Histories of Indigenous Sovereignty in Action: What is it and Why Does it Matter?

Christine DeLucia, Doug Kiel, Katrina Phillips, and Kiara Vigil

During the 2004 presidential election, U.S. President George W. Bush visited the Unity: Journalists of Color convention. When taking questions from the press, Mark Trahant, a Shoshone-Bannock tribal citizen and member of the Native American Journalists Association, asked: “What do you think tribal sovereignty means in the twenty-first century, and how do we resolve conflicts between tribes and the federal and state governments?”[1] Bush’s fumbled response became infamous in “Indian Country,” a classic teachable moment.[2]

The incumbent U.S. president struggled to define Indigenous sovereignty: “Tribal sovereignty means that—it’s sovereign. You’re a—you’ve been given sovereignty, and you’re viewed as a sovereign entity.” The audience laughed. Perhaps because the president got it wrong: Bush erroneously characterized sovereignty as conferred by an external power rather than inherent to Indigenous nations. The exchange underscored U.S. political leaders’ unwillingness to seriously comprehend Indigenous sovereignty and reckon with its ramifications for both tribal nations and the United States.

Neither European empires nor the United States brought law or representative democracy to North America—it was already here. For example, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy’s Great Law of Peace originated as early as the twelfth century on the shores of Onondaga Lake, near present-day Victor, New York. The Great Law, the Constitution of the Haudenosaunee people, is composed of 117 articles and initially brought together five nations: the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca. The Tuscarora people joined in 1722, making a Six Nations Confederacy. Arriving at an agreeable consensus and making decisions with consideration of their impact seven generations into the future are two fundamental principles in Haudenosaunee governance.[3] Contrary to Bush’s contention that Native Americans were “given sovereignty,” nations like the Haudenosaunee extended sovereign recognition to the United States through treaties, not the other way around.

The ongoing power of settler colonialism is premised upon the claimed inferiority of Indigenous people and the alleged subordination of Indigenous forms of governance to settler ones. The writing and teaching of history have been closely bound up in these processes. Leading U.S. historians have misleadingly—and detrimentally—portrayed Native political distinctiveness as gradually eroding over time or becoming assimilated into the U.S. democratic project, while Indigenous histories continue to be omitted from or tokenized within U.S. classrooms and popular media.[4] Despite these misrepresentations, Native people and polities continue to maintain their own forms of autonomy and develop multi-pronged strategies for confronting erasive colonial ideologies and actions.

“Sovereignty” holds many meanings for Indigenous people around the world. Ask fifteen different Indigenous scholars to define sovereignty and you may receive fifteen distinct conceptualizations of what Amanda J. Cobb (Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma) calls this “contested term.”[5] This multiplicity reflects the diversity of Native forms of knowledge and action and the complexity of the topic.[6] For the purposes of this short essay, we take core qualities of sovereignty to encompass the longstanding autonomy and inherent self-determination of Native nations; foundational relationships and responsibilities within and between Native people and homelands; and exercises of authority over how Native experiences are represented, understood, and shared. While many critical discussions of Indigenous sovereignty primarily focus on the domains of law and policy, such as the pivotal Cherokee Cases, it is also vital to cultivate a more expansive vision that encompasses Indigenous languages, cultures, popular expressions, activism, environment, and much more.[7]

In writing this piece collaboratively, we offer several meditations on the contested and historically shifting meanings of Indigenous sovereignties. Our comments center Indigenous conceptions and experiences rather than allowing settler colonial frameworks to establish the terms of discussion.[8] At the same time, recognizing the profound ways that Euro-American settler colonialism has impacted Indigenous people and polities since 1492, we address the nature and implications of these entangled pasts and their legacies. Geographically we focus on North America, leaving largely beyond the bounds of this piece important histories of Indigenous sovereignty in Alaska, Hawai‘i, and other Indigenous homelands shaped by U.S. imperialism as well as more transnational perspectives.[9] We invite educators and scholars to critically engage a wide range of original source materials, including but not limited to oral traditions, documentary archives, and creative arts. This is an introduction to sovereignty and the field of Native American and Indigenous Studies, and we hope to encourage future conversations, opportunities for research, and decolonial pedagogical innovations.

Indigenous Concepts and Imperial Encounters

“Sovereignty is when I speak my language” asserts John Ridge, a character based on a real Cherokee Nation leader, in playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle’s recent production, Sovereignty.[10] The play includes dialogue in both ᏣᎳᎩ ᎦᏬᏂᎯᏍᏗ (Tsalagi Gawonihisdi) and English.[11] Nagle’s play highlights the fact that the term “sovereignty” is a European import derived from Latin origins. In Eurocentric contexts sovereignty emerges in relation to modern nation-states and their forms of political authority.[12] Yet Indigenous concepts and practices of self-governance long predated European colonization in the Americas.[13]

Symbolic Petition of the Chippewa Chiefs, presented at Washington, January 28th, 1849, headed by Oshcabawis of Monomonecau, Wisconsin. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS-1871). Artist Seth Eastman’s replica of the original pictograph on birchbark. The image depicts how each clan and their leaders are connected to one another, in heart and mind, to Lake Superior and the wild rice beds.

Drawing upon thousands of years of lived experience in specific geographical locations, Native societies developed carefully attuned systems of dwelling in their homelands to mediate the use, distribution, and sustainability of key resources. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Mississauga Nishnaabeg) characterizes “our nation Kina Gchi Nishnaabeg-ogamig, the place where we all live and work together” in this way: “It is relationships based on deep reciprocity, respect, noninterference, self-determination, and freedom.”[14] These deep histories underscore the importance of recognizing Indigenous sovereignty as intimately interwoven with place and profoundly accountable to the more-than-human kin who comprise the entire network of relations: animals, plants, waterways, and the earth.

An Anishinaabe oral tradition, for example, conveys the significance of building appropriate, non-anthropocentric relations between humans and the Hoof Nation. It uses storytelling to present a formal framework for hearing grievances, redressing wrongs, and ensuring cessation of harms in the future.[15] Such orienting frameworks in which “Stories are law,” as Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe) characterizes it, have proved crucial during times of conflict and outright violence, environmental stress, and social reorganization, all of which Native leaders and their wider communities have navigated with intention to ensure future wellbeing.[16]

European colonialism presented severe challenges to Indigenous societies seeking to autonomously determine their futures. Beginning with Columbus’s voyages into Taíno homelands in the Caribbean, Europeans pursuing “conquest” sought to subjugate Native polities to their own authority and to paternalistically portray Indigenous people as childlike, “uncivilized,” or otherwise incapable of directly managing their own affairs. The Spanish Requerimiento of 1513 asserted the Iberian Catholic colonizers’ right to be “subduers of the barbarous nations.” It informed Indigenous people that if any resisted their incursions, “we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses [Fernando and Juana].”[17] The Doctrine of Discovery that arose from papal bulls of the era further codified Eurocentric assumptions of the right to govern in the Indigenous Americas and the authority to appropriate land, resources, and Indigenous labor for the Christian colonizers’ enrichment.[18] Important histories of Indigenous diplomatic pushback and resistance to colonial violences signify intergenerational efforts to counteract these existentially threatening impositions.[19] They illuminate how tenuous European efforts at implementing hegemony proved in the face of powerful, organized Native governance.[20]

Indigenous people contended with colonizers’ repeated failures to recognize or accord respect to Indigenous forms of political organization. While many Euro-colonial actors subscribed to notions of the hereditary, absolute power of “kings” and “queens,” they misperceived or willfully ignored significant dimensions of Indigenous governance. In many Native societies women held substantial political power and responsibility for ensuring the wellbeing of their relations. In the Native Northeast women leaders such as the saunkskwa Weetamoo (Pocasset Wampanoag) and Quaiapen (Niantic-Narragansett) made crucial choices for their people and endeavored to protect the integrity of tribal homelands. Clan Mothers in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy carried out essential roles in selecting chiefs, deliberating about when to engage in conflict or pursue peacemaking, and how to proceed with ceremonies.[21] Euro-colonial leaders coming from patriarchal contexts tended to disregard these forms of political authority and the gender complementarities (and fluidities) present in diverse tribal settings.

One of the foundational challenges that Indigenous societies confronted post-1492 was European settler colonialism’s continuous push to displace Natives from their homelands and replace them with settler families, systems of governance, and modes of relations. Voluminous documents pertaining to land negotiations and diplomatic interactions attest to colonial attempts at dispossession and to Native leaders’ recurring efforts to maintain autonomy and resiliency amid coercion and violence. Written in Indigenous as well as European languages, these archives express tribal communities’ “rhetorical sovereignty” and intentional shaping of the terms of encounters.[22]

A wave of Indigenous resistance movements across North America challenged European subjugation projects. These movements responded to pressures such as epidemic diseases and enslavement of community members, losses of tribal homelands through settler appropriations, and disempowerment of key political and religious leaders, particularly as a result of Christian missionization. The Anglo-Powhatan wars of the Southeast (early- to mid-seventeenth century), King Philip’s War in the Northeast (1675-1678), and the Pueblo Revolt (1680) in the Southwest mobilized intricate coalitions of Native people into uprisings that forcefully countered Euro-colonial claims of supremacy. The multi-tribal confederations fostered by Pontiac (Odawa) and Neolin (Lenni Lenape) in the 1760s, and by Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa (Shawnee brothers) in the early 1800s, similarly organized Native people in the continental interior. These movements demonstrated to Euro-colonial authorities that tribal nations did not acquiesce to their own marginalization. Nor did they assent to absorption into the Spanish, British, or French empires or the United States of America.[23] While these movements’ outcomes varied and there was never a singular Native approach—instead, a diversity of alliances and oppositions—such genealogies of direct resistance have been keenly remembered by Native communities through the present day.[24]

For Indigenous societies the establishment of the United States constituted more continuity than change, a shift from one colonialist regime to another form of empire. The Declaration of Independence cast Native peoples as “merciless Indian savages,” hostile opponents to American interests. This derogatory language prefigured events, structures, and policies of the nineteenth century. As U.S. westward settler colonial expansion accelerated, Native nations confronted U.S. leaders’ downgrading of Indigenous sovereignty from “nation-to-nation” status to a more subordinated concept of “domestic dependent nations,” as articulated in the Cherokee Nation v. Georgia Supreme Court decision (1831). Such rulings combined with policies of “Indian removal”—the forced displacement of tribal peoples that abetted the growth of plantations that enslaved African-Americans; with allotment of collectively-held tribal lands into privatized parcels; and with assimilation agendas designed to remake Native identities in the mold of Protestant Euro-colonial ones. Yet Indigenous people and nations continued to assert and enact their own forms of sovereignty in arenas that ranged from courtrooms to the soundstages of Hollywood.

Spaces of Sovereignty in the Twentieth Century

By the late nineteenth century sovereignty over Indigenous homeplaces came under increasing pressure as the battlefield shifted from the land to the domestic space of the home.[25] Native people found new ways to respond to myriad strategies used by settler colonial policies to restructure their lives, to force them to give up not only their claims to land, but to language, culture, and Indigenous ways of knowing and being in the world. Prior to the twentieth century, many Indigenous performers grappled with the fraught field of visual sovereignty when they acted in traveling “wild west” shows reenacting actual battles that had taken place on their native homelands.[26] Using drawings, Plains Indian warriors created images in “ledger books,” known as “ledger art,” to record their own representations of Indigenous resistance.[27] In the realm of print, Indigenous writers used various forms of literature to contend with colonization.[28] These expressions of sovereignty took place across American spatial and temporal boundaries, engendering a “third space of sovereignty,” which “resides neither inside nor outside of the U.S. political system but rather exists on its boundaries, exposing both the practices and limitations of American colonial rule.”[29] By the twentieth century Native performers, artists, and writers continued to resist colonization within the third space of sovereignty.

“Visual sovereignty” constituted a significant Native intervention in American culture during the mid-twentieth century. By turning our attention to film as a key site of struggle, we can see how Native performers, directors, and consultants encountered both opportunities for and limitations upon representational self-determination as they contended with simulations of “the savage.” These simulations were not based upon actual Indigenous contributions and lived experiences, but instead relied upon the absence of both humor and the persistence of real tribal cultures. According to Gerald Vizenor, “at best, movies are the deliverance of an unsure civilization” and “not cultural visions, but the vicious encounters with the antiselves of civilization, the invented savage.”[30]

Indigenous people working in film sought to “challenge dominant representations of Native Americans created by the studio system” and appropriated “the narrative and visual conventions of the film medium stereotypes” for “their own interests” and to “display tribally specific knowledge since the turn of the twentieth century.”[31] Visual sovereignty was a way to contest the “figure of the visually imagined Indian” and challenge “the universal foil against which European colonies and later the U.S. and Canadian governments have established legal and ideological claims of dominance in the ‘New World.’”[32] Manifestations of visual sovereignty provided by Native filmmakers and actors destabilized the imaginary Indian and emerged as a counter-colonial tool that benefitted both Native performers and audience members.

An article in the 1940 New York Herald highlighted a petition directed to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) from a new southern California tribe: the “DeMille Indians.” Organized under the leadership of actor Chief Thunder Cloud (Victor Daniels), the group represented hundreds of Indigenous entertainers who had made Hollywood their home and film their career. The article noted, “With the cinema as their melting pot, these expatriates are taking on the semblance of a tribe all their own—perhaps the largest tribal group not on any reservation.”[33] The petition may have been a publicity stunt, yet it spoke to a decades long tradition of transnational community-building among Native people living in Los Angeles. “The petition is important,” Michelle Raheja argues, “because it marks a movement from the Hollywood Indian as a constellation of visual images predicated upon white-generated stereotypes to a politicized understanding of the ways these images circulate in popular culture. It also demonstrates how these images are deployed by and in dynamic, often diasporic, contemporary Indigenous communities.”[34] Moreover, the petition responded to changes in federal Indian policy that impacted all Native people, whether living in cities or on reservations.

To intervene in how Indianness achieved representation on screen, even to a small degree, was an extraordinary form of resistance as assimilation efforts continued with precedents in the courts and policies administered by the BIA.[35] In 1934 the Indian Reorganization Act offered a seeming reprieve from the assimilationist policies of earlier decades. Tribal nations received encouragement from the Federal government to set up tribal councils modeled upon American institutions to manage their affairs without oversight from the United States. Although characterized as an era of self-determination, this federal policy weakened the trust-relationship between the U.S. government and tribal nations with the ultimate aim of defunding Indian Country. By the 1940s, when the “DeMille Indians” pushed for fairer working conditions, other intertribal efforts at social reform and activism made headlines with the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).[36] The NCAI continues to be one of the most important intertribal political organizations of the modern era, representing a wide range of Native peoples.[37]

In addition to visual sovereignty in entertainment and social reform organizations, Native artists asserted more control over how Native identities, traditions, and perspectives were represented. Lakota artist Mary Sully included Indigenous aesthetics in her designs that challenged and expanded American modernism. During the 1930s and beyond, Indigenous artists such as Sully participated in art expositions that showcased Indigenous works alongside anthropological collections. These mingled “old and new” to help “solidify American Indian arts, redefining older ethnographic objects as art through recontextualization and then surrounding them with contemporary artistic productions, neatly linking the new art back to authentic points of origin in ancestral pasts.”[38] This co-mingling marked an opportunity for American Indian artists to reframe how non-Native viewers interpreted the lasting significance of objects once seen as “relics” of an ancient and vanishing people, while also recognizing the power and presence of Native aesthetics in American culture.

Natani Notah (Diné), Indian Territory! (2020), digital scan and manipulation of pioneer poster, ca. 1866-79. Notah describes her current art practice as exploring “contemporary Native American identity through the lens of Diné (Navajo) womanhood. Inspired by acts of decolonization, environmental justice, Indigenous feminism, and futurism, my work dares to imagine a world where Native sensibilities are magnified. By way of fragmented abstraction, bodily scale, and the marrying of natural and synthetic materials, my work provokes conversations about what it means to resist colonization in the present-day United States of America.” Artist’s statement: Natani Notah is an interdisciplinary artist and educator. She is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation (Diné) on her father’s side and part Lakota and Cherokee on her mother’s. Her work has been exhibited at venues, such as apexart, New York City; NXTHVN, New Haven; Tucson Desert Art Museum, Tucson; Gas Gallery, Los Angeles; The Holland Project, Reno; Mana Contemporary, Chicago and SOMArts Cultural Center, San Francisco. Notah has received awards from Art Matters, International Sculpture Center, and the San Francisco Foundation. She has been published in Sculpture Magazine and has had artist residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, Grounds for Sculpture, and the Headlands Center for the Arts. Notah holds a BFA with a minor in feminist, gender, and sexuality studies from Cornell University and an MFA from Stanford University.

The effort to further erase Native claims to political sovereignty and homelands took new shape during the 1950s. Native artists, entertainers, and writers continued to resist settler colonial policies as Congress sought to sever formal relationships between the federal government and tribes. In some cases this meant the actual termination of tribal status to end economic subsidies to Indian nations.[[39]] In others, Congress extended state jurisdiction into Indian Country through Public Law 280 and used the BIA to create a relocation program to move Native people out of their ancestral homelands, off of reservations, and into “relocation” cities in efforts to modernize and Americanize them.[40] During this era of termination, relocation, and Americanization, Hollywood continued to make films that celebrated conquest and manifest destiny. Native people took active roles in these productions.[41] Jay Silverheels (Mohawk), well-known to audiences as “Tonto” in The Lone Ranger, collaborated with Eddie Little Sky (Oglala Lakota) to found the Indian Actors Workshop. Together they trained Indigenous actors for roles outside of the stereotypical western.[42] As more Native people made their homes in urban centers, they found support from similar groups: Indian centers and clubs, powwows, ceremonial gatherings, cultural shops, and art exhibitions.[43]

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the Red Power movement used visual sovereignty as a highly public strategy. The “Indians of All Tribes” occupied Alcatraz Island from November 1969 to June 1971 and used painted messages, photography, television coverage, and print to make their critiques of colonialism clear and far-reaching. Wampanoag tribal members and allies commenced an annual tradition of resistance called “The National Day of Mourning” in 1970, gathering in the iconic setting by Plymouth Rock to stage a prominent counter-narrative to colonial-centered Thanksgiving celebrations.[44] A caravan of Native activists organized the “Trail of Broken Treaties,” travelling cross-country to Washington, D.C., in 1972 to occupy a BIA building in protest of unfair treatment and treaty abrogations. By February 1973 members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupied Wounded Knee, a massacre site in 1890, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota where they stayed for seventy-one days in an armed stand-off with federal agents.[45] In all of these settings Native organizers forcefully shaped their own representations, symbols, and narratives in mass media to heighten U.S. awareness of urgent Indigenous needs and to advocate for systemic changes.

Perhaps the most well-known example of the convergence of Indigenous political activism with the hyper-visibility of Hollywood’s Indian image is when actress Sacheen Littlefeather (Apache) took hold of the Academy Awards’ stage in 1973. She refused the Oscar for Best Actor in lieu of Marlon Brando to decry the history of misrepresentation of Native people by the film industry and draw attention to AIM’s occupation of Wounded Knee. Global audiences watched her speak out in a beaded powwow dress against the continued marginalization of Native people and nations. These examples highlight the multi-pronged approach used by Native people throughout the twentieth century to represent and claim sovereignty as their inherent right and as a cultural and political force that would forever shape their lives.

Many twentieth-century Native campaigns to affirm rights and self-determination developed through inter-tribal organizing. Efforts to build solidarities and increase visibility of Native goals across any single tribal context are historically significant and have animated recent scholarship in Native American and Indigenous Studies. An equally important framework is particular tribal nations’ pursuits of these goals. In the following section, we look into a case study about a specific dimension of autonomy—food sovereignty—based in the experiences of the Red Cliff Ojibwe, whose reservation sits on the south shore of Lake Superior in the northernmost part of Wisconsin.[46]

Leaders of Taos Pueblo meet with U.S. President Richard Nixon, 1970. During the Nixon administration, which advocated reversal of “termination” policies, high-profile Native activism occurred at Alcatraz Island, Wounded Knee, and other locales. Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, 3841-11

Food Sovereignty on the Shores of Lake Superior

Settler colonialism has repeatedly disrupted Indigenous access to critical foodways. As Elizabeth Hoover and Devon A. Mihesuah demonstrate, these “scorched-earth battle tactics” forced Native nations to rely on the government for food, while environmental changes (such as building dams) made it harder for Native people to continue their traditional practices.[47] In the wake of these destructive practices, Native nations are reclaiming, rebuilding, and relearning these practices as a critical component of what it means to be sovereign nations.

The Red Cliff Fish Company opened its doors in November of 2020. Owned and operated entirely by the Red Cliff Band, the Fish Company bills itself as “part of a producer-driven, community supported food system that…creates jobs, and preserves our rich Tribal heritage.” Tribal chairman Rick Peterson called the creation of the Fish Company a “historic milestone” in Red Cliff’s “community and food sovereignty goals.”[48] Peterson’s comments highlight how the Fish Company’s opening is more than just another economic endeavor for Red Cliff. It is a reclamation of an industry that has sustained Red Cliff and its people for generations, despite decades of local, state, and federal attempts to infringe upon Red Cliff’s sovereignty.

Red Cliff’s fishing history is an integral component of the livelihood of a Native nation whose land is bordered by the greatest Great Lake, but it is not the only way Ojibwe fed their families and community, tried to make a living, or supported their economy. Ojibwe means of sustenance in northern Wisconsin included hunting, fishing, trapping, berrying, collecting and preserving wild rice, and tapping maple trees for sugar and syrup.[49] Ojibwe attempts to make a living, however, were often met with resistance and imposition from state officials.[50] As Chantal Norrgard argues, “Ojibwe livelihoods came to be at the front and center of their struggles to exercise their sovereignty in the midst of state encroachment and the threat of assimilation.”[51] As our collective writings in this essay demonstrate, sovereignty is a multi-pronged foundation of Native nationhood. In this instance, Ojibwe engagement with the resources of the land and the water were and continue to be a cornerstone of Red Cliff’s assertion of food sovereignty.

Food sovereignty maintains the right of a people to define their own agricultural and food systems in relation to sustainability, health, culture, and history. Ojibwe fishermen were catching lake trout and whitefish for the American Fur Company by the 1830s, likely due to the skills and knowledge the Ojibwe brought to the industry.[52] A series of early nineteenth-century treaties ceded Ojibwe lands for Euro-American settlement and development, but the Ojibwe explicitly reserved the right to hunt, fish, and gather on ceded lands. Wisconsin became a state in 1848, and state infringement on Native sovereignty from state officials, conservation officers, and Indian agents ranged from targeted arrests and fines to the confiscation of harvested resources intended to feed families and community members.

These stories of Indigenous resistance—and continued settler opposition to that resistance—are not confined to the distant past. In spring 2020, gunshots rang out at a northern Wisconsin lake as Native spearfishers exercised their reserved treaty rights.[53] A few months later, Mi’kmaq lobster fishers in Nova Scotia similarly met threats, intimidation, and violence from commercial fishers who cut Mi’kmaq lines, threatened Mi’kmaq fishers, and pulled Mi’kmaq traps from the water.[54] Acts as seemingly innocuous as fishing have been both catalysts for Indigenous resurgence and points of violent contention. Sovereignty in these instances carries much more than legal implications: fishing rights, which provide the ability to sustain families and communities, demonstrate how sovereignty is life.

Challenges to Indigenous Sovereignty

When local and state governments across the U.S. undermined the exercise of Native treaty rights, the Pacific Northwest “fish-ins” of the 1960s galvanized what would become a national movement reasserting these rights.[55] Red Cliff chairman Philip Gordon and vice-chairman Richard Gurnoe and four other tribal members were arrested in 1969 for deliberately using an illegal gill net to catch fish in Lake Superior. This launched a test case in defiance of Wisconsin game wardens who sought to confine Ojibwe fish harvesting to smaller inland lakes. The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld Ojibwe rights to fish in Lake Superior in State v. Gurnoe (1972). A year earlier, however, in People v. Jondreau (1971), the Supreme Court of Michigan had ruled against Ojibwe fish harvesting in Lake Superior.[56]

Despite Ojibwe ancestors having purposefully reserved the right to harvest fish in the territories they ceded to the United States, opposition to the reserved rights exploded into violence during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled, in the so-called Voigt Decision (1983), that Wisconsin had no authority to regulate hunting or fishing within reservation boundaries, and that Ojibwe tribal members were exempted from state regulations imposed by the Department of Natural Resources. Two anti-Indigenous groups emerged to lead the charge against the exercise of these rights: Stop Treaty Rights Abuse (STA) and Protect America’s Rights and Resources (PARR). Opponents of Ojibwe spearfishing—incensed by notions that tribal members had “special rights” other Americans lacked—gathered in heated protest at boat landings in northern Wisconsin. These confrontations, sometimes violent, became known as the “Walleye War” and prompted new legislation.[57]

Wisconsin Act 31 (1989) mandated “instruction in the history, culture and tribal sovereignty of the federally recognized American Indian tribes and bands located in this state at least twice in the elementary grades and at least once in the high school grades.” The legislation took as its premise that the public school system had failed to adequately educate Wisconsin residents about the treaty relationships their state shares with Native communities.[58] Nick Hockings, a Lac Du Flambeau Ojibwe elder and educator, heard white chidren express stereotyped views of Native people in the classroom. Recalling one such instance, Hockings raised the following concern about a child: “What if he grows up to be a federal judge? What if he grows up to be a senator?”[59] As George W. Bush demonstrated at the Unity convention, the concern about powerful and ill-informed public officials is a legitimate one.

While some Native communities defended their treaty rights to harvest fish in their ceded lands, other communities pursued economic sovereignty in the form of bingo and casino gambling on their tribal lands. An important tribal victory in the Supreme Court decision Cabazon v. California Band of Mission Indians (1987) cleared the way for tribal casinos. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (1988) formalized a new relationship between federally-recognized tribes and U.S. states: tribes and states would need to arrive at intergovernmental agreements and sign “gaming compacts.” Within a decade, billions in new revenue flowed into Indian Country, providing a basis for many communities to begin recovering lands lost in prior centuries.[60]

The path toward contemporary Indigenous nation-rebuilding is beset with obstacles. As tribes increasingly flex their muscles, opposition from non-Natives often intensifies. The Citizens Equal Rights Alliance (CERA)—established at a meeting of PARR, the opponents of Ojibwe spearfishing—became an umbrella organization for local anti-Indigenous movements throughout the United States. These localized movements have variously opposed casino gaming, land claims litigation, tribal water rights, and other expressions of tribal self-governance. Classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group, CERA perceives the exercise of tribal sovereignty as an affront to core principles of the United States, namely equality. Their vision is multicultural inclusion for Indigenous communities, but without sovereign recognition; that is, effectively no longer adhering to “the supreme law of the land” as denoted in hundreds of treaties.[61]

Native American history defies a teleological progress narrative. The fundamental question of whether or not the United States will honor its commitments to Indigenous nations remains as vital as ever in the twenty-first century. There are good reasons to both despair and hope. When the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, then composed of only thirty-two acres, purchased parcels of land within their ancestral territory and attempted to restore their sovereignty over it, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the claim. The Oneida Indian Nation could not “rekindl[e] embers of sovereignty that long ago grew cold,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the majority opinion for City of Sherill v. Oneida Indian Nation (2005).[62]

Fifteen years later, the Supreme Court faced related questions about the restoration of sovereign status, namely whether the Oklahoma Enabling Act (1906) had formally diminished the boundaries of the Creek Nation’s sovereign territory. It didn’t. Would state and federal governments continue to recognize political boundaries established by treaties? In an emphatic majority opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch, with Ginsburg endorsing, declared: “Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law. Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.”[63]


Christine DeLucia is Assistant Professor of History at Williams College, and author of Memory Lands: King Philip’s War and the Place of Violence in the Northeast (2018)

Doug Kiel (Oneida Nation) is Assistant Professor of History and the Humanities at Northwestern University, and completing a book tentatively entitled Unsettling Territory: Oneida Nation Resurgence and Anti-Sovereignty Backlash

Katrina Phillips (Red Cliff Ojibwe) is Assistant Professor of History at Macalester College and author of Staging Indigeneity: Salvage Tourism and the Performance of Native American History (2021)

Kiara M. Vigil (Apache/Dakota heritage) is Associate Professor of American Studies at Amherst College and author of Indigenous Intellectuals: Sovereignty, Citizenship, and the American Imagination (2015)


[1]Mark Trahant asking George W. Bush about tribal sovereignty, 2004, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdimK1onR4o.

[2]“Indian Country” has been defined by Native people and the U.S. federal government in ways that overlap and conflict. Here we are referencing it in the broadest sense, which encompasses all the reservation and tribal-national lands in the United States as well as cosmopolitan areas now claimed by Indigenous peoples who have either remained in urban areas or have relocated there. For a specific history related to the latter, see Nicholas G. Rosenthal, Reimagining Indian Country: Native American Migration and Identity in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles (2012).

[3]Kayanesenh Paul Williams, Kayanerenkó:wa: The Great Law of Peace (2018); Barbara A. Mann and Jerry L. Fields, “A Sign in the Sky: Dating the League of the Haudenosaunee,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 21 (No. 2, 1997), 105-63.

[4]Susan Sleeper-Smith et al., eds., Why You Can’t Teach United States History without American Indians (2015). For critiques by two Indigenous historians, see Malinda Maynor Lowery (Lumbee), “Are American Indians Part of a United States National History?,” remarks on Jill Lepore’s These Truths, Public Seminar blog, May 7, 2019, https://publicseminar.org/essays/are-indians-part-of-a-united-states-national-history; Ned Blackhawk (Shoshone), “The Iron Cage of Erasure: American Indian Sovereignty in Jill Lepore’s These Truths,” The American Historian, 125 (Dec. 2020), 1752-63.

[5]For an example of the range of definitions, see the series of essays in Part 3, “Sovereignty,” Routledge Handbook of Critical Indigenous Studies, ed. Brendan Hokowhitu et al. (2021); Amanda J. Cobb, “Understanding Tribal Sovereignty: Definitions, Conceptualizations, and Interpretations,” American Studies, 46 (Fall 2005/Spring 2006) 115-32.

[6]For Indigenous perspectives on federal Indian policy and law with respect to sovereignty see David E. Wilkins and K. Tsianina Lomawaima, Uneven Ground: American Indian Sovereignty and Federal Law (2001).

[7]Jill Norgren, The Cherokee Cases: Two Landmark Federal Decisions in the Fight for Sovereignty (1996).

[8]Joanne Barker, ed. Sovereignty Matters: Locations of Contestation and Possibility in Indigenous Struggles for Self-Determination (2005).

[9]See Noenoe K. Silva, Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism (2004); J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Sovereignty and Indigeneity (2008); S. James Anaya, Indigenous Peoples in International Law (2004).

[10]Mary Kathryn Nagle, Sovereignty: A Play (2020), Appendix.

[11]The Cherokee syllabary is a phonetic writing system used in the Cherokee Nation. On the language, see the Cherokee Nation’s resources, https://language.cherokee.org/chr/; and Ellen Cushman, The Cherokee Syllabary: Writing the People’s Perseverance (2011).

[12]James J. Sheehan, “The Problem of Sovereignty in European History,” The American Historical Review, 111 (Feb. 2006), 1-5; Jens Bartelson, A Genealogy of Sovereignty (1995); Robert Jackson, Sovereignty: Evolution of an Idea (2007).

[13]Michael Witgen, An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America (2103).

[14]Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance (2017), 8.

[15]Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark, Chap. 28, “Stories as law: a method to live by,” in Sources and Methods in Indigenous Studies, eds. Chris Andersen and Jean M. O’Brien (2017), 249-56. On the deep intertwining of Indigenous histories, identities, and specific homelands, see Leigh J. Kuwanwisiwma, T.J. Ferguson, and Chip Colwell, eds., Footprints of Hopi History: Hopihiniwtiput Kukveni’at (2018); Renee Pualani Louis, Kanaka Hawai’i Cartography: Hula, Navigation, and Oratory (2017); Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache (1996).

[16]Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013).

[17]For a translated text accessible for classroom use, see Requerimiento, Teaching American History, https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/requerimiento; for critical context, see Patricia Seed, Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640 (1995).

[18]For critical perspectives on the Doctrine of Discovery and its legacies, especially in Indigenous legal arenas, see https://doctrineofdiscovery.org/what-is-the-doctrine-of-discovery; and Robert J. Miller et al., eds., Discovering Indigenous Lands: The Doctrine of Discovery in the English Colonies (2010).

[19]These are attested to in copious oral traditions, early written records of colonization, and archaeological contexts.

[20]Ned Blackhawk, Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (2006).

[21]Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War (2018); Jeanette Rodriguez, with Iakoiane Wakerahkats:teh, Condoled Bear Clan Mother of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation, A Clan Mother’s Call: Reconstructing Haudenosaunee Cultural Memory (2017).

[22]Scott Richard Lyons, “Rhetorical Sovereignty: What Do American Indians Want from Writing?” College Composition and Communication, 51 (Feb. 2000), 447-68; Scott Richard Lyons, X-Marks: Native Signatures of Assent (2020); Lisa T. Brooks, The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast (2008); Jean M. O’Brien, Dispossession by Degrees: Indian Land and Identity in Natick, Massachusetts, 1650-1790 (1997); Suzan Shown Harjo, ed., Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations (2014).

[23]Philip Deloria, “What Tecumseh Fought For,” The New Yorker, Oct. 26, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/11/02/what-tecumseh-fought-for.

[24] Michael V. Wilcox, The Pueblo Revolt and the Mythology of Conquest: An Indigenous Archaeology of Contact (2009); Matthew Liebmann, Revolt: An Archaeological History of Pueblo Resistance and Revitalization in 17th Century New Mexico (2014); Jason Garcia (Santa Clara Pueblo), Tewa Tales of Suspense! graphic novel/comic, via collections of the Newberry Library, https://www.newberry.org/tewa-tales-suspense; Brooks, Our Beloved Kin; Christine M. DeLucia, Memory Lands: King Philip’s War and the Place of Violence in the Northeast (2018).

[25]Beth H. Piatote, Domestic Subjects: Gender, Citizenship, and Law in Native American Literature (2013).

[26] Joy Kasson, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History (2001).

[27]Although Ledger Art was initially a Cheyenne and Lakota war leader tradition, in recent years, Native female artists have used this form to depict untold stories of their lives and achievements. See Richard Pearce, Women and Ledger Art: Four Contemporary Native American Artists (2013).

[28]There is ample scholarship pertaining to Native writers and writing as forms of resistance during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. See Maureen Konkle, Writing Indian Nations: Native Intellectuals and the Politics of Historiography, 1827-1863 (2004) and Christopher J. Pexa, Translated Nation: Rewriting the Dakhóta Oyáte (2019).

[29]Kevin Bruyneel, The Third Space of Sovereignty: The Postcolonial Politics of U.S.-Indigenous Relations (2007), xvii.

[30]Gerald Vizenor, Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance (1999), 6-7.

[31]Michelle Raheja, Reservation Reelism: Redfacing, Visual Sovereignty, and Representations of Native Americans in Film (2010), 30.

[32]Michelle Raheja, Reservation Reelism, 30

[33]Raheja, Reservation Reelism, 1.

[34]Raheja, Reservation Reelism, 2.

[35]A devastating blow to tribal sovereignty was set with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Lone Wolf v Hitchcock (1903). The decision led to the dispossession of Kiowa lands and abrogated the terms of the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867. Moreover, it determined that Congress had always had the right to abrogate any of the terms of its treaties with its Indian wards if it sought to do so in the best interests of the tribe. Blue Clark, Lone Wolf vs. Hitchcock: Treaty Rights and Indian Law at the End of the Nineteenth Century (1999).

[36]Thomas W. Cowger, The National Congress of American Indians: The Founding Years (1999).

[37]The NCAI was preceded by the Society of American Indians, founded by leading Native intellectuals during the earliest decades of the twentieth century who came from different nations and were mainly living in urban centers. See Chadwick Allen, “Introduction: Locating the Society of American Indians,” Studies in American Indian Literatures, 25 (no. 2, 2013):, 3-22.

[38] Philip J. Deloria, Becoming Mary Sully: Toward An American Indian Abstract (2019), 10.

[39] On termination and relocation, see Donald L. Fixico, Termination and Relocation: Federal Indian Policy, 1945-1960 (1990); Kenneth R. Philp, Termination Revisited: American Indians on the Trail to Self-Determination, 1933-1953 (2002); Roberta Ulrich, American Indian Nations from Termination to Restoration, 1953-2006 (2012).

[40]On urban Indian communities in the twentieth century, see Donald L. Fixico, The Urban Indian Experience in America (2000) and Brian Hosmer and Colleen O’Neil, eds., Native Pathways: American Indian Culture and Economic Development in the Twentieth Century (2004); Joane Nagel, American Indian Ethnic Renewal: Red Power and the Resurgence of Identity and Culture (1996); Joan Weibel-Orlando, Indian Country, L.A.: Maintaining Ethnic Community in Complex Society (1999); Coll Thrush, Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place (2017); Douglas K. Miller, Indians on the Move: Native American Mobility and Urbanization in the Twentieth Century (2019).

[41] From 1950 to 1954 over 400 Westerns were made, with nearly 125 in one year at the start of the decade to around 55 in 1954. For context, see Nicolas G. Rosenthal, Reimagining Indian Country: Native American Migration and Identity in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles (2012).

[42] Kiara M. Vigil, “Warrior Women: Recovering Indigenous Visions for Film and Activism,” for In Focus Issue on: “Indigenous Performance Networks: Media, Community, Activism,” JCMS: Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, 60 (Fall 2020).

[43]In addition to literature, art, and film, Native dancers like Maria Tallchief (Osage Nation) found other ways to assert themselves during the era of Termination. See Sherril Dodds and Rebekah J. Kowal, “‘Indian Ballerinas Toe Up’: Maria Tallchief and Making Ballet ‘American’ in the Tribal Termination Era,” Dance Research Journal, 46 (no. 2, 2014), 73–96.

[44] DeLucia, Memory Lands, xiii.

[45] Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior, Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee (1996); George Pierre Castile, To Show Heart: Native American Self-Determination and Federal Indian Policy, 1960-1975 (1998).

[46] Red Cliff’s federally recognized name is the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, but for the purposes of this essay we refer to them as the Red Cliff Ojibwe.

[47] Elizabeth Hoover and Devon A. Mihesuah, eds., Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States: Restoring Cultural Knowledge, Protecting Environments, and Regaining Health (2019).

[48] “Red Cliff Breaks Ground on Fish-Processing Facility,” Ashland Daily Press, May 7, 2020.

[49] Chantal Norrgard, Seasons of Change: Labor, Treaty Rights, and Ojibwe Nationhood (2014).

[50] See, for instance, James W. Feldman, A Storied Wilderness: Rewilding the Apostle Islands (2013).

[51] Norrgard, Seasons of Change, 62.

[52] Patty Loew, Native People of Wisconsin (2015).

[53] “Deputies make arrest after Ojibwe spear-fishers take fire,” Green Bay Gazette, May 6, 2020.

[54] Vincent Schilling, “The fiery clash over Mi’kmaq treaty fishing rights,” Indian Country Today, Oct. 26, 2020.

[55] Bradley G. Shreve, “‘From Time Immemorial’: The Fish-in Movement and the Rise of Intertribal Activism,” Pacific Historical Review, 78 (Aug. 2009).

[56] James W. Oberly, “GLIFWC: The Founding and Early Years of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission,” in Indigenous Perspectives of North America: A Collection of Studies, ed. János Kenyeres et al. (2014). State v. Gurnoe, 53 Wis.2d 390 (1972); State v. Jondreau, 384 Mich. 539 (1971)

[57] Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ch v. Voigt v. Wisconsin, 700 F. 2d 341 (1983). Larry Nesper, The Walleye War: The Struggle for Ojibwe Spearfishing and Treaty Rights (2002).

[58] J. P. Leary, The Story of Act 31: How Native History Came to Wisconsin Classrooms (2018).

[59] Sandra Osawa, Lighting the Seventh Fire (1995).

[60] Cabazon v. California Band of Mission Indians, 480 U.S. 202 (1987); Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, Pub.L. 100-497 (1988). Jessica Cattelino, High Stakes: Florida Seminole Gaming and Sovereignty (2008).

[61] Doug Kiel, “Nation v. Municipality: Indigenous Land Recovery, Settler Resentment, and Taxation on the Oneida Reservation,” Native American and Indigenous Studies, 6 (no. 2, 2019), 51-73.

[62] City of Sherill v. Oneida Indian Nation, 544 U.S. 197 (2005).

[63] McGirt v. Oklahoma, 591 U.S. (2020).