What is Sovereignty?


Tribal sovereignty refers to the inherent authority of Native American tribes in the United States to govern themselves and make decisions about their own affairs. This concept is rooted in the historical and legal recognition of the unique political and cultural status of Native American tribes as distinct sovereign nations.

Key aspects of tribal sovereignty include:

Inherent Authority: Tribal sovereignty is often considered to be a pre-existing and inherent right that tribes possessed before the formation of the United States. This authority is derived from the tribes’ historical and cultural ties to the land and their distinct political and social structures.

Self-Governance: Tribal sovereignty allows tribes to create and enforce their own laws, regulations, and policies within their territories. Tribes have the power to establish their own governing bodies, judicial systems, law enforcement agencies, and other institutions to maintain order and manage their communities.

Cultural and Political Autonomy: Tribal sovereignty recognizes the unique cultural, linguistic, and political identities of Native American tribes. It empowers tribes to preserve and protect their traditions, languages, customs, and other elements of their cultural heritage.

Government-to-Government Relationship: The U.S. government recognizes tribes as separate sovereign entities and engages with them through a government-to-government relationship. This means that the federal government treats federally recognized tribes as distinct political entities with whom it negotiates treaties, agreements, and policies.

Limitations and Interactions: While tribes possess a significant degree of sovereignty, it is not absolute. Certain federal laws and regulations apply to tribal lands, and tribes must navigate interactions with federal, state, and local governments. Some matters, such as foreign affairs and defense, typically fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

Tribal Jurisdiction: Tribal courts have jurisdiction over many civil and criminal matters that occur within tribal lands and involve tribal members. However, the extent of this jurisdiction can be complex and subject to legal interpretations, especially in cases involving non-members on tribal reservation land.

Treaties and Agreements: Historically, the U.S. government entered into treaties with Native American tribes, establishing the framework for their relationship and recognizing tribal sovereignty. While the treaty-making era has largely ended, many legal agreements and court decisions continue to shape the scope of tribal sovereignty today.

Tribal sovereignty has been a critical and evolving aspect of the relationship between Native American tribes and the U.S. government. It has played a significant role in shaping the legal, social, and political landscape for indigenous communities in the United States.


Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe
Education Department

483 Great Neck Road South
Mashpee, MA 02649

508-477-0208 x8

[email protected]

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