The Constitution and Tribal Sovereignty — Let's Learn Together


By Syngen Kanassatega Mille Lacs Band Member

My name is Syngen Kanassatega. I am a citizen of the Non-Removable Mille Lacs Bands of Chippewa Indians and a lawyer for the Band. I also help take care of one of our ceremonial drums. However, I do not write this as a Band lawyer; I write this as Band citizen who happens to be a lawyer.

Where do sovereign nations get their power to govern from? The answer is philosophical, and societies throughout history have had different perspectives on this question. On one hand, it was once thought in some societies that the power to govern comes from god, and god chose one person to rule a people. This was called divine right: monarchs, kings, and emperors had the god-given right to govern a people, and the people they governed abided by it.

On the other hand, some societies took the position that the power to govern comes from the people. This is the presiding view throughout the world today. As the founders of the United States said on July 4, 1776, in the Declaration of Independence, "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

What are these governmental powers that sovereign nations exercise? Broadly speaking, it is the right to self-determination, to determine your own destiny. It is the right to provide for the enduring safety, happiness, and prosperity of the people they govern. Specifically, sovereign nations accomplish this by providing protection for the people, establish courts or other means of resolving disputes between people, create laws to govern the just conduct of society, offer programs to help those in need, and establish and maintain relations with other sovereign nations.

Sometimes, sovereign nations come together and align themselves to form a larger sovereign. The Iroquois Confederacy accomplished this before the founding of the United States. Onandaga Chief Canasatego presented this idea to Benjamin Franklin, and Benjamin Franklin then brought this idea to the Continental Congress. The original 13 colonies of the United States subsequently accomplished what the Iroquois Confederacy did when they established the Constitution of the United States of America.

When sovereign nations come together to form a larger sovereign, the sovereign nations delegate some of their authority to the larger. A delegation of authority means you give someone else permission to act on your behalf, but you may take that authority back. This is what happened when the original 13 colonies formed the United States: they gave some of their authority to the United States, the larger sovereign.

When this process happens, the questions become: how much and what authority are you giving to the larger and what are you reserving to yourself? The United States addressed this question when it passed the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1789. The Tenth Amendment says, "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 people."

In other words, all governmental powers not expressly given to the United States in the Constitution remains with the individual 50 states or the people. The 50 states do not get their power from the United States; rather, the 50 states get their power from the people. In turn, the United States gets its power from the 50 states, by the consent of the people. This reflects the principle that all governmental power originates from the people first and foremost.

Lawyers call this allocation of governmental authority between related sovereigns "federalism.” For example, in the United States, the people and the states expressly delegated the authority to declare war to the federal government in Article I of the Constitution; the individual states cannot declare war.

The principle of governmental powers originating with the people also exists within the Mille Lacs Band. In fact, Title 2, Section 1 of our Band Statutes recognizes that the Band derives its political powers from the aboriginal rights of the people of the Non-Removable Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians, Non-Removable Sandy Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, Rice Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, Snake River Chippewa Indians, and the Kettle River Band of Chippewa Indians. Since the Mille Lacs Band today derives its powers from multiple Bands, we are technically called the Non-Removable Mille Lacs Bands of Chippewa Indians.

The current constitutional convention to amend the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe Constitution involves all of the issues and principles that I have written about so far. The Mille Lacs Band, along with Bois Forte, Fond du Lac, Grand Portage, Leech Lake, and White Earth, formed the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and established its Constitution in 1936. Because of this association between the six Bands, the question of what governmental authority the six constituent Bands have today is often debated by tribal leaders and members at Tribal Executive Committee meetings. The MCT Constitution does not have an equivalent to the Tenth Amendment to answer this question.

Some leaders and members contend at these meetings that there is only one tribe — the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. These proponents contend that the six constituent Bands receive their powers from the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, as opposed to the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe receiving its power from the six constituent Bands. Others, like myself, do not agree with this proposition and contend that the six constituent Bands are sovereign, federally-recognized tribes that together form a seventh federally-recognized tribe called the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.

Did the Mille Lacs Band and other five constituent Bands delegate and relinquish all sovereign authority to the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe when we created it in 1936? I find it hard to imagine that our great-grandparents intended to relinquish all sovereign authority to the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe in 1936. Title 2, Section 1 of our Band Statutes seems to answer this question. It says that the Non-Removable Mille Lacs Bands of Chippewa Indians delegated some of its rights to the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and reserved to itself "the power to maintain a Band government which may enact laws to preserve the sovereignty of the Band and to promote and maintain individual rights and promote the general welfare of the people of the Band.”

Our sovereignty is our identity. The time has arrived for the people of the Non-Removable Mille Lacs Bands of Chippewa Indians to pay attention to the ramifications of the constitutional convention, learn about it, discuss it with each other, and to attend Tribal Executive Committee meetings. The constitutional convention process will affect our sovereignty, and we must protect it for our future generations.