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‘Collaborative Colonialism’: A Way to Analyze Native/Non-Native Relations

Native people's relations with colonialism, like Blacks’ civil rights struggles with racism, require as much clear analysis as possible.

Colonialism, neo-colonialism, post-colonialism: These terms arise in discussions of Indigenous Peoples' relations to political-economic agendas of the global nation-state system. Too frequently, the terms appear as rhetoric, with little or no theoretical framework and empirical context to explain them. Moreover, a linear view of history often accompanies their use, so that colonialism refers to something past, while neo- and post-colonialism refer to competing views about the present. All three terms often appear in binary opposition to a situation presented as non-colonial autonomy, so that the potential for a nuanced understanding of colonialism disappears in a simplistic, vague, and historicist muddle—which may nonetheless involve heated discussion.

These considerations help us understand why discussions of U.S. federal Indian law so quickly become problematic. For example, many—but not all—observers agree the earliest period of non-Native contact with Native Peoples constitutes colonialism. But this general agreement breaks down as soon as questions of "intent" arise—as in the question whether the Spanish or English or French Christian "civilizing" programs "helped" rather than exploited the Natives: Does domination proceeding from religious "conversion" constitute colonialism? Recall the first seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony displayed the figure of a Native Man saying, "Come Over and Help us."


If we avoid pitfalls associated with defining whether (or in what way) colonialism requires a subjectivity, we stumble into the question whether (and to what extent) successive phases in the political-economic arrangement of Native/non-Native relations constitute departures from colonialism. For example, was the 1887 "Dawes Allotment Act" an intensification or a relaxation of U.S. colonial policy toward Native Peoples? Recall the Act arose as a plan by "Friends of the Indian" to "help" Indians. Did the 1934 "Indian Reorganization Act" create a post-colonial or a neo-colonial situation? Or did it impose a revised, "indirect" colonialism? Were the "Termination" plans of the 1940s and 50s the culmination of colonialism or its elimination? Keep in mind current manifestations of "termination" find support among "tribal leaders" seeking greater leeway to extract "natural resources."

Does the vaunted "government-to-government" relationship constitute an end to colonialism, or does it arrange a neo-colonialism, whereby the colonized assist in the administration of the colonial arrangement? Note the congressional declaration of policy in the 1975 "Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act" states its purpose as "assuring maximum Indian participation in the direction of … Federal services to Indian communities." Note further that U.S. Executive Order 13175 (2000), a primary document for "government-to-government" relations, states, "This order is intended only to improve the internal management of the executive branch, and is not intended to create any right, benefit, or trust responsibility, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law by a party against the United States, its agencies, or any person."

What about the United Nations and Organization of American States Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples? Does their recitation of "free, prior, and informed consent" establish a post-colonial framework? Recall that both documents arise within and aim to preserve a global nation-state system allied to corporate extractive operations, and that the Declarations assign states the task to provide Indigenous rights.

Recall the basic legal structure of U.S. power in relation to Native Peoples rests on the Christian Discovery claim of ownership of Native lands, regardless of the "occupation" of Native peoples. That original colonizing claim undergirds the entire apparatus of federal Indian law to this day. The concept of "trust relation" disguises the claim of ownership as "benefitting" Native peoples; the notion of "plenary power" assigns full control of Native peoples and lands to the U.S. Congress.

To answer the question whether successive phases in the political-economic arrangement of U.S. relations with Native peoples manifest departures from colonialism: Every one of the federal acts and policies discussed above rests on the underlying colonial legal structure, and none of them renounce it. Current U.S. – Native relations are not "post-colonialism," despite the efforts of many commentators to portray them that way.

The next question goes to understanding exactly how to define U.S. – Native peoples relations. A helpful framework exists in the concept of "Collaborative Colonial Power," the title of a 2009 history of colonialism in Hong Kong, by Law Wing Sang. Sang views colonial power "as a network of relations," rather than a one-way "domination of the colonizers over the colonized." He argues that colonialism consists of "interconnected forms of power," that "collaboration" provides the "key" to explain "malleable but enduring colonialities." From Sang's perspective, colonial power formations are "not just…a political superstructure that the…imperialist state imposed on the Native [peoples] but also…a site of cultural production collaboratively constituted" by the colonizers and the colonized.

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On the colonizer side, collaboration simplifies the process of rule by including members of the colonized in administrative roles. On the colonized side, collaboration builds on pre-existing regional networks through which Natives manage political and social relations among themselves and with distant partners.

Sang summarizes the theory of "collaborative colonialism" by asserting that "domination is only practicable in so far as alien power is translated into terms of indigenous political economy." The theory's major benefit in our time stems from its power to help us understand power formations that have shifted from open colonialism while still operating on the original colonial basis: i.e., formations like "government-to-government" coexisting with the doctrine of Christian Discovery.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) provides an example: NCAI ignored the opportunity to challenge Christian Discovery in its amici curiae brief for Standing Rock. And in challenging President Donald Trump's labelling Senator Elizabeth Warren "Pocahontas," NCAI defined itself as "a bi-partisan organization that works equitably with both sides of the political aisle." In the combination of these two actions, NCAI portrayed itself as part and parcel of the American political process, rather than standing apart from that process and speaking for Indigenous Peoples standing on their own ground. That portrayal—however NCAI might explain it—constitutes "collaborative colonialism."


The collaboration becomes especially evident in contrast to other approaches, such as the Yakama Nation challenge to Christian Discovery in their appendix to the NCAI brief; and the advice of the late Muskogee-Creek Medicine Teacher Phillip Deer, who said, "As far as we're concerned as elders in our council, we're going to deal with the government on a spiritual basis. …We don't approach the government as a good Republican or Democrat. …We're going to approach them as American Indians, having our culture, having our identity, having our spiritual beliefs."

NCAI has struggled with its stance in this regard since its founding. On November 20, 1954—when the organization was just 10 years old—NCAI held a meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, to discuss discrimination. One speaker, Peru Farver (Choctaw), chief of "tribal relations" in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said, "a lot of the time [discrimination is] our own fault." Another speaker, Benjamin Reifel (Sioux), superintendent of the Pine Ridge Agency, said, "We've just got to get it out of our heads that we are a different kind of American citizen."

If colonialism always involves collaboration; if colonial power always has "seductive" as well as coercive aspects; if colonial relations always require strategic calculations and deliberations; then we are in a position not so much to condemn NCAI (or any other indigenous organization) as to bring to light and explore the full implications of the symbiotic relationships between them and the U.S.

Native people's relations with colonialism, like Blacks’ civil rights struggles with racism, require as much clear analysis as possible—to gauge when and where to collaborate, when and where to resist.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinébe’iiná Náhiiłna be Agha’diit’ahii Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous issues.