Thu, May 23

Editorial: Tribal rights mean something in the 21st century

Two big decisions in lawsuits last week turned the spotlight on Native American rights and sovereignty. On the surface, they benefited the Navajo Nation, but the decisions reach farther afield.

A settlement agreement between the Navajo Nation and the federal government reached back to the 1940s. It was a reminder of how indifferent some have been to the rights of the Navajo, completely mismanaging funds from mineral leases for decades. Knowing they were due millions in royalties for the natural resources on the reservation lands, the Navajo Nation settled for $554 million.

It is an expense the government would not have to deal with now if it had been conscientious and scrupulous in the first place. And not everyone within the Navajo Nation will be happy with its leaders accepting the settlement. Another offshoot of the historically imbalanced dealings between the feds and tribal governments is the distrust that crops up between the people and their own leadership.

On a smaller scale on other issues, the Yavapai-Apache Nation has witnessed the same phenomenon.

The second decision, a decision from an appeals court, verified a tribal government's rights to require a private firm operating on their lands to give hiring preference to their own tribal members. And before anyone could yell "Discrimination!" Judge William Fletcher explained it was not about national origin but about political boundaries. (The suit was brought by Hopi and Otoe tribal members.)

Just as a municipality may give preference to local, qualifying contractors or a state may insist on only residents with legal papers be hired by local companies, the Navajo Nation was allowed to instate a hiring preference for its own members.

The ruling goes beyond the standard practice (which has miffed some white folks in the Verde Valley over the years) of tribal governments hiring their own members over non-tribal members to work at their own tribal-owned companies. Both practices are decried as racism by those who refuse to see a Native American nation as anything more than just another employer and do not see the painfully irony of such protests.

That is further proof that there lingers a misunderstanding among non-tribal members about how tribal sovereignty applies within U.S. Constitution. It is why legal cases like these continue between native peoples and the federal government in the 21st century.