Indian Self-Determination and Sovereignty

If ever a concept grabbed hold of hearts and minds in Indian country in the past couple decades surely it would be that of sovereignty. Native people talk about it with reverence, demanding that it be respected by the federal government, and expect their tribal governments to assert it. Even the federal government speaks the language of sovereignty when it claims to uphold the “unique government-to-government relationship” it has with tribes. Never mind that what the feds mean when they use the word “sovereignty” is that unique brand of quasi-sovereignty they believe they bestow upon tribal nations via the federal Indian legal system, not sovereignty in the international sense, the kind nation-states mean when they talk about it. The same is true with the concept of self-determination.

In general there’s a huge difference between what the federal government means when it talks about Indian sovereignty and self-determination and the kind tribal nations mean. Although it can be said that the concepts probably vary from tribe to tribe, self-determination for Indian people overall is representative of the state of political independence that existed prior to colonization. The process of colonization has given a new meaning to the idea of self-determination for the colonized, and the process of decolonizing the relationships between tribes and the United States is, at least in part, about how we define the terms of “sovereignty” and “self-determination.” Self-determination and sovereignty have become concepts that colonizing states have defined for the colonized, and indigenous peoples worldwide have pushed back against those limiting and self-serving definitions, which is why it took 22 years to pass the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Self-determination and sovereignty for indigenous peoples is seen by colonizing states (especially the US) as “aspirational,” that which doesn’t really exist but may (or may not) at some point in the future. There is, however, an important difference between the concepts of self-determination and sovereignty, reflected in a growing and sophisticated body of academic literature by Native scholars. For example, we find that the roots of the concept of sovereignty (and the modern nation-state) are in feudal European monarchies, characterized by hierarchical power structures with profound religious overtones. Because these kinds of governing structures were typically foreign to indigenous peoples, sovereignty is said to be an inappropriate concept for Indian nations. Self-determination, on the other hand, is as the name implies the ability to be self-determining independent of an outside power.

The problem is that in the context of a colonial relationship such as the one between the United States and tribal nations, self-determination is reduced to the ability of a tribal nation to be merely self-governing. There’s nothing innately wrong with tribes being allowed to govern themselves (as they have always done), but it leaves unaddressed a whole host of other problems that the colonial relationship presents, embodied in the system of domestic law that tribal nations are unconsentingly subjugated to, complete with its doctrines of discovery, plenary power, domestic dependent nationhood and trust. It is still a paternalistic relationship with tribes generally thought of as incapable, if not undeserving of the type of self-determination reserved for nation-states—despite their centuries-long histories of foreign relations with outside and international actors.

Throughout the over 200 years of the colonial relationship between tribal nations and the United States several milestones indicate turning points where the colonial nature of the relationships deepened, i.e. where the US became more controlling. One of those is the ending of the treaty making relationship in 1871. However, one little-known fact of the modern sovereignty/self-determination movement is the restoration of the bilateral treaty process through self-governance compacts under the Self-Governance Demonstration Project between tribal nations and the United States government. This was exercised by a handful of tribes including the Lummi, Hoopa, Quinault and Jamestown S’Klallam in the early 1990’s. The compacts are, arguably, indicative of a new type of US-tribal political relationship, and reflect a particular type of international political status known as the Associated Nation.

Associated Nations are characteristic of “nations within nations” with powers of internal self-governance and although the Self-Governance Demonstration Project was far from perfect, the important point is that it represents movement in a process toward greater independence and an elevated level of self-determination. Coupled with UNDRIP and other international human rights instruments that support indigenous peoples, for tribal nations it can be seen as a step in the direction of international political status. This is how we chip away at the forces of colonization as Native nations adopt the characteristics of international players in a process that coagulates into something we might identify as decolonization. It reminds us that decolonization is as much a journey as it is a destination.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker is a Research Associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies and frequent contributor to ICTMN.