Tribes and Citizens vs. Reservations and Residents

Last Friday, October 30, 2020, President Donald Trump proclaimed November as National Native American Heritage Month. The proclamation claimed his administration would “recommit to supporting Native American Tribes and people,” and would “resolve to support their legacy and communities for generations to come.” It closed with him calling upon all Americans “to commemorate this month with appropriate programs and activities.”

According to its website, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), founded in 1944, is the “oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization serving the broad interests of tribal governments and communities.” The website further states that Native American Heritage Month is “an opportune time to educate the general public about tribes, to raise a general awareness about the unique challenges Native people have faced both historically and in the present, and the ways in which tribal citizens have worked to conquer these challenges.”

Both the Presidential Proclamation and the NCAI statement recognize a distinction between American Indian tribes as one category, and the citizens of these tribes as another category. A third fundamental category is the lands that the tribes govern. In the 48 contiguous United States, these lands are generally referred to as reservations, and according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, “there are approximately 326 Indian land areas in the U.S. administered as federal Indian reservations.”

From 1889 until 1975, there were 9 federal Indian reservations wholly or partially in South Dakota. Each of these reservations was governed by a federally recognized Indian tribe. In 1975, however, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the state of South Dakota’s assertion that the Lake Traverse Reservation had been disestablished in 1894. The result was that instead of governing the Lake Traverse Reservation, the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate only had authority over the remaining “Indian lands” within the original boundary of what was the Lake Traverse Reservation. The 1975 U.S. Supreme Court decision disestablished the Lake Traverse Reservation, but it had no effect on the status of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate. So today there are only 8 federally recognized reservations in South Dakota, even though there are 9 federally recognized tribes. This is not unique. On its website, the Bureau of Indian Affairs states that, “Not every federally recognized tribe has a reservation.” 

The 1975 U.S. Supreme Court decision that disestablished the Lake Traverse Reservation was 15 years before the U.S. Congress resolved by Public Law 101-343 that November of 1990 be designated as the first “National American Indian Heritage Month,” and the President of the U.S., George H. W. Bush, signed the law on August 3, 1990. He then issued a proclamation, as the law authorizes and requests, encouraging “all Americans and their elected representatives at the Federal, State, and local levels to observe this month with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities.” Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama similarly issued proclamations annually that encouraged Americans to observe and commemorate National American Indian Heritage Month. 

So, in following their proclamations and the NCAI’s charge to educate about American Indian tribes, it is imperative to know that the U.S. Supreme Court recognizes that federally recognized tribes are essentially sovereign nations operating within the boundaries of the United States. Tribes are political entities; their unique legal status flows from their inherent political identities, not from the cultural or ethnic or racial backgrounds of their people. Indian tribes are nations, and the people who belong to those nations should rightfully be called “citizens.” The old way of referring to these persons was as “enrolled members,” but Americans would never say that they are enrolled members of the United States, nor would Canadians say that they are enrolled members of Canada. Nations have citizens. Nations sign treaties with other nations; but cultural, ethnic, racial and minority groups do not sign treaties with nations.

By federal law, a citizen of a federally recognized tribe cannot at the same time be a citizen of another federally recognized tribe. A person can be eligible for citizenship in more than one tribe, but she or he can be a citizen of only one tribe at a time. However, citizens of federally recognized tribes in the United States are at the same time citizens of the United States. They have dual citizenship: their tribe and the USA.   

Following are the names of the 8 tribes that govern reservations in South Dakota. In parentheses after the name of each tribe is the number of citizens of the tribe that the federal government reported in 2005. In alphabetical order, the tribes are: Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe (15,376), Crow Creek Sioux Tribe (3,507), Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe (723), Lower Brule Sioux Tribe (3,036), Oglala Sioux Tribe (43,146), Rosebud Sioux Tribe (26,237), Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (14,170), and Yankton Sioux Tribe (8,300). 

The citizens of these tribes can live anywhere in the world or, in the future, even beyond this world. They do not all live in their reservations. Citizens of the United States likewise can live anywhere in the world—they do not all live in the United States. Citizens of tribes are a different category from residents of reservations. 

To help understand this, consider the United States. Citizens of the United States can live in the United States or anywhere else in the world. Where they live does not automatically affect their U.S. citizenship. Citizens of the U.S. can, for example, be residents of Mexico while retaining their U.S. citizenship. Similarly, all the persons who live in the United States at any given time are not necessarily citizens of the United States. Citizens of foreign nations can be residents of the U.S. while retaining citizenship in their nations. 

On a more local level, states of the United States do not have citizens. There are no citizens of South Dakota. States have residents; they do not have citizens. This illustrates one of the fundamental differences between states and tribes. Tribes have citizens, states have residents. Tribes are nations, states or not. 

Indian reservations, however, are similar to states. States have residents and so do reservations. The residents of reservations can be citizens of any nation, or any tribe. Likewise, the residents of South Dakota can be citizens of any nation, or any tribe. 

To understand American Indian issues, it is necessary to know that the residents of reservations are a separate category of persons from the individuals who are the citizens of tribes. Earlier in this column we listed the names and the number of citizens of the 8 tribes that govern reservations in South Dakota. Now we will list the names and, in parentheses, the number of residents of the 8 reservations. They are listed in the same order as the tribes above. They are: Cheyenne River Reservation (8,090), Crow Creek Reservation (2,010), Flandreau Santee Sioux Reservation (418), Lower Brule Reservation (1,505), Pine Ridge Reservation (18,834), Rosebud Reservation (10,869), Standing Rock Reservation (8,217), and Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation (6,465). 

All residents of these reservations and of South Dakota should know the names of these tribes and reservations. When we include Sisseton Wapheton Oyate (11,763 citizens) and the former Lake Traverse Reservation (10,922 residents), there are only 18 data points—9 tribes and 9 reservations. We can learn them. After all, most middle school students must learn the names of the fifty U.S. states, which is 50 data points! 

v(This article is also published in Lakota Times.)