Tribes are sovereign nations, many of which are recognized formally by the United States. At an abstract level, the “essence of tribal sovereignty is the ability to govern and to protect and enhance the health, safety, and welfare of tribal citizens within tribal territory” (National Congress of American Indians. (2020), p.23).
"Perhaps the most basic principle of all Indian law, supported by a host of decisions… is the principle that those powers lawfully vested in an Indian Tribe are not, in general, delegated powers granted by express acts of Congress, but rather inherent powers of a limited sovereignty which has never been extinguished. Each Tribe begins its relationship with the federal government as a sovereign power, recognized as such in treaty and legislation" (Cohen, Handbook of Federal Indian Law (1941), p. 122).
In addition, Native peoples and governments have inherent rights and a political relationship with the U.S. government that does not derive from race or ethnicity. "Tribal citizens are citizens of three sovereigns: their Tribal nations, the United States, and the state in which they reside" (National Congress of American Indians. (2020), p. 18). These retained rights of Tribes provide the absolute right to make decisions related to the health and wellbeing of their citizens.
Data sovereignty is the right of Tribes to oversee and manage any data related to their citizens. This includes whether research will be allowed (often decided through a Tribal Research Review Board or Tribal Council decision), the design of data collection methods used to gather information, the actual collection of data, any review and interpretation of data, storing and accessing data, the ownership of data, and dissemination of the data. Data sovereignty matters because
when data is shared with researchers outside of the original research project team, how those data are used and interpreted is difficult to control. Publications which take the data out of context may make generalizations about AI/AN communities that are not true or are even stigmatizing to the community. As a result, it is important that AI/AN communities look carefully at the issue of data sharing when developing research agreements and that they closely examine the sources of funding for research, as accepting federal grants may obligate AI/AN communities to make data about their communities publicly available. (P. Sahota, "Research Regulation in American Indian/Alaska Native Communities: Policy and Practice Considerations" http://www.ncai.org/policy-research-center/initiatives/Research_Regulation_in_AI_AN_Communities_-_Policy_and_Practice.pdf)
- Geary, E. (2019). Supporting State-Tribal Local Implementing Agency Collaboration for Improved Data Practices https://www.jbassoc.com/resource/supporting-state-tribal-local-implementing-agency-collaboration-improved-data-practices
- National Congress of American Indians. (2020). Tribal Nations and the United States: An Introduction. http://www.ncai.org/tribalnations/introduction/Indian_Country_101_Updated_February_2019.pdf
- Rainie, S. C., Schultz, J. L., Briggs, E., Riggs, P., Palmanteer-Holder, N. L. (2017). Data as a Strategic Resource: Self-determination, Governance, and the Data Challenge for Indigenous Nations in the United States. The International Indigenous Policy Journal, 8(2). DOI: 10.18584/iipj.2017.8.2.1