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Our Original Free and Independent Nations

On June 13, President Barack Obama visited the Standing Rock Reservation. During his visit, Mr. Obama said that “every American, including every Native American deserves a chance to work hard and get ahead.” Presumably he meant “get ahead” in the American society of the United States.

In 1832, in Worcester v. Georgia, Chief Justice Marshall characterized our nations as “independent of each other and of the rest of the world.” Given the historical context of our original free and independent existence as full-fledged Nations it is highly troubling to have U.S. President Barack Obama speak of us as if our Native Nations have been successfully reduced down to being simply a different variety of U.S. citizen. According to this viewpoint, “Native Americans” are merely a “Native” variety of “Americans,” but “Americans” nonetheless.

An Associated Press story reported that President Obama, and First Lady Michelle Obama, arrived at the Standing Rock reservation during a “Flag Day Celebration.” That would be a celebration of the flag of the United States, in case anyone was wondering. So, the flag of the empire that has engaged in more than two centuries of policies designed to dispossess, destroy, and politically assimilate our nations is now being “celebrated” by those on the receiving end of those dispossessing and destructive policies? What in the world has happened to us?

Here’s an irony: Exactly forty years ago, the first International Indian Treaty Conference was held from June 8 to 16, 1974, at, of all places, the Standing Rock Reservation. One outcome of that international gathering was the Declaration of Continuing Independence. It was called international because it was nation-to-nation between our original Nations and Peoples.

The ironic part is that exactly 40 years later, on June 13, 2014, the President of the United States is being honored, and the U.S. flag is being celebrated at the Standing Rock Reservation. And this despite the fact that there has been no reform of the foundation of the system of domination and “subjection” that continues to be used against our nations.

This, of course, makes it appear to the world as if Indian Country as a whole is hunky dory with the U.S. federal Indian law and policy system of domination. On May 27, 2014, the four dissenting justices of the U.S. Supreme Court tacitly identified the U.S. system of domination in the case Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community. They referred to it as “the Indian tribes’ subjection to the authority and protection of the United States…”

Indian Country is truly a land of “schizophrenia.” We live on a daily basis with the effects of a system of the domination and subjection that has been and continues to be imposed on our originally free and independent Nations and Peoples. Yet there are those of us who celebrate the flag and the president of the country that continues to impose that system of domination and subjection on us? Why? Have we accepted our lot as “tributary nations,” “tributaries” of the Political Main Stream of the United States? Is a status of sub-sovereigns of the U.S. government the very most we aspire to be in our bid to achieve “true” self-determination? Is that our new ceiling?

The document from 1974 states: “The International Indian Treaty Conference hereby adopts this Declaration of Continuing Independence of Sovereign Native American Indian Nations. In the course of these human events, we call upon the people of the world to support this struggle for our sovereign rights and our treaty rights. We pledge our assistance to all other sovereign people who seek their own independence.” From what were they affirming their independence? It was from an imposed system of domination by and subjection to U.S. federal Indian law and policy that they were affirming their independence.

Four decades later, the United States government is successfully creating the impression before the world community that “the Great Sioux Nation” no longer exists, and that its treaties and treaty rights are no longer an issue. This, of course, creates the additional and wrongful impression that the Declaration of Continuing Independence issued from Standing Rock Reservation in 1974 is a dead letter.

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An Associated Press story said that President Obama and his wife Michelle “met privately with tribal youth about their challenges growing up on the reservation that was home to Sitting Bull.” Does anyone see the lie in that sentence? The great Hunkpapa Spiritual Leader Sitting Bull was born free in the independent territory of the Great Sioux Nation in 1831.

The Hunkapapa Nation was one those nations that, in the 1823 ruling Johnson & Graham’s Lessese v. M’Intosh, Chief Justice John Marshall said was existing in the area of the Louisiana Territory that were “in fact, independent.”

It was long after the Indian reservation system was forcibly imposed on the Great Sioux Nation that Sitting Bull ended up living at Standing Rock. He was eventually killed by federal Indian police—other Indians—because the U.S. government feared him and the emergence of "an Indian empire." I’m not making that up. They wanted to prevent Sitting Bull from joining the Ghost Dance spiritual movement that had been started by the Paiute spiritual leader Wovoka, and was gaining a great deal of momentum. Such historical details and nuances were lost on the Associated Press reporters.

In contrast to Obama’s talk, it is important to remind ourselves that every one of our Nations all across Great Turtle Island has the sacred birthright of an original free and independent existence. By this, I mean we are originally free and independent of systems of domination invasively brought to our part of the world by the monarchies and imperial powers of Western Christendom in the 15th and later centuries.

The United States was founded as the American Empire with the desire to destroy our memory of our original free and independent existence. George Washington called the United States “our infant empire.” Thomas Jefferson called it an “Empire of Liberty.” Chief Justice John Marshall called the U.S. “this our wide-spreading empire.” The U.S. Supreme Court, in Loughborough v. Blake in 1820, and in Downes v. Bidwell, in 1901, called the United States the “American empire.”

Obama’s comments at Standing Rock Reservation places us (subsumes us) in the category of “every American” and thereby erases any acknowledgment and respect for our free and independent existence as the Original Nations of Great Turtle Island. This is part of the American empire’s strategic goal of politically assimilating us into the metaphorical “fabric” of its society, an imperial society which has fattened itself on our vast lands, territories, waters, and resources.

North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp accompanied President Obama to the Standing Rock Reservation, and she made remarks that framed us in terms of “American citizens.” Senator Heitkamp is reported to have said that Obama’s trip “was a major step forward in our efforts to elevate the issues facing our Native American citizens to a national level.” (emphasis added) Again, this rhetoric is designed to politically assimilate us into the body politic of the United States as part of the process of destroying any consciousness of our Nationhood and any acknowledgment of our Original Free and Independent Existence.

Implicit within Senator Heitkamp’s statement is the view that the United States is the “national level,” and we rank somewhere below that. This also implies something else: If the “national level” is deemed to be “the highest level within the United States,” then everything else, such as our political existence, is, by definition, deemed to exist on a level that is lower than, and subject to, “the highest.”

The highest level is the supreme or “ultimate” level, which matches what Chief Justice John Marshall called “ultimate dominion” in the Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling, or “political power grown from property” that is, “in effect, domination,” according to William Brandon in his book New Worlds for Old. Isn’t it time to stop treating that domination and subjection system as valid and normal?

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.