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My Rebuttal to Steven Newcomb: A Worthy Debate

I write this in response to Steven Newcomb, who took issue with the column I recently wrote titled, “Moving From Sovereignty to Autonomy.” He is passionate about his opinions and intellectual projects and I respect that. I respond in the spirit of public debate that this issue requires.

Not surprisingly, Newcomb is concerned about language and the meanings behind words and concepts such as “autonomy” and “indigenous” and the ways they are deployed in international law to imply and reinforce relationships of domination. Of course his concerns are justified, and in principle I agree with him 100 percent. Where we part company, perhaps, is in our approaches to addressing those structures of domination he so aptly names. For me the question is: how do we as “indigenous” peoples negotiate our way within those very deeply entrenched and troubling structures to find workable solutions? To borrow a bureaucratic colloquialism, how do we find “work-arounds” to what sometimes appear to be insurmountable obstacles?

In a perfect world, states’ governments would wake up one day and having seen the error of their ways they would renounce those oppressive structures in the interest of following an altruistic, moral imperative to do right by indigenous peoples. We can all hope and even work for that. What he is saying needs to be said. But it seems to me that in reality we could be waiting a very long time, if it were to happen at all.

Would I like to see the doctrine of discovery repudiated and the entire regime of international and federal Indian law restructured to assume new, more just meanings and models relative to indigenous peoples? Yes. Is it possible that Indian nations can be restored to their pre-colonial levels of independence? In my opinion, that’s highly questionable and at this point maybe even undesirable for some nations, but it’s for each nation to decide for themselves.

We live in a different world now compared to our pre-contact ancestors. It is a world far more dependent on the quality of our political relationships. Like it or not we are swimming in the river of international relations as it exists, not as we wish it to be. From my perspective we must find ways to advance self-determination through the channels that are available—as imperfect as they may be—even while we imagine better paths. We can do both.

The fact is that the world of human relations is always evolving; it has never been static. Contrary to Steve’s Alice-in-Wonderland metaphor of “the illusion of moving from one state of being to another” the one thing we can count on is change. This is the core of the idea of political development.

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Right now an available channel for indigenous political advancement is UNDRIP, written with the language of self-determination and autonomy. It stresses the ability of “indigenous peoples” (and I would argue indigenous governments as political bodies accountable to their respective peoples) to “freely choose their political status.” Are the choices circumscribed by relationships of domination? Probably, yes. Is it possible for indigenous and state governments to come to new political arrangements with each other based on mutually agreed upon understandings of the meanings of autonomy and self-determination (and whatever else they deem necessary)? I think so.

Observing a particular chapter in American history, here is something to think about. Vine Deloria, Jr. recounted in his book The Past and Future of American Indian Sovereignty: The Nations Within the story of John Collier, who as we know, was the original architect of the Indian Reorganization Act. After the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Collier was appointed Indian Commissioner of the new administration. Having worked for years for reform in federal Indian policy after the disasters of allotment, he struggled to find ways to reverse the damage that had been done.

Collier did this through introducing sweeping legislation that would prove to be an uphill battle, given the grip congress had on Indian country and the deeply entrenched conservative element who didn’t believe Indians were capable of managing their own affairs. Deloria writes: “While correct theoretically and conceptually, it was hardly realistic administratively, since the old laws would remain on the books unless they were specifically repealed, and Collier lacked the political influence to repeal the major part of federal Indian law” (63).

The end result was a very watered down bill that failed to achieve Collier’s vision of true reform. However imperfect it was, what it at least accomplished was the abolition of the allotting of tribal lands and established a measure of tribal self-government that hadn’t been recognized by the federal government since the treaty days. It was an administrative and legislative work-around in the face of massive structural obstacles.

Here is the point: this was what was possible at that moment in time and as flawed and limited as it was it proved to be an important shift in the relationships between Indian nations and the federal government. In this regard, it was an “Alice-in-Wonderland” sense of movement. Only I don’t see that the abolishment of allotment and the establishment of self-government as an illusion. I call it a change that had real, material effects and “moved” Indian nations into a place of greater empowerment and self-sufficiency.

The topics we are debating are extremely difficult and require an immense amount of intellectual (and political) heavy lifting. Good research requires the ability to consider all points of view and we do this through vigorous debate. Thank you, Steven Newcomb, for the challenge.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies.