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How Do Tribal Governments Work?

The operation of tribal governments in the U.S. is a unique and complex system. Tribal governance combines the sovereign powers of a tribe as well as U.S. Congressional acts related to treaties, statutes and public law. An online Master of Business Administration (MBA) with a concentration in Native American Leadership program includes in-depth studies of how tribal governments work and how tribal governance affects current issues in Indian Country.

What Is Tribal Governance?

Tribal governments are sovereign governments that operate apart from state or federal governments. The tribal governments of 574 nations preside over the legal lives of tribal citizens in the contiguous 48 states and Alaska. Each of these 574 tribes is federally recognized by the U.S. government as a formal nation, and each relates to the U.S. as a separate and independent nation.

Because each tribe is a separate nation, they each have their own governments, laws and (in many cases) constitutions. Many tribal governments provide checks and balances within their government by separating power into branches similar to those in federal or state governments: executive (a governor, president or chief), legislative (a tribal council) and judicial (a tribal court). Tribal governments also have the power to tax their members.

What Is Tribal Sovereignty?

Tribal sovereignty means that tribes have the power to govern themselves. Each federally recognized tribe retains the rights of an independent sovereign nation apart from the local, state or federal government. The U.S. government has an underlying contract with the tribal nations that the tribes possess inalienable powers of sovereignty. As such, the U.S. has signed numerous treaties, statutes and executive orders protecting the rights of tribal nations.

Due to tribal sovereignty, the state and federal governments typically do not interfere in tribal government. The U.S. Congress does have the power to pass laws governing tribal members; it generally only passes laws to help tribal members by providing necessary services. The majority of laws governing tribal members and affairs come from tribal governments themselves.

Impact on Daily Life in Indian Country

Strong tribal governments are crucial to the economic development and improvement of daily life for people living in Indian Country. Just like state or local governments, tribal governments give structure to their communities. These governments provide police departments, first-responder services and court systems to protect their members and maintain law and order. Education, workforce development, healthcare, land management and other social programs fall under the jurisdiction of tribal governance.

Tribal governments also have the responsibility of building and developing infrastructure systems within the tribes, including roads, public buildings, water, electricity and telecommunications. This includes modern initiatives for sustainability development in tribal infrastructure.

Although each federally recognized tribe retains national sovereignty, the tribes also function similarly to states in that they receive assistance from the U.S. federal government in the form of social services. Often, however, outdated laws and bureaucratic red tape keep tribal governments from accessing federal programs and assistance in equal standing with local and state governments, leading to a gap in living standards.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted many such inequities in access to healthcare and resources faced by indigenous communities in the U.S., evidenced by disproportionate rates of mortality and other negative health outcomes during the crisis’ onset. Yet, the Brookings Institution explains that COVID-19 “has also shone light on cultural and community strengths including the power of tribal self-determination in the fight against the pandemic. … The innovations and impacts of Indigenous leadership during the pandemic provide striking examples of Indigenous peoples paving the way to protect communities and promote wellbeing.”

Tribal governments must maintain their sovereignty as the bedrock of cultural heritage and identity. The next generation of tribal members need leaders who understand the importance of building strong tribal governments with an eye toward economic development, sustainability and reforming outdated programs. Entire tribal communities benefit from improved education, healthcare and employment opportunities. Tribal leaders who wish to have a long-lasting impact on their communities can enroll in an online MBA program in Native American Leadership to learn the management, business and leadership skills they need to improve their tribes.

Learn more about the Southeastern Oklahoma State University MBA in Native American Leadership online program.

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