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Sovereignty is a verb

This Saturday, I had the privilege of attending an event hosted by the Prairie Island Indian Community near Red Wing, Minnesota, presenting the “Honoring Dakota Project. This project is dedicated to advancing relationships between the city of Red Wing and the Prairie Island Indian Community through storytelling and sharing the customs of the Mdewakanton people. This practice of bringing non-Native communities together with tribal affiliates has become more common in the United States, with an increasing number of non-Native persons seeking greater acknowledgement of the atrocities that brought them to the land on which they currently live.  

I came to this event rather optimistic. I’m an enrolled tribal member of the Oglala Lakota Oyate, and I’m always excited to see events honoring American Indian culture. I was excited to see this project, but I left feeling disappointed in the way many non-Native activists at the event portrayed it. This form of storytelling is necessary, especially right now, but non-Natives portraying it as a substitute for tangible change occupies a disproportionate amount of space in the attention economy at the cost of tribal sovereignty. The world has a finite amount of attention, and focusing on issues like discussing a mural or acknowledging historical events doesn’t change policy. In the modern legal landscape of the United States, there are things that matter in Indian Country more than just storytelling. 

Tribal sovereignty is an issue that’s actually at risk right now. The Supreme Court recently undid 200 years of precedent in saying state governments can try non-Indians for crimes committed against Indians in Indian Country. Republicans in multiple states have voiced support for critically examining the Indian Child Welfare Act, a law that ensures Native children are adopted by culturally competent Natives. In my mind as a tribal member, items such as land acknowledgements and storytelling have an importance, but tribes and non-Native folk can’t lose sight of the importance of tribal sovereignty. Sovereignty isn’t a concept that can be pushed aside as a battle and issue that has been settled; if the track records of the current Congress and Supreme Court have taught the tribes anything, it’s that sovereignty must be protected.

Tribal sovereignty is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the American legal system, partly because it was made so complicated to prevent 

Indians from fighting back. But hundreds of millions of dollars to the Native American Rights Fund, Sonosky Chambers and Greenberg Traurig later, and the tribes have a mechanism to uphold their own customs, regulate their internal economic activity and lobby for their own interests. Sovereignty is complicated, and given the different treaties that the U.S. signed with the various nations around the country, the reserved rights of these 574 federally recognized nations are nuanced. The tribes are not sovereign independent nations like Canada or Mexico; they are sovereign dependent nations. This status as nations that have sovereignty within their borders over some issues and little sovereignty over others with significant ties to the almighty federal government makes this tango one that can’t be left to the U.S.’s own devices. 

It is this very status of being a sovereign dependent nation that makes sovereignty a continuing, active struggle. It was so easy for the federal and state governments to get away with nerfing and abusing treaty obligations for so long because they utilized the mentality that “might makes right.” In the twenty-first century, the feds and the states can’t exactly send in Custer or the calvary whenever the tribes point out an abuse of power; instead they’ve recently resorted to economic and political warfare. Whether it is by expanding sports betting to a specific geographic region of a state while still maintaining that reservations don’t have the right to exercise this right in their casinos or by outright denying the rights of the tribes to decide their own COVID-19 response, the federal government and the 50 states have learned that the shared might of the dollar and the long court systems is what makes right in Indian Country. 

This type of abuse, however, went unnoticed by activists who were otherwise concerned with celebrating their virtue signaling. Storytelling and murals are things that we should care about, but let’s not forget the bigger battle. The town of Red Wing came to Prairie Island to get accolades from the Indian community whose land they occupy. They wanted to receive commendations for building a mural commemorating the sacredness of the land on which they decided to build a shoe company. They wanted praise for “reconciling” with this community. And unfortunately, they’ve gotten that. Not from the tribe, but from non-Native activists who pride themselves on their “fight for racial equity.”

I don’t believe we should laud a community for doing an action they should have done long ago. This kind of back-patting only distracts people who have privilege and power from the issues that matter in Indian Country and skews the attention economy away from things we need most. Non-Natives seeking to interact with the nations that share their same geography need to understand that their actions speak louder than their words. An acknowledgement of how your town built on burial grounds and destroyed sacred artifacts means bupkis when you continue to build without consulting the tribe. Celebrating overall mediocrity takes space away from Natives talking about and defending our treaty-protected rights. 

I don’t want my argument to be misconstrued: Dakota people should be able to share art and honor their traditions freely. That’s the point of tribal sovereignty; it’s why we care so deeply about it. I have a problem with non-Native performative activists using this cultural issue as a mask to hide the lack of action they’ve taken in their own communities that distracts from larger, more pressing conversations. In this era where tribal sovereignty is at risk and the attention economy is the make or break for activism, performative activism occupies the space of ideas in Indian Country, and then acclaims itself for doing so. 

The point I’m trying to make here is that we, tribally affiliated people and non-tribally affiliated people, can’t let sovereignty slip through our grasps. In an era where the Supreme Court has the power to reduce the authority of tribal policing, Congress can jeopardize the Indian Child Welfare Act and the states can withhold emergency blizzard funding hostage for political gain, stories and murals have their place; a place behind self-determination. 

Sovereignty must always be at the forefront of the minds of tribal leaders and those who wish to advocate for upholding treaty rights. Sovereignty is an action; it’s never finished, it’s never done, and we can’t let it lose its status as our priority. Sovereignty is a verb. Non-Native activism that does not prioritize the fight for sovereignty impedes the treaty-guaranteed rights we’ve spent 300 years gaining and defending.  

This article starts what will become a larger column of mine pertaining to tribal sovereignty and its larger implications to the federal government and overseas territories, the 50 states and hundreds of Indigenous nations that share the same geography. This article was meant to be later in this series, but because of the events that transpired Saturday, I thought it was better to examine this now and have this piece serve as an opening to a larger conversation. 

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