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Indigenous sovereignty

Sovereignty is a much used, but foreign word for indigenous communities. The concept of sovereignty comes from European legal and political theory, where it suggests absolute political authority and territoriality. Contemporary indigenous nations have taken up the idea of sovereignty, as part of the discussion to protect land and inherent government authority.

Nevertheless, the word sovereignty does not have an equivalent in most indigenous languages. Sovereignty implies a sense of secular power and centralized authority that is not found among most indigenous peoples. The word also implies more precise territorial and political boundaries, and a sense of ownership that most indigenous peoples might find too self-centered. The European national struggles over territory emerged over perceived political and territorial densities, where rival nations or groups struggled to establish greater territorial and political control.

Sovereignty is only one dimension within the cosmological responsibilities of indigenous governments.

Indigenous communities understood territory and political authority, but in dramatically different ways than the Europeans. Indigenous nations did not fight primarily over land. Communities believed the Creator gave the people specific land to live on. Through migration teachings, or creation teachings, the land was presented as a gift to the people. The land was a means for life and livelihood. The people used the land, but maintained its ability to sustain life and support the well-being of the community.

Tribal communities usually divided land among the families, bands, or clans. Each family, clan, village or band was assigned hunting and gathering locations, and the economic privileges of families were respected by the other families within the nation. Conflicts were settled by elders or leaders. When a family moved away, or its needs declined, then others were allowed to move into the vacated land. Land was held by a family as long as the family needed and used the land. When the family no longer needed the land, another family was allowed, by general consent, to assume the right to use the vacated land and resources.

Tribal communities understood their territories within their worldviews and cosmic orders. The land was given to the people by the Creator, who had a sacred task or purpose for the people. The people gave thanks to the Creator through ceremonies, and by showing respect to the land, plants, animals and other beings living on the land. Indian people were not owners of the land, and shared the land with other power beings, with whom they had to show respect. Wars over hunting grounds, land, or resources occurred only when an invading tribe moved into the territory of another and took resources without permission. Indigenous peoples were prepared to protect their land from those who would not seek permission or ask for assistance. Balanced relations, however, were preferred to violence and war.

Indigenous political leadership sought to maintain relations of harmony and order among the people, which was also the ideal among relations within the entire cosmological order. Sovereignty is far too exclusive, human-centered, secular, and powerless a concept for use within worldviews where animate beings shared all national territories and had to be handled with diplomacy and respect.

Contemporary indigenous nations have taken up the idea of sovereignty, as part of the discussion to protect land and inherent government authority.

The Western vision of sovereignty assumes a human-centered universe and human control and power over the forces of the universe. People owned the land, countries have sovereign authority over land, and protection of territoriality was a primary exercise of political authority. For traditional indigenous nations, the idea of sovereignty would be an alien concept that put humans directly at odds with each other and with nature, creating a world out of balance. Indigenous peoples understood land and government, but within a broader cosmological context than the secular visions of present-day nation-states.

While indigenous peoples use contemporary concepts of sovereignty in government-to-government relations, they should not forget that indigenous governments focused on maintaining balanced, respectful and reciprocal relations with all beings of the cosmological order, including other peoples and nations. Sovereignty is only one dimension within the cosmological responsibilities of indigenous governments.