An Issue of Sovereignty: The Independence of Native American Nations, an Idea Long Undermined by Dependency and Deprivation, Is Again a Reality

Article excerpt

A grainy photograph taken after the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890 captures a U.S. soldier sitting on a horse surrounded by frozen Lakota bodies lying in the snow.

A snapshot of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota today shows slumped trailers and yards strewn with crumpled soda bottles and plastic bags.

An Internet ad for the Mystic Lake casino in Minnesota depicts rows of flashing, clinking slot machines and, outside, a virtual hologram of a teepee created by a circle of spotlights shining skyward.

Although highly charged and somewhat skewed, these images are all part of Indian Country's past and present, and they tend to dominate the popular viewpoint of Native Americans.

But over the last few decades, tribal governments have made significant progress toward reclaiming their independence. Tribes are rewriting their constitutions, choosing their own leaders, and asserting control over their lands. Two-hundred and seventy-five tribes now have formal court systems, and similar advances have been made in other areas.

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This is what John Echohawk sees when he thinks about the tribes and their future.

A Pawnee Indian and executive director of the Native American Rights Fund since its inception in 1970, Echohawk was named one of the nation's most influential lawyers every year since 1988 by the National Law Journal. For 40 years he has been fighting to define and uphold Indian rights and one right is key.

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"Sovereignty is clearly the most important thing," he says, reflecting the view of many tribal leaders when asked what is behind the recent rise of Indian Country. "If you don't know anything about tribal sovereignty, then you don't know anything about Indians. It's that simple. We're nations. We're Pawnees and Navajos and Sioux. That's who we are, that's the way we see the world."

Echohawk says it's a mistake to think of Native Americans as a homogenous group, and it's misleading to portray Indian Country as a monolith. America is home to 562 different tribes that range in population from a few hundred to more than 200,000. And although these tribes share a sad history, the diversity that distinguishes Shakopee from Apache and Crow from Choctaw has reemerged as tribes have retaken control of their own affairs.

"Indians are nations, not minorities," says David Wilkins, chair of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota.

His point is echoed by Deron Marquez, former chair of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in California. "Each tribe is sovereign, and each tribe is different," he says. "Each tribe has its own way of deciding who they are and what they will become."

Decades of grinding conditions, however, have left their mark on Indian Country. Poverty still hovers near 40 percent--more than triple the national rate. Incomes remain about half the U.S. average. Chronic health problems such as heart disease and diabetes have become a scourge on reservations, and deaths from liver disease and cirrhosis surpass national rates by 500 percent.

Despite daunting challenges, Indian sovereignty is again a reality. And that, tribal elders say, will change the way future generations view themselves.

"This is about putting a new memory in the minds of our children," says one Indian leader.

THE FIRST NATIONS

Native sovereignty predates the establishment of European settlements in North America. When colonists arrived, Indians were divided among hundreds of sophisticated societies with their own languages, cultures and systems of government--thriving nations that traded and warred. As the United States formed and pushed westward, it acknowledged the sovereign status of Indian nations by signing hundreds of treaties with these native governments, the same form of agreement made with countries such as France and Spain. …