What is Sovereignty?

There’s a saying that words have power. Often, however, words lose that power or have it corrupted by a lack of understanding of their true meaning. One such word is “sovereignty”. When it comes to the meaning and the practice of the concept of sovereignty for Native American tribes in the United States, there can be a disconnect in the minds of those hearing that word.

Due to the complicated relationship between Native people and the US government, there is a great misunderstanding of how sovereignty works or is supposed to work when it comes to the rights given to tribes through treaties with the US. Those treaties are key to establishing the different nature of the role played by the government in the affairs of the tribes.

The concept of a sovereign nation conveys a sense of “a type of political power…exercised through some form of government.” On the surface, this definition would seem not to apply to the various Native tribes in this country. Many Americans believe the tribes have been absorbed into the rest of the country, and the unique relationship talked of in the treaties is long over.

Historically this may also seem true, thanks to the blatant disregard for those treaty obligations shown by the US government in their dealings with Native people. For years, the tribes have had little, if any, political power. Yet the very fact that the interactions between tribes and the government consist of a series of treaties which have never been legally revoked reveal the continued foundation for the sovereignty of today’s tribes.

The difference can be seen in the relationship between the states and the federal government vs. the tribes and the government. When the states were established, the federal government did not enter into treaties with them to establish the way the interactions between them would work. There are clear lines about how that relationship works, but those lines are not defined by legal treaties as happened with the tribes.

Native peoples already had their own government, so their agreements with the United States were defined by a government to government treaty. The supremacy clause within the US Constitution recognized this difference and treated Native nations differently than the individual states, defining the way their interactions would work through these legal documents.

Yet today many people do not see the tribes as independent nations who rule themselves without input from a higher government. Yet that lack of complete and total independence does not revoke the recognized sovereignty of those nations. The connections forged by treaty were done so with the understanding that there would be interdependence between the two parties, yet the sovereignty of each party would remain. Each has obligations and responsibilities, yet there is still the recognition of sovereign rights guaranteed by those treaties.

The largest issue of independence is one created by the US government’s unwillingness to abide by their treaty obligations. Native nations’ economies were dependent on land-based resources. The treaties caused some loss of those resources with the loss of tribal lands. It was the obligation of the US government to replace those needed resources, which in many cases did not happen. Lands which were not to be taken were taken despite the treaty obligations. This created greater dependence than was initially agreed to.

Due to these issues, many tribes have lost their economic base and some of the aspects of their sovereignty. It is an issue still looking to be resolved and one that creates a struggle for many Native nations when it comes to ruling themselves.