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Omdahl: Has tribal sovereignty become a myth?

Columnist Lloyd Omdahl writes, "The word 'sovereignty' suggests ultimate power, something that, in reality, Native Americans do not have. In American history, sovereignty rested with the folks who had the most guns.

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Before venturing into the deep water of state and Native American relations, I need to reassure North Dakota’s tribes that I am not an adversary but a friend. I believe we owe the native people reparations for taking their country, killing six million of their people and forcing them into reservations

That being said, let us move into the question of tribal sovereignty, an idea that is over 200 years old. The federal government has declared that recognized tribes are sovereign entities within a government-to-government relationship.

The word “sovereignty” suggests ultimate power, something that, in reality, Native Americans do not have. In American history, sovereignty rested with the folks who had the most guns. By brute force, we broke treaty after treaty to take more of their land.

The events of history have changed the relationship between Native Americans and the United States. In fact, tribal sovereignty has become obsolete in practice.

Passage of the Native American Voting Rights bill of 1924 struck the death knell for tribal sovereignty. By accepting citizenship in another sovereignty, Native Americans have become involved in the affairs of another nation.

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In recent elections, Native Americans have run for public office and have successfully won seats in the state legislature. Under the theory of tribal sovereignty, it would be like Canadians running candidates and serving in the U.S. Congress.

The incongruity is obvious. Eventually, Native Americans will have to make a choice between being U. S. citizens or citizens of their own “country.”

Native Americans won another seat in the legislature in the recent election – Lisa Finley-DeVille – because the legislative apportionment committee divided an at-large two-seat district into separate districts.

To protect sovereignty, the tribes and the federal government have to sidestep all of the bureaucratic red tape that goes with the idea of sovereignty. If tribes could become states, all of the processes would be greatly simplified and more done to deal with the chronic problems on reservations.

Compared with the other races in our demographic figures, American Indians have a shorter life expectancy by five years; the suicide rate among youth is two and a half times greater; twice as likely to experience crimes, and women are exposed to more violence.

A particularly knotty issue was created by the Indian Child Welfare Act, a strange title for a program that has consistently disregarded the welfare of children.

Under this act, the tribe can demand the return of Indian children from a white foster family after the child and parents have bonded. Right now, there is a case in the U. S. Supreme Court seeking to overturn such authority.

As long as tribes insist on sovereignty, business development requiring underwriting or funding will never happen on the reservations. The outside business community cannot function in the volatile and erratic behavior after each tribal election. Investment and credit need predictability and stability.

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While we see where changes may be helpful, the U.S. has bullied Native Americans for 400 years. We’ve already bullied too much. It is up to the tribes themselves to initiate action with the federal government probably providing incentives.

Omdahl is a former N.D. lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@midco.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.

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Omdahl is a former N.D. lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@midco.net

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