On Indian Nationhood: Steven Newcomb Responds to Steve Russell's March 20 Column

A column by Steven Newcomb in response to a column by Steve Russell that was published on IndianCountryTodayMediaNetwork.com.

After reading Steve Russell’s March 20 column “Citizenship and Nations,” I have to wonder why he would publicly challenge one of the strongest words we have in the English language to express the political existence of Indian nations and peoples. I am referring specifically to the word “nation.”

As Mr. Russell stated in his column: “Nation or tribe is another semantic issue that conceals as much politics as citizenship. I dislike nation because we don’t have all the attributes of a nation and most of us are ill-equipped to take on nationhood…The problem is we are not states.”

Well, what are the attributes of nationhood? There are five: A population, a territory, a culture, and language, and a decision-making body or government. So which of these do American Indian nations not have? Vine Deloria, Jr. made this very point in his 1974 book Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence.

I do believe the Cherokee Nation does use that term in its official title. Since Mr. Russell dislikes “nation” does he dislike the title of his own nation? Also, he says, “The problem is we are not states.” Yet in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia the Court said: “So much of the argument as was intended to prove the character of the Cherokee Nation as a state…has, in the opinion of a majority of the judges, been completely successful.”

Mr. Russell, a Cherokee, needs to brush up on the 1832 Worcester v. Georgia decision regarding the Cherokee Nation. Undoubtedly the language of Worcester is the strongest pro-Indian nationhood language to be found in any U.S. Supreme Court decision. I just went back over it and found that Chief Justice Marshall used the term “tribes” only once in his majority opinion. He used the words nation or nations throughout. The Court even spoke of the Cherokee Nation’s “national character.” Worcester is all about Indian nations, and particularly Mr. Russell’s own nation, the Cherokee Nation.

In one of the most powerful passages from Worcester, Marshall explained why the words “treaty” and “nation” had been applied by the U.S. to its political and diplomatic relations with Indian nations. In the quote below, notice how the chief justice said that the United States had applied those words to Indian nations “as we have applied them to the other nations of the earth.”

The very term "nation," so generally applied to them, means "a people distinct from others." The Constitution, by declaring treaties already made, as well as those to be made, to be the supreme law of the land, has adopted and sanctioned the previous treaties with the Indian nations, and consequently admits their rank among the powers who are capable of making treaties. The words "treaty" and "nation" are words of our own language, selected in our diplomatic and legislative proceedings by ourselves, having each a definite and well understood meaning. We have applied them to Indians as we have applied them to the other nations of the earth. They are applied to all in the same sense.

In contradiction to such powerful language, with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek, I can imagine a sarcastic suggestion based on Mr. Russell’s dislike for the word "nation": Let's publicly disavow the most politically powerful word that the Supreme Court has ascribed to Indian nations and cast it aside. After all, it is better to consciously disempower ourselves as a ‘sensible’ political strategy because it is always best to take on less rather than more powerful terms of political identity. Such a suggestion, however, is obviously as nonsensical as a ‘dislike’ for the word ‘nation’ in the context of Indian nationhood.

The Treaty of Hopewell was made between the United States and the Cherokee Nation after the Revolutionary War. It contained language referring to the United States “managing all their affairs.” “To construe the expression ‘managing all their affairs’ into a surrender of self-government,” wrote Marshall, “would be, we think, a perversion of their necessary meaning, and a departure from the construction which has been uniformly put to on them.”

Marshall pointed out that misinterpreting that passage, which only had to do with Indian trade, “would convert a treaty of peace covertly into an act, annihilating the political existence of one of the parties. Had such a result been intended, it would have been openly avowed.”

In the above quote, the key phrase is “political existence.” It is the political existence of every Indian nation, no matter how small, that is best supported by the word “nation.” We have an original existence free and independent of any illegitimate claims of domination that would attempt to annihilate the rightful political existence of our originally free nations and peoples.

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 and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.