Sovereignty and Energy Decisions

Tribes are sovereign nations, of course, and the tribe has authority for its membership, authority for its lands, and the ability to make case-by-case agreements.

Some people would say that sovereignty is the strongest when there is a clear relationship between a people and their government. Some would say that the "ideal" situation in terms of sovereignty would be for the tribe to maintain self-sufficiency within a boundary, where the tribe can meet all of its own needs in a sustainable way. In energy terms, self-sufficiency would mean a tribe meeting its own energy needs now and in the future.

But this ideal rarely happens. The integrity of the tribe's boundaries is eroded when members do something off the reservation, or goods or services are transferred on or off the reservation. Many tribal members live off-reservation, buying goods and services from the outside (often because they are not locally available) or selling goods and services to the outside to earn much needed income. Land is leased for various purposes, and fuel and electricity are purchased from vendors. In reality, tribes nearly always maintain an interdependence with the outside world.

Due to this reality, other organizations — utilities, banks, merchants, contractors, funding agencies, and so on — become involved, and each has its own set of rules and expectations. The tribe begins to enter into a series of case-by-case agreements — implied or contractual — with these organizations. Control becomes a "combined" issue.

The question is how to choose the best approach, to negotiate the best value for the tribe from its position of sovereignty, to best "play your cards" economically in order to maximize the value of a transaction for your tribe. For example, any surplus energy that a tribe produces must be transported and sold in a way that achieves the best value for the tribe with the least impact on sovereignty. Developing an energy project requires financing and expertise. Tribes may want to consider how to do this with the least risk to tribal sovereignty.