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Tribal Sovereignty

By: Andy Kovaleski

The Indigenous peoples of North America have a long and lively history before colonial contact. Post-contact Native history is filled with strife, pain, manipulation, and genocide. However, tribal nations have survived and fought against their oppressors by any means necessary; whether that be literal battles or court battles.

One of the biggest misconceptions about Native peoples in the United States is that being Native is a racial or ethnic identity, nothing more, nothing less. This is simply untrue, being Native is also a nationality. Native people are not only American citizens but also citizens of their tribal government. Tribes are called “domestic dependent nations”, meaning that despite being within the borders of the United States (domestic), forced to abide by the legislation passed by the federal government, and having little to no input (dependent), they are nonetheless still independent political nations. 

Sovereignty is no small issue. It is most often thought of as the inherent right of tribal nations to govern themselves despite the oppression and genocide perpetrated by the United States. Tribal nations have to fight for their sovereignty nonstop in order to protect it because the US government is continually trying to take it away from them. Before colonial contact, Indigenous nations were able to not only govern themselves, but also maintain complex political relationships with other Indigenous nations. In fact, the Constitution of the United States of America is based on the intricate workings of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which is made up of the Mohawk (Kanienkahagen), Oneida (Onayotekaono), Onondaga (Onundagaono), Cayuga (Guyohkohnyoh), and the Seneca (Onondowahgah). The confederacy is known as one of the oldest participatory democracies, having been established before 1660, and is still functioning according to its original values, culture, traditions, and structure. (For more information on the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and their impact on the Constitution, go to their website here.)

There is also archaeological evidence of extensive road systems spanning North and South America used for trade between nations 13,000 miles away. This also means that these nations had political relationships and agreements with one another. I explain all of this in an attempt to combat the prevalent misconception that before colonial contact Indigenous nations were just small nomadic communities who struggled to survive and occasionally found themselves at war with one another. Nothing could be further from the truth, but there is a reason this misconception is so widespread: propaganda.

Since the English started colonizing North America, colonizers have been pushing this conception of Native peoples to justify stealing land from them and committing mass murder. The attempts made by native people to rid their homelands of invaders were characterized as unprovoked violence upon innocent people. Unprovoked violence upon innocent people was certainly not uncommon, but it looked a little different. 

The Daily Republican, a newspaper in Minnesota, posted this advertisement in 1863. 

The propaganda dehumanizing Indigenous people was clearly successful, as even to this day many people believe that tribes were primitive before colonial contact. This narrative is what made the classification “domestic dependent nation” possible. Instead of respecting tribal nations and their sovereignty, the United States tried to dissolve tribes and exterminate native people, either by assimilation or destruction. I mentioned earlier that native people who are born within the borders of the United States are American citizens, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 that brought about this change was far from benevolent. 

United States citizenship was forced onto Indigenous people as a tool of assimilation in order to weaken or destroy their tribal identity, community, and by extension their sovereignty. Thankfully this was not the outcome, to the point that it gave tribes a new method of fighting assimilation. As citizens, they could now fight in courts and their rights were protected by the constitution. Of course, this wasn’t respected, it largely still isn’t, and court battles are rarely won, but Native people have and always will utilize any means available to protect their sovereignty.

The fight to protect sovereignty continues. In the last two years, two supreme court cases have reaffirmed tribal sovereignty: United States v. Cooley and McGirt v. Oklahoma decided June 2, 2021 and July 9, 2020 respectively. Along with these two cases, President Biden has appointed the first Indigenous American as cabinet secretary to the Department of the Interior, the department that houses the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA): Secretary Deb Haaland. It is unfortunate that 2021 sees the first Native person in charge of the department that houses the BIA, but it is progress no matter how long overdue.

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