Indian Country and the Second Amendment

Ruth Hopkins

I come from a family of hunters. Autumn was always a big deal, because that’s when hunting season began. The day hunting licenses became available was treated like a special occasion. Many a morning, my dad and over a dozen male relations would wake up before sunrise, have coffee, dress themselves head-to-toe in warm layers of camouflage, load up their shotguns, rifles, and buck knives, and travel far out into remote fields on tribal land to lie in wait for wild game; just as Dakota and Lakota fathers and grandfathers before them had done in order to provide for their families. Sure, Natives didn’t hunt with guns a thousand years ago, but we adapt. Here on the Plains, my ancestors became expert equestrians and marksmen soon after the arrival of sunka wakan (the horse) and maza wakan (the gun).

My dad was a subsistence hunter, meaning we ate whatever he brought home. While he usually brought home deer, pheasant, ducks and geese, I remember seeing other wild game on our kitchen table, like elk, moose, turkey, grouse, rabbit and beaver. We had turtle soup and frog legs a few times too.

From a young age, I was expected to learn how to gut, skin, butcher, preserve, and prepare wild game. These days, Native hunters often take their game to the meat processor to be butchered; but I’m thankful I learned how to do it myself. As a teenager, it wasn’t a skill set I bragged about because most of my friends weren’t taught how and they thought it was gross, but since then I have an appreciation for it, because as a Native woman from a hunter-gather society, keeping these practices alive, no matter how unpopular they are in western society, is another means by which we fight colonization, assimilation, and the termination of our traditional lifeways. Not to mention, if Western civilization fell tomorrow, I’m confident my family wouldn’t starve.

I enjoy hunting too, so I own firearms. The first gun I ever fired was a Winchester Featherweight .7mm magnum rifle. Her name was Tashina. She kicked and it was a trick just to learn how to keep her steady while aiming. Personally, I’m not concerned with the size of a buck’s antlers. We are taught to respect the animals we hunt and kill, and thank them for giving us life. One of my favorite things to do after a successful hunt is to give meat to elders. Many miss the taste of wild game, and have no one to hunt for them anymore. Wild game is also a healthy source of protein.

I also target shoot. As a woman who has been the victim of an assault, and now that I travel through reservations and rural countrysides where law enforcement is often questionable, knowing how to protect myself is important. I am the only person in my family who hasn’t served in the military; consequently, I grew up respecting maza wakan, and gun safety was always a priority.

The right to bear arms is a significant issue in Indian country. In the case of tribal member gun owners however, it has less to do with a liberal or conservative agenda, and more to do with treaty rights and tribal sovereignty.

The Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution protects the right of its citizens to bear arms, but court cases contiguous to the issue of gun control called for the United States Supreme Court to further delineate its meaning in recent years. In Columbia v. Heller (2008), the Court upheld the right of an individual to possess a firearm, for self-defense for example, even if such possession is independent from service in a militia. Then in McDonald v Chicago (2010), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment limits local and state governments to the same degree that it limits the Federal government.

While the U.S. Constitution mentions Natives, we weren’t citizens of the United States until 1924 so the Bill of Rights didn’t pertain to us. The Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 applied parts of the Bill of Rights to Natives but the right to bear arms is absent, as gun control laws were left up to tribal governments. Nonetheless, hunting rights were firmly established thanks to treaties between the gederal government and tribes.

It is the sovereign right of tribes to control the hunting and fishing rights of its membership, as well as tribal members’ right to bear arms, on their reservation lands. Today, many tribal governments simply assume the gun laws of surrounding jurisdictions. In these uncertain times, tribes should consider visiting the gun issue, to enforce tribal hunting and fishing rights under treaty law. Tribes could also flex their sovereignty muscles by taking a leadership role in applying guns laws that may enable them to better protect and serve their membership, especially on reservations where crime is rampant.

As for this Native huntress, you know my freezer will be full by season’s end, as will my Dad’s. He’s no longer physically able to hunt, so we’ll do it for him.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) is a writer, speaker,former science professor and tribal attorney. She is a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network and LastRealIndians.com.

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thetravlor's picture
I had the privilege of visiting the Standing Rock Reservation this summer. My friend and I did our best to rid the area of those pesky pdogs. For a very fair priced license to hunt them, we were given a map and the go ahead. Our experience was enhanced by the head DNR guy introducing himself in the convience store and telling us to stop by the Game and Fish office. They circled areas for best access and prior use of poison. Even though we were assured our carry permits were honored, we could find nothing in the regulations. Even though there are no signs posted in the casino, we disarmed while there. No one even checked on us while we were set up and lowering the pdog population. Firearms are OK in the Fort Yates area anyway. I highly recommend this hunt and urge all that can to please make it happen. The Tribal Council will have to use more poison if we don't use bullets.
thechief's picture
I use my firearms for primarily hunting but I also carry them for self defense. I was at a conference a couple years ago and people brought up the fact that natives are the most likely to become a victim in crime. I really don't know the stats but I am armed so I am never put in the position of being a victim. Same with my wife and daughter. I don't trust the local police department to come and save us if a white power group tries to act us while we are in rural areas. I, of course follow the hunting laws and conceal carry laws in my state.
swrussel's picture
I signed a brief in the prevailing side of Heller, and the way I read the Second Amendment, it has nothing to do with hunting or target shooting, and it certainly does not apply to Indian nations. Put another way: tribal governments can totally ban all firearms on their land or they can not regulate firearms at all. I agree with Ruth that they ought to regulate in light of their particular circumstances without much regard for state laws except if they radically deviate from state law it would be good to put up a sign warning visitors. Also, I doubt that there's any law yet on whether a concealed carry permit issued by a state is valid on a rez. My knee jerks that no, it would not be valid. Yet another area among many where tribal governments have a lot of authority but often default to state rules. I say if state rules fit the situation, that's fine. But if they don't, make your own. This is a good discussion to have.
andre's picture
As America a country founded on the Doctrine of Discovery celebrates it's Columbus Day, many of us will not revel in the ceremony that sanctioned lawlessness. It's ironic that for all the laws that were imposed, they are not enforced, particularly the Treaty obligations. Having watched Eliouse Cobbell spend almost half her life seeking redress in the courts of Columbus, I am not sure we will ever get to true equality.
mblue's picture
Thank you for this article. Last week my rez brother and I took out our rifles for shooting, both as sport but also to recheck our dope for the season. On our drive home I got to thinking about the right to bear arms in Indian Country. While no verbatim language in treaties or in law exist protecting 'the right to keep and bear arms" within Indian Country, I settled on treaty hunting rights as place in Indian law that might protect us guys for owning guns to "hunt" with. And still the question lingered, what about guns unrelated to hunting? Say pistols, assualt rifles, and shotguns intended for personal protection. Some years ago, while riding for the Navajo Nation Council brand as a legislative advisor for the Publc Safety Committee, a well intentioned council delegate entertained legislation requiring tribal members to register firearms, primarily for gun control and safety purposes, i.e. minimum age requirement, no felons may possess a fire-arm, loss/theft, and safety training as a requirement for ownwership/registration. After an hour or so of discussing the proposed tribal law, the conversation among the half dozen Navajo lawmakers focused on hunting and personal protection as the only uses and possession for firearms within the Navajo Nation. You may be asking aren't these the only two reasons for owning firearms within an Indian reservation? (On the national level (outside Indian nations) the debate rages on between these reasons and another that is "necessary to the security of a free state.") But Indian culture (like 5-10 mph wind's effect on a bullet at 800 yards) tends to change what should be a straight shot nonsecular discussion. Enter Navajo cultural religious use of firearms in Navajo healing ceremonies like the Enemy Way or Nine-Night Chant. Now, not intending to give out details of the sacred (you can pick up a book for that on amazon.com), firearms are used in this and other ceremonies. Back to the Navajo law makers in deep thought and talk... I interrupted and asked, "What about the ceremonies where firearms are used? How do you all want handle that?" Faces dropped and the only thing making noise was the wall clock's second hand. "I hadn't though of that," said the well educated, progressive and younger Navajo council delegate sponsoring the Navajo gun control law. Long story short, the bill was tabled and we moved on to other compelling like the need for dog catchers at the Navajo fair and rodeo. I share this experience because I was reminded about it when I read the Siouan word "Maza Wakan." And like all good long winded tribal leaders out there, my point, finally, is that... we should not lose sight of the cultural and religious aspects of the use of Be-Al-Doh, or what we Navajo speakers call the gun, in the drafting of tribal gun control laws.
1nightwalker's picture
Interesting column. I'm with you Ms. Hopkins in that our people have a better ability to "get by" should it be necessary. I am generally a lone hunter/fisherman. This is the first time I've heard of a Native woman sportsperson. Interesting. I too am sort of a radical in that I won't..am not allowed...or maybe can't totally assimilate. Whether it's just in our DNA or other reasons. Our family members of the past were made to cut their hair and in protest of that very thing I will not cut my hair. I hope that the various tribes hunker down and hold on to what remains because sooner or later there be a battle to keep what remains. I believe some of us "radicals" will always be here helping our people in our communities to make things better especially for the elders and the young people. THAT...is our Tradition. Nee aash.
talyn's picture
My mother taught us independence above almost everything else. To always be as self-sufficient as possible, not to depend too much on anyone else, in case they turned out to be unreliable. She taught me to sew, to plant a garden, to preserve a harvest. She taught us to fish, but was not taught to hunt herself, and so could not pass it on. This makes me more determined than ever to learn how! Mom is getting a bit frail and arthritic, but I suspect that if I invite her to take a rifle and head out into the woods with me, she will!