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A Note on Sovereignty, by Lee M. Hanover

By Special Collections & Archives Technical Services on February 7, 2017 5:08 PM | Permalink

Handwritten note from the Katherine A. Spilde Papers on Native American Gaming, 1789-2015. MS-00092. Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.

As a Special Collections summer intern turned part-time employee, I have had the opportunity to see the Katherine A. Spilde Papers on Native American Gaming sorted and organized, and watch its finding aid grow from 32 pages to an astounding 100+ page document contextualizing its many regional, professional, and subject files. My time working on the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) grant: "America’s Great Gamble: A Project to Promote the Discovery of Sources About the Expansion of Legalized Gambling Across the United States," proved invaluable as an opportunity to gain archival education and discover future research possibilities. I am a UNLV History graduate student interested in tribal sovereignty and its contested history by both federal and state governments, but specifically its use by tribal nations to regain lost lands and revitalize culture. A small discovery of some handwritten notes in the Spilde Papers has had large implications for my own research on the transnational relationship of tribal sovereignty.

Handwritten note from the Katherine A. Spilde Papers on Native American Gaming, 1789-2015. MS-00092. Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.

Katherine Spilde’s Papers contain personal notes that provide insights and context not readily available through her collected sources alone. A case in point is the note pictured above, which reads, “Laurence Hauptman: Civil War: Iroquois League declared war on Axis.” This brief comment found in her “Veterans History Project Files, 2002-2004,” highlights the significance of tribal sovereignty in the 19th and 20th centuries, as the Iroquois declared war against the Confederate states and also against Germany and Japan during WWII. These references to the Iroquois exercising their sovereignty through declarations of war, helped me to contextualize and consider the continuity of tribal sovereignty within gaming, as the Oneida—one of the six nations that make up the Iroquois Confederacy—used casino-gaming to push domestic and transnational sovereignty through a gaming compact with Mexico that I will discuss later in this blog.

To provide background for this short blogging-sojourn into the complicated subject of sovereignty, I use Scott Lyons’ definition of tribal sovereignty as, the “general strategy by which we aim to best recover our losses from the ravages of colonization: our lands, our languages, our cultures, our self-respect,” and that sovereignty is the ideal principle for the “paths to agency and power and community renewal.” In short, sovereignty is the power of self-determining and defining one’s economic and political livelihoods, so that the nation can ensure the survival and growth of its community. However, tribal nations have always been sovereign, retaining both an inherent and acknowledged sovereignty.

The inherent sovereignty of tribal nations is represented by the pre-contact territorial power of tribal nations in relation to one another, whereas an acknowledged sovereignty is best exemplified by post-Euro-American contact treaty processes. Lyons explained that, with inherent sovereignty, power is relational between sovereigns—each nation acknowledges the political protocols of another nation when traveling across boundaries and through communities. The respect of leaders and the community itself ensured safe-passage and hunting and fishing rights, while intermarriage bound sovereign communities to one another. In the case of acknowledged sovereignty, a treaty between nations is explicitly a mutual acknowledgement of the power of sovereigns. Indigenous nations ceded lands for ensured safeguards against Euro-American desires for further lands and resources, while Euro-Americans agreed to pecuniary and social obligations to fuel their industrial imperialism. Yet, tribal sovereignty is continually contested by overlapping jurisdictions of federal, state, and tribal politics, accompanied by a general disregard for treaty protected lands—such as the ongoing controversy over the Dakota Access Pipeline.


Symposium program from the Katherine A. Spilde Papers on Native American Gaming, 1789-2015. MS-00092. Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.

The above notes highlight war as an act of sovereignty, but one note also acknowledges American Indian participation in war as an aspect of U.S. citizenship. “Serving Two Nations” highlights the complicated aspects of tribal-nations allying with or fighting as citizens for the U.S. The motives behind the actions are diverse, but another of Spilde’s documents illuminates the overlapping meaning of declaring war or enlisting in the armed forces. A symposium called “Serving Two Nations: American Indian Veterans of WWII,” highlighted that indigenous people “shape[d] Indian policy [and] transformed [their] own individual nations and influence[d] federal policy.” Individuals did this through their identity as veterans, which provided political prestige for serving their community and the tribal nation. The abstract of the agenda articulates some seemingly conflicting, but actually complementary reasons American Indians fought for the U.S., explaining that their “service…was an act of tribal sovereignty as well as an expression of American citizenship… [even though] many American Indians had not yet been granted the right to vote in U.S. elections.” The ability to straddle the line between tribal sovereignty and U.S. citizenship highlights the complex identities and political relationships between tribal nations and the United States. This aspect is complicated further by tribal gaming with the continual push for sovereignty both at home and abroad. 

Handwritten notes on the Oneida Nation from the Katherine A. Spilde Papers on Native American Gaming, 1789-2015. MS-00092. Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.

As mentioned previously, I am a graduate student here at UNLV, but my connection to the Katherine Spilde Papers began when I was an undergraduate. Research I conducted using the Spilde Papers in 2015 produced a paper that received the Lance and Elena Calvert Undergraduate Research Award, and sparked my interest in the many forms of sovereignty that American Indian nations maintain. The paper dealt with the Oneida of New York, one of six nations in the Iroquois Confederacy, specifically the history prompting the creation of their Turning Stone Resort and Casino.

So recently, as I read Spilde’s note: “Iroquois League declared war on Axis,” I began to think about the transnational relationship of power both for a tribal-nation within a nation, and how tribes reach across multiple borders for international community building. Manuel Castell defines nations as “cultural communes constructed in people’s minds and collective memory by the sharing of history and political projects.” American Indians construct domestic and international communities by associating their relationships through kinship networks formed both in the past and the present. An aspect of this is highlighted by Oneida Ray Halbritter and his attempts to create gaming facilities in Mexico. Halbritter signed an “agreement of collaboration” between himself and Governor Sergio Estrada Cajigal of Morelos for trade and the possible creation of a casino in the state. Halbritter brought up inherent sovereignty, relational community ties, and post-contact sovereignty, when he stated, “[t]he indigenous people of Morelos and elsewhere in Mexico are connected to we Oneidas by the trade routes forged in the days of our ancestors,” and that the U.S. does not have jurisdiction over these ancient and current relationships. Although the casino was never built, this dialog shows how tribal-nations are part of an international community flexing political power across borders, highlighting sovereignty both at home and abroad.

As mentioned in posts by my colleagues Hannah Robinson and Hana Gutierrez, the Katherine A. Spilde Papers on Native American Gaming are a remarkable source of information on Native American nations, culture, and the socioeconomic impact of gaming. This blog post builds upon the earlier posts by illustrating some of the additional research value of the Spilde Papers. Thanks to the NHPRC grant, now that the papers are logically arranged and fully described, their wider research potential is more evident—the themes of sovereignty, colonialism, self-determination, and cultural renewal and growth provide a rich and dynamic source for researchers interested not only in tribal gaming, but also in topics ranging from economic, political, cultural, and social studies within and between indigenous communities.

Selected Readings:

Primary Sources:

  • Dale Seth, “Oneida Indian Nation Could Open Its First Mexican Casino,” Oneida Daily Dispatch (May, 2001). http://www.oneidadispatch.com/article/OD/20010504/NEWS/305049991.
  • Glenn Coin, “Oneidas, Mexican Leaders Confer,” Syracuse Online (June 8th, 2001). In Katherine A. Spilde Papers on Native American Gaming, 1789-2015. Box 16. MS-00092. Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.
  • Patrick Gannon, “Oneidas, Mexicans Sign Pact,” The Observer-Dispatch (June 8th, 2001). In Katherine A. Spilde Papers on Native American Gaming, 1789-2015. Box 16. MS-00092. Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada. 
  • “Veterans History Project Files, 2002-2004,” Boxes 48, 49. Katherine A. Spilde Papers on Native American Gaming, 1789-2015. MS-00092. Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada. 

Secondary sources:

  • Barbara Graymont, The Iroquois in the American Revolution (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1972).
  • Jack Campisi and Laurence M. Hauptman, editors, The Oneida Indian Experience: Two Perspectives (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1988).
  • Joseph T. Glatthaar and James Kirby Martin, Forgotten Allies: The Oneida Indians and the American Revolution (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006).
  • Laurence Hauptman, The Iroquois and the New Deal (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1981).
  • Laurence Hauptman, The Iroquois Struggle for Survival: World War II to Red Power (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1986).
  • Laurence Hauptman, The Iroquois in the Civil War: From Battlefield to Reservation (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1993).
  • Lee M. Hanover, “New York Oneida: Land Claims, Federal Policies, State Intervention, and Casino Development” (Las Vegas: Digital Commons at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 2015). http://digitalscholarship.unlv.edu/award/24/.