Russell: Domestic, dependent change agents?

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When I was a student in the 70s, we used to insult a speech we didn’t like by calling it “a bunch of rhetoric.” That is a criticism without substance. Every speech has the same amount of rhetoric; the issue is one of quality.

History is the same. Every moment in time is pretty much the same as any other in terms of making history. History is what we choose to do with our time and then what our descendents choose to make of what we did. While no moment in time contains more history than any other, there are still times when we all feel the winds of destiny beating about our ears. It’s an awareness of the mythical Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times,” the joining at the hip of danger and opportunity.

We are in such a time now.

As a resident of Texas in the Bush governorship, I expected a sleepy four or eight years when the Electoral College worked its anti-democratic magic to overturn the popular vote for Al Gore. I was not happy but not filled with dread, either. Mediocrity is the stuff of everyday life and if you dread it you will live in a perpetual state of dread. I was wrong, and eight years later the United States is at the center of more catastrophes than I can recount in the space I have.

One thing about being a “domestic, dependent nation” is that your fate is linked to the nation upon which you depend. Whether the question is war or economics, when the United States gets a cold Indian country sneezes.

When the United States has been in crisis, Indian country has had opportunities that seldom exist in normal times.

In the very early times, conflicts between the United States and the other colonial powers created fissures that Indian leaders could exploit. For many years, Comanches in Texas kept their freedom by exploiting the conflicts between Mexican and American settlers.

Whether the question is war or economics, when the United States gets a cold Indian country sneezes.



The Civil War was opportunity for some Indian nations but a disaster for mine. The fact that we fought on both sides might have meant that we were winners no matter who won. As it turned out, we were bound to lose no matter who won. The treaty that resolved our Civil War rift with the United States is at the center of our current troubles still being played out in Congress, as well as both U.S. and tribal courts. Opportunity remains in this crisis in that if Cherokee courts reached out to enforce the treaty as a matter of Cherokee law our enemies in Washington would have to eat a lot of words.

World War I was a major driver of U.S. citizenship for Indians, whether we view that as a good thing or not. The argument was that Indians had been subjected to conscription – along with taxation, the disadvantage of citizenship – and therefore deserved the advantages of citizenship.

The chain of events leading to the New Deal were horrible for the United States, but most Indian leaders today would agree that we came out of it better than when we went in. Indians still stuck with Indian Reorganization Act constitutions complain about them for good reason, but the IRA itself and the philosophy driving it made a great deal of political space for self-government that had not existed. Those Indian nations still laboring under IRA constitutions have not been able to agree internally to move on. If they agree internally, the U.S. is politically committed to working with the resulting governments.

We have to either become economically independent or convince the taxpayers they do in fact owe us a living in perpetuity because of historical wrongs.


Since a degree of self-government returned to us in a time of crisis, we have had some major difficulties. Most deadly was the “termination and relocation” era of U.S. Indian policy that impoverished individuals as well as tribes. I think we as peoples would do well to understand the impetus for that disaster. The taxpayers do not believe they have undertaken to support Indians forever. We have to either become economically independent or convince the taxpayers they do in fact owe us a living in perpetuity because of historical wrongs. Even if the latter is possible, I suggest that the standard of living that has so far resulted could more accurately be described as “existing.” The United States will not kill us or let us starve, but neither will they provide the kind of education, housing and medical care that the rest of the country expects in the 21st century.

President Obama has promised to support “change,” and Indian country is ripe for it. The question we face is whether our leaders will step forward with plans to become self-supporting over time or whether self-government is nothing but a bunch of rhetoric.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and an associate professor of criminal justice at Indiana University. He is a columnist for Indian Country Today. He lives in Bloomington and can be reached at swrussel@indiana.edu.