The colonial freedom of federal Indian law

On August 14, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the United States and Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Great Britain drafted the Atlantic Charter.

At the time, Britain was embroiled in WWII, and the U.S. would not declare war on Germany until December 11 of that same year.

The Atlantic Charter was a joint statement between the two countries rather than an official document. It was drawn up at sea, off the coast of Newfoundland. Four and a half months later, in the United Nations declaration of January 1, 1942, the signatory powers of the UN pledged their adherence to the principles of the Atlantic Charter.

Some of the principles expressed in the Atlantic Charter included the disavowal of territorial aggrandizement opposition to territorial changes against the wishes of the people concerned restoration of sovereign rights and self-government to those forcibly deprived of them, in other words, the liberation of colonized nations and peoples.

In October 1943, Dr. Laura Thompson, a highly regarded anthropologist at the University of Chicago, who specialized in the area of the Native peoples of North America and the Pacific, published a report that discussed the implications of the Atlantic Charter. The report, "Steps Toward Colonial Freedom: Some Long-Range Planning Principles for a Peaceful World Order" discussed the need for "planning and action on the colonial problem," which, according to the report, had become "a major concern of the United Nations."

The report also discussed the need to improve the "traditional practices of colonial rule." Toward this end, the report laids out the conceptual basis for "a democratic colonial charter," which could serve as an effective code of colonial methods and practices.

In other words, a primary focus of the Thompson report was the improvement of the colonial system under which subject peoples were being held and ruled in the mid-1940's. Dr. Thompson included American Indians in the category of colonial peoples. In fact, the report was intended for the "training of colonial officers" and colonial administrators, including those in the BIA.

Thompson defined "the colonial problem" as "a relationship between dominant and subject groups, which may exist within a continuous land area, as in pre-Soviet Russia, and even within a politically as well as geographically homogeneous state, as Australia and the United States?"

Thompson's report helped to open my eyes because of the way she clearly stated that American Indians within the geographical boundaries of the United States are "colonial peoples." People in the know in the 1930s and 40s, such as Thompson, John Collier, Harold Ickes, and D'Arcy McNickle, identified the BIA as part of the colonial administration of the United States.

It has been sixty years since "Steps Toward Colonial Freedom" was written, and during the ensuing six decades, although terminology has shifted away from explicitly identifying American Indians as "colonial peoples," the fundamental colonial nature of the relationship between the U.S. and Indian nations and peoples has not changed, nor is it likely to anytime soon.

Today the polite term is "indigenous peoples" rather than "colonial peoples," but the danger exists that by using the euphemism "indigenous" we are obfuscating the continuing and seemingly permanent existence of U.S. colonialism in Indian country (as well as Alaska and Hawaii).

The title of Thompson's report is ambiguous at best. By "colonial freedom" did she intend to be an advocate for the liberation of dominated peoples from colonial rule? Or was she suggesting the need for only the mere appearance of freedom, beneath which a reality of domination would continue to exist? The full text of the report suggests the latter.

Based on 20 years of research and study, I maintain that U.S. Indian law is a system of colonial freedom, which does not mean "free," but rather a perpetual system, and accompanying policies, designed to hold indigenous peoples and their homelands in bondage and subjection to the American people, for the political and economic benefit of the United States. Part of the essential glue that holds this colonial system together is the Supreme Court rulings that presume our subjection to the pronouncements of the U.S. judicial system, which are grounded in ancient principles of religious racism.

The terminology we use to identify a problem is always fundamentally important when devising a solution to the problem. But sometimes we inadvertently use terms that serve to mask rather than clearly identify and examine a problem. For example, if we continue to use the term "trust relationship" to give a positive connotation to a colonial relationship that abuses and traumatizes our respective nations and peoples, how can this lead toward true and meaningful reform and a healthy future?

On the other hand, most Indian people have been raised to believe that we ought to always view the "trust relationship" between the U.S. and Indian peoples as somehow sacred. But if what is commonly referred to as the "trust relationship" is in reality a relationship of colonial domination aren't we deluding ourselves by viewing it as something positive?

The Catch-22 is this: if we dare to challenge the "trust relationship" because it is actually a colonial relationship, are we then undermining the only game in town, and embarking on a path toward self-termination? In my view, we must search for a means of liberation that honors and respects our history as naturally existing nations that were free in this hemisphere for thousands of years prior to the colonial hold of the United States.

As the White House claims to be mobilizing the lethal means to "liberate" Iraq, the American people and the world community ought to be reflecting on the fact that the U.S. built up its own imperial strength and "national security" by colonizing American Indian nations, slowly but surely robbing and illegally occupying our lands and resources, decade by decade, generation by generation, and century by century."

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee and Lenape, is director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and Indigenous Research Coordinator at D-Q University at Sycuan on the reservation of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation. He is a columnist for Indian Country Today.