Tribal Sovereignty
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Tribal Sovereignty

by Roy Bernal
Chairman, All Indian Pueblo Council

Many visitors and newcomers to New Mexico do not understand the concept of tribal sovereignty or what it means to New Mexico's nineteen pueblos. Sovereignty related to the status and authority of a ruler or a government. Tribal sovereignty reflects recognition of the fact that the Pueblos, like other federally recognized tribes, have a unique political status; they are separate and independent governments with substantial governing authority within their territory. Pueblos are, in essence, nations within nations.

The tribal sovereignty of Pueblos has it's roots in history. Pueblos and their governments existed in New Mexico for some five hundred years before the coming of the first Spanish explorers. Pueblo governments were officially recognized by the Spanish Crown, and later by the governments of Mexico and the United States.

Ceremonial canes, first presented to Pueblo governors in the early 1600's by the Spanish Crown, and again some 250 years later by President Abraham Lincoln, are eloquent symbols of the unique status of Pueblo governments and their unique relationship with our federal government.

As the U.S. Supreme Court noted back in 1876, Pueblos hold "their lands by a right superior to that of the United States. their title dates back to grants made by the government of Spain before the Mexican revolution, a title which was fully recognized by the Mexican government and protected by it in the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, by which Mexico and the allegiance of its inhabitants were transferred to the United States.

Today Pueblo sovereignty is manifested in and by tribal self-governance. Each pueblo has its own tribal government, consisting of a governor and one or more lieutenant governors, a tribal council, and a tribal court systems.

through these three branches of government, Pueblo's make and enforce their own laws and policies; interact with federal, state and local government; engage in a range of business, commercial, and governmental activities; and administer a wide range of public services such as law enforcement, public housing, social services, senior citizen care, environmental protection and health and safety programs.

Tribal Sovereignty ensures that New Mexico Pueblos enjoy a significant degree of independence and self determination in their decision-making and governance, thereby helping to preserve and protect their unique cultural heritage, as well as their unique status as New Mexico's first governments.

(The above essay is reprinted with permission from the Eight Northern Indian Pueblo 1999 Visitor's Guide published by The Eight Northern Indian Pueblo Council)

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