A plan for Indian nations and democracy in the 21st century

ICT editorial team

Indian Country should have fair representation in Congress; that's the democratic promise

James Courage Singer

Anyone who has lived in Indian Country knows our problems are there due not to a lack of trying hard to eliminate them. We probably see, better than your average American, how systems are in place that prevent us from grasping wide prosperity. I look at this question at how we can live up to the promise of democracy in the American Project and simultaneously respect our tribal sovereignty. Because, let’s face it, tribal sovereignty is constantly being compromised and our systems of governance aren’t included in the American Project at an equitable level. My positions here serve as a jumping off point for dialogue and something I wish to explore further if I become the first Diné (Navajo) member of Congress in November.

Representation in the U.S. Congress

Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, DC, and the Northern Mariana Islands — they all have representation in Congress. Yes, they are non-voting members, but their representatives sit on committees and can propose legislation. While I would rather see Indian Country represented with voting seats in Congress, why can’t non-voting status be a crucial first step?

If we were to use population measures to secure these seats, at about 700,000 people per representative, we could have four to seven representatives in Congress depending on how tribes define their citizenship or enrollment. If it were more like how the above political entities are represented with one representative per entity, then we would have over a hundred more tribal representatives in Congress than all of the current members of the House of Representatives combined. Let that sink in about what was here before.

At last the original stewards of this land and their societies could work along side as equals in constructing laws and policies that directly affect them. That to me is the promise of democracy and realizing the potential of tribal sovereignty.

Committee on Indian Affairs

Let’s suppose we manage to get those Indigenous representatives in Congress. We’d want them to lead the Committee of Indian Affairs in the U.S. House, except that it doesn’t exist. It’s a subcommittee housed in the Committee of Natural Resources. I could go into why this is wrong on so many levels, but we’ll leave that for another article. Suffice it to say, we’d elevate this committee from its current subcommittee level.

Moving the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the Department of State

Currently, the BIA is housed within the Department of the Interior — a department which manages land, water, resources, and animals. I’m a human being and it’s wrong to group me and my people as just another thing to conserve or regulate along with the rest of wildlife. Instead, if we are to, at the very least, live up to the “domestic dependent nation” status, and at most, reclaim our inherent sovereignty independent from the European “Doctrine of Discovery” then the kind of relationship our indigenous nations should be engaged in would look more like what the U.S. has with other countries. How much better would our nations be if we conducted diplomacy between governments rather than as subordinates in a bureaucracy?

Revenue from Property Tax

We know the truth of the matter is that our homelands were taken from us by force and coercion, manipulation, and other tactics of deceit to create the country we live in today. We are a part of that history and narrative too. Treaties continue to be dishonored and yet we’re still here. While having all of our lands restored is a long stretch, it isn’t strange to take a page out of the capitalist playbook. Wherever property exists, there are taxes on that. I propose a small percentage of taxes already being levied be allocated to either a fund for Native nations to use generally or directly to the tribal nation whose lands were expropriated.

Moving Forward

What I’m suggesting here isn’t actually that radical. Instead, I would like us to think about the potential of the project of democracy, and if we, as indigenous peoples, can actually be equal actors in shaping our part in this narrative instead of being acted upon. Can America live up to the promise of democracy and include Native nations as equals? Can we turn the next page on “Indian Affairs” in the 21st century? I know our indigenous philosophies and ways of thinking and doing can solve some of the biggest social problems we’re facing today — not just for our own Native nations, but globally as well. We just need our voices at the table of power to prove it.

James Courage Singer is a Democratic candidate for Congress in Utah's 3rd Congressional District. He is the first Native American to run for federal office in Utah. He currently teaches sociology courses at Salt Lake Community College and at Westminster College. James is one of the co-founders of the Utah League of Native American Voters and the Utah Alliance for American Indian Education. He serves on the Board of Directors for the Rape Recovery Center and the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance. Find out more atjamessinger.org