Department of Justice Releases Second Report to Congress on Indian Country Investigations and Prosecutions

By Yuma News Now

Washington, DC – The Department of Justice released today its second report to Congress entitled Indian Country Investigations and Prosecutions, which provides a range of enforcement statistics required under the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, as well as information about the progress of the Attorney General’s initiatives to reduce violent crime and strengthen tribal justice systems.

The report, based on data compiled from the case management system used by U.S. Attorney’s Offices (USAO), shows prosecutors in 2013 continued to bring substantial numbers of cases to federal court (a 34 percent increase over FY 2009 numbers) and prosecute a substantial majority of all cases referred to them.   Of the cases that were declined for federal prosecution, most were declined for insufficient evidence or because they were referred to another prosecuting authority, such as the tribe, for potential prosecution.

“As detailed in this report, the Department of Justice is making good on our commitment to strengthen cooperation with sovereign tribes, reduce violent crime, and ensure justice for every individual,” said Attorney General Eric Holder.  “From our work to empower Indian women under the landmark Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, to the task force we established to safeguard children in Indian country from violence and abuse, we have made significant strides – in close partnership with tribal nations – to bolster the safety and security of all American Indian and Alaska Native communities.   As we move forward, we will continue to expand on this critical work; to deepen our ongoing efforts; and to reaffirm our dedication to the promise of equal rights, equal protection, and equal justice for all.”

Although declination rates are an imperfect means of evaluating the effectiveness of criminal justice in Indian country or elsewhere, the report shows that with few exceptions, areas where the largest populations of American Indian people live and suffer from the most serious crime rates, such as the Southwest and the northern plains states (which together handled approximately 70 percent of the 2,542 cases resolved in 2013), federal declination rates were the lowest in the nation.   For instance, South Dakota had the second to highest number of cases resolved in the country last year, 470 cases, and one of the lowest declination rates of 26 percent.   Arizona resolved the highest number of cases, 733 cases, and had a declination rate of 28 percent.

Associate Attorney General Tony West announced the findings in remarks to the Four Corners Indian Country Conference today on the Navajo Nation in Flagstaff, and met separately with the Attorney General’s advisory subcommittee on Native American issues to discuss the report, among other matters.

“We are witnessing an unprecedented era of collaboration among U.S. Attorneys’ offices and tribal law enforcement and prosecutors across the country,” said Associate Attorney General West.   “This report shows the fruits of this continuing partnership between the federal government and American Indian tribes, including enhancing training and capacity building for tribal court systems and improving responses to victims in Indian country.”

“Over the past five years, the Justice Department and our tribal partners have taken important steps forward on our journey toward a safer Indian Country,” said Timothy Purdon, U.S. Attorney for the District of North Dakota and chair of the Attorney General’s advisory subcommittee on Native American issues.   “Vigorous enforcement of federal laws is vitally important to strengthening public safety on American Indian reservations.   We are pleased to see in this report that U.S. Attorney’s Offices across the country continue to work hard to remove the most dangerous offenders and work closely with tribal law enforcement and prosecutors.  These promising numbers are the direct result of this enhanced communication and collaboration.”

“The FBI continues to be committed to public safety in Indian Country,” said FBI Assistant Director Joseph S. Campbell. “Our partnership with federal, state, local, and tribal agencies remains strong as we continue to aggressively address violent crime and victimization in tribal communities.”

The information contained in the report shows the following:

  • The Justice Department’s prioritization of Indian country crime has continued to result in substantial numbers of prosecutions, despite resource constraints that impacted the U.S. Attorney community in 2013.   Between FY 2009 and FY 2012, the number of cases the department filed against defendants in Indian country increased nearly 54 percent.   In FY 2013, due to fiscal challenges, overall case filings in Indian country declined somewhat compared to FY 2012, but still remained 34 percent above the number of cases filed when the department first began its department-wide tribal justice initiative in 2009.   Notwithstanding the fiscal impact of the sequester, reduced budgets, and a hiring freeze, federal agents and prosecutors continued to focus their efforts on improving public safety in Indian country.
  • A substantial majority of Indian country criminal investigations opened by the FBI were referred for prosecution.
  • A substantial majority of Indian country criminal cases opened by the United States Attorneys’ Offices were prosecuted.
  • USAO data for CY 2013 show that 34 percent (853) of all Indian country submissions for prosecution (2,542) were declined for prosecution.   In CY 2012, USAOs declined approximately 31 percent (965) of all (3145) Indian country submissions for prosecution.   USAO data for CY 2011 indicate that just under 37 percent (1,041) of all Indian country submissions for prosecution (2,840) were declined.
  • The most common reason for declination by USAOs was insufficient evidence (56 percent in CY 2013, 52 percent in CY 2012, and 61 percent in CY 2011).
  • The next most common reason for declination by USAOs was referral to another prosecuting authority (21 percent in CY 2013, 24 percent in CY 2012, and 19 percent in CY 2011).

The most common reason FBI Indian country investigations were closed administratively without referral for prosecution was that the investigation concluded that no federal crime had occurred.

  • For instance, all but 30 of the 164 death investigations the FBI closed administratively in CY 2013 were closed because the FBI established that the death was due to causes other than homicide – i.e., accidents, suicide, or death from natural causes.

Other important developments in FY 2013:

VAWA Pilot Projects

The fight against domestic violence in Indian country has been an especially important priority for the Department of Justice, and in 2013, Congress and this administration took an historic step forward with the passage of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (VAWA 2013), which the President signed into law on March 7, 2013.

Congress, in VAWA 2013, provided new tools to fight domestic violence in Indian country, and the department spared no time utilizing them.   From the date the act took effect, March 7, 2013, through the end of fiscal year 2013, U.S. Attorneys with prosecutorial responsibilities in Indian country have charged defendants with the amended provisions of the federal assault statutes that strengthened penalties for domestic assault offenses, such as strangulation and stalking.   And, while the new law’s tribal criminal jurisdiction provision takes effect generally on March 7, 2015, under VAWA 2013’s “Pilot Project” provisions, the department recently approved three tribes’ applications voluntary “Pilot Project” to begin exercising special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction sooner.   These tribes – the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona, the Umatilla Tribes of Oregon, and the Tulalip Tribes of Washington – will be the first tribes in the nation to exercise special criminal jurisdiction over crimes of domestic and dating violence, regardless of the defendant’s Indian or non-Indian status, under VAWA 2013.

Strengthening Partnerships and Support for Tribal Self-Governance

Strengthening partnerships and tribal self-governance was a major theme of the Attorney General’s message to tribal leaders on Nov.13, 2013, at the White House Tribal Nations Conference, where he announced a proposed statement of principles   to guide the department’s work with federally recognized tribes.   As the Attorney General said, “ As a result of these partnerships – and the efforts of everyone here – our nation is poised to open a new era in our government-to-government relationships with sovereign tribes.”

U.S. Attorneys’ offices around the country are engaged in an unprecedented level of collaboration with tribal law enforcement, consulting regularly with them on crime-fighting strategies in each district.   One important example of this is the department’s enhanced Tribal Special Assistant U.S. Attorney (SAUSA) program.   Tribal SAUSAs are cross-deputized tribal prosecutors who are able to prosecute crimes in both tribal court and federal court as appropriate.   These Tribal SAUSAs serve to strengthen a tribal government’s ability to fight crime and to increase the USAO’s coordination with tribal law enforcement personnel.   The work of Tribal SAUSAs can also help to accelerate a tribal criminal justice system’s implementation of TLOA and VAWA 2013.

Read the entire report at

Read about the Justice Department’s efforts to increase public safety in Indian County at

ESPN’s Mike Ditka ‘Admires’ Snyder; Calls Redskins Opponents ‘Idiots’

Mike DitkaAssociated Press

Mike Ditka
Associated Press


Simon Moya-Smith, Indian Country Today


ESPN analyst and former Chicago Bears head coach Mike Ditka isn’t falling in line with the growing number of sportscasters, journalists and sundry public figures who refuse to use the name of the Washington NFL team. Instead, he says people who oppose the team’s name are “asinine.”

“What’s all the stink over the Redskin name?” Ditka said during an interview with Mike Richman of “It’s so much [expletive], it’s incredible. We’re going to let the liberals of the world run this world. It was said out of reverence, out of pride to the American Indian. Even though it was called a Redskin, what are you going to call them, a Proudskin? This is so stupid it’s appalling, and I hope that owner keeps fighting for it and never changes it, because the Redskins are part of an American football history, and it should never be anything but the Washington Redskins. That’s the way it is

“It’s been the name of the team since the beginning of football,” Ditka added. “It has nothing to do with something that happened lately, or something that somebody dreamed up. This was the name, period. Leave it alone. These people are silly — asinine, actually, in my opinion.”

RELATED: 67 Percent of Native Americans Say ‘Redskins’ Is Offensive

Ditka continued to berate all those who oppose the name – a group that includes high-ranking individuals like Hillary Clinton, Keith Olbermann and former Washington player Champ Bailey.

“It’s all the political correct idiots in America, that’s all it is,” Ditka said. “It’s got nothing to do with anything else. We’re going to change something because we can. Hey listen, I went through it in the 60s, too. I mean, come on. Everybody lined up, did this. It’s fine to protest. That’s your right, if you don’t like it, protest. You have a right to do that, but to change the name, that’s ridiculous. Change the Constitution — we’ve got people trying to do that, too, and they’re doing a pretty good job.”

CBS Sportscaster Phil Simms, who will call Thursday Night Football games beginning September 11, said Monday that he is hesitant to use the name of the Washington team and is sensitive to the complaints about the name. “My very first thought is it will be Washington the whole game,” Simms told The Associated Press.

RELATED: 10 ‘I’m so Redskins’ Tweets that Explain Why Is so Wrong

Simms said he is not taking sides in the contentious debate, but that once he thought about the name his conscience kicked in. “I never really thought about it, and then it came up and it made me think about it,” Simms added. “There are a lot of things that can come up in a broadcast, and I am sensitive to this.”



Tulalip Health Watch’s “Diabetes” examines the disease and preventions

By Mike Sarich, Tulalip News



According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Indian Health Service, Native Americans are at a 2.2 times higher risk for diabetes than their non-Indian counterparts. Between 1994 and 2004 there was a 68 percent increase in diabetes diagnosis in American Indian and Alaska Native youth, aged 15-19 years old.

Tulalip Health Watch’s “Diabetes” examines what diabetes is, how it is diagnosed, and what your part is in preventing this disease, which has taken Indian country with epidemic proportions. Medical professionals from Tulalip Karen I. Fryberg Health Clinic provide information on testing, treatment, and prevention. Also, a tribal elder defines how diabetes has affected his life, and how he is proactive in the treatment of the disease.

Starting Monday, August 11th on Tulalip TV Channel 99, and streaming on


Report: Pedestrian Deaths Disproportionately Affect Native Americans In Wash. State


Bill Kramme Flickr

By Rae Ellen Bichell, KPLU

Listen to report


Pedestrians of American Indian descent at are at higher risk of death in Washington state, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Complete Streets Coalition, a branch of Smart Growth America.

Washington placed 36th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia in a ranking of the most dangerous states to the least dangerous based on the Pedestrian Danger Index, a combined measure of total pedestrian deaths, annual pedestrian deaths and the percentage of people commuting by foot over the past five to eight years. The Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area ranked 49th out of 51 large metro areas.

But for Washingtonians of American Indian descent, the statistics aren’t as reassuring. Nationwide, Native Americans  have higher rates of fatal traffic accidents than other ethnicities. But that difference is particularly notable in Washington state where all other ethnic groups’ fatality rates are consistently lower than national averages.

Credit Rae Ellen Bichell

Credit Rae Ellen Bichell

‘The Gap, Unfortunately, Is Widening’ 

The Washington Traffic Safety Commission doesn’t plot pedestrian deaths against ethnicity, although it does publish statistics on factors like age and gender. A report on factors in Washington pedestrian fatalities from 2008 to 2012 acknowledges that “Native Americans are disproportionately killed in pedestrian crashes, representing 8.4 percent of pedestrian deaths but less than 2 percent of the total population.”

“The gap, unfortunately, is widening,” said MJ Haught, a program manager and tribal liaison for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. Over the course of the past few decades, Haught said, the rate of Native American fatalities went from about 2.4 times that of the general population to 3.3. And in 2013, she said, “the data told us that Native American fatalities are 3.9 times higher than the general population. This is obviously not the way we want to go.”

Unlike Other Groups, Native Americans More At Risk On Rural Roads

Both statewide and nationwide, most pedestrian deaths occur in the more populated urban areas. But according to state data, more Native Americans were killed in crashes on rural roads than on urban ones, opposite the pattern seen with pedestrians of all other ethnicities.

Why? There’s no easy answer, but here are a few factors to consider.

Washington state has 29 federally-recognized American Indian tribes. Alaska, California and Oklahoma are the only other states with more tribes within their borders. According to 2010 U.S. Census data, only six states have American Indian and Alaska Native populations greater than that in Washington.

Each reservation is its own sovereign nation with its own laws, which means roads and signs are built and distributed differently. In rural areas, on tribal lands or off, there aren’t always sidewalks, and not all roads are well-lit.

According to the Center for Disease Control and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Americans of Native American and Alaska Native descent tend to be at higher risk of car injuries overall, not just as pedestrians. Some tribes don’t have seat belt laws.

“If you drill down, a huge factor is unbelted fatalities,” said Haught. “The unbelted fatality rate for native Americans is 7.2 times higher for Native Americans in Washington.”

Alcoholism is often cited as a contributing factor. But intoxication, particularly intoxicated pedestrians, is a contributing factor across the board and is not limited to one ethnicity.

Fatality Rate Likely Underreported

Even with the comparatively high rate of Native American pedestrian deaths reported, we may not be getting the full picture. Because each reservation is a sovereign nation, not every tribe shares data with the state, and the data that is available is conservative.

“The rates for fatalities are coming in with death certificates. We’re pretty good at getting all the reports that happen on Washington land, but not necessarily the reports from reservation land. That varies very much by the tribe and the reservation,” said Haught. “We are confident that the traffic deaths are underreported, so it’s an even worse problem than we realized.”

Thomas Holsworth is commander with the Colville Tribal Police Department in Nespelem, in northwest Washington. The reservation covers 1.4 million acres and, as in many rural areas, most of the roadways that crisscross it are narrow, windy country roads without sidewalks.

“The pedestrian walkways are basically the dirt shoulders of the roadways,” says Holsworth. “But I think a lot of it is, they just tend to walk more, sometimes out of necessity, because … they may not own an operable vehicle. There are others that just like to get out and walk, and there’s not a whole lot of safe places to do that.”

The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation have gone to great lengths to try to reduce traffic-related deaths on tribal lands, assimilating state traffic codes into their tribal code and launching multiple highway safety programs. Funded by a state grant, the tribes ran a public education campaign to increase awareness about using seat belts, driving under the influence, and launched projects to identify problem roads and walking paths.

In the last five years, Holsworth says, there has only been one pedestrian fatality.

American Indian and Alaska Native death rates nearly 50 percent greater than those of non-Hispanic whites

A patient gets more information about a colonoscopy from his provider at the Alaska Native Medical Center.Photo is courtesy of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

A patient gets more information about a colonoscopy from his provider at the Alaska Native Medical Center.
Photo is courtesy of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.


Source: CDC Media Relations, April 22, 2014


Death records show that American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) death rates for both men and women combined were nearly 50 percent greater than rates among non-Hispanic whites during 1999-2009. The new findings were announced through a series of CDC reports released online today by the American Journal of Public Health.
Correct reporting of AI/AN death rates has been a persistent challenge for public health experts. Previous studies showed that nearly 30 percent of AI/AN persons who identify themselves as AI/AN when living are classified as another race at the time of death.
“Accurate classification of race and ethnicity is extremely important to addressing the public health challenges in our nation, said Ursula Bauer, Ph.D., M.P.H., director of CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.  “We must use this new information to implement interventions and create changes that will reduce and eliminate the persistent inequalities in health status and health care among American Indians and Alaska Natives.”
CDC’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control led the project and collaborated with CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics and other CDC researchers, the Indian Health Service, partners from tribal groups, universities, and state health departments.
Key findings:
·       Among AI/AN people, cancer is the leading cause of death followed by heart disease. Among other races, it is the opposite.
·       Death rates from lung cancer have shown little improvement in AI/AN populations. AI/AN people have the highest prevalence of tobacco use of any population in the United States.
·       Deaths from injuries were higher among AI/AN people compared to non-Hispanic whites.
·       Suicide rates were nearly 50 percent higher for AI/AN people compared to non-Hispanic whites, and more frequent among AI/AN males and persons younger than age 25.
·       Death rates from motor vehicle crashes, poisoning, and falls were two times higher among AI/AN people than for non-Hispanic whites. 
·       Death rates were higher among AI/AN infants compared to non-Hispanic whites infants. Sudden infant death syndrome and unintentional injuries were more common.  AI/AN infants were four times more likely to die from pneumonia and influenza.
·       By region, the greatest death rates were in the Northern Plains and Southern Plains. The lowest death rates were in the East and the Southwest.
“The new detailed examination of death records offers the most accurate and current information available on deaths among the American Indian and Alaska Native populations,” said David Espey, M.D., acting director of CDC’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control. “Now, we can better characterize and track the health status of these populations – a critical step to address health disparities.” 
The studies address race misclassification in two ways. First, the authors linked U.S. National Death Index records with Indian Health Services registration records to more accurately identify the race of AI/AN people who had died. Second, the authors focused their analyses on the Indian Health Services’ Contract Health Service Delivery Area counties (CHSDA) where about 64 percent of AI/AN persons live. Fewer race misclassification errors occur in CHSDA data than in death records.
The authors reviewed trends from 1990 through 2009, and compared death rates between AI/AN people and non-Hispanic whites by geographic regions for a more recent time period (1999-2009).
The report concludes that patterns of mortality are strongly influenced by the high incidence of diabetes, smoking prevalence, problem drinking, and health-harming social determinants. Many of the observed excess deaths can be addressed through evidence-based public health interventions.
“The Indian Health Service is grateful for this important research and encouraged about its potential to help guide efforts to improve health and wellness among American Indians and Alaska Natives,” said Yvette Roubideaux, M.D., M.P.H, acting IHS director.  “Having more accurate data along with our understanding of the contributing social factors can lead to more aggressive public health interventions that we know can make a difference.”
For more information, the articles from the report will be in the AJPH “First Look” early online section at 4:00 pm EST today.  Visit:
For information on CDC’s efforts in cancer prevention and control, visit
The Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as the health care law, was created to expand access to coverage, control health care costs, and improve health care quality and coordination. The ACA also includes permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which extends current law and authorizes new programs and services within the Indian Health Service. Visit or call 1-800-318-2596 (TTY/TDD 1-855-889-4325) to learn more.

DOJ’s ‘Operation Choke Point’ Infringes on Tribal Trust

By Barry Brandon, American Banker

Tribal sovereignty is the most valuable of all American Indian assets. Tribal governments’ inherent rights of self-government and self-determination are the foundation of tribal communities and tribal identity.

Tribal governments have worked hard to strengthen our partnerships with the federal government through self-determined economic development and the co-creation of new institutions, including the National Indian Gaming Commission, housed within the Department of Interior.

The relationship between tribal governments and the federal government goes beyond the DOI, however, to include Congress and the White House, which has a long-running formal policy of consultation with tribal governments. These complex and interdependent relationships, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, are summarized as the “trust relationship” or even “trust responsibility,” so named because it captures the special fiduciary responsibility by the federal government towards tribes.

Recently, however, the relationship between some tribal governments and a particular division of the federal government, located in the Department of Justice, has been severely damaged by an internal campaign known within the DOJ as “Operation Choke Point.”

This behind-the-scenes attempt to shut down legal tribal businesses has disrupted our long-held tribal-federal partnership. It represents a total departure from more than a century of respect for, and engagement with, tribal governments as partners and co-regulators on issues ranging from law enforcement to economic development to education.

At issue in the short term are the legal, licensed and regulated e-commerce lending services that many tribes have established. What is at stake, however, is the long-term viability of the trust relationship itself.

In other economic ventures such as gaming, tribal governments have found strong opposition from state governments who see us as a competitor or, worse yet, as a willful violator of state regulations. It thus disturbs tribal governments that, in the case of legal online lending, the DOJ – our supposed federal partner – continues to attack and undermine our legal businesses.

As a member of the “federal family,” the DOJ has a mandate to exercise their trust responsibility to tribal governments. They have a responsibility to do this in a way that protects tribal businesses engaging in honest business practices, as ours do.

Like gaming enterprises operated by tribal governments, our online lending businesses are legally owned, operated and regulated under tribal regulatory authority. They are created pursuant to tribal law and our authority to create them is acknowledged in the Dodd-Frank Act. As with gaming, we have created partnerships with the federal government and federal regulatory bodies to ensure that consumers across the country have access to the services they need in a way that also drives economic growth on reservations.

Thus, we support and echo the concerns of House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, as reported in American Banker, that the Justice Department’s dragnet does appear to be an effort to stomp out all short-term lending, including legal tribal government-owned enterprises.

In light of the fact that the Dodd-Frank Act treats tribes as states in the context of financial services, tribal governments have created the Native American Financial Services Association to collectively establish a model for self-regulation, and we have sought meaningful consultation with federal regulatory bodies to strengthen and operationalize our relationship as co-regulators.

In an election year, however, the successful negotiation of a co-regulatory environment is not deemed as newsworthy as “choking off” legal tribal businesses. It is this abandonment of the federal-tribal trust relationship that has allowed “Operation Choke Point” to run amok and allowed legislators to blindly prop it up.

In the wake of this abandonment, rather than focusing on the true bad actors in the industry, “Operation Choke Point” is having the opposite effect. As the DOJ’s blanket actions continue to choke the illegal businesses, they also drown the legal ones, like ours, leaving consumers further underserved and tribal communities further isolated. At NAFSA, we will continue fighting to strengthen our tribal laws and regulations, work with our federal partners and educate state governments about our legal right to offer these businesses.

We can only hope that the DOJ, as a member of the “federal family,” will abide by their obligation to consult with us before taking unilateral actions, especially those that do not consider our special “trust” relationship and damage the fragile economic strides we are seeking on isolated reservation lands.

Professor Breaks Down Sovereignty and Explains its Significance

Shaawano Chad Uran, Indian Country Today Media Network
Sovereignty is one of those terms we toss around without much thought. It is an important word within contemporary American Indian discussions. The term itself draws from legal, cultural, political, and historical traditions, and these traditions are connected to both European as well as Indigenous philosophies in complicated ways. A shared understanding of the term would be helpful to both local people working on their own issues, and working with surrounding communities.  Rather than defining sovereignty as a term, what I hope to do here is acknowledge aspects of sovereignty that have become sticking points as Indigenous people assert their own self-determination. I won’t go into Indigenous philosophies about sovereignty because it’s probably none of your business.

Sovereignty is a type of political power, and it is exercised through some form of government. For the sake of simplicity, I will focus on the United States and its treaty federalism.  In the US, there are basically three types of sovereigns:

–The US Federal Government

–Each of the 50 State governments

–Tribal governments

The US Federal government is sometimes called the supreme sovereign of the United States. Its powers are defined and limited by the US Constitution. It represents the largest focus of political, economic, and legal power, and has some (but not absolute) power over other sovereigns within the US.  As a constitutional democracy, its power is supposed to come from the People—its citizens.

The State governments derive much of their sovereign power from the US Federal government. The US Constitution explicitly grants States residual powers—those powers that are not explicitly given to the Federal government. The Tenth Amendment to the US Constitution reads,

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Tribes have sovereignty that is obviously older than the US Constitution. Tribes had their own form of government, and many had legal codes written into their own documents, their own stories, their own practices, and their own memories.  Tribal sovereignty is derived from the people, the land, and their relationships; tribal sovereignty was not a gift from any external government. Tribal sovereignty is not defined in the US Constitution. But anyone at all familiar with the history of US Indian Policy knows that many limitations—as well as possibilities—for tribal sovereignty have been defined over time.

Tribal sovereignty is recognized in the US Constitution.  Article VI, Clause 2 (sometimes called “the supremacy clause”) of the US Constitution says:

“This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.”

This clause is why American Indian treaties are so important to understanding sovereignty. Treaties are agreements made between sovereign entities—usually called nations. The US has signed several hundred treaties with Indigenous nations and other nations around the world. International relations occur through, and are often defined by, international treaties. Therefore, by signing a treaty, both sides are showing that they recognize the sovereignty of the other, and the treaty spells out how each nation will relate to the other as nations.

The relationship between many tribes and the US Federal government is based on treaties. The US Federal government did not have treaties with the individual States. The supremacy clause recognizes that tribal nations and other international laws are just as powerful as the US Constitution itself. This also means that the sovereignty of tribal nations is different—and in many ways higher—than the sovereignty enjoyed by individual States

Tribal sovereignty was immediately (if inconsistently) recognized by Europeans as they explored the hemisphere. Christopher Columbus himself wrapped his descriptions and interactions with “Indians” in the language of nationhood.  This wasn’t progressive or respectful, though.  It was a holdover from the Inquisition and other efforts to destroy and/or exploit nonchristian nations.

We all should know by now that Columbus was genocidal. Despite being a violently domineering slave trader, usurper, and land thief, the fact that he used the language of nationhood gives us a clue that sovereignty does not need to be absolute for it to be real, or legal, or recognized by other nations.

In fact, we can look to the Roman philosopher Cicero to explain how national sovereignty may be recognized despite a very unequal power relationship.  He said:

“Every nation that governs itself, under whatever form, without dependence on any foreign power, is a sovereign state. Nations or states are body politic, societies of men united together for the purpose of promoting their mutual safety and advantage by joint efforts of their combined strength.”

At first, this seems like the usual understanding of sovereignty as meaning absolute power, or at least absolute independence. This is the type of sovereignty celebrated by US patriots, anti-treaty rights activists, the TEA Party, and others who think that “might makes right” is a good idea. However, Cicero continues:

“We ought to include as sovereign states those who have united themselves with another more powerful by an unequal alliance, in which, as Aristotle says, to the more powerful is given more honor, and to the weaker more assistance. Provided the inferior ally reserved to itself the sovereignty, or the right of governing its own body, it ought to be considered as an independent state that keeps up an intercourse with others under the authority of the law of nations.”

The fact that other nations lack power, or may be dependent upon other nations, does not detract from their status as sovereigns. The US Supreme Court once defined tribes as “domestic dependent nations,” but this does not prevent the use of the term, “sovereignty,” to describe tribes. The treaties between tribes and the US Federal government are recognized as being equal to the US Constitution as the supreme law of the land.  Even the ancient philosophies of Europe demand legal, ongoing treaty relations between nations that may be unequal in power.

Thus, absolute power is not necessary for sovereignty to exist. In fact, the US Constitution limits the sovereignty of the US, not only by recognizing the co-supremacy of international treaties, but by delegating some powers to the States.  Most importantly, the US Constitution has recognized that the citizens themselves hold residual powers, or all those powers not granted to the State and Federal governments.

This is similar to a feature of American Indian treaty law, where those powers—those rights—not explicitly given up to the US Federal government are still held by tribes. Here is where we find the inherent sovereignty of tribes, and this is where many tribes have exercised their self-determination in ways like language revitalization, treaty rights, and Indigenous governance.

Absolute independence is also not necessary for sovereignty to exist. After all, how “independent” is the US? Does the US have energy independence? Trade independence? Manufacturing independence? Technological independence? Military independence? Resource independence? Agricultural independence? Economic independence? In many respects the US is dependent upon other nations for these things, but I rarely hear anyone doubt the sovereignty of the US.  While the economic situation for most tribal nations is dire, we have to remember that tribal economies were based on access to land. Lands were ceded to the US by treaty in exchange for tribal economic security and other provisions.  It is ridiculous to blame tribes for economic dependence, when that dependence arose from loss of the very lands that allow Americans to enjoy economic success, especially since holding 97 percent of the land base is still somehow not enough to support the desires of the US: they’re still after our lands and resources.

So what is the defining aspect of sovereignty? It’s not independence. It’s not absolute power. The defining aspects of sovereignty are the international relationships carried out as sovereign nations. Treaties are the most obvious evidence that one nation recognizes or acknowledges the sovereignty of another nation. This is why it is possible to say that the United States, as a nation, was not born in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence, or in 1789 with the establishment of the Constitution. No, the US became a nation with the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Put another way, the US only became a legitimate, recognized nation by entering into a treaty relationship with other recognized sovereign nations.

So next time someone says that Indigenous nations are “only quasi-sovereign” or “only domestic dependent nations,” kindly teach them about law, history, and philosophy. And if that someone is a Governor, tell them they’re just jealous of the inherent superiority of tribes over states.


Shaawano Chad Uran ( Colby)
Shaawano Chad Uran ( Colby)

Shaawano Chad Uran, a member of the White Earth Nation and professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington, received his PhD in Anthropology, concentrating on Ojibwe language revitalization, in 2012 from the University of Iowa. He completed his undergraduate work at the University of Minnesota. Urah has taught at Bowdoin College in Maine, the University of Victoria in British Columbia, The Evergreen State College in Washington, and the University of Washington.

Uran’s research areas are: Indigenous language revitalization, language and identity, American cultural studies, language ideologies, American Indian sovereignty, critical theory, Native American studies, and coloniality. He is also known for applying Indigenous critical theory to zombie films and literature.

He currently lives north of Seattle, Washington.



New Study Discusses Influencers on Indian Education

Arizona State UniversityHayden Lawn on the Tempe, Arizona campus of Arizona State University. ASU is among the universities named as influential by the recent study.

Arizona State University
Hayden Lawn on the Tempe, Arizona campus of Arizona State University. ASU is among the universities named as influential by the recent study.

Source: Indian Country Today Media Network

A new study has put a spotlight on what organizations, universities and people influence American Indian/Alaska Native education the most.

The study, “For Our Children: A Study and Critical Discussion of the Influences on American Indian and Alaska Native Education Policy,” was done by Hollie J. Mackey, University of Oklahoma assistant professor of education, and Linda Sue Warner, special assistant to the president on Indian affairs at Northeastern A&M College in Miami, Oklahoma. Their intent was to “determine and describe the baseline influential studies, organizations, information sources, and people for American Indian/Alaska Native education policy through the lens of indigenous education experts in the field.”

The two studies they found to be most influential were first The Kennedy Report published in 1968 and the Merriam Report of 1928. The study points out how both studies have had an enduring role in Indian education legislation and policy.

“Unfortunately for Indian tribes, these reports, separated by nearly five decades, have similar recommendations. The conclusion would appear that similar problems remain identified and unsolved,” says the study. “The primary similarity between the two is Collier’s intention to promote economic rehabilitation as a means to tribal self-governance.”

John Collier was the Superintendent of Indian Affairs at the time who commissioned the Merriam Report. Congress’s response to the report was the Indian Reorganization Act.

The study found a number of organizations to be influential in Indian education, among them are the National Indian Education Association, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and the National Congress of American Indians. All are non-profits.

“It is interesting to note that neither the Department of Education’s Office of Indian Education Programs or the Bureau of Indian Education, both largely responsible for financing Indian education, were included in participants’ responses as influential organizations,” says the study.

Haskell Indian Nations University was among the universities named as influential by the recent study. (
Haskell Indian Nations University was among the universities named as influential by the recent study. (

The study noted six highly influential universities in Indian education as well: Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona; Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas; Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, The Pennsylvania State University in State College, Pennsylvania; The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.

The study noted a number of influential sources of information for Indian eduction including the Journal of American Indian Education and the Tribal College Journal.

Websites and print media outlets were another source of influence noted by Mackey and Warner. The top websites were,, and Influential media outlets included The Gallup Independent, Heartbeat Alaska, Indian Country Today Media Network, Lakota Times, Navajo Times, and the Washington Post.

There was also a category for influential universities as sources of information. Those included Haskell Indian Nations University, Harvard University, The Pennsilvania State University, Stanford University, The University of California-Los Angeles (American Indian Studies Center), The University of Oklahoma. Federal agencies and offices as sources of information included the Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Education; the Department of Education, Office of Indian Education; Mid-Continent Regional Education Lab; and the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.

Professor John Tippeconnic, Comanche and Cherokee, has been recognized as one of the most influential people in Indian education. (Arizona State University)
Professor John Tippeconnic, Comanche and Cherokee, has been recognized as one of the most influential people in Indian education. (Arizona State University)

A number of influential people were also named in the study including professors, tribal college administrators, K-12 administrators, political figures and federal employees and organization representatives. Some of those names include John Tippconnic, the Comanche and Cherokee director of the American Indian Studies department at Arizona State University, and Dr. Henrietta Mann, the founding president of Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal College. Political figures like former senator Byron Dorgan, who established the Center for Native American Youth at The Aspen Institute.

“This study might begin a critical conversation about the education of American Indian and Alaskan Native students that would not only include them in the broader context of American education, but also provide insight into the people themselves; what they value, who they trust, and what is most influential and important to them in terms of the future of their children,” the study says. “It is our hope that our study will provide educators and scholars alike a snapshot of the state of influence in both policy and practice and will provide a catalyst for researchers beginning their careers.”

Read the full study, here.



HUD Grants $563M To Support Affordable Housing in Native Communities

Indian Country Today Media Network

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) today awarded $563 million to 353 American Indian and Alaskan Native entities that represent 539 tribes across the U.S.  The funds, made available through HUD’s Indian Housing Block Grant  Program, are distributed annually to eligible Indian tribes or their tribally designated housing entities for a broad range of affordable housing activities.

“Hardworking American families in tribal communities should be able to live in communities where they have a fair shot to reach their potential,” HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said in a press release. “The resources provided today will give these tribal communities the tools to maintain quality housing, prevent overcrowding, improve public safety and provide other basic building blocks of security and success.”

Indian Housing Block Grant funds primarily benefit hardworking families living on reservations or in other Native American communities, who don’t have the financial resources to maintain good homes, schools, or other key contributors to economic security. The amount of each grant is based on a formula that considers local needs and housing units under management by the tribe or designated entity.

Indian communities can use the funding for a variety of housing activities, including building affordable housing; providing assistance to existing housing that was developed under the Indian Housing Program authorized by the U.S. Housing Act of 1937; or other activities that create new approaches to provide more affordable housing for Native Americans. The funding is also used to offer housing services to eligible families and individuals; and establish crime prevention and safety measures. The block grant approach to housing was established by the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act of 1996.


Federal Agency Supports UNDRIP: A New Era in Tribal-Federal Relations?

Rob Capriccioso, Indian Country Today Media Network

Native American observers are hoping that the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation’s (ACHP) decision to support the United Nation’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) signals a sea change among federal agencies that will usher in a new relationship with tribes and American Indian citizens beyond the current trust relationship.

The ACHP, an independent federal agency, announced its plan to support UNDRIP in March, saying it wanted to raise awareness about the Declaration – and its goal to improve the treatment of Indigenous Peoples – within the preservation community. The agency also promised to develop guidance on the intersection of the Declaration with the Section 106 process (which requires federal agencies to take into account the impacts of their actions on historic properties, and federal agencies are required to consult with Indian tribes, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiian organizations when historic properties of religious and cultural significance to them may be affected).

While lofty, this was the first step a federal agency has taken to support and take action on UNDRIP since President Barack Obama announced in December 2010 his decision to endorse the principles of the Declaration.

The background here is intriguing, as the decision was announced just as Lynne Sebastian, an anthropologist, was sworn in as President Barack Obama’s choice to fill a vacant seat on the council over tribal objections. She was a controversial choice due to past poor relations with some tribes, and ACHP leadership knew that; at the same meeting she was sworn in this spring, the agency announced its UNDRIP plan, perhaps to appease tribal concerns, according to several Indian affairs observers with concerns in the area of tribal historic preservation.

Milford Wayne Donaldson, chairman of the ACHP, offered his own take on the agency’s intent, telling Indian Country Today Media Network that this move “is a long-term commitment, both to raising awareness about the rights it seeks to protect, and to encouraging federal and Native Hawaiian organizations.” Associates who know Donaldson well say he was sensitive about the Sebastian situation, and he generally likes to foster strong Native relations since his agency works with tribes frequently.

Whatever the intent, the direction is promising, says Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee advocate for Native Americans. “It’s one of those situations where you take the good news and run with it,” she says. “If it’s tied to Lynne Sebastian’s bad actions in the past, fine—and if it signals a new day, then also fine.”

The bigger issue now becomes whether this support will translate into broader adoption of UNDRIP’s principles across the federal government—a goal envisioned by its creators as a way to strengthen Native rights and sovereignty in a way that the current federal-tribal trust relationship has been lacking.

“Now that one federal agency has done it and the republic still stands, I think it will encourage others,” Harjo says with a laugh. “I think it’s very likely.”

Donaldson is also hopeful: “The ACHP indeed believes that other agencies will meaningfully support the Declaration as they become more familiar with it, and as its provisions correspond with their missions and goals. Remember, the ACHP is comprised of members that represent several federal Departments and agencies, as well as key members of the non-federal national historic preservation framework, so our efforts should assist others to become better acquainted with the Declaration and its significance to their work.”

Still, Indians working on real-life preservation issues are not super confident that the support will result in stronger tribal positioning within the ACHP, let alone the whole federal government. “The future escapes us because of the slippery slopes we have to stand on,” says Darrell “Curley” Youpee, a tribal historic preservation officer with the Fort Peck Tribes. “I sought assistance from ACHP regarding what I believed to be violations of my civil and human rights and was told that it was not an area that ACHP involved themselves in and further; they advise me that they could not refer me to another agency because it might bring a lawsuit on the agency. It was pass-the-buck mentality like I never experienced before.”

To date, the ACHP’s support has led to greater promotion of the UNDRIP (through a post on the White House blog, a new web page, and a few newspaper articles), but not much meaningful action, laments Youpee, who says the federal government has a long way to go before real indigenous self-determination and empowerment can be realized.

“[I]t’s now time for them to step up and integrate American Indians into the foundations of freedom, justice and peace by rebuilding policies that nurture American Indian dignity and equal rights in the institutional culture,” says Youpee.