Tribes, Treaties and U.S. Law

with Natalie Landreth of the Native American Rights Fund

According to the Bureau of Land Management, about 56 million acres of land are held in trust by the federal government for Native American tribes and individuals.

Natalie Landreth of the Native American Rights Fund outlines efforts underway to preserve tribes’ sovereignty, including their political status and legal rights as governments.

Posted on:

Nov 04, 2019

Hosted by: Sheila Hyland
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Lisnek: There are more than 500 tribes in the United States today, descendants of tribes actually predating the United States. these tribes are sovereign nations, maintaining a government to government relationship with the United States. Hi. Welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Paul Lisnek. Joining me to discuss tribes and treaties and where they fit under U.S. law is Natalie Landreth. She's a staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund. Natalie, good to see you.

Landreth: Good to see you, too. Thank you for having me.

Lisnek: So, I think when we talk about Native American tribes as being sovereign nations, I mean, you live it. You know what it means, but I'm not sure the average citizen kind of gets that distinction, because they live in the very states we're all living. Draw the distinction for us.

Landreth: Well, sovereign nations means these are the descendants, these are the inheritors of the actual tribal governments that were here predating the creation of the United States. And they maintain certain governmental powers. They have civil, criminal, and regulatory jurisdiction that may vary based on the land at issue and jurisdiction over their tribal members, as well. They maintain a political membership. They have elections, and they take actions that are very much like actions that the United States government would take. That's what their sovereignty means. They're --

Landreth: And so -- Go ahead.

Landreth: I was just going to say they're not a social or ethnic group. They are an actual government -- a political body, a tribe is.

Lisnek: And actually what you were saying there is sort of addressing my next question, because the country has been through so much in terms of civil rights efforts, and, you know, treat everybody equally, and everybody's supposed to be the same. And that may be true. But when we're talking about Native American nations that's not the issue, right, the civil rights piece? It's really tied to promises made, treaties made.

Landreth: Right. It's tied to enforcing the treaties, the promises that were made, the bargains that were struck, and it's tied to something that was part of the civil rights movement but had its own distinct character, and it's called self-determination, and that's the right to determine how to run your own life. And that is something unique to a sovereign government. So you'll hear the term tribal self-determination, and it means basically to make their own laws and be ruled by them and make decisions for their own members. That's what separates them.

Lisnek: At the same time, one has to get the concept of federalism, if you will, in the Constitution, that is to say states have to get along, so the Indian nations have to get along with the various states. So how does that all work when there's challenges, when there's an effort, say, from the federal government to use natural resources on what will then tap into or touch Native American land? That creates a challenge. Landreth: Right. So I think the one way people look at it that's sometimes a mistake when they're looking at this issue is they'll look at it as a hierarchy like federal, state, tribe. and it's really not. It's federal, state, and then tribes are off to the side, on par with the states. Depending on the issue, jurisdiction can be very complicated and sort of who has the right to use what lands, but tribes aren't necessarily under the state. They are domestic dependent nations on the federal government, but they will have their own unique challenges. So that's a very good question but very detailed answers depending on the specific issue, frankly.

Lisnek: Well, let me maybe simplify it this way.

Landreth: Give me an example.

Lisnek: When there is a challenge to some project going on, and it goes to the courts, maybe the easy way to answer it is when the court gives us an answer, what does the court look to?

Landreth: The court looks basically to federal Indian law, which is its own body of law that pertains to tribes in the United States. There's an entire section of the United States Code Title 25 that only pertains to Indian tribes and their members. And so when we bring a case, for example, you know, the Keystone case or some other case, we're looking at different laws than people necessarily would be. An average nongovernmental organization might be citing environmental law in that particular case. And our tribal clients might cite environmental law as well as one of their claims, but they would also add in federal Indian law, that you get to interpret this as the tribes would have understood it. And they also would bring in a quantity in the legal forum that other people don't have access to which is the existence of treaties, because a lot of these tribes signed treaties with the United States government, and that treaty was usually an agreement to the United States, "We will give you this much land, or we will give you this many resources in exchange for protecting our existing lands against intrusion and protecting our natural resources." That's what a lot of them really come down to. And that's something unique to tribes that you only find in cases brought by tribes in courts. Lisnek: Actually, just a quick sense of this As the years go on, as they have been, but as the years go on, do you see, is there more of a merger of these entities working together, or will always have to be Native American tribes saying, "Respect who we are. Respect our treaties and that's what will govern us forever"?

Landreth: Merger with who? In terms of --

Lisnek: Meaning federal laws and federal provisions and those kinds of things -- executive orders, whatever it may be.

Landreth: Mm-hmm. Well, I think it depends on the administration, frankly. There are times when the administration can be more aligned, you know, over U.S. history more aligned with Indian interests and less in which they may be working together more often. But there will always be a flavor, I think, of tribes saying, "Self-determination. We're a sovereign entity. Let us run this as we see fit, because we are the ones best positioned to protect our own members, because that's our job." Lisnek: Natalie Landreth, that's really amazing stuff, and it's complicated stuff. But it's important information for people to get a handle on] because we're all citizens of the United States of America.

Landreth: That's right.

Lisnek: Thank you.

Landreth: Thank you very much.

Lisnek: And thank you for joining us, as well. If you want more great conversations with in your community and across the country, just go to I'm Paul Lisnek. Thanks for watching.

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