Respect for Three Sovereigns

May 15th, 1996 | By | Category: 8-1: Governance, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

Flags at Comanche Nation Fair, Camp Eagle Oklahoma. Photo by Walter Bigbee

Attending their first pow wow celebration, the first thing many visitors notice is the evidence of patriotism. The American flag–often elaborately beaded–appears in dancers’ regalia in various forms. When the grand entry starts, American Indian veterans lead the procession in their Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine uniforms, carrying the flags. Everyone at the pow wow arena stands as the flags of the United States, the state government, and the tribe pass. There is no shortage of veterans; American Indians always have trooped to war in disproportionate numbers–from the Civil War to the Gulf and Bosnia.

Considering the history of federal/Indian relations in this country, non-Indians sometimes find it incongruous when they witness such respect for the United States symbol of government. Something fundamental is evident here: Few non-Indians show respect or understanding for tribal governments. In the late 1970s, I attended a Fourth of July pow wow on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. I had traveled to the tribal headquarters to interview the tribal president, Allen Rowland, and members of the tribal council about their decision to utilize their governmental powers under the federal Clean Air Act to protect the quality of the airshed over their reservation. All business was suspended for a couple of days during the annual celebration while friends and relatives erected canvas tepees in the rolling hills of southern Montana. I took a photo of the picturesque scene and sent it to Business Week with my story, clearly labeling it “pow wow celebration.”

When the photo appeared in the magazine, however, a diligent editor had relabeled the photo “Northern Cheyenne business meeting.” Apparently the magazine’s stylebook said the term “pow wow” was insulting and “business meeting” should be substituted instead. If they had asked me, I would have quickly told them that the business meetings took place in the council chambers, not in the tepees. But no one asked.

While amusing, such ignorance has serious ramifications for tribal governments and the colleges they charter. Congress considers taxing tribal casino profits but not state lotteries. Misinformation about tribal sovereignty thwarts tribal college efforts to receive equitable funding for their students (see “Campus Shorts” in this issue). Congressmen try to equate tribal college funding with affirmative action programs. Each year, tribal organizations must begin again, educating a new group of state and federal lawmakers about how tribes differ from other minorities and about the rights and responsibilities of tribal citizenship.

Tribal Civics Classes

Much of this effort would be unnecessary if mainstream educational institutions were educating students about tribal governments and their powers. I have yet to meet anyone who was taught about treaties or tribal sovereignty in a high school civics classes when they learned about federal, state, and local governments. When conflicts arise, it is not the time for education. As states and tribes battle over taxation, water rights, or gaming compacts, citizens tend to be polarized, not informed by the debate.

We’re quick to judge tribal governments. When we read of embezzlement by one, we see it as a reflection on all tribes’ officials and on the institution rather than on the individual. We forget that there are hundreds of tribal governments quietly serving their people without headlines or scandals. As Ute Mountain Ute Chairwoman Judy Knight said in 1987, “No jurisdiction in the United States faces more complex issues of enormous …consequences than Indian tribal governments. At no time are the others threatened with political, economic, or social annihilation. Tribal government walks a high wire, most often without a safety net should we lose our balance.”

Most tribal governments were created in their modern form in the 1930s after the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. These very young institutions are dealing with some of the country’s most challenging problems with limited financial resources. There are more than 500 tribes across the United States, but few have casino-type gaming. Most tribes that have casinos cannot produce multi-million profits because of their size, their location, their debts, or the restrictions that states have placed upon them. Nor do they usually have a tax base from which to draw revenues.

I studied Indian governments for my book on Indian energy development (Breaking the Iron Bonds: Indian Control of Energy Development, University Press of Kansas, 1990). In the process, the “Indian education problem” came to mean to me education ABOUT Indians. Our mainstream classrooms could address “Indian education” by educating all students about tribal governments’ legacy, history, and authorities.

Part of the fault lies with the scholars. While writing her book, American Indian Tribal Governments (University of Oklahoma Press, 1989), Sharon O’Brien found “a large gap in the literature.” She said very little has been published about tribal governments of either a general or a scholarly nature. The subject has been overlooked by historians, political scientists, legal theorists, and anthropologists. In fact, when her book came out, many tried to pigeon hole it as “anthropology” rather than political science.

There is no lack of material to cover. Tribal governments have a rich legacy. The Quincentennial of Columbus’s arrival on this continent–1992–sparked discussion of what the founding fathers borrowed from the Five Nations of the Iroquois League. O’Brien’s book points out that other tribes also had enviable governmental provisions:

At a time when Europeans labored under authoritarian, hierarchical governments, most tribes possessed democratic and responsive governments. Many tribes practiced universal suffrage and incorporated provisions for recall, referendums, and other political processes, thought later to have been developed by American and European political theorists.

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