We Are a Sovereign Government
W. Ron Allen
Chairman, Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe
June 2004

Tribal governments are sovereign governments. This means that we have the authority as Indian peoples to control our own destinies. The Tribe controls who are its citizens. We determine what laws will control the interests of our community. Our governments have jurisdiction over our own affairs. This is what sovereignty means. These are key components of exercising sovereignty. Sovereignty is the basis of our very unique relationship to the United States government and it is acknowledged in the Constitution.

When I became involved in tribal governance, the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington State was working hard to defend its sovereignty. At that time, the tribe was pursuing the reestablishment of its federal recognition. The fact that the federal government had stopped recognizing our tribe was the result, in part, of our repeated assertions of independence. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe resisted several of the terms of dependence on the federal government. For instance, our tribe chose not to relocate to a reservation. Instead, our leadership orchestrated the purchase of a land base at Jamestown Village. As a result, our tribe preserved an independent standing. Similarly, when we established our constitution, we patterned it after those of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) but chose not to be an IRA tribe. The IRA imposed restrictions upon tribal governments that we thought were inappropriate. If we are a sovereign government, we make our own decisions without requiring the Department of the Interior to determine whether or not those decisions results in effective governance.

Our assertions of sovereignty in the 1970s coincided with the emergence of a national policy of empowering tribes to exercise their sovereignty and control their own affairs. With the passage of the Indian Self-Determination Act in 1975, tribal attitudes towards governance began to change. Initially, the act acknowledged our authority to contract with the federal government for the provision of services for our tribes. It established the opportunity for tribes to acquire resources to develop various programs in health care, education, and housing. During this first contracting phase, tribes were still subjected to the criteria and conditions of the federal government. However, when the act was refined as a result of self-governance legislation in the 1990s, tribal governments began to act more like governments than contractors. Tribes assumed greater control over how their federal resources could be used. We negotiated with the federal government for resources, then took those resources and made decisions about their use based on the priorities of our communities.

As a result, tribal governments began to realize the advantages of functioning as sovereign governments. Increasingly, we took charge of our own destinies. The Tribe amended its constitution to remove conditions of federal oversight. We developed more sophisticated governmental structures and expanded our capacity for managing tribal affairs. We are now capable of meeting our communities' needs more effectively than any other government. We know our people and are sensitive to their cultural traditions and realities. Our people take comfort in knowing that their governments--not the state or federal government--are making decisions on their behalf.

A number of tribal governments refused to assume the management of their service programs under the Indian Self-Determination Act. Although I understand their decision, I disagree with it. These tribes believe that the U.S. government has failed to live up to its treaty obligations. They fear that if they manage their own service programs at the low levels of federal funding available under the act, they will release the federal government from its obligation to Indian tribes. I believe that the U.S. government has the highest moral obligation to live up to its treaty commitments to Indian communities. As a matter of practical consideration, however, I recognize that this belief alone doesn't enhance the welfare of our communities. Tribes must come to the realization that the federal government will never fully live up to its obligations to our peoples and that we must take control of our destinies through our own resourcefulness.

I believe that that resourcefulness is best harnessed for the benefit of our communities through the effective functioning of mature tribal governments. Mature tribal governments must be led by sophisticated and seasoned leaders. Under the Indian Self-Determination Act, tribes have promoted education. As a result, more and more tribal leaders are educated. They understand the workings of political systems. Now, these leaders need to become seasoned, that is, experienced in managing, protecting and representing the tribal affairs and interests. Regrettably, tribes tend to eliminate seasoned leadership. Too often, they distrust leaders who pursue a vision for their communities or who gain the experience needed to fight for their interests in the national trenches. In many tribal governments, leaders tend to move in and out of office so frequently that they fail to become seasoned. Tribes must learn to trust those leaders who are capable of pursuing tribal interests. They must learn to trust those leaders who will generate revenues from a variety of sources including economic ventures, and build the governmental capacity to care for their communities. They must learn to trust those leaders who are capable of achieving a balance between the day-to-day needs and future aspirations of communities; between the interests of youth, families, and elders; and between individuals and our communities as a whole.

With this trust, tribal leaders assume an enormous responsibility. Tribal leaders, like governors or like the president of the United States, are responsible for understanding a vast array of very complicated issues such as education, health care, natural resource management, and social service programs. First, we must understand these issues and programs. Then, we must provide diplomatic leadership in discovering and implementing solutions for the problems these issues present. Being a tribal leader means being prepared to provide direction whenever decisions are made that affect Indian interests. Of course, the battles in which Indian interests must be protected occur not just within our tribes, but at the regional and national levels. The real challenges arise in these larger forums as we attempt to provide responsible leadership that is respectful of other tribes' interests. I've traveled throughout Indian Country because when decision makers ask for my input, I need to know what the Seminoles in Florida or the Penobscots in Maine think about the problems we confront together.

As indigenous peoples, our communities are tied together through common challenges. It is vital that mature tribal governments make a commitment to the regional and national organizations that serve our intertribal community. We must make the decision to lead with our resources rather than to hoard them for private purposes, particularly if we have been blessed with success in establishing a solid revenue base. We must have an enhanced awareness of the importance of staying unified. Collectively, tribes have the opportunity to work effectively within the political system. Tribes have citizens who vote. Tribes have money to contribute to campaigns that affect our communities. Tribes have formed regional and national intertribal organizations that strengthen our stature. We have high-powered and well-placed lobbyists who advance our agenda in Washington, D.C., and in state capitols. Currently, the Native American Caucus is the largest special interest caucus in Congress. All of these factors help us influence the political decision-making process and fight efforts to diminish or negatively affect our sovereignty or treaty rights.

Efforts to diminish our sovereignty exist, in part, because the public doesn't understand tribal sovereignty. Our educational system has done a terrible job of representing tribal governments. A chapter in all civics textbooks should explain that the American political system is made up of multiple political structures within which tribes are a unique set of communities. Instead, many people believe that sovereignty is the right only of the U.S. and state governments, or God. Of course, there isn't room for tribes in this definition. This misunderstanding creates a negative disposition and perspective among those who think that tribal sovereignty encroaches on their rights. They characterize tribes as having special rights or Indians as being super citizens. Nothing could be further from the truth. Too often, tribes fall at the bottom of every economic and social category by which we measure the status of our society.

Tribes must assume the responsibility for educating individuals about their sovereignty. Today, we actively educate leaders within the local, state, and federal governments by creating forums through which they gain a better understanding of the workings of tribal governments. As a result of our efforts, governments are designing policies that support our sovereignty while more and more resources are moving straight from the federal government (and sometimes from the states) to tribes without being channeled through intermediaries. These are benchmarks of success. Still, the process of education is ongoing. High turnover in state and federal governments means that new administrations enter without an understanding of our relationships and rights and without "ownership" of past policies that support our sovereignty. Our efforts to educate other government leaders must never stop.

During my 29 years in tribal government, the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe has enhanced its sovereignty. We have reestablished our federal recognition, our land base, and our financial holdings. We have built an effective government to serve our tribal and intertribal communities. On the local, state, and national levels, we do our share in providing leadership and support in national and regional forums. Over these years, I've seen tribes, including ours, charged with empire building. Our work is not about empire building. It's about building the foundational capacity to serve our community and our children's community and our children's children's community. Within our tribe, and many other tribes, there is a notion of the “seventh generation.” This means that we acknowledge that what we do will reach beyond us for seven generations. For me, our work reaches far beyond that concept. Our duty and work are about the belief that our community will exist for generations upon generations.

This vision and purpose are what motivate us as tribal leaders to do what we're doing. The vision, duty, and responsibility of tribal leaders have been embedded in me through the inspiration of leaders like Joe DeLaCruz and Pearl Capoemen-Baller of the Quinault Indian Nation, Wendell Chino of the Mescalero Apache Nation, Roger Jordain of Red Lake Chippewa Nation, and Mel Tonasket of the Confederated Colville Tribes. These are leaders who have dedicated their lives to their tribes, people, and communities to protect and advance sovereignty and treaty rights. We know that it's critical for our people. We're very proud of it.

Reprinted from The State of the Native Nations by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.

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