Mni Wakan Heciya Ihduhapi Unspewicakiya: Teaching Sovereignty at Spirit Lake

Apr 28th, 2014 | By | Category: Features, Online features, Web Exclusive
By Vernon Lambert and John Peacock

Mainstream civics, American history, political science, and law school classes typically teach the concept of sovereignty as an accepted fact of national identity and international relations. But in Vernon Lambert’s “Tribal Government and Politics” class at Cankdeska Cikana Community College (CCCC), students also learn how the United States has at different times in its history made and broken treaties with sovereign Indigenous nations, including with his own, and the students’ own, Spirit Lake Tribe of the Dakota.

They learn about the so-called European “doctrine of discovery,” which maintains that centuries before the establishment of the U.S., Spain claimed ownership, in the name of God and king, of New World territories that Spain had “discovered.” Spain denied Indian sovereignty, reasoning that a papal bull in 1493 had declared that territories that were unfenced and—to European eyes—unimproved, were terra nullius (land belonging to no one).

Students learn that in later geopolitical conflicts, Spain ceded by treaty to France what would become known as the Louisiana Territory. England, which claimed most of the eastern part of what would become the United States, recognized and made treaties with Indian tribes as sovereign nations. When the U.S. won its independence from England and became an independent nation, it immediately recognized the sovereignty of the eastern tribes that England had recognized. In addition, the U.S. came to acknowledge the sovereignty of tribes in the Louisiana Territory, after France sold it to the U.S. in 1803.

With this history in mind, Lambert’s students study three transformative 19th century U.S. Supreme Court rulings that became the basis of federal Indian law. In the first, Johnson v. McIntosh (1823), the Court ruled that “the United States…had a clear title to all the lands within the boundary lines described in the treaty (with Great Britain at the end of the American Revolution), subject only to the Indian right of occupancy, and that the exclusive power to extinguish that right, was vested in that government which might constitutionally exercise it.”
In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), the Court acknowledged the Cherokee tribe as “a state” but not a “foreign” state. Tribes “may, more correctly, perhaps, be denominated domestic dependent nations. They occupy a territory to which we (the U.S.) assert a title independent of their will… [T]heir relation to the United States resembles that of a ward to his guardian.” Finally, in Worcester v. Georgia (1832), the Court upheld the Trade and Intercourse Acts, which “manifestly consider the several Indian nations as distinct political communities, having territorial boundaries within which their authority is exclusive.” The Court concluded that “the Cherokee nation, then, is a distinct community, occupying its own territory, with boundaries accurately described, in which the laws of Georgia can have no force.” This decision excluded the States from power over Indian affairs.

These three cases—known as the “Marshall Trilogy,” named after Chief Justice John Marshall who wrote the majority opinions—established the so-called plenary power of the U.S. government over Indian tribes. This term has three distinct meanings, according to Lumbee legal scholar David E. Wilkins:

a.) exclusive—Congress, under the Commerce Clause [of the U.S. Constitution] is vested with sole authority to regulate the federal government’s affairs with Indian tribes; b) preemptive—Congress may enact legislation which effectively precludes state government’s acting in Indian related matters; c) unlimited or absolute—this judicially created definition maintains that the federal government has virtually boundless governmental authority and jurisdiction over Indian tribes, their lands, and their resources. (Wilkins, 1997, pp. 373–374).

Lambert came to teach “Tribal Government and Politics” after more than 40 years negotiating contracts with the federal government as a tribal planner, manager of a tribal industry, and director of tribal programs. He has thought deeply and in practical terms about whether his Spirit Lake Tribe fully advocates for itself as a sovereign nation, in accordance with its 1867 treaty, as well as with its status as a federally recognized tribe.


For help researching U.S. treaty violations of Spirit Lake tribal boundaries, Lambert enlisted the aid of his fellow tribal member John Peacock, who lives and teaches Native studies in the Washington, D.C. area, and thus has access to Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) records at the National Archives. Even more important than their research collaboration has been their attempt to help each other convey to their own and each other’s students what it means to be both an American citizen and a Spirit Lake Dakota in the 21st century. Twice Lambert has invited Peacock to CCCC to talk about living and working off-reservation. And twice Peacock has invited Lambert to the Maryland Institute College of Art to talk to his Native studies students. A common question in these exchanges was how Dakota ikceya wicasta (common people) strike a balance between being members of a sovereign Dakota nation predicated on oral traditions, and, at the same time, American citizens of a nation of laws promulgated in writing.

Lambert has long believed in a curriculum that teaches the specific rights and responsibilities of these dual identities. He and Peacock began their long-distance writing partnership with a successful Bush Foundation planning grant to fund a curriculum replacing stereotypes of Indian dependency and victimhood with one emphasizing the 1867 treaty and Dakota oral culture as twin pillars of sovereignty and survival.

Not just an academic concept, dual citizenship is the political means by which Lambert advocates increased funding for Native education. In 1992, as president of the tribe’s school board, he proposed that as American citizens tribal members were eligible for North Dakota public school funding (as citizens of a federally recognized tribe they already received BIA school funding). The tribal council rejected Lambert’s proposal to request North Dakota state school funding of over $1 million annually, even though the tribal attorney advised that acceptance of the funds in no way jeopardized the tribe’s sovereignty. Lambert shared his proposal with school leaders from North Dakota’s Three Affiliated and Turtle Mountain Tribes, which adopted it and today receive dual funding for their children as both citizens of North Dakota and as tribal members.

Lambert tried to use dual citizenship to advocate not just for increased school funding, but also for increased tribal health care. In 1994 and 1995, he was director of Spirit Lake’s tribal social services, whose programs were funded through the BIA at 60% of the tribe’s need. To help fund the rest, Lambert organized a meeting with the Turtle Mountain and Three Affiliated Tribes social services directors. They put together a targeted case management plan to get Medicaid funds for Indian children. This time, the State of North Dakota argued that the proposal constituted “double dipping.”

A third way that Lambert tried to leverage tribal sovereignty was as a contract negotiator for the tribe’s business corporation. In 1992, the same year he was school board president but before he became Spirit Lake’s social services director, Lambert negotiated an $11 million sales contract with the country of Singapore. When the tribe’s general manager, who was non-Indian, learned that Lambert had negotiated for the tribe as a sovereign nation rather than as American citizens, Lambert was terminated. The tribe learned the contract was legal three months later, but by that time the contract had fallen through.

The above three experiences demonstrate that resistance to the dual citizen concept can come from inside, as well as outside, the tribe. In his article, “Practicing Sovereignty,” Lambert spelled out the future promise and the historical failure of the tribe to use its sovereignty to access resources:

The concept of a sovereign government is that the tribe has the power and authority to govern and make laws in order to become self-sufficient. Our Tribe has the power through our federally recognized treaty status to become a sovereign government (nation). Our great ancestors used their sovereignty to be self-sufficient people. Today, everyone in the tribe is on different agendas, pulling ourselves apart. When something bad happens to us or to our tribal organizations, we [assign] blame…and…pick sides rather than trying to find ‘the problem’ and fix it (Lambert, 1997, p. 4).


Lambert turned from administering tribal programs to tribal college teaching because he believes the best hope for change lies in educating a new generation of tribal leaders with a truly international perspective. As a step in this direction, Lambert and Peacock published a paper entitled, “Education Reform and the Spirit Lake Dakota Nation” in the proceedings of the International Conference on Education Reform and Management Innovation, held December 4-5, 2012, in Shenzhen, China.

Why publish in China, one of the fastest-growing commercial zones of an emerging superpower that still has hundreds of millions of people living in rural poverty? “Americanization is sweeping the globe, especially in the Pacific Rim,” Lambert and Peacock explain. At Spirit Lake, “We, too, have our Kentucky Fried, our McDonald’s, our Coca Cola, and now our Apple computers, iPods, and iPads…As dual citizens both of an established superpower and of a sovereign tribal nation…we hope to begin a dialogue and relationship as education and management reformers with any nation that finds common ground with us” (pp. 154, 153).

In an effort to find common ground with other nations, Lambert and Peacock’s paper shared some of the same tribal history that Lambert teaches in order to explain why “our tribe is still not receiving the necessary provision for health and education guaranteed by 19th-century treaties [that] we agreed to when we gave up so much of our land” (p. 153): In 1871, the U.S. Congress unilaterally added a rider to its annual Indian Appropriations Act, declaring that the U.S. would make no further treaties with tribes. Though the rider was not supposed to affect treaties that had already been made, in fact the U.S. has violated the terms of many of those treaties. Lambert and Peacock explain:

Indian agents and other U.S. officials began to treat us, not as an ally nation, but like immigrants to be assimilated. Instead of appropriating funds to enable us to rebuild our oral civilization, Congress began appropriating funds for multi-million dollar bureaucracies such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Services, whose largess trickled down to our people in welfare type programs structured to make us dependent on those institutions to survive. Thus we were taught to be Americans. Being Dakota by any conceivable indigenous criteria – religious, linguistic, or cultural – was outlawed. We had become a colonized people. (Lambert and Peacock, 2013, p. 155).

Lambert and Peacock then move on to the question of what is to be done. Though it is important to “advocate for ourselves in huge federal bureaucracies,” the tribe is not content to ask for hand-outs, but has built its tribal college to “provide vocational and technical training, so that our students can succeed professionally.” CCCC is not just an institution for assimilating young people, however. It transmits traditional language and culture so that “our students…can learn to regain self-esteem” as tribal citizens, and can learn to “communicate as citizens of tribal nations founded on oral traditions and not just as American citizens who can read and write.” CCCC has now established a Dakota Studies department, which has developed and implemented an oral curriculum “to re-teach…the philosophy ingrained in the oral traditions our ancestors lived by”Lambert and Peacock, 2013,

Even when culturally empowered youth learn vocational skills at our tribal colleges, they often cannot find tribal jobs. Those who transition from the college to mainstream American universities often do not return to permanently reside on the reservation for lack of professional career opportunities there. Nevertheless, these young people do retain ties to family and culture. Many spend their lives moving back and forth between reservation and city, sometimes taking their children with them, sometimes leaving them with grandparents and sending money home.

Realizing that this kind of postmodern migrant life is the ultimate common ground tribal members share with many other postcolonial peoples, especially in Asia, Lambert and Peacock describe ongoing efforts to reform tribal education and information technology infrastructures so that tribal members don’t necessarily have to live, work, and go to school all in the same place. They can live on the reservation and telecommute to work off the reservation. They can stay at home and earn online degrees from educational institutions located far away. Alternatively, they can live off the reservation and take online Dakota language or culture classes.

Finally, Lambert and Peacock sought common ground with other nations at the conference on another important contemporary issue—sustaining the natural and human environment, including endangered species, languages, cultures, and the earth itself. Throughout the Spirit Lake reservation, tribal members monitor waters, the health of wetlands, solid waste sites, asbestos and lead abatement, air quality, and other environmental issues. They build greenhouses out of straw bales; they harness wind and solar power. When tribal students integrate their collective identity in the mutually reinforcing terms of their treaty rights and oral civilization, they learn that the only way to survive rampant consumerism, global war, and ecological destruction is to recognize that the land and all living things do not belong to them or any other people to develop and exploit. On the contrary, we all belong to the Creator. Creatures such as the buffalo and horse, upon whom the Spirit Lake people traditionally depended for their livelihood, are, in the concluding words of their every prayer, Mitakuya Owas: all our relatives.


Several months after “Education Reform and the Spirit Lake Dakota Nation” was published in 2013, President Barack Obama, who has historically sought common ground with developing-world nations, criticized America’s past treatment of Native Americans in his October 31, 2013 proclamation of National Native American Month:

As we observe this month, we must not ignore the painful history Native Americans have endured— a history of violence, marginalization, broken promises, and upended justice. There was a time when Native languages and religions were banned as part of a forced assimilation policy that attacked the political, social, and cultural identities of Native Americans in the United States. Through generations of struggle, American Indians and Alaska Natives held fast to their traditions, and eventually the United States Government repudiated its destructive policies and began to turn the page on a troubled past.

The President noted that in March 2013, he signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which recognizes the power of tribal courts to convict and sentence certain perpetrators of domestic violence on reservations, regardless of whether or not they are Native. This was an important development, as past Supreme Court rulings had curtailed tribal law enforcement authority over non-Indians committing certain crimes on Indian lands. The President further noted that he had strengthened nation-to-nation relations between the U.S. and federally recognized tribes.

Lambert forwarded the proclamation to his students. He asked his “Dakota Thought and Philosophy” class to study the proclamation and suggest ways to build on this work and shape a future worthy of a bright new generation. Students, in turn, suggested a negotiated return to the original boundaries of the Spirit Lake and Sisseton Wahpeton reservations, as stipulated in the 1867 treaty, and a return of all the land in between the two reservations that had been taken and developed in violation of the treaty.

Lambert’s next assignment for the class was to submit these recommendations to the tribal council to be passed as a resolution and forwarded to President Obama for nation-to-nation negotiation. Thus, CCCC students are not just learning about sovereignty. As future tribal leaders, they are beginning to practice it.


Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. 30 U.S. 1. U.S. Supreme Court. (1831).

Johnson v. McIntosh. 21 U.S. 513. U.S. Supreme Court (1823).

Lambert, V. (1997, February 27). Practicing sovereignty. Devils Lake Journal 96(62),p. 4.

Lambert V., & Peacock, J. (2013). Education reform and the Spirit Lake Dakota nation. In T. Chang (Ed.), Proceedings of the 2012 International Conference on Education Reform and Management Innovation, Shenzhen, China, 4-5 December 2012 (2), pp. 153–158. Newark, DE: Information Engineering Research Institute.

Wilkins, D. (1997). American Indian Sovereignty and the U.S. Supreme Court: The Masking of Justice. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Worcester v. Georgia. 31 U.S. 515. U.S. Supreme Court (1832).

Vernon Lambert, M.Ed., is an instructor of Dakota studies at Cankdeska Cikana Community College in Fort Totten, North Dakota. John Peacock, Ph.D., is professor of Native American Studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland. Both are enrolled members of the Spirit Lake Dakota Nation, a 7,000-member tribe located on 400 square miles in north-central North Dakota.

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