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Many of the issues affecting Native Americans today are closely connected to the concept of sovereignty.
Sovereignty is defined as the power and right of a people to govern themselves. For Native people the legal issue of sovereignty began when the US Senate ratified 380 treaties with Indian nations between 1790 and 1871. These treaties were designed as a way for the United States to acquire land that could then be sold to pay off its debts. In return for the land acquired in these treaties, the US offered Indian nations sovereignty and peace. Sovereign Indian nations are those tribes that are Federally recognized by the US Government. “Federally recognized” means these tribes and groups have a special, legal relationship with the U.S. government. This relationship is referred to as a government-to-government relationship. As of 2010, there are 565 federally recognized tribes in the United States, including 223 village groups in Alaska.
TREATIES were the means that Europeans and Americans used to secure alliances with, and most often acquire land from, Native Americans. Although historians disagree about the number of treaties enacted between 1492 and 1871 they may well number in the thousands. In the 1540s, Spanish cleric Francisco de Vitoria convinced the Spanish that Natives were human and should be treated with respect leading to the introduction of a treaty system. France followed Spain’s lead and began negotiating trade agreements with Native groups in North America in order to ensure their access to the fur trade of the Great lakes region. The Dutch also used treaties to gain access to the western fur trade. During the eighteenth century, England began to rely more on diplomacy and treaties as a way to expand their empire and mercantile systems.
During the 19th century more and more treaties were signed which ceded millions of acres of land in the Northwest and Southeast. In the 1809 Treaty of Fort Wayne, Native Americans ceded to the United States 3 million acres of land in Illinois and Indiana in return for $7,000 up front and $1,750 yearly. In 1830 , President Andrew Jackson urged Congress to pass the Indian Removal Bill, which gave the federal government authority to negotiate with tribes for their removal to the West. Cherokees tried to fight the bill in court, with The Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Worcester v. Georgia (1832). Although the cases were unsuccessful the Supreme Court decisions established two principles that would guide treaty making in the future. First, the Court noted that the sovereignty of the United States could not be compromised and that treaties with tribes were not the same as treaties with foreign governments. Second, Justice John Marshall insisted that treaties were instruments of federal power and that the states could not interfere with their implementation. Expansion westward and the signing of new treaties continued to erode the land of Native Americans through the mid-19th century.
The U.S. government abandoned treaty making with Indians in 1871. Angered that the Executive Branch and Senate had never placed many Indian cessions into the public domain, the House of Representatives attached a rider to an Indian Office appropriations bill abolishing treaties. The bill became law. It did not nullify existing treaties, however, and it did not end the practice of negotiating agreements with tribes.
|RESERVATION is defined as land reserved for a tribe when it relinquished its other land areas to the U.S. through treaties. More recently, Congressional acts, Executive Orders, and administrative acts have created reservations. Today, there are approximately 275 Indian land areas in the U.S. administered as Indian reservations. On each reservation, the local governing authority is the tribal government.|
TRIBAL TRUST LAND
is defined as land held by the federal
government in a trust status for the benefit of current and future
generations of tribal members. Trust lands were created in the late
1800s, following the 1870 law that prohibited new treaty making. The
concept of trust land is based on the US government perception that
they needed to take care of the land for Native Americans. They
believed that Native people could not adequately care for the land.
Therefore, ownership remained with the Federal government,
but was held in “trust” for a particular band or tribe.
Approximately 56.2 million acres of land are held in trust by
the United States for various Indian tribes and individuals. Much of
this is reservation land; however, not all reservation land is trust
land. Most often this land is within the boundaries of a
reservation. Trust status means that the land falls under tribal
government authority and is generally not subject to state laws.
Trust status also creates limitations on the use of the land and
requires federal approval for most actions.
In theory, Native nations possess sovereignty under these agreements. In reality, however, sovereignty is a much more ambiguous concept. In the 1940’s, Congress suspended all such agreements and required that Native men register for military service. Consequently, Native individuals were eligible for the draft in WWII and in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Even more recent examples of the lack of clarity around the issue of sovereignty include the construction of the Kinzua Dam by the United States which resulted in the displacement of 600 Seneca families and the subsequent flooding of 1/3 of the Allegany Reservation. Similarly in 1959, the Canadian government permitted construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway which cut the Mohawk community of Kahnawake off from the waterway and reduced their land base by 1,262 acres.