Social Justice Monday: “Domestic Dependent Nations” in the Twenty-First Century

Social Justice Monday–February 29, 2016

Submitted by Jeanna McLellan, Electronic Services Assistant

From first contact, Indian tribes have been in danger of losing their separate political and cultural identity, thereby being assimilated into dominant American society. The only thing preventing this has been the tribes’ unextinguished claim to sovereignty – the inherent authority of tribes to govern themselves. Federal Indian law and policy has been troubled from its beginning by recurring paradoxes, inconsistencies, and conflicting national and tribal objectives. Yet tribal cultures remain strong in the face of powerfully adverse political and jurisprudential forces, continuing to gain influence in political spheres.  The current diminished status of tribal sovereignty is taking its toll on the ability of tribes to survive as unique cultural and political communities and is diminishing their contribution to the vitality of our country as a whole.

There are 567 federally recognized Indian tribes in the U.S., most of which have their own sovereign lands, governments, and court systems, and who interact every day with the state and federal government. Yet most legal thought overlooks our sovereign Indian nations and legal heritage. In Indian law we are confronted with the limits of the law, and our study should press us towards figuring out how to take the next step toward problem solving of a different order.  But we cannot do that effectively until we know how Indian law works. One needs to understand the ailment to start to treat it effectively.

Professor Michael Miranda, Adjunct Professor and Faculty Fellow at the Center for Indian Law & Policy and Professor Eric Eberhard, Distinguished Indian Law Practitioner in Residence and Senior Fellow at the Center for Indian Law led the discussion.

Professor Miranda discussed Indian Law’s relevance to social justice through four elements. First, what is studied in Indian Law is at the core of social justice–the interaction of cultures, and acceptance and accommodation. Second, the study of Indian Law allows one to develop the Jesuit values of social justice. Third, the study of Indian Law  provides a window into what real diversity is, and how to build bridges between communities. Fourth, it teaches one the limit of the law to provide social justice, and for true reconciliation we need more than the law.

Professor Eberhart discussed tribal sovereignty in the context of the ability of tribes to effectively govern their homelands, protect their land and cultures and provide for the social and economic well-being of their citizens and all those in an Indian community. As limitations are imposed on tribal sovereignty, as is believed will occur in the current Dollar General case and has occurred in other cases before the Supreme Court, Indian law helps us understand exclusion and the limits of the law.  This understanding then leads us to grasp the need to move beyond the law’s contours to seek cultural and political reconciliation.

Interested in learning more? Here are some related books available in the Law Library:

American Indians and the Law
By N. Bruce Duthu
LAW-4th Floor (KF8210.R32D88 2008)

From the Publisher:

Few Americans know that Indian tribes have a legal status unique among America’s distinct racial and ethnic groups: they are sovereign governments who engage in relations with Congress. This peculiar arrangement has led to frequent legal and political disputes-indeed, the history of American Indians and American law has been one of clashing values and sometimes uneasy compromise. In this clear-sighted account, American Indian scholar N. Bruce Duthu explains the landmark cases in Indian law of the past two centuries. Exploring subjects as diverse as jurisdictional authority, control of environmental resources, and the regulations that allow the operation of gambling casinos, American Indians and the Law gives us an accessible entry point into a vital facet of Indian history.


American Indian Politics and the American Political System

By David E. Wilkins Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark

From the Publisher:

Now in its third edition, American Indian Politics is the most comprehensive study written from a political science perspective that analyzes the structures and functions of indigenous governments (including Alaskan Native communities and Hawaiian Natives) and the distinctive legal and political rights these nations exercise internally, while also examining the fascinating intergovernmental relationship that exists between native nations, the states, and the federal government.


Encyclopedia of American Indian history

By Bruce E. Johansen, (Bruce Elliott), 1950-; Barry Pritzker

From the Publisher:

The story of America’s original inhabitants, their descendents, and immigrants from the Old World is one of cooperation and conflict, promise and compromise, tragedy and endurance. It is an essential, troubling undercurrent in the history of the United States and Canada, running the length of the nations’ history and the breadth of the continent (the names of more than half of the states in the United States and Canada have Native American origins). From continuing debates over the origins of Native Americans to recent issues such as reparations, the provenance of artifacts, and sports team mascots, it is a story that continues to be written.