Indigenous Sovereignty and the Political Subordination of Our Nations

Steven Newcomb

The true meaning of indigenous sovereignty is not what we’ve come to know.

The English language is deeply problematic for the Original Nations of Great Turtle Island (“North America”). As a cautionary note, we should not assume that we understand a particular word simply because it has become a customary term of art. A prime example is “sovereignty,” a term said to have been coined by the French Absolutist political philosopher Jean Bodin, who defined it as meaning “supremacy over citizens or subjects unrestrained by the law.”

In other words, the ones called “citizens” and “subjects” are considered “subject to” the laws of “the Sovereign.” However, “the Sovereign” is regarded as not subject to any laws because it is mentally imaged or pictured as existing “above” or at “a higher level” than everyone and everything. Since it is a concept or idea, and not physically existing, it is worth noting that “the Sovereign” does not physically exist “above” or “at a higher level” than everyone and everything. Nonetheless, those who operate in the name of “the Sovereign” are able to wield a degree of force in relation to those deemed to be citizens or subjects, sometimes resulting in dreadful or deadly consequences for those against whom that force is exercised.

Images to illustrate this can range from massacre sites back in the day to the recent trauma-inducing use of militarized police forces at Standing Rock in an effort by “the sovereign” state using the force that goes with “sovereignty” when it wants to get its way on behalf of banking and corporate interests.

In his book Captives of Sovereignty (2011), political philosopher Jonathon Havercroft, notes that political philosophers such as Hanah Arendt, Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri concur that “sovereignty” is, as Agamben puts it, “an unjust form of domination that limits human freedom.” Given that assessment, it stands to reason that placing “indigenous” in front of the word “sovereignty” results in the idea of an “indigenous” “form of domination that limits human freedom.” Yet no one I know who is involved in advocacy for Indigenous nations or peoples is working toward a right of domination. Yet this means there is a basic confusion that is not being addressed.

It’s also more complicated than that. In the context of the United Nations, the term “indigenous” means originally free but now existing under dominance or domination. This directly contradicts the meaning of “sovereignty,” i.e., above everyone and everything. It is impossible for something that is said to exist “above everyone and everything” to also be said to exist under a dominating political power.

Thus, “indigenous sovereignty” is an oxymoron; it is the combination of two mutually exclusive terms that cancel each other out. It is incoherent. The same is true with regard to “tribal sovereignty” in the context of U.S. federal Indian law and policy; invoking “tribal sovereignty” in an effort to fight the good fight is equivalent to saying “not sovereign,” because tribal indicates that it’s a lesser than or un-supreme form of “supremacy,” which is nonsensical.

On behalf of Original Nations of Great Turtle Island (“American Indian nations”), people have been attempting to combine a term indicating a subordinated political identity, “indigenous,” with a supremely dominating political identity, “sovereignty.” They have been doing this in an effort to liberate us from a wrongfully imposed political subordination for our nations and peoples. They have been doing this in an effort to free our nations from a conceptually imposed position that is deemed to exist under the dominating power of “the State” with its claimed right of domination.

What most of us have failed to notice is the impossibility of being liberated from a subordinated political identity by continuing to invoke a subordinated political identity. Using the word “sovereignty” preceded by the word “indigenous” does not remove or raise the level of the political subordination, it merely reinforces the subordination. Moreover, as mentioned above, it adopts the concept of domination itself as a model of existence which contradicts our traditional relational systems.

We have been attempting to defend ourselves against those who lay claim to “sovereignty” over us in the name of concepts such as “the Crown,” “the United States,” “Canada,” “the State,” and other categories of domination. However, the dominating conceptual system being used to defend ourselves has been designed so that a challenge to the system reinforces those categories of domination. To challenge it in the name of “indigenous sovereignty” is to reinforce it; failing to challenge it is also to reinforce it. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, the classic double-bind.

One alternative is to approach our defense conceptually which means to directly name and challenge the Domination Code at its source, to challenge its very premise. To do this is to work from the position that there is no such thing as a right of domination and its corollary, a right of dehumanization. Those who once considered slavery to be sacrosanct institution also used a domination code—system of rationalizations (ideas and arguments)—to justify it. Those who challenged slavery only succeeded when they attacked the conceptual premise of the domination: the concept that some people have a right of domination over others.

Those who now operate U.S. federal Indian law and policy on behalf of the U.S., on the basis of categories of domination, have a system of rationalizations to justify the U.S. claim of a right of Christian domination over our nations, a “right” they falsely call “conquest.” That system of rationalizations was stated in the Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling of 1823.

The challenge we now face is to free our minds of the confusion that results from the little understood point that the term “sovereignty” is a form of domination, and the term “indigenous” means “existing under a form of domination.” Indigenous sovereignty means a form of sovereignty under a system of domination. To free ourselves we must begin by decolonizing our minds.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He is a producer of the documentary movie, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree). The movie can be ordered from

Comments (1)
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Hi Steven, Thank you so much for your work on DOD. Can you direct me to links where this statement "In the context of the United Nations, the term “indigenous” means originally free but now existing under dominance or domination." is cited by the UN? I have never seen this meaning for indigenous before. I've thoroughly read Echo-Hawk's book on UNDRIP and listened to Anaya and never encountered this meaning. It surprises me that the UN would decide to transform the meaning of such an old word which comes from old Latin and means 'springing from the land', a meaning which is understood and commonly held world-wide -- and is apt. Thanks.