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Farewell to Indian Sovereignty?

The Senate Appropriations Committee has added a legislative rider to the Interior appropriations bill which would force Indian tribes to waive sovereign immunity in order to receive critically needed federal funds. Tribes desperately need these funds if they are to continue to provide essential government services on reservations -- lifeblood funds needed to ensure the public safety, health and well-being of reservation residents.

One might ask, how can Indian Nations be sovereign and still ask for federal funding? The answer is fairly simple. In the 1800’s when Indians ceded their lands to the United States Government, they were placed on what is commonly known today as reservations. In return, they were promised federal funds to support themselves and their families. This funding was guaranteed in various treaties throughout the country. Therefore, federal funding is not welfare. It is payment for Indian lands. Sovereign immunity is a fundamental right of every Indian nation. It cannot and should not be stripped from tribes at the whim of the U.S. Congress. If we allowed such a thing to happen, tribes would suffer devastating impacts on tribal self-government, economic development and self-sufficiency.

Stated simply, the supporters of this legislative rider want to do away with American Indian tribal sovereignty, even though it is a retained, inherent right of native tribes and peoples.

We might speculate on how this issue ever came up. Is it possible that Indian-owned casinos play a part? Is it possible that the U.S. Government will not tolerate not getting a piece of the pie? And how much of this does the American public support simply because they are misinformed? Visions of Indians living high-off-the-hog, their pockets heaving with casino cash is the picture that some legislators paint for their constituents. But one quick trip to most Indian reservations would smother the image instantly. Yes, some reservations have new schools, new clinics, and are sending their kids to college. But few Indian residents in this country have casino cash spilling from their pockets. Most never see a dime of gambling money unless they win it themselves playing the slot machines. Native Americans are the most impoverished people in the United States, with some still living in shacks without proper heat, water, or electricity. Is there corruption in tribal government? In some situations, yes. But what do you expect from a people who haven’t had any real money for over two hundred years?

The ugly truth is that there are those in the halls of power who would brush aside the longstanding policy and law of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government to protect and promote tribal self-governance. Indeed, it is painfully clear that some members of congress, “would even subvert the Constitution in order to destroy Native American sovereignty.” (John Echohawk)

This anti-Indian legislation is currently before the full Senate.

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Copyright ©1997 Judi Schiller, Richard Schiller

September 28, 1997