Calling for an Indian Theseus

Should Indians allow non-Indians to vote when they reside on Indian land and are affected by the outcome of the election? The instinctive reaction is “No way!” and defending that reaction is so simple it’s hard to understand the charge of unfairness.

I’ve chosen to live in Texas, but my roots still reach into Oklahoma and I spend a lot of time there. Suppose I hit a lottery number and could finally acquire the cabin on Lake Tenkiller that has always occupied a prominent spot in my dreams? Should I then be able to claim a vote in Oklahoma as well as a vote in Texas?

For federal election purposes, the question answers itself. One federal vote to a citizen is the rule. Otherwise, President Obama could vote once in Washington and once in Chicago. Gov. Romney would otherwise be allowed to help select Electoral College delegates for himself from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Michigan, Utah, and California. On the local level, he would be voting in both Boston and Belmont, Massachusetts.

On the local level, cities want to be governed as much as possible by residents, who are thought to have more skin in the game than other populations that are allowed to vote, such as students and military personnel. Even in those cases, the students and soldiers cannot vote twice. They must choose where they are or where they came from.

We don’t object that passing though another state subject to the traffic laws of that state gives us no right to vote there, nor do we claim that paying the sales tax in another state makes us subject to “taxation without representation.”

Given this daily experience for most U.S. citizens, I cannot understand the objection to being bound by tribal laws on tribal land. On the contrary, it seems strange to me that in my recent road trip that touched half a dozen Indian nations, I was fully subject to the laws of the lands I visited while my brother—who has an identical Cherokee blood quantum but has not chosen dual citizenship in the Cherokee Nation—was not.

If we drive into another state, we don’t consider it a big deal to ask whether right turns on red are allowed. I note that some New Mexico pueblos post a big billboard admonishing the people who enter the pueblo that they are submitting to tribal jurisdiction. The fact is not odd, but the fact that the tribe finds it necessary to announce the existence of tribal law is.

All that understood, why should a tribe not allow non-citizens to vote on certain questions or on all questions if the tribe thinks that is they way their land should be governed?

Within my own tribe, I continually ask similar questions.

Why should we not have a poll tax, at least for outlanders such as myself?

Why should ballots not be printed in Cherokee? Only.

Why should we not levy an income tax on outlanders only?

No Indian nation is the same as it was, and some of the changes we did not choose. We survivors should not fear change, because it has been key to our survival.

According to the Greeks, a fellow named Procrustes violated the tradition of hospitality to travelers by offering them a very special bed that fit nobody. If they were too short for the bed, Procrustes would break their legs and stretch them to fit. If they were too tall, some amputation was done.

We treat the U.S. Constitution as if it were a Procrustean bed and we force our tribal laws to conform to it. Speaking from utmost respect for the Constitution, I say that is dangerous nonsense.

The Constitution was written for peoples who were not united by traditional geography, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other customary social glue. The U.S. is what Benedict Anderson has called an “imagined community,” and it’s the first one in history to be wildly successful. The Constitution deserves credit for that, but Indian nations are not “imagined communities.” Indian nations are real communities. We have been all about social glue, and our task in governing is to preserve that glue.

Poll taxes and literacy tests were evil in the U.S. context, enacted for the purpose of keeping former slaves powerless. Unlike the US, certain tribes may have good reason to make non-residents jump more hoops or to let non-citizens vote.

The story of Procrustes represents an order where people do what they are told or act as they always have without question. Theseus is the Greek hero who slew Procrustes and founded what Europeans incorrectly believe was the first democracy in Athens.

Pre-Columbian Indians had the knack for political theory. The size of indigenous civilizations proves it. The political challenges we face are not of our making, but the solutions will be unless we have lost that knack. It’s good to be schooled in U.S. law, but solutions to tribal governance issues are in the tradition of Theseus rather than Procrustes.