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Jefferson Keel’s Message of Political Assimilation

On February 14, 2013, in Washington, D.C., Jefferson Keel (Chickasaw Nation) delivered his "State of the Indian Nations” address in his capacity as President of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). Although his talk was titled, “Securing Our Futures,” the theme woven into his speech seemed to be “Ensuring our Political Assimilation as Indian Nations.”

Let’s be clear. Jefferson Keel addressed his audience primarily from the viewpoint of the United States. In his opening, Keel addressed himself to “my fellow Americans,” and thereby gave the impression that Indian people are just one of many different kinds of “Americans.” He then said “all our vibrant threads” as Indian people “are woven into the fabric of America.” The word America is, of course, short for “the United States of America.” So, it is evidently his view that Indian nations have been “woven” into the United States.

Keel also referred to “America’s tribal nations,” the “possessive tense” apostrophe-s on America thereby depicting the United States as holding what he calls “tribal nations” as possessions. That Keel gave his address from the viewpoint of the United States is also found in his wording indicating that almost 25 percent of “America’s” on-shore oil and gas resources are found on “tribal lands.” (emphasis added). This frames the resources of Indian nations as rightfully belonging to the United States.

Speaking of the late Senator Inouye, Mr. Keel said: “He knew that America was at her strongest when all of her governments worked together to advance our security and prosperity.” (emphasis added) This again uses the possessive tense to frame Indian nation governments as belonging to the United States of America (this includes Indian nation governments in the category “all her governments”).

When Keel said “that America was at her strongest” when “all her people were thriving,” he was thereby including Indian people in the category “all her people.” Just as the phrase “her house” indicates that the house belongs to “her,” in this instance, “her people” indicates that Indian people are included in the category “her people” who Keel considers to belong to the United States.

When he said that “a sovereign people are a strong people,” Keel’s larger context was the United States, rather than Indian nations. (Otherwise he would have stated “sovereign peoples are strong peoples” so as to acknowledge our own peoples and nations as politically distinct from the United States).

As a retired United States military officer, Mr. Keel’s background includes a lifetime spent in military service to the United States of America. His mind operates on that basis, which is fine for him personally. However, he has stepped far beyond his purview as the president of N.C.A.I when he delivers a speech in which he assumes that all Indian nations and peoples, and all Indian people share his personal military worldview. He has gone far beyond his purview when his language presumes that Indian nations already have been or are to be politically assimilated (from a metaphor of digestion) into the body politic of the United States. Or, as he put it: “To affirm our rightful, [U.S.] constitutional place in the American [United States of America’s] family of governments.”

As originally free and independent nations and peoples that predate by thousands of years the U.S. Constitution, it is important to remain mindful of the fact that it is the United States's Constitution. It is not our Constitution because we come from our own distinct nations that predate the United States, and which the U.S. has a track record of patiently and methodically attempting to dominate and destroy. Yet, by using the possessive tense “our,” Keel gives the false impression that his personal view of the U.S. Constitution is shared by all of Indian Country.

In the nineteenth century, the United States began its intensified efforts to assimilate Indian people into the society and “fabric” of the United States. That agenda is still in motion. This is why we ought to be on a guard against present day assumptions, such as we find in Mr. Keel’s speech, that an assimilative melding of Indian nations into the political “fabric” of the United States is an envisioned positive outcome that we all share.

Along these lines, Mr. Keel also said: “This is the task at hand, to move together toward a more perfect union.” What is a union? It is “the formation of a single political unit from two or more separate and independent units.” The idea of our originally free and independent Indian nations moving “together” on a path of political assimilation, toward a “single political unit” with the United States is not a path of self-determination. It is a path toward self-oblivion.

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 the Indigenous and Kumeyaay Research Coordinator for the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.