After nearly a decade in the making, the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act of 2017 is likely to become law in this legislative session. Exempting tribes from the National Labor Relations Act, the bill should settle a long and heated debate that shaped negotiations between federal, state, and tribal governments since the early 1990s.
Unions, representing mostly non-native casino workers, think labor rights should be protected by federal law. They argue that as “Americans,” their rights to organize constitutes a civil right. Tribes have ardently denied those claims, insisting that the National Labor Relations Board, the administrative body that enforces federal labor law, does not have jurisdiction to regulate Indian enterprises on tribal land. Imposing federal labor law, according to tribal leaders, is an assault on American Indian sovereignty. Civil rights and sovereignty rights seem to be moving toward a head on collision.
The struggle over who has the right to regulate casino labor raises complex questions about the relationship between tribes, states, and the federal government and the rights of workers in an industry governed by new rules. My colloquium will examine how that conflict fits into a broader historical shift in the meaning of wage work on Indian Reservations in the 21st century. Deployed by federal officials as an assimilationist tool in the late 19th century, wage work was meant to detribalize Native Americans. Today, as this story continues to unfold, controlling the workplace has become a “right” that tribes have used to strengthen their sovereignty claims.
I have spent most of my two-week Eadington Fellowship residency at UNLV reading reports, press accounts, and testimony generated by tribal and union leaders, and federal and state legislators who shaped those debates. The Katherine Spilde Papers on Native American Gaming in UNLV University Libraries Special Collections and Archives will help me weave these competing voices into a historical narrative that, I hope, will offer useful insight into a pivotal moment in Native American and labor history.