Indian Votes and Indian Self-Government

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Indian Country has long debated whether to participate in the ritual of voting in U.S. elections. For those rooted in their Indigenous life-ways, voting in another nation's elections appears a non-starter. And when the discussion goes deeper, as Muscogee (Creek) spiritual leader Phillip Deere pointed out, voting only declares a majority and the majority can be wrong.

The National Congress of American Indians, on the other hand, representing "federally recognized" Indians, devotes considerable resources to partnering with the American political process: registering voters, lobbying parties and candidates.

Steve Newcomb forcefully criticized such activity, stating: "The big push for 'the Native vote' in U.S. elections strikes me as evidence of the success of the long range U.S. plan to brainwash Indian children with patriotism toward the United States so as to remove from our Native nations any national self-consciousness in relation to our own nations."

The question to vote or not goes far beyond particular campaign slogans and issues. The Indian Country debate sheds light—as Indigenous debates generally do—on issues of broad human significance: the history and significance of voting as a political process.

Voting in a U.S. election typically means voting for a "representative." The American and French revolutions popularized the notion of representative democracy, but various forms of representation existed in earlier periods. Ongoing—and continuing—battles about voting rights mark U.S. history in court decisions, legislative acts, and Constitutional amendments.

Political philosophers ponder whether "representatives" may act according to their own judgment or only in accord with the majority of voters. "Direct democracy," or any other system whereby people participate in actual decision-making, obviates that question.

Traditional Indigenous governments often consist of direct participation in social decision-making, not necessarily by any 'voting,' but by engagement on a day-to-day basis with group actions. Herein lies the greatest contrast with "federally recognized Tribal Councils": the latter are premised on a representative voting system enunciated in the 1934 U.S. Indian Reorganization Act (IRA).

While the Act formally revoked the prior Dawes Allotment process, whereby Indian lands were taken, the IRA—as its name signifies—also set out a framework to "reorganize" Native government. It accomplished this by shunting traditional practices aside and instituting corporate forms akin to those used by businesses. Interestingly, the Act provided that such incorporation would only take place upon ratification "at a special election by majority vote of the adult Indians living on the reservation."

Ten years prior, the 1924 U.S. Indian Citizenship Act unilaterally declared "all non-citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States" to be citizens. The Act added that "such citizenship shall not in any manner impair or otherwise affect the right of any Indian to tribal or other property."

In a 2004 study of the Citizenship Act, "Challenging American boundaries: Indigenous people and the 'gift' of U.S. citizenship," Kevin Bruyneel pointed out the anomaly created by the Act: the declaration of U.S. citizenship did not revoke "tribal" status—Indians were thus simultaneously citizens and "wards" (under a "trusteeship" that still exists as the core of federal Indian law).

Bruyneel summarized Indigenous responses to the Act as falling in two opposed camps: on one side, those who saw citizenship as a reward for their "loyalty" to the U.S. as the "first Americans"; on the other side, those who saw U.S. citizenship not only as an imposition, but as a step toward the dissolution of Indian self-governance.

Bruyneel described the Citizenship Act as "an effort by the U.S. government to firm up the boundaries of the American nation and state, and to declare that all indigenous people residing within these boundaries were citizen-components of this solidified American political space. By political space, I mean the lived and envisioned territory through which a people defines and expresses the collective past, present, and future of its political identity."

Tuscarora Chief Clinton Rickard, in his posthumously published autobiography, "Fighting Tuscarora," wrote: "United States citizenship was just another way of absorbing us and destroying our customs and our government. … Our citizenship was in our own nations. … There was no great rush among my people to go out and vote in white man's elections. Anyone who did so was denied the privilege of becoming a chief or a clan mother in our nation."

A fair analysis of voting statistics shows that people who have reaped the educational and monetary benefits (the two travel together) of the American "political space" generally take part in voting when they feel interested in the outcome. The question arises: how are Indians—who are by and large not the beneficiaries of the American "political space"—interested in the outcome of the current (or any other) election?

In Bruyneel's view, the question whether "an Indigenous political actor" was assimilating into the U.S. depended on whether they insisted that Indigenous peoples' histories, cultures, [and] spaces do "not seamlessly map within U.S. history, culture [and] space." Such an insistence involves "a refusal of the colonial practices of the American settler-state."

As Bruyneel put it, "the dominant institutions and boundaries of American politics are still deeply defined by their colonial practices toward the 'First American Citizens' or, alternatively, the 'original North Americans.'"

In a comment to an article by Alex Jacobs urging Indians to vote, Sammy7 expressed the sentiment: After affirming the significance of the "overarching historical forces in play that … affect us all," he maintained his political independence in terms like Chief Rickard's: "As First Peoples, our path does not lie with the American Government, but instead with the historical ways of our Ancestors."

No doubt U.S. politicians are courting Indian votes. In 2012, The Nation magazine explained how the "tribal population" could decide the fate of crucial U.S. Senate races. That same year, Dr. Dean Chavers wrote that Indian elected officials in the United States "have more authority than at any time in Indian history to influence budgets and policies. But the Indian vote is still too weak."

The question remains for Indians who vote in U.S. elections: What, if anything, are they doing to assure that Indian power simultaneously refuses the core colonial practices of U.S. federal Indian law and insists on self-government? When Indians speak proudly of "our country," what lands do they have in mind? When Indian soldiers wave the U.S. flag, have they subordinated their warriorship for their own peoples?

Ultimately, the voting debate involves much more than whether to vote.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe 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.