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Russell: The politics of foreign aid

What is it to the United States that Pakistan is a military dictatorship? Well, right now it's about $150 million a month, at a time when our GIs are bleeding for the cause of democracy in Iraq.

What is it to the United States if it is true, as several correspondents have insisted to me since my last Indian Country Today column, that the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma still can't have free elections because no candidate is allowed to have a list of registered voters? What is it to the United States if my tribe, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, claims the power to disenroll citizens on racial grounds in violation of a treaty without coming clean to the Cherokee voters that treaty abrogation is the issue? Well, President Bush asked for $2.2 billion for the BIA in fiscal 2007, a bit over $18 million a month: chickenfeed.

What's the price of government these days, and does it matter what kind of government?

There was a time when ''sovereignty'' would have answered all these questions. All sovereigns were equal in the days of kings and queens. International law, in its growth period after World War II, had to make no distinction between tyrants and democrats because there were a lot more tyrants and tyrants had no incentive to participate in institutions where they were not the equals of democrats. Democracy was not an ascendant ideology.

Things have changed, not so much because of American foreign policy as in spite of it. The largest authoritarian state left standing, China, is sweating the influx of BlackBerries and cell phones that will come with the Olympic Games because in the 21st century everybody has to claim consent of the governed. The Tiananmen Square massacre was dreadfully embarrassing. The Dalai Lama is honored in the White House, and his presence is a comment on the Chinese presence in Tibet that the Chinese government does not care to hear. Democracy is the gold standard of world opinion to a degree that has never been the case in the past.

How and when will American Indians get to join the party and govern themselves?

Self-determination has been American Indian policy since the administration of Richard Nixon, who was not otherwise noted for his interest in democracy. The first wave of Indian self-determination was the New Deal Indian Reorganization Act, which produced government by tribal councils with only oversight by the BIA to guarantee democracy. The IRA governments were ratified in highly suspect elections, where a failure to vote was counted as ''yes.''

By ''democracy,'' I mean simply consent of the governed, regularly measured. We are now past the time when any particular Indian tyrant could claim that tyranny was traditional. Leaving aside historical doubts, all sovereigns are no longer equal and modern governments are more or less legitimate based on consent of the governed.

What, I have been asked by many readers, does an Oklahoma Choctaw do when effectively barred from running for office? What do tribal citizens do when disenrolled, whether the purpose is to grow the per caps for those remaining or to rid the administration of a voting bloc based on race?

The only thing to do within the tribal sovereignty paradigm is file suit in tribal court. Not state court; not federal court - tribal court. The problem with that, I know without being told, is that cronyism does not end with the executive and legislative branches. Many tribes have no judicial review, meaning that tribal judges lack the power to enforce the tribal constitution (assuming the tribal constitution contains voting rights). In other tribes, the judges serve at the pleasure of the chief, so they have the power but also a powerful incentive to turn a blind eye.

Outside any governmental paradigm, there are actions like those taken by the traditional Kickapoo some years ago. They simply took over the tribal land nonviolently and held it until the BIA woke up. When a faction of another tribe asked me recently what to do about a dissident they claimed was unfairly locked up, and they did not like my legal advice, I told them that if they really represented majority sentiment they should all proceed to the jail and demand to take his place.

Some AIMsters used to claim that only violence gets the BIA's attention. Not only is that demonstrably false, violence makes it easy to sell the idea that the problem is a ''crime problem'' when it's really a democracy problem.

Why do we care to get the BIA's attention? Because if there is any government bureaucracy that is tasked with seeing that we ''domestic, dependent nations'' learn to use democracy, it's the BIA, and they hold the purse strings for most federal programs.

I say it's not that we don't know how to use democracy, but rather the governments created for us lacked checks and balances. I can't speak for other tribes, but Cherokee traditional government had plenty of checks and balances.

James Madison, when critiquing the Alien and Sedition Acts, pointed out ''[even if] aliens are not parties to the Constitution, it does not follow that the Constitution has vested in Congress an absolute power over them.''

American Indian nations are also not parties to the Constitution, but the notion has gotten loose in American law that Congress in fact has absolute, ''plenary,'' power over them.

It is not true in the case of, say, Pakistan, that the United States has the authority to demand that it govern itself democratically. It's also not true in Iraq, although we keep trying to assert that authority.

It is true in the case of Indian nations that the legal authority exists. Whether we Indians agree that it should is beside the point. Most tribal governments could not live without the federal teat.

As we speak, the talking heads who control our national conversation complain that a tyrant has placed Pakistan under martial law while American taxpayers subsidize him. That is, indeed, a sorry state of affairs.

However, the government of Pakistan is not a U.S. creation and we owe it nothing. We send money there for our own purposes. Indian tribal governments are U.S. creations (with few exceptions) and the government owes them plenty (with no exceptions). Tribal government funding arises from obligation, and as part of that obligation tribal citizens should not have to risk jail to practice democracy.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and an associate professor of criminal justice at Indiana University - Bloomington. He is a columnist for Indian Country Today.