Understanding Tribal Sovereignty

What you should understand.

Michigan has a long history of residence by the Odawa, Ojibwe and Potawatomi tribes, collectively known as the Anishnaabek. The Anishnaabek have called Michigan home centuries before the arrival of Europeans in the 1600s. Michigan Anishinaabe share common cultural practices and an oral language, called Anishinaabemowin. Each tribe shares common community roots and ties to the land. The tribes have their own unique structure of government, formal acknowledgement of land used by families and villages, as well as political identities that varied from village to village. As the Europeans began to encroach more and more onto tribal land, additional federal policies were passed that proved harmful and evoked genocidal acts towards tribal nations. It is important to note that Tribal Nations are directly included in the United States Constitution, under Article I, Section 8 which decrees: “The Congress shall have Power to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes…” It was not until the 1970s before the constitutional rights of Native Americans were protected. The tribes sovereignty, ability to self – govern, has allowed them to negotiate treaties with fellow tribal nations for centuries. Sovereignty also means the power to:

  • define their citizenship
  • govern their own tribal citizens
  • create governing documents such as:
    • constitutions, codes, policies, procedures
  • manage their governmental infrastructure
  • coordinate elections for tribal leadership

In addition, the federal government is committed to providing services to ensure the survival and advancement of tribal nations. In addition, when the tribes ceded thousands of acres of land to the United States, the federal government guaranteed the tribes ability to self-govern thus the creation of “trust responsibly”.

However, over time tribal sovereignty continues to be eroded and limited by acts of congress, executive orders, federal administration agreements, and court decisions. A significant piece to the government-to-government relationship is the tribes right to be involved when decisions are being made regarding their nation and citizens. Tribes are to be included early in the decision making process and to give consent prior to any decisions being made regarding their government. 

Currently, there are 566 federally recognized tribes within the United States of America. The term federal acknowledgment denotes an established government-to-government relationship between the federal government and a tribal nation. In Michigan, there are twelve federally recognized tribes. Once a tribe has achieved their federal recognition, the federal government enters into a trust relationship and is obligated to:

  • protect tribal lands
  • protect tribal resources
  • protect their right to self-govern

To learn more about tribal sovereignty please contact a Tribal Nation or visit the links below:

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