Amid all the talk of casinos, people keep referring to tribes as "sovereign nations." But what exactly this means is the subject of constant debate.

While stumping for her tribe's controversial Casino San Pablo development last week, Lytton Band of Pomo Indians chairwoman Margie Mejia described sovereign nations this way: "We're little countries living within a big country." That's somewhat accurate, but doesn't tell the whole story.

At its simplest, "sovereign" means independent and self-ruled. A completely sovereign nation is an equal to all other sovereign nations in all respects, from foreign policy powers to economic self-sufficiency to citizenship.

Tribes have some limits, though. They can't maintain relations with foreign governments or sell their land to anyone outside the United States. On the other hand, they and their members can do some things foreign sovereign governments and their constituents can't, such as making political contributions and voting in U.S. elections.

Tribes do have executive, legislative and judicial governmental power over all their internal affairs, including the power to make and enforce laws for their benefit and protection. This power is considered inherent, meaning it wasn't granted to them by anyone.

So they govern themselves to protect their members' health, safety and welfare, and to preserve their culture and history. States are forbidden from interfering with that - state laws simply don't apply to Indian land.


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Tribes maintain unique nation-to-nation relationships with the U.S. government. Congress and the federal courts have some power to limit tribal jurisdiction, but case law has established that tribes reserve any rights they haven't expressly given away.

A group of Indians can petition the Bureau of Indian Affairs to be recognized as a tribe - and so enjoy sovereign status - by providing historical, cultural, genealogical and other evidence to prove they've comprised a distinct community from historical times through the present.

Think of federally recognized tribes, then, as "domestic dependent nations," as the U.S. Supreme Court put it in an 1831 ruling.

The federal government, through the Department of Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs, maintains a sort of diplomatic relationship with each individual tribe, and oversees payment of special federal services and benefits to tribal members for things such as health care, education, housing and so forth.

Congress has passed a few federal laws over the years modifying the nation-to-nation relationship.

For example, a 1953 law lets certain states including California assume general criminal law and some civil law jurisdiction over Indian lands within their borders. It was enacted at a time when the federal government was interested in terminating tribes' legal status and assimilating Indians into the native population, but it's still in effect today.

In other states, either tribes or the federal government have legal jurisdiction in Indian country, depending on whether the perpetrator is an Indian, whether the victim is an Indian, and the type of offense.

The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 set up procedures that state agencies and courts must follow in handling Indian child custody matters, but this dual-jurisdiction scheme defers considerably to tribal governments.

And the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 lets tribes conduct gambling on their land after negotiating compacts with their state's governments.

So tribes might best be called "quasi-sovereign," though in recent decades they've been striving to regain or protect what powers they've had.

Courts constantly are deciding cases that define where tribal sovereignty starts and stops; for example, the California Supreme Court now is mulling whether the state Fair Political Practices Commission can force tribes to comply with the state's campaign finance disclosure laws.


Contact Josh Richman at jrichman@angnewspapers.com.