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Native Nations Should Define Themselves

A column by Harold Monteau declaring that Native nations should define themselves.

We need to stop thinking about being "Indian" as being a matter of race or culture (both of which are just part of our reality) and think about being Indian in terms of citizenship in a "Native Nation." Race should not define us although it is part of our reality. Culture is dynamic and changes (sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly) and should not define being Indian although it too is part of our reality.

Being an Indian is defined by the indigenous group we come from. All of us have an articulated sense of our place in "the group," and in most cases, that is a Native or Indigenous Nation. Others have a sense of being in a group which is rather undefined but might best be referred to as the "United Native Nation" similar to the United States or United Arab Emirates. This sense of belonging to the group of Native Nations, as a whole, is something that transcends borders and goes with you wherever you are in the world. At present our being in a Native American Nation is defined by how we are defined in treaties by the colonizers. At some time in the future, as we did in the past and some still do, Native American Nations can come together in a confederacy (like the Iroquois Confederacy) or we can come together in a United Native Nation, the commonality being our status as Native Nations. It may be imperative to our survival.

Native Nations (Tribes) need to stop living by the distinctions that keep us apart; distinctions that were mostly assigned to us by the colonizers. Native Nations can make treaties, written or unwritten, by and between each other and with other world nations. Despite the made up "law" by John Marshall that we are "domestic dependent nations" our sovereign right to make treaties has never been taken and we have not given it up. We simply do not exercise it. Like a muscle never used, we have let it atrophy.

What we now call "Indian Country" is a legal definition that recognizes that we live in defined areas over which we hold dominion, presently by leave of our “trustee”, according to U.S. Courts. Some Native Nations do not accept this “domestic dependent status” and act accordingly while still recognizing that the colonizer has perpetual responsibilities towards “their nation” as a consequence of the colonizer acquiring the right to occupy certain lands of such Native Nation.

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While our individual Native Nation’s sovereignty defines our individual Native Nation, were we to engage each other in accumulative sovereignty or augmented sovereignty based on shared sovereignty that comes with treaty making, we can be much stronger viz a viz the United States (which includes individual states) and in the world community of nations.

We are taught by the colonizers that we have "tribal sovereignty" and we hold that sovereignty to our chest to protect it from the individual states and the United States. But were we to link hands in a confederacy or United Native Nations we can put all our individual Native Nation sovereignty in a much stronger and protected position. Whether the United States recognizes us in this augmented Indian Nation is of no consequence. It is of consequence that it be recognized in the international community under existing International Law and policy. In the meantime every individual Native Nation has the right to recognition under International Law and should take their rightful place in the International Community, whether they are a federally recognized Native Nation or not. International law recognizes that right, and not just by policy declaration.

International Law is a powerful tool which we have just barely come to recognize and utilize. Some individual Native Nations have been living under the reality of being a Native Nation in their relationship with the world community. Because of the indoctrination of the colonizers we tend to look at these nations as mavericks or radicals who don't know their place. If all of us were to act in a similar manner viz a viz the world community and/or as a group of United Indian Nations, our sovereignty is no longer left to the whim of the U.S. Congress, U.S. Courts and U.S. Administration. Our present reality is that they say, and we believe, in this diminished sovereignty or diminished nationhood which keeps us dependent. We can, as individual Native Nations and together, take the “domestic” out of "domestic dependent nation" while still making the U.S. live up to the responsibilities it took on in exchange for the right to occupy most of our continent. Those U.S. responsibilities are perpetual and should not, under International Law, treaties and conventions, be any the lesser if we define ourselves in the international community. We also can take the “dependent” out of “domestic dependent nations." The duties that the United States owes us into perpetuity are not “dependence." These duties are consideration for the continued occupancy of our continent. Our relationship with the United States as two Nations in the World Community of Nations should be defined by us.

Harold Monteau is a Chippewa Cree Lawyer and was a Visiting Professor at the Southwest Indian Law Clinic at the University of New Mexico. He supervised student authors of parts of Mr. Romero’s brief.