What Does Tribal Governance Mean?

What Does Tribal Governance Mean? April 2023

Understanding Tribal Governance in the United States: Sovereignty, Government, and Realities

What Does Tribal Governance Mean?

The system of tribal governance in the United States is a complex one. There are 574 federally recognized Native American Tribes (also known as nations, bands, pueblos, communities and native villages). In addition, there are also Tribes that are recognized by state governments. These Tribes are made up of the original inhabitants of the American continent and from the time of their first interaction with the European settlers, they have been, based upon the over 370 ratified treaties, bothin theoryand reality, sovereign within the framework of the United States of America. In other words, they can, again, manage their internal affairs, establish tribal courts, and make their laws.

What Is a Tribal Government?

A tribal government is an independent nation that operates separately from the state or federal government but remains part of the United States. Because each tribe is a separate nation, they have their own governments, laws and often even their constitutions. In many cases, based upon the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, their form of government is similar to that of the U.S. federal government with an inbuilt separation of powers and systems of checks and balances to protect the rights of the individual. Tribal governments also have the power to levy taxes on their members to fund their governance activities and promote tribal development.

What Is Tribal Sovereignty?

Tribal government and tribal sovereignty are not the same. The tribal government is the power of a tribe to govern itself. Tribal sovereignty is the right to exercise such power. This arises from agreements with the federal and state government that recognizes this Tribal sovereign authority. These rights are the result of various treaties, statutes and executive orders issued by the U.S. government guaranteeing these rights and powers.

The Reality

Strong tribal governance should be the foundation for the economic development of the Tribes and the improvement of the lives of the members. However, while the theory is sound, the practice is different. From the inception of the concept of tribal governance, it has remained a paper tiger, nice to look at but for the most part, with no real power or strength. This is because, from the very beginning, Native Americans were regarded as being “savage,” therefore different, from the civilized Europeans. Of course, they were – their culture and way of life had evolved over thousands of years independent of Western European cultures. In the beginning, European settlers, being a small minority occupying only a tiny part of this huge land, were frightened and defensive when confronted with a way of life that was alien to them. They thought that it was a calling from God that the only way they could ensure their survival was by trying to subjugate the Natives and control them. Their Christian ethos meant the following:

  • The Natives had to be categorized as heathens whose way of life had to be radically altered to bring it into conformity with European religious beliefs.
  • To justify their actions and avoid any ideas of racial subjugation or ethnic apart heid being practiced, the Native Tribes would be looked upon as separate entities.

In other words, the Native Americans were controlled by the Europeans power brokers and settlers, but to assuage their consciences, they would be subjugated wards. This meant that all actions taken against the Tribes who resisted encroachment on their lands, resources and people. Years later, Tribal governance became a double-edged sword that would for centuries deprive Native Americans of their rights, freedom, and survivial.

The irony of this policy can be seen when the contributions of the Tribes to the growth and development of the United States are objectively viewed. Native Americans today are a minority but their contributions have been, and continue to be, far above their numbers.

To learn more, please read: Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World(1989), and Native Roots: How the Indians Enriched America(1991) by anthropologist Jack Weatheford; Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970) by historian Dee Brown; and Ecocide of Native America: Environmental Destruction of Indian Lands and Peoples by (1994) by Donald A. Grinde and Bruce E. Johansen