Monday, 19 March 2012

The Meaning of “Sovereignty” for Indigenous Peoples in the United States.

The relationship that the United States government has with the indigenous peoples within its borders is complex to say the least. Indigenous groups are recognised as having at least some rights as sovereign nations—but these groups are “the forgotten sovereigns” as Tonya Kowalski compelling writes about.

The United States government retains the power to bestow recognition of this sovereign status upon indigenous groups in the form of granting them federal recognition. There are over five hundred federally recognised “Indian tribes”, and also many indigenous groups that exist but nevertheless do not meet the established criteria for federal recognition. Some groups have state recognition even if there is no federal recognition, and other groups are in the lengthy process of applying for federal recognition. Other groups once had federal recognition and lost it. All of this begs the question of how a group attains or retains sovereignty—and under what legal doctrines the United States is empowered to decide if a group is sovereign, especially in the post UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples era. But that is a discussion for another day. What is important is what it means to have this sovereign status—and this is something that is predicted to be put to the test by the Hualapai nation.

The sovereign status that indigenous groups have in the US has given them some unique positioning. Near my hometown, the indigenous nations lands are home to several petrol stations where the price is cheaper—federal tax on petrol is not charged on the indigenous tribal lands. Many indigenous groups notably have set up casinos—again federal or state restrictions on gambling enterprises did not strictly apply on indigenous lands, enabling the establishment of casinos. Casinos might be the only contact non-indigenous Americans have with indigenous groups. Many Americans are unaware that indigenous peoples are in fact still alive and did not all get killed or die out or-- simply somehow get absorbed into the general population of the US (although that was certainly the plan of the US government for many years as it ruthlessly pursued a policy of forced assimilation).

So the actions of the Hualapai nation may take many people by surprise—not in the least because many Americans will simply not know that they are there. And that beyond “being there” they are a nation with sovereign rights that are being put to the test as the nation exercises its sovereign right of eminent domain—eminent domain being a governmental power to seize land to be held in its own name and in its own right. As reported by MSNBC, The Hualapai nation has exercised this right over a tourist attraction of a walkway in the Grand Canyon. According to the MSNBC news story, “the tribe passed an ordinance last year creating a legal path to effectively cancel the developer's contract through the sovereign right of eminent domain.”

Just how far sovereign rights extend over an indigenous nation’s lands—and what it means to be sovereign—are very important issues. Is “sovereignty” something more than window-dressing? Does it have real power and meaning, or is it somehow watered down when it comes to indigenous peoples and their lands? Especially in light of the human blockade of trucks carrying tar sands pipeline parts on the Lakota Nations land and the ensuing arrests—questions abound about who has what rights on indigenous lands—and who is going to decide. Is this a matter for indigenous jurisdiction or United States domestic (federal or state) jurisdiction? If there is a dispute, who decides?

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