Life and Laws in Indian Country
Being Native American in 2010 is complicated. Being Native American and living in Indian Country can be even more complicated. Both buoyed and bound by rich relationships, deep cultural understandings, and long histories, Native Americans must deal every day with a multi-layered legal system that seems to get in the way of everything.Tribes governed themselves long before Leif Ericson visited this continent and Christopher Columbus “discovered” Native peoples here. Tribal governance has had to survive and evolve through wars and treaties, forced relocations, decimation by disease and poverty, theft of commonly held resources, and educational assaults on Native culture and language. Now, an increasing number of tribes are taking back their right to govern themselves, collaborating as partners with the federal and state governments.
The federal government’s relationship with tribes is born of wars and conquest. As Europeans moved across the North American continent, they brought diseases, different understandings of relationship to land (ownership, exclusive use), and, ultimately, war. To settle or avoid these wars, the United States and many tribes signed treaties in which the U.S. government took on trust responsibilities for the economic, health, and educational well-being of Native people in perpetuity, in exchange for gaining control over vast land and resources. These treaties, and this trust relationship, are often forgotten or dismissed today.
Certainly, the responsibilities under the trust relationship have not been supported with generous funding. Poverty, ill health, and poor education are hallmarks of life in Indian Country. Even where Native peoples still own some resources that the federal government holds in trust for them, the resources have not yielded the income and benefits that they should yield – because the federal government failed in its trust responsibility.
Dealing with criminal issues in Indian Country might be the most complicated challenge of all. Most crimes are considered the business of states. In Indian Country, the tribe would be the logical substitute for the state, but tribes don’t always have sufficient authority. State, federal, and tribal authorities overlap and intertwine, depending on the exact location of a crime and whether the victim or the perpetrator is a tribal citizen. The Tribal Law and Order Act, passed by Congress this year, will assist in untangling that jurisdictional web.
Still, these complications do not define Indian Country. Remarkably, the creativity and resilience of people in Indian Country continues to surface generation after generation. In the emerging field of green energy development and conservation, people in Indian Country may lead the way forward. Community-wide solutions to health challenges improve the health of all. Native people are taking back education of their children, teaching the values that supported resilience, survival, and hope.
FCNL continues to learn from our work with Native American concerns. In this newsletter, we invite you to engage in that work with us.
Also in this issue:
Renewing a Friendship
Two Successes and More Work Ahead
Native American Fact Page
Sharing a Concern for Native Americans