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Sovereignty is the supreme and independent power or authority in government by a community, such as a nation or a state. Indian tribes possess sovereignty.

Before European settlers came to America, Native American peoples governed themselves. After the European settlers arrived, Native American peoples continued to govern themselves. Individual and independent tribes made treaties with the settlers, who came to govern themselves as a nation of peoples, the United States of America. The tribes never gave up their sovereignty to the United States federal government, the state governments of the United States, or anyone else

To this day, each and every Indian tribe retains its sovereignty, and, through a lot of case law, their status has evolved to that of a nation within a nation. The federal government has a trust responsibility, originating with the treaties, to each tribe. And, each tribe has a government-to-government relationship with the United States.

The status of American Indians is complex. American Indians are a citizen of their tribe, the state in which they reside and the U.S., and they have rights in each jurisdiction. (All American Indians were made full U.S. citizens in 1924, whether they liked it or not.)

American Indian tribes’ sovereign status has, in the eyes of federal law, changed over the years at the whims of the U.S. Congress and U.S. Supreme Court. In an era of termination beginning in the 1940s, the federal government terminated numerous tribal rights, tribes and Indian treaties. Hundreds of Indian tribes have been eliminated as political entities in the United States.

A change in policy began in 1970 with Richard Nixon’s “Special Message to the Congress on Indian Affairs,” from which arose Public Law 93-638, or the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975. President Nixon made it clear he sought justice and self-determination for Indian tribes. The law authorized federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to contract with federally recognized Indian tribes. This gave the tribes greater control over their funding.

Subsequent court cases such as the 1979 Fox Decision reaffirmed more treaty rights as the 1836 treaty tribes regained the ability to regulate their own fishery. The 2007 Inland Consent Agreement reaffirmed the 1836 tribes’ rights to regulate their own inland hunting, fishing and gathering in their treaty ceded territory.

In 1996, some tribes participated in a Self-Governance Demonstration Project in which individual tribes negotiated directly with Congress for funding. The project became permanent and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians is one of those “self-governance tribes.” Self-governance tribes exercise even greater control over their funding, giving them the ability to tailor funding to their particular needs instead of trying to fit into one-size-fits-all federal regulations.

A more recent policy provides tribes some control over federal policy that may affect them. First in a 1994 memorandum and then in Executive Order 13175 in 2000, President Bill Clinton established, “Consultation and Coordination With Indian Tribal Governments,” to give tribes a say in federal policies that have tribal implications and strengthen government-to-government ties.

President Obama reaffirmed the Executive Order in 2009, and subsequently held the first White House Tribal Nations Conference. In 2010, the United States finally and lastly agreed to join the signatories of the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a non-binding manifesto that acknowledges the rights of self-determination, property and culture of all indigenous peoples in the world.

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Photo by Ken Bosma / CC BY