Native American tribes existed as sovereign governments long before European settlers arrived in North America. Treaties signed with European nations (and later the United States) in exchange for land guaranteed the tribes' continued recognition and treatment as sovereign nations. Historically, state governments have been hostile to the concept of recognizing and dealing with tribes as sovereign governmental entities.
Under the Constitution of the United States and numerous treaties, the federal government undertook to protect tribes from states, who have often coveted our lands and assets and sought to impose their will on native tribes and their people.
The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized tribal sovereignty in court decisions for more than 160 years.
In 1831, the Supreme Court decided in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia that Indian Nations had the full legal right to manage their affairs, govern themselves internally and engage in legal and political relationships with the federal government and its subdivisions.
In California v. Cabazon (1987), the Supreme Court upheld the right of tribes as sovereign nations to conduct gaming on Indian lands free of state control when the state permits similar gaming outside the reservation for any purpose.
The sovereignty was further recognized––while at the same time infringed upon–-by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act passed by Congress in 1988. The act affirms that tribes have the power to conduct gaming on Indian lands, but it gives states the ability to negotiate gaming regulation and games played through the signing of tribal/state compacts.
Some states have challenged the constitutionality of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, but U.S. federal courts have upheld the foundation of the law, as well as numerous points that spell out tribes' unique status as sovereign nations within the United States.
Not just any group of Native Americans can be recognized as an Indian Nation. There are strict laws and lengthy processes to enter into to establish that an Indian community was and is a historic Indian Nation. A Directory of Federally Recognized Indian Nations is maintained by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of the Interior. There are 573 federally recognized tribes across the nation.
Sovereignty is the lifeblood of Native Americans. To Native Americans, sovereignty is not the possession of the land nor power or control over it. Simply put, sovereignty is the living relationship between the people and the land they live on.