July 5, 2021

Sovereignty and Tribal Governance

Exercising sovereignty is one of the most important efforts for Indigenous peoples across the world. Sovereignty, a word with meanings and implications deeper than is possible to cover in a short article, is typically understood to mean the political, economic, and cultural self-determination of a nation or state. However, as the word’s roots rest upon European conceptions of “nationhood” and “state power,” many Indigenous scholars argue that it carries with it “the horrible stench of colonialism.” Nevertheless, in the book Sovereignty Matters, Joanne Barker argues that sovereignty’s meaning is “historically contingent,” so, despite its Anglo-European origins, to understand sovereignty’s importance, it “must be situated within the historical and cultural relationships in which it is articulated.”

Sovereignty is the authority of an Indigenous nation, often through the form of a government, over its land, people, and the economy in both the present and the future. In sum, sovereignty is an Indigenous community’s inherent right to pursue bright futures for its people by exercising authority over the systems which affect people’s wellbeing. Possibly more importantly, however, is the relationship between the people’s wellbeing and an ethical relationship with the land. As Lisa King writes in Survivance, Sovereignty, and Story, “the people, the culture, and the land take their meanings from each other.” In sum, sovereignty describes an Indigenous peoples’ inherent authority to support the wellbeing of the intertwined relationship between people, the land, and traditional cultural systems.

By detailing specific organizations and efforts by Native peoples throughout the 11 nations in Minnesota, we hope to highlight that tribal sovereignty is not something that needs to be strengthened or improved but is rather inherent and continually exercised.

Tribal Governance

Tribal sovereignty is commonly associated with the operations of Native governments. Although the full scope of sovereignty extends beyond just government activity, tribal governance and economic operation are undoubtedly crucial components of this work. Like any nation, constitutions are what ground a tribe’s governmental operations. Formal written constitutions have not always been the heart of Native governance, but since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, constitutions have been a consistent component of Native nationhood. Although constitutions in these times were originally pushed upon Native peoples across the United States for “civilizing” purposes, many Native nations have used constitutions as important tools to resist colonialism. Through constitutions, tribal nations are able to assert the principles which ground their existence and incorporate them into the various social structures of society. In 2012, White Earth nation ratified a new constitution grounded upon “Native narratives of cultural traditions, totemic associations, resistance, survivance, and versions of governance.” Even more recently, Fond du Lac nation has begun the process of ratifying a new constitution by hosting frequent community input meetings.

Economic Development

Maintenance of the economy is an essential part of exercising sovereignty as a politically and culturally distinct nation. Through economic development, tribal governments fund essential infrastructure and programs which support the wellbeing of their communities. This section takes a look at a few current economic enterprises by Native nations in Minnesota, such as the casino and hemp industries, grocery stores, and food distribution.

Casinos play a big role in these nations’ economies– each of the 11 nations in Minnesota operates one or more casinos. Some of these casinos are well known and draw visitors from across the state and larger region, such as Prairie Island’s Treasure Island Resort and Casino or White Earth’s Shooting Star Casino. Nevertheless, despite stereotypes prevalent in media rhetoric, most nations’ casinos are not spectacularly successful. Because public understandings of Native nations’ relationships to casinos are often framed by stereotypes of excessive wealth or greed, it is important to be clear that casinos are not magnets for rampant crime or tax hikes, but rather legal generators of revenue for both tribal nations and the state economy. In 2016, Native nations in Minnesota operated a total of 40 casinos that generated $1.51 billion in revenue. Not were these casinos essential for supporting the economy of the tribes, but they funneled $516.4 million of taxes into the Minnesota economy. Additionally, as of 2016, casinos were the 14th largest employer in Minnesota, providing jobs to Natives and non-Natives across the state. In sum, casinos generate essential revenue for Native nations in Minnesota and are both products and supporters of tribal sovereignty. Regardless, it is clear casinos are a great benefit to Native and non-Native people across Minnesota.

Another industry towards which many nations in Minnesota are quickly moving is that of hemp. Since the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill legalized the possession, production, and distribution of industrial hemp, tribal nations in Minnesota such as White Earth, Lower Sioux, and Red Lake have made moves to enter the hemp and cannabis market as sellers and producers. Hemp is a growing industry for many reasons. For one, the plant is a carbon sink– it absorbs massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere from its swift growth rates, reducing the harmful impacts of climate change. Additionally, hemp can serve as an environmentally friendly alternative to many materials such as concrete and paper. Because of these many qualities, hemp is an environmental and economic asset.

A movement led by the Anishinaabe Agriculture Institute and Winona LaDuke has started the conversation about “returning to hemp as a critical piece of physical and materials economy and infrastructure.” On the AAI website, the group calls for a “New Green Revolution” which “deconstructs industrial agriculture and rebuilds soil and community.” This group attempts to do this by spreading the word about the many benefits of local hemp farming and supplying seeds to tribes across Minnesota and surrounding regions. This emerging industry holds promise to be not only a substantial generator of revenue for tribes in Minnesota but also a way to nourish the environment.

Land Rights

Any conversation of Native sovereignty would be woefully incomplete without mentioning the importance of land. In the words of Vine Deloria, “[It] is important to understand the primacy of land in the Indian psychological makeup, because, as land is alienated, all other forms of social cohesion also begin to erode, the land having been the context in which the other forms have been created.” Throughout the history of the United States, Native peoples have been violently and systematically separated from their lands. In Minnesota, coercive treaty negotiations throughout the 19th and 20th centuries as well as the aftermath of the US Dakota War left Native peoples alienated from their homelands since time immemorial. Nevertheless, in the face of violence and deceit, Native peoples have always resisted and fought to protect their lands.

Today, the repatriation of land to Native communities is a fundamental aspect of work that supports Indigenous sovereignty. In Minnesota, this work is just beginning, but the return of historic land in the Minnesota River region of southwest Minnesota to the Lower Sioux Indian Community is an important step forward. The Minnesota Historical Society’s decision to return the land was in no way unprompted as discussions of this transfer began in 2004. Additionally, although LSIC is celebrating the 120-acre transfer, the land is just a portion of the total area originally belonging to the tribe. Many citizens of the nation hope for the entirety of the land to be returned in the near future. At this point, it is important to note that despite my language of “belonging,” Native tribes like LSIC are clear that land repatriation is not about ownership but rather being reconnected with ancestral lands. Native peoples across Turtle Island (not just Minnesota) are working towards being reconnected with traditional homelands. However, while many small-scale examples of land repatriation sprinkle this conversation with hope, most large-scale conversations remain just that– conversations.  Thus, the work to return Native land to their respective caretakers and inhibitors is just beginning, but it is work filled with hope.

Also related to issues of land rights and sovereignty is the fight against dangerous and dishonorable pipeline projects which cross the treaty territories of several Native nations in Minnesota. In the wake of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, a pipeline known as Line 3, a project of the Canadian Tar Sands company Enbridge, is being constructed through the lands of Leech Lake and Fond du Lac nations. While Enbridge claims this pipeline will replace a faulty old tar sands pipeline, there is no indication that the old pipeline will be removed after the current pipeline is installed. Tar sands pipelines are notoriously faulty, so it is not a question of whether it will leak, but when. This makes Line 3 a hazard for the natural wildlife it cuts through as well as Native and non-Native people who rely on nearby water for drinking. As always, Native people are resisting the construction of this pipeline through organized protest. The Giniw Collective, an organization led by Indigenous, two-spirit women is one of many groups working on the frontlines of the pipeline actively resisting by impeding its construction, often at the risk of arrest. In sum, Line 3 is a violation of human rights, treaty rights, and tribal sovereignty of the Anishinaabe nations through which it intrudes and would affect through pollution, and Native peoples are risking their wellbeing for the benefit of the earth, Native communities, and the state of Minnesota.

Food and Health Sovereignty

Closely related to but distinct from tribal economic development are efforts of food sovereignty. Like sovereignty itself, the definition of food sovereignty is multi-faceted and complex. Put simply, however, it refers to the development and maintenance of food networks grounded on traditional Indigenous relationships to the land. Food in this context carries great political, cultural, and spiritual importance. It is the product of a healthy relationship with the land and, by extension, a relationship with one’s ancestors and cultural traditions. Not only that, but the immediate importance of food to sustaining healthy communities today links Native peoples to future generations.

Native peoples in Minnesota prioritize food sovereignty as an essential component of tribal sovereignty and the pursuit of bright Indigenous futures through a variety of ways. The organization Dream of Wild Health leads the way in these efforts. The mission of DWH clearly is in line with the principles of food sovereignty: “to restore health and well-being in the Native community by recovering knowledge of and access to healthy Indigenous foods, medicines, and lifeways.” The organization seeks to achieve these goals through a mix of educational (youth programming) and on-the-ground efforts. Of particular importance is their Indigenous Food Network program which uses cultural knowledge and multigenerational support to increase access to and consumption of traditional Indigenous foods in schools and programs that serve Native people as well as advocate for policy change that supports the development of Indigenous food systems. Organizations such as this remind us that the importance of tribal sovereignty, whether it be through foodways, land, or politics, is rooted in the everyday physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing of Indigenous people.

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