Just before word got out about how mostly white American soldiers are
governing prisons in Iraq, President George W. Bush put us at ease on a
point he says was in some doubt. At a news conference on the advance of
freedom in the Middle East - you know, our new and only reason for being in
Iraq since our previous reasons for occupying the country, weapons of mass
destruction and Hussein-regime connections to al Qaeda, have turned up
empty - Bush let it be known that people whose skin is not white can govern
That's right, it is worthy of fanfare in the mind of our president that
eight out of 10 people on our planet are capable of self-government. Here's
the quote, as found in the Washington Post and other outlets: "I believe
that people whose skins aren't necessarily - are a different color than
white can self-govern."
Bush himself raised the question in the first place, noting that "a lot of
people" don't believe it. Neither Bush nor his press flak identified these
people afterward, which can only mean one of two things: Either they are
among the many Republicans who surround Bush, or it is among that fund of
received wisdom that seems to be in the air if one happens to live in 1843,
In any case, when the president feels compelled to make the point in a
public conversation with himself ... well, who knows? Are we supposed to
congratulate him because he does dimly understand that brown-skinned
peoples didn't form nations simply because they bumped into each other out
in a white man's oil fields one afternoon, but rather because they actually
formed governments that functioned over time, often great stretches of
time? Or should we castigate him for giving currency to any doubts on the
In Indian country, we should probably insist, first off, that our ancestors
have never gotten the credit they deserve from this country for surviving.
Survival wasn't as easy then as it seems now, and they never would have
made it if they'd spent centuries wandering in a daze until they came
across a dead buffalo beside a cold spring, with a lightning strike for
fire somewhere in the background. To the contrary, tribes cooperated with
and among each other on everything from buffalo hunts to the fish catch and
crop harvests, none of which could have happened if our tribes had not
known all about self-governance.
But assuming the president isn't going to have too much time for Indian
history, let's move right along to the second point we should make about
the potential for self-governance of brown-skinned peoples namely, that
Indians too can govern themselves, and all the better if the federal
government would permit as much and provide reasonable means (little enough
to ask in view of our treaties). Instead, we get a federal Indian affairs
bureaucracy whose salaried legions have spent almost every waking moment,
at least since the 1975 passage of the Indian Self-Determination and
Education Assistance Act, figuring out how to delay the day when they hand
off authority to tribes.
In fact, it becomes clear to me as I write that no one needs to hear the
president's message on brown-skinned self-governance more than the federal
Indian affairs bureaucracy. Come to think of it, they're probably the ones
who keep putting those doubts in his head.
Rebecca Adamson is the president of First Nations Development Institute and
a columnist for Indian Country Today.