"Who Will Govern Indian Country" by Rudolph C. Ryser
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                    Rudolph C. Ryser -- Cowlitz

        Copyright 1983 Center For World Indigenous Studies

[Ed. Note: This article may be reproduced for electronic transfer and 
posting on computer bulletin boards in part or full, provided that no 
profit is made by such transfer and that full credit  is given to the 
author, the Center For World Indigenous Studies  and The Fourth World 
Documentation Project.]

     There are 177 independent, self-governing states in the world
today.  One hundred twenty of these states became independent in
the last thirty years.  States like Vanuatu and Nauru in the
Pacific, Nevis-St. Kitts in the Caribbean and Belize in Central
America are among those which became independent in only the last
ten years.

     From these numbers, we can tell that international agreements
promoting decolonization and self-determination of peoples have
had a profound affect on the geo-political shape of the world.
More peoples live under self-governing State structures now than
at any time in human history.  As a result of what might be called
the enlightened period of Human Rights and Self-Determination of
peoples, we might conclude that virtually all people in the world
are self-governing and free to choose their own social, economic,
political and cultural future.  Despite appearances to the
contrary, there is an estimated one-half billion people in the
world who do not enjoy the full right to govern themselves.  These
are the peoples of what we now call the Fourth World.  They are
peoples of the original nations which speckle six continents and
hundreds of islands.  Peoples of the Fourth World make up nations
which are under the control of older and newer states.

     While there are scores of states, there are more than three
thousand nations in the world which are surrounded by older and
newly created states.  These nations are in the main under the
control of a state against their will -- without their consent.
These nations were once separate, independent and fully self-
governing.  Now they are either non-self-governing or partially
self-governing nations dependent on the will and whims of
independent states.  In many ways we can say these nations have
become captives of the state system.

     In the Peoples' Republic of China there are fifty separate
and distinct nations including the peoples of Tibet, Manchuria,
and East Turkistan.  The dominant state population is made up of
Han people, or people we call Chinese.  The Han run and control
the Chinese state.

     In Guatemala, there are about fifty original nations with a
collective population of nearly six million.  Together they are
known as the Maya. About half of more than eleven million Maya are
located in the southern part of the state of Mexico.  In both
Guatemala and Mexico the state government apparatus is controlled
by the descendants of immigrant populations -- mostly from Spain.

     In Indonesia, the vast archipelago north of Australia, there
are about 300 separate and distinct nations living under the
control of a Javanese controlled state apparatus in Jakarta. Some
of the nations which have not consented to Indonesian control are
the West Papuans, South Moluccans and the East Timorese.

     In the vast continent of Africa there are about fifty states,
most of which have come into independent existence in only the
last thirty years or less.  Hundreds of nations continue to exist,
surrounded and sometimes bi-sected by the newly created states.
Some of these nations are the Alur, Kamba, Maasai, Xhosa,
Eritreans, Zulu, and the Lambwa.  If an African state government
apparatus is not under the control of an immigrant population from
Europe, it is under the control of a dominant nation.

     In the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics the Russians
control the state apparatus, but there are more than 150 non-
Russian nations like Latvia, Estonia, Tadsig, Armenia, and Usbek
which are either non-self-governing or only partially self-
governing.  A similar pattern occurs in virtually every European
state;  and states in South America, South Asia and North America.

     The reality of non-self-governing nations is truly a world-
wide phenomenon.  It is no less a phenomenon inside the boundaries
of the United States of America.  There are over four hundred
Indian and Alaskan Native reservations, rancherios, and village
communities surrounded by the United States.  Some of these
nations are the Hopi, Chippewa, Shoshone, Yakima and Quinault.
Like other nations in the world, they are either non-self-
governing or partially self-governing.  Non is fully self-
governing.  If all of the reservations, rancherios and village
communities were combined, Indian Country would have a land mass
of 680,000 square miles -- an area about the size of Alaska.  Each
part of Indian Country is occupied by a people that makes up a
single nation, or a fragment of scores of other nations.

     The presence of many nations inside a State's boundaries is
clearly not unique.

     Who governs these nations?  Who will govern these nations in
the future?  What is the political status of these nations?  What
is the future political status of these nations.  These are the
questions which now echo around the world;  in the halls of the
United Nations, in the capitols of states and increasingly in the
councils of Indian Nations in the United States.  The United
Nations has since 1973 been examining the future status of nations
inside existing states.  Indeed, the U.N. Working Group on
Indigenous Populations is seriously considering language for an
International Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
which would impose international standards on the relations
between nations and states.

     The States of Sweden, Australia, Canada, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka
are all now considering proposals for the future political status
of nations inside their boundaries.  In December 1987, the United
States government adopted a plan proposed by Indian Nations to
determine the extent to which several Indian Nations will assume
greater powers of self-governance.  The Self-Governance
Demonstration Project was authorized by the U.S. Congress in
September 1988.  This U.S. adopted plan opens the possibility of
new self-governance agreements between Indian governments and the
U.S. government.

     Shouldn't the full meaning of self-determination, of self-
government, be extended to nations as freely as it was extended to
former colonies which have become independent states?

     Of course, we agree that all peoples should freely govern
themselves.  What is often the bone of contention is *how* nations
which were once fully self-governing, and which have sometimes
very small populations and land areas can become self-governing
again.  Inside the United States, the question of how Indian
Nations can fully govern themselves is complicated by generations
of systematic territorial and population fragmentation. The *how*
is further complicated by the existence of fifty states joined in
federation, and more than 3000 counties.  While many Indian
Nations were being fragmented, dismembered and scattered the
United States of America was being formed and consolidated.
Despite four hundred years of fragmentation and two hundred years
of U.S. consolidation, however, there are still sovereign Indian
Nations and countless unresolved disputes between these nations
and the United States.

     Some people ask the question, "How can you have a lot of
sovereign nations inside the United States which is itself a
sovereign state?"  Still others, like Washington State Attorney
General Ken Eikenberry in the 1985 report "The State of Washington
and Indian Tribes" ask the question, "how to govern a complex,
interdependent society with independent sovereignties existing as
jurisdictional enclaves within its borders."  Indian leaders
frequently raise the same questions, only from the point of view
of governing an Indian Nation.

     In 1980, an Inter-Tribal Study Group on Tribal/State Relation
said in its report "Tribes and States in Conflict", "Indian
Nations are not now, nor have they ever been, a part of the United
States or its system of governments."  The Washington Attorney
General's 1985 report made the observation "One reason that the
State of Washington and its Indian citizens have frequently been
in court is because no one truly understands exactly what position
an Indian tribe occupies within the federal system."  The
certainty of Indian leaders and uncertainty among State government
officials on the political status of Indian Nations in relation to
the U.S. federal system add to the complexity of answering the
questions of "Who governs Indian Nations?" and "What is the
political status of these nations?"

     Questions like these were at the heart of a two year, joint
Congressional Study conducted by the American Indian Policy Review
Commission in the middle 1970s.  Such questions stirred intense
controversy inside the Commission and throughout the country.

     In 1977, the American Indian Policy Review Commission
published its final report.  Strong differences of opinion within
the Commission produced a report that included a dissenting
statement by former Congressman Lloyd Meeds who sat as the Vice
Chairman during the two years of the Commission's life.
Congressman Meeds took exception to many parts of the
Commissions's final report, but he was particularly concerned with
the Report's conclusions about tribal governing powers.
Congressman Meeds described what he believed to be the
Commission's "fundamental error."  He wrote that the Commissions's

      perceives the American Indian tribe as a body
      politic in the nature of a sovereign as that word is
      used to describe the United States and the States,
      rather than as a body politic which the United
      States, through its sovereign power, permits to
      govern itself and order its internal affairs, but
      not the affairs of others.

     At the heart of Congressman Meeds' dissent was this argument:

      In our Federal system, as ordained and established
      by the United States Constitution, there are but two
      sovereign entities:  the United States and the
      States.  This is obvious not only from an
      examination of the Constitution, its structure, and
      its amendments, but also from the express language
      of the 10th amendment which provides:  The powers
      not delegated to the United States by the
      Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States,
      are reserved to the States respectively, or to the
      peoples. (A.I.P.R.C. Final Report 1977:573)

     Congressman Meeds goes on to say finally:  "The blunt fact of
the matter is that American Indian tribes are not a third set of
governments in the American federal system.  They are not
sovereigns."  In his statement, Congressman Meeds has done us all
a great service.  His argument might be outlined in this way:

      1.  Indian Nations are a body politic which the
      United States permits to govern itself and order its
      internal affairs, but not to govern the affairs of
      others who do not participate in the Indian

      2.  The United States Constitution provides for two
      sovereigns, the United States and the various
      States, but it does not provide for a third set of
      governments which are Indian governments in the
      American federal system.

      3.  Indian Nations and their governments are not

     I think we might agree that in some respects he helps us to
understand why the Washington State Attorney General expresses his
doubts about how a State can "govern a complex, inter-dependent
society with independent sovereignties existing as jurisdictional
enclaves within its borders."  He also helps us to understand why
some people have doubts about how there can exist many sovereigns
inside a sovereign state.  In one respect we find that Congressman
Meeds is in complete agreement with some Indian Leaders when he
says:  "American Indian tribes are not a third set of governments
in the American federal system," and he gives the Washington
Attorney General a clue about what position Indian tribes have in
the federal system.  Finally, Congressman Meeds helps us to
understand "Who governs these Indian Nations?" and what their
political status is.  He also gives us some clues about "Who will
govern these Indian Nations in the future?" and what their future
political status might be.

     Let's take the points in Congressman Meeds's argument one by
one and see how they can help in our debate on the Political
Status of Indian Nations in the United States of America.

     First, Congressman Meeds argues that Indian Nations are
permitted to exercise a form of self-government by the United
States.  He suggests that the word self in self-government should
be emphasized meaning that Indians should govern Indians only.  He
furthermore implies, that any resident of an Indian reservation or
community who does not have the right to participate in the
decisions of an Indian Nation's government must be held exempt
from the governing powers of an Indian Nation.  Congressman Meeds
also suggests that Indian Nations may exercise only those
governmental powers that the U.S. government permits.

     Though Congressman Meeds seems a victim of gross over
simplification, he is probably correct in saying that the
governmental powers of Indian Nations are heavily restricted by
the U.S. government.  Indeed, I would suggest that because the
United States government unilaterally decided to cease making
treaties with Indian Nations in 1871, thus effectively bringing to
a halt 250 years of treaty relations and setting up the U.S.
Congress as the primary arbiter of Indian governmental decision-
making;  the U.S. government in general and the Congress in
particular became a virtual dictator over Indian Nations.
Unilateral decision-making by the U.S. government is doubtless
responsible for the diminished powers of self-government among
Indian Nations.

     As for Congressman Meeds' emphasis on the word self in self-
government to mean Indians may only govern Indians, he doubtless
expresses a somewhat race-conscious view shared by many citizens
of the United States. He would surely not intend such a narrow
interpretation to apply to the United States or her various
States.  He surely does not intend that the U.S. government, which
is a self-governing state, should have only authority to govern
its own citizens and not the non-citizens who visit or live inside
U.S. boundaries.  He surely would not intend his interpretation of
self-government by Indian Nations to also apply to the other 176
states in the world.  Were his narrow interpretation to apply to
the States of the world, we would now see a world in
jurisdictional chaos.

     The plain fact is that the term "self-government" has a well
established meaning in literature, history and international
relations.  It simply means the inherent right of a people to
adopt their own form of government, to define citizenship, to
regulate domestic relations, prescribe rules of inheritance, levy
taxes, regulate property, regulate residents by municipal
legislation, conduct trade, and to administer justice, among other
things.  That the United States has unilaterally restricted Indian
self-government does not mean that Indian Nations lack the right
and power to exercise full self-government -- the same as any
other peoples in the world.  Indian Nations reserved their powers
of self-governance, and have the right, like any other people to
fully resume those powers.  To be meaningful, such powers of self-
governance must necessarily extend over all civil and criminal
activities within an Indian Nation's territory.

     In answer to the question "Who governs these Indian Nations?"
let us note that since 1871, the United States government, Indian
Nations, and more recently some of the various State governments
exercise governmental powers inside Indian Nations.  Most Indian
Nations are only partially self-governing while some exercise no
governing powers at all.  In the latter case, the United States
government and some State governments as well as some counties and
even cities exercise governmental powers over some Indian Nations.

     Where Indian Nations are partially self-governing in their
territories, there exists mixed, overlapping and even competing
legal and political systems.  For many Tribal, Federal, State,
County and municipal legal authorities, Indian Reservations are in
political and legal chaos. This is the very condition that
Congressman Meeds and all of us expect to avoid in the relations
between the states in the world.  Because of racial bigotry and
historical realities, we find that the chaos we would avoid among
States is precisely the disorder created in Indian Country.

     Where Congressman Meeds seems certain about the political
sovereignty of the United States, the various States and the lack
of sovereignty in Indian Nations;  others are either totally
confused or absolutely certain that all three governments are
sovereign.  To establish the fact that the U.S. government and the
governments of the various States are political sovereigns,
Congressman Meeds turns to the U.S. Constitution.  He correctly
observes that the U.S. Constitution allows for but two sovereign
entities.  He notes that the U.S. Constitution allows that some
powers are delegated and inherent between the two governments.  He
furthermore observes correctly that the American Indian Policy
Review Commission argued in its Final Report that Indian Nations
analogous to the kind sovereignty possessed by the United States
and the States. (A.I.P.R.C. 1977:573) Congressman Meeds suggests,
accurately I believe, that "American Indian tribes are not a third
set of governments in the American federal system."  Were this so,
Indian Nations would be specifically identified in the U.S.
Constitution as a third level of government.  This is clearly not
the case.  Finally, the Congressman states bluntly that Indian
Nations "are not sovereigns."  It is this last statement that gets
the Congressman into trouble.

     Asserting that Indian Nations are not identified as a third
level of government in the U.S. Constitution, Congressman Meeds
concludes that Indian Nations are not sovereign entities.  I
hasten to note that the U.S. Constitution does not list France,
China, Canada, or Mexico either. It doesn't even mention the
Republic of Vanuatu which became an independent State in 1980.
Despite these oversights, I don't believe anyone, including
Congressman Meeds would doubt that these are sovereign entities.
That the U.S. Constitution fails to mention Indian governments as
a third level of government only means that INDIAN NATIONS ARE NOT

     Indian Nations were not participants in the development and
formulation of the Constitution of the United States of America.
No Indian Nation ever ratified the U.S. Constitution, but then,
neither did France, Canada or China.  That Indian Nations were not
identified as sovereigns under the U.S. Constitution has nothing
to do with their sovereign identity unless you are among those
people who believe incorrectly that the United States government
created Indian Nations.  Of course, to hold this view would
require that you ignore archaeological, anthropological,
historical, political, and legal evidence to the contrary.

     The settled reality is that Indian Nations have original or
inherent sovereignty, in many ways more sure and certain than many
of the States in the world.  The legitimacy of Indian national
sovereignty is confirmed by their long presence as peoples on the
continent.  The fact that Indian Nations established treaty
councils between themselves to establish boundaries and resolve
disputes confirm that sovereignty.  The fact that nations and
states in Europe and elsewhere in the world met in treaty councils
with Indian Nations before the establishment of the Unites States
of America further confirms that the predecessor states of the
U.S. recognized the sovereignty of Indian Nations.  That the
United States government itself entered into treaties (more than
400) with Indian Nations, confirms that even the U.S. recognizes
the original sovereignty of Indian Nations.

     From this discussion, we must conclude that the political
status of Indian Nations is outside the United States and Indian
Nations are sovereigns which have some kind of association with
the United States.

     While Congressman Meeds' reasoning about Indian Nations and
the U.S. federal system is sensible, his conclusion is erroneous.
Indian Nations are sovereign entities in a way analogous to the
sovereignty of the United States and the various States.  Indeed,
I would go further to say that the sovereignty of Indian Nations
is fundamentally no different than any other nation or state in
the world.

     What does this all mean for our second questions:  "Who will
govern these nations in the future?" -- what is their future
political status?

     First, I would suggest that we must all agree that the
current chaotic "non-governance of Indian Country" is neither good
for the Unites States and its various States, nor each Indian
Nation. Neither Indians, nor non-Indians living on Indian
Reservations can live a secure, productive and even prosperous
life as long as there is uncertainty about who governs in Indian
Country.  That is my first point.

     Secondly, it is essential that we all attempt to understand
how the United States was created and that the United States did
not create Indian Nations.  While it may be a controversial view
shared by some Indian Leaders, Congressman Lloyd Meeds and me, I
believe we must recognize as a fundamental reality that the
political status of Indian Nations has not been formally
established.  It is certain, however, that Indian Nations are not
now, nor have they ever been a part of the United States or the
U.S. federal system. Indian Nations are not a THIRD LEVEL OF
have a defined political status inside the United States.  If they
do have a political status in relation to the United States, it
might be described as "associated nations."

     Thirdly, I believe we must understand and agree that Indian
Nations have original and inherent sovereignty -- separate and
distinct from the sovereignty of the United States, the various
States and all other nations and states in the world.

     Finally, I suggest that peoples which are distinct from all
other must share in the human right to self-determination, the
right to freely exercise their own social, economic, political and
cultural rights and to choose their political status without
external interference;  and they must, therefore, have the right
to exercise self-government.

     The answer to our second questions largely depends on the
extent to which Indian people and non-Indians alike agree to these
four points.  If these points are generally agreed to, then the
prospect of determining who will govern Indian Nations and
establishing their political status in the future becomes

     To those who ask, "How can you have sovereign nations inside
a sovereign state?"  I would only ask that they examine the facts.
There are sovereign Indian Nations inside the United States
boundaries whether they like it or not.  How do you have many
sovereigns inside of a country?  Examine the U.S. Constitution and
you will see that there are already many sovereigns inside the
United States.  That there are still many other sovereigns not
accounted for in the U.S. Constitution means only that either the
Constitution should be changed or we create new structures between
Indian Nations, the United States and the various States to allow
for mutually acceptable ways of dealing with each form of

     To the Attorney General who asks how do you "govern a
complex, interdependent society with independent sovereignties
existing as jurisdictional enclaves within its borders?"  I
suggest that the answer rests with present and future dialogue
between officials representing the separate sovereignties.  The
fact of the matter is that while many States in the United States
have sovereign Indian Nations inside their boundaries, Indian
Nations also experience the presence of State, County, City and
federal jurisdictional enclaves inside their territories. The
broad response to State governments is to withdraw their
jurisdictional activities inside the boundaries on the basis of
mutual agreement with the governments of Indian Nations.  Where
local state jurisdiction is withdrawn, an Indian government must
assume the responsibilities of governance.

     Indian governments must be the sole governing authority
inside the boundaries of a Reservation in the future.  The only
alternatives to this arrangement are continued jurisdictional
chaos on Indian Reservations or tribal suicide.  Neither of these
can be acceptable alternatives to the exercise of full self-
government by Indian Nations.  As the noted Jurist, Felix Cohen
observed in the _Handbook of Federal Indian Law_:

      The most basic right of all Indian rights, the right
      of self- government, is the Indian's last defense
      against administrative oppression, for in a realm
      where the states are powerless to govern and where
      Congress, occupied with more pressing national
      affairs, cannot govern wisely and well, there
      remains a large no-man's land in which government
      can emanate only from officials of the Interior
      department or from the Indians themselves.  Self-
      government is thus the Indians' only alternative to
      rule by a government department. (Cohen 1942:122)

     As for the future political status of Indian Nations, there
are but three alternatives which might be considered.  Either
Indian Nations are fully and recognizably independent, they are
associated with a state like the United States or they are
absorbed into the United States either as a member of the federal
system of governments, or they simply disappear.  Clearly Indian
Nations in the United States are neither independent nor are they

     I assert that Indian Nations are now sovereign nations which
are associated with the United States.  The political status of
"associated sovereign nations" is implicit in the relationship
between Indian Nations and the United States.  The United States
is a state associated with Indian Nations.

     The United States is associated with many political entities
like Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the Federations of
Micronesia,  the Marshall  Islands,  American Samoa, Guam and
Belau -- all island nations or states in the Caribbean or the
Pacific Ocean.  What these nations and states have in common that
is not shared with Indian Nations is a mutually defined agreement
of association with the United States of relatively modern
vintage.  Such agreements spell out relationships, methods of
dispute resolution and levels of self-government.  What Indian
Nations have in common that is not shared with sea-ward associated
nations and states is a close proximity to the United States
itself.  Indian Nations are very much like islands in a sea of
land where they are in close competition with the United States
for natural resources, and governmental jurisdiction.

     A defined political status of Indian Nations in relation to
the United States is both desirable and necessary.  Each Indian
Nation and the United States must enter into government to
government negotiations to define what their future relationship
will be.  A political status formally defined would settle in a
way not otherwise possible how Indian Nations, the United States
and the various States deal with each other.  Of greatest
importance, Indian Nations would once again become active
participants in the political process which determines their
political future.

     The most desirable future one might project would allow for
fully self-governing Indian nations which have formally chosen to
associate themselves with the United States.  By virtue of free
association agreements between Indian Nations and the United
States, the U.S. constitution would not have to be amended, the
United States would in fact have but two sovereigns and the
relationship between the various States and Indian Nations would
become that of cooperative neighbors instead of fierce
competitors. The political development of the Indian Nations would
be advanced, and the certainty and stability of the United States
of America would be assured.

     The acceptance of an Indian government developed self-
governance plan by the United States in 1987 opens the door for
determining the level of self-governance and future political
status of Indian Nations.  Ten Indian governments are now engaged
in a self-governance Indian Nation/U.S. agreements.  The Indian
Nations which have begun to trek on this uncharted path include
the Red Lake Chippewa, Mille Lac Chippewa, Rosebud Sioux,
Confederated Salish-Kootenai, Tlingit-Haida, Hoopa, Mescalero
Apache, Jamestown Band of Klallam, Lummi and the Quinault Indian
Nation.  The path that these Indian Nations cut through the
thicket will largely determine whether Indian Self-Governance can
become a full reality or not.  It is my hope that they are


     Mr. Ryser is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe.  He is a
former Special Assistant to the President of the World Council of
Indigenous Peoples and a former Acting Executive Director of the
Center for World Indigenous Studies.  Mr. Ryser is the Editor of
the "Fourth World Journal" and an author of many articles about
the political development of indigenous nations.  He is currently
co-authoring a book with Dr. Bernard Q. Nietchmann entitled
_States and Nations:  Roots of Conflict_.

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