Indigenous peoples in the United States occupy a unique political, legal, cultural, territorial, and economic niche in the larger society. The 567 recognized Native polities who were the original sovereigns of this land continue to exist in an extra-constitutional relationship with the federal and state governments, having never been incorporated into the U.S. Constitution. Tribal governments retain their inherent sovereign status, although their authority as governing bodies has been diminished by federal and state statutes, court cases, and policies over the last two centuries. But the hundreds of ratified treaties that were negotiated between 1778 and 1871 affirm their sovereignty and their fundamentally political relationship with the federal government to the present day.

This seminar will track the evolution and meaning of Native sovereignty from pre-contact times, to the early and sustained intrusions of European powers, to the manner in which the federal and state governments address the status of Native peoples today. In the process we will also do a detailed examination of what the U.S. Constitution looks like from an indigenous perspective, and we will see that it is a relationship fraught with ambiguity, unfairness, and inconsistency. Federalism is one of many elements that has dramatically affected the rights and status of Native peoples and we will assess the different orientations that federal lawmakers have in comparison to state lawmakers when it comes to Native nations.

Although Native governments have never been incorporated into the U.S. Constitution, Native individuals over time acquired federal and state citizenship which was layered onto their preexisting tribal citizenship. This treble citizenship status complicates the status of both the Native citizen and their Native governments as well, and it confuses non-Native citizens and their elected officials when they question the continuing existence of Indian reservations, the validity of treaties, and tax-exempt status of Native governments.

Participants will leave the course with a solid understanding of the distinctive political and cultural status of Native nations, the fascinating tension/cooperation that exists between Indigenous peoples, the federal, and state governments, and the byzantine jurisdictional, religious, and territorial problems that continue to bedevil Native peoples and their treble citizens.

Seminar Scholar

Professor David E. Wilkins holds the McKnight Presidential Professorship in American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota. He has adjunct appointments in Political Science, Law, and American Studies. He received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Professor Wilkins' research and teaching interests include indigenous politics and governance, federal Indian policy and law, comparative politics, and diplomacy and constitutional development. 

His recent book publications include American Indian Politics and the American Political System, 3rd ed (co-authored with Heidi Stark) (2010), Documents of Native American Political Development: 1500s-1933 (2009), On the Drafting of Tribal Constitutions (by Felix Cohen) (2006), Native Voices: American Indian Identity and Resistance (co-edited with Richard Grounds and George Tinker) (2004), selected as an Outstanding Title by Choice Magazine, The Navajo Political Experience, revised ed.(2003), Uneven Ground: American Indian Sovereignty and Federal Law (co-authored with Tsianina Lomawaima) (2002), and Tribes, Treaties, and Constitutional Tribulations (co-authored with Vine Deloria, Jr.) (1999).