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Sovereignty & Jurisdiction

Private PropertyThe sovereignty of Indian nations in the U.S. is inherent, meaning that the tribal nations’ authority to govern has existed since tribes themselves came into being. Tribal sovereignty was affirmed during treaty-making, as first European nations and then the U.S. entered into treaties with tribes on a nation-to-nation basis. 

Even though the treaty-making era formally ended in 1871, the sovereign status of Indian nations still remains today. As sovereign entities, Indian nations are guaranteed the power and/or right to determine their form of government, define citizenship, make and enforce laws through their own police force and courts, collect taxes, regulate the domestic affairs of their citizens, and regulate property use.

Federal policies, such as the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act of 1975, have reaffirmed Indian nations’ rights to govern themselves and manage their own lands and resources.

Even so, federal, state, county and local governments often challenge American Indian sovereignty, especially when there are questions of jurisdictional authority. Many Indian reservations contain land with multiple types of ownership (trust, fee, restricted, tribal, individual Indian, non-Indian) creating a checkerboard ownership pattern. As a result, reservation lands are also under several different jurisdictions (tribal, city, county, state, federal) making it difficult for Indian nations to assert regulatory and legal control and to foster new development on their lands. Many local disagreements over land use and law enforcement between tribal nations and neighboring cities, counties and private landowners have severely compromised tribal regulatory efforts and have crippled economic development.

A handful of Indian nations managed to avoid allotment, such as the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, which controls all of the lands and resources within its reservation boundaries. Today, the Band enjoys full sovereignty over the reservation, including jurisdiction over all criminal and civil matters affecting the band and the right to limit who can live on or visit the reservation.

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