In order to understand the future of American Indian people and their tribal governments, it is necessary to first understand their past. Unlike any other minority group in the United States, the American Indian people are firmly bound to their history and to the promises made to them in the past. Unlike any other minority group in the United States, the American Indian people have a unique legal and political status that affects their relationship with federal and the state governments. It is this unique legal and political status, born out of treaty agreements made at the first contact between the Native Americans and the “discoverers” of North America that compels and guides contemporary issues.
In their book “The Nations Within” (Pantheon Books, 1984), Vine Deloria, Jr. and Clifford Lytle offer some insight into the American Indian view of treaties and how they affect contemporary issues:
“In almost every treaty...the concern of the Indians was the preservation of the people, and it is in this concept of the people that we find both the psychological and the political keys that unlock the puzzling dilemma of the present and enable us to understand why Indian people view the world as they do today. When we understand the idea of the people, we can also learn how the idea of the treaty became so sacred to Indians that even today, more than a century after most of the treaties were made, Indians still refer to the provisions as if the agreement were made last week. The treaty, for most tribes, was a sacred pledge made by one people to another and required no more than the integrity of each party for enforcement. That the United States quickly insisted that the treaties should be interpreted rigidly as strictly legal documents has galled succeeding generations of Indians and made permanent peace between Indians and the federal government impossible.”
Today, American Indian tribes must deal with a myriad of issues on their own tribal level, on the state level, and on the federal level. There are several issues that dominate the current debates and each is made more complex by the interconnected relationships of the tribal, state, and federal governments.
By far, the most pressing issue that will face the American Indian people is the blanket issue of sovereignty. Indeed the statement that Indian tribes are sovereign nations is still frequently challenged. The assertion that Indian tribes are “sovereign,” “quasi-sovereign,” or “domestic dependent nations” depends on whom one talks to and how one defines those terms.
In order to understand the discussion of sovereignty, it is necessary to understand where sovereignty, as it relates to the American Indian tribes, originated. From the beginning of contact between the indigenous people of North America and the newcomers, the non-natives recognized the inherent sovereignty of the native peoples. Since the native people had already established cities, trade routes, laws, and leaders, they were considered independent and governed their own affairs. Since the Indian tribes also had the military strength and a superior knowledge of the land, the immigrants to North America began to make treaties with the Indian tribes. Three initial treaties recognized that the Indian tribes were separated political entities that were not subject to U.S. laws or decisions. In fact, some of the acts established, but never implemented, rules that would require non-Indians to obtain passports in order to pass through Indian lands.
Throughout the ensuing years and escalating conflicts, the U.S. government continued to make and ratify treaties with the Indian tribes. Almost all of the treaties were those in which the Indian tribes made some sort of land cession in exchange for pace, money, goods, or services. The first treaty made between the U.S. and an Indian tribe was the treaty with the Delawares in 1778, and the last treaty to be made was a treaty with the Nez Perce in 1868.
Today, the services provided to most American Indian tribes, such as the Indian Health Service hospitals and health care, are a direct result of the treaty agreements made by their ancestors. In fact, some Indian leaders have stated that the land cessions in exchange for government health services, was the first pre-paid health plan in the U.S. The problem with sovereignty and the treaty issues, however, is that tribal and federal officials often disagree over the extent of the services, the amount of payment given to the tribes, or whether the treaties are being adhered to at all.
Along with sovereignty, jurisdiction is an issue that is difficult to explain and to understand. The Standing Rock Nation, for example, is served by several different law enforcement entities—the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Standing Rock Police Department, the Sioux County Sheriff’s Department, and the North Dakota State Highway Patrol—and which entity has jurisdiction over a particular offense is often unclear and complicated to say the least. The jurisdictional maze that has clouded the Indian system of justice has confused layperson, lawyer, judge, and bureaucrat alike. The basic question to be resolved is which level of government assumes jurisdiction over criminal offenses in Indian country...The answer to this question revolves around the interrelationships of the three factors: (a) the location where the crime is committed, (b) the particular statute that has been violated, and (c) the type of persons involved in the crime (Indian/non-Indian). The Bureau of Indian Affairs is a federal agency designed to deal with Indian affairs. The BIA has been criticized by many Indian tribes as being a cumbersome and unneccesary agency which serves little purpose. Other tribes, however, see the BIA as an unwieldy, but necessary, central liaison office and as an official affirmation of treaty obligations. With the federal mandate to downsize the BIA, tribal leaders fear a loss of services and a loss of government services for important programs.
The boundaries of the Standing Rock Nation encompass approximately 1.2 million acres of land in southern North Dakota and northern South Dakota. Since the General Allotment Act of 1887 fragmented tribal lands and allowed for Indian-owned allotments to be sold to non-Indian homesteaders, the tribal land base of Standing Rock has dwindled.
The tribal government of Standing Rock has been concerned with the loss of land base for many years. In recent years, an effort has been made to expand the land holdings of the tribe. Recently, for example, the Standing Rock Nation purchased 15,500 acres of land through the purchase of the Shambo Ranch in Corson County on the South Dakota side of the reservation.