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Perspectives on Self-Determination: A Response to Champagne, Newcomb & Wilkins

I never cease to be amazed at the intellectual brilliance that comes out of Indian country. Much of it graces the pages of this site; some of these people can be thought of Indian country’s top pundits. And just as you see in the mainstream media, even though we might all be on the same side, not everybody agrees on everything, even some of our most important issues. Self-determination is one of those topics—what it is, what it’s not, what it should be, and how we actually achieve it.

A few recent pieces written by Duane Champagne, Steven Newcomb, and David Wilkins—some of Indian country’s best and brightest— illustrate this point. It started with Professor Champagne’s October 4 article in which he outlines the basic tenets of self-determination as it relates to Indigenous Peoples. According to Professor Champagne, true self-determination is reserved only for states. He tells us that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “uses the expression of self-determination for Indigenous Peoples but qualifies the expression,” because it doesn’t grant indigenous nations the right to form independent states.

Professor Champagne writes that while UNDRIP articulates the right to free, prior, and informed consent, it doesn’t give indigenous nations veto power over states in conflicts over territories and resources. For Indigenous Peoples, self-determination is divinely ordained. “Only the creator can change the ways in which indigenous people govern themselves and maintain self-determination,” he says. He concludes that Indigenous Peoples will resist international expressions of self-determination, and uphold their own understandings of it. As I read it, this is as close as he comes to arguing for or against anything.

Newcomb takes issue with Champagne, calling his stance “state-centric…uncritically accept[ing] the viewpoint of the United States and other states regarding the right of self-determination in international law.” Newcomb is critical that Champagne fails to challenge the domination paradigm in state/indigenous relationships, suggesting that Champagne takes it for granted as just the way things are. Newcomb’s interpretation of Champagne’s article is that his “vision of the future is an Orwellian form of self-determination that does nothing other than maintain ‘the status quo.’”

It’s hard not to agree with Newcomb’s conclusion, but it does raise questions. Does Champagne as a person of indigenous heritage envision something more than state-privileged self-determination? Or is Champagne as a scholar simply reiterating ideas from mainstream political theory? If it’s the latter, surely he is aware of indigenous scholarship challenging state-centric conceptions of self-determination.

When I read the UNDRIP, I find no definitive statements qualifying a different form of self-determination for Indigenous Peoples. This is in fact a hot topic in the literature on indigenous self-determination. Champagne is correct that for the most part, though, that Indigenous Peoples don’t desire statehood as their preferred form of self-determination. But then again, it depends on how one defines “indigenous” and this is where things get murky.

The Scottish people, for example, recently conducted a vote for independence from the United Kingdom. The people of Catalonia are also considering independence from Spain, and many more examples can be named. Consider this: are the Scottish and Catalan people with their ancient connections to place any less indigenous to Scotland or Catalonia, than the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa are to Turtle Island? They are all nations within states.

Since the mid-twentieth century the global trend is the breaking up of empires into smaller, more independent political bodies, a decentralizing process known in political theory as devolution. They are usually pre-existing nations reclaiming their sovereignty. Sometimes they take the form of states, but increasingly they are taking other alternate and emerging forms of political status. Those forms describe varying degrees of independence, but typically still maintain some form of association with the state.

This is in fact what discussions of indigenous self-determination are struggling to define. In the U.S., what IS the relationship of Native nations to the state? Champagne is correct that for many reasons, the vast majority of the time it won’t be statehood. Newcomb, on the other hand, is also correct that federal Indian law maintains a system of non-consensual domination over Indian nations. While he does emphasize the “originally free and independent” nature of Native nationhood, Newcomb doesn’t, however, propose any concrete or viable alternatives for Native nations’ political relationship with the state.

David Wilkins offered up some excellent words of wisdom in his recent column “Deconstructing the Doctrine of Discovery.” He gives a broad historical overview of how, contrary to popular understandings, the discovery doctrine did not entirely strip Indigenous Peoples of their political power, even if it has been used in U.S. law to limit them. He concludes: “To accept a dumbed-down version of history is to relegate our people to the role of victim. It is to accept that we have been conquered and as such are no more than rapidly disappearing ethnic groups of a by-gone era who no longer deserve the rights outlined in our treaties.”

As Indigenous Peoples and nations, our histories are complex and painful, and the way forward confusing and unclear. But in the long run we will get further in our self-determination projects when we work from our political strengths and retained powers than from our perceived weaknesses.

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. Follow her blog at DinaGWhitaker.wordpress.com