Native American Tribes are sovereign nations, which means they have the responsibility, authority and autonomy to provide for the needs of their citizens. Sovereignty is the internationally-recognized power of a nation to govern itself.
Tribal sovereignty and self-government preceded Euro-American settlement and the U.S. Constitution. Tribes have been “recognized as sovereign from the time of discovery and that recognition continues today.” (Nancy M. Tuthill, Board of Directors, American Indian Law Center).
The full import and meaning of Tribal sovereignty is not widely understood outside Indian Country. Sovereignty and self-government have been central tenets of Native American societies from ancient times, and provided the cohesion which enabled their cultural and physical survival.
The following quotes summarize how the doctrine of Tribal sovereignty has been, and continues to be legally reaffirmed and respected in the United States, and upheld by Indians and non-Indians alike
"The over-arching principle of Indian tribal sovereignty is that Indian tribes pre-existed the federal Union and draw their powers from their original status as sovereigns before European arrival. Indian tribal sovereignty is a retained sovereignty, and includes all the powers of a sovereign that have not been divested by Congress or by tribes' incorporation into the federal Union. As a result, tribal sovereignty is not "conferred" upon tribes through federal recognition. Rather, recognition is a process by which the Federal Government acknowledges that particular Indian entities retain this sovereign status."
-Testimony of Tracy Toulou, Director, Office of Tribal Justice, before the House Subcommittee on Energy Policy, Natural Resources And Regulatory Affairs
Oversight Hearing on the Tribal Acknowledgment Process, February 7, 2002
"Indian tribes have held a unique position in the history of the American Government as well as in contemporary affairs. The basis for that position is the fact that Indian tribes were recognized as sovereign from the time of discovery and that recognition continues today.” … “What makes American Indian tribes so unique from other ethnic minorities, besides their indigenous status, is that they are land-based and have a political relationship with the United States government. This political relationship has several legal bases: (1) the “commerce clause” of the U.S. Constitution; (2) treaties between the U.S. and the Indian nations, legislation, and subsequent federal policy; and (3) Supreme Court decisions and executive actions. American Indian tribes, however, do not enjoy absolute sovereignty. Indian tribes do not exercise international independence (but neither do state governments). They are domestic independent nations (nations within a nation, having a nation-to-nation relationship with the Federal Government). Additionally, the Federal Government has a unique trust of fiduciary responsibility for American Indian tribes and their interests and assets, as a result of treaties which stressed “services such as education, health, etc., in exchange for land."
-Nancy M. Tuthill, Board of Directors, American Indian Law Center