Honoring Nations: Sovereignty Today: Q&A

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

The 2007 Honoring Nations symposium "Sovereignty Today" panel presenters as well as members of the Honoring Nations Board of Governors field questions from the audience and offer their thoughts on the state of tribal sovereignty today and the challenges that lie ahead.

Native Nations
Resource Type

"Sovereignty Today: Q&A." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 27-28, 2007. Presentation.

Ethel Branch:

"Hi. Thank you all for speaking. It was really inspiring to hear all of your words. I guess my question is -- My name's Ethel Branch. I'm a student at the law school. I'm Navajo from Arizona. My question is, Indian policy, federal Indian policy has always suffered vicissitudes going back and forth from an era of termination, extermination, whatever, and switching to an era of revitalization, empowerment of tribes. We've been in self-determination for now over 30 years. Do you see a shift in the tide? What direction do you think the next era is going to go? If you could give insight on that, I'd really appreciate it. Thank you."

Floyd "Buck" Jourdain:

"Geez, I feel like Billy Madison up here. Anybody who's seen the movie, you know what I'm talking about.

Self-governance. We're a self-governance tribe and we no longer have a BIA agent and all that, we deal directly with our appropriations through the tribe. And it's [an] experimental thing that several tribes took on, but we feel it's working to our advantage; we're using it in a good way. And one of the things that we notice with the non, the tribes that are still under the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] -- they do get preference over us, so we have to really fight and arm wrestle every year; appropriations, negotiations, hearings. And it's almost like sometimes there's a safety net there that we need to grow away from. Self-governance is a good thing if it's used in a good way, and it's used correctly, and you have good leadership, and people are really on top of it. I think we just need to pry away from that old era and get away from that. And if it doesn't happen, then you'll see tribes, kind of, falling back into that, which is a dangerous thing.

Like I talked about today, the climate. You talk about the energy push in America, George Bush and the big oil companies. One of the things that -- our tribal treasurer goes to D.C. and brings back these horror stories about, 'There's going to be another huge cut. The [Department of the] Interior and BIA is going to cut, cut, cut, cut, cut.' And you have all these issues in your Indian community. You have methamphetamine, you have homelessness, you have poverty but, 'Hey, here's the answer to all your solutions! Let us come in and build a power plant on your lakeside and that will really help you guys out and get you out of this state.' So right now it's been rights of ways issues, those are huge -- people wanting to build power lines and roads across our land so they can -- tourism can explode and those types of things.

So I think that tribes need to really grasp it, emphasize self-governance, and really use it in a good way, and be aggressive with it. And I think that if more of them start moving in that direction you're going to see a lot of self-sufficient tribes out there doing some pretty good things."

James Ransom:

"I wanted to stand up. I know some of the people over here can't see us over here. I just had two comments on the question.

A trend that I see happening and which is real obvious is one, stay out of court. That cannot be overemphasized right now. Anything that gets to the Supreme Court is going to be an erosion of sovereignty. You can almost be guaranteed that.

What that tells us though is we need to refine our diplomacy skills and we need to negotiate solutions to issues on the local level, on a state level, on the federal level but in a way that is protective of our communities. And again, that talks about responsibility. We need to work on that and bring that back.

I think that's going to be the key to the future is exercising our responsibilities in ways that non-Natives -- the larger society -- can understand and appreciate."

Michael Thomas:

"I can only agree first of all with what's been said in terms of our own responsibilities and how we should not allow a perpetual federal trust responsibility to us to foster dependency. And frankly, the 30 years of the [Indian] Self-Determination Era has, in my mind, fostered as much dependency as self-determination. And frankly, I think that self-determination can be an excuse for modern governments to avoid their trust responsibility to each and every one of the people in our tribal communities. And so it's a balancing act. I think that we will see the lip service toward self-determination continue, but I think that you'll see the pendulum swing back and forth between whether these people are walking the walk or simply talking the talk.

As you watch the composition of our Supreme Court change, the advice about staying out of court becomes more and more relevant. And that is the kind of long-term pendulum swing that we as Indian people can appreciate but the average American cannot. The reality is, unless you are subject to those swings in constitutional interpretation, and Supreme Court composition, and federal Indian policy, and all the other things that create the storm of politics within which we must live, you're not going to get consistent outcomes.

And so that responsibility that both other tribal leaders here have emphasized is critical. Because it's a different approach to say 'They will never fully meet this trust responsibility, therefore we must...' than it is to simply cry over and over and over, 'Meet your trust responsibility, meet your trust...' We end up putting our people in a victim's position, when the reality is that we have all we need to protect and advance our people even in the absence of that fulfilled trust responsibility. I think an increasing recognition of this by tribal leaders can only lead us to good places."

Ben Nuvamsa:

"I'm very humbled to be here among you leaders. Thank you for your teachings and validation of what I also believe in. Chief Ransom, as you spoke, I feel like you were talking about us.

At Hopi, we're going through a tremendous change. I agree with you, wholeheartedly, that along with sovereignty comes responsibility and accountability, and if we can exercise that in the correct way -- hopefully we don't get to the point where somebody tells us what sovereignty means to us, like the Supreme Court. Our constitutions that we have adopted, the IRA constitution -- at Hopi we're very different because of our traditional ceremonies that we are very still actively involved in, in that -- and our values are much different than what an IRA constitution puts forth. And that really creates some problems for us, that we have two different cultures always conflicting with how we operate. And I think that in the situation that we're in, we need to go out and we need to re-evaluate that constitution. And many tribes have done that. I guess what I'm trying to say is that good, bad, or indifferent, however our constitutions are, we need to interpret those in our Hopi ways, in our tribal ways, what does that mean to us in our local customary practices. That's what's going to sustain us forever. I think that's where we're at.

I'm also very humbled to be with a group of our representatives here that are very knowledgeable in our tribal government. Mr. Kuwaninvaya has been on the council for a long time and I look to him for guidance. He's very astute about when we get into a debate at the council -- and he has this unique knack to put things in proper perspective, and he brings our traditional values, our knowledge, and interprets that debate into how we are supposed to be. And it seems like it really clarifies the whole debate. It's very simple. Go back to what Hopi is. Go back to what our beliefs are. And I think that's what sovereignty means to us is who we are as a people, and what our beliefs are, what our customs are. And we speak our language; our language is what sets us apart also. That is our sovereignty.

And so I just want to thank you for the thoughts. We also have certain principles that you talked about. Sumi'nangwa. Nami'nangwa. Kyavtsi. Respect for one another, coming together as one people, putting our heads together and working together. Those are principles and kind of visions that we have, high bars that we have to achieve. But I think that's the kind of a process that we're in right now and we'll need to get to that point. And I just want to thank you for your words of wisdom all of you."

Regis Pecos:

"Thank you for that, what I think is a really profound question. If we go back into the past and reflect upon that time of federal policies dealing with extermination, and where that moved to assimilation, and where that moved to termination, and then the more recent federal policy that defines this time as the era of self-determination, we really are at a critical juncture to be asking some very critical questions with regard to, 'What are we doing differently now, when we are in control, from those times when we weren't and we were critical of that subjection to those federal policies?' Because if we're not careful, I think that we potentially become our own worst enemies at this particular time and juncture in our journey through life.

I really think that this next wave, to answer your question, really is going to be a return to the core values. And that the definition of sovereignty is really going to come back to be defined, redefined, internally and outwardly. And I think part of the celebration, with something as profound as what we've heard all of today, are the incredible redefining of approaches that is coming from and dictated by our return to those principles and core values. I think in this next wave it's going to be part of a process and an evolution that is using the core values to redefine the strength of tribal governments, and the sovereignty and the power of our peoples to define, outwardly, the interrelations of intergovernmental relations, if you will, but defined for our purposes. So that, as we take a circle, and in it are the core values of our land, our language, our way of life, our people, our resources, our water, our air that sustains that spirit of living, to examine the way in which we either are making decisions with governance and our jurisprudence that moves us away from the core values or reinforces the core values; and where decisions are made that's moving us away, how we're contributing to make fragile that institutional framework that otherwise creates for an operation from a position of strength. And if all we're doing in this time of self-determination is simply replicating programs with no conscious thought about how the replication of programs is moving us further away from those core values or reinforcing core values, or the way in which economic development is viewed, to either be supportive and compatible with the core values or moving us away from the core values, and something as critical as education -- If we see education as the means and the process that was never intended for us, but how we find that to be necessary in developing our skills to deal with their external forces, to protect the internal workings of our nations, it becomes critical at this very point to really look at ways in which we strike a balance. And as our young people and our trust for the future are being schooled in the formal education institutions, we really have to be mindful in terms of what we're doing consciously in redefining our own blueprint for the teachings, from a cultural perspective, so that in the kind of challenges from this point forward, we really must operate from that position of strength, that is, articulating our relationships with other governments from those fundamental principles encompassed and defined by those core values.

So I think in this next wave, it's going to be about our redefining relationships with other governments based upon the articulation and the full utilization of the core values moving from within, outwardly, as it's never been done before. And if we're not approaching it in that way, the gaps are going to become greater and wider. And if language and culture is not the focus of what we do in creating the next generation of leaders, ask ourselves, 'Will they have any opportunity to argue the spirit of sovereignty from any other context or perspective?' Because when that happens we're going to be reduced to everything we don't want to be reduced to, as simply political subdivisions of someone else's sovereign governmental framework, different than what we want to do -- to come from within that context that sustains that spirit, that is defined by everything the Creator gave us and blessed us with, that sustains that spirit of living from a totally different perspective, which means that we have to create our own institutions. So that for all of us who've gone through the experience of a formal education, it doesn't take us to move back through a process of being reeducated in the principles of those core values.

So I think in this next wave, we have to be conscious about creating our own opportunities and institutions to strike the kind of balance that results in the kind of training that is necessary for young people to have that kind of balanced perspective, moving the core values as we define the way in which we're going to preserve that sustained spirit of living using those core values."

Michael Thomas:

"Definitely very well said. I would only add one piece, to what frankly, I don't think any of us could say better, which is that one of those core values we have to emphasize, in addition to that which separates us...is our foundation, our language, our culture, our values, the history, this dirt that we are from and of -- the interconnectedness value that we were all given as well is horribly underplayed. As important as all of those things that make us distinct tribal communities are, equally important are the things that bind us from one to the other, the interconnectedness value that every last one of us was taught by our elders is one that we don't walk often enough. It's an area where the way I say it to our council, it's an area where we are not matching our lips with our moccasins. It sounds wonderful, but to really emphasize the interconnectedness means that we would fight less within each of these tribal communities.

And frankly, I've never been to a tribal community, and I've visited several hundred in my life, that is startlingly different from another. As a matter of fact, when people come to Mashantucket, I tell them, 'Don't be confused by the cars and the houses. This is the res.' It might be a little bigger or a little prettier -- same issues, frankly. Wealth has intensified some of those community, social, cultural issues that we face. We're thankful to have the means to deal with those things, finally, but we've got to emphasize connectedness, because all of the other things bring us into our own individual boxes. And everything in this American culture is so individualized and so disconnected from anything, that what that value of 'the connectedness of all things' is one of the most important traditional values we should keep in mind and turn into the action that Regis articulated as well as anyone could. Thank you."

David Gipp:

"Regis, I think you summed up quite a few things today, at least from our perspective and from the tribal perspective, and where we're going hopefully. Let me jump to the next question. And it's a question for you, and other leaders, and everyone here, I think. And that's the question that our Assistant Secretary is posing and he's talking about modernizing the BIA. I don't know if you heard his remarks this morning. And I thought some of them made very good sense as compared to what I heard you say out in...which was the introduction of that thought. And I know you're running around the country trying to get ideas of what that means as well, at least that's what I hear. Comes that question, and that's part of what you have raised is, where are we going to go with this? And how are we going to deal with this? Because the immediate question is, now we have a new trust office that's been put in place, and it's supposedly doing all of these wonderful things for us in terms of managing our trust resources, and being accountable, and somebody mentioned the word transparency, and perhaps we'll see this someday from the U.S. government and truly see what they've been up to all these centuries. But the other issue is, what happens with the rest of the functions within the Bureau of Indian Affairs? Particularly as our tribal nations assume more of these, I'll just say, jurisdictional issues and more of the issues that relate to sovereignty and who and what we're all about. What happens to the government in the meantime, and the U.S. government? And what role does it play? And how will it play that role? And where do we put it in its place, if you will, as we talk about this new, if you will, evolution that's beginning to take place? And I think that's a very real question, because the government can surely be, as we know, stand in the way and create even more problems than it has in the past. Or it can be, indeed, potentially a partner, if we make it a partner. And how do we do that?"

Oren Lyons:

"Sovereignty is the act thereof. No more. No less. And it's a French word. It talks about kings. It talks about absolute monarchal power, absolute. That's what sovereignty comes from. But we came to understand it to mean control of your own future. When we talked this morning about the landing of our brothers here, and not too far away from right here, and they saw the Indian come standing out of the forest. And they looked at him and the word was, 'We'll never tame that man.' And all they ever saw was a free person. That's what they were looking at, was a free person. And that's what we all were at one time. And it's absolutely [certain] that we have to go back to our original teachings to move into the future because they're fundamental, they don't change. Principles don't change. Everything else changes, but principles do not. So as we move forward, we've changed as well. I would imagine that if we were to talk to our counterparts 200 years ago, if they walked in here, they wouldn't know who we were. They'd say, 'Well, whatever happened to our people?' We change. And 100 years or 200 years from now, we'd look at what's in the future and we'd say, 'Well, whatever happened to them?' But if you keep your principles, the main core principles, you can change all you want and nothing changes.

And so I think that it's true that there's going to be outside forces, this global warming is no joke. It's going to break economies. It's going to break world economies. They're just not going to be able to stand it. They're not going to be able to be spending all their money on wars and fighting because they're just going to be talking about survival. So commonality comes back. The discussion is about water, it's about land, it's about resources. When you talk about sovereignty in a contemporary sense, you're talking about jurisdiction. Who has jurisdiction on your land? And that will tell you how sovereign you are. And so jurisdiction is a very important discussion. How do you maintain that?

The courts have always been unfair but they're extremely unfair these days. I agree with you, it's a very difficult time. There's not been fairness in this country to us, there never has been. Racism is still here, it's still rampant, doesn't take much for it to come up. It does not take much for it to pop right up and look you in the face. So we're in a time, I guess, where we're going to see momentous changes. And so the spiritual strength that comes from our elders and comes from our nations and our old people, they always talk about the old people. I always remember Thomas Banyacya saying, 'Well, the old people said...' I always liked it when he said that because he was talking about our elders and how they instructed us and how they always looked after us. It was never a question about leadership then.

The problem with today's leadership in Indian Country is the system that doesn't allow you any continuity. You're there for two years, and then you have an election, and you fight each other for two years, and then you start again, and two years later you're -- it keeps you off balance. The traditional system, the old system, where the chiefs were there for life, I'm one of them. I've got 40 years on the bench, so to speak. I've seen a lot, talked to a lot of leaders (Nixon), most of them one time or another. Bob Bennett, I knew Bob. All of them actually -- how they had a short time, problematic time, but meantime back home, back home where we live, things remain kind of constant. You do what you can do, but I think the core values are just what we're going to depend on and we have to just get back to that. The ceremonies that Jim [James Ransom] was talking about as a guideline -- ceremony is what kept us going, ceremony is what makes us unique, it makes us different from everybody. If you were to ask who we are, we're the people who give thanks to the earth. That's who we are. And we do it all the time. And we still do it. It's important and we were told as long as you're doing it, you're going to survive. When you give it up, you won't. Simple as that.

So we're coming into times, hard times. We've had changes. On September 13th [2007] the United Nations adopted the Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And for the first time in the history of this world they recognized us as peoples with an "s." We fought 30 years for that. Up to that point, we were populations. Populations don't have human rights. Peoples do. That's why we had such a problem. Well, 143 countries voted for us, four voted against us. We know who they were. But the question is why? The question is why? And you have to really inspect that for a reason. We know each other. We've been sometimes allies, sometimes antagonists, but we know each other very well, especially the Haudenosaunee. Those 13 colonies were about as close to Indian as you're ever going to get, Grand Council, the whole works, instructions from our chiefs, democracy. Democracy is from here. It didn't come from overseas. It was here all the time. We were all democratic.

And so we're coming to a crux and it's a tough one. We're involved in it because we're people; peoples, I should say. That was really a benchmark. Now the problems that we had in that final document, we'll be battling in the next 30 years I suppose, if we have 30 years. That's the question. This global warming is extremely fast, it's coming and it's coming faster than you will think. In 2000, we gave a speech at the UN and we warned them then. We warned them then. The ice is melting. It took them seven years to respond to that, but seven years lost. Time's a factor now. We really don't have the luxury of another 100 years. We're going to see stuff very quickly and we best be ready, as leaders, as responsible people. It's coming now. You can't be red, you can't be white, you can't be yellow, you can't be black. You're people, you're a species and the species is in dire trouble as a species. There's nobody in charge of our fate except ourselves. Human beings have their own fate in their hands and how they act is how it's going to be. So they're looking for instructions and right now the long-term thinking is coming forward and the values are coming forward -- our values. And I say that collectively, because I know we all have the same -- I know that. I've traveled into ceremonies all over the place. It's all the same. It doesn't matter what language. It's the same. That's going to come back again. Now whether we can survive, collectively, is going to be up to us. It's just going to be up to us. That's all. So leadership is now coming forward and I think Indian nations have that opportunity. And the stuff that we're doing right here is kind of what you would call getting in shape. You're getting in shape, flexing yourself, getting back to where we used to be, getting in shape for the big one.

And I'm just really pleased and honored for this collection of humanity: common people, common cause, and we have to work together for survival. That's the way it's going to be. Unity -- that's what the peacemaker said. Your strength is in unity. One arrow you can break, arrows bound together in a tight bundle is strength. That's what we're doing. We're binding the arrows, getting ready. We've got to take care of each other and help our brother. He's in a lot of trouble and when he's in trouble so are we. There's no way to run. You have only one Mother and when you make her mad you're in trouble. And that's where she is right now. You can't make war against your Mother and that's what's going on in this world, and not without a consequence. So I know next year, when we have the meeting again, there'll be more examples of our abilities and our strength and who we are. It's coming forward and I'm pleased to see that.

I just want to say one more thing about sovereignty. In May [2007], in Halifax, Canada, they played the World Games Box Lacrosse Championships, world championships. And Iroquois Nationals won all through the week and came into the semi-finals and we defeated the United States 14 to 4. And we moved in to play for the gold on a Sunday and we were defeated by Canada by one goal in overtime. And I would say bad call from the ref in there, too. But it was our flag, it was our anthem, and our nation and our boys and they did do well. [Thank you]."

Megan Hill:

"Thank you, Chief. I've been honored and humbled to have been in this room with so much wisdom."

Related Resources


Harvard Professor Joseph Singer makes a compelling case that Native nations' best defense of sovereignty is their effective exercise of it, and stresses the importance of educating the general public -- particularly young people -- about what tribal sovereignty is and means.


Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby offers his perspective on what tribal sovereignty means today. He argues that the long-term sustainability of Native nations hinges on their right and ability to decide their own affairs and determine their own futures, and stresses the importance of educating…


Former Mashantucket Pequot Chairman Michael Thomas provides his definition of what tribal sovereignty means in the 21st century, and stresses the importance of Native nations examining and reconnecting with their traditional governance principles as they work to exercise sovereignty effectively.