American Indian Tribal Sovereignty Primer
Many of us have not had an opportunity to learn the facts about the unique relationship between the United States and the American Indian tribes. Sovereignty is the foundation upon which this relationship is built. The purpose of this document is to provide the reader with a basic understanding about the soverign status of American Indian tribes.
What is Sovereignty?
Sovereignty is an internationally recognized concept. A basic tenent of sovereignty is the power of a people to govern themselves.
American Indian tribal powers originate with the hisotry of tribes managing their own affairs. Case law has established that tribes reserve the rights they had never given away.1
American Indian Tribes Possess a "Nation-within-a-Nation" Status
Treaties formalize a nation-to-nation relationship between the federal government and the tribes.
In treaties, Indians reliquished certain rights in exchange for promises from the federal government. Trust responsibility is the government's obligation to honor the trust inherent to these promises and to represent the best interests of the tribes and their members.
The U.S. Constitution
The U.S. Constitution recognizes Indian tribes as distinct governments. It authorizes Congress to regulate commerce with "foreign nations, among the several state, and with the Indian tribes."2
Three 19th century Supreme Court opinions serve as a cornerstone to understanding the sovereign status of Indian nations. The cases are the most widely cited with respect to tribal sovereignty.
Johnson v. McIntosh concerned the validity of a tribal land grant made to private individuals3.
Cherokee Nation v. Georgia involved an action brought against the state of Georgia by the Cherokee Nation which sought relief from state jurisdiction on tribal lands.4
Worcester v. Georgia concerned the application of Georgia state law within the Cherokee Nation.5
Some Modifications in the Nation-to-Nation Relationship
In 1953, congress modified the federal-tribal relationship in five states through the passage of Public Law 280. More recently, the relationship was modified by the Indian Child Welfare Act and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
Public Law 2806 (1953)
Indian Child Welfare Act10 (1978)
Indian Gaming Regulatory Act11 (1988)
Tribal Sovereignty as a Paradox
While the U.S. government recognizes American Indian Tribes as sovereign nations, the U.S. congress is recognized by the courts as having the right to limit the sovereign powers of tribes. However, Congress must do so in definite terms and not by implication.
What Does This Mean?
For Further Reference
This is only a general framework for understanding the unique relationship between the American Indian tribes, the federal government and the states. Further references see the following:
This report is provided by the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and was prepared by the American Indian Research and Policy Institute, in cooperation with the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Extension Service and the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, and my not be reprinted without permission.
Special thanks to Larry Leventhal, Henry Buffalo, Andrea Atherton, Dr. Cecilia Martinez and Dr. John Red Horse for technical assistance, to Anita Munson for design consultation and to Michael Nissen for layout.
© Copyright 2002, American Indian Policy Center. All Rights