Thoughts on tribal sovereignty
Thoughts on tribal sovereignty
Written by Brett Larson
Tuesday, 29 December 2009 11:33
This blog post comes in response to a letter from a local resident who wants
to remain anonymous. Because we allow anonymity on the Web but not in the
paper, I decided to publish the letter here on my blog and respond to some
of the questions and concerns raised.
Many of our readers are better versed in tribal history and tribal law than
I am, and I welcome responses to the letter and my response. The letter is
first, printed in italics. My response follows.
Several months ago (at least a year ago) I sent an email to the editor at
the Messenger looking for information on what exactly does being a sovereign
nation mean, what does it involve, what privileges and limitations are
placed on the members, what impact it has on the non-native community, etc.
What IS a sovereign nation?
Included in that request was statements indicating that I was NOT interested
in stirring the pot but genuinely seeking information. There are enough pot
stirrers in the community that are available to take on that roll. The
extended play version of that statement is that, if you chose to publish
this, I want to remain anonymous.
My observations during the time I've lived in the Mille Lacs area:
Members of the native community seem to allow the leadership and citizens of
the Band to "cherry pick" the benefits they want to receive from the state
and exclude responsibilities that they do not want to participate in. An
example that came to mind at the time was the ability to vote in our local
and national elections. If I were a Canadian citizen living in the states, I
would not be allowed to vote in the US, I would have to pay property taxes,
pay Federal and State taxes, would not be allowed to claim any property that
I own as territories of Canada, would have to pay workers comp insurance for
my employees, etc.
Members of a sovereign nation can take the property that they purchase off
of the local tax roles, putting additional financial burden on the
non-native members of the community. This impacts all facets of the budget
on local, county and state activities. (schools, roads, public assistance,
As an employer on the Reservation land I do not have to pay workers comp for
If I am a non-native guest at the casino and am injured I do not have the
right to seek compensation for my injuries through the legal system in MN,
but must go through the legal system on the reservation.
On the other hand, the members of the Native community can receive public
assistance from the state, dictate when and where they can hunt and fish,
The Native community can ban errant members of the community to live outside
the community and push the responsibility for them on non-native
There are many more instances but I think you get the idea of what I am
Some of my observations may not be spot on target but I really think that
the community at large does not have basic information about what being a
sovereign nation means. The response I got from the editor at the Messenger
was to "keep an eye on the stories that would be written over the next
several months for a series of articles" addressing the question I posed.
That never happened so I am asking again. The ball is in your court!
Thanks for listening. I hope to see solid information that will bring a
better understanding of what a sovereign nation means. Hopefully this will
help all of us!
Take care! It is great having a local community paper and I like the work
you guys do.
Thanks for your questions and comments.
Here are a few thoughts from a guy who has looked into many of these issues,
thought about them extensively, and heard concerns like yours many times.
1. Tribal sovereignty is limited sovereignty. Basically it means that tribes
are treated like states by the federal government. As such, tribes can allow
activities (gambling, smoking in public places, netting of walleyes, etc.)
that states don't allow. They are also subject to tribal laws that
non-members are not subject to. Because they are equivalent to states,
members living and working on reservations do not pay state taxes. Tribal
members living and working off the reservation pay state taxes just like the
rest of us. They pay property taxes (unless they live on tribal trust land)
and sales taxes as well.
2. Perceived inequalities result. Yes, tribal members can vote in state
elections as well as tribal elections. Tribal members can benefit from state
programs and tribal programs (but keep in mind that all tribal members do
pay some state taxes and many or most pay the same state taxes as
non-members). Keep in mind that Indians were not citizens of this country
until the 20th century. No vote, no constitutional rights, etc. The federal
government decided that was wrong, so they were given citizenship, which
includes the right to participate in state and local government. Your
analogy of a Canadian citizen living in the U.S. is false: Canadians are not
U.S. citizens; tribal members are, which gives them the right to vote in all
elections. Because they are Indians, they also have the right to participate
in tribal government, which federal law gives them. If you have a problem
with that, your beef is with Congress, the federal courts and the President.
3. When looking at those inequalities, we should keep in mind all the other
inequalities that exist in our society. Kids in rural and inner city
communities don't have access to the same quality of education as those in
the suburbs. Isle people live under a different set of laws than Onamia
people, and the same goes for Minnesota vs. Wisconsin. People who inherit
wealth or a certain name (Bush, Gore) have benefits that others don't have.
We think that's okay, but inherited benefits due to race are not. We give
lip service to that sentiment - that all should be equal when it comes to
race - but we often fail to acknowledge that up until the last 50 years,
white skin gave people privileges that others did not receive, and those
privileges led to the accumulation of wealth, power, education, and status
that many (not all!) white people still benefit from.
4. Tribes have a special status in history and the law and the Constitution.
They were here before the states and negotiated treaties with England and
the U.S. and as such have been given special rights and privileges. Federal
courts have decided that the treaties signed by our founding fathers
recognize tribes as sovereign governments. The Mille Lacs Band was here
before the state of Minnesota. We need to look at the state and tribal
governments as parallel, not hierarchical. Federal court decisions through
the years determined that the federal government has a responsibility to
protect tribes and their members - a small price to pay for the land this
country received from those tribes. That responsibility to protect the
tribes and their members has its practical application in some of the
federal housing and educational and health dollars that come into
reservations. To honor the Constitution and our nation's laws, Congress and
the executive branch and the courts have continued to treat tribes in a
special way. You may not like it, but it's the law.
5. The Mille Lacs Band is no different from any other tribe in the country.
They follow laws in such a way as to benefit their members. If the Mille
Lacs Band "cherry picks" benefits, so do other tribes. Is not a local issue,
it's a national one.
6. We in the non-native community often seem to expect things of tribes that
we would not ask of ourselves or our own government. "Why don't they just
give up some of the benefits the law allows them to capitalize on?" How many
of us would sacrifice the advantages we were born with or born into (money,
skin color, education, etc.) for the sake of "fairness"? People in other
countries think it's unfair that we Americans consume more than our share of
the earth's limited resources, yet if someone demanded that we give up those
benefits, we'd think they were crazy.
7. I believe that all Americans should recognize the devastating impact that
invasions, massacres, wars, alcohol, disease, broken treaties, forced
assimilation, forced relocation, boarding schools, etc. have had on tribal
cultures and individual tribal members. Cultures were destroyed by force and
by accident, and a cycle of dysfunctional behaviors and relationships
resulted and is still with us today. Our federal and state governments over
the last several decades have attempted to acknowledge past sins in part
through strengthening tribal sovereignty. The results have been mixed, but
that doesn't mean the recognition of sovereignty is necessarily wrong.
In response to some of your other specific concerns:
Yes, tribes can put land into trust. It's a federal law that allows them to
do so, and it removes the state from jurisdiction over tribal land that they
arguably should not have. Yes, it adds to the tax burden of other state
residents when a parcel is put into trust. Most think of trust land as the
tribe taking something away from the state. Tribes look at it differently -
as not paying the state what the state has no right to take. You should also
keep in mind that the casino jobs in the area produce a great deal of income
tax revenue for the state. If we want to talk about fairness, perhaps tribes
should receive that money.
I don't have much understanding of workers comp, but I believe it's a state
issue. Businesses on tribal land are not subject to state law in the same
way that those on state land are. Tribes have the right to pass and enforce
their own workers comp laws.
Same goes for insurance issues, lawsuits, etc. You still have a right to sue
in tribal or federal court. You may not like it, but again, it's a federal
Yes, tribes can banish members. States could also pass laws banishing state
residents. I'm not sure if it's constitutional or not, and maybe if it were
a more common practice, the federal courts would step in.
Concluding thoughts: Unfairness abounds in life and in America. The
unfairness many perceive regarding tribal matters is based on treaties,
history, federal law and federal court decisions. Those inequalities have
little effect on most Americans' daily lives, and even when you take those
inequalities into account, most Americans have been dealt a better hand in
life (in terms of economic opportunity, social stability, and security,
anyway) than our tribal neighbors.
Majority complaints about "special treatment" of minorities strike me as
misdirected aggression. If you're poor and unhappy, the Indians are the
least of your problems.
Especially in times and regions of economic trouble, people tend to
scapegoat minorities or "others" as the cause of their problems. It seems to
me that we'd all be better served by fighting some of the more significant
causes of inequality in our country - laws that favor the wealthy few over
the middle and lower class majority, a ruling class that is subservient to
corporations rather than voters, wars that drain our national treasure at
the expense of investments in our own country, etc.
If the different groups in this area would work together instead of casting
aspersions on each other, we'd all be better off.
Call me a bleeding heart or a socialist. To me it's just cold, hard facts.