Tribal Sovereignty and the Fate of Indigenous People

Disclaimer: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity purposes. 

Indigenous people in the United States have been marginalized and discriminated against for centuries with restricted access to health care, land rights and much more. Yet, unfortunately, this glaring problem persists. 

Several U.S. states have laws that deliberately restrict and limit tribal sovereignty. Glimpse From the Globe sat down with Mr. Jair Peltier of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota to discuss this issue. Peltier is a third-year Ph.D. student in the Political Science and International Relations department at the University of Southern California. His research involves indigenous sovereignty and tribal constitutions. Peltier is also a graduate cultural ambassador for the Native American Pasifika lounge.

Q: During the 1830s, a trio of cases presented to the U.S. Supreme Court held that tribes possess a nationhood status and retain inherent powers of self-government. Since then, there have been countless instances of Indigenous people being denied their rights, even in modern-day America. Keeping this in mind — To what extent does the United States recognize tribal sovereignty? Do you think this is a need-based relationship? 

A: What it comes down to is that, the federal government is required to recognize indigenous sovereignty by the laws, and it is a very delicate relationship so it tries its best to avoid it as much as possible. Broadly within the American bureaucracy, native people are given, at least now, leeway or preference, I should say. 

The federal government has the right to derecognize any rights the tribes have as a sovereign nation and eliminate them as a federally recognized tribe. This actually almost happened during the Trump administration. The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts were almost derecognized because they weren’t “native enough” anymore. I would say it’s a balance, tribes are a sovereign nation until [the U.S.]Congress says otherwise. That’s kind of how the view is by the courts. 

But it just takes a simple act of Congress to take that right away, so they are guaranteed until they’re not, basically. To the question of whether this is a need-based relationship, the United States would rather not have that relationship. However, the federal government is obligated to because of the treaties they signed. Hence, they are required to provide native people with education, health care, both kinds of things, so that’s why we have Indian health services, that’s why we have the bureau of Indian Education. 

A lot of times I would say they prefer not to have the relationship, because it just complicates things for developers, for the states — the states have a lot of contention. Like the federal trust relationship, they don’t like the idea that they can’t directly deal with the tribe, they can’t regulate anything that happens with the tribe. So there is this kind of tug of war between the states and the federal government that takes place with the tribes.

Q: Many stereotypes against Native Americans exist to this day. What stigma and stereotypes surround indigenous peoples and their tribes? 

A: What it comes down to is this idea that native people are primitive. So, ever since the inception of this country [the United States], there has been this narrative that native people are savages and are not developed to have civilization, they don’t have culture, they are just brutish humans or even subhumans. So ever since then, there has always been this desire to paint them as uncivilized, when in reality, they have complex societies, they have governments, they have trade, they have complex trade routes, trade complexes, everything, even the idea of democracy. 

The Iroquois league actually inspired the U.S government to have separation of powers in their system and that’s recognized, Congress recognized that in like the 90s but they put it in the very middle of like an omnibus bill, nobody even saw it. The settlers, the native people are seen to be villains, villains to be conquered and then when they are dead, we have society. So that is the danger of these stereotypes and you see that every day in tribal communities. 

The other side of it, the side other than stereotypes of being primitive and uneducated, there’s also stereotypes of the sexualization of Indian women, of native women.

Q: How binding are tribal constitutions and what is the level of their jurisdiction? Do they conflict with federal and state laws? 

A: The tribal constitutions are binding within the tribal territory, within tribal land. Their laws, they are the ones they write themselves. But the thing about tribal constitutions and constitutional reform is that they have to follow the federal government. You have to get approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and you have to get approval from Congress, so if Congress decides to limit your laws, it can do that. 

All it takes is a law. Congress can pass a law and a tribe can be limited from exercising a certain sovereign right or passing a certain law. I think that what tribes need to do more of is test the limits, so tribes need to be more willing to break the rules, even if they know that this is going to lead to a court case. A court case is exactly what we want. We should be, in a way, I don’t want to say weaponizing, but we should be using the tribal court or the federal courts in our favor and the only way we are going to get those rights and victories is if we have a case in the first place. 

So, the way I would approach it is find out what we want to do, see if it’s allowed and if it’s allowed, do it, if it’s not allowed, do it anyway. Take the government to court and have the courts decide whether or not you can do it, and I would be willing to bet that the [U.S.] Supreme Court would recognize  our rights more so than the federal government. 

Q: As a Native American yourself, what systemic discrimination do you face? Do you think your rights are restricted?

A: Growing up, I experienced racism in my hometown. I went to a predominantly white school in North Dakota, and there was definitely racism directed towards native people. Often complaining that native people are welfare cases, you know, that they’re drunks, they’re all on drugs… they wouldn’t say  explicitly that it’s the natives, they would say it’s the people from out east, because that’s where the reservation is. 

Some were very explicit. I remember there was a native friend of mine, he was talking to a white guy in high school and the white guy was talking about natives in a very bad way, and my friend said, “Oh, well, you know I’m native,” and he said, “Oh, well you’re one of the good ones, you know.” 

And then of course, and excuse me, I don’t mean to upset you, but  “prairie N***er” is a word that is used against Native people. It’s a racial slur that is— I wouldn’t say it’s common, but it happens. Though, the thing about me is that I was always rather white passing, so I didn’t feel as much the sting of racism and disadvantage, as the more brown, darker skin Native people that I know. In my family, my sister especially faced racial epithets. This is because of misrepresentation and not enough representation.

Q: USC recently named the Center for Public and International Affairs building after Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow — a war chief of the Crow Nation. I know you recommended his name without expecting it to be chosen. That being said, how has your experience been here at USC both in terms of community and resources? Do you feel you have to overcompensate and be overqualified/more than the required for equal treatment/opportunities? 

A: I first came to USC in the fall of 2019, and back then I would say that I was new in town. I wasn’t really looking for “my place”, you know, I had a home, I had a girlfriend at the time, I didn’t really spend much time on campus outside of being at home or in class. But eventually, I did find the Native American Student Union, which was mostly undergrads, but I would sit in on meetings and things like that. It was during the time when they were making the transition into being the Native American Student Assembly, so I was really happy to help and add to the good work they were already doing. 

What I have found at USC generally is, at least in the last 3 years, it has been responsive to native people. They want more native people to be visible, land acknowledgements are growing in popularity around the country and I think USC is also increasing the use of land acknowledgements. I think having a permanent land acknowledgment it would be great, but that may be in the years to come. 

But, the thing about it is that my department hasn’t been as supportive in that particular light, the Political Science and International Relations PhD program. So, the first year was really hard for me because I have all these ideas for research on indigenous sovereignty, tribal nations, tribal constitutions, and there is a lot of dismissiveness from the faculty. They’re like, “Oh, I don’t know about this, I don’t know anything about it, go talk to someone else.” Or they’re like, “Why are you in political science?” That was the question I got a lot. “Why are you here in POIR?,” “Why are you here?” 

I would get asked by faculty members — these are people who are supposed to support me, a graduate student. They would just say, “Well why aren’t you in anthropology?” or “why aren’t you in American Indian studies?” 

And I’m like, because what I want to study is political in nature. If you do not believe that tribes are sovereign, then you relegate these ideas and concepts to anthropology, relegate them to  history maybe or to native studies. But if you truly believe tribes are sovereign, which I do full heartedly, this is a political question.There’s a political nature to my research. So finding support had been rather difficult, at least in the first year. 

I did eventually find my faculty advisor. She’s been really helpful, she’s been really good, Alison Dundes-Renteln. I wish I had met her sooner. But, aside from a couple allies early on, she was the first professor who seemed really interested in pushing my research forward. She validated my research goals and always reassured me that there is a place for Indigenous people in this program.

Q: Everytime a national movement gains momentum, progresses and moves one step forward, we see it take two steps back. Do you think this is happening with the American Indian movement with not many advocates in politics? Finally, what do you think is the future of Indiginous people here in the United States and how can we, as students, help and advocate for indiginous rights? 

A: Well, I would say it’s definitely a slow process but I think there’s generally been progress made over the years. What we need is creativity and innovation and Native people are very creative. 

Native people are very good at creating novel ideas and making novel connections. This all goes back to the oral tradition and free sharing of ideas and stories in an accessible way, enabling diversity of perspective. Native people need to embrace their sovereignty and exercise it in a more purposeful way. 

For many years, the policy applied in Indian Country has been applied in a domestic sense. However, when you consider that tribes are sovereign nations, it becomes clear that you have to apply international concepts and principles. 

Once we do that, then we open up an avenue for political and economic development. And to the last question, I would say that the most important thing for non-native people to do is educate themselves. Learn local indigenous history and gain a better perspective on the lives of indigenous people who are still here. How did the land beneath your feet become “America?” When you answer that honestly and openly, then we can start addressing the issues facing Native people and approach strong and lasting solutions.

To the readers, reach out to your local tribes and start a conversation. Decolonization is a process that requires the cooperation of the descendants of settler colonizers. There is no one alive today who is to blame for the destruction of indigenous people. But many continue to profit from this legacy and should strive for justice.


Zain Khan

Mohammed Zain Shafi Khan (he/him) is a Junior studying International Relations and Journalism. He interned at Freedom Firm, a non-profit that works on rescue and restoration operations for minors sold into prostitution. Currently, he is a research intern for the LA county 5th district supervisor’s office where him and his team find facilities that can house the mentally ill population of the soon to be demolished Mens Central Jail. I he is passionate about human rights especially in conflict ridden countries/regions such as Syria, Afghanistan, South America and the Middle East. He closely follow US politics and its relations with other countries. In his free time, he loves to cook, dance, try new foods, spend time with friends, family and binge watch tv series.