Mike Iyall: “Tribal sovereignty is covered in the Declaration of Independence.”

Mike Iyall talks about how tribal sovereignty is covered by the Constitution and the legalities surrounding sovereignty and governments at the federal, city, and county levels.

Bio: Mike Iyall is a Council member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribal and was Vice Chairman until 2016. He is the director of the Cowlitz Tribe scholarship program and serves as tribal historian.


Well tribal sovereignty is covered in the middle of the Declaration of Independence. It’s right in the Constitution. Right midway down the page: “only Congress shall have the power to treat with the Indian tribes.” That sets the stage. So, that means when the tribes talk about a government to government relationship, it means with the federal government. As someone whose had to represent the tribe at state and county and city level–and they start to throw their weight around–I can tell the people that are more educated that if you take it to court you will be told you have no standing. Legal standing is a phrase that means are you empowered to bring a action against these people. Ordinary citizens cannot sue the United States except in areas that U.S. government allows them. Similarly the tribes do not have to allow an outsider to sue them.

The city, the state cannot sue a tribe. Counties are lesser entities, cities are even farther down the food chain. Only the federal government can deal with the tribe. And it’s both a–it’s called sovereign immunity–but it’s also a significant responsibility. We have environmental groups that come to us and ask us for help on oil trains and coal trains, because we have sovereign immunity. So and we also have that inherent responsibility to take care of it, you know.

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