Understanding Tribal Sovereignty in Native America

From the Lecture Series : Native Peoples of North America

By Daniel Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Native Americans faced immense hardships since the advent of colonialism in the late 15th century. These tribes were given the special status of sovereign nations soon after their encounters with the European colonial powers. To this day, the US continues to recognize their special status. Read on to understand how tribal sovereignty has influenced the recovery and renaissance in Native America.

Image of  native Indian woman with a child and horses.
The Native Indians and Alaska Natives controlled about 100 million acres of land mass in 2010. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Defining Tribal Sovereignty

Sovereignty in its simplest form is the authority to govern, but tribal sovereignty means much more than that. In the words of Lumbee legal scholar David Wilkins, the definition of tribal sovereignty is:

“The spiritual, moral, and dynamic cultural force within a given tribal community empowering the group toward political, economic, and, most important, cultural integrity, and toward maturity in the group’s relationships with its own members, with other peoples and their governments, and with the environment.”

According to this definition, tribal sovereignty is not something that is granted to somebody by someone else. It is a seminal force that echoes through the economic, cultural, and social development of the community.

Learn more about the native south and southwest in the 1600s.

Native America—A Story of Perseverance

Non-native Americans always believed that the tribal lands and the tribal communities, along with their cultures, would fade away with time. However, this expectation never materialized, and on the contrary the resilient Native Americans displayed recovery and renaissance.

The Native Indians and Alaska Natives controlled about 100 million acres of land mass in 2010. There were also 334 federal and state recognized American Indian reservations situated in 35 states. Despite the massive loss of land during colonialism over the last 5 centuries, the Indian country would still be the fourth largest state in terms of acreage.

Geographical Presence

There are about 567 federally recognized tribal nations that share a formal nation-to-nation relationship with the United States. Around 338 of these ethnically and culturally diverse nations are located in the lower 48 states. Another 229 that are part of Alaska are now referred to as ‘villages and corporations’.

In addition, there are more than 60 officially state-recognized tribes located across the United States. The aboriginal native Hawaiians or Kanaka Maoli assert a separate national identity.

Learn more about reasserting rights and tribal sovereignty.

Treaties and Tribal Sovereignty

Between 1778 and 1871, the United States signed and ratified 367 treaties with many of their indigenous tribal nations. The treaties are the foundation of the tripartite federal system in the United States and are considered equivalent to nation-to-nation agreements. These treaties supersede any state or local law thereby granting the tribal nations a higher status than the states.

Painting shows William Penn entering into the Treaty of Penn  with the tribals.
The treaties with the tribal nations supersede any state or local law. (Image: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts/Public domain)

The treaties established a fiduciary with the federal government where the government agreed to honor the treaty rights of the American Indians, protect their lands and resources, and promote self-governance. They also assured health care, education, housing, and economic development to the tribes.

Tribal sovereignty manifests itself in a number of ways, such as establishing criteria for citizenship, defining boundaries, influencing governance, asserting reservation rights on hunting, fishing and water, stimulating economic development as well as providing basic services like health, housing, education, social welfare, law enforcement, and roads.

Learn more about Indian-European encounters, 1700-1750.

Resurgent Economies of Tribal Nations

Tribal nations are beginning to make a significant economic impact both locally and at the state level. The economies of these tribal nations are the ultimate evidence of recovery and renaissance in Native America.

Studies indicate that 38 tribal nations in Oklahoma provided 87,700 jobs, while 29 tribal nations in Washington created 27,300 jobs in 2012. The latter generated $255 million in local and state taxes annually.

Tribal gaming, a major source of income supports economic growth and diversification in Native America. Gross revenues of $28.5 billion were generated by around 459 small to moderate gaming operators in the fiscal year 2014.

This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Sovereignty in Small Businesses

Sovereignty expresses itself in small businesses as well. Some of the well-known small businesses that contribute to the food sovereignty movement are Sioux Chef restaurant and Tribal Grounds Coffee.

Located in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area, Oglala Lakota chef Sean Sherman dedicates himself to reviving the indigenous cuisines and serving them with a modern culinary perspective. Another indigenous Cherokee-owned organic roaster, Tribal Grounds Coffee uses beans grown and harvested exclusively by the Native Americans.

Further, movements to reclaim Native Fashion manifested as a consequence of the need to express aesthetic sovereignty. Patricia Michaels from Taos Pueblo, a finalist on the popular television show Project Runway is at the forefront of the movement to revitalize Native fashion.

Cultural Dimension of Sovereignty

Photo of N. Scott Momaday and American President George W. Bush.
N. Scott Momaday won a Pulitzer Prize for the first major work on Native American recovery and renaissance. (Image: NEA photographer Michael Stewart/Public domain)

Expressions of sovereignty manifest itself in literature, architecture, art, music, and motion pictures. It is further evident in the way communities work towards recovering indigenous food systems, native languages, and preserving traditional environmental understanding.

The tribal college movement, post-secondary Native American Study programs and the development of culturally relevant school curricula were the consequences of acts of self-determination of Native Americas.

Expressions of sovereignty is also obvious in the writings of award winning authors, such as Pulitzer prize-winning N. Scott Momaday, the National Book award winners Louise Erdrich, and Sherman Alexie, and acclaimed poets, such as Simon Ortiz and Ofelia Zepeda.

Artistic Sovereignty

Motion pictures, such as Smoke Signals, Sandra Osawa’s powerful documentary films, such as Lighting the Seventh Fire, and the subversive comedic work of the 1491s were also used as expressions of sovereignty.

One other captivating example of recovery and renaissance is expressed through a series of paintings by Diné artist Gloria Emerson, which reflects the Sand Creek massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho people in 1864. Further, artistic sovereignty has found expressions in the pottery of Jeri Redcorn and the public art of Edgar Heap of Birds.

Learn more about native resistance in the west.

Creative Place Making by the Native Americans

The population of American Indians, Alaska Natives, or in combination with other tribes is expected to reach 8.6 million or about two percent of the total population by 2050. This seemingly minuscule growth from 1.7 percent in 2010 is significant considering the population decline between 1500 and 1900.

It is often perceived that the American Indians live within the boundaries of their ancestral homelands, demarcated as reservations. Approximately 78 percent of the population lived outside these legally defined areas, the concentration of the population being in small towns and cities that are away from the mainstream American society. 

Metropolitan areas, such as Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, Phoenix, Detroit, Minneapolis, and Seattle are also home to a small population. This population distribution reflects the creative place making approaches adopted by the Native Americans and evidence of renaissance and recovery.

Common Questions about Understanding Native American Tribal Sovereignty

Q: What is tribal sovereignty?

Tribal sovereignty is a spiritual, moral, and dynamic cultural force within a given tribal community that drives their relationship with the people within and outside the community.

Q: How do the tribal nations have a higher status than the states?

The federal government has signed many treaties with the natives. These treaties are the foundation of the tripartite federal system in the US and are considered equivalent to nation-to-nation agreements.

Q: How has tribal sovereignty manifested himself?

Tribal sovereignty has found expression in art, music, literature, architecture, and study programs.

Q: What is the current status of tribal sovereignty in the United States?

Tribal sovereignty is limited to treaties, acts, executive orders and administrative agreements. Yet, it is ensured that the tribal regions are protected from further encroachments by other sovereigns..

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