Literature Review

I chose four articles from my collection to do a review on: Climate Change Impacts on the Water Resources of American Indians and Alaska Natives in the U.S by Cozzetto et al. and published in the scientific journal Climate Change in 2013; Native Water Protection Flows Through Self-Determination: Understanding Tribal Water Quality Standards and “Treatment as States”by Sibyl Diver, published in the Journal of Contemporary Water Research and Education, in 2018;The Myth of Tribal Sovereignty: An Analysis of Native American Tribal Status in the U.S, and Tribal Sovereignty by Algeria R. Ford, published in the International Community Law review, in 2010; and Tribal Sovereignty and the Problem of Difference in Environmental Regulation: Observations of “Measured Separatism” in Indian Country by Darren Ranco and Dean Suagee, published in the scientific journal Antipode, in 2007.

Climate Changelooked at the issue of sovereignty from an environmental science angle, specifically how systemic inequalities shape how native communities are affected by climate change. It argues that tribes are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change because they have been politically and socioeconomically disenfranchised by the system of American colonialization[1]. Therefore, they lack the resources to respond adequately to natural disasters, which, because of climate change, will occur with more frequency and intensity.

This article also argues that tribes are historically subsistence-based and heavily rely on water and direct natural resources for their way of life. So, when climate change eventually impacts the local ecosystems, the native communities are hit first, and hit hardest. This will not only deprives tribes of access to necessary goods like food and water, but also access to culturally significant animals and natural sites[2].

Native Wateris from a journal specifically on Water Research, so it draws in a lot of information regarding the EPA and the Clean Water Act, and how even water standards are influenced by uneven jurisdiction and systems. It points out how the paternalistic and racist ideas of native nations existing as “domestic dependent nations” and having a “trust relationship” with the U.S federal government still shape EPA policy, despite efforts of reform in the last few decades[3]. It outlines the current policies in place, such as “Treatment as States” and “Water Quality Standards” and shows how they were created to try and bring more native voices into the environmental field, but due to structural inequalities regarding politics and wealth, these policies are still exclusionary and unequal. This leads to the reason native nations are calling for more environmental self-determination; they want to be able to make their own decisions about their own land with having to deal with the bureaucratic red-tape these programs involve. If the EPA, and by proxy the Federal Government, are overseeing their decisions and have final say in what happens, that further erodes native rights. This article argues that strengthening existing democratic institutions to be more inclusive and aware of native perspectives will alleviate this issue. 

The Myth of Tribal Sovereigntywas published in the International Community Law Review, so it looked at sovereignty from a legal and quasi-political point of view, analyzing legal precedents passed down from the Supreme Court and policies involving Native Americans to build a cohesive explanation of why the system exists the way it does. The articles argument is that, on paper, tribal sovereignty is upheld through judicial precedent, but on reality policies toward native peoples have often been policies of government interference with tribal administration of land and customs[4]. It also states that by deriving their sovereignty from the federal government, native nations are subject to their jurisdiction and in fact notsovereign at all. Instead, it argues, native nations are instead treated as quasi-states[5]. They are awarded some unique privileges benefitting their “sovereign” status, but they lack the protection from federal overreach granted to states in the 10thAmendment. Native nations were excluded from the conversation, therefore there are no Constitutional limits on federal interference regarding tribes[6].

The last article, Tribal Sovereignty,was published in the geography journal Antipode, so it looked at how issues over sovereignty impact tribal fights against climate change. It argues that, due to the tribe’s separate status under federalism, they exist in a bureaucratic grey area that makes it exponentially more difficult to protect themselves against climate change than it would be for states. Also due to their separate existence, tribes are not given seats at the table where decisions regarding environmental policy are being made, despite the fact that they are already fighting against it, usually with higher water standards than neighboring states [7]. The article argues that to correct this systematic issue, the federal government must either overhaul its democratic institutions to make them more inclusive to native voices, or finally relinquish administrative control and allow all native nations the self-determination they want and deserve. 

The arguments presented in these articles build off of each other to present a clear picture of the structural inequalities that work against native nations and their right to self-determination, and how this has led to their inability to combat climate change in the way that serves their people, land, and culture. The Myth of Tribal Sovereignty lays the foundation, explaining how the current status of native nations was created and that they aren’t really “sovereign” at all, existing as quasi-states at the federal government’s mercy, despite attempting to gain rights to self-determination[8]. This reality is used by both Tribal Sovereignty and Native Water Protectionto explain why native nations are less able than states and the federal government to combat climate change and protect their resources, even though damage to ecosystems will hit them first[9]. If they are systematically marginalized, these articles also argue, they cannot administer policies in the way states or the federal government can; their policies can be challenged in court in regard to jurisdiction over fee lands and non-natives living on reservations, an issue the states and the federal government doesn’t encounter: if you are within state borders, that state has jurisdiction[10]. This leads into native nations having issues implementing cohesive environmental policies within their territory, leading to a checkerboard pattern of regulations, something that is not conducive to the fight against climate change[11].  

Both Tribal Sovereigntyand Native Water Protectionalso use the base laid by The Myth of Tribal Sovereigntyto discuss more in depth examples of policies regarding native peoples and nations that are built on the bones of racism, like “Treatment as State” and “Measured Separatism”. These policies both regard the how the federal system should treat native nations, but at the inception of both of these policies, the nations they were referring to were left out of the decision-making process, leaving them vulnerable to issues that the federal government was too large for, but they were not powerful enough to handle. A perfect example of these kinds of issues are discussed in Climate Change, where the actual implementation of these harmful policies is analyzed. An example is used from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation from 2003, where water levels got so low the sole water intake pipe into the reservation filled up with mud, leaving the residents without water for a week. Because of underfunding, this reservation had to rely on a single intake pipe for all of its residents, showcasing the structural inequalities in the federal funding system that tribal nations rely on. Therefore, when a long drought occurred, and water levels dropped drastically, the native community at Standing Rock was hit the hardest[12].Climate Changealso draws on more of Native Water Protection’s ideas about the foundation of policies toward native people often is racist and paternalistic; their vestiges are still seen in the modern way the federal government and state governments interact with tribal governments, which leads to an unequal implementation on environmental practices, furthering climate change effects and negatively impacting tribes. 

When read in a certain order, these papers can be seen as cause-and-effect timeline of policy creation and implementation. First, policies are created by legislators and then institutionalized by judges setting precedents upholding these policies, as relayed inThe Myth of Tribal Sovereigntyin regard to the history of tribal status. The implementation of these policies continues, as seen by the EPA’s various policies towards native nations and Congressional action in regard to native rights, detailed in both Native Water Protectionand Tribal Sovereignty.Then, at the end of the policy chain, we see how the implementation of these policies have directly impacted native communities and ecosystems, as reported in Climate Change

By using Standing Rock’s NODAPL protests as an example, I can showcase how the current unofficial status of tribal nations as “quasi-states” has allowed for government interference on tribal lands and in surrounding resources; it reveals how tribes are not really sovereign and control of their land can be subjected to the whims of the federal government.  Standing Rock also shows how the judicial, economic, and political systems of America are stacked against native nations; Standing Rock Sioux sued the company that built the pipeline, Dakota Access, and the Army Corp, who greenlit the project, but the lawsuits were costly and ineffective at enacting change on the ground despite rulings in the tribe’s favor. In spite of litigation and the possible corruption and illegality of the Army Corps actions, construction of the pipeline resumed, showing how little precedents of native jurisdiction over land for environmental purposes mattered here when billions of dollars in profit stood to be gained.  The “I Stand with Standing Rock” protests were just one more example of the ongoing pattern of inequalities by our federal government, but they can offer an in-depth look at how the system of native oppression and marginalization currently operates .


[1]Cozzetto et al. “Climate Change Impacts on the Water Resources  of American Indians and Alaska Natives in the U.S” Climate Change, volume 120, issue 3 (2013); 569-84

[2]Cozzetto et al. “Climate Change Impacts on the Water Resources of American Indians and Alaska Natives in the U.S” Climate Change, volume 120, issue 3 (2013); 569-84

[3]Sibyl Diver “Native Water Protection Flows Through Self-Determination: Understanding Tribal Water Quality Standards and “Treatment As States,” Journal of Contemporary Water Research and Education, volume 163, issue 1 (2018); 6-30

[4]Algeria R. Ford, “The Myth of Tribal Sovereignty: An analysis of Tribal Status in the U.S,” International Community Law Review,volume 12, issue 4 (2010): 397-411

[5]Algeria R. Ford, “The Myth of Tribal Sovereignty: An analysis of Tribal Status in the U.S,” International Community Law Review,volume 12, issue 4 (2010): 397-411

[6]Algeria R. Ford, “The Myth of Tribal Sovereignty: An analysis of Tribal Status in the U.S,” International Community Law Review,volume 12, issue 4 (2010): 397-411

[7]Darren Ranco and Dean Suagee, “Tribal Sovereignty and the Problem of Difference in Environmental Regulation: Observations on ‘Measured Separatism’ in Indian Country”, Antipode, volume 39, issue 4 (2007)

[8]Algeria R. Ford, “The Myth of Tribal Sovereignty: An analysis of Tribal Status in the U.S,” International Community Law Review,volume 12, issue 4 (2010): 397-411

[9]Cozzetto et al. “Climate Change Impacts on the Water Resources of American Indians and Alaska Natives in the U.S” Climate Change, volume 120, issue 3 (2013); 569-84

[10]Darren Ranco and Dean Suagee, “Tribal Sovereignty and the Problem of Difference in Environmental Regulation: Observations on ‘Measured Separatism’ in Indian Country”, Antipode, volume 39, issue 4 (2007)

[11]Sibyl Diver “Native Water Protection Flows Through Self-Determination: Understanding Tribal Water Quality Standards and “Treatment As States,” Journal of Contemporary Water Research and Education, volume 163, issue 1 (2018); 6-30

[12]Cozzetto et al. “Climate Change Impacts on the Water Resources of American Indians and Alaska Natives in the U.S” Climate Change, volume 120, issue 3 (2013); 569-84