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. Growing up, it’s true that we only learned about Native Americans in the past. More specifically, I only remember learning about Christopher Columbus and colonization. We learned about the Trail of Tears. It wasn’t until cultural anthropology in college that I learned about Native tribes and sovereign nations. In earlier education, I knew that there were different tribes, practices, rituals, norms, values, and other denominators to the Native American culture. However, I had never learned the specifics and the pieces of the overall puzzle. I think that there should be more anthropology classes offered in earlier education. It is important to learn about different cultures. It will aid us in becoming more culturally component and give us a greater understanding so we can eliminate ethnocentrism and cultural relativism.

  2. While reading this article I found it interesting when it talked about Native Americans living in the United States were part of three different sovereigns, their tribe, the state in which they reside, and the United States. Native American culture is so important because their ancestors are the first people to live on the land that we live on today. I feel that in modern times they are not as respected as they should be because of the requests they have made throughout the past. But going along with that, they are part of the United States so they have the Freedom of speech, religion and press, therefore they should have just as many rights as everyone else and there should be enough respect for their culture to let them practice however they please. I think it is important to learn more about Native American culture because of how every past historical event has taken place and that their culture is still practice in several different places over several contents. Overall enjoyed this article due to the lack of teaching about modern day native Americans within the modern classroom.

  3. The information from the article that sticks out to me the most is that people today still view Native Americans as people from the colonial times, but the article shows that their community has grown and evolved since that time. The information in the article is relevant to living in a democracy because they are “Citizens of three sovereigns: their tribe, the United States, and the state in which they reside.”” They show that they can self-govern while being a part of a bigger democracy. The ways the information is related to current events and politics today is in how they govern themselves and the example of a peaceful community they set. I think it is important for students and US citizens to learn more about Native American culture because it provides them with a sense of understanding. I feel like sometimes it can be easy to judge something you do not fully understand. And to judge based off things you have heard about a group of people.

  4. 2. American Indian Sovereignty in the United States: Understanding Native American Rights
    Author: David Childs
    Response: My first thought when reading this article is that, Do people actually look at the Native American culture in the United States as a thing of the past. I liked the way it talked about how many state recognized tribes there were still in the United States, and that people actually don’t even realize it. By the way the media talks about Native Americans, or even books, movies, news media and ect, They create the illusion as if Native Americans Have died off while the upbringing of the United States has come.

  5. While there are many things that I admire about my education, one thing that it severely lacked was any kind of study of Native Americans after the trail of tears. Like the American society that forced them to migrate our history books have pushed Native Americans out of sight and out of mind. Despite Native American nations being pushed out of American history and mainstream culture, they are still very present and vibrant nations. Despite the lack of these nations in mainstream culture, I was very surprised that these nations in 35 states. I wonder if these nations want to keep out of American mainstream, or if they have been forcibly prevented from being part of mainstream culture.

  6. The analysis that Dr. Childs presents on the presentation of Native Americans seems completely accurate. Native Americans are depicted as an ancient (almost) group of people who were uncivilized but disappeared as civilized societies were created. Teaching the variety among groups/tribes of Native Americans can be compared to the cultural pluralism that continues across the world today. Understanding Native American’s sovereignty and tribal governance helps students process the development of governments and politics that has continued throughout the ages. Depicting Native American tribes/societies as catapults for future societies is a far better example for students than allowing Native Americans to be presented inaccurately as subhuman or savages. Until this class and these articles, I was unaware of the presence of Native Americans still being so prominent within our country. By including the current status of Native Americans within our country (sovereign nations within our democratic country), students will have a better concept of history and its relationship to the present situations across our country. This present-day connection may make lessons appear more relevant and engaging for students as well.

  7. I was taken back when i read that there are 573 federally recognized Indian nations within our country. I graduated from Anderson High School and the mascot being the Redskin has been a source of controversy many times over the years. I can understand the reasoning behind the want for members of an Indian nation to have the mascot changed; however, I do look at being a “Redskin” as an honor. I do feel compelled to address the fact that I do not associate this with being an actual Redskin, i only refer to how I see a “Redskin,” being strong, fierce in battle, and loyal. I know i may be naive in not understanding the full scope of why Indian nations may want teams to change names such as “Redskins” in mascots and team names, but i also feel my education on Indian nations is limited. The presence of Indian nations in our country is obviously prevalent and makes me believe our schools should educate students more on the culture and the impact Indians have had on this country. It is obvious to see that Indians played a crucial role in our countries history and still deserving of understanding, as well as compassion today. The history may not be the prettiest, but we must address the importance of every person, their cultures, and their heritage to truly be united in this country.

  8. Its remarkable how often we just put Native Americans to the side as if they have no existence in this world. I am often fascinated with little facts that I have never heard of or thought of. With that being said, I find it very interesting that there are 573 federally recognized Indian nations. I will also dig into what 35 states are occupied by Native Americans. Is Kentucky/Ohio one?

  9. I have always had an interest in Native American culture. My first year of college, I took an Anthropology class and my professor was married to an American Indian and we learned all about their tribe and the history. I didn’t know that there are 573 federal recognized American Indian nations. I think this article is very important for students and everyone to read in order to learn more about Native American culture and not just the history part of it.

  10. When I look back on my education, I realize that Native American culture was widely portrayed as a historical culture with no relevance to the current day. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned that this is not the case and that native tribes still exist and have existed for longer than we realize. Looking forward, when I become a teacher, I will make sure that my students understand these facts instead of allowing the system to degrade Native American culture as a thing of the past.

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