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A State of Indian Citizenship Address

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Some years ago now, the late Vine Deloria wrote that as Indians emerged from a time when survival demanded that they emphasize their distinctness, it was natural for them to begin emphasizing instead the characteristics that they shared. Likewise, as we continue to emerge from eras and the aftereffects of assimilation and termination, when the American state was interested only in throttling us, it seems reasonable that we embrace our commonality with ordinary Americans—the characteristics we share with them instead of the distinctions that set us apart.

So it was that on January 27, in his State of Indian Nations Address, National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel dwelt on his pride in being an American veteran and an American citizen. Most of us know the feeling to one degree or another; as Indians in America, we tend to get it.

But do we get it all too well? Does embracing American citizenship so publicly as Keel, in his position, serve to confuse our youth as to their true national identity and hinder our growth as true sovereign Nations? Would we be better off describing ourselves as occasional allies of America than embracing their citizenship? There is no question that we should hear more, many more, declarations of citizenship in Indian nations.

After all, while individuals can hold dual citizenship if they so choose, governments and especially tribal governments do not—for they cannot. The pride of a high profile leader in military service and American citizenship should not be construed to mean that the whole body politic of Indian America embraces his enthusiasm. Nor does it demonstrate the nature of our cause as distinct Native peoples. One does not even have to be an American citizen to serve in the American armed services. One simply needs to take an oath to uphold and protect the American Constitution, borders and people.

The 1924 American Indian Citizenship Act, which was a joint resolution of Congress, was and remains a unilateral approach by a foreign entity to co-opt and circumscribe the national identity and vision of each of the Native nations. It also constituted an attempt to undermine the ability of Native people to stand on their own in the eyes of the world body politic. Yet, our organizational representatives and some of our elected leadership on a daily basis reinforce the bias of Indian people embracing American citizenship in front of Congress, state governments and local governments. They may think it endears us to our enemies, but it proves to them instead that they are succeeding in their efforts to politically and culturally assimilate us into their system. It weakens our stance on being identified as, and acting as, sovereign nations rather than domestic dependent quasi-governments. The Indian Reorganization Act and the federal recognition process, whatever else they may be, are clear examples of culture-stripping.

Indian nations and America itself would be better off if we made more of our Native citizenship. Many reiterations later, we may find that our young people swell with the kind of pride that Keel described. But let’s also make it a pride in their first citizenship; a pride that they can put to work, on the ground in their communities; a pride that will not accept less than parity with other citizens, and that will motivate the striving to achieve it; the pride in nation-building from the community up.

We can’t help but share certain characteristics with our fellow American citizens; they’ve built their nation on our land, after all. But for too long, silence on our first citizenship has deprived us of more than a proper understanding of our place in the world. It has deprived us of the resources of pride in our nations, peoples, and communities.

That kind of nation-building pride and self-respect is beginning to come around again for Indian people, and we should not encourage our leaders or anyone else to talk it down. We should all talk it up.