Skip to main content

Duane Champagne’s Orwellian Form of Self-Determination

On October 4, Duane Champagne published on this website, “What is Indigenous Self-Determination and When Does it Apply?” If one were to rephrase Champagne’s question to, “What is Self-Determination and When Does it Apply to Indigenous Peoples?,” his article contains one answer. In his view, “the international expression of self-determination” never applies to Indigenous Peoples because that expression of self-determination is “reserved for internationally recognized nation-states,” and, therefore, “Indigenous peoples were not included in the international expression of self-determination.

By whom were Indigenous Peoples “not included in the international expression of self-determination?” According to Champagne, “the United States, and to a large extent…the United Nations in the post-World War II period” were the ones who said that “the international expression of self-determination” is reserved for “internationally recognized nation-states.” Why so reserved? Because, says Champagne, the nation-states of the world consider the international expression of self-determination to be nation-state self-determination, and, in the view of states such as the United States, and of the United Nations system, this excludes Indigenous Peoples.

I can understand such a US centric, and state-centric article being written by a representative of the United States or the United Nations, but reading Champagne’s article left me wondering why a Native person (a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa) with a Ph.D. from Harvard—who is a Professor of Sociology and Native American Studies, and a Professor of Law at UCLA—would uncritically accept the viewpoint of the United States and other states regarding the right of self-determination in international law. Perhaps Dr. Champagne wrote his article in an effort to defend the United States and its federal Indian law and policy system by implicitly “correcting” those of us who have been contending that the international right of self-determination does rightfully apply to Original Nations and Peoples, and is a means of ending the system of domination that is being used against our Nations and Peoples.

After all, a centuries-old system of domination is what has resulted in our Nations and Peoples being classified as “Indigenous.” Duane Champagne certainly knows this to be the case because he is mentioned as one of the authors of the 2009 United Nations Report “State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples,” which predicates the definition of “indigenous” on a condition of “domination.” Yet, despite knowing this, Champagne did not once use words such as “dominance,” “dominant,” “domination,” “dominating” in his recent article to explicitly name that system.

He merely implied the existence of the domination system. For example, he tells his readers that after self-determination resulted in the new “nation-states” after WWII, the “Indigenous Peoples populated many of the newly colonized nation-states, but Indigenous Peoples generally were subgroupswithin the new nation states,” “without [the] international recognition of nation-state status.” (emphasis added) The phrase “subgroups within new nation states” is code for “under the dominance of” or “under the domination of” new nation states.

What is a “subgroup?” In this context, it is a “group” deemed to exist under (“sub”) the dominance or domination of another dominating group. Mr. Champagne tells us that Indigenous Peoples “were relegated to ethnic, cultural, racial, or minority relations within nation-states. (emphasis added) Here the word “within” means, “within is under.” (sub) Before being “relegated,” such Nations and Peoples were at one time living free and independent, but they were later “assigned” by someone or some dominant group “to a class or sphere” of inferiority, or “classified” as no longer free and independent because, by means of an idea-system of domination, they were categorized as existing “within” a given “nation-state.”

Domination has been defined as “living under the arbitrary will of another” or “living subject to the control of a will external to one’s own.” Domination is evident when one Nation or People is arbitrarily “assigned” to some “class or sphere” of inferiority as a result of the arbitrary will” of some other Nation or People. Yet another form of domination is one Nation or People being forced under the control of another Nation of People, in part by being classified as “no longer free and independent,” and as “a subgroup” existing “within” a given “nation-state.”

Champagne next turns to a discussion of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He says that the UN Declaration “uses the expression of self-determination for Indigenous Peoples but qualifies the expression.” In other words, matching the view of the United States, it is his contention that the expression of self-determination found in Article 3 of the UN Declaration is not “the international expression of” the right of self-determination, it is another form of self-determination which Champagne calls “Indigenous self-determination.” This leads to the troubling conclusion that he is writing about “self-determination” under or beneath a claimed right of domination.

Writing as if he is serving as a spokesperson for the United States, or, at the very least, “channeling” the ideas of the US Department of State’s Office of Legal Affairs, Champagne continues: “The Declaration does not recognize the right of Indigenous Peoples to seek recognition as a nation state or to withdraw from the nation-state that is currently occupying indigenous territories.” This way of framing the matter diverts attention away from the fact that it is a system of domination that results in Originally Free and Independent Nations and Peoples being classified as “Indigenous” (dominated) to begin with.

 Champagne further says: “Most Indigenous Peoples are not dreaming of taking over the nation-state, or even seceding from the nation-state, but they dislike that nation-states have considerable political, legal and economic control over their communities, territory, and cultural orientations.” In fact, it is the system of domination imposed on them that “Indigenous” Nations and Peoples “dislike” and have never acceded to freely “join.” It therefore makes zero sense to even use the word “secession” in the context of Originally Free Nations that have been forced under domination. How does a Nation or People under domination “secede” or “withdraw” from domination? Also, notice Champagne’s euphemism for domination. It is his phrase, “considerable political, legal, and economic control.” This is the art of understatement.

In his conclusion, Champagne claims that “Self-determination is set out in the creation teachings.” He then somehow arrives at the odd conclusion that “[o]nly the creator can change the ways in which indigenous people govern themselves and maintain self-determination.” One is compelled to ask, “What does he even mean by this?” Champagne’s statement treats human constructions, i.e., “the way indigenous people govern themselves” (the lack of an ‘s’ on “people” indicates individuals) and “self-determination” as if they were something non-human, and created by “the creator.”

This is the most extreme form of reification (i.e., treating human constructions as if they are something other than human constructions). It’s tantamount to saying in the manner of some Christians, “It’s all in God’s hands.” Such a position makes a mockery of the very idea of self-determination. It is analogous to saying: “We as original nations don’t have control over the way we govern ourselves, or over how we ‘maintain self-determination,’ only God (‘the creator’) does.”

Champagne wraps up by claiming that “Most Indigenous Peoples will find international expressions of self-determination incongruent, not fully acceptable, and [they] will resist [international expressions of self-determination] by upholding their own understandings of self-determination.” Accompanying his article is a photograph of President Nixon signing his “domestic” 1970 “Indian Self-Determination” policy. The photo suggests that in Champagne’s view, the kind of “self-determination” suitable for our nations is “self-determination” created by the domination system of the United States. In other words, he apparently has in mind the already existing domestic dependent U.S. form of “self-determination.”

In keeping with that view, Champagne seems to be suggesting a narrative in which there is an ongoing effort to impose an “international expression of self-determination” on Nations and Peoples typically called “indigenous.” They, however, are going to bravely resist that imposition by continuing to embrace the “liberation” to be found in the captivity of the U.S. government’s brand of “self-determination” which has been bestowed on them by the domination system called U.S. federal Indian law and policy.

What Champagne offers us in the way of a vision of the future is an Orwellian form of self-determination that does nothing other than maintain “the status quo.” All that being said, since Champagne claims that “the international expression of self-determination’ is not a possible means of freeing Original Nations and Peoples (“Indigenous Peoples”) from domination, then what, in his view, is the means of freeing our Nations and Peoples from the US’s domination-subjection framework?

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008), and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.