When colonized people participate in the politics of their colonizer, does that signify the end of colonialism or its culmination?
When Native Americans act as delegates at Republican or Democratic Party conventions, do their efforts amount to an assertion of Native self-determination… or an acceptance of “domestic, dependent” status?
When John Marshall wrote the opinion in Johnson v. McIntosh (1823)—the original U.S. Supreme Court federal Indian law decision—he said the relations between the “discoverers” and the Indigenous peoples were “regulated” by the “discoverers.”
He wrote, “In the establishment of these relations, the rights of the original inhabitants were, in no instance, entirely disregarded; but were necessarily, to a considerable extent, impaired… by the original fundamental principle, that discovery gave exclusive title to those who made it.”
Federal Indian law thus provides a mechanism for “regulating” relations between the Original Peoples and their “discoverers” in such a way as to preserve the superior legal position of the latter. No matter how often an Indian lawyer or politician embraces the “special” relationship established by federal Indian law, that “specialness” consists of a structure of colonial subjugation of “the original inhabitants.”
So long as federal Indian law maintains this “special relationship,” Native peoples will be in a position of not being “entirely disregarded,” but with their rights of self-government considerably “impaired.”
So, to repeat the question, what does it mean when Native people participate in American political processes?
John Marshall discussed the possibility that colonizers and Natives might one day “mingle with each other; the distinction between them … gradually lost, and they make one people.” But, he wrote, such “incorporation” of American Indians and the colonizers was not “practicable,” because “the tribes of Indians inhabiting this country were fierce savages, whose occupation was war, and whose subsistence was drawn chiefly from the forest.”
In other words, the U.S. Supreme Court provided a system by which self-governing, independent Native Peoples could be constrained, subjugated, neutralized by law—the “Doctrine of Christian Discovery.” The ruling in Johnson v. McIntosh still stands. It has been cited in more than 300 cases since 1823.
Despite the fact that federal Indian law subjugates Native sovereignty, many Native people hail the “protection” the law offers—protection from states and third parties.
Set aside for the moment the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court continues to whittle down this “protection”—allowing states to exercise sovereignty over Indians and Indian lands in a variety of cases. Focus on the primary point: federal Indian law offers Native Peoples no “protection” from the federal government—the U.S. itself.
U.S. courts have ruled that the Indian “right of occupancy”—”aboriginal title”—does not involve a treaty relationship. Therefore, the courts say, the U.S. can deny Indian title as it sees fit. “Indian removal” and “termination” are watchwords for U.S. destruction of Indian Nations.
The courts have repeatedly emphasized what they call the “plenary power” of the U.S. Congress to do as it wishes with Indians and Indian lands. In this way, the “protection” of federal Indian law operates like a “protection racket”: the racketeers will protect you from everyone except themselves.
So, to return again to the question: what does the participation of Native people in American political processes mean?
Are Native participants providing a useful service to Indians, by restraining the exercise of federal power to destroy Indian Nations? Or are they acquiescing in that power? Are they guerrilla fighters, working behind enemy lines to quell the power of their adversary? Or collaborators with the enemy?
One way to answer these questions involves checking out the rhetoric of the parties. The 2016 Republican Platform says, “Our approach is to empower American Indians, through tribal self-determination and self-governance policies, to develop their greatest assets, human resources and the rich natural resources on their lands, without undue federal interference.”
The Democratic Platform says, “We will strengthen tribal sovereignty and tribal jurisdiction by enacting laws and policies that enhance the ability of Indian nations to govern their territories, keep their communities safe, and prosecute crimes committed on tribal lands.”
The party platforms sound good… until you remember that the key words—”tribal sovereignty” and “tribal self-determination”—are also code words for “domestic, dependent nations,” whose “rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations, were necessarily diminished” by the Doctrine of Christian Discovery.
No political party in America has called for an end to the Doctrine that says the U.S. holds title to Native lands. No party platform calls for acknowledging that the “original inhabitants of the continent” still hold title to the lands.
Perhaps you will say this can never happen, because of the economic dependence of American Indians on the U.S. To that response, consider this: The U.S. itself—through its claim to ownership of Indian lands, aka “public lands,” remains dependent on the resources of those lands—directly and through arrangements with private developers.
The latest big example: “The Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act,” which mandates a “swap” of Native lands from the San Carlos Apache and other Indigenous Nations to Resolution Copper Company. U.S. Congressman Paul Gosar says this taking of Native lands “facilitates the development of an underground copper mine that will create thousands of American jobs, will reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy and minerals, and will generate significant revenues for federal and state treasuries.”
The alleged “dependence” of Native Nations on the U.S. government thus actually involves “interdependence,” albeit an uncompensated U.S. dependence on Native lands through a “taking” of Indigenous resources, “protected” by the U.S. claim to be the “trustee” of the Indians.
The principles of George Orwell’s “double-think” and “Newspeak” operate at the core of political thinking about American Indians and lands.
Despite the absence of any American political party platform statements calling into question the fundamentals of federal Indian law, there are nevertheless some aspects of Native delegates’ efforts that may justify their roles at the conventions.
Consider the remarks of Minnesota State Representative Peggy Flanagan (White Earth) at the Democratic convention. For better or worse, Rep. Flanagan’s role as a state political figure already indicates a willingness to participate in governments descended from the colonizers. Her remarks included the following: “Your name [referring to her daughter] is not Pocahontas. It is Siobhan Ma’iingan, and you should never let anyone make you feel anything less than proud of who you are.”
Brave words, but how does the mother explain her participation in the political processes of governments whose powers are rooted in subjugation for which the U.S. Supreme Court found “excuse, if not justification, in the character and habits of the people whose rights have been wrested from them”—the “fierce savages”?
Rep. Flanagan added, “We are still here.” But which “we”? The “we” of Native Nations asserting independent sovereignty, or the “we” of Native individuals asserting personal dignity?
Does the participation of Native delegates signify reconciliation with the fact of colonization, dispossession, degradation, and plenary power? How can we “honor… our elders, show… gratitude to our warriors, [and] cherish… our children as gifts from the Creator,” and at the same time fail to challenge the fundamental Doctrine that dishonors the elders, exploits the warriors, and exposes the children to the ravages of a colonized life?
I single out Rep. Flanagan only because her words and her appearance at the Democratic convention were so widely celebrated. Her remarks call for analysis precisely because she said, “It means so much that we were invited to be here on the last night of the convention.”
To return to the question, “What does it mean?”