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Tribal Sovereignty

Tribal Self-governance


Sovereignty is used to describe governments who are self-ruling and independent. A sovereign nation is self-governing and is its own political unit or governmental entity.

The self-ruling independence the United States exercises today was initially only a hope and a dream for the American colonists. It was only when the thirteen colonies united together and, figuratively speaking, cut the umbilical cord with Great Britain, that they became their own sovereign nation.

“When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another . . . “

During the time of the American Revolutionary War, the thirteen colonies that stood united were surrounded by many tribal nations. There were also other foreign nations that had staked their claims on the continent. The tribal and foreign nations watched as the children of Great Britain dissolved the political band connecting them to their Motherland. The American colonists collectively sought their own unique political status: to be an independent, self-ruling sovereign nation.

Initially, tribal nations wondered what was to become of this feud between Mother England and her children. Many Indians believed this spat between America and Britain was a “family quarrel.” [1] The Congress of the Revolution was resolved to maintain a continuance of friendship with the Indian tribes, seeking their neutrality during the colonists’ “unhappy dispute with Great Britain.” [2]

Many of the Indian tribes had already made formal, government-to-government treaties with Great Britain. (Over 100 Indian treaties had been signed with the British government and colonial governments between  1607 – 1776.) [3] These treaties had been negotiated for various land cessations and for an allegiance of friendship to the Crown.

It is important to recognize that tribal sovereignty has unique attributes that most other sovereigns cannot claim. Early on, the European nations, and later, the United States, acknowledged the existing governments of the indigenous people. The governments of the indigenous people of the North American continent were independent of each other. They were not simply one huge tribal unit. Some tribal governments had alliances with other indigenous tribal nations or other foreign nations. Each tribal government exercised sovereignty over their own people and territories.

“America, separated from Europe by a wide ocean, was inhabited by a distinct people, divided into separate nations, independent of each other and of the rest of the world, having institutions of their own, and governing themselves by their own laws . . . The Indian nations had always been considered as distinct, independent political communities . . .”


Tribal sovereignty is distinctive in two ways:


The tribal nations, which predate the United States of America by a long shot, had their own communities and governments for as far back as anyone could remember. A tribe’s sovereignty was never given to them by the federal government. No law created the Indians’ power to govern themselves. The various treaties, agreements and statutes the US government made with, or regarding Indians, have simply recognized the fact that Indian tribes already had such power.

“The very term ‘nation,’ so generally applied to them (Indian tribes), means ‘a people distinct from others.’ The constitution, by declaring treaties already made, as well as those to be made, to be the supreme law of the land, has adopted and sanctioned the previous treaties with the Indian nations, and consequently admits their rank among those powers who are capable of making treaties. The words ‘treaty’ and ‘nation’ are words of our own language, selected in our diplomatic and legislative proceedings, by ourselves, having each a definite and well understood meaning. We have applied them to Indians, as we have applied them to the other nations of the earth. They are applied to all in the same sense.”



Excerpts used by permission from: "Understanding Jurisdiction on Tribal Lands - A User-friendly PL 280 Resource Guide"