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Unpacking Government: What Is Tribal Sovereignty?

Paul Morigi
AP Images for National Museum of the American Indian
The original Treaty of Medicine Creek of 1854 signed by tribes in Washington state, including Nisqually and Puyallup.


Protests over the last year that originated in North Dakota against the Dakota Access oil pipeline have once again highlighted the complex relationship among tribal governments and the United States. How exactly do these sovereign nations exist within the U.S.? And what does “sovereignty” even mean?

Let’s take that question about sovereignty first. And for that, we’ll turn to the woman who literally wrote the book on Native American history in Washington that’s now required in public schools across the state: Shana Brown. She’s a teacher at Broadview-Thomson K-8 in Seattle and grew up on the Yakama Reservation. So what does Brown say “sovereignty” actually mean?

“Trying to define sovereignty is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.”

Translation: it’s complicated. There are 567 tribes across the United States. That’s 567 different sovereign countries inside the U.S. Twenty-nine of those federally-recognized tribes are here in Washington state. Tribal government is just like any other government. Each one operates under its own laws, constitutions and customs. They have their own courts.

The basic premise when it comes to “sovereignty” is the “authority to self-govern.” So that’s why they have all the leaders, councils and courts. Even so, Brown says sovereignty isn’t one-size-fits-all.

“Every nation has its understanding of tribal sovereignty according to their constitution, according to their treaty that they made with the federal government.”

“We just didn’t become governments when the white man got here," Swinomish Tribal Chairman Brian Cladoosby said. The tribe’s reservation is in the Skagit Valley near LaConner. “We were governments and we knew how to govern ourselves since time immemorial.”

So as settlers were moving west in the 1800s, Cladoosby says the feds recognized the tribes as they would any other governing power.

“And they signed treaties with us like they would sign treaties with a foreign government outside the United States of America," he said. "But we were sovereigns inside the United States of America.”

Treaties are basically contracts. And they are binding. Treaties are included in the U.S. Constitution and define the relationship between a tribe and the United States government. They also define certain protections such as fishing rights, access to healthcare and education. And it should be noted, tribes can develop relationships and agreements with cities, counties and states for certain services as well.

But getting back to that contract with the federal government: “At the end of the day they have a trust obligation to look out for the welfare and the best interest of the tribal members in our communities,” Chairman Cladoosby said.

Cladoosby’s great-great grandfather actually signed the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855 for the Swinomish, along with a handful of leaders from other tribes, including the Lummi Nation and Snoqualmie. He can point to a document on the wall of the Senate room at Swinomish and say, “That’s my ancestor.”

“You know I didn’t ask for that relationship. The Trump administration didn’t ask for that relationship. It was almost like a pre-arranged married that we have to work on.”

So, given that comparison, has this relationship always been a smooth one? Not exactly. But there have been some presidents in particular who have earned high marks in Indian country. Shana Brown mentions Richard Nixon specifically.

“Richard Nixon just absolutely recognized the right of tribes to exist. He realized that they have also the right to determine their future. That’s called ‘self-determination.’ And with that came a lot of empowerment,” Brown said.

Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama also top the list for many leaders in Indian country when it comes to tribal-federal relations. On the bottom of that list: presidents Andrew Jackson and Dwight Eisenhower. But Chairman Cladoosby says past experience is no reason to give up.

“Sometimes we’re going to agree to disagree in our relationship. We have to do that because we can agree on nine things, but we can’t let that one thing that we disagree on define our relationship," Cladoosby said. "We can do nine other good things. In order for that relationship to succeed, we have to communicate.”

A good rapport with a sitting president isn’t the only key to a solid relationship. Tribes work with members of Congress and the officials with the Bureau of Indian Affairs as well. The BIA is the agency that tends to handle the bulk of the day-to-day operations with individual tribes. Cladoosby says good communication, coupled with educating lawmakers and staff with the BIA will only mean a stronger foundation in the future. But this communication and education, it’s not just meant for the folks who hold office or staff certain agencies.

Shana Brown, being the teacher she is, points out that each of us, individually, could do more to educate ourselves.

“You don’t have to know an Indian to be on a reservation. Just go there," she said. "Go to those cultural centers. Go to the tribal office. Because when you go there with an open mind and an open heart and you’re saying ‘I’m just here because I want to learn about tribal government. I’m here because I want to learn about the people I live next to.’ Oh my gosh, the generosity and the eagerness is all there.”

Sounds like an invitation on a diplomatic mission.

This story is part of our series, Unpacking Government. Have questions of your own? Send them to

Ariel first entered a public radio newsroom in 2004 while in school at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. It was love at first sight. After graduating from Bradley, she went on to earn a Master's degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield. Ariel has lived in Indiana, Ohio and Alaska reporting on everything from salmon spawning to policy issues concerning education. She's been a host, a manager and now rides shotgun with Kirsten Kendrick as the Morning Edition producer at KNKX.