Sovereignty has served as an important political principle in the United States in both its founding and its relations with Native peoples. While the United States signed hundreds of treaties with Native peoples that recognize tribal nations as separate political entities, the political status and legitimacy of Native peoples has constantly come into question. Sovereignty has been cited throughout America’s founding documents and major Supreme Court opinions as the measure of political authority used to judge the status of Native peoples relative to the United States overriding political authority. The precedent established by these citations of sovereignty remains unclear, and the result is that modern policies meant to respect or restore tribal sovereignty, such as agreement for the development of renewable energy on reservation land, consistently fail to achieve their intended goals. This study explores the differences in the shared political vocabulary of sovereignty. I employed a grounded theory analysis of select texts by Native peoples and Supreme Court opinions that involved coding individual passages defining sovereignty to produce a range of categories of definitions. I then analyzed these definitions and their frequency across texts to examine trends in both differences and similarities in the meaning of citations of sovereignty. I conclude that major differences in how sovereignty is defined, including emphasis by select Native peoples on the importance of culture that was absent in Supreme Court opinions, provides a potential theory for understanding relations between the United States and Native peoples to guide researchers and policymakers
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