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The Indigenous Canary in the Coal Mine

Are indigenous relations a sign of the health of the U.S.? Does the miner’s canary work the same for Indigenous Peoples?

Are indigenous relations a sign of the health of the U.S. or nation state political well-being? Does the miner’s canary work the same for Indigenous Peoples? Felix Cohen many years ago in his classic Handbook on Federal Indian Law made the remark that Indian policy was a marker for the general health of democracy in the United States. He used the miner’s canary analogy. Miners bring canaries in cages with them into a mine as a measure of breathable air. Canaries are small and have high metabolism rates. If the air in the mine turns bad due to poison or scarcity of good air, then the canary will die before a human.

The miner’s canary argument is generalized to political health. If minorities or ethnic groups are suffering from extreme forms of discrimination and their civil rights are openly violated, then the increasing lack of freedom and rights are a threat for the whole political community. The lack of free exercise of rights for a minority group is a marker that the democracy, civil rights, and human rights may be in jeopardy for all citizens of a nation. For example, when the citizen and human rights of Jewish communities in Europe during the 1930s were threatened, the rights of other groups were soon in jeopardy as well. Jews were the miner’s canary of Europe and their civil and human rights were a measure of the nation state’s protection of human rights for all citizens. The Nazi regime of the 1930s and 1940s in Europe not only took the human rights of Jews, but eventually took the human and civil rights of the German people, as well as many other nations.

Are Indigenous Peoples an indication of the well being of the human rights and civil rights of citizens within nation states? Since human rights and indigenous rights are not the same, the treatment of Indigenous Peoples may only be a partial measure for a nation state’s political health.

Some years ago I was asked by the Carter Center to monitor an election in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. The Carter Center often monitored elections around the world, to observe and support honest election procedures. There was an issue within the Cherokee Nation about whether Freedmen, non-intermarried, descendants of former black slaves, were going to be allowed to vote. The Carter Center saw election as a civil rights action; an exercise of freedom and the right to vote. This was well and good, and supportive of American values for electoral democracy. U.S. agencies insisted that Freedmen participate in the vote, otherwise the U.S. government would withdraw significant federal funding. The Carter Center worked to ensure that the vote was open to all Cherokee citizens and that Freedmen were not denied the right to vote.

There was a great amount of national press attention about the right to vote, but very little attention about the Cherokee Nation, as an indigenous nation, exercising its right to self-government. The election was a testament to exercise indigenous rights, which were not well understood, and never addressed in newspapers, while civil rights were emphasized. When there was a conflict between civil rights, or human rights in opposition to indigenous rights, indigenous rights took second place.

There are many examples beyond the Cherokee elections, and when conflicts arise, American law and interests tend to predominate over indigenous rights and cultures. Consequently, Indigenous Peoples function as a miner’s canary if the issues in question are the rights and freedoms of nation states, but not necessarily if they are about indigenous self-government, territory, or culture. Indigenous Peoples may serve as a minor’s canary for protection of national rights, but the miner’s canary will not serve Indigenous Peoples in protecting their own rights.