Indigenous Sovereignty Beyond Territory

Grace Dho, Indigenous Voices in Conservation Midterm

Indigenous sovereignty has become a buzzword among the current political agendas. However, the complete scope of indigenous sovereignty is often overlooked in these western agendas, as indigenous sovereignty expands beyond indigenous nations having power over their current disposition (Reed, 2020). True indigenous sovereignty includes sovereignty over historical lands that were taken from native populations. Indigenous Scholar Reed states that the “western conceptions of sovereignty as a mechanism for resource management…are inconsistent with indigenous epistemologies” (Reed, 2014). In this essay, I will work alongside Reed’s quotes to illustrate how indigenous sovereignty extends beyond the western definition of sovereignty, as true indigenous sovereignty must incorporate historical claims and relationality to the Land. 

Reed states, “We are the Land and the Land is us” (Reed, 2020). This quote illustrates the relationality, or relational connection, that Indigenous peoples have to the land. It can specifically refer to the health of the land and the health of the people are closely intertwined. For native people, their body politic extends beyond the traditional, western political boundaries. The body of native peoples often includes the Land in which they see as kin, not just land as territory, through an ethical and spiritual connection (Reed, 2020). This brings up the difference between land, with a lowercase L, and Land, with an uppercase L (Kanngieser & Todd, 2020). The lowercase “land” simply refers to land through a western lens. This lowercase “land” is seen as only a territory or a resource meant for human consumption. The term “Land”, with a capital L, further emphasizes the relationality indigenous people have with the land. The capital L also makes Land a proper noun, therefore allowing the phrase to refer to something or someone. This illustrates how native people view Land as its being, as something that is to be respected. 

When indigenous sovereignty is spoken about through the lens of western governance, it only refers to sovereignty over the territory that the indigenous peoples have been granted by the US government. This land given to indigenous people is often not their traditional homeland (Treuer, 2021). Native peoples within the United States have been removed from their homes for colonizers to exploit and develop the land on which the native peoples resided (Treuer, 2021). The Indian Removal Act of 1830 first moved all Indians east of the Mississippi to allotted “Indian Territory”, which took the form of refuges (Treuer, 2021). Those indigenous to the west were then removed from their homeland through a variety of smaller acts. A major example would be the Yellowstone Act of 1872, in which the people of the Shoshone and Bannock tribes were slaughtered and removed from their land to create Yellowstone National Park (Treuer, 2021). Finally, the Dawes Act of 1887 divided the reservation land that was left to the native people into allotments (Treuer, 2021). These allotments removed the communal aspect of Land and turned it into the property, or land with a lowercase “l”. When the western government now speaks of Indigenous Sovereignty, it only speaks to having power over this allotted land, which is not that land that indigenous peoples once had sovereignty with. 

Since the western notion of sovereignty only accounts for land, with a lowercase l, native peoples are put in a difficult situation when they rely on Land, with a capital L. This is best illustrated through the Klamath Basin Water War. Reed calls this conflict “an act of construction and assertion of Yurok sovereignty” (Reed, 2014). The Klamath Basin Water War began during a California drought, in which farmers wanted the Klamath River dam to be open to provide farms with necessary water (Kohler & Michelson, 2008). The opening of this dam would be harmful to the salmon populations though, as there would not be enough water for the salmon to survive during the drought (Kohler & Michelson, 2008). The native Yurok people of the area relied upon and were connected to the salmon. The salmon was given to the Yurok by the creator, and the Yurok honor the salmon for the life the fish give their people (Reed, 2014). The Yurok people needed salmon to survive, as large food deserts on the reservation land were not uncommon (Sherriff, 2021). However, the pressure from the farming communities in California persuaded the government to open the dam (Kohler & Michelson, 2008). The control of the dam was out of the governance of the native Yurok people, but the outcome of the decision to open the dam to the farmers would impact the livelihoods of the native Yurok peoples. 

As Reed states, “The United States federal government did not perceive the Yuroks as ‘legitimate authority” (Reed, 2014). Under the western notion of sovereignty, the Yurok people did not own the dam or have any legal claim to the salmon. However, it can be argued that, through both historical claims to the land and the relationship they hold with the salmon, the Yurok people have a sovereign relationship with their fishing rights. Unfortunately, this type of sovereignty was unrecognized by the US government. 

The Yurok people were not only robbed of their sovereignty during the Fish Wars but they were also robbed of their fishing rights. Even before the Klamath Basin War, the salmon population was on a decline. This led the government to highly regulate salmon fishing (Kohler & Michelson, 2008). This prevented the Yurok from fishing, but many continued to go out on the water. Yurok people were arrested for fishing, even though the Yurok people relied on the fish and respected their livelihoods (Kohler & Michelson, 2008). Again, the Yurok people had historical relationality to the salmon and the Land, but this sovereignty over fishing rights was not respected by the US government. Both this experience and the Klamath Water Wars illustrate how the Yurok people were not only prevented from accessing a sacred resource, but they were also unable to protect this resource. 

The definition of sovereignty often refers to the words “power” and “authority”. Under the western notion of sovereignty, indigenous sovereignty only refers to indigenous people having power over themselves and where they currently reside. As discussed above though, Indigenous sovereignty refers to indigenous people having power over their historical Land. True Indigenous sovereignty overlaps with the authority of the US government, and it sparks a conversation about the “broader colonial American history” (Reed, 2014). As Tuck states, “Decolonization is not a metaphor” (Tuck Eve, November 2016). Within the same speech, Tuck describes how reconciliation is necessary for sovereignty (Tuck Eve, November 2016). For true Indigenous Sovereignty to exist, colonizers must reconcile with the Land they have taken. 


Kanngieser, A., & Todd, Z. (2020). From Environmental Case Study to Environmental  Kin Study. History and Theory, 59(3), 385-393. 10.1111/hith.12166

River of Renewal. Kohler Jack and Michelson Steve (Directors). (2008).[Motion Picture] PBS.

Reed Kaitlin. (2014). We Are Salmon People: Constructing Yurok Sovereignty in the Klamath Basin. Senior Capstone Project with Digital Window @ Vassar, 208-215.

Reed Kaitlin. (2020). We Are a Part of the Land and the Land Is Us. Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, (42), 27-49.

Sherriff Lucy. (2021). ‘No fish means no food’: how Yurok women are fighting for their tribe’s nutritional health. The Guardian.


Tuck Eve. (November 2016). Politics of Memory and Reconciliation . Paper presented at the Decolonizing Conference 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: