Washburn on Membership Disputes: Should US Trample on Sovereignty?

Gale Courey Toensing

And if it’s okay for the U.S. to step in and trample over tribal sovereignty and self-governance, where do you draw the line?

“One can make a solid argument that the United States never has any business trampling on tribal sovereignty and self-governance, but that’s not satisfying to everyone because we all see occasionally a tribe doing something that well-thinking people outside the tribe disagree with. These are just agonizing decisions and I’m not convinced that the United States is better at making these decisions on average than tribes are at making them themselves,” Washburn said.

As sovereign nations, perhaps tribes should be looking to other authorities for conflict resolution, he suggested.

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“There are other forums for deciding tribal disputes that might better serve tribes than the United States. A lot of what we see are human rights violations, at least arguably so, and the United States is not the only entity that has an interest in policing human rights violations. Ultimately, if the tribe is going to be sovereign it has to make these decisions for itself. That doesn’t mean that it’s not subject to criticism by human rights organizations,” Washburn said. “I’m not sure the United States should be the one policing human rights violations in the world, even by tribes… [Sometimes it takes] a heck of  a long time to wait while injustice is happening, but I think the tribe needs to find its way through the darkness to the light and it’s hard to know how the United States can be helpful in that process sometimes. We often get entreaties from both sides to get involved, but once we get involved how do we not get involved in the future?”


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andre's picture
Submitted by andre on
The paternal relationship between tribes and the Federal government is permanent and on-going. Anytime your basic subsistence is tied to a funding source not your own. Your subservient. The Treaty's are very clear as to what the rights and responsibilities are of each party. Almost like being held economic hostage. I liken it to a woman who marries a rich man. Each knows what is required of the other and operates within the confines and perimeters of the agreement. Lest it be broken. Andre Leonard,

John Iyawbay's picture
John Iyawbay
Submitted by John Iyawbay on
The problem is everyone just assumes that all of the Indian tribes in America are historic treaty groups and this is not true. Many tribes, like the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan, are not historic treaty tribes; they are IRA created organizations that never existed before 1934. These groups were organized solely on the bases of residency within the boundaries of a reservation and being Indian, regardless of their tribe of origin or legal connection to the group prior to reorganization. Because of this error, 85% of the historic Saginaw, Swan Creek and Black River Bands of Chippewa living outside of the reservation boundaries were always excluded from membership in the IRA created group. In an instance like this, were the Federal Government has a fiduciary trust obligation to the historic tribe and a contemporary group excludes those persons entitled to benefit equally, I would argue with the courts that "the DOI has the authority and responsibility to ensure that the Nation’s representatives, with whom it must conduct government-to-government relations, are the valid representatives of the Nation as a whole."

editors's picture
Submitted by editors on
Comment by Laura L Wass: Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn’s comments are entirely representing how, once again, the federal government continues to exercise its policy of Indian Extermination! To dare state “trample over their sovereignty and self-governance” in regards to the disenrollment issue shows either ignorance of Indian history, or a blatant attempt at shirking responsibility and accountability from his office. Let’s talk about trampling on Tribal sovereignty! Let’s talk about how the federal War Department shattered the tribes, attempted to use every means possible to destroy culture and traditions, removed Indians from their lands and all held sacred. Let’s talk about how the Secretary of Interior’s office built prison camp reservations and Rancherias as they stole Indian children to fill their boarding schools, sent in lawyers and BIA to write federal style Indian constitutions to fit their purpose. Yes, let’s talk about the congressional acts of relocation, termination, reorganization, the secret sterilization of our Indian men and women at the hands of IHS, yes let’s talk! Trample over tribal sovereignty? This is exactly what is happening again through the dismemberment of Indian Peoples from their tribal bodies!!! Tribal sovereignty belongs not just to a tribal government but to the whole of its tribal citizens. All Indian citizens have the inherent right to be protected, to not live in fear, to enjoy the same rights as each of their citizens. What we see going on today with those who are practicing this new paper genocide are tribal government dictatorships conducting business without full knowledge of Indian history and their sacred duty to build their Nations strong and thriving once again. Congress set up the horror we’re seeing today amongst the tribal citizens. They must take responsibility and hold themselves accountable for their shameful acts, now! The Secretary’s office must lead the charge to stop the tragedies from continuing, clean up the mess and restore all Indian citizens to their inherent rightful place………..their tribes! We invite Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn and whomever else he may choose to meet with us and find resolution immediately before more Indian lives are destroyed! Laura L Wass American Indian Movement Central California

Flower's picture
Submitted by Flower on
I agree with Washburn. There should be a conflict resolution mechanism which I feel should be borne amongst Tribal Nations in our Nation-to-Nation relationships external to DOI involvement to resolve complex issues such as disenrollment. The strength of tribal sovereignty and Indian self-determination should not be placed at risk for compromise at any level for all Tribal Nations with the US Government. There would be no way to ever draw a line in the sand which all 566 Tribal Nations could agree and tribal sovereignty must be protected.