The Sovereignty of American Indians and the Mainstream Community: Is There a Possibility to Coexist?

Nowadays we often hear the word ‘sovereignty’ when it comes down to the issues related to American Indians. Sovereignty and related words such as self-sufficiency, self-determination and personal responsibility are everywhere. It’s nothing new. Indian tribes long have regarded their status as sovereign nations as allowing them special permission to determine their own laws, customs and ways. They see this as something assured them by the U. S. Constitution, innumerable treaties (by the way, sometimes broken or ignored by whites), federal-court decisions and legislation.

What gives sovereignty new currency, however, is an idea in Congress that in the future the tribes could make the subject to lawsuits from private citizens, while now they aren’t. It raised a contentious question whether the sovereignty issues of American Indians form any problem for the larger society. To reply this question, it is useful to consider what Indian sovereignty means in modern interpretation and how it affects the mainstream society.

It is common knowledge that three fundamental principles underlie the nature of American Indians’ tribal powers: tribes originally possessed the powers of sovereign states; conquest terminated external sovereignty; this restriction did not affect the internal sovereignty of the tribe and its powers of local self-government. Thus, sovereignty is inherent to American Indians, and their privileges with respect to court trials, taxation and some kinds of businesses like gaming and fishing within reservation lands could not be considered as violating the rights of non–Indians. From the other standpoint, self–government implies approval by the U.

S. authorities that a certain measure of tribal decision–making is essential but that this process should be monitored carefully so that its outcomes are compatible with the objectives and policies of the larger political power. It means that American Indians’ sovereignty is not absolute, and it is logical, as the Indian tribes are subject to the laws of the U. S. A number of critics of Indians’ sovereign immunity argue that it allows the Indians freedom from being sued and permits them to ignore valid property and fishing rights of non- Indians, especially those living and working in reservations.

The states are also uneasy with their privileges. As the federal government continues to work out details of its relationships with tribes, state governments which are the tribes’ closest neighbors have a separate relationship with them, and it’s often strained. The lack of state jurisdiction over Indians and reservations, federal controls and inherent tribal sovereignty are all resulting in ongoing disputes between tribes and states. American Indians are not only citizens of the tribe, but also of the U.

S. and the state in which they reside. This ‘triple citizenship’ creates an ambiguous matrix of regulatory and other jurisdictional requirements for Indians, on and off their reservations. Jurisdiction over non- Indians living within Indian lands also seems murky. But as Indian tribes gain more and more influence, state leaders realize that it is more productive and mutually beneficial to work with, not against, them. In fact, states have a chance to profit economically from good relations with tribes.

Mutually beneficial agreements can set up revenue sharing from tribal gas, liquor and cigarette taxes or gambling. Tribes are marketing natural resources and sport hunting and fishing. Some Indian bands are among the states’ top employers with their manufacturing plants, hotels and casinos, and large tribal governments. With all this going on in many Indian–owned companies the most employees are non-Indians. Tribes successful at gaming are diversifying their economic ventures.

Some tribes consider gaming as a means towards an end of their business

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diversity. The discussed above clearly testifies that American Indians’ sovereignty in fact rather benefits than affects the mainstream American society. On this account it looks reasonable that states and Indian tribes need to sit down and try to work out together what their mutual needs and concerns are, and find a system by which they can, harmoniously and jointly, cooperate to reach some common ground.

For sure states and tribes have mutual interests – human services, environmental protection and economic well-being create opportunities to cooperate and develop solutions, while maintaining autonomy. The first step in the process of cooperation is to gain mutual understanding. State legislators have to accept the growing tribal presence within the federal system so they can effectively address policy questions about shared governing. And tribes need to understand the effects of their actions on states.

Ideally, state legislatures would provide the setting for state and tribal governments to work together to resolve issues. Legislation could be written to address state-tribal negotiations in general, or specific issues such as health and human services, natural resources or gaming. The declared principles to which the nation has dedicated itself are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for American citizens, thus, the bonds of past Indian wardship must be broken forever.

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