The future of tribal sovereignty
BISMARCK, N.D. ñ Sovereignty may have been an inherent right for the many nations in the country for hundreds of years, but it now requires constant protection. Tribal sovereignty is inherent; according to traditional elders, it was given to the nations by the Creator. It is not uncommon at meetings to hear tribal leaders, attorneys and other officials speak of attempts by states, the federal government and internal forces to obliterate sovereignty. ìWe have to have a sustained national sovereignty effort. We must rekindle the [National Congress of American Indiansí] effort to reaffirm sovereignty,î said Tex Hall, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation and former president of the NCAI. Recently in Congress, legislation that would have required tribes to ask permission from counties on gaming issues was determined to be an attack on sovereignty, tribal leaders agreed. That proposed legislation did not pass committee muster. Melanie Benjamin, chairman of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, said the erosion seen on the Mississippi River is equivalent to the attempts to erode tribal sovereignty. ìThe courts are cutting away at tribal sovereignty, they chip away at it; it is an important topic,î she said. Benjamin said the trend was to pit the states and federal government against the tribes in courts. ìSovereignty is rooted in federal law; some see it as a state flow-through from the federal government. ìEver since Indian self-determination and the Reagan administration, statesí rights have taken priority. Now, with the Bush administration, there is more power going to the states,î she said. ìIn the future, we may find ourselves in more courts.î As the treaties become abrogated, sovereignty is weakened by the U.S. courts, said Ken Davis, chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. He said the right to self governance lies directly with land, and that to expand sovereignty the land base has to be expanded. ìTo purchase land only from tribal members doesnít expand sovereignty.î Davis recommended buying as much land as possible whether out of or within the reservationís boundaries. ìWe have to come to grasp with it and accommodate growth on the reservations,î Davis said. ìWe are not as isolated and uneducated as we once were. We have lawyers; we have political rights and a special political status. No longer do we allow encroachment within our own boundaries,î Davis said. Ron His Horse is Thunder, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, agreed with Davis and said the tribes must buy all the land within the boundaries and land outside the boundaries. When His Horse is Thunder was growing up, he heard that the Lakota got rights from the government. ìThe treaties are the recognition of tribal rights, not gifts.î The Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa knows full well what treaty rights and sovereignty is about. In the late 1970s, fishing rights among many Ojibwe nations were challenged. When the tribes tried to exercise their treaty rights to fishing, they were confronted not only by local anti-Indian groups but by the courts. Mille Lacs won its case in 1979 but the fallout, Benjamin said, is still felt today. ìVictory came at a price. Three anti-Indian groups have now been elected to the county board and they have tried to kick us off. We wonít move. ìThe county continues to come after us and the government supports their actions,î Benjamin said. ìWe may never win over those who run the county now, but in 100 years they will be dead and Mille Lacs will continue,î she said. Central to sovereignty may lay the culture and the language, but without the language the culture suffers. His Horse is Thunder said he was told by his elders that government intervention in blood requirements will eventually lead to extinction of the tribes as well if only the blood of the parent is recognized. ìEvery sovereignty is recognized by its language, government, membership and established boundaries. ìWho ceases to have any one of these will find termination,î His Horse is Thunder said. ìWithout the language you canít know 100 percent of the culture ñ in the language is the culture,î he said. ìAre we doing enough to stop the erosion of the language?î One final point made by His Horse is Thunder was that the members or citizens must have faith in the tribal government. ìThere is an internal attack ñ Indian against Indian. If we donít protect sovereignty, we will see termination,î His Horse is Thunder said.