Many people, often those who benefit from prior colonialism, do not understand the history and nature of tribal sovereignty. Many are surprised that it even exists. Those who learn about it often see it as anomalous and extraneous to the basic division of powers between the federal government and the states. Their confusion about the origins and current legal status of Indian nations is further confounded by reading fake news stories about actions of tribal governments that non-Indians may perceive as incomprehensible or unfair.
Most Americans know about Indian treaties, but do not realize that treaties are made between nations and that Indian tribes are sovereign nations by international laws and conventions.They do not understand that these treaties are not ancient history, but the law of the land today, and that Indian tribes are sovereign governments. The United States is made up of the federal government, state governments, and tribal governments—three sovereign entities. The U.S. Supreme Court has acknowledged that the tribal governments are the oldest sovereigns on the continent—Native American sovereignty long predates the sovereignty of the United States. After first contact between European nations, the Ameridian Tainos of the West Indies and Native American nations (Indian tribes), the Europeans eventually came to realize that the tribes were nations, if for no other reason than they had the power to control lands, defend them, and make war to retain them. The conflicts between European nations and Native nations were often settled through negotiations and treaties—agreements between sovereign nations. This common practice was recognized in the United States Constitution in 1787. Congress instituted the power to deal with various sovereign governments: foreign nations, the states, and Indian tribes.
in 1831, the U.s. supreme court held that an indian nation was not a foreign nation but rather a domestic dependent nation under the jurisdiction of the federal government and not of any state governments. One enduring principle consistently reaffirmed by the Supreme Court over its 200 year history of jurisprudence is the inherent nature of tribal sovereignty. Federal authority is not deemed necessary to permit an Indian tribal government to act, but rather tribal governments are presumed to have the right to act because their authority derives from their pre-existing status as sovereign nations. Unless tribal sovereignty or jurisdiction has been explicitly modified, abrogated or bestowed elsewhere, tribes are free to regulate conduct in their jurisdiction according to their own laws and principles and to adjudicate regulatory disputes in their own forums. States, however, have no authority over Indian affairs unless authorized explicitly by Congress.
All Tribes in the World have recently received great assistance from the United Nations in their fight to maintain their existence as sovereign nations. In 2007, after a 30-year effort by indigenous peoples around the world, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Declaration recognizes the rights of these people to self-determination, their traditional lands, and their cultures and religions. It is an aspirational document that all of the nations of the world are called upon to honor. The United States voted against adoption of the Declaration in 2007, but President Obama endorsed the Declaration in 2010 at the urging of tribal leaders. It is hoped that additional arguments for the protection of tribal sovereignty and other tribal rights provided by the Declaration will help the tribes prevail in the United States judicial, legislative, and administrative forums.
There are 566 Indian nations within the United States. Indian tribes which have been recognized by the United States government are known as “domestic dependent nations” and exercise a level of sovereignty similar to that of the states. Nowhere else in the world are indigenous peoples guaranteed a similar right of self-governance. This unique government-to-government relationship has been established, maintained and interpreted through treaties, compacts, executive and legislative action, and case law. Members of recognized Indian nations who reside on Indian reservations (and many who do not) have triple citizenship status: federal, state and tribal. American Indians comprise about 1.5% of the population (about 5 million of the total 2010 population of approximately 310 million). About 25% (1,250,000) of the American Indian population resides on reservations. Why do American Indians receive a variety of federal funds and services not accessible or provided to other groups? Why are American Indians considered to be a “race”? Why do Indian reservations continue to exist? Why does Indian culture and tradition matter in today’s world? These and other questions of interest will be addressed to help promote understanding, tolerance and support for our first “Americans.”
Frequently asked questions about American Indian tribal governments and the roots of Tribal Sovereignty.
The Church of Hope, Sacred Medical Order is formally affiliated with the Boriken Hereditary Tribe of Puerto Rico and operates an International Native American Church.
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