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"Tribal Self-Government in the United States,"

by John Dossett November/December 2008 issue of Poverty & Race

More than 560 federally-recognized Indian Nations (variously called tribes, nations, bands, pueblos, communities, native villages) exist in the United States. Some 226 of these are located in Alaska; the rest are located in 34 other states. Indian Nations are ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse.

Sovereignty is a legal word for an ordinary concept—local self-government. The United States Constitution recognizes that Indian Nations are sovereign governments. just like Canada and California. Hundreds of treaties, the Supreme Court, the President and the Congress have repeatedly affirmed that Indian Nations retain their inherent powers of self-government. These treaties and laws have created a fundamental contract between Indian Nations and the United States. Indian Nations ceded millions of acres of land that made the United States what it is today, and in return received the guarantee of self-government on their own lands. The treaties and laws also provide for federal assistance in ensuring the success of tribal governments, much as the federal government assists state governments.

Tribal self-government serves the same purpose today as it always has. It empowers Indian Nations to remain viable as distinct groups of people. Tribal cultures enrich American life, and tribal economies provide opportunities where few would otherwise exist. Tribal governments provide a broad range of governmental services on tribal lands, including education, law enforcement, justice systems and environmental protection, and provide basic infrastructure such as roads, bridges and public buildings. Tribal governments and state governments have a great deal in common, and there is often far more cooperation at the local level than there is conflict.

The status of Indian Nations as a form of government is at the heart of nearly every issue that touches Indian Country. Self-government is essential if tribal communities are to continue to protect their unique cultures and identities. However, too few people are aware of the history and purpose of tribal self-government. The great challenge for Indian Nations, as it is for all of the allies in the fight against racism and poverty, is to build understanding of history and legal rights as we address economic and social problems.

John Dossett is the General Counsel for the National Congress of American Indians.

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