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A Path for Indian Nations to Liberate Themselves From U.S. Colonialism?

This article is written in anticipation of the U.S. Department of State’s plan to convene a “listening session” this fall with American Indian leaders. The meeting, which will be held at the U.S. Department of the Interior Building in Washington, will focus on two matters. The first is a 2014 meeting of the United Nations General Assembly called a UN High Level Plenary Meeting, “to be known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.” The second focus of the State Department meeting is the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The broader historical context for the U.S. State Department meeting is well-illustrated by a map I have in my office. It was published by the United States government in the 1930’s as part of the Federal Writer’s Project, during the New Deal Administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The map depicts the vast lands that were designated as “the Northwest Territory,” and it is found in a booklet about the N.W. Territory and the Northwest Ordinance of July 13, 1787.

On the map are the words, “The First Colony of the United States.” Elsewhere the map states: “Here, with America’s start westward to the other sea [the Pacific Ocean] was born a colonial policy unique in all the world”; “One of America’s contributions to Governmental progress.”

Empires have colonies and colonial systems. The existence of the American Empire and its colonial system is demonstrated by the map’s phrase, “The First Colony of the United States,” namely, the Northwest Territory. The United States’ colonial system (the Northwest Ordinance), and U.S. colonial policy initially resulted in the founding of the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, all of which were founded on the basis of the invaded and appropriated lands, territories, and waters of free and independent Indian nations.

In the lead up to the U.S. Department of State meeting this fall with Indigenous representatives, there are two questions in particular that deserve attention: Does the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provide the basis and means for liberating Indian nations and peoples and for decolonizing U.S. Indian law and policy? Does the U.N. Declaration provide the means of solving the fundamental problems faced by Indian nations, which are traced to the fact that the Indian laws and policies of the American Empire are premised on the political domination of our nations and peoples?

That there is an ethical dimension to this discussion was pointed out in the 1940s by Felix S. Cohen. In 1945, in the Journal Ethics, he published, “Colonialism: A Realistic Approach” (Ethics, Vol. 55, No. 3 (Apr., 1945) pp. 167-181). Cohen saw U.S-Indian relations as an example of “colonial relations.” At one point in the article he states, “the power of government is a corrupting force,” particularly when it comes to “carrying out a pledge of freedom.” It is often the case, says Cohen, that “treaties and agreements out of which colonial relationships emerge are eventually viewed by later colonial administrations as merely anachronistic [outdated] impediments to efficient [colonial] administration, impediments which must be wiped out in the name of progress.”

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In an accompanying footnote, Cohen uses treaties between the United States and Indian nations to illustrate colonial relations. He cites a 1937 article titled “Malaysia“ published by Rupert Emerson, which focused on the “official British colonial report” of the British Empire. Cohen continues his footnote as follows:

In the United States a similar attitude has appeared from time to time. In 1862 Secretary of the Interior Caleb B. Smith criticized the policy of making treaties with Indians and advised Congress: “Instead of being treated as independent nations they should be regarded as wards of the government, entitled to its fostering care and protection” (Handbook of Federal Indian Law, p. 16). In 1872, arguments concerning national honor met by the blunt retort of Commissioner of Indian Affairs Walker: “There is no question of national dignity, be it remembered, involved in the treatment of savages by a civilized power. With wild men, as with wild beasts, the question whether in a given situation one shall fight, coax, or run, is a question merely of what is easiest and safest” (Ibid., p. 19).

With the example of U.S. government officials having gradually refused to maintain U.S. recognition and treatment of Indian nations “as independent nations,” Cohen’s introduced a related point: “It follows, then, that no agreement between a stronger and a weaker party can be of any permanent significance unless it guarantees the continued existence and autonomy of the latter.” He makes the quite sensible point that “[f]rom this one may deduce that the carrying out of a decision to relinquish power cannot safely be left to the wielder of such power.”

At the end of his article, Cohen suggests some ways to “minimize the evils of political overlordship [dominance] without increasing the evils of private economic exploitation.” He suggests certain “limiting assumptions, or guiding principles.” Here are three examples: “No power is morally obliged to govern the affairs of an alien people; “…no people is morally obliged to submit to the rule of an alien nation”; “The value of a colonial relationship depends primarily upon the rate at it works its own destruction.” Cohen further points out that “the disestablishing of an established colonial relation inevitably requires agitation and agitators,” and therefore “the good faith of a colonial power is to be measured by the freedom which it allows its agitators for independence.”

Many people make the mistake of assuming that to invoke a right of political independence for Indian nations is to invoke a right of secession. They fail to see that it is impossible for any nation or people to secede from a dominating colonial relationship with an imperial power such as the United States.

Here’s a poignant question for the “listening session” with the U.S. Department of State this fall: How shall we as originally free and independent nations liberate ourselves from a dominating (colonial) political relationship that the United States has used against our nations for more than two centuries?

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) has been studying the origins of international law and U.S. federal Indian law since 1981. He is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (2008).