The most frequent and common questions regarding Indian tribal Sovereignty in America
include these: Where did tribes get their Sovereignty? How did tribes keep their
Sovereignty? How long have tribes had their Sovereignty?
The answers: From the Creator who put them here. They inherited it. Since the beginning
Answers to these questions have been around far longer than the questions themselves.
Tribal Sovereignty flows through American history in a timeless river, without beginning
or end. The reality here is that tribes have always been sovereign, a fact recognized
in the actions and laws of early European explorers, a fact recognized as exploration
became settlement, and a fact recognized as settlement evolved through colonial
and into national government.
The Sovereignty of Indian tribes is INHERENT. That means it existed since time immemorial,
and is recognized as such in the Constitution of the United States. States and tribes
have equal legal and constitutional status in their dealings with the federal government.
Most commonly known of the government-to-government relationships between the United
States and Indian Nations is the power of Congress to make treaties. The relationship
extends to existing reservations, some created by Congress and others by Executive
Order of the President. This government-to-government relationship also exists between
tribes and states, and is often reflected in tribal-state compacts, the equivalents
A vast number of tribes in America have been relocated away from their original
homelands. Idaho tribes, however, are truly the original Idaho. While tragedies
of war and near genocide existed here, tribes remain on reservation lands that represent
small portions of their original homelands. These tribes, the Coeur d' Alene, Kootenai,
Nez Perce, Northwestern Band Shoshoni Nation, Shoshone-Bannock and Shoshone-Paiute,
maintain jurisdictional and sovereign authority over their lands, upheld in decisions
by the Idaho Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court.
Tribal Sovereignty remains an American doctrine, with extensive, fundamental powers
held by tribal governments. Tribes have the power to establish their own form of
government, not necessarily patterned after the federal government. Tribal governments,
because they are constitutionally sovereign, are not subject to the requirements
of separation of powers or even the establishment of religion, although these principles
are almost universal in tribal constitutions. The Indian Reorganization Act points
out that tribal Sovereignty is inherent and therefore even farther reaching that
the Act itself.
Tribal Sovereignty also includes the power to determine membership, police power,
power to administer justice, power to exclude persons from the reservation (although
not unlimited or to the point of denying legal access), power to charter businesses
and regulate their activity, power to levy taxes, and sovereign immunity. This sovereign
immunity means tribes cannot be sued without the expressed written consent of tribal
governments. State governments are also protected by this immunity within the 11th
Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
The origins of this Sovereignty are historical, cultural, and legal. Through treaties
and executive orders, tribes have a legal underpinning in the ongoing and difficult
effort to keep their cultures, traditions, languages, customs and jurisdictions
Tribes and tribal governments remain committed to the preservation of their heritage
and to controlling their destinies. Tribal members often say they have a commitment
to the preservation and control because of their commitment to future generations,
because of their connection with the land, and because of their connections to their
ancestors buried in it. These are moral obligations supported by indisputable legal
and constitutional authority. Tribes were here many thousands of years before there
was a United States or an Idaho. Tribes were here and took part in the development
and protection of the United States and Idaho. Tribes will be here even if the day
comes when there is neither a United States nor an Idaho.
As one tribal elder explained, "We are here because this is where the Creator put
us. This is where we will always be."