Tribal Sovereignty

Special Interest Groups

The American Indian Chamber of Commerce is a prime example of tribes banding together and acting as special interest groups.The American Indian Chamber of Commerce is a
prime example of tribes banding together and acting
as special interest groups.

Despite the moves toward self-determination, the funding for these programs still comes predominantly from the federal government. This forces the tribes to act as special interest groups, by lobbying Congress and the White House for these services promised by tribal treaties over 150 years ago.

In 2006, the Bush Administration proposed a $2.2 billion budget for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the same figure proposed for the previous year. These are the funds that pay for all Indian programs in education, health, housing, energy resources, public safety and justice, reservation construction projects and better accounting of the land trust funds the BIA holds for the tribes.

Many tribes are totally dependant on these federal funds. And so every year, they go before Congress and the administration to testify for changes in federal laws and more appropriations for tribal programs.


At times, tribes also operate as both sovereign entities and as special interest groups, perhaps most prominently when they attempt to influence elections. With the recent influx of gaming revenues, some tribes with casinos have made political contributions to candidates who support their interests and policy initiatives. In 2004, tribes contributed $10 million in U.S. House and Senate races alone, according to Congressional Quarterly.

Right now, sovereignty issues are most contentious when they involve the relatively large sums of money that some, but not all, Indian casinos are generating. Because tribes are sovereign entities under the National Indian Gaming Act, they do not pay income tax on gaming revenues.

States and local governments don't think that's fair, in part because the local governments may be responsible for infrastructure, like roads leading to large reservation casinos. Or local governments might be responsible for services for urban American Indians. So, recently, states have been passing laws and filing lawsuits across the country to try and get a share of gaming revenues into their coffers. Tribes have, for the most part, resisted, asserting their sovereignty rights.

In some states — like California, where Indian gaming has experienced huge growth — tribes have re-negotiated extensions of their gaming compacts with the state in exchange for paying corporate taxes on net winnings.

Even outside gambling issues, tribal sovereignty disputes raise a wide range of thorny questions. For example:

  • Who should control where to dump nuclear waste? At least one tribe in Utah wants to open a nuclear waste dump on their land. But the state and Interior Department don't think the tribe can adequately police the dump.
  • Should tribes have to pay state and federal taxes on cigarettes they either manufacture or sell? Generally, courts have said, no.
  • Do tribes have to pay gasoline taxes? Again, generally, no.
  • Who can write and enforce laws governing contracts between tribes and non-tribal members?
  • Do tribes that contribute to political campaigns have to abide by a state's campaign finance laws and submit financial reports?
  • Who writes and enforces laws governing hunting and fishing on tribal lands?
  • Does a non-Indian person or an American Indian from another tribe have to submit to laws passed by a tribal council if a crime is committed on a reservation?

Because of the contradictory history on tribal sovereignty there is no one clear cut legal precedent for each of these questions. The answers have to be decided on a case-by-case basis. Yet, the legal decisions to these questions have huge implications for Native Americans all across Indian Country.

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