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Contemporary Issues - Introduction & Sovereignty

Intro & Sovereignty | Jurisdiction & Land

Introduction

Standing Rock Monument
Standing Rock Monument. This
monument is located near the
entrance to the Tribal
Headquarters building on the
Standing Rock Reservation,
Fort Yates, North Dakota.

In order to understand the future of American Indian people and their tribal governments, it is necessary to first understand their past. Unlike any other minority group in the United States, the American Indian people are firmly bound to their history and to the promises made to them in the past. Unlike any other minority group in the United States, the American Indian people have a unique legal and political status that affects their relationship with federal and the state governments. It is this unique legal and political status, born out of treaty agreements made at the first contact between the Native Americans and the “discoverers” of North America that compels and guides contemporary issues.

In their book “The Nations Within” (Pantheon Books, 1984), Vine Deloria, Jr. and Clifford Lytle offer some insight into the American Indian view of treaties and how they affect contemporary issues:

“In almost every treaty...the concern of the
Indians was the preservation of the people, and it is
in this concept of the people that we find both the
psychological and the political keys that unlock the
puzzling dilemma of the present and enable us to
understand why Indian people view the world as
they do today. When we understand the idea of
the people, we can also learn how the idea of
the treaty became so sacred to Indians that even
today, more than a century after most of the
treaties were made, Indians still refer to the
provisions as if the agreement were made last week.
The treaty, for most tribes, was a sacred pledge
made by one people to another and required no
more than the integrity of each party for
enforcement. That the United States quickly
insisted that the treaties should be interpreted
rigidly as strictly legal documents has galled
succeeding generations of Indians and made
permanent peace between Indians and the federal
government impossible.”

Today, American Indian tribes must deal with a myriad of issues on their own tribal level, on the state level, and on the federal level. There are several issues that dominate the current debates and each is made more complex by the interconnected relationships of the tribal, state, and federal governments.

Sovereignty

By far, the most pressing issue that will face the American Indian people is the blanket issue of sovereignty. Indeed the statement that Indian tribes are sovereign nations is still frequently challenged. The assertion that Indian tribes are “sovereign,” “quasi-sovereign,” or “domestic dependent nations” depends on whom one talks to and how one defines those terms.

In order to understand the discussion of sovereignty, it is necessary to understand where sovereignty, as it relates to the American Indian tribes, originated. From the beginning of contact between the indigenous people of North America and the newcomers, the non-natives recognized the inherent sovereignty of the native peoples. Since the native people had already established cities, trade routes, laws, and leaders, they were considered independent and governed their own affairs. Since the Indian tribes also had the military strength and a superior knowledge of the land, the immigrants to North America began to make treaties with the Indian tribes. Three initial treaties recognized that the Indian tribes were separated political entities that were not subject to U.S. laws or decisions. In fact, some of the acts established, but never implemented, rules that would require non-Indians to obtain passports in order to pass through Indian lands.

Throughout the ensuing years and escalating conflicts, the U.S. government continued to make and ratify treaties with the Indian tribes. Almost all of the treaties were those in which the Indian tribes made some sort of land cession in exchange for pace, money, goods, or services. The first treaty made between the U.S. and an Indian tribe was the treaty with the Delawares in 1778, and the last treaty to be made was a treaty with the Nez Perce in 1868.

Today, the services provided to most American Indian tribes, such as the Indian Health Service hospitals and health care, are a direct result of the treaty agreements made by their ancestors. In fact, some Indian leaders have stated that the land cessions in exchange for government health services, was the first pre-paid health plan in the U.S. The problem with sovereignty and the treaty issues, however, is that tribal and federal officials often disagree over the extent of the services, the amount of payment given to the tribes, or whether the treaties are being adhered to at all.

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