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?

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