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Opinion: Reservations are sovereign territories

"It is not well known either inside or outside the United States that the reservations where many Native Americans live � also known as Indian Country � are sovereign territories. The citizens of the several hundred reservations that comprise Indian Country � along with the tribal members who have moved to cities � obey federal laws. But Indian Country also makes its own laws. Under these separate laws, tribal police keep the peace and tribal courts administer justice. Like any other country, Indian Country conducts government-to-government negotiations with Washington. You�ll find this right of sovereignty clearly stated in the U.S. Constitution.

Indigenous people once lived throughout what is now the United States. Through treaties and broken promises and outright theft, the U.S. government took land away from Native Americans. The tribes fought back, and wars continued until the end of the 19th century. The impact on Indian Country of these wars and forced resettlement was devastating. In 1800, after several hundred years of decline due to disease and clashes with the settlers, 600,000 Native Americans lived on the continent. By 1890, the population had declined to only 250,000.

After 1880, when the reservation system was established, Indians continued to face the threat of extinction. The federal government attempted to assimilate Native Americans by forcing children into schools that suppressed their language, culture, and religion. During this time, the economic self-sufficiency of Indian Country was also under threat. Reservation land was rarely good for agriculture or livestock. But when oil was discovered in tribal territory in 1900 � followed by discoveries of coal and uranium � mining and energy corporations began to extract great wealth from land the federal government previously considered worthless. Money from these operations went into bank accounts for individual Indians. As investigators later discovered, the federal government mismanaged these trust funds to the tune of billions of dollars. Native Americans launched a lawsuit asking for restitution � the Cobell case � but the lawsuit has spent the last decade in the court system without resolution.

Although casinos have sprung up on Indian lands, generating wealth for some Indian tribes, Indian Country as a whole remains quite poor. The unemployment rate for the several million Native American citizens remains higher than any other ethnic group. The poverty rate is higher than the U.S. average.

Despite the legacy of unfair treaties and the subsequent pressures to assimilate, most tribes have held on and managed to retain their traditions and culture. The reassertion of sovereignty � the principle of self-government � has played an important role in this renaissance."

Get the Story:
John Feffer: Sovereignty Matters (ZNet 3/31)