Courtesy Brad Angerman/Yakama Nation
Yakama Nation celebrated the return of civil and criminal jurisdiction at an April 22 event. Yakama Tribal Councilman, Raymond “Moss” Smartlowit, right, signs a guest book with Washington State officials.

Engaging Local and State Governments Can Be Difficult, But Should Be Done

Duane Champagne

It may be useful for tribal governments to engage in cooperative government relations with local cities, counties, and states. Such agreements, joint ventures, and government interactions will underscore that tribal governments exercise government powers by engaging local governments in sharing and improving services, safety, justice, and administration. Often, tribal governments are fearful of giving away resources or powers to city, county, or state governments. The treaty relations and present-day self-determination policy upholds a government-to-government relation between tribal nations and the U.S. federal government.

The nation-to-nation relationship is fundamental to Indigenous Peoples, not only in the United States, but also throughout the world. Indigenous nations carry on political governments that rely on unique government traditions that precede the formation of nation states. Indigenous Peoples, while recognizing many powers of their host nation state, insist on maintaining powers of self-government, land, cultural choices, and traditions that are preserved in their relations with nation states. In the United States, the relations between tribal governments and the federal government is a fundamental principle based on treaties and other agreements.

Too often federal government policy is aimed at dissolving tribal government powers and rights. Specific laws such as Public Law 280 or termination policy are aimed at getting the federal government out of Indian affairs by reassigning management of Indian affairs to state governments. Tribal governments have fought hard against termination and assimilation policies that threaten self-government, land, and cultural ways of life.

Nevertheless, tribal governments are about providing justice, assisting in culturally informed economic activities, land management, ecological engagement, local decision making, and many other benefits and protections of tribal citizens. Many reservation government issues are local. Federal administration and funding are of great assistance to tribal communities. However, tribal governments should more actively engage with state, county, and city governments to establish common ground and work toward achieving common goals. Tribal governments should formally recognize and establish relations with their local city, state, and county governments. In return, city, county, and state governments should recognize openly the government powers of tribal governments. Tribal governments should be engaged as self-governing entities and partners within regional and local planning, justice, health, infrastructure, cultural preservation, and other activities.

Tribal governments can make working agreements with local city, state, county governments. Treaty relations between the federal government and tribal governments prohibit tribal governments to carry on relations with foreign non-U.S. governments. However, relations among tribal, state, city, and county governments are unspecified, and therefore are possible as long as they do not violate federal laws. The U.S. federal government leaves many government powers to state governments, which in turn assign some powers to county and city governments. In Indian country, tribal governments administer to many of the same responsibilities given to state, county, and city governments. In making agreements with local governments, tribal governments do not need to subordinate their sovereignty to other local governments, but can exercise governmental powers by cooperation with local governments to provide services and improvements to all citizens.

Tribal governments have spent many years trying to gain better recognition and understanding from local cities, counties and state governments. The task is often difficult. At times, local governments are cooperative, but the next elected political leadership may be less willing to continue cooperation. A Mohawk chief once told me the Mohawks spent many decades working toward peaceful, cooperative relations with federal, state, county, and city governments. He suggested that tribal nations need to have great patience when working toward balanced, cooperative, and effective inter-government relations. Mutual recognition and respect among nations leading to beneficial government-to-government relations remains a fundamental ideal among Indigenous Peoples.

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