Two Native American activists spoke to students and faculty about the legal challenges against tribal sovereignty at a policy talk hosted by the Ford School of Public Policy on Tuesday.

Bryan Newland, a citizen of the Ojibwe community in northern Michigan and senior policy adviser at the Interior for Indian Affairs during the Obama administration, started off the discussion by addressing the sovereignty of Native tribes as referenced in the Constitution.

This was done through John Marshall’s establishment of the extra-constitutional framework for tribal sovereignty, Newland said, which meant that tribes could act with many of the same powers that state governments have. This also allowed them to exercise diplomatic relations with other tribes and the U.S. government, as demonstrated by hundreds of treaties signed between the tribes and the U.S.

According to Newland, states are historically the deadliest enemy of the tribes, as the state government and tribal governments often battle over who has jurisdiction to make decisions in Indian Country.

“It’s the land,” Newland said. “It’s really about land ownership and control over land.”

The speakers said the vast resources found in Indigenous land offer wealth, especially from the mining or development of those lands. As a result, the government is constantly trying to assimilate Native Americans in order to gain land for economic profit, and the U.S. is willing to go to great lengths to obtain this land and the resources it has, including violating treaties. 

Riyaz Kanji, a founding member of Kanji & Katzen, a law firm representing Native American tribes, said Supreme Court decisions have limited Native Americans’ rights as sovereign nations. In Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe in 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that tribes did not have the right to prosecute non-Indians on Native land, regardless of the crimes they committed against Natives. This lead to a spike in the assault, rape and murder of Native women and children, who were unable to hold their assailants accountable, Kanji said.

Kanji, who gave a brief history of the relationship between Native tribes and the state and federal government, explained that periods such as the Allotment Era, in which the government sold Native land to non-Native settlers, had lasting impacts on tribes today. 

“With respect to the states, at first there was outright hostility to the revitalizing of Indian tribes. More tribal power meant less state power,” Kanji said. “(However), there is plenty of disagreement and plenty of mechanisms of resolution. In the past 20 years, there has been greater enlightenment on the part of the states in recognition of tribal power.”

In recent decades, states have been more cooperative with Native governments, allowing for negotiations, according to the panelists. This can be seen in the cooperative management of the Great Lakes Fishery, which has given Natives the right to continue to fish in the Great Lakes, and more recently in the coordination of COVID-19 testing across the Upper Peninsula.

Furthermore, Newland is hopeful that President-elect Joe Biden’s administration will nominate U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., to be Secretary of the Interior, which would make her the first Native American and woman in charge of the department. 

“To have somebody who intuitively understands how the policy decisions land on the ground – it’s hard to overstate the value of that,” Newland said. “Representation matters. That perspective would be huge.”

U-M Dearborn lecturer Jason Sprague said it was interesting to hear about the complications facing Native American communities.

“I thought they did a great job explaining the nuances and complexities of the legal and governmental relationships between tribes and other governing entities,” Sprague said.

Daily News Contributor Kate Weiland can be reached at

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