Better than this? That's not U.S. history
Four years ago I was invited to a meeting with a variety of tribal and community leaders to talk about the election of Donald Trump and what it meant. I was told to be bold, push the thinking to a new place. So my talk focused on how tribal nations should prepare for the end of the United States. My basic premise is that our governments pre-date the United States and will be here after the United States.
Of course the past four years have erased so many boundaries that people considered normal. Even now you hear folks saying that the events of the past week are unique to American history. This is not us.
That very thought might capture one of the greatest divisions remaining in the United States. Is this story about who we as a nation are? Are we (or were we at any point) the Great City on a Hill, America as the Garden of Eden?
Or is the story a finishing narrative, a story that says America could be great, if only … if only we built, we fix, we buy, we do things.
There has always been competition between these two master stories in America.
Thomas Jefferson is the ideal representative of this contradiction. His vision was a country that was a “garden of boundless fertility” and a Republic that was free. In his rough draft of the Declaration of Independence he wrote: “WE hold these Truths to be self-evident: that all Men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inherent and* [certain] inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness …”
Then a few paragraphs later, complaining about British rule, Jefferson writes that the king “has [excited domestic insurection among us, & has] endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, & conditions of existence.”
This was the Jefferson who would dig up Indigenous human remains in the name of science. The Jefferson who owned and raped human beings. The Jefferson who had a contempt for the world he did not understand.
Jefferson was at the center of the first “democratic” crisis in American history. The election of 1800 was essentially a tie, and Jefferson had the votes in the House of Representatives. Insurgents occupied the War Department and the Treasury Department and set fires hoping to disrupt the new administration.
That election was the end of the Federalist movement. One leader, Alexander Hamilton, called another leader, President John Adams, unworthy of office. He blamed Adams for a failed term, “traced to the ungovernable temper of Mr. Adams.” He called him unfit for the “station of Chief Magistrate.”
Jefferson was also the architect of one of the most brutal stories in American history, the Indian removal. Long before Andrew Jackson, Jefferson wrote in 1776 that the only resolution between settlers and the Cherokee Nation was genocide. “Nothing will reduce those wretches so soon as pushing war into the heart of the country. But I would not stop there,” he wrote. “I would never cease pursuing them while one of them remained on this side of the Mississippi.”
Indeed, as president, his official policy was the “preservation of peace” and “obtaining lands.” (After all: He did grow up in a real estate family.)
The mechanics of removal would continue long after Jefferson. Andrew Jackson took those words literally resulting in the tragedy of the long walk.
Wilson Lumpkin was elected to Congress in 1827 from Georgia. He won a seat on the House Indian Affairs Committee where he introduced a removal resolution. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation had already been removed and he figured getting the Cherokees out of Georgia would have been an easy sell, except, he complained, for those “Northern fanatics, male and female,” who petitioned and blocked Congress.
Just two years later, Lumpkin made that case again, and won narrowly. His pitch: If Congress does not do this, Georgia will, legally or not, knowing that Jackson would make it so.
Lumpkin proclaimed he was “laboring in the cause of humanity, and to promote the best interest of the Indian, as well as the white race.”
But that so-called “best interest” included two awful notions. First, that Cherokee government should be abolished. And that violence was a tool of that public policy, often through a special state militia, the Georgia Guard.
The social media at the time was anonymous newspaper columns and editorials that ignored the significant economic progress of the Cherokee Nation. The philosophy of tyranny was an accepted political norm.
That idea still surfaces in our public discourse.
It’s the same argument that was heard in South Dakota when Gov. Kristi Noem dismissed the governmental actions by the Cheyenne River and other tribal nations to protect their citizens from the spread of the infectious coronavirus.
The Republican governor appealed to the Trump administration for federal intervention. She told KELO TV: “We can’t just look at this situation in a virus, in a pandemic. If we allow checkpoints to shut down traffic in this situation then we are setting precedent for that to happen far into the future in many other situations as well.”
This is relevant because the same forces that invaded the Capitol are those that refuse to accept other states’ certification of the election. There will be more debate at the state level about what the next steps should be, more division.
Jacqueline Keeler is the author of an upcoming book, “Standoff, Standing Rock, the Bundy Movement, and the American Story of Occupation, Sovereignty, and the Fight for Sacred Lands.” She said on the Indian Country Today newscast last week that the Bundy family and local law enforcement represents a colonial worldview that the land, the vote is limited to a few.
“I have to be honest that I was expecting this this month,” she said. “Maybe not this soon to this extent, but I was expecting something like this having studied these groups for four years now. “
There is a long list of violent usurpers when it comes to ideas about Native leadership and participation in the American experiment. The Georgians. The Tennesseans The Montanans Against Discrimination (like people’s republic, the goal of the group was not ending discrimination) and many other forms that we would now call domestic terrorism.
But all of these groups could not abide by the rule of law, the idea that treaties said what they meant and that the Constitution gave them extraordinary leverage as the “supreme law of the land.”
The question: What happens now, what’s the next chapter in this story?
The answer is bigger than Donald Trump. A week ago, his son, Donald Trump Jr., said there is a Republican Party and a Trump Party. If that’s so, a divided Republican coalition, like the Federalists from another age, might open a window for extraordinary progress in the Congress, especially when it comes to supporting treaties and the tribal nations. (Not to mention climate change mitigation.)
The administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris is far more likely to side with the right of tribal governments to protect their citizens. More than that: It’s likely that legislation going forward will be far more inclusive. Watch for the phrase, “and tribes,” to follow regulation or laws that apply to state governments. This will certainly be a part of the next coronavirus relief legislation, for example.
How far will that go? One of the tests about treaty rights will come in the new Congress. Will the Democrats seat a Cherokee Nation delegate? What about other tribal delegates to Congress? The treaty right is clear. Some tribes have direct language reserving the right for a delegate in Congress. This would be a way for the United States to make representation real. An acknowledgment, finally, that the words in the Constitution that treaties are the “supreme law of the land” means what it says. (And let’s be clear: The treaty language is only the start because the premise of nation-to-nation ought to qualify more tribes for delegate representation in the Congress; the same as U.S. territories now.)
The rule of law. The word of the United States. These are good things, right?
There is so much more that could be done. The Biden administration has the opportunity to appoint more Native voices in government beyond Interior Secretary-designate Deb Haaland. What about deputy secretaries, assistant secretaries, and most important of all, federal judges? There are 4,000 jobs to be appointed by a new president. Not counting judges.
All of this goes back to the story we tell.
As long as the story remains “we are better than this” or that the United States is some romantic City on the Hill, then we will skip the institutional work required to move us forward. The finishing narrative was mostly about expansion and infrastructure. Perhaps this time around a finishing narrative could include being a more representative country, starting with the Indigenous people and nations.
Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor of Indian Country Today. On Twitter: @TrahantReports Trahant is based in Phoenix.
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