American Indian Tribal Sovereignty
Indian tribes have sovereign powers over their members and their territories. These powers derive from their status as sovereign nations that existed before the formation of the United States. These powers also derive from treaties with the United States and acts of Congress.
When Europeans first came to North America, the land was occupied by Indian tribes that had their own customs, traditions and laws. The Europeans recognized the Indian tribes as sovereign nations with the inherent right to govern themselves.
When the United States was formed, the Constitution itself recognized the unique status of Indian tribes, authorizing Congress to regulate commerce with “foreign nations, among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.”
The Constitution also authorized the President to make treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate. Under this authority, the United States made many treaties with Indian tribes, recognizing the tribes’ sovereign status.
Virtually all of the land in the United States was acquired through treaties or agreements with Indian tribes. The Supreme Court has described the treaties as contracts between sovereigns, and it has held that the tribes retain all powers of tribal sovereignty not expressly relinquished by them in treaties.
Laws enacted by Congress also confirm the sovereign status of Indian tribes. These include many laws designed to further tribal self-determination and self-governance. Other laws recognize specific tribal governmental powers, such as the Clean Water Act and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
In 1987, the Supreme Court held that tribes had inherent sovereign powers to regulate gaming on their own land. The court also held that a state had no power to interfere with any form of Indian gaming unless all such gaming was absolutely prohibited in the state.
Many states approached Congress after this decision, seeking a federal law to provide for some state input into Indian gaming. The result was the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA).
IGRA confirmed tribal sovereignty over gaming and established a procedure for tribes to negotiate compacts with states that would set forth how certain types of gaming would be regulated on Indian lands.
Under IGRA, the Mille Lacs Band negotiated two compacts with the State of Minnesota governing blackjack and video games of chance.
The Band opened two casinos — Grand Casino Hinckley and Grand Casino Mille Lacs — in compliance with IGRA and the compacts.
The casinos are bringing desperately needed revenues to the Band. The Mille Lacs Band is attempting to use its sovereign powers, as recognized by Congress, to rebuild its community after enduring decades of poverty and oppression.
The Mille Lacs Band is also attempting to use its sovereign powers to protect the environment. For example, under the Clean Water Act, the Band is seeking to establish standards for underground injection wells in order to protect water quality.
The Mille Lacs Band is committed to protecting its sovereign powers and to using those powers to improve the lives of its members and the communities in which they live.