The origins, and continuity, of American Indian rights to self-government are not well-understood, but are extremely important to contemporary American Indian communities. Most people in the general American public don't understand the principles of self-government, and often in casual talk one hears that the U.S. government ''granted'' Indians land and special rights. Even in Indian country, few tribal nation members are well-informed about the historical, legal and cultural foundation of self-government.
Having grown up on a reservation, I often ponder why so little of our own history was taught to us in school or other contexts. While understanding of self-government has improved over the last 40 years, owing to greater political self-consciousness among tribal leaders and community members, current interpretations are still often fragmented and legalistic.
The American public understands even less of Indian legal, political and cultural views, and still generally expects us to enter general society as a race or ethnic group. There are many disadvantages to American Indian interests when the public, and institutions, do not understand or recognize Indian viewpoints. It is an extraordinary task to take on the education of the American public. Tribal lobbyists and national organizations like the National Congress of American Indians take on the necessary task of educating members of Congress and the Senate. Sometimes my colleagues, who teach American Indian studies, suggest that one of our primary purposes should be to teach non-Indians about American Indian history, policy and culture. Such efforts are very important, but at the same time, I believe that we need to clarify for ourselves the roots of American Indian self-government. We need to have an understanding about who we are as Native nations or self-governing communities from time immemorial.
Most Indian communities derive their social and political institutions from creation teachings. In many teachings, the Creator or a powerful being, such a Sky Woman in the Northeastern nations, brings the Earth, or Turtle Island, into being, not necessarily out of nothing as in the Christian world origin teachings, but creates a new order and purpose out of existing elements such as land and water. The world is set in order so that the people can live and maintain relations with the plants, animals and cosmic powers in the universe.
Often there is an original covenant relation in the early teachings. If the people respect and honor relations with other forces and beings of the cosmos, then the people will receive the Creator's protection and prosper. Disrupting relations between other beings and powers invites disaster. Our cultural teachings provide for social institutions such as ceremonies, families, clans, bands, villages and governments, which are considered part of the given sacred order, and therefore are to be upheld, preserved and honored.
The roots of American Indian self-government autonomy do not derive from American law or from treaties, but precede the treaties and the formation of the U.S. Constitution. American Indian nations are not parties to the U.S. Constitution, and therefore not part of the original consensus that is American government.
When Indian nations negotiated treaties with European colonies and later the United States, the Indian nations assumed positions of political and government independence. When Indian nations negotiated treaties recognizing U.S. dominion starting in the 1790s, the tribes were not agreeing to U.S. powers over culture and government, but instead were agreeing to become allies to the United States against other foreign colonial powers such as the British, French, Russians and Spanish. In these agreements, the Indian nations retained powers of self-government that are recognized by the United States to have existed from time immemorial. The Indian nations are giving up a right to negotiate with foreign European colonial powers, and in return, the United States provides protection to the Indian allies against foreign invasion.
Treaties are international agreements between two independent governments or nations. The agreements made within treaties are upheld by force; if one side breaks their part of the bargain, then the other side is not obligated to uphold their agreements within the disputed treaty. The United States made treaties with Indian nations until 1871, and thereafter managed Indian policy through acts of Congress, court decisions and executive orders. American Indian nations did not give consent to suspend treaty-making. Similarly, most American Indian nations and individuals have not given their consent to become American citizens by the Congressional Act in 1924 extending citizenship to American Indians. American Indians are not consensual parties to the U.S. government.
Today there is much talk about tribal sovereignty; but while the term is used as legal means to protect jurisdictions of Indian nations and other rights, it is not a term that is easily translated to Indian communities from its European origins of centralized political organization based around the divine right and powers of European kings. Not many Native communities' members know about the legal and political history of Europe, but they know much about the families, clans, villages and lifeways of their own communities.
The sovereign rights of American Indian peoples come from within their communities and cultures. The expectation of U.S. policy is that Native people will join into the American political consensus like immigrants and early Americans. Many Indian communities have resisted assimilation, not only because they have legal powers from treaties and the Constitution, but because they form communities and covenant relations given by the Creator. Indian communities maintain commitments to kinship and culture that do not reflect the way of government of the United States, but often are guided by the values and visions of tribal ancestors and teachings. Self-government and the roots of American Indian national autonomy originate and remain grounded within the values and cultures of Indian communities.