There are three kinds of sovereign governments in the United States. Under the Constitution, the federal government is the "supreme sovereign," and federal laws can pre-empt state laws. State governments also are sovereign; they retain any powers not specifically given to the federal government under the Constitution.
The third kind of sovereignty is inherent. That means the authority to govern is not granted by another government, but by the consent of the people who are governed. Indian tribal governments, which existed long before Europeans arrived on the North American continent, have inherent sovereignty.
There are several generally accepted criteria for inherent sovereignty:
- There must be a distinct group of people, with a distinct language, a distinct religious or moral structure, and a distinct culture.
- The group must control and regulate a distinct geographic area, with commonly understood and accepted boundaries.
- The group must have its own governmental structure, formed by its own people, with typical governmental authority to create and enforce laws.
- The government must be recognized by another sovereign. For example, the United States recognizes the governments of Canada, Mexico, Great Britain, France, China, etc., as well as the governments of more than 500 Indian nations.
Centuries before the Europeans arrived in North America, Indian tribes had satisfied these criteria and dealt with each other on a government-to-government basis. By making treaties with the tribes, the European governments and later the U.S. government recognized their inherent sovereignty, which predates the federal and state governments.