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Asserting Tribal Sovereignty
Digital History ID 729

Author:   The United Nations Seminar on Indigenous Land Rights and Claims

Annotation: As the United States enters a new century, Native Americans are waging a battle for political sovereignty. Unlike other minority groups, who have struggled for inclusion, Native American tribes have been to assert their right to self-government: to determine who is a tribal member and to administer justice, levy taxes, and regulate natural resources on Indian lands.

Indian claims on political sovereignty rest upon treaties signed with the United States government. Between 1778, when the Continental Congress signed a treaty with the Delaware, and 1871, when the Federal Government signed a treaty with the Nez Perce, the United States granted self-government to 371 separate tribes. Native Americans gave up much of their land in exchange for sovereignty on their remaining lands as well as guarantees of support for education and health care.

Especially during the 1970s, the Congress and the courts recognized Indian claims to sovereignty. Under the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, tribes retained the authority to determine tribal membership of children and to raise children as they saw fit. Meanwhile, the courts upheld fishing and hunting rights guaranteed in treaties. During the 1980s, in amending the Clean Water Act, Congress gave Indian tribes the same authority as states to set water pollution standards. Under federal law, states may not tax Indian gaming revenue, although tribes generally pay a fee for government services.

Increasingly the nation's 554 federally-recognized tribes have the power to act like states and counties. They can levy their taxes, establish environmental restrictions, land use regulations, and building codes, and enforce criminal statutes. Yet claims to Indian sovereignty have provoked opposition from some non-Indians, who have challenged the Indian right to assert sovereignty within Indian lands.

In 1996, a United Nations seminar called for nations around the world to recognize the sovereign rights of indigenous peoples.


  1. Indigenous peoples have a distinctive spiritual and material relationship with their lands, and with the air, waters, coastal sea, ice, flora, fauna and other resources.
  2. The importance of the issue of the link between self-determination and the right to land is recognized.
  3. The promotion and protection of rights over lands and resources of indigenous peoples are vital for their development and cultural survival.
  4. Indigenous peoples continue to be affected by the consequences of colonialism and are often deprived of a land and resource base.
  5. Governments should recognize the land rights and titles of indigenous peoples and implement effective and appropriate procedures and mechanisms, including constitutional, legal or treaty agreements.
  6. Throughout the whole process, the procedures for the recognition of these rights, should provide for the effective representation and informed participation of indigenous peoples as equals. Without this, whatever legislation or treaty on this matter constitutes an imposition and not an enduring agreement....

Source: United Nations Seminar on Indigenous Land Rights and Claims, Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada, March 24-28, 1996

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