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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 18, 2002 - Issue 61


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California Tribes and Sovereignty

credits: art: When Colors Bleed II by David Behrens

Many of us have not had an opportunity to learn the facts about the unique relationship between the United States and the American Indian tribes. Sovereignty is the foundation upon which this relationship is built. The purpose of this document is to provide the reader with a basic understanding about the sovereign status of American Indian tribes.

American Indian Tribes and reservations are synonymous with each other in most of the United States. In California it is a different story. Between 1851 and 1852, 18 treaties were negotiated between the United States Government and more than 100 California Indian Tribes and Bands. The treaties called for reservations of more than eight million acres for the tribes. However, on July 8, 1952, the U.S. Senate secretly rejected the treaties and from 1852 to 1854 Indian Tribes were forcibly removed to temporary reservations.

In the early 1900s a researcher discovered the unratified treaties and reformers petitioned Congress to appropriate money to provide land for the homeless Native Americans of California. Congress appropriated the money to purchase 9,000 acres of land that became 50 separate Rancherias. Originally the small pieces of land or ranches were intended to provide housing for homeless and landless adult Indians. It was not intended to be reservations for separate tribal governments. Instead of getting their own reservations, some Indian Nations were splintered into tiny postage stamp bands that lumped together Indians from different tribes. Despite the obvious obstacles, many of the Rancherias, as they came to be known, petitioned for federal recognition.

In 1953, the California Rancheria Act called for the termination of federal trusteeship for Indians in California. During this period, 38 tribes were terminated in California and tribal members were encouraged to sign away their official status in efforts to assimilate Indians into "mainstream" society.

The Indian Self Determination and Education Act of 1973 allowed tribes and rancherias to regain federal recognition and today 104 tribes are recognized in California with over 50% being Rancherias. Self Governance, along with economic and gaming opportunities, have helped the California Native Americans regain their sovereignty

American Indian Tribal Sovereignty Primer

Sovereignty is an internationally recognized concept. A basic tenant of sovereignty is the power of a people to govern themselves.

American Indian tribal powers originate with the history of tribes managing their own affairs. Case law has established that tribes reserve the rights they had never given away. American Indian Tribes possess a "Nation-within-a-Nation" Status

Treaties formalize a nation-to-nation relationship between the federal government and the tribes.

In treaties, Indians relinquished certain rights in exchange for promises from the federal government. Trust responsibility is the government's obligation to honor the trust inherent to these promises and to represent the best interests of the tribes and their members.

The U.S. Constitution recognizes Indian tribes as distinct governments. It authorizes Congress to regulate commerce with "foreign nations, among the several state, and with the Indian tribes."

Three 19th century Supreme Court opinions serve as a cornerstone to understanding the sovereign status of Indian nations. The cases are the most widely cited with respect to tribal sovereignty.

Johnson v. McIntosh concerned the validity of a tribal land grant made to private individuals.

  • Provided that tribes' rights to sovereignty are impaired by colonialization but not disregarded.
  • Held that the federal government alone has the right to negotiate for American Indian land.
Cherokee Nation v. Georgia involved an action brought against the state of Georgia by the Cherokee Nation which sought relief from state jurisdiction on tribal lands.
  • Described Indian tribes as "domestic dependent nations.
  • Maintained that the federal-tribal relationship "resembles that of a ward to his guardian."
Worcester v. Georgia concerned the application of Georgia state law within the Cherokee Nation.
  • Held that tribes do not lose their sovereign powers by becoming subject to the power of the U.S.
  • Maintained that only Congress has plenary (overriding) power over Indian affairs.
  • Established that state laws do not apply in Indian Country.

In 1953, congress modified the federal-tribal relationship in five states through the passage of Public Law 280. More recently, the relationship was modified by the Indian Child Welfare Act and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Public Law 2806 (1953) Provides for five states, including Minnesota (with the exception of the Red Lake reservation), to assume general criminal7 and some civil8 jurisdiction over Indian reservations within the state. Tribes retain limited criminal and general civil jursdiction9, but because of a lack of resources have generally not fully assumed these responsibilities.

Indian Child Welfare Act10 (1978) Establishes procedures state agencies and courts must follow in handling Indian child custody matters. Creates dual jurisdiction between states and tribes that defers heavily to tribal governments.

Indian Gaming Regulatory Act11 (1988) Should a tribe decide to engage in casino gaming, this act requires the state to negotiate in good faith with the tribe to form a compact setting forth games, limits and other terms.

While the U.S. government recognizes American Indian Tribes as sovereign nations, the U.S. congress is recognized by the courts as having the right to limit the sovereign powers of tribes. However, Congress must do so in definite terms and not by implication.

What Does This Mean?

  • Tribes remain sovereign nations and possess self-government.
  • Tribes have a nation-to-nation relationship with the U.S. federal government
  • Only Congress has plenary (overriding) power over Indian affairs
  • State governance is generally not permitted within reservations
André Cramblit:
Operations Director Northern California Indian Development Council

NCIDC ( is a non-profit that meets the development needs of American Indians and operates an art gallery featuring the art of California tribes (

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