Native American Agriculture: An Overview


Native American law is a broad body of federal law and policy that deals with the unique relationship between the federal government and the various recognized tribes. This type of law has slowly developed since the founding of the country and the current status of today’s laws are tied in closely with the history of its development. The development of Native American law has taken a circuitous route based upon the position of the federal government at a given time and these changes of position (often referred to as eras) still play an important role in modern legal issues. The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power under the Commerce clause to regulate commerce with the Indian Tribes and the President with the power to negotiate treaties with the tribes. Along with early Supreme Court decisions, the provisions found in the Constitution have effectively given the federal government the sole authority to regulate the tribes. The tribes also have a right to self-governance, subject only to the authority of the federal government, which gives rise to the rest of the statutes, regulations, and cases that comprise Native American law.

This unique relationship also affects federal agricultural laws and regulations that impact Native Americans and their tribes. The relationship creates differences, and as a result it is important to look closely at the statutes and regulations surrounding an issue to determine whether special circumstances exist that may alter the situation. Some federal laws allow for tribes to enforce them in place of the federal government much like a state. Other programs exist that impact tribal members on an individual level as seen in the programs dealing with nutrition. These differences make it critical to carefully review the statutes and regulations surrounding any agricultural issue that relates to Native Americans.

Environmental regulation and land use issues are two major areas where Native American and tribal involvement can change a situation. Statutes such as the Clean Water Act provide statutory authority for states to enforce the guidelines, if they so choose, and this power may also be delegated to an Indian tribe. This can create an issue if people in an area are trying to determine whether the federal government, state government, or a Native American tribe has authority over a particular water resource. There are also many programs designed to assist individual Native Americans with securing loans, receiving adequate nutrition, and various other services. One current issue that is facing tribes across the country is the access to and the control over both surface and ground water. Litigation is underway in Oklahoma to determine tribal rights to water based off of earlier treaties.

The development of Native American law has closely entangled it with agricultural issues over the past fifty years. Programs exist at both the federal and tribal levels to cover a range of topics including conservation, land use, nutrition, forestry, finance and credit, civil rights, water law, and environmental concerns. It is important for tribal members and government officials to be aware of the numerous resources and requirements that exist for dealing with agricultural issues both at the local and national levels.