The Colonial Semantics of the United States: 'Our Nation’s Tribes'


A discerning eye is critically important when it comes to interpreting statements by the United States regarding our original nations, which are typically called “Indian tribes.” On September 13, 2007, the United States voted “no” on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but three years later, on December 15, 2010, President Obama made a formal announcement of support for the UN Declaration.

At the time, it seemed that most Indian people took President Obama at his word and never bothered interpreting the subtext of his statement. However, those who were paying attention no doubt noticed that President Obama also said during his 2010 announcement that the U.S. Department of State would be issuing a more comprehensive explanation of the U.S.’s’ position.

Glenn Morris (Shawnee), Peter d’Errico and I have published articles about the State Department’s 2010 position paper. Perhaps I missed the analysis, but I have yet to see one major Indian organization publish a detailed and deep-level analysis which interprets President Obama’s 2010 statement, as well as the State Department’s 2010 position paper on the UN Declaration. Nor have I seen from those organizations an analysis which compares the U.S.’s position in 2007 with the U.S.’s position in 2010. Such a comparison shows there is no appreciable difference between them.

Such interpretive work is critically important for providing an accurate and meaningful context within which to discuss the recently adopted UN high level meeting outcome document, which we are being told will be used as a basis for the U.S. to implement the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. When it comes right down to it, we need to remember that what the U.S. will be “implementing” will be its own self-serving interpretation of the UN Declaration, which is spelled out in its 2010 statement.

When we pay close attention to the December 16, 2010 State Department position paper, it becomes evident that the U.S.’s goal is to use the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to reinforce the existing and dominating U.S. federal Indian law system. Part of that reinforcement is accomplished by defining federally recognized “tribes” as political possessions of the United States, and by defining Indian people as “Americans,” just Native ones, or “the first Americans.”

A dominating U.S. reality which frames “Indian tribes as U.S. political possessions” is reinforced whenever originally free and stillrightfullyfree Indian nations are referred to as “U.S. tribes.” Such a reality of subjection is also reinforced when the United States uses the phrase “our Nation’s tribes.” Such a colonial use of language by the United States does not demonstrate a desire on the part of the U.S. to end its dominating attitude and behavior toward our original nations and peoples.

On December 2, 2011, a year after he had announced U.S. support for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, President Obama issued Executive Order 13592 on Indian education in which the White House’s colonial attitude toward Indian nations is demonstrated by a key phrase: “our Nation’s tribes.” The apostrophe on the word “Nation’s” is a grammatical indicator of possession. The uppercase ‘N’ on “Nation’s” and the lowercase ‘t’ on “tribes” clearly demonstrates the view that the Obama administration considers Indian nations to be “tribes” that “belong to” the United States in the manner of colonial possessions. “For centuries, the Federal Government’s relationship with these tribes has been guided by a trust responsibility…” Notice the capital “F” and “G” on Federal Government and lowercase “t” on “tribes?” That’s symbolic of the over/under, above/below, up/down dominating political structure of U.S. federal Indian law and policy.

What are we to make of these observations? Prior to its pronouncement of support for the UN Declaration, the United States was expressing the idea that federally recognized Indian “tribes” are possessions of the U.S. And ever since the U.S. government said it was supporting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it has continued to express the colonial idea that federally recognized Indian “tribes” are possessions of the United States.

Here’s the point: The colonial semantics of the U.S. has not changed in the least as a result of the U.S.’s announcement of support for the UN Declaration. And until the U.S.’s terminology shifts the reality that is constructed by that terminology cannot shift positively or improve.

The United States is using the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to justify maintaining its continued use of the conceptual foundation U.S. federal Indian law and policy in its current form. That system presumes that the United States is “the sovereign” in relation to “federally recognized Indian tribes,” a “sovereign” which claims the underlying ownership of all Indian lands, which the United States deems “federal lands.” Also, the United States government, especially the U.S. Supreme Court, presumes that the U.S. possesses a “plenary power” not just over “U.S.-Indian affairs,” but over Indian nations themselves.

The United States has not changed its federal Indian law and policy conceptual framework to coincide with its expression of “support” for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. If anything, the United States has put us all on notice that it fully intends to interpret the UN Declaration in terms of the existing colonial relationship between Indian nations and the United States. This is demonstrated by the repeated use of the adjective “tribal” on “nations.”

To frame Indian nations as “tribal nations” is a politically subordinating use of the English language against our nations. In U.S. rhetoric, the United States is deemed to be “the Nation” with “the national level,” whereas our nations are deemed to be subordinated “tribal nations” existing at a “sub” national level, meaning existing politically beneath the United States.

The UN high level plenary meeting outcome document, which is now a UN resolution, only adds an additional layer to the mix. That it does nothing to change the U.S.’s attitude or interpretive approach to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is shown by the content of the 2010 U.S. State Department’s document “supporting” the Declaration. That document falsely claims that the UN Declaration “calls” for a “new” form of self-determination for Indigenous peoples. Those Indian organizations and others who neglect to pay close attention to the United States’ semantics when it comes to the U.N. Declaration are not engaged in even the most basic task of discernment which is critically important in the context of the international arena.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is the co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He has been studying U.S. federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980.