Regular readers know that I write as much about colonial politics as I write about tribal politics. I believe that political science really is a science but to apply principles of human behavior across cultures, you have to make allowances for differing values and goals. Mistakes the colonists make are perils we should try to avoid, but we seldom do partially because we exaggerate our differentness.
Besides the general applicability of political science across cultures, Indians should care about the colonial governments of Canada, the U.S., and other settler states because the colonial governments run our foreign policy. The idea that Indian nations could, never mind should, run their own foreign policies is laughable, and having that laugh is no threat to the principles of sovereignty that carry the most import for the average Indian.
No matter what those of us in the chattering class say, Indians have proven time and time again that they will take up arms in the service of the colonial governments that exist in the fantasy that they are our guardian angels. We have to care about stupid and unwinnable wars because our kids will fight them.
In addition to foreign policy, we have to worry about where we fit in the governmental scheme of the nation-states we inhabit by accident of geography. The colonial governments believe where we fit is up to them. I say it depends on how much power we cede to them by our action or inaction.
In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, Chief Justice John Marshall made up a rule that Indian nations are not “foreign nations” within the meaning of the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court set out in Article III, § 2 of the Constitution.
Any sovereignty robust enough for making a treaty with the United States and different enough to need a treaty probably fits Article III original jurisdiction like a glove. Another reason to think the Founders might have had this in mind is that disputes between an Indian nation and a state are headed for the SCOTUS anyway, except when, as now, the Indians are convinced they will not get a fair hearing and so avoid the SCOTUS as kangaroo habitat.
Access to law is important, but it’s not the primary tool for changing the social arrangements that created the law. Neither is deadly force, since the governments we must oppose at times possess the means to use deadly force far beyond our own military capability, now or historically.
Talleyrand allegedly told Napoleon, “You can do anything with bayonets, Sire, except sit on them.” A government based on nothing but force can last for a long time, but it’s brittle. If stressed in a major way, it shatters.
If we wish to be free—a status with as much peril as opportunity---our job is to stress the government, and for many of us that starts with our tribal government functioning as an arm of the colonial government.
How do we stress governments in a productive way?
For starters, not by ourselves. It’s an organizing task, and a daunting one.
I get lectured all the time by more-tradish-than-thou folks that my white genes must be what makes me such an individualist. A real Indian cares for his family, his clan, and his tribe before himself.
No doubt this was the case. But look around at the rezes where unemployment exceeds 50 percent and you see social capital as lacking as monetary capital. To rebuild social capital is an organizing task, and a daunting one.
On-rez activism is the only place where Indians are not forced to play coalition politics with non-Indians. On the theoretical level, the rez is a community. Not just defined by ethnicity, but also by values.
Think about whether that theoretical statement has any truth-value. If it did, organizing that community would be so much joyful logrolling. The reality, I think, is radically different.
If you are part of the community, if that’s your home, you know where the fissures are. Those that can be healed need to be. Those that can’t require that people come to some modus vivendi that allows folks on both sides to work together for common goals. This is not a task for an outsider but it is an organizing task, and a daunting one.
If there is no social fragmentation to account for, or you have accounted for it, then it’s time to talk strategy and tactics. I’m agnostic on strategy because that has to do with end goals. Because I’ve chosen to become an outsider—as my folks call it in tribal politics, an outlander—I’m not in a position to tell people what they should want.
There came a time when I acquired enough sense of who I am to understand I can productively practice politics, and that practice led to my first career after some high adventure in the mainstream Civil Rights Movement.
Before I quit stressing the government and contrived to become part of it, the American Indian Movement had as much daylight under its wheels as it would ever get. I felt around the edges of AIM and quickly backed off. It’s fair to ask why, having acquired a political skill set, I was willing to take the risks I took for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the United Farm Workers but not for AIM.
That explanation is easy. SNCC and UFW knew what they wanted and were willing to suffer for it. AIM did not know what it wanted but was willing to make others suffer for it.
I saw then and see now an obsession with sovereignty in two respects, neither of which interests me.
First, there’s sovereignty as a cloak for misconduct, primarily theft. Even among thieves, there is nothing lower than stealing from people who have next to nothing, but that is why some tribal governments only turn over in response to federal indictments.
Second, there’s sovereignty in the sense of the Westphalian nation-state, a bureaucratic representation of the person of the monarch, a pursuit of the fantasy that a people who cannot feed and educate their young people properly are going to join the United Nations and open embassies in 193 capitols to represent policies tailored to every one of them and consistent with our vision.
Vision, what vision? There’s the rub.
African-Americans were also tribal peoples but they were thoroughly and forcibly stripped of their tribal identity and then shoehorned into a new identity as “Negroes” when they were treated badly based on color.
We still have our tribal identities in the superficial sense that allows us to assert differentness not just from white and black people but also—and too often principally---from other Indians. This is death to organizing when, outside the rez, coalition politics are the only kind of politics you can have.
Tribal identity requires us to organize our own tribal governments before we can worry too much about state and federal governments. As to those yonega governments, we exist in a perpetual defensive crouch, because the only time we can act as Indians is when they attack us as Indians but as Indians we have no positive vision beyond grasping for power.
Even if the tribal government is nothing more than an IRA-inspired board of directors, it has the task of presenting to the states and the feds. Sovereignty in a realistic sense remains with the people to decide what shall be presented.
Until we, as peoples, are prepared to exercise that sovereignty, it’s hard to see how we can tug at Uncle Sam’s coattails hard enough to get attention in the policy sense rather than the law enforcement sense.
Rez communities are small enough to make the mechanics of organizing easy. The methods are easily acquired (e.g., Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals; Abe Fortas, Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience; Mohandas Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments With Truth) and the praxis of treating tribal potentates as the proverbial jackass that must be smacked with a two by four to get its attention is not all that hard.
What is hard is uniting around what people want badly enough to suffer for it. As to SNCC and the UFW, the vision was simple. Equality before the law, which was thought by friend and foe alike to be a gateway to social equality.
With formal equality won, the Civil Rights Movement splintered and dissolved back into regional, religious, and personality-centered interest groups. This is why wielding the power that came from access to the law has been such a challenge.
The corporate minions who control yonega governments know exactly what they want and why they want it. Greed is dog-ass simple. Our people do not know what they want or why they want it, let alone how to state it in the simple terms—the slogans—that inspire mass action.
Uniting behind one banner is impossible until we know what is written on the banner. Determining that is an organizing task, and a daunting one.
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.