Indian Sovereignty; the New Fiction

by Dale Menten

On April 29, 1994, President Clinton met with 300 representatives from the 550 federally-recognized Indian tribes of America. “I am strongly committed to building a more effective day-to-day working relationship reflecting respect for the rights of self-government due the sovereign tribal governments,” he said. (emphasis mine) He then went on to lay the groundwork for increasing what he termed “our government-to-government relationship with Tribes.” “Sovereign tribal governments”. The words are so politically polite, so socially placating, and yet so factually unfounded.

There are several conditions in this world that are said to be”absolute”. And being sovereign is one of them. You are either sovereign or you’re not. The contemporary phenomenon of referring to Indian sovereignty as “a limited sovereignty”, is politically polite and simply impossible. Absolutes don’t exist in degrees. Partially pregnant, sort of dead, kind of human, almost sovereign, these are not absolute conditions.

In addition, a sovereign nation must enjoy a complete independence from all other nations. It can not be a satellite, protectorate, or dependent colony, and still be sovereign. And it can’t be a ward of another government, as is the case with all Indian tribes. A sovereign nation must have supreme dominion.

For example, the nation of France owns the land within its borders and can do what it wishes with that land without permission from the United States. They can, as recently demonstrated, even blow off a few nuclear warheads in the face of intense U.S. protest. These are perks that come with being sovereign.

The 550 American Indian tribes, however, must place their land into trust with the United States. And nuclear warheads are out of the question. These are a few of the shortcomings of being a dependent.

Just as Indian gaming is accomplished through claims of Indian sovereignty, the federal government’s role as Indian gaming watchdog is a product of Indian wardship.

Therefore, it appears that Indian tribes are sovereign nations only when it pleases the Federal government, and the rest of the time they are simply dependent wards.

In a recent court case involving tribal sovereignty, Judge Randall, one of three appellate court judges, referred to Indian sovereignty in his lengthy dissenting opinion as “more illusion than real, a Potemkin Village, mush when it was written and mush today and a throwback to the Separate but Equal doctrine, struck down in 1954, by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education.”

Although his opinion does not go unchallenged, it did receive praise from a surprising audience. In a March 4, 1996 Native American Press article entitled, “Thanks Judge Randall for giving us back our dignity”, Native American writer Bill Lawrence states, “Perhaps the only major point that Judge Randall missed in his dissent is the fact that over 75% of the Indian people in Minnesota today do not live on reservations and have in effect already rejected the concept of sovereignty as currently practiced by our tribal governments.” Hardly a strong endorsement of sovereignty from the very people it is supposed to help.

And he goes on to say that those groups who benefit from this limited sovereignty, “not be allowed to hide their criminal conduct, their lack of accountability, their denying us our civil rights, their incompetence and their other exploitations and greed behind this anachronism of the 17th century.”

Combine this Native American view with the recent demands from the White Earth tribe that the Bureau of Indian Affairs monitor their tribal government “to prevent financial and vote fraud”, and it seems that this fiction of sovereignty can be very harmful. It has been said by both Indian and non-Indian alike that the United States has invaded third world countries with better civil rights than exist on many of the 550 tribal reservations in America.

So, why is President Clinton so strongly committed to the promotion of Indian sovereignty? There is, after all, assimilation: the choice of over 75% of the American Indian population. The answer, unfortunately, is not as insufferably noble as we might hope.

Special Interests; Special Favors

For quite some time our state and national leaders have run their campaigns with big bucks from big business donated with little or no regard to party affiliation. Ralph Nader describes it this way: “We have the tweedle-dee, tweedle-dum Republican and Democratic parties that are really one party of, by and for big business.”

But this relationship with big business is quite understandable once you realize that these special interest payments usually come with a string attached: the promise of special favors. If a large timber company contributes to someone’s campaign, they expect – and normally get – special treatment. This is why we spend $3.3 billion tax dollars in just five years building and repairing logging roads for timber and forest companies, like Weyerhauser and Georgia Pacific, while our national highways continue to buckle and erode. (This figure also reflects enormous tax breaks for the industry.)

Over the past few decades, Indian sovereignty has been added to the long list of special favors granted to our mining, timber, and other resource companies by our appreciative elected leaders. These large corporations find it easier to deal with tribal governments for the resources found on their 100 million acres of trust land, than to subject their often dangerous or environmentally unsound plans to the public scrutiny that comes with the exploitation of public lands.

One can’t help wondering how far Washington will take this fiction. Are they prepared to pull out of the Indian business altogether and grant true sovereignty to American’s Indian tribes? (And by true sovereignty, we mean the entire package: complete dominion over their land and a total independence from all state and federal governments.) Or are they content with promoting their current “government to almost government” relationship with Indian Tribes for the benefit of big business?

It is not likely that 278 million people will stand by while Washington rewrites the Constitution in a bold, legal move to accommodate “real” sovereignty for 400,000 American Indians. It just isn’t feasible. And how long can Indians and non-Indians endure the hardships of the current fictional sovereignty that seems to benefit so few?

Eventually America will be asked to separate fact from fiction and do the right thing. And there is a “right thing”. It is an absolute called democracy that promises “liberty and justice for all.”