Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCU), first established in 1968, were established with a mission: to advance Native Americans while helping to preserve their languages, cultures, and right to self-determination. In short, TCUs support and educate on issues of tribal sovereignty, the ability of each tribal nation to govern and represent itself.
But the June 29 Supreme Court decision in Oklahoma vs. Castro-Huerta has questioned that sovereignty, and Native American scholars worry about the implications for their people, their nations, their schools, and the new precedent it sets for future decisions.
“Make no mistake: this is an attack on tribal sovereignty,” said Carrie Billy, president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Council (AIHEC). Billy worked with Dr. David E. Yarlott, Jr., Chairman of the AIHEC Board of Trustees and President of Little Big Horn College, a TCU in Crow Agency, MT, to draft a statement following the decision. .
“Tribal sovereignty is an inherent right – it was not granted by the US government and cannot be taken away by the US government,” the statement said. “It is recognized in binding contractual obligations that even the Supreme Court cannot undo.”
Oklahoma vs. Castro-Huerta is a criminal case, and its ruling gives the state concurrent jurisdiction with federal and tribal governments, essentially dividing reservations into the states in which they reside. This allows for state-directed criminal prosecution of non-Indigenous people for any crime committed on federally established Indigenous territory.
The decision also went against the precedent set just two years earlier in the case of McGirt v. Oklahoma.
Cheryl Najera, a criminal justice instructor at the College of the Muscogee Nation, a TCU in Okmulgee, OK, said the McGirt The decision gave the impression that the Supreme Court finally understood what Native Americans had always known: “that our reservations, dating back to remoteness, have never been lifted.”
But reading the Castro Huerta decision felt completely opposite, Najera said.
“The language and reasoning given was frustrating to read. He clearly denied nearly 200 years of case law dating back to the 1831 case Worcester v. Georgia“, said Najera.
Dr. Charles “Monty” Roessel, president of Diné College, a TCU in Tsaile, AZ, said the decision had his faculty worried.
“What I’ve heard from the teachers is that if [tribal sovereignty] is off the table now, so what else is possible? In a way, we’re all thinking, “Where are we vulnerable?” said Roessel, who added that the decision came as a bit of a surprise. “We didn’t think it would be like this. We thought there would be a rollback, but the concept of tribal sovereignty would still be there.
Before Oklahoma vs. Castro-Huerta, Roessel said the tribesmen felt something close to comfort, able to expand into their identity as nations with their own rhetorical and food sovereignty. Now the decision has made every day “on our survival, again,” Roessel said.
Dr. Cheryl Crazy Bull, president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, said educators and TCUs play a key role in helping tribal and non-tribal members understand exactly what the tribal sovereignty and why it is essential to protecting their Native American identity. .
“Tribal sovereignty is the modern reflection of our self-government. Self-governance is what you are able to maintain as a people, whether through a formal structure like government or through your community [or] traditional laws, those things that make you who you are and those things that make you unique,” said Crazy Bull. “Our languages, our land, our ceremonial practices, the way we understand our relationship to creation, our social and family structure, all those sorts of things make you a people. And in modern society, they make you sovereign.
The TCU, Crazy Bull said, emphasizes a Native American’s right to self-determination, which this ruling has called into question.
“I think people need the historical context to accept that we basically traded our lands for some sort of relationship with the federal government. We have not traded our lands with the states. And we still retain our right to inherit our identity – we didn’t give it away,” Crazy Bull said.
Like many Native American scholars, Crazy Bull is concerned about the new precedent this decision sets for the upcoming Supreme Court hearing in October on Brackeen vs. Haalandwho will decide the fate of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), established in 1978.
ICWA says tribal governments must have a say in who adopts a Native American child if the parents lose custody. According to the Native American Rights Fund, prior to ICWA, up to 35% of Native American children were removed from their homes by state welfare and adoption agencies. Even if parents were willing and able to bring these children home, approximately 85% of all Native American adoptees were placed with non-Native families, removing them from their culture, language, and identity.
Roessel explained it this way:
“Imagine going to another country and trying to adopt – you have to go through the government. she has a role and a place to say where and who can adopt her children. For now look at it this way and say, you don’t [have that right] as a tribe, that means you don’t believe that tribal nations are nations,” Roessel said. “To get to this place, you have to strip the precedents, the treaties, with an awful lot of stuff to get to the point of saying anyone can adopt a Native American child.”
ICWA works because Native Americans are federally classified as a political entity, as members of nations. If the Supreme Court decision in Brakeen vs. Haaland establishes Native Americans as a racial identity only, the ICWA could be declared unconstitutional. Crazy Bull said the decision could even impact K-12 tribal education, as well as TCU.
“We fear that this will become Brown v Board of Education. OOur education systems could be seen as discriminatory or invalid,” Crazy Bull said. “As educators, we worry about how to educate Congress, the people of our states. It’s a difficult role. »
As TCU approaches the next fall semester, Billy and Yarlott say they will work even harder to ensure TCU meets the new needs and concerns of their students, continuing their work despite the ebbs and flows of power. judicial. For Crazy Bull, reasserting tribal sovereignty is just one more step in The People’s long journey of how many Native Americans refer to themselves.
“The TCU is not only an act of sovereignty, if we are mandated to affirm the rights of people, but we are also in a position where we can influence our own people’s understanding of how they can participate – elections are important,” said Crazy Bull. .
Liann Herder can be contacted at [email protected]