Indian Sovereignty: Worthwhile?

An illuminating article discusses Indian sovereignty and gambling at the White Mountain Apache Tribe, and defines sovereignty as equal to the entities of the federal government, individual states and tribes.

The article from this week’s Economist (a British publication) does a fine job of deconstructing sovereignty yet views tribes through a paternalistic lens, demonstrating that mainstream news still suffers Indian peoples as incompetent.

Judging from the way the article wraps up the discussion, self-governance has done more harm than good.

The article begins on good footing, offering three important components of sovereignty. The first is “inherent,” referring to a tribe’s intrinsic right to self-govern. The second is legal, stemming from the US government’s decisions to accord self-rule for Indian people (in 1934). And finally there’s de facto sovereignty.

The article interprets de facto sovereignty (which derives from the Latin for “in fact,” and refers to the actual state of affairs, rather than the theoretical) as the turning point for Indian self-rule, which occurred in 1975 with the Indian Self-Determination Act.

Only 37 years ago power was transferred from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to tribal governments.

The turning point, according to the article, enabled tribes to engage in gambling. The article then offers examples of how gambling and self-governance have harmed tribes (and, to be fair, also notes that some tribes have done well).

The writers point to the astronomical poverty and unemployment among Native Americans, despite the advent of gambling, then notes that “when it comes to governance, American Indians are still all too likely to make news of the wrong sort.”

For example, the Chukchansi of California “brawled” over tribal governance while the White Mountain Apache accused its leader of corruption.

In effect, the magazine uses instances of failure to illustrate the state of affairs in Indian Country.

And the photo chosen to complement the story? We see two tribal members in regalia, thus cementing the stereotype that you will find Indians clothed in beads and feathers.

See the article at


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in authenticity, framing, journalism, news bias and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Indian Sovereignty: Worthwhile?

  1. Charles Hudson says:

    A critical story, we agree on this, but I would not judge the piece as harshly as you. A test I occasionally apply is – could I imagine a person from within the story’s environment ( a tribal member) writing it themselves. In this case I could. Indian Gaming is not pretty. I am personally not a supporter of government sanctioned gaming if the primary beneficiary is the government itself and is conducted in-lieu of tax revenues. That said, the story’s biggest weakness is its mash up of sovereignty and gaming. Gaming has tested tribal sovereignty, in most cases with disappointing results (Carcieri, Compacts trending toward States). Some view the Indian Gaming Act itself as the biggest blow to tribal sovereignty since the Allotment Act precisely due to the Compact requirement.
    The Economist should have explored the motivations of the United States to pass the Indian Gaming Act. I would argue that it was less about sovereignty assistance and more about the inability of Congress and Administrations to fulfill Trust and Fiduciary responsibilities. Asking tribes to succeed in something the US had failed at for 150 years is not particularly fair.
    The localized issues of dis-enrollment and inequities due to location are separate matters and, in my opinion, irrelevant and unfair.


  2. Good point regarding the admixture of gaming with sovereignty. But I do become alarmed when journalists revert to sloppiness, such as the statement about governance, when “Indians are still all too likely to make news of the wrong sort.” The tone, I found, is one in which much of the authority for self-governance was given, rather than taken, and the reporter failed to acknowledge the agency of nations except in the instances of screwing up. I appreciate hearing your views, Chuck: thanks for letting me know.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s