The relationships between Tribal governments and the United States government are complex and filled with legal anomalies. In addition, the United States has formally and informally abolished or failed to honor treaties and other legal agreements. From federal entities such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to agencies at the state and municipal levels, various initiatives have actively limited Native American sovereignty and rights while damaging everything from cultural traditions to economic prospects.

These enduring issues cannot be resolved until public officials not only understand but actively support tribal sovereignty: the ability for tribes to govern their own communities. This right must be recognized and honored, in part, because Tribal sovereignty predates United States sovereignty.

Tribal governments are sovereign but have been brought into the US legal universe through various US legislation and court decisions. Given the complexities of the space they occupy, working with a variety of US agencies is necessary. Despite long-held grievances with these US government entities, it is increasingly clear that working closely with them provides a pathway toward maintaining sovereignty and helping Tribal nations thrive.

We will explore complex agency-based relationships below, along with the many opportunities that tribal–state compacts can present and solutions for overcoming the many obstacles that continue to stand in the way.

Background of Tribal Government Relationships

It is established within the US Constitution, specifically Article I, Section 8, that Congress has the ability to regulate commerce "with the Indian tribes." Through additional treaties, court cases, and evolving federal Indian policy, Tribal and federal governments established a unique relationship that, according to the Supreme Court case Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, was thought to reflect "that of a ward to his guardian." The federal government's jurisdiction was clarified in the case Worcester v. Georgia, which verified that Tribes should be protected against interference at the state level.

Currently, the Federal Bar Association explains that the federal government "has special obligations to protect tribal lands and resources, defend tribal rights to self-government, and provide services necessary for tribal survival." From the Tribal perspective, however, it is vital to maintain a careful balance between maintaining sovereignty and securing the resources and relationships needed for these nations to thrive.

There is no denying that relationships between Tribal governments and US agencies have been fraught with tension dating back hundreds of years. However, there are reasons why maintaining strong relations between Tribal governments and the US government is important for Indigenous advocacy and stronger outcomes for Tribes.

Reason 1: Resource Allocation and Funding

Currently, Tribes have access to various grants and funding sources that are important for addressing their communities' most pressing needs. Among these is the National Tribal Broadband Grant (NTBG), a key initiative for Tribes aiming to expand broadband access. This grant is particularly significant as it can facilitate a wide range of services, like telehealth and distance learning. Recognizing the potential impact of this grant, Indian Affairs Secretary Bryan Newland has noted that high-speed internet access can open up many opportunities for education, employment, entrepreneurship, and social connection, contributing to safer, healthier, and more fulfilling lives in tribal communities.

However, despite the availability of such valuable resources, research by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) indicates that Tribal entities often face challenges in identifying or accessing relevant programs. Improving the connection between US agencies and Tribal governments could make access to these crucial programs more feasible, thereby enabling tribal communities to leverage these opportunities more effectively. This enhanced collaboration could lead to significant advancements in addressing the unique needs of Tribal nations.

Reason 2: Policy Development and Advocacy

A variety of public policies and initiatives impact the everyday affairs and long-term prospects of Tribal nations. Although the effects can sometimes be difficult to discern, their impact remains considerable. For example, Tribal citizens are continually undercounted by the US Census. Undercounting may result in reduced access to critical resources and could also have a significant (and devastating) impact on a variety of policy decisions.

Regional administrator Kristie Brooks explains in a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) article that part of the disconnect between Tribal best interests and public policy stems from a simple yet often overlooked reality: "If you know one Tribe, you know ONE Tribe."

A core part of pursuing stronger relationships and desirable policies? Emphasizing interactions known as Tribal consultations, which involve "formal, two-way, government-to-government conversation between tribal representatives and federal agencies." These consultations can boost understanding and awareness of Tribal concerns while increasing the likelihood that solutions will be built into future policy initiatives.

Reason 3: Economic Development and Opportunities

The American Bar Association (ABA) provides a thorough overview of how a general lack of economic opportunities (fueled, in part, by problematic public policies) has resulted in high unemployment rates and low median household incomes on tribal reservations. This, in turn, exacerbates many Native American community health concerns, such as overcrowding.

No single program or policy will reverse these problems, but a growing array of relationships with government agencies can increase access to a myriad of services that, together, can address enduring economic concerns. The Indian Business Incubators Program (IBIP) serves as the perfect example of a powerful program that has the potential to produce huge economic gains—not to mention, the personal empowerment that accompanies entrepreneurial success.

Beyond this, there are other opportunities available through both federal and state programs, including energy and mineral opportunities, tourism initiatives and even scholar programs that make college tuition-free for Native American students. Relationships with critical agencies will increase the likelihood of Tribal entities qualifying for and accessing a variety of critical economic development services.

Reason 4: Implementing Cultural Values

Despite ongoing efforts to preserve cultural traditions, alarming insights from the Administration for Native Americans (ANA) indicate that the number of people who speak Native languages continues to decline. This partially stems from limited access to resources, along with historical efforts to culturally assimilate Indigenous peoples.

Such efforts have been referred to as cultural genocide, and, unfortunately, with many Native Americans previously forbidden from speaking their own languages, encouraged to renounce core beliefs and even abandon their names, it's easy to understand why so many languages have languished or been eradicated.

According to ANA, 65 Native languages are already extinct, with another 75 nearing extinction. With some languages, the average age of the few remaining speakers is approaching (or already exceeds) 80 years. Without quick action, languages and important cultural traditions may die out in the near future. Targeted programs and funding allocation may represent the best opportunities for addressing these crucial concerns.

The Living Languages Grant Program (LLGP) is one such program that aims to boost cultural practices and increase awareness of Native values. Dynamic relationships between Tribal entities and relevant federal and state agencies can ensure that these grants are properly employed and may even encourage the development of further culturally oriented initiatives.

Reason 5: Health and Social Services

The Native American community struggles with a variety of health concerns, including a life expectancy that trails the national average. While some issues (addiction, mental health concerns, heart disease) echo issues facing the European American US population, others are unique to or more urgent among Native Americans. These disparities largely stem from previous systematic efforts of the US government to destroy traditional American Indian healthcare systems.

There also is an increasing desire to ensure that services provided to Tribal members through state programs are culturally competent in order to increase effectiveness. Tribal citizens are also citizens of the state in which they reside. State legislators have a responsibility to provide for the well-being of all state citizens, Tribal and non-Tribal alike. The health and well-being of Tribal citizens and Tribal communities enhance the overall health of a state. In short, strong Tribes contribute to strong states.

Currently, the Indian Health Service (IHS) is charged with providing care across dozens of hospitals, health centers and health stations. IHS operates as an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), but it has, unfortunately, been chronically underfunded.

The good news? In Minnesota, there are significant efforts to address environmental and health care concerns, especially within American Indian communities. A notable example is the establishment of the Office of American Indian Health by the Minnesota Department of Health in 2022. This office aims to improve the health and well-being of Minnesota American Indian communities by addressing underlying structural and systemic issues that have long contributed to poor health outcomes. The Office works collaboratively with Minnesota Tribal and urban American Indian organizations to develop and maintain public health infrastructure. It also provides technical assistance to Tribal and American Indian urban community leaders for developing infrastructure to manage public health emergencies like disease outbreaks and natural disasters​​.

Another example of these efforts includes the partnerships and collaborations between government and tribal entities in Minnesota. These collaborations, though historically challenged by distrust, have become increasingly important in achieving mutual public health goals. The state recognizes the sovereignty of Minnesota's Tribes as independent nations, and these government-to-Tribal relationships are guided by principles of sovereignty, treaty rights, and trust responsibility. These principles ensure that the state and local governments extend services to American Indian Tribes and include them in public health initiatives, thereby supporting the needs and interests of all populations​​.

These initiatives in Minnesota are part of a broader trend to address environmental and health care concerns through collaborative and culturally sensitive approaches, reflecting the importance of integrating Indigenous knowledge and leadership in public health and environmental stewardship.

Tribal leaders leverage relationships with the US government to gain access to these funds and programs aimed at reducing ongoing indigenous health disparities and improving outcomes across Tribal communities and to advocate for additional resources.

Learn More, Today

Tribal government leaders and administrators play an important role in supporting Tribal sovereignty and boosting outcomes in important areas such as Indigenous health, education and entrepreneurship. The fully online Master of Tribal Administration and Governance (MTAG) program offered by the University of Minnesota helps prepare tribal members for these important roles. Contact us to learn more about this degree and the opportunities it could uncover.