The Rights and Responsibilities of Sovereignty

Aug 15th, 2004 | By | Category: 16-1: Sovereignty in Indian Country, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

EAGLE GRAPHICSovereignty has been a topic of intense debate in the past year as the United States tries to sort out its responsibilities in Iraq. It is not the first time in history, of course, that a powerful nation has struggled with questions about its role in a conquered or colonized country.

At what point does the foreign power’s involvement stop being helpful and start being paternalistic? When should that power back off and allow the fledgling government to make its own mistakes and learn from them?

Does a sovereign power use its authority to control the press or to guarantee freedom of the press? When does sovereignty become an excuse for defying laws, conventions, and treaties without regard for the responsibilities of power?

When is it appropriate to transplant foreign concepts of justice and education? And when must the foreign government honor the cultural traditions of the people instead?

The sovereignty of Indian nations within the United States may be even more complicated and less understood. This issue introduces this topic and its implications for education and journalism.

The subject is delicate, but it is not the first time that the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) has broached difficult subjects since the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) created TCJ 15 years ago.

Indians and the Media

Ever since Europeans first arrived on this continent, the media have not treated Indian people kindly. Newspapers in towns bordering reservations typically focus upon the violence and the alcoholism rather than upon what is being done by the community to tackle those problems. Textbooks and films often portray Indians as one-dimensional savages or extinct. Both Indians and non-Indians consume these images and internalize them.

When tribes started to exercise their sovereignty and won significant battles over fishing rights, jurisdiction, taxation, and most recently gaming, they were met with disbelief and outrage. The media have covered and sometimes participated in this backlash.

Many of the media problems stem from ignorance. Students should learn about tribal sovereignty in high school civics classes at the same time that they learn about the powers of federal, state, and local governments. It is difficult for learning to take place in the heat of a polarizing battle.

In addition to ignorance, fear and racial stereotypes also undermine equitable media coverage. There are not enough American Indians working in the newsrooms, and diversity studies indicate the percentages are not improving.

It is predictable although regrettable that when tribal governments publish their own newspapers, some tribal officials would try to suppress criticism of themselves. The Native American Journalists Association, supported by the National Congress of American Indians, is working on a campaign to support freedom of the press on reservations.

AIHEC and the tribal colleges have honored freedom of the press in their power over the Tribal College Journal. This magazine is owned by AIHEC, a nonprofit corporation directed by the presidents. When they created the journal 15 years ago, they established a separate advisory board of presidents to provide policy direction for the journal.

The advisory board has not only allowed but in fact insisted upon tackling difficult issues, such as unsuccessful financial investments by tribal colleges (Vol.7, N.3); conflicts between college boards and colleges (Vol.13, N.4); dysfunctional tribal organizations and how to heal them (Vol.14, N.4); HIV/AIDS in Indian Country (Vol.15, N.2); and this issue on sovereignty.

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