Born in a wikiup, a traditional Apache brush wigwam, and brought up on stories of bloodshed between his forebears and the white man, Mr Lupe has been in tribal government, off and on, since 1964. His career thus spans several historic changes for Indian tribes, each of which affirmed and increased their sovereignty. “When I was first elected, I received no financial reports, no letters, they all went over there,” he recalls, pointing across the street to a branch of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the federal agency that handles relations with tribes. “Over the years I took their power away.” Then he flips his middle finger in the BIA’s direction. “I’m not responsible to you, I’m a sovereign nation.”
That sovereignty is still a topic of discussion at all should be surprising. America’s constitution names three sovereigns: the federal government, states and tribes. The “treaties” America signed with tribes in the 18th and 19th centuries also implied sovereign parties. Tribes could not keep armies or devise a currency, but they could issue their own passports, as the Iroquois have famously done (which made their lacrosse team miss a tournament in 2010, after Britain refused to recognise the documents). The Iroquois, the Sioux and the Ojibwe (Chippewa), even separately declared war on Germany in 1941.
But sovereignty has at least three pieces, says Manley Begay at the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, a research group. First, there is “inherent” sovereignty. Mr Begay’s Navajo, for example, consider their sovereignty a sacred gift from their Holy People. But there are also legal and de facto sovereignty, and the federal government, for most of American history, honoured neither. It considered treaties merely a tool to take land from the tribes. Its real policy towards Indians before 1851 was to remove them. After 1851, when the first modern Indian reservations were created, the policy was to contain them in what one Indian author has called “red ghettos” for their widespread poverty, unemployment, alcoholism and crime.
In theory, this changed in 1934 with an act of Congress nicknamed the Indian New Deal. It endorsed a degree of self-rule for Indian tribes, while urging them to form tribal constitutions similar to America’s own, with elections, courts and so forth. But in practice federal paternalism continued. Native American religions, for example, were persecuted until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 at last put a stop to it. Above all, the BIA (originally part of the War Department but nowadays part of Interior) made all decisions of economic consequence.