American Indian Sovereignty in the United States: Understanding Native American Rights

Dakota Native American

Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

Often when Native Americans and their culture are depicted in popular media, literature or textbooks they are portrayed as a people group that was prevalent in the past. The narrative is portrayed as if they died off with history. The prevalence of Western films and television shows depicting cowboys and Indians is largely responsible for much of the mythology surrounding Native Americans. They are depicted as savages who are uncivilized and subhuman. Many people do not understand that Native Americans are alive and well today. 

Today’s post demonstrates the unique self-governmental aspect of Native tribes as sovereign nations. This can help US citizens understand the role of Native Americans today and their rights, as they are residents of the United States. This understanding of Native Americans is also helpful in social studies classrooms. Understanding the complexity of Native American culture and governance can help us get a deeper understanding of the United and the idea of cultural pluralism and how their ideas about government coexists with the democratic process.

Native Americans are a “culture of tribal governance.” In this way “American Indians and Alaska Natives are members of the original Indigenous peoples of North America. Tribal nations have been recognized as sovereign since their first interaction with European settlers. The United States continues to recognize this unique political status and relationship.”

There are a number of tribes within North and South America. These people groups were on the continents long before European settlement. Thus when studying American history and government it is important that students learn about various native groups. “There are 573 federally recognized Indian Nations (variously called tribes, nations, bands, pueblos, communities and native villages) in the United States. Approximately 229 of these ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse nations are located in Alaska; the other federally recognized tribes are located in 35 other states. Additionally, there are state recognized tribes located throughout the United States recognized by their respective state governments.” American Indians are members of the state they are located as well as the United States. In this way, “Tribal members are citizens of three sovereigns: their tribe, the United States, and the state in which they reside.” The website Tribal Nations and the United States: An Introduction is a website that outlines the details about Native American self governance within the United States.

Native Americans in the United States
Native Americans: The History Channel
Native American: Indigenous Peoples of Canada and the United States
Native Languages of the Americas: List of Native American Indian Tribes and Languages
List of federally recognized tribes in the United States
Tribal Nations and the United States: An Introduction

Discussion Questions
1. What information from this article stands out to you the most?
2. How is the information in this article relevant to living in a democracy?
3. In what ways is this information related to current events and politics today?
4. Why do you think it is important for students and US citizens to learn more about Native American culture?


  1. The idea that Native Americans existed in the past is definitely a popular one. I honestly didn’t realize how many tribes there still were in the United States. I found it interesting that a lot of the tribes today exist in Alaska since Alaska is so cold, and I don’t think of it as a place where you could live off the land easily. I wish we embraced Native American culture more and took more initiative to learn about the actual culture. They have been made out to be “bad” people, which is far from wrong, but we don’t take the opportunity to learn about them.

  2. People have the wrong idea when it comes to Native Americans. A lot of people lack respect when it comes to them because of this. They don’t understand what they are truly about. 

  3. Hi would you mind stating which blog platform you’re using?
    I’m looking to start my own blog in the near future but I’m having a
    difficult time deciding between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and
    Drupal. The reason I ask is because your design seems different then most blogs and I’m looking for something completely unique.
    P.S My apologies for being off-topic but I had to ask!

    • The blog platform we use is Word Press. This blog is a part of our local NPR station in Cincinnati (WVXU). It is a part of a project entitled Democracy and Me.

  4. Now that I have had the opportunity to talk about Native Americans in my college education, I have realized the lack of previous education I have been offered through my elementary, middle, and high school experiences. We never had the opportunity to learn the true experiences of the Native Americans, and were taught “Manifest Destiny” and the struggles the colonists went through. We learned the chime of Christopher Columbus sailing the ocean blue, but lacked the content of the amount of Native Americans who lost their land and homes. I definitely believe students should have the opportunity to learn the truth. This opportunity could lead students become more culturally aware of not only the colonists view, but the Native Americans. It was grazed over in my education, so when I had the opportunity to read about the truths of their experiences, my view on the settlement was not as positive as I thought. I feel that the school systems should include content that is truthful about every culture; this will lead students to be more well-rounded adults and to be more culturally accepting.

  5. Native american culture was never a subject that was deeply taught to me when in i was in elementary school, the only time i really learned anything about them was when i lived in St. Louis and attended a school where the majority of the student body was black and we learned more about the native Americans then. I think the native american culture should be taught more in every school and be built into the curriculum for schools so that people will be come more culturally aware and understand more perspective of how they felt when the Europeans settled in there home.

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