“Tribal governments are sovereign governments. This means that we have the authority as Indian peoples to control our own destinies. The Tribe controls who are its citizens. We determine what laws will control the interests of our community. Our governments have jurisdiction over our own affairs. This is what sovereignty means.” — W. Ron Allen, chairman, Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, in “The State of the Native Nations” (Oxford University Press)
North Kitsap School Board member Scott Henden asked about the meaning of tribal sovereignty at the Nov. 8 school board meeting. It’s good to ask questions, to seek to understand, particularly regarding such a complex issue (see story, page A1).
But minutes after saying he needed to do some reading so he could understand the topic, Henden made a significant political statement about the very topic he said he didn’t understand.
Henden opposed language in an interagency agreement referring to the Suquamish Tribe as a “sovereign nation.”
“I have a problem understanding [in] any kind of English where those words go together and it means what we have. I don’t see them as a sovereign nation. Norway is a sovereign nation,” he said. “I can’t agree that they’re a sovereign nation. I’m not willing to do that.”
Even after being advised by board Chairman Dan Weedin and Superintendent Patty Page that the Suquamish Tribe is, indeed, considered a sovereign, or self-governing, nation by the U.S., he refused to accept it.
“I cannot put those two words together by any kind of reasonable definition and say this fits,” he said of the words “sovereign nation.” “I mean, it doesn’t work for me.” He said it would be against his morals “to say something is true and agree to it in a contract, and know very well it’s not, for me.”
Whether Henden agrees with it or not, it is true.
In the U.S., there is city government, county government, state government, tribal government, and federal government. Tribal governments have a special relationship with the United States arising from treaties, statutes, executive orders and their historical relationship with the U.S.
Early indigenous leaders signed treaties with the United States, making available land for non-Native settlement and reserving for their descendants land and certain rights. Under Article IV of the U.S. Constitution, treaties are “the law of the land.” Those early indigenous leaders never gave up their peoples’ right of self-government, or sovereignty, and today those treaty signatories are recognized by the U.S. as sovereign, though domestic dependent, nations.
Tribal governments exercise authority and enforce laws on their lands; exercise treaty rights within their historical territory; and provide public services for their citizens, among them community development, economic development, human services, and public safety.
If Henden really desired information about a topic he doesn’t understand, he might have just asked the question. He might have done some research; board members receive their agendas and accompanying documents six days before each meeting. And there are legal departments at the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe and the Suquamish Tribe that would, we are certain, gladly explain tribal sovereignty to any elected official with whom they interact.
But Henden didn’t just ask the question. He made a political statement about a system of government, and cited the federal government’s definition of “sovereign nation” as an example of questionable judgment.
We don’t expect school board members to be all-knowing; all public servants grow in knowledge and experience as they do the job. But it’s reasonable to expect school board members to have some basic knowledge of their constituency; any candidate for office in an area with two reservations should have some knowledge about the tribal governments with which he or she will interact.
It’s reasonable to expect school board members to know how to find information they need. There’s a laptop right in front of Henden at school board meetings; he literally has a world of knowledge at his fingertips.
A reader wrote this comment in response to our online story: “... it is actually the duty of public officials to educate themselves on the critical issues they need to understand in order to be responsible public officials.”
We agree. Henden needs to do his homework.