Before I venture into the deep waters of state and Native American relations, I must assure the tribes of North Dakota that I am not an adversary, but a friend. I believe we owe reparations to the indigenous people for taking their land, killing 6 million of their people and forcing them onto reservations.
However, let’s address the issue of tribal sovereignty, an idea that is over 200 years old. The federal government has declared that recognized tribes are sovereign entities within an intergovernmental relationship.
The word “sovereignty” suggests ultimate power, something that Native Americans do not actually have. In American history, sovereignty rested with the people who had the most guns. Using brute force, we broke treaty after treaty to take more of their land.
The only moral person in the group was Roger Williams from Rhode Island. He thought we should pay the natives for the land, but he was expelled from his own state for his opposing beliefs.
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The events of history changed the relationship between Native Americans and the United States. In fact, tribal sovereignty has become obsolete in practice.
The passage of the Native American Voting Rights Act of 1924 dealt the deathblow to tribal sovereignty. By accepting citizenship in another sovereignty, Native Americans have involved themselves in the affairs of another nation (the United States).
In recent elections, Native Americans have run for public office and successfully won seats in the state legislature. Under the theory of tribal sovereignty, it would be like Canadians running candidates and serving in the US Congress.
The incongruity is obvious. Ultimately, Native Americans will have to make a choice between being US citizens or citizens of their own “country.”
Native Americans won another legislature seat — Lisa Finley-DeVille — in the recent election because the Legislative Committee split a two-seat district into separate districts.
(This win proves my long-held theory that the two-seat House districts are a form of gerrymander that helps Republicans get more than their fair share of legislatures.)
To protect sovereignty, the tribes and the federal government must circumvent all of the bureaucratic hurdles that come with the idea of sovereignty. If tribes could become states, all processes would be greatly simplified and more done to deal with the chronic problems on reservations.
Compared to the other races in our demographics, Native Americans live five years less; youth suicide rate is 2½ times higher; they experience crime twice as often; and women are more exposed to violence.
A particularly tricky issue has been created by the Indian Child Welfare Act, an odd title for a program that has consistently disregarded the welfare of children.
Under this law, the tribe can demand the return of Indian children from a white foster family after the child and parent bond. At the moment there is a case in the US Supreme Court aimed at overturning this authority.
As long as the tribes insist on sovereignty, there will never be any business development on the reservations that requires underwriting or financing. The outside business world cannot function in the fickle and unpredictable behavior after every tribal election. Investments and loans require predictability and stability.
As we see where change can help, the United States has bullied Native Americans for 400 years. We’ve bullied too much already. It’s up to the tribes themselves to take action, with the federal government likely to provide incentives.
Lloyd Omdahl is a political scientist and former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.