American Indian Treaty Glossary

Treaty – is a contract or compact between nations.  It is an agreement that is binding upon the nations that sign the treaty.  The United States Constitution says treaties are “the supreme Law of the Land.”  The property rights that a specific treaty protects are not for all Indians in general but are rights specific to the tribe that signed the treaty.  The United States entered more than 400 treaties with Indian tribes from 1778 to 1871.

Sovereignty – is the power of a political body/government to control and regulate people and activities within its territory.  Dictionaries define sovereignty as: “the self-sufficient source of political power, from which all specific political powers are derived; . . . the right and power of regulating its internal affairs without foreign dictation.” Black’s Law Dictionary 1252 (5th ed. 1979).  The “supreme power, esp. over a body politic.”  Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary 1129 (1985).  All the European governments present in the New World and then the United States always dealt with the tribal nations as governments, and the U.S. continues to deal with tribes today on a political, government-to-government basis.

Reservations – are defined areas of land which tribes reserved for their exclusive use and possession.  These lands are defined in treaties, Executive orders, or acts of Congress.  The word reservation itself comes from the fact that tribes “reserved” these lands out of much larger areas that they owned and utilized.  In 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court stated:  “the treaty was not a grant of rights to the Indians, but a grant of right from them,–a reservation of those not granted.”  United States v. Winans, 198 U.S. 371, 381 (1905).

Reserved rights – are rights tribes kept, or reserved, out of a greater number of rights they already owned.  During treaty-making, the United States asked tribes to sell the U.S. certain property rights to land and assets in exchange for payments, promises, and protection from the United States.  Tribes often refused to sell all their property rights and they negotiated to retain or reserve property rights to defined areas of land, and to fish, animals, plants, etc.  These rights were not gifts from the United States but were a sale of rights from the tribes to the U.S. in which tribes preserved certain rights they owned and wanted to retain.

Nation – is a people existing in the form of an organized political community controlled and protected by natural and enacted rules and laws.  Black’s Law Dictionary 764, 923 (5th ed. 1979).  American Indian societies meet the definition of nations today and did so in pre-Columbian times.  The United States often referred to tribes as nations in treaties, laws, and official pronouncements.

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