When an Indian community’s way of life is threatened by a massive oil pipeline, the federal government cannot easily put corporate interests above tribal concerns.
As President Donald Trump steamrolls his executive order machine across this country, trampling on civil liberties and upending environmental protections, he risks getting derailed by the issue of tribal sovereignty.
The status of American Indians goes beyond race, class and religion. As members of tribes, Indians are citizens of nations. There are more than 500 tribal nations, in fact. A century ago, when tribes ceded land and natural resources, even giving up their own culture in order to exist as nations, treaties were signed with the U.S. government. Those treaties were based on a clear understanding that tribes were and would remain sovereign, governing their people as nations.
Tribal sovereignty affords tribes the right to fully engage the federal government on matters affecting their communities. When an Indian community’s way of life is threatened by a massive oil pipeline, the federal government cannot easily put corporate interests above tribal concerns.
President Trump’s recent executive orders greenlighting two oil pipelines in the Dakotas that would impact the Rosebud and Standing Rock Sioux tribes show a blatant disregard of tribal sovereignty. They ignore the tribes’ longstanding rights as separate nations to have a say in this process. These rights are not within the president’s powers to simply ignore.
Of course, Trump is not the first president to disrespect tribal nationhood. Throughout history, Indian treaties have consistently been broken. From defending against the theft of land resources to ending culture-crushing white assimilation policies, tribes have had to rise up and forcibly remind the federal government to honor Indian treaties.
But the assault on tribal sovereignty continues. Recently, two North Dakota state legislators put forth legislation to urge the feds to turn jurisdictional authority over tribes to the states. What these lawmakers do not understand is that tribes would never allow states to control their affairs. Tribes signed their treaties with the U.S. government, not with state governments.
But the biggest challenge to upholding tribal sovereignty could happen along the U.S.-Mexico border. The Tohono O’odham Nation has announced it will not allow Trump’s border wall to be built on its homelands. Many of their community members live south of the border as they have for generations.
In the early days of this country, it was very common for tribes to send delegations to Washington to meet with the president and other government leaders. In 1994, President Bill Clinton opened up the White House lawn for a historic meeting with tribal leaders. Clinton vowed to honor and respect tribal sovereignty.
Clearly, President Trump needs a primer on what nation-to-nation consultations with tribes mean. Meeting with tribal leaders representing Indian nations would be an important step for the president in gaining an understanding of tribal sovereignty.