Home Jurisdiction What is tribal sovereignty and what does it mean for Native Americans?

What is tribal sovereignty and what does it mean for Native Americans?



Tribal sovereignty, often seen as a legal term, is at the center of almost all issues affecting tribal nations existing within the geographic boundaries of the United States.

In its most basic sense, tribal sovereignty – the inherent authority of tribes to govern themselves – enables tribes to honor and preserve their traditional cultures and ways of life. Tribal sovereignty is also a political status recognized by the federal government, protected by the U.S. Constitution and treaties forged generations ago, and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

While the concept may seem relatively straightforward, there has been considerable disagreement between Indigenous groups and US government agencies over what tribal sovereignty actually entails, its implications, and how tribes and states can or should work together to serve. their constituents.

States and tribes continue to fight for land and jurisdiction in areas such as law enforcement. Government officials are still trying to understand all the ramifications of the US Supreme Court ruling last summer in the landmark Tribal Sovereignty case McGirt v. Oklahoma.

Supreme Court justices have said that a giant strip of land in eastern Oklahoma that the United States gave to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation through treaties in the 1800s is, in fact , an “Indian reservation” and that the state of Oklahoma did not have jurisdiction to prosecute Jimcy McGirt, a registered member of the Seminole Nation, for serious crimes that occurred on Muscogee Nation lands (Creek ).

Lawyers and policymakers across the country are predicting the ruling’s impact will extend far beyond Oklahoma and criminal prosecution.

Journalists planning to cover these impacts and tribal nations in general should have a basic understanding of tribal sovereignty and its importance to Indigenous peoples living in the United States. Below, we provide important context.

We don’t intend this explainer to be exhaustive, but it is a starting point – and the first in a series of tip sheets, explicators, and research summaries that we’ll be publishing over the course of this month. coming year to help journalists improve their coverage of Native Americans. In our next article, we’ll take a closer look McGirt v. Oklahoma.

It should be noted that although federal government officials and documents often refer to Indigenous peoples of the United States as “Indians” or “Native Americans,” the Native American Journalists Association has created a guide to terminology. native.

Towards the bottom of this article, we’ve rounded up a variety of resources that we think will help journalists, including links to academic articles on tribal sovereignty and a new website created by the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. and the Native Nations Center at the University of Oklahoma.


Some key things journalists should know about tribal sovereignty:

“The sovereignty of the tribes includes the right to establish their own form of government, to determine the conditions of membership, to promulgate laws and to establish systems of law enforcement and courts,” according to the National Conference state legislatures.

The Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians in California, on the other hand, had only 12 members at the end of 2019, the Palm Springs Desert Sun reports.

  • Tribes set their own rules for who can join, so registration criteria vary from tribe to tribe. “Tribal registration criteria are set out in tribal constitutions, articles of incorporation or ordinances,” according to the US Department of the Interior.

Tribes often require proof of tribal lineage. For example, a tribe may require documentation demonstrating that the person seeking registration is related to a tribal member descended from a person named on the basic tribal roll, or the original membership list. Tribes may also require proof of the amount of blood. The Federal Office of Indian Affairs issues what is known as an Indian Blood Degree Certificate, calculated based on family lineage.

  • Knowledge of treaties is important for tribal coverage. The US Constitution calls treaties the “supreme law of the land.” Although they were negotiated generations ago – Congress stopped making treaties with tribes in the late 1800s – they remain relevant because they outline, among other things, the property rights and federal protections that the United States agreed to grant the tribes in exchange for ceding millions of acres of their land. country.

The United States acquired much of its land through treaties, which “lie at the heart of both Indigenous history and contemporary tribal life and identity,” writes Kevin Gover, Director. of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, in 2014 in the museum’s magazine. “Approximately 368 treaties were negotiated and signed by American commissioners and tribal leaders (and subsequently approved by the United States Senate) from 1777 to 1868. They enshrine the promises made by our government to Indian nations.

  • The Constitution of the United States describes the relationship of the federal government with the tribes. “The Constitution gives authority in Indian affairs to the federal government, not state governments,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Just as the United States treats states as governments, it also treats Indian tribes as governments, not as special interest groups, individuals, or any other type of non-governmental entity. “
  • Lawyers routinely cite three landmark court cases in court challenges and legal analyzes related to tribal sovereignty. In the case of 1832 Worcester v. Georgia, for example, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that the Cherokee Nation is not subject to state regulation. Chief Justice John Marshall, writing for the court, explains that the Cherokee Nation “is a separate community occupying its own territory … the assent of the Cherokees themselves …”

Today, states have no authority over tribes unless Congress grants it. In 1953, for example, Congress enacted Public Law 280, allowing six states – Alaska, California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, and Wisconsin – to begin prosecuting most crimes committed on tribal lands. Federal law left it up to other states to decide whether they wanted to make the change as well.

Additional Resources

  • McGirt and Rebuilding of Tribal Nations Toolbox: This website, created by the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development and the University of Oklahoma Native Nations Center, provides a wide range of resources, including a series of backgrounders examining the ramifications of the McGirt decision in areas such as taxation, criminal justice and child welfare.
  • Indigenous Data Sovereignty: This explainer, created by the Global Investigative Journalism Network and the Native American Journalists Association, “explores the investigative opportunities that exist for journalists regarding the set of issues known as ‘Indigenous Data Sovereignty’. “. “
  • Shaawano Chad Uran, registered member of the White Earth Nation and former professor of Native American studies at the University of Washington, explains sovereignty and its importance in Indian country today, September 2018.

Law journal articles, academic articles worth reading



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here