Tribal Sovereignty

image description Photo Credit: RL Potograpiya

After over 300 years of history, the question of Indian tribal sovereignty is still being debated and litigated daily. The question is, Who should exercise sovereign power over a wide range of governing activities — the tribes themselves, the states, the federal executive branch, Congress or the U.S. judicial system? Each legal entity has some claim to power, and the balance of authority between these powers has shifted over time.

Because of this, tribes were forced to act under contradictory federal policies.


  • For some issues, tribes act as sovereign government entities similar to states within our federal system.
  • They act as special interest groups for other issues and at other times in their history.
  • Sometimes, they have to act as both simultaneously.

Even those who have been dealing with the questions most directly admit they don't necessarily understand sovereignty. In Spiral of Fire, the former Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, Joyce Duggan, says,

"Many people still have a hard time today understanding sovereignty. What does this sovereignty of Indian nations mean? I have a hard time with it too because we're not sovereign in this nation. If we were sovereign in this nation we would not have to depend on federal government dollars. We would not have to go to the state for gaming approvals. We would be able to live independently in our own nation, which is what we were doing in 1838 at the time of the removal."

Sovereign Nations

Since at least the mid-1970s, the federal government has been returning certain powers and control to the tribes. There are federal contracts with tribes allowing them to run their own school systems instead of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). There are agreements with other tribes allowing them legal jurisdiction over certain crimes within their borders. In several states, county, state and tribal police officers are cross-deputized so that they can enforce laws within each others' jurisdictions.

In 1990, Congress amended the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act that allowed some tribes to take over most of the programs on their reservations that had been administered by the BIA. Education programs, health services, housing projects are now administered by some tribes themselves.

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Acknowledgement: Country Diaries


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