American Indian nations flourished throughout North America well before European contact, and as the United States came into being as a country, it laid down the basis of interactions with the indigenous populations as erstwhile contracts between individual nations. It was during the 1830s that the moral obligation of the United States to the tribes and trust-responsibility relationship between the U.S. and various native tribes were more concretely established. As stated on the website of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs: “The federal Indian trust responsibility is also a legally enforceable fiduciary obligation on the part of the United States to protect tribal rights, lands, assets, and resources.”
Even as the members of the tribes are U.S. citizens, their tribal heritage, culture and identity are considered distinct and are federally recognized. This sovereignty recognizes a tribe’s claim to independent identity and citizenship. Without sovereignty, the indigenous population of the United States would merely be a cultural group with no further status or protection, and the various states and the federal government would have no obligation to recognize the needs or wants of the tribal nations. In short, without sovereignty, a tribe has no more claim to a heritage site or a cultural practice than a sports team, an organization of like-minded individuals (like farmers, perhaps), or a neighborhood community. Tribal identity — both at the individual level and at the tribal level — would diminish, and an indigenous population would vanish.
Lands in Trust
Since the United States lays claim to the entirety of the physical land within its borders, it must establish a specific sort of relationship with the indigenous peoples who still occupy that land. These lands — the reservations of the native tribes — are held in trust by the United States, and the tribes that occupy these lands receive special privileges thereon: they don’t pay state taxes on wages earned on these lands; they can create their own systems of laws and police them accordingly; and they can decide what activities are legal upon these reservations.
However, the downside of this independence is that basic services and critical infrastructure prevalent elsewhere within a state may not be as readily available upon a reservation. As a result, many natives must seek housing and employment off their lands. Critical support for housing, education, water and electricity is dependent upon the federal government’s continued interest in meeting the needs of these indigenous peoples, and a shifting political climate can have a devastating effect on the economic solvency of tribal members on the reservation.
The Rise of Economic Independence
However, tribes have found ways to flourish, most notably following the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, which allowed tribes to create gambling establishments on their reservations. The revenues from these casinos directly benefit the tribe as well as create a productive economic relationship with the state in which the reservation is located. Revenue from Indian casinos rose from $100 million in 1988 to over $16 billion in less than twenty years.
Since these revenues are generated on Indian lands by Indians, they are exempt from taxation by states where these casinos are located. Naturally, the state government would like to tax these revenues, but due to the sovereign nature of the tribes’ relationships with the United States government, the state governments are unable to do so. Of course, the casino is operating on land that is within the state boundaries, and the employees — while members of the tribe — are also citizens of the state. This constant duel of identities is at the core of the debate on whether tribal sovereignty should continue.
Yet, the foundation of the United States rests upon the Constitution which clearly states that the Constitution and any treaties made under the authority of the United States are the supreme law of the land, and the United States government made numerous treaties with the Native American tribes. Treaties can only be made between distinct groups of individuals that are defined as “sovereign” states. These sovereign states — or distinct tribes of indigenous people — existed long before the arrival of Europeans and the formation of the United States.
This continued sovereignty allows tribal leadership to honor and perpetuate the traditional ways of life for the tribes. This self-determination exists down to the ability of a tribe’s members to maintain a respectful awareness of their cultural heritage, to utilize tribal languages and customs, and to govern and be governed in the traditional manner of their peoples. Without this longstanding sovereignty, Native American tribes would no longer be able to protect their cultural identities. They would be a minority within the vast collection of the American peoples, subject to the laws, mores, and cultural influences that drive the majority of the population.
As tribes garner more self-reliance and self-determination, it is imperative that they retain their core identities. The preservation of these identities is critical for tribes to retain their own, not only from a community standpoint but also in the larger national context.