Tribal Sovereignty is Everything

Tribal sovereignty is important to who we are as Indigenous people, but its meaning is different depending on who you talk to. To learn about Tribal sovereignty from both a legal and personal perspective, we interviewed Stacy Leeds – a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and former law professor, judge, and Supreme Court Justice for the Cherokee Nation.

In 2011, you became the first Indigenous woman to lead a law school. That’s amazing! How did you get to that point?

I always knew that I wanted to advocate for something. I just didn’t know what that meant. When I went to undergrad I got a history degree, and it was my intention to be a history teacher, probably at a high school, and a basketball coach. But most of the people who I was friends with saw undergrad not as their destination, but as their next step to something else. That was very unusual where I was from, but I started thinking in the same way the people that I was surrounded by were thinking.

What did you do next?

I was homesick and wanted to come home. I knew that I wanted to work with Tribes. I came back home to Oklahoma to go to law school, because the University of Tulsa had an American Indian law program specialty at the time.

One of my law professors pulled me aside one day and pointed out that there was only one other woman that was a tenured faculty member who was also Native. He said, “You need to do this.” It would not have occurred to me that that would have been a possibility for me, but I was able to be surrounded by the right people who made suggestions at just the right time in my life.

From your perspective, what is Tribal sovereignty?

Tribal sovereignty simply means that Indigenous communities truly get to decide for themselves how they function and what their future looks like. It means the real power to protect your language, your arts, your lifeways, your laws as you define them. Tribal sovereignty means having control over every aspect of your life.

In some way it’s a legal concept too, because “sovereignty” means two things: It’s how you define your world for yourself, but it’s also if other sovereigns around you recognize you as a sovereign. So, we can’t completely live in our own little bubble… we have to do the types of things that get us outside legitimacy.

Why is Tribal sovereignty important?

Probably the only way you’re going to secure your future is if you have control over the decisions that impact you as a people and as a Tribe. As long as other people are telling you how to function and how you should go about organizing and empowering your communities, it’s never truly going to work out for you.

That’s why we have to have people playing every kind of role that you can imagine. Indian lawyers are incredibly important, but they’re no more important than the physician, or the nurse, or the engineer, or the person who is keeping our languages and our cultures and our medicines alive.

How can young people defend Tribal sovereignty?

I think young people need to realize that over the course of their lives they will lead in many different ways – every one of us will. Whether that’s taking some sort of leadership role… in something to do with your or school or whether that’s advocating for something that you believe in. There is not one of us that doesn’t have a moment to lead somewhere. Your voice always matters when you’re passionate about it and you’ve thought things through.

How can we learn more about Tribal sovereignty?

Learn about your own community’s governance. Try to be engaged in some way with your community – that’s really important. When I look back at my own life, it’s the simple things that I witnessed at key periods that really impacted my life. Just seeking out those moments – getting out of the house so you can engage with others and the world and get involved in something. That’s the best advice I can give – just get involved in issues you care about with people you can learn from.

Watch our full interview with Stacy below.

Interviewer: Originally from Oklahoma, Summer Lewis is a Muscogee and Seminole woman who works in Tribal public health. Summer is an MPH student at the University of California-Berkeley who will graduate in 2023. She enjoys baking, beading, and being outdoors. 

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