The Price of Nationhood

A column by Steve Russell about American Indian nationhood.

When you are about one half of one percent of the population, how many people can you afford to leave behind by categorical self-definition?

One obvious answer is that within your self-definition, you are one hundred percent of the population. If that self-definition is all you want, there is no problem. If you want something from the larger world, there is.

As I pointed out in my first column on this subject, to be a “nation” is to be recognized as such in the community of nations, just as to be an Indian is to be recognized as such in an Indian community. This definition lives in what academics call “legal realism,” a definition derived from how the world in fact conducts itself.

Steve Newcomb replies with a definition of “nation” from what academics call “legal formalism,” a definition derived from documents treating the subject.

Neither is right or wrong. They are what they are and they are useful or not for particular tasks.

From the realist or formalist perspective, there are some entities with much stronger claims to nationhood than Indian governments—Taiwan, for example—whose nationhood is problematic. Others with arguably weaker claims, such as Monaco, get away with claiming nationhood because the major powers find it convenient.

The federally recognized tribes in the U.S. range from sophisticated governments antedating the U.S. to some California rancherias that are nothing more than extended families squabbling over casino cash. There are also peoples for whom both language and distinctive culture are a distant memory though no fault of their own. Genocide sometimes prevails.

Too many tribal governments lack any sense of nationhood because their own people do not buy in. The reason is corruption, sometimes real and sometimes perceived, but which it is does not matter. If your own people are not willing to risk everything from their property to their lives—exactly as the founders of the U.S. did—in defense of nationhood, then tribal government becomes like the proverbial car-chasing dog. If you catch the car, then what?

After signing the Declaration of Independence pledging “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” Ben Franklin famously stated: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Tecumseh could have said that. The difference is that the colonists listened to Franklin and Indian nations to this day can’t hear Tecumseh. Remember the inter-tribal backstabbing that came out in the Abramoff hearings?

Those of us who wish to challenge John Marshall’s infamous description, “domestic, dependent nations,” need to start with “dependent.” Were we not reduced to dependency on purpose? Absolutely. That happened to my people three times. We are still struggling to recover from the third, the Dawes Act.

Let’s say my people do recover economically. Our culture, modified to account for modernity, still lives in both Oklahoma and North Carolina. The Navajo Nation is not wealthy, but it could survive without U.S. support and Navajo culture is strong. The Six Nations were here before the US and they are still here.

Who else? There can be good faith disagreement about which Indian nations currently have the skills to survive in shark-infested international waters, but there can be no good faith disagreement that it’s a short list. How many are to be left behind?

One method of survival would be to become a client state of, say, Venezuela, or any country that has a political bone to pick with the U.S. Can you picture how that would work out even if the U.S. tolerated it? Dependence is dependence. On whom is beside the point.

Steve Newcomb is absolutely correct that there is power in language. The words we use frame how we think about ourselves and how others think about us. That’s why it’s “citizenship” rather than “membership.” The primary goal of modern Indian fighters is to reduce us to race-based social clubs, less significant or autonomous than corporations or labor unions, and then to destroy us by appeal to racial neutrality, also known as white people’s rights.

Aren’t “citizens” connected to “nations” as members are to clubs? That would be why I envy the Canadian term “First Nations” and wonder how it came to be that Indians maintaining relations with Canada acquired that term to the exclusion of Indians who maintain relations with the U.S. or Mexico?

“First” is a much more useful modifier than “domestic, dependent.”

“Nation,” unmodified and deployed industrial strength in our continuing battles with the colonial governments over self-determination, is a two-edged sword. Nationhood means responsibility and peril. Nations failing their responsibilities cease to exist. Constitutional crises, a periodic source of embarrassment in Indian country, would potentially be fatal. If all the federally recognized tribes had independent nationhood thrust upon them tomorrow, most would fail. Some would not. The question remains: how many are we willing to leave behind?

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.