Fighting for Sovereignty

Photograph “Casino” by Scottb211, licensed under CC-BY-2.0.

The controversial Indigenous rights case California v. Cabazon Band made its way to the Supreme Court in late 1986. Californian officials, wanting to curb bingo and card games hosted on the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians reservation, claimed that certain state laws applied on the reservation, meaning the card games must stop and the bingo games would need to become charitable events. California argued that Public Law 280 gave them jurisdiction over criminal acts on Indian territory, and they therefore had the ability to regulate the gambling happening on the Cabazon reservation.  The Supreme Court’s ruling in February of 1987, refuted the claim that the state’s jurisdiction extended to gaming, and instead held that states had no ability to control it on reservations.

California specifically argued to halt reservation gambling using Public Law 280. Public Law 280 was created following public outcry against crimes committed on Native territory, not being handled to the satisfaction of the nearby non-native people, and it gave certain states the jurisdiction to enforce their criminal laws on reservations. In California v. Cabazon, California argued that the gambling happening on the Cabazon reservation was criminal and that California therefore had the right to enforce their laws and bring it to a halt. The Supreme Court did not buy California’s argument, and held that gambling regulations are civil law, meaning California had no power to enforce their gaming laws on the reservation.

Indigenous communities have been fighting to assert their sovereignty for about as long as they have been in contact with colonists, and this case marked one of the first beneficial rulings made regarding Indigenous communities, and their rights to govern themselves in the US. The affirmation of tribes’ ability  to operate casinos on reservations was a big decision, partly due to the ability of casinos to bring more money onto historically poor reservations, helping their economies, but it also was a big affirmation of their sovereignty. In the preceding 100 or so years, many laws were passed and policies enacted in attempts to assimilate the Indigenous people of the US into its general population and terminate the various sovereign tribes existing within the US. A prime example of the prevailing policies for the treatment of Indigenous people and tribes of the US can be seen in House Concurrent Resolution 108 (HCR 108), which was passed the same year as PL 280 and was a critical piece of termination era policy. The resolution is phrased to make it appear as a beneficial action for the Indigenous people it concerns, but it explicitly states the desire “to make the Indians… subject to the same laws… as are applicable to other citizens”.  When the flowery language surrounding this statement is stripped away, it clearly states the desire of the US to strip the Indigenous tribes living within the borders of the US of their sovereignty. Some of the importance of California v. Cabazon gains can be seen when compared to previous actions taken by the US government. Up to that point, there had been very few other rulings or laws passed that recognized the sovereignty of Native nations. 

While the fight for asserting sovereignty was clearly a big issue for Native groups in the 20th century (and earlier), it hasn’t gone anywhere and is still a big issue today. One issue that has been ongoing for the past several years, is the Dakota Access Pipeline and the protests against it. The pipeline was planned to transport crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois, and the planned route had it passing close by the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. According to Nnative groups in the region, the pipeline would threaten their water supplies, as well as significant sites. Construction of the pipeline was delayed for some time, but it was finally completed in 2017, after the process was hurried along via executive order. Legal battles about the potential ecological impact of the pipeline are still ongoing, with the most recent court decision coming from the US court of appeals in early Aaugust overturning a previous decision, and allowing the continued operation of the pipeline as a more extensive environmental impact study is concluded. This pipeline is not on reservation land, so it may not seem like an issue concerning Indigenous sovereignty, but the potential impact of the pipeline spilling oil into the environment could impact the surrounding tribes who are sovereign nations. The issues surrounding the operation of the pipeline are still undecided, but a halt to the pipeline operation would also mean a win for Indigenous nations being able to protect their own sovereign interests.


Arnold, Laurie. 2017. “‘The Ground Floor of a Movement: The National Indian Gaming Association and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.’” Western Historical Quarterly 48(4): 345–65.

Cobb, Daniel M., ed. 2015. “‘We Were Here as Independent Nations’ (1965).” In Say We Are Nations, Documents of Politics and Protest in Indigenous America since 1887, University of North Carolina Press, 133–38. (November 18, 2020).

Calloway, Colin G., ed. First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History. 6th Edition. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2019.

“California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians.” Oyez, Accessed 17 Nov. 2020.