McGirt v. Oklahoma has been called “one of the most consequential legal victories for Native Americans in decades,” an easy addition to our list of the top sovereignty moments from 2020. In addition to affirming that the eastern half of Oklahoma is Native land (19 million acres), the case sets an important precedent for Native nations involved in boundary disputes. Non-Native governments frequently use tactics similar to those employed by the State of Oklahoma in McGirt to challenge the boundaries of Native nations. These governments aim to contest the existence or scope of reservation land. McGirt may demonstrate to non-Tribal governments that they’re better off partnering with Native nations than spending millions of dollars fighting against them.
See our full-length article for more on McGirt v. Oklahoma.
Leech Lake collaborated with various stakeholder groups–local governments, utilities, and cooperatives–to reach a compromise on the land return. In December 2020, Congress passed legislation certifying the return. This is a major victory; it’s an important step toward returning stolen land and affirming Tribal sovereignty.
Why is the removal of trust land an issue? Without trust land, it becomes more difficult for a Native nation to exercise its sovereignty. Trust land helps a Native nation to maintain its own system of government, create and enforce laws, determine its membership, and make other critical decisions on behalf of its citizens.
The DOI based its disestablishment attempt on a declaration it made in 2018. In this declaration, the DOI stated that the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe did not qualify as “Indian” because it lacked federal status when the government passed the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934. Luckily, a judge ruled against the DOI in Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe v. Bernhardt, stating that DOI’s 2018 declaration and subsequent behavior were “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law.”
If the judge had instead ruled in favor of the DOI, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe could have potentially lost much of what they’ve developed on their sovereign lands. The nation has worked hard to create a judicial system, police force, language school, and Tribal housing since receiving federal recognition in 2007. Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe v. Bernhardt is important for sovereignty because it demonstrates that a Native nation’s federal recognition status can endure the political motives of a presidential administration.
In 2020, we profiled five case studies that showcase Native nations’ response to COVID-19. For example, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe created a series of health and safety checkpoints along federal and state highways that run through its reservation in early April 2020. The checkpoints serve as a form of advanced contact tracing to stop the spread of COVID-19. And, the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa requested that the State of Minnesota temporarily close the state park located on its Tribal lands. They did this to limit outside visitors to the area and keep their citizens safe. These actions and more brought increased visibility to Tribal sovereignty and showcased Native nations’ strength. We’ll continue to see Native nations leverage their sovereignty to respond to COVID-19 in 2021.
You can read our full set of case studies and learn more about how sovereignty works here.