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Sovereignty and Civil Rights

Federal Government

 Many citizens assume that our federal and state governments support the basic American goals of freedom, fairness, and "equal justice for all." After all, these are founding principles on which our nation and constitution were established.

But many state and federal court judges, the state attorney general, the governor, and [States] members of Congress tolerate a policy that specifically denies American citizens their most basic constitutional rights.


Indian people living on reservations are not granted the same civil rights the rest of Americans take for granted, such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, open elections, a trial by a jury of one's peers, legal representation of one's choice, and the right to due process in a court of law. Non-Indian people who enter onto a reservation or "tribal trust status lands" also give up these basic civil rights and constitutional protections.


"Tribal sovereignty," the notion that tribes are self-governing nations, and a concept that many people assume is beneficial to Indian people, actually benefits only a few individual tribal government leaders, and takes rights and freedoms away from Indian citizens.


Just like on a military reservation, there is no inherent, constitutional protection of speech, assembly and the press on Indian reservation land. Tribal chief executives and tribal councils get their authority from the Secretary of the Interior and the BIA, not from the voters who elect them. And because the tribal government controls all tribal businesses, services, housing and most employment, they are able to rule nearly all aspects of reservation life.


There are no checks and balances in the tribal system of government; no separation of the judicial, legislative and administrative branches of government. The Freedom of Information Act and Open Meeting Law do not apply on reservations. Neither does the Bill of Rights. In 1968 Congress enacted a separate "Indian Bill of Rights" in an effort to rectify this fact, but in 1978, a Supreme Court decision ruled that Indian tribal governments themselves could decide how and to what extent Indian civil rights would be applied, if at all.


The decision rendered the Indian Bill of Rights virtually worthless. A tribal chief and tribal council not only have full executive, legislative and judicial authority on the reservation, they also decide if and to what extent their citizens have any rights or freedoms. Tribal chief executives and tribal councils become dictators. They appoint and remove tribal judges as they wish, and can control the outcome of judicial decisions. Tribal chief executives and tribal councils can and do dictate if, how and against whom tribal laws are enforced.


One of this country's founding fathers, James Madison, wrote in the late 1700s, "The accumulation of all powers - legislative, executive, and judiciary - in the same hands, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny." Madison was right, and tyranny is what we see today in tribal governments. Read a month's worth of Indian newspapers, such as Indian Country Today, News from Indian Country, and Native American Press/Ojibwe News, and it becomes evident that corruption in tribal governments is the norm, not the exception.


Tribal governments are not obligated to make their financial records available to the public, yet they control who on a reservation gets a job, a house, and health care services. This lack of accountability allows tribal officials to hide criminal conduct, incompetence, and corruption, and has resulted in tribal dictatorships. Several federal convictions of tribal leaders for theft, fraud, money-laundering, vote rigging and other crimes have barely scratched the surface of tribal government corruption. A full 80% of Indian people have left the reservation to escape these conditions.


Congress and federal courts must take the blame for this corrupt and abusive system. They are the ones who created it, and they have the legal right, power and authority to end it at any time. But instead the federal government currently claims that over 550 Indian tribes are "sovereign nations," with the right to have separate governments, separate courts, separate laws, and independent control of land and resources without state regulations and exempt from many federal regulations as well.


How is it that the United States maintains separate "homelands" for a race of people where they are not protected by the same constitutional rights, receive unequal protection under the law, and are subject to different regulations? How did this country, a nation so vocal, so active in condemning South African apartheid, come to create a similar apartheid situation for millions of its own citizens?


Tribes are not sovereign at all. The United States government owns reservation land, not tribes. Tribal lands are federal territories, owned and controlled by the United States government, which has been put in reserve, similar to a military reserve, for the use of an Indian tribe. Based on our system of law, land is what sovereignty is based upon. Tribes are not "sovereign nations" because they have no sovereign control over any land holdings; there is no "nation."


Indian tribes rely almost entirely on federal government support to continue to exist, and on federal government permission to do almost anything. Tribes exist not as independent governments, but as an extension of the federal government.


The federal government has what's called "plenary" power over land that is in trust status, which means they can literally do anything they want with it, and the people living on that land have no direct control or constitutional protections. Indians and non-Indians who live on reservations actually have no control over their lands, and people living near reservations are at risk too, because the federal government is expanding reservation land holdings at an amazing rate.


Tribal members are U.S. citizens, and as such, are eligible to serve in state legislatures, run for Congress as representative of a state, be appointed to state and federal constitutional offices, hold judgeships at all levels, including the U.S. Supreme Court, and run for president of the United States. These rights and privileges are not extended to foreign nationals of sovereign nations. They are extended to Indians because they are, in fact, U.S. citizens, and have been since Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924. Many non-reservation Indians were U.S. citizens in the 1800's as well.


Off the reservation, Indians are free and equal citizens. Ironically and tragically, only on reservation soil do Indians lose their civil and constitutional rights.


The policies of tribal sovereignty and tribal sovereign immunity have hurt tribal members, impaired businesses trying to contract with tribal governments, stifled economic development on reservations, and denied basic rights to Indian and non-Indian patrons and employees of tribally-owned operations.


Our state courts, federal courts, state attorney general, governor and members of Congress do little to defend the rights of Indian and non-Indian people who are harmed by this federal policy.


Unfortunately, many judges, state officials and citizens carelessly assume that tribal sovereignty and tribal sovereign immunity are somehow righting past wrongs done to Indian people. Without careful analysis, many people assume that the "right" side of the issue, the "pro-Indian" side of the issue, is to support a policy of sovereignty and separate laws and governments for Indian tribes. But some officials are beginning to raise crucial questions about the policy of tribal sovereignty. A Minnesota Court of Appeals judge is one of the leaders of this new trend.