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Status of sovereign Indian nations upheld by U.S. court decisions

Most people are not aware that Indian tribes are sovereign nations. Even
fewer know what that means. Some think that visiting an Indian reservation
is like going to a foreign country. Others think that visiting an Indian
casino on a reservation is no different than visiting a Las Vegas casino.

Both of these characterizations are very wrong, in part for what they do not
account for: American history and law.

People know the general structure of the United States government: first the
federal level, then states, then counties and cities below. By contrast,
Indian tribes are sovereign nations whose sovereignty is derived from the
United States Constitution, treaties, court decisions, acts of Congress, and
American history.

The sovereign nature of tribal governments first appears in Article I,
section 8 of the United States Constitution giving power to Congress to
regulate trade with “foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with
the Indian Tribes.” This reference to Indian Tribes, the only in the
Constitution, has become the bedrock of a great edifice of law as
established by the United States Supreme Court and lower courts.

At the heart of this law is the affirmation that tribes have “inherent
sovereignty” as they were free and independent nations prior to the
existence of the United States of America. This fact has been upheld in
Supreme Court cases dating back to the 1820s. While cities and counties
derive their authority from state constitutions and acts of state
legislatures, tribal governments derive their authority from the United
States Constitution, acts of Congress and by treaties made between
individual tribes and the government of the United States.

Traditionally, federally-recognized tribes are subject to federal – not
state – laws and regulations. This is why, in fact, all tribal people living
on reservations pay federal income taxes, just like everyone else.

Furthermore, states, counties and cities give no funds to tribes, nor do
they have any projects on tribal lands. All roads, infrastructure and social
programs that tribes operate are either funded by the tribal government
itself, or through federal grants, which are applied for in the same way
that states, counties and cities apply for them.

From the beginning, America’s Founders sought to focus a government to
government relationship between tribal governments and the government of the
United States based on hard experience, namely, that the appetite of the
states and local governments for Indian lands, often secured by treaty, made
it necessary to get Indian nations out of harm’s way, that is, out of the
jurisdiction of state and local governments. The guarantor of Indian rights
was to be the United States Army whose forces were deployed along the
frontier in part to keep aggressive white, frontiersmen from invading Indian
lands. This belief was held by all early American presidents beginning with
George Washington.

War and conflict, however, do not necessarily characterize the contemporary
relationship between Indian nations and local governments. There are many
tribes who have coexisted with state and local governments in a mutually
beneficial manner for years and decades.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Inland Empire where members of the
Tribal Alliance of Sovereign Indian Nations (TASIN) have forged meaningful
and mutually advantageous relationships with local governments.

It was in the spirit of respect and cooperation that TASIN members and local
governments worked side-by-side to enact legislation that ensured millions
of dollars from the Indian Gaming Special Distribution Fund (SDF) would be
returned to local communities for years to come. These efforts have resulted
in enhanced police and fire services for local communities; road
improvements; funding for youth programs, and much more. In essence, they
have resulted in stronger communities.

Through communication and respect, tribal and local governments in the
region have created special prosecution units–fully funded by tribal
governments–within the Riverside and San Bernardino County District
Attorney’s offices. These groundbreaking partnerships are improving
communication between tribal and local law enforcement to prosecute crimes
committed in tribal casinos, which takes more criminals off the streets.

Ask Riverside County and they will tell you the relationship they have with
the tribes is not unlike the relationship they have with their neighboring
counties and cities. One day these relationships will be the norm within
California and throughout the nation.

Eventually, both local officials and tribal leaders will come to realize the
numerous ways in which the two can benefit one another. Building these
relationships is just one more step in strengthening the sovereignty that is
inherent on both sides.


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