Tribal Sovereignty: A Practical Definition

Tribes are treated significantly different than other minority groups because the United States has a legal and political relationship with tribes.

Tribal Sovereignty is a philosophical term that is legally constructed and came about through the treaty relationship, is limited via legislation and court decisions, and applied through the actions of Native nation building and self-determination.

At the most basic level, tribal sovereignty is the inherent political power of Native nations to self govern with each nation recognized as a distinct political entity.  In political reality, tribal sovereignty has been limited by Congress, court rulings and treaties.  It is important to understand that tribes were not given sovereignty; rather sovereignty of tribes was and is inherent and is legally recognized initially through treaties and later limited by laws and court rulings.

The federal-tribal relationship is both constitutionally based and congressionally based.  Congressional Plenary Power or the idea that Congress has ultimate authority over Indian affairs was defined by a series of three Supreme Court rulings called the Marshall Trilogy.  This series of cases defines Congressional Plenary power or the exclusive Federal-Tribal relationship, inherent tribal sovereignty, the Trust Doctrine or the fiduciary relationship with the United States as a trustee, and the Canons of Construction which defines the role of the courts with regard to tribes.

Tribal sovereignty is further supported by various mandates, including, but not limited to:

  • Executive Order 13175 Consultation and Coordination with Indian tribes, where tribal self-government and sovereignty are recognized and a commitment to the government-to-government federal-tribal relationship was reaffirmed by President Clinton in 2000.
  • Executive Memorandum of September 23, 2004 where President Bush recommitted to the principles of sovereignty, self determination, and the government-to-government relationship.

Published by Traci L. Morris

Dr. Morris, the Director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University is a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. Under her leadership, the AIPI has grown and diversified its service to Indian Country via an MOU formalizing a long-standing partnership with the Native American Finance Officers Association (NAFOA) and forming the Tribal Economic Leadership Program offering training in Tribal Economic Governance and Tribal Financial Management; access to Entrepreneurship training and tribal business support through Inno-Nations; and Economic Development Consulting; and, the formalization of the Institute via by-laws and an advisory board comprised of both internal ASU leadership and external tribal and non-tribal leadership. In her work at both ASU and prior, Morris has worked with Native American tribes; Tribal businesses; Native American non-profits; Native media makers, artists, and galleries; written a college-accredited curriculum in Native American new media; and has advocated for digital inclusion at the Federal Communications Commission and on Capitol Hill. Morris’s research and publications on Native American media and the digital divide is focused on Internet use, digital inclusion, network neutrality, digital and new media curriculums, digital inclusion and development of broadband networks in Indian Country. Her book, Native American Voices: A Reader, continues to be a primary teaching tool in colleges throughout the country. Dr. Morris is Affiliated Faculty at ASU's School for the Future of Innovation in Society, an Affiliate of ASU's Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology, a Senior Sustainability Scholar at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, President of the Board of the Phoenix Indian Center, Board member of the Arizona American Indian Chamber of Commerce, and on the Advisory Council of the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums. Formerly, Morris served member of the Advisory Board for the Department of Labor's Native American Employment and Training Council and served a two-year appointment (2014-2016 and 2010-2012) on the Federal Communications Commission's Consumer Advisory Committee. As an entrepreneur prior to her ASU appointment, Morris founded Homahota Consulting LLC, a national Native American woman-owned professional services firm working in policy analysis, telecommunications, education, and research assisting tribes in their nation-building efforts and working with Native Nations, tribal businesses and those businesses working with tribes. Morris has an M. A. and Ph.D. from the University of Arizona’s American Indian Studies, in addition to a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Colorado State University.

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