in the concept of self-government, both within the U.S. democracy and in the language of United Nations covenants. American Indian peoples have maintained sovereignty based on legal and daily factual realities. But Indian nations, like all small nations, are more or less dependent on the larger nations to more or less keep the covenants upon which they rely well-polished and alive.

“In this respect, Native nations are just like all small nations. Often in the Americas, the more recent nation-states completely surround tribal nations, but nevertheless, the tribal nations exist and persist in sustaining their sovereignty and self-government.

“In every way possible we know states will seek to impose their laws in tribal territories, seeking to diminish sovereign rights tribes maintain are inherent. Worcester v. Georgia (1832) is invoked for establishing this principle early on. This important case cites the ‘extraterritorial status’ of tribes, their ‘pre-existing sovereignty,’ and the supremacy of treaties in U.S. law that affirmed the independent nature of tribal peoples.

“Beyond the early recognition of the tribes’ ‘right of occupancy,’ both the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution recognized the distinctiveness of Indian tribes. The federal government early on established sole claim to both make treaties and to ‘regulate’ relations with tribes.

“While states have extended their jurisdiction into tribal matters behind a number of court cases and legislative campaigns, tribes can always do the worst damage to their own sovereignty by consenting to the application of state or provincial laws on Indian territories. Settlements that give in to state or provincial law are troublesome developments that most always reappear in unforeseen ways.

“… What are the main pillars of Indian sovereignty? What should every Native student graduating from high school know about the basis and uses of tribal sovereignty in the 21st century? A lively discussion within Indian country on the meanings and fundamentals of tribal sovereignty can only help.”

“… We believe we may all realize American Indian sovereignty is quite simple. It has only been obscured and made seemingly complicated by a tangled history of U.S. and other foreign imposition and intervention, by organized obfuscation, and through historically negotiated giveaways of our inherent powers and authorities.”