Understanding Sovereign Nation Laws

by Cameron Tyler on February 28, 2013

Throughout American history, the plight of Native Americans has been an interesting one. When the colonists first came to the New World, they ignored the native people and claimed land for themselves, with little thought for the people who lived on it originally. As the fledgling government came into being, it continued to ignore the rights of the Native Americans to their own land. Over time, the Supreme Court began giving Native Americans back some of their power, until they finally recognized tribal sovereignty.

Understanding Sovereign Nation Status

Native Americans live within the confines to the United States. As a result, they receive many of the same benefits of other citizens. Yet, over the years since America’s founding, the Native American nations have been given many rights that other ethnic groups within America do not have. One of these is the right to govern themselves as a sovereign nation.

Tribal sovereignty is a term given to the right Native Americans have to govern themselves within the borders of the United States. The federal government recognizes them as “domestic dependent nations.” They do not have the same rights as foreign nations, yet they have local sovereignty to govern themselves on some level.

This has allowed the Native Americans, in spite of many pushes to assimilate into American culture, to retain some of their own rich heritage. The Chickasaw culture, for example, has its own constitution, capital city and elected principal officers, who are all allowed to make decisions for the people of their land. This allows them to take measures to preserve their own language, storytelling and artwork.

What Laws Are Different?

Because the nations that have been grated tribal sovereignty are still somewhat under the control of the United States, understanding the laws and how they are different can be a bit challenging.

When Native Americans are doing business or living on their reservation land, they are subject to the laws set up by their council or other governing body. This means they often do not pay state taxes on the purchases and income the make on the reservation. The punishments for minor crimes are handled by the council, not state governments. Tribes are also exempt from subpoena and litigation in most instances. In other words, it is difficult for a non-tribal member to sue the tribe or someone affiliated with the tribe.

One area where these exemptions are seen is in the gaming industry. Native Americans can have gambling operations on their reservations, even if the state forbids gambling. The states have no power to stop the casino or gambling hall if it is operated by Native Americans on Native American land.

There are some exceptions to these rules. When tribe members make money in casinos, they must report it and pay taxes to the federal government. They also must report any serious or felonious crimes to their state and federal officials. For instance, if someone is accused of murder, it must be reported. If someone steals from the corner store on the reservation, the sovereign nation’s laws will deal with that individual.

Tribal sovereignty is one way in which the government of the United States tries to give the Native Americans back some of their independence, which was stripped from them when the original settlers came. Because of these laws, many tribal groups have been able to retain much of their culture and tribal laws, in spite of being part of the United States.


Cameron Tyler

Cameron Tyler

Cameron Tyler

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