Skip to main content

On Dina Gilio-Whitaker’s Column, “Moving From Sovereignty to Autonomy”

Dina Gilio-Whitaker’s column, “Moving from Sovereignty to Autonomy,” is troubling on a number of levels. She advocates that we use the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to achieve “autonomy” within the context of what she terms the “multinational state.” Unfortunately, her article lacks semantic depth and critical analysis, and serves to undermine the foundation of the movement by our Original Nations and Peoples of Great Turtle Island to liberate ourselves from established patterns of domination on the basis of true self-determination.

One problem is Gilio-Whitaker’s uncritical usage of the English language. That, along with failure to address the linguistic patterns of domination and subordination endemic to U.S. federal Indian law and policy, and international law, prevent readers from understanding the stakes and the importance of current international debates about the rights of peoples termed “indigenous.”

Current international working definitions reveal that “indigenous” in that context means “dominated peoples” and “peoples under dominance.” One definition, for example, says that “Indigenous populations are composed of existing descendants of the peoples who inhabited the territory or a country.” Then, “persons of a different culture or ethnic origin arrived from other parts of the world,” “overcame” the peoples living already there, “and, by conquest, settlement or other means, reduced them [those peoples] to a non-dominant or colonial situation.” In other words, the original peoples are considered to have been “reduced” to a predicament of domination. In her article, Gilio-Whitaker fails to make this background explicit.

Another international definition treats the words “indigenous” and “aboriginal” as synonymous. (See UN Centre for Human Rights, “The Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” 1990). The term “aboriginal” traces to “aborigine,” which, according to Webster’s unabridged dictionary, means “an indigenous inhabitant [a single person] of a country: one of the native people as distinguished from an invading or colonizing people.” Thus, peoples termed “Indigenous” or “aboriginal” are contrasted with present day dominating or domination-societies, typically called “states,” which are descended from the invading and colonizing peoples of Western Christendom.

Gilio-Whitaker’s column does not grasp a key point: We have to explicitly focus on the above framework of domination, and specifically use the word “domination,” in order to become conscious of the ‘state of domination’ that has been forced on those nations and peoples the UN now calls “Indigenous.” Importantly, Gilio-Whitaker does not mention the history of colonial domination in her article. Her omission is not unique. In the strange unspoken code in the English language and international political discourse, “’domination’ is the name that shall not be spoken.”

It is within the above noted context of domination that Gilio-Whitaker’s use of the term “autonomy” is accurately understood. In the classic Greek sense, autonomy means “the quality of state of being independent, free, and self-directing,” which is a powerful meaning for purposes of liberation. However, another meaning is, “the degree of self-determination or political control possessed by a minority group, territorial division, or political unit in its relation to the state or political community of which it forms a part.” (emphasis added)

Scroll to Continue

Read More

The latter concept of “autonomy” is meaningful “in relation to” and “inside” the context of “the state.” It envisions “indigenous” units of “autonomy,” or “minority groups of autonomy,” considered to form “a part of the state,” which is a system of domination. In this sense, then, autonomy is considered to be a form of political assimilation whereby originally free nations and peoples which are now considered to be existing under, and subject to the authority of, some state dominance. They are deemed to have been made a part of, or politically incorporated into the body politic of “the state.” This version of “autonomy” is completely consistent with the racist and Christian-premised pronouncements of the US Supreme Court in the areas of “domestic dependency,” “and “plenary power. ”

The modern state, said the German thinker Max Weber, “is a compulsory association which organizes domination.” Thus, domination is the context of the terms “multinational state” and “autonomy” used by Gilio-Whitaker in her article. And from what, in her view, does the political status of autonomy “derive?” She answers: “It derives from the internal constitution or legislation of the state…” In other words, the political status of autonomy she is advocating is, in her view, derived from the very state of domination from which Original Nations and Peoples are working to liberate themselves. So, Gilio-Whitaker has made herself appear to be supporting the US government’s official statement that it will respect the UNDRIP, “only to the degree that it is consistent with U.S. law.”

Gilio-Whitaker also raises the red-herring of “secession” when she points out how some people say that “…a more expansive exercise of ‘external’ self-determination would allow for the possibility of secession from the state.” She seems oblivious to the key point that is impossible to “secede from” or engage in “secession” from political domination. Because our Original Nations and Peoples have not engaged in an “accession” i.e., exercising the free choice to join the political framework of states, it is impossible for our Nations and Peoples to “unjoin” or “secede” from the body politic of the state. In international law, the exercise of the right to self-determination is not synonymous with secession. “Secession” is a pointless distraction that results in the denial of the right of Original Nations and Peoples freely to determine our own political, economic and cultural status.

Finally, Gilio-Whitaker’s last paragraph is the most troubling, for she claims that the U.S. expression of “support” for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “officially ‘internationalized’ the relationships between indigenous nations and their state governments.” (emphasis added) The fact that she has used the phrase “their state governments” reflects her view that indigenous peoples are rightfully subordinate to states. It makes no sense to claim, for example, that a “domestic dependent nationhood” political fabrication in U.S. federal Indian law and policy has been “internationalized,” and then claim that this supposed “internationalization” has resulted in “the possibility” of nations under political dominance being “elevated from the limitation of colonial law.”

These kinds of approaches remind me of the Alice in Wonderland bit about having the sense of “running” (‘moving’ from one state of being to another) so you must be getting “somewhere,” but, come to find out, it’s an illusion and you haven’t really “moved” at all.

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 has been studying U.S. federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980s.