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After over 300 years of history, the question of Indian tribal sovereignty is still being debated and litigated daily. The question is, Who should exercise sovereign power over a wide range of governing activities — the tribes themselves, the states, the federal executive branch, Congress or the U.S. judicial system? Each legal entity has some claim to power, and the balance of authority between these powers has shifted over time.
Because of this, tribes were forced to act under contradictory federal policies. * For some issues, tribes act as sovereign government entities similar to states within our federal system. * They act as special interest groups for other issues and at other times in their history. * Sometimes, they have to act as both simultaneously.
Even those who have been dealing with the questions most directly admit they don't necessarily understand sovereignty. In Spiral of Fire, the former Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, Joyce Duggan, says,
"Many people still have a hard time today understanding sovereignty. What does this sovereignty of Indian nations mean? I have a hard time with it too because we're not sovereign in this nation. If we were sovereign in this nation we would not have to depend on federal government dollars. We would not have to go to the state for gaming approvals. We would be able to live independently in our own nation, which is what we were doing in 1838 at the time of the removal."

Sovereign Nations
Indian gaming exists because tribes act as sovereign nations, but the legal and moral definition of sovereignty is still being debated.
Since at least the mid-1970s, the federal government has been returning certain powers and control to the tribes. There are federal contracts with tribes allowing them to run their own school systems instead of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). There are agreements with other tribes allowing them legal jurisdiction over certain crimes within their borders. In several states, county, state and tribal police officers are cross-deputized so that they can enforce laws within each others' jurisdictions.
In 1990, Congress amended the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act that allowed some tribes to take over most of the programs on their reservations that had been administered by the BIA. Education programs, health services, housing projects are now administered by some tribes themselves.

Special Interest Groupsgroups.
Despite the moves toward self-determination, the funding for these programs still comes predominantly from the federal government. This forces the tribes to act as special interest groups, by lobbying Congress and the White House for these services promised by tribal treaties over 150 years ago.
In 2006, the Bush Administration proposed a $2.2 billion budget for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the same figure proposed for the previous year. These are the funds that pay for all Indian programs in education, health, housing, energy resources, public safety and justice, reservation construction projects and better accounting of the land trust funds the BIA holds for the tribes.
Many tribes are totally dependant on these federal funds. And so every year, they go before Congress and the administration to testify for changes in federal laws and more appropriations for tribal programs.
At times, tribes also operate as both sovereign entities and as special interest groups, perhaps most prominently when they attempt to influence elections. With the recent influx of gaming revenues, some tribes with casinos have made political contributions to candidates who support their interests and policy initiatives. In 2004, tribes contributed $10 million in U.S. House and Senate races alone, according to Congressional Quarterly.
Right now, sovereignty issues are most contentious when they involve the relatively large sums of money that some, but not all, Indian casinos are generating. Because tribes are sovereign entities under the National Indian Gaming Act, they do not pay income tax on gaming revenues.
States and local governments don't think that's fair, in part because the local governments may be responsible for infrastructure, like roads leading to large reservation casinos. Or local governments might be responsible for services for urban American Indians. So, recently, states have been passing laws and filing lawsuits across the country to try and get a share of gaming revenues into their coffers. Tribes have, for the most part, resisted, asserting their sovereignty rights.
In some states — like California, where Indian gaming has experienced huge growth — tribes have re-negotiated extensions of their gaming compacts with the state in exchange for paying corporate taxes on net winnings.
Even outside gambling issues, tribal sovereignty disputes raise a wide range of thorny questions. For example: * Who should control where to dump nuclear waste? At least one tribe in Utah wants to open a nuclear waste dump on their land. But the state and Interior Department don't think the tribe can adequately police the dump. * Should tribes have to pay state and federal taxes on cigarettes they either manufacture or sell? Generally, courts have said, no. * Do tribes have to pay gasoline taxes? Again, generally, no. * Who can write and enforce laws governing contracts between tribes and non-tribal members? * Do tribes that contribute to political campaigns have to abide by a state's campaign finance laws and submit financial reports? * Who writes and enforces laws governing hunting and fishing on tribal lands? * Does a non-Indian person or an American Indian from another tribe have to submit to laws passed by a tribal council if a crime is committed on a reservation?
Because of the contradictory history on tribal sovereignty there is no one clear cut legal precedent for each of these questions. The answers have to be decided on a case-by-case basis. Yet, the legal decisions to these questions have huge implications for Native Americans all across Indian Country.

Sources Cited: "Tribal Sovereignty." Indian Country Diaries. PBS, Sept. 2006. Web. 6 Feb. 2016. <>.

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