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The U.S. as an Immature State

Recently, the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, visited Egypt. As part of her visit, a number of Egyptian youth were encouraged to submit written questions to Clinton for her consideration. Nearly 6,000 were sent in by inquisitive Egyptian youth. Many of the questions were quite astute, but one in particular caught my attention. The question pitched was “Why do you [Secretary Clinton] insist on talking about our interior business? You are the baby country.”

That youngster’s sharp comment coincided with thoughts I’ve been having on the recent Geronimo/Bin Laden paring. The tsunami of newspaper columns and editorials across Indian country—though practically nowhere else—complaining about the U.S. equating of the great Apache leader, Geronimo, with the notorious fugitive, Osama Bin Laden, has given me pause to ponder and reflect. For as a native, I, too, felt an initial surge of deep irritation and frustration at the U.S. military’s poor choice of terminology.

But as I’ve given this more thought I realize now that I should not have been surprised, given the checkered history of interracial and intercultural relations between Native nations, who have lived on this continent for untold millennia, and those who arrived only a few hundred years ago and who have yet to develop a clear and consistent cultural identity as “Americans,” and have not yet been able to forge a fair and humane relationship with the resident indigenous peoples or the lands, waters, and flora and fauna we are all dependent upon.

Why do we as aboriginal nations with such a lengthy and far more mature tenure on these lands insist on expecting that our much more immature non-native neighbors and their policymakers at the local, state, and national levels understand and appreciate the manner in which we remember our important historical figures?

Is it because we see occasional, if brief, glimpses of qualities in the American character that we admire–an intense passion for the moment; a knack for technological inventiveness; a strong belief in personal liberty; and a periodic recognition that justice, fairness, and perseverance matter?

Or is it because we remember the sincere entreaties of some of our ancestors who insisted that we show patience to our non-native junior treaty partners by helping them get situated in our homelands as acts of generosity and humanity, while at the same time taking it upon ourselves to teach them about the land, liberty, and freedom because they, too, were human beings?

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It may well be a combination of these and other factors that have led us, the original nations, to be so deliberative and patient in our dealings with those who arrived so late on our shores, despite the schizophrenic legal, treaty, and policy record that the states and the federal government have inconsistently followed in their dealings with our nations from the very beginning.

Given our long tenure in the Americas, aptly described as having been “since time immemorial,” and the immaturity, inconsistency, and occasional petulance of the U.S. as a diversified set of political, legal, and cultural institutions, practices, and personalities, why are we shocked when the federal government, President Obama, and the U.S. military engages in activities or word choices that strike us as stupid, disrespectful, and juvenile?

After all, immature states, like immature individuals often engage in such behavior either because they know no better or simply don’t care how their actions will be received. We must, of course, remind them when they do such things and we have the right to insist that they, as the junior partner, take responsibility for their actions.

But this continuing pattern of schizophrenic federal policy and military activity testifies to the ever tenuous nature of indigenous status in the U.S. Strangely, we are the senior sovereigns by thousands of years, and the U.S. is, indeed, but a “baby country.” Yet, for reasons that largely elude me we continue to look to the federal government for advice, support, recognition, and direction when the evidence screams that the U.S. is an immature polity. As such, neither the federal government nor the states should be models that we unquestionably turn to as guides for our own national development.

Rather, we must trust in our own value systems, organic connections to the lands, and the dignity, character, and personal sovereignty we draw from our ancestors (like Geronimo) to remind the American people and their institutions of governance that as the more mature sovereigns we are still willing and able to guide and teach them even when they behave—impetuously as junior partners are sometimes prone to act.

Professor David E. Wilkins holds the McKnight Presidential Professorship in American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota. His recent book publications include American Indian Politics and the American Political System, 3rd ed (co-authored with Heidi Stark) (2010), Documents of Native American Political Development: 1500s-1933 (2009), and On the Drafting of Tribal Constitutions (by Felix Cohen) (2006).