Sovereignty is at the very heart of the story of the survival of Native nations. During the era of recovery and revitalization, Native people have tested the limits of sovereignty, with self-governance, jurisdiction, and resource development being areas of contemporary struggle. These struggles are, however, the proof of the ongoing vitality of tribal nations.
During the 1990s, Congress expanded the capacity of tribal governments to exercise self-determination by passing legislation that put into place something called compacting. Compacts are essentially block grants funded by category—housing, education, law enforcement, and the like. They’re intended to diminish federal control over the management of tribal affairs while allowing the government to still continue its acknowledgment of trust obligations to tribes.
By 2015, more than 300 Native nations had compacts for BIA and Indian Health Services programs that were worth some $2 billion.
W. Ron Allen, Chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe in Washington, considered compacting essential to “recognizing our sovereignty as a government and recognizing our rightful place as a government within the family of the American political system.”
Learn more about the efflorescence of American Indian militancy.
The contests over legal jurisdiction have become critical sites for negotiations over the limits of tribal sovereignty.
In fact, there have been many battles, including the power of Indian tribes to tax non-Indian corporations and individuals, and the power of tribal courts, in accordance with the Indian Child Welfare Act, to determine the fate of children who have been put up for adoption.
Another important site of contestation involves civil and criminal jurisdiction, as Congress and the courts negotiate where federal, state, and tribal laws begin and end in the context of everything from misdemeanors to murder.
Making matters more complex, jurisdiction shifts if the situation involves only Indians, only non-Indians, or both—and whether the crimes occur on trust land.
This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Violence Against Women Act
One of the most important contemporary jurisdiction issues involves violence against women. Rates of rape, physical assault, and stalking of Native women exceed those for Caucasians, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians, according to national data. Non-Native perpetrators of these crimes often elude justice because of the restrictions placed on tribal courts and a federal government that often seems unable or unwilling to prosecute.
In 2013, Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, and for the first time specifically provided for the application of tribal criminal statutes to non-Indian offenders, but tribes had to accept limits to their authority to pursue non-Indian perpetrators of sexual and domestic violence against Native women.
One more key area of dispute over the limits of tribal sovereignty is resource development.
By the 1990s and early 2000s, heightened concerns over sustainability and climate change contributed to a push for different forms of economic development, such as solar, wind, and other renewables.
Through organizations such as the Indian Country Renewable Energy Consortium and the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy—and with the support of federal legislation and innovative partnerships with states—tribal governments and organizations have made strides in resource management and the production of clean energy.
Learn more about the Native Americans who broke out of the stereotypes.
Struggle over the Keystone XL Pipeline
Despite these promising signs, the struggle over the Keystone XL Pipeline suggests that battles over resource development and sovereignty are far from over.
The Keystone Pipeline, a vast system that carries oil from Alberta, Canada, through the Dakotas and Nebraska and then branches into Illinois and Texas, traverses nearly 3,000 miles. Keystone XL, a proposed expansion, would add many more miles to the system and cut diagonally from Alberta, through the Bakken region in Montana, and end in Steele City, Nebraska. In getting there, the pipeline would cut through environmentally sensitive areas, including the vital Ogallala Aquifer.
Between 2010 and 2015, First Nations and American Indian activists allied to protest Keystone XL on a number of grounds including carbon dioxide emissions, the disruption of sacred and ancestral sites, the potential for water contamination, and the violation of the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie treaties with the Lakota.
When President Barack Obama vetoed a bill that would have approved construction of Keystone XL in February 2015 and then rejected TransCanada’s application to build the pipeline in November of that year— the alliance read it as a significant, if tentative, victory for tribal sovereignty.
These case studies speak of the ongoing vitality of tribal nations. And, in so doing, these case studies return us to the story that resides at the heart of the National Museum of the American Indian—the extraordinary story of the survival of more than 500 indigenous nations through more than 500 years of colonial encounter.
Common Questions about How Native Americans Continue to Struggle for Sovereignty
Compacts are block grants funded by category—housing, education, law enforcement, and the like. They’re intended to diminish federal control over the management of tribal affairs while allowing the government to still continue its acknowledgment of trust obligations to tribes.
Tribal governments and organizations have made strides in resource management and the production of clean energy through organizations such as the Indian Country Renewable Energy Consortium and the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, and with the support of federal legislation and innovative partnerships with states.
The Keystone Pipeline is a vast system that carries oil from Alberta, Canada, through the Dakotas and Nebraska and then branches into Illinois and Texas, traversing nearly 3,000 miles.