The United States constitution and current government policies say yes... but what does that mean?
The rest of the world may wonder "What difference does it make if they are sovereign or not?" To the American Indian, it means everything because it means land.
North American Indian tribes are separate governments that are located within the borders of a country... the tribes are not simply made of citizens that are American or Canadian. They are nations within the border of another nation.
What makes a "nation" a nation?
Do they have government structure? Yes.
Do they have leaders? Yes
Hold Elections? Yes.
Do they hold national congresses? Yes. (They even hold nation to nation tribal congresses: Here's the link to the National Congress of American Indians)
Are they acknowledged by other countries as a sovereign nation? Yes.
Can American Indian leaders sign treaties "nation to nation" like other countries? Yes -- although the USA has chosen not to honor many from earlier times (I am being polite).
Can they make laws? Yes.
Hold court? Yes. (The USA Supreme Court's ruling in 1978 in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe that tribes lack the inherent authority to arrest, try and convict non-Indians who commit crimes on their lands but have the authority to govern their own tribal nation).
Create infrastructure? Yes.
Own and manage land? Yes.
Tax their people? Yes.
Determine who is eligible for citizenry? Yes.
Draft resolutions? Yes.
Does the United Nations protect their human rights? Yes.
Do the people see themselves as members of a sovereign nation? Yes.
Are they still alive? Yes and thriving, even amid considerable challenges.
Do they have flags, anthems, national days, national languages, and national culture? Yes.
"Looks like a duck. Quacks like a duck. Surely it's a duck."
Looks like a nation. Acts like a nation.
Surely it's a nation.
The answer to the sovereignty question has far reaching implications...
1) Should the United Nations accept an American Indian tribe or other indigenous nation if they applied for membership?
2) What about other rights/honors for nations like the opportunity for carrying their flag and participating in the Olympics under that nation's banner?
3) Will the Nobel Committee recognize a nomination from a Tribal Chief / Chairman nominating someone for a Nobel prize? (According to the The Nobel Foundation's site, Alfred Nobel's will indicates that the committee is to accept nominations from members of national assemblies and governments of states). Perhaps it's not about the nominee but about the power to nominate.
American Indian Tribal sovereignty refers to the inherent authority and recognized authority of indigenous tribes to govern themselves within the borders of the USA or Canada. (They are sovereign because they are sovereign. They are sovereign because they are recognized by others as sovereign). The federal government recognizes tribal nations as "domestic dependent nations" and has established a number of laws attempting to clarify the relationship between the federal, state, and tribal governments. The Constitution and later federal laws continue to grant local sovereignty to tribal nation.
The U.S. constitution mentions American Indians:
Article I (section 2, clause 3) and the 14th Amendment (section 2) address the handling of "Indians not taxed" in the apportionment of the seats of the House of Representatives according to population. The clause continues to say that Congress is empowered to “regulate commerce with foreign nations…states…and with the Indian tribes.” Technically, Congress has no more commercial power over American Indian nations than it does over the individual states like Minnesota...or Canada. This makes general congressional commercial laws inapplicable to tribal governments. Hence casinos.
The first formal USA policy towards tribal sovereign nations was assimilation or termination.
In the 1970's the United States shifted to a new policy of sovereign self-determination which affirms the ability of tribes to self-govern, to make decisions concerning the people who are registered tribal members and concerning activities on indigenous lands.
A separate USA department, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has been in place since 1824 specifically to deal with all communication, policies and issues regarding USA to tribal nation relations. In fact, unless a treaty or federal statute removes a power, the tribal nation is assumed to possess it.
Tribal nations have an inherent right to govern themselves.
And the United States acknowledges it too.
Current federal policy in the United States recognizes this Tribal sovereignty and stresses the government-to-government relations between Washington, D.C. and the American Indian tribes.
I have heard indigenous people speak of their dream for their children's children...the opportunity to have a representative at the United Nations, to walk in the Opening Ceremonies of the Summer Olympics carrying their flag, to be acknowledged by the world as members of their own nation just as they see themselves. As one Dakota grandma said: "We are our own people. Does that dream need to wait two or more generations?" Let's see what the world says.
We desire most from men,—The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell (c. 1450),
From men both rich and poor,
To have sovereignty without lies.
For where we have sovereignty, all is ours,
Though a knight be ever so fierce,
And ever win mastery.
It is our desire to have master
Over such a sir.
Such is our purpose.