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Moving Out of the 'Sovereignty Ghetto'

For three decades now I have endured political rhetoric about the
importance of our Indian sovereignty, of self-determination, of economic
development and their assurances that "our children are our future." Yet,
in the same amount of time I have also witnessed the gradual erosion of
sovereignty. I have seen "self-determination" become a meager
"self-administration." Our economies have floundered. And I have watched
children grow up in poverty, abuse, neglect, substance abuse and violence.

The tribal politicians are hardly to blame. These words and phrases are
part of the culture of tribal politics. Their true meanings seeped out long
ago leaving the hollow resonance of the hope that once surrounded them.
Culture always outlasts the living human being, and so it is that these
words have survived to be used by another generation of politicians.

For instance, "self-determination," when the phrase was coined, was
intended to stand for the principle that historically, culturally and
ethnically distinct peoples were entitled under international norms to
determine for themselves how they wanted to live out their political
existence. They could demand full independence, autonomy (within the
context of a larger nation-state) or the kind of "domestic dependency" that
Native peoples now experience here in the United States. It was a matter of
choice, the kind we never truly had. After PL 93-638 (Indian
Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act), "self-determination" was
coopted as a phrase to mean that we could administer federal funding for
ourselves. The phrase became deflated of all dignity.

"Economic development," by contrast, appeared among us upon the tongues of
attorneys, venture capitalists and scholars, as a cure-all for every type
of tribal woe. What was never mentioned about such development was that it
would require the general abandonment of our subsistence or barter
economies, and create a type of economic dependency upon money, pop
culture, consumerism, energy resources, and the various artifacts of
Western existence that have questionable value to tribal peoples. As my
grandfather once said to me, "we weren't poor until we were introduced to
money."

How the phrase "our children are our future" was contrived I do not know.
Maybe it is the Indian analog to a politician kissing babies. It is
certainly a truism. After all, every one of us hopes and prays that our
children will outlive us and create the future of tribal existence. But
these will always be false hopes and prayers so long as we do not demand
political responsibility from the federal government and our elected
leaders. What can our children become when the true nature of the world is
withheld from them? How can they devise a meaningful future for all of us
when they are deceived by their colonial education to believe the world is
different than it actually is?

But it is the word "sovereignty" that lies at the heart of our darkness. It
does not possess an absolute meaning for us. Its meaning is not fixed. Most
Native peoples are unaware that the U.S. Supreme Court has even attempted
to correct our misunderstanding of the concept by stating emphatically that
what we American Indians have is more precisely a "quasi-sovereignty" - an
"almost" sovereignty. Our politicians, if they even knew this, failed to
let us know about it. And so, we have all labored for these many decades
under a misunderstanding. We are not entitled to independence of governance
over our affairs. We are always at the mercy of U.S. national interests. We
do not have a set of principled governmental rights. We have a ghetto form
of sovereignty.

And, accordingly, when the United States attempts to live up to its "trust
responsibility," we receive a ghetto form of the trust. The federal
government does a very poor job of protecting us from the states and the
many corporations that it often sets us up to do business with. Federal
prison inmates get more money per inmate for medical services than we get
from the Indian Health Service - as a class of people in the U.S. we have a
status lower than convicted felons. Much of the money the U.S. spends in
"fulfillment" of the trust, sadly, is promptly reimbursed every April 15,
as Indian peoples (who arguably were recognized in the Constitution as
being beyond federal taxation), pay their taxes. Not only do we receive
inadequate educational opportunities, but the U.S. allows the rest of its
citizenry to remain ignorant of our circumstances, thus perpetuating a
cycle of federal neglect for conditions it has caused.

A ghetto trust will exist so long as a ghetto sovereignty is all that we
muster to watch over things. But this is not an incurable state of affairs.
Unlike mainstream Americans, addicted as they are to simplicity, though, we
must be willing to endure complex solutions. Our leaders must demand more
from the federal government. Our attorneys must abandon their risk-averse
philosophies of tribal representation. Our people must each be committed to
a course of political expression. We must find our vision and recognize
that it may take generations to fulfill it.

"Sovereignty," to be restored of vigor and meaning, is about the expression
of political, cultural and social desires and not about their repression.
It is not about adopting tribal codes that are loose mimics of state or
federal laws, but about creating institutions that reflect our Native
aspirations and our humane modes of interaction. To retain true
sovereignty, we must recognize that it does not exist passively, but
requires constant and deliberate action. A sovereign asserts authority over
its territories and the affairs of life that it deems important. It stands
defiantly against those who would deny it its sovereign prerogatives. It
does not let go of its past, nor of those things to which it is entitled as
a matter of principle, whether it is lost land, sacred sites, lost
ancestors, cultural patrimony, or, in the end, a revelation of the truth.

In spite of all appearances, we live in primitive times. America has not
admitted to the illegalities of our subjugation. Its terminology of
conquest continues to keep us down. This is a battle of the spirit.
"Sovereignty" will be meaningful so long as we will it so.

Judge Carey N. Vicenti, a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation of
northwest New Mexico, currently serves as an assistant professor of
Sociology at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo. He sits as a judicial
official for several American Indian nations and is a columnist for Indian
Country Today.