Written by Robert Whitener, Jr. – These words sometimes cause anxiety when spoken outside of Indian Country, but it shouldn’t be this way. When you look at what sovereignty really means, you will discover it is something all forms of government have in the United States. It also helps to realize that our country is a confederacy made up of more than just states. There are other groups represented by our national government such as Puerto Rico and Guam. Indian tribes are another major part of this unique system.
Tribes use their sovereignty, as do all other forms of government, to make decisions for their members.
Tribal self government allows an elected body (seven tribal council members at Squaxin Island) to make decisions on the reservation for all sorts of issues, most of which are ordinary and noncontroversial, such as roads, sewer systems, water, housing, health services, police, courts, natural resource management and other social services. This form of sovereignty has been available to other segments of our country for many, many years, but has just recently been afforded to tribes.
Can you imagine not being able to determine which schools your children attend, or having your beliefs, religions and culture outlawed? Can you imagine not being trusted to own your own land or manage its resources? Some, but not all, of these restraints have been lifted within the last thirty years allowing tribal members to run the types of programs that others have enjoyed through their state, county and city governments.
Tribes understand that they are part of a great union that is, in fact, modeled after the Iroquois Confederacy, and their members have proven that loyalty over the years by sacrificing their own lives. Senator Inouye, D-Hawaii proudly pointed this out when he reported that tribal members serve in the military at seven times the rate of other racial groups. Veterans are given the highest places of honor at all tribal gatherings and powwows.
If the word sovereignty is uncomfortable to you, remember it is at work in all forms of government, as it is simply the ability to self rule.