Building strong connections between tribal nations and county government: Part 1 - Sovereignty

County commissioners from 18 northern Michigan counties learn about Michigan tribal sovereignty, history and cooperative efforts with counties.

County commissioners from across northern lower Michigan met in early December 2014 in Grayling to learn about tribal nations in Michigan and hear examples of cooperative efforts between tribes and county governments. Emily Proctor, Michigan State University Extension tribal aducator, and a member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, shared her knowledge of tribal history and sovereignty with the commissioners.

Prior to the arrival of European settlers in the territory now known as the United States of America, it is estimated there were about 18 million people. These indigenous people had varying governmental structures, and their nations engaged in agreements with one another. The traditional structure in Michigan gave power to the people, who worked to make decisions together. They governed using oral history and tradition rather than written laws. When those in a tribe could not come to agreement on important issues, they would split into separate groups and form new villages. The current Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians is made up of members of nine villages.

Spirituality and transparency were key elements in tribal governance. Community input was essential and leaders were expected to follow the wishes of the community. Leaders could be deposed from power if they did not respect the decisions of their people.

The sovereignty of tribal nations is inherent in their having existed on this continent for thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans. Just as tribal nations had long made agreements, or treaties, with one another, the new U.S. government made treaties with the tribal nations. For those of us accustomed to thinking of sovereign nations having exclusive territories, and distinct boundaries, this concept of a sovereign existing within a sovereign requires us to rethink our notion of sovereignty. As we’ve seen, however, it is possible for sovereigns to coexist, agreeing on the powers each will exercise. As with governments which have multiple branches, like our state and federal governments, there will inevitably be disagreements between the branches and between the sovereigns. Both must work together to resolve the differences while protecting their own interests.

Commissioners who participated in this program are delegates from their counties to the Michigan Northern Counties Association (MNCA). Michigan State University Extension provides educational programming assistance to the MNCA, which meets eight times each year.

Read more about building stronger connections between tribal nations and governments in northern lower Michigan in the following articles:

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