Tribes see strong sovereignty as key to prosperous future

Native leaders from near and far. John St. Clair, chief judge in tribal court on the Wind River Indian Reservation, Cheryl Crazy Bull. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to view)
Native leaders from near and far: John St. Clair, chief judge in tribal court on the Wind River Indian Reservation; Cheryl Crazy Bull, president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund; Walter Echo-Hawk, attorney and author from Oklahoma; Wes Martel, Eastern Shoshone Business Council, Wind River Indian Reservation. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to view)
By Ron Feemster
April 9, 2013

At a University of Wyoming conference yesterday, leaders from the Wind River Indian Reservation and around the nation reflected on how Indian tribes can strengthen the sovereignty that lies at the heart of Indian self-government.

This is a central question for Indian tribes, which strive to relate as independent governments with local, state and federal authorities, but have often failed to exploit this special status when they negotiate everything from water rights to the curriculum that they teach children.

LaDonna Harris, a Comanche who is sometimes called first lady of Indian Country, heads a non-profit called Americans for Indian Opportunity. In her opening remarks, she spoke about decades of struggle to “break the stranglehold of the Department of Interior” on Indian life, which, to her mind at least, can come to an end when Native people educate themselves and their neighbors about the history and political rights of tribes.

LaDonna Harris (Comanche) Founder of Americans for Indian Opportunity. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to view)
LaDonna Harris (Comanche) Founder of Americans for Indian Opportunity. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to view)

“We need to teach Indian 101,” she said. “We start with history and with the sophisticated cultures that existed here when the first Europeans arrived.”

Indian people who fail to understand their own history and treaty rights can hardly expect to be treated fairly by local governments near their reservation, she said in an interview with WyoFile. “We need to begin by teaching our own young people.”

But the tribes also bear the burden of educating nearby local governments that Indian tribes are sovereign states. “They don’t realize that tribes are governments, too,” she said of local governments that interact with tribes on reservations. “They have never been taught who the tribes are.”

The conference, called “Building Tribal Nations,” looked at sovereignty through a range of lenses, including the role of tribal colleges, the changing paradigms of Indian law, and the intricacies of defining and negotiating Native water and energy rights.

Walter Echo-Hawk, a Pawnee attorney who has had a hand in major cases including the Cobell class-action lawsuit, anticipates a new era in federal Indian law if the next generation of Native attorneys works to apply the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to American cases.

“There are no principles of human rights law in federal Indian law,” he said. “In the ‘70s and ‘80s, a few visionary leaders went to the UN to get a seat at the table when the declaration was being drafted. They did a wonderful job.”

What the declaration does, he suggests, is proclaim the same rights for indigenous people that the rest of the world already enjoys. And while it is not a binding treaty, the declaration could be the foundation of a new legal theory that could help replace the “doctrine of conquest and colonialism.”

Wes Martell, a longtime member of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council on the Wind River reservation, said in his presentation that the reservation learned about water and energy rights “the hard way.”

The Wyoming tribes lost a court case to the state of Wyoming 24 years ago that cost them more than two-thirds of their surface water rights. He called on tribes around the nation to appoint a tribal water engineer to help create water policy on tribal lands. Only 30 of the 567 federally recognized tribes have taken this step, Martel said.

If tribes do not often take the steps necessary to protect their water rights, they enter into oil and gas leasing agreements that rob future generations of the profits under Indian lands.

Walter Echo-Hawk (Pawnee) author and attorney

Walter Echo-Hawk (Pawnee) author and attorney.

“We pay more attention to our casinos and hotels than to our water and oil rights,” he said. Asking a group of middle and high school student from the Wind River reservation to stand up, he called on them to pursue careers in engineering, hydrology and other technical fields, in order to defend and preserve their homeland’s resources.

Martel believes that tribes already have most of the tools they need to preserve their own rights and resources.

“If tribes exercise their own authority and sovereignty,” said Martel, “there are a lot of things they can do without waiting around for the federal government.”

The conference continues today at the Hilton Garden Inn near the University of Wyoming campus.

— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at

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