Indian Lives Matter: Pandemics and Inherent Tribal Powers
America’s reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 is a microcosm of how Americans see the nation. It is a story of rugged individualism versus community needs. Many Americans insist on freedom to do as they please, rigorously pushing back on government. But in an environment where small numbers of individuals can easily transmit a deadly infection to others, creating the exponential increase in infections, rugged individualism is a terrible threat. Pandemics, luckily for humans, do not seem to occur all that frequently, but when they do occur, they can dramatically alter human history.
Indian people know all too well the impact of pandemics on human populations, having barely survived smallpox outbreaks and other diseases transmitted during the generations of early contact between themselves and Europeans. Indian people also suffered disproportionately from the last pandemic to hit the United States about a century ago. Some things have changed for the better for Indian people, namely tribal self-governance, but many things are not much better, including the public health situation of many Indian people.
Modern tribal governments navigate a tricky legal and political environment. While tribal governments have power to govern their own citizens, nonmembers are everywhere in Indian country, and the courts are skeptical of tribal authority over nonmembers. For example, after the Navajo Nation announced a 57-hour curfew for the weekend of April 10-13, 2020 (Easter weekend for many), the sheriff’s offices of Cibola and McKinley counties sent letters to the tribe insisting that the tribe refrain from citing nonmembers during the curfew, further insisting that nonmembers are governed more “fully” by the Governor of the State of New Mexico. Further, the fact that it is the county sheriff’s offices – and not counsel for the nonmembers – sending the letters is a deeply consequential signal to the tribal government. Of course, allowing nonmembers freedom to flout the tribe’s curfew defeats the purpose of the curfew. During a pandemic, the limitations on powers of tribal government could lead to tragedy.
This short essay is designed to lay down the argument favoring tribal regulatory powers over nonmembers in Indian country during a pandemic. It should be an easy argument, but federal Indian law makes it more complicated than it should be.
Fletcher, Matthew. "Indian Lives Matter: Pandemics and Inherent Tribal Powers." Stanford Law Review Online 73 (2020): 38-47. (Work published when author not on Michigan Law faculty.)