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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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Allison Eberhard, Young Explorers Team

Sovereignty and Cultural Survival

I am going to talk about sovereignty and its connection to cultural survival. There is no greater guarantee of cultural survival than a government that reflects the values and understandings of the culture it governs. This alignment of nation and state is highly prized because it gives the understandings, beliefs, and values of the people a political voice. For example, the core values of the American nation include individual freedoms of speech, religion, and thought. These values are outlines in the Constitution as the basis of our state, at least in theory.

The US Constitution names three sovereigns -- the federal government, the states, and Indian tribes. Indian tribes are considered "domestic dependent nations" with a semi-sovereign status. This status is incredibly ambiguous but, generally, it allows tribes varying degrees of control over their own land and people, so long as they do not violate federal laws. These semi-sovereign rights are derived from tribes' nationhood, meaning as distinct political and cultural entities they have an inherent right to sovereignty.

In the lower 48 the US government created reservations that tribes could govern. When you drive onto a reservation you will pass a sign reading, "You are now entering the Blackfeet Nation," or "You are now entering the Oglala Sioux Indian Reservation." You will not pass signs like these in Alaska.

Alaska Native sovereignty differs greatly from Indian sovereignty in the lower 48. Alaska Natives are recognized as tribes without "Indian Country;" they do not have control over a territory, but they do have control over themselves, as a cultural unit.

With the exception of Metlakatla there are no reservations in Alaska. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA, 1971) replaced collective tribal land ownership with fee simple title in the hands of Native corporations. The Act took land away from the tribes and gave it to Native corporations. Legally, these corporations are not regarded as being different than any other corporation. They are not semi-sovereign entities, they are corporations. They are not tribes, they are corporations. Tribes in Alaska do not have territorial sovereignty over the land they live on. In the eyes of the law they are regular landowners.

Socially, however, Alaska Native tribes retain their sovereign rights to manage their internal domestic affairs, such as child custody disputes, adoption, and membership criteria. While this control is limited, it still enables tribes to handle their own domestic affairs.

Where does all this leave us? Alaska Natives are in a difficult place because they have very limited legal access to their sovereignty. This disparity between Western and Native values has caused great psychological and spiritual damage to Native communities. The poverty in many Native villages, coupled with the disproportionate rates of alcoholism, substance abuse, rape, and domestic abuse, are testament to the fact that oppression is present. An effective way to combat this oppression and rebuild Native communities is to strengthen the access Alaska Native villages have to their sovereignty.

Putting power back in the hands of tribal governments will allow them to address the problems in their communities more effectively than the state or federal governments.


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For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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