Chapter Ten: Sovereign Nations and Colonized Nations

Chapter Ten

Sovereign Nations and Colonized Nations



The final chapter of Native America explores the self-determination era, assesses its accomplishments thus far, and explores the challenges still remaining in front of many native peoples.  Native peoples have used their to create and reinvigorate communities, revitalize language and culture, provide for the well-being of their people, engage in sustainable economic development, and lay plans for a future in which they will play an important role in American society. The United States, and state and local governments, today routinely express their willingness to support self-determination. This in itself is a significant break from a not-so-distant past when federal officials anticipated the disappearance of tribal governments and the assimilation of native peoples into the American mainstream. At times, non-Indian Americans speak of justice, of building long-term relationships with their native neighbors.  But the recent past has shown as well that despite the significant accomplishments of native peoples in governing their communities and promoting their people’s interests, the promising signs of cooperation, and the increasing presence and acceptance of native peoples on the national stage, that in general non-Indian Americans will support freedom and autonomy for native peoples only to the point where the exercise of these rights begins to threaten their own interests.

For much of the nineteenth century, American policy-makers anticipated Indian extinction.  And even within the last half-century, American officials looked towards the “termination” of American tribes. No longer. Sovereign tribes are stronger today in terms of their culture, their economic strength, their governing capacity than they have been for a long time. They are more active in defining and shaping their identities—with all the ambiguities and complexities that accompany that endeavor–than at any time in the past.


To Learn More

For the court decisions of 1978, see N. Bruce Duthu, American Indians and the Law (New York: Viking, 2008) and Frank Pommersheim, Broken Landscape: Indians, Indian Tribes, and the Constitution,  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) and Braid of Feathers: American Indian Law and Contemporary Tribal Life, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).  For the legislation of that year, see Margaret Jacobs, “Remembering the ‘Forgotten Child’: The American Indian Child Welfare Crisis of the 1960s and 1970s,” American Indian Quarterly 37 (Winter/Spring 2013), 136-159 and Charles R. Wilkenson, Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations, (New York: Norton, 2005).

For the Indian policies of the Reagan administration, see Dean J. Kotlowski, “From Backlash to Bingo: Ronald Reagan and Federal Indian Policy,” Pacific Historical Review, 77 (November 2008), 617-652.

Much of this chapter was written using the documents, reports, and proceedings of a variety of federal government agencies charged with overseeing aspects of United States Indian policy.  I consulted reports from the National Institutes of Health, the Indian Health Service, the Small Business Administration, the Department of Justice, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and media reports from Indian communities throughout the United States.  Students interested in staying current on these developments would do well to follow the Indian Country Today media network, and to follow the newsfeed on  For critiques of federal policies of self-determination, see Taiaiake Alfred, Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto, (Don Mills,Ontario, Canada: Oxford University Press, 1999). For an optimistic assessment of what native peoples might do under the mantle of self-determnation, see The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, The State of Native Nations, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

For acknowledgment and recognition, see Renee Ann Cramer, Cash, Color and Colonialism: The Politics of Tribal Acknowledgment. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005) and Mark Edwin Miller, Forgotten Tribes: Unrecognized Indians and the Federal Acknowledgment Process, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004).  The essays in Amy E. Den Ouden and Jean M. O’Brien, eds., Recognition, Sovereignty Struggles, and Indigenous Rights in the United States: A Sourcebook. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), are excellent.  Some of the pitfalls of the recognition process are explored in Eva Marie Garroute, Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003) and, with specific reference to the vexed position of the North Carolina Lumbees, Karen I. Blu, The Lumbee Problem: The Making of an American Indian People, (New York: Cambridge, 1980) and Gerald Sider, Lumbee Indian Histories: Race, Ethnicity and Indian Identity in the   Southeastern United States, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).  On white people playing Indian, see Philip Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places, (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004) and Playing Indian, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998) as well as Circe Sturm, Becoming Indian: The Struggle over Cherokee Identity in the Twenty-First Century, (Santa Fe: SAR Press, 2011) and Blood Politics: Race, Culture and Identity in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

For Indian gaming, William L. Ackerman and Rick L. Bunch, “A Comparative Analysis of Indian Gaming in the United States.” American Indian Quarterly, 36 (Winter 2012), 49-74; Randall K. Q. Akee, et. al, “The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and its Effect on American Indian Economic Development.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 29 (Summer 2015), 185-208; Thaddeus W. Conner and William A. C. Taggart, “Assessing the Impact of Indian Gaming on American Indian Nations: Is the House Winning?” Social Science Quarterly 94 (2013), 1016-1044 and James I. Schaap, “The Growth of the Native American Gaming Industry: What Has the Past Provided, and What does the Future Hold?” American Indian Quarterly 34 (Summer 2010), 365-389.  The National Indian Gaming Commission publishes annual reports to allow those interested to understand the amounts of money collected in tribal gaming operations. For opposition to gaming, see Audrey Bryant Braccio, “How the Anti-Gaming Backlash is Redefining Tribal Government Functions,” American Indian Law Review, 34 (no. 1, 2009-2010), 171-201 and Anne F. Boxberger Flaherty, “American Indian Land Rights, Rich Indian Racism, and Newspaper Coverage in New York State, 1988-2008,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 37 (no. 4, 2013), 53-84.

For the challenges to indigenous identity faced by native peoples like the Chumash, and what is at stake when identity is called into question and contested, see the Jon M. Erlandson, ed., “Forum on Anthropology in Public: The Making of Chumash Tradition: Replies to Haley and Wilcoxen,” Current Anthropology, 38 (December 1998), 477-510; Brian D. Haley and Larry R. Wilcoxen, “How Spaniards Became Chumash and Other Tales of Ethnogenesis,” American Anthropologist, 107 (September 2005), 432-45 and “Anthropology and the Making of Chumash Tradition [and Comments and Reply],” Current Anthropology, 38 (December 1997), 761-794.  A critique, somewhat dated, but no less worth considering, is raised by Fergus Bordewich, Killing the White Man’s Indian: Reinventing Native Americans at The End of the Twentieth Century, (New York: Doubleday, 1996). Michael F. Brown, in Who Owns Native Culture? (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003) raises a powerful question about appropriation of native traditional knowledge.



Chapter 10 treats the Self-Determination era.  For President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s statement on “self-determination” click here.  For President Richard Nixon’s “Special Message on Indian Affairs” from July of 1970, click here. In December of 1970, Nixon signed legislation returning Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo.  In 1973, Nixon signed legislation restoring the tribal status of the Menominee Indians, putting an end formally to the policy of termination. Ronald Reagan’s statement on Indian Policy of January 1983, is available here. For the Obama Administration, click here and here.

This chapter devotes some time to the important legislation and court cases of the 1970s and 1980s.  Students should be familiar with these, and they are easily available online.  The court cases include Morton v. Mancari (1974); Oliphant v. Suquamish (1978); United States v. Wheeler (1978); Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez (1978) and Montana v. United States (1981).  Students will also need to understand the decision in United States v. State of Washington (1974), better known as the “Boldt decision. The statutes enacted by Congress are equally important:  The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (1975); the federal acknowledgment statute of 1978; the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act of 1978; the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, and the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978.  Students should also be familiar with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the Tribal Self Government Act of 1994.

Also important in limiting the sovereignty of Native Nations in different ways were three additional Supreme Court cases: California v. Cabazon Band of Indians (1987); Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association (1988); and Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith (1990). A host of bureaucracies developed in support of these decisions and legislative acts.  The Office of Federal Acknowledgment determines whether a native community meets the standards for federal recognition as an Indian tribe. The National Indian Gaming Commission oversees gaming operations in Indian country. Its website includes annual reports on gaming revenue in native communities across the United States.  Students might want to learn more about these gaming operations if they live in a part of the country where Indian casinos are seldom seen.  They can check out the websites for the Seneca Niagara Casino, the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut, or the Dakotas’ Little Six casino at Mystic Lake.  They should know about tribal colleges, too.  Little Bighorn College, for example, operates on the Crow Reservation in Montana and the Cankdeska Cikana Community College in North Dakota.

Gaming is only one part of the drive to bring economic development to Indian country.  To read about the diversity of these initiatives, students can take advantage of the useful website maintained by the First Nations Development Institute ( or the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.  The Harvard Project hosts on its webpage a number of position papers that shed light on the challenges that come with developing reservation economies, and examples of successful efforts that may counter stereotypes that some students might hold. The United States Census Bureau maintains some information about wealth and poverty in Indian Country, but it is worth keeping in mind that native communities like the Senecas, asserting their sovereignty, do not allow the Census Bureau on to their reservations.

For measures of health and welfare in Indian country, students should check out the webpages maintained by different federal agencies:  The Centers for Disease Control, the Indian Health Service, and the US Department of Health and Human Services.  News outlets focusing on Native American communities, like the Indian Country Today Media Network and, regularly include stories about issues of health and welfare in Indian country, and students can use sites like these to keep abreast of current events.

To learn more about Taiaiake Alfred, students can visit his website.  To read the Sherrill decision, which put to read Indian land claims in New York State, click here. For the relative importance of Native American issues in national Presidential politics, students might take a quick look at those sections of the Republican Party Platform and Democratic Party Platform that deal with American Indian communities.


Assignments and Study Questions

  1. People, Peoples, Places and Things


Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act

Louis Bruce                                                                                             Morton v. Mancari (1974)

Office of Indian Education                                                                  Indian Financing Act, 1974

American Indian Religious Freedom Act                                          Acknowledgment

Tribally Controlled Community College Act                                    Little Big Horn College

Indian Child Welfare Act                                                                      Oliphant v. Suquamish (1978)

United States v. Wheeler  (1978)                                                         explicit divestiture

Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez (1978)                                             Indian Civil Rights Act

Montana v. United States (1981)                                                       James Watt

compacting and contracting                                                                Tribal Self-Governance Act

self-determination                                                                                 Taiaiake Alfred

poverty                                                                                                      mortality

alcohol                                                                                                      mental health

Tiguas of Ysleta Del Sur                                                                        Texas Restoration Act, 1987

Pamunkey recognition                                                                           Duwamish recognition

rich Indian racism                                                                                  Gaming

Cabazon Band of Mission Indians                                                      California v Cabazon Band (1987)

Indian Gaming Regulatory Act                                                           NIGC

Class III gaming                                                                                     compacts

playing Indian                                                                                        Ronald A. Roberts

Point Conception                                                                                   language preservation

Lyng decision                                                                                         Employment Division case

NAGPRA                                                                                                 Passamaquoddy Tribe v. Morton

Iroquois land claims                                                                             Grand Island

Barack Obama                                                                                        Red Lives Matter


  1. Discussion Questions and Writing Assignments


  1. Students are interested in presidential politics, and introducing the subject will almost always generate an intense discussion. Students might fruitfully compare the statements about Native American in the respective Republican and Democratic Party platforms for the 2016 election.  On what might Republicans and Democrats agree? Disagree?  Why?
  2. If 1978 was an important year in the history of American Indian Policy in terms of legislation passed by Congress and decisions rendered by the Supreme Court, students should be able to explain precisely why.  How significant were the legislative achievements of 1978?  What of the Court’s decisions?  Do these court decisions and laws, taken together, make it difficult to speak of a single, unitary, federal Indian policy?
  3. Discuss the effectiveness and importance of the federal government’s commitment to “self-determination.”  How much progress has been made under these policies to address the problems native peoples face? How much work remains to be done?
  4. The problem of poverty is an enduring theme in Native American history, and it runs throughout this textbook.  What are the sources of Native American poverty, and what solutions have been proposed?
  5. How significant a problem is “Cultural appropriation”?  What forms does it take? Students might look for products in stores that include representations of native peoples, or mascots for sports teams, or for examples of non-Indians “playing Indian.”  What can and should be done about this problem?
  6. The material presented in this chapter, when supplemented by some well-chosen primary sources, lends itself well to classroom debate: the mascot issue, federal acknowledgment, Indian gaming, and the problems associated with criminal and civil jurisdiction in Indian Country.
  7. In 2010 President Barack Obama signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).  Was it wise for him to have done so?  What obligations does the UNDRIP impose upon the United States, and how well do you think the United States has fulfilled those obligations?






A Discussion Forum for Teaching and Writing Native American History