3 minute read

Native American Rights

Tribal Sovereignty

Tribal sovereignty refers to the fact that each tribe has the inherent right to govern itself. Before Europeans came to North America, Native American tribes conducted their own affairs and needed no outside source to legitimate their powers or actions. When the various European powers did arrive, however, they claimed dominion over the lands that they found, thus violating the sovereignty of the tribes who already were living there.

The issue of the extent and limits of tribal sovereignty came before the U.S. Supreme Court in Johnson v. McIntosh, 21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) 543, 5 L. Ed. 681 (1823). Writing for the majority, Chief Justice JOHN MARSHALL described the effects of European incursion on native tribes, writing that although the Indians were " admitted to be the rightful occupants of the soil … their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations, were necessarily diminished, and their power to dispose of the soil, at their own will, to whomsoever they pleased, was denied by the original fundamental principle, that discovery gave exclusive title to those who made it." The European nations that had "discovered" North America, Marshall ruled, had "the sole right of acquiring the soil from the natives."

Having acknowledged this limitation to tribal sovereignty in Johnson, however, Marshall's opinions in subsequent cases reinforced the principle of tribal sovereignty. In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, 30 U.S. (5 Pet.) 1, 8 L. Ed. 25 (1831), Marshall elaborated on the legal status of the Cherokees, describing the tribe as a "distinct political society that was separated from others, capable of managing its own affairs, and governing itself." In Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. (6 Pet.) 515, 8 L. Ed. 483 (1832), Marshall returned to the issue, this time in an opinion denying the state of Georgia's right to impose its laws on a Cherokee reservation within the state's borders. He rejected the state's argument, writing "The Cherokee nation … is a distinct community, occupying its own territory, with boundaries accurately described, in which the laws of Georgia can have no force." Reviewing the history of relations between native tribes and the colonizing European powers, Marshall cited the Indians '"original natural rights," which he said were limited only by "the single exception of that imposed by irresistible power, which excluded them from intercourse with any other European potentate than the first discoverer of the coast of the particular region claimed."

The cumulative effect of Marshall's opinions was to position Native American tribes as nations whose independence had been limited in just two specific areas: the right to transfer land and the right to deal with foreign powers. In regard to their own internal functions, the tribes were considered to be sovereign and to be free from state intrusion on that sovereignty. This position formulated by Marshall has been modified over the years, but it continues to serve as the foundation for determining the extents and limits of Native American tribal sovereignty. Although Congress has the ultimate power to limit or abolish tribal governments, until it does so each tribe retains the right to self-government, and no state may impose its laws on the reservation. This position was reiterated in a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case, United States v. Wheeler, 435 U.S. 313, 98 S. Ct. 1079, 55 L. Ed. 2d 303, in which Justice POTTER STEWART concluded that "Indian tribes still possess those aspects of sovereignty not withdrawn by treaty or statute, or by implication as a necessary result of their dependent status."

The ways that individual tribes exercise their sovereignty vary widely, but, in general, tribal authority is used in the following areas: to form tribal governments; to determine tribal membership; to regulate individual property; to levy and collect taxes; to maintain law and order; to exclude non-members from tribal territory; to regulate domestic relations; and to regulate commerce and trade.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: National Environmental Policy Act of (1969) to NoticeNative American Rights - Tribal Sovereignty, Treaty Rights, Reserved Rights Doctrine, Federal Power Over Native American Rights, Hunting And Fishing Rights