What is tribal sovereignty? An expert explains

The Forum interviewed the Native Governance Center's executive director to ask about the basics of Indigenous nations' sovereignty.

Wayne Ducheneaux II, a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Nation in South Dakota, is executive director of the St. Paul-based Native Governance Center. Special to The Forum

BISMARCK — “Sovereignty” was a go-to term for Democratic hopefuls at the Native American Presidential Candidate Forum in Sioux City, Iowa, last month. Many of the candidates said they would seek to better honor tribal sovereignty if elected president.

To better understand the issue of sovereignty as it relates to Indigenous nations, The Forum sat down with Wayne Ducheneaux II, executive director of the St. Paul-based Native Governance Center , during the United Tribes Technical College Tribal Leaders Summit held in Bismarck earlier this month.

Here’s how Ducheneaux, a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Nation in South Dakota, explained sovereignty.

What does sovereignty mean?

Sovereignty is just basically the right of a people to organize, gather, and rule themselves to decide their own fates.


Does sovereignty vary from tribe to tribe based on the treaties?

No. Sovereignty is something all tribes had inherently prior to contact (with colonists). It’s something we’ve maintained through contact through treaties. Sovereignty isn’t something someone gives you. It’s something you have. Tribes in this country from time immemorial had the sovereignty inherent in them to govern how they live, how they breathe, how they rule. How we’ve expressed those things are through different documents. Now in modern times it’s our constitutions and those types of things.

So then, for example, the Treaty of Fort Laramie didn’t give the Sioux their sovereignty?

No. The treaty at Fort Laramie gave Americans rights just as much as it did Indian people. What the treaty is, is an agreement between two sovereigns, saying this is who we are, this is what we do, and this is our agreement with each other. We agreed in the 1868 treaty that we would move, we would occupy this certain (area), but we would maintain our rights to hunt, fish, gather, all that type of stuff, wherever we saw fit. But really any non-Indian who comes in and settles in this region, then to today, you are expressing the treaty rights you received. Everybody in America has treaty rights. They’re just vested differently. With Native communities, it was about reserving things we needed, reserving powers, reserving things we wanted. For non-Native communities, it’s about your right to occupy the space, to use the resources that were granted to you by Native nations.

How are sovereignty and treaty rights intertwined?

Because tribes are sovereign nations, we have the ability to treat. Tribal nations having the status of having sovereignty allowed for treaties to happen. If you look back at the formation of the United States, some of the very first things they did as the United States of America after they declared independence from Britain was to create treaties with Native nations to show as an exercise of their sovereignty that they could treat with these Native nations.

In what ways is the U.S. government honoring sovereignty?

States are realizing now more and more the benefits that tribes provide to their economies, to their governments, to their people in general, so I think they’re more and more getting better. For the federal government, there’s a lot of work to be done. I can’t beat around the bush there. It’s so disparate because you have 573 federally recognized tribes all dealing as separate sovereigns. A lot of work there that has to be done is about bringing people together. It’s something that’s not really being done well at all in this administration.


Can you name an administration that did honor sovereignty well?

The Obama administration did really well having the Tribal Nations Conference. At least that was an opportunity for tribal leaders to come to D.C. once a year and have meaningful dialogue with heads of agencies. So that was a really good example of the federal government recognizing the importance of tribal nations, allowing us to come to the table, sit as equals, to discuss issues that affect Indian Country and the surrounding communities. The great example of a Republican administration that was strong on Indian issues was the Nixon administration. In the '70s, with the development of the Indian Self-Determination Act that was born out of a Republican administration. It was about allowing tribes to return back and gain some control back over their daily lives.

If you’re part of a sovereign nation within another sovereign nation, do you have dual citizenship?

In 1924, Congress granted citizenship to all Native Americans born in the United States. I would argue, through treaty, way before that, we recognized citizens of America.

Is sovereignty an idea imposed on Native America by colonists?

No. Sovereignty is something inherent to a people that come together on how they want to govern themselves. The reason why it’s hard for non-Indian communities to understand the term of sovereignty, especially in America, is because they’ve never had their sovereignty in jeopardy. Go ask the people of France about the two times Germany came. They’re going to tell you about what sovereignty means to them. Go ask the Polish people, go ask the Eastern Bloc countries absorbed by the U.S.S.R. Sovereignty isn’t something that’s gifted; it’s something you have inherently. There’s a recognition of sovereignty. Separate sovereigns recognize each other’s sovereignty. There’s not a gift of sovereignty, it’s a recognition.

Why do you think so many people don’t understand sovereignty as it relates to Native American populations?

They’re not taught it. It goes back to this invisibility where we’re not viewed as people. That’s why you have things like the mascot issue pop up. There’s this idea whether it’s the Washington Redskins or the Kansas City Chiefs, how people think they’re honoring Native culture, when you’re trivializing it. If there was a team that had a Hispanic or African American name as their mascot, people would throw a fit. But it’s OK to put on fake multicolored painted feathers and "wahoo wahoo" and wail a tomahawk. It’s because people don’t see us as human.


The cure to that is education. How do you impart proper responsible education from pre-K, to 12th grade, into college. People view Indians frozen in time. You don’t realize that we’re executive directors of nonprofits. We work for foundations. We’re now two women in the United States Congress added to our two men in the United States Congress. We’re here. We’re modern. We’re part of the society, and we’re resilient and adaptable to be here and be where we’re at.

Editor's note: The transcript of this interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

Native American issues reporter and Report for America Corps member Natasha Rausch can be reached at
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