Some Random Thoughts

Steven Newcomb

Someone commented to me recently that she thought the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was fundamentally a document that allowed “nation-states” to identify and control indigenous peoples.

Here’s how I responded:

You are referring to the very process of human thought and categorization. “Nation-states” is a political category of the Western European mind and political tradition. Since Christian Europeans invaded Turtle Island (North America) with their language (their concepts and categories) they have been involved in the mental process of attempting to control our nations by categorizing (defining) us in terms that were familiar to them. They made certain their categories guaranteed their fabricated superiority. As Indian nations, our survival requires us to challenge this entire tradition of thought.

The ideas law professor Antony Anghie expresses in his 2005 book Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law allow one to see that the Declaration is the latest manifestation of that long tradition of imperial/superior thought processes. “The State” is the category that automatically positions an invader society on an upper-level psychologically and politically, while positioning Indian nations on a lower-level cognitively and politically.

Although I share some concerns about the term peoples, the U.S. government rejects the application of that category to American Indian nations because, pursuant to the human rights covenants, the right of distinct “peoples” to political “self-determination” has always meant the option of full political liberty.

Peoples can be effective in the right context. When I was in Australia a year ago, I was listening to an astute aboriginal leader give an interview. At one point he said, “context is king.” Because I’m not into monarchy, I prefer to rephrase his comment to “context is key.” The context in which terms such as nations and peoples are being used is always critically important.

Here’s an example of how context works. One time I was in a conversation with a Kumeyaay man here in the San Diego area. He excused himself to accept a call on his cell phone. Not far into the conversation he asked the caller, “What’s the body look like?” There was no way for me to make sense of how the word body was being used without knowing the context. It could be a car body, a truck body, a dead body, the body of a woman’s hair, a body of literature. It is only when you know the context that you can grasp the meaning of the word (category).

Very few words in English accurately communicate Indian issues with the non-Indian world; nations and peoples are just two such words, which, in the right context can communicate a lot. We have the right, the responsibility and the power to control that context from our own indigenous standpoint.

The word nation, which is commonly demanded by indigenous rights activists, can be problematic, but there are not many other words in the realm of politics to choose from. And as Chief Justice John Marshall stated in Worcester v. Georgia (1832): “The words treaty and nation are words of our own language, selected in our diplomatic and legislative proceedings by ourselves, having each a definite and well-understood meaning. We have applied them to Indians as we have applied them to the other nations of the earth. They are applied to all in the same sense.”

There is also the issue of context to consider with regard to human rights in the Declaration. When it comes down to it, in a contest between Indian and non-Indian interests, the role of non-Indian judges and other U.S. government officials is to protect the “national interests” of the United States. To take our issues into their legal arena usually ends up allowing their non-Indian cultural and political context and norms to be the basis of the way our issues are decided.

This dimension of non-Indian law (which far too many Indian people wrongfully call “Indian law”) is a major reason why the non-Indian society and culture remains in a seemingly permanent position of dominance in relation to American Indian nations. The question remains, will the U.N. Declaration enable us to overcome or rectify the injustices of the non-Indian legal and political system relative to Indian nations?

The English language we now use has its own set of constraints that make our efforts all the more difficult. English is not our language. It is not a language designed to do what it is we are trying to do with it: construct a reality in which we are free and self-determining Indian nations.

When it comes to the U.N. Declaration and other issues we face, we need to recognize and work to overcome the colonization of our minds, we need to reaffirm traditional indigenous cultural and political models, while being critical of and challenging the foundational concepts of a federal Indian law system rooted in colonialism.

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is the co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, and a columnist for This Week From Indian Country Today.

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wahsontiio's picture
Very valuable advice from michaelmack for all to, not just consider but to reflect on their understanding of where your nation stands within the ruler society and individually (this may hurt)decide how Indian you really are? I'm not racist in any sense of the word but really think about what shredded the very fabric of our traditional nationhood and lifestyles - Western religion, education, government, economics, societal norms. YES, all the eurocentric institutions brought to our people by the "newcomers". Wake up and ask yourself - What nation was I born into? What was ordained by my creator as my ways of being? I was given a form of prayer and thanksgiving usually in the form of our traditional ceremonies and speeches, land was lent to me during my time on earth to live off of, we had an education system that instilled reverence for living in balance with the natural world for a reason. Yes, we knew that otherwise it would result in hardship. Our ancestors lead us through a prosperous history utilizing our ideologies, values and morals. Michaelmack didn't use the term "token indianism" but that's what he means. I have said this time and again to family members and friends - we don't even realize how colonized we are. Living traditional isn't turning the clock back 500 yrs in every sense. A translation of our historical epistemology needs to happen to bring traditional thinking forward into our current lives and to help our children develop a natural sense of obligation to carry it on. Obligation to the survival of future generations is how our past and present traditional leaders have brought us to today. We need to be grateful for those who devoted their lives to the fulfillment their obligations to their people. This has been happening since time immemorial and after contact otherwise we would definitely be museum material. Test yourself - would you educate your children, with the fullest faith and trust, primarily in their native language and culture? Why or why not? We need to return to being truly Indian as we were intended but in today's definition. It will help our emotions, spirit, mental health, physical health, and the environment. Sorry doctors, counsellors, therapists, churches, gym franchises, and environmental experts but our original ways is what we need to cure our social ills and our example of environmentalism will save this world from destruction.
dhowe52's picture
I agree that we need to break out of that type of thinking in regards to "Indian Law" but as a people we are so divided. What concerns me is how can a people challenge and be critical of a legal system that will only view them as activists and/or trouble makers if they speak out. How can the people rise up collectively when they have no leaders that speaks for them all? So many tribes, so many languages and each seem to have their own issues and/or concerns, a very diverse group of people. How can something international like the U.N. effect something interior like Indian policy in the U.S.? I just dont see this relationship changing anytime soon. Maybe when all the land is taken and all the natural resources are used up, then it will change.
michaelmack's picture
Thought provoking article, Steven, and great comment dhowe52. The issue is how to overcome the colonization, reaffirm traditions, and challenge the modern by-products of colonialism, i.e. federal Indian Law and American education. First, Indian country needs to get an Indian perspective education on what these concepts are in the first place and how they apply to our lives today. We have to do this ourselves - the Federal government and corporate world have no incentive to change, the status quo of uneducated Indians works just fine for them... The huge problem for Indian Country is that we live in a murky gray area politically, psychologically, and culturally, where we don't fit neatly into the boxes created for us by outsiders, AND because most of us aren't educated about the core concepts of colonialism - past and present - the vast majority of us remain clueless. Education about this history and how it impacts us today needs to be THE PRIORITY of every tribal government, every American Indian educational enterprise. We don't need to teach our kids to make tee-pees and dream catchers for Thanksgiving day, we need to teach them the history behind such stereotypes applied to us, to teach them and parents to question history textbooks, and to provide them with factual information to refute the textbooks with facts. The way history has played out to this point, the burden is on us. A HUGE effort for certain, but unless Indian Country INVESTS in TRULY educating our people, it's unrealistic to expect anything to change.
hawaiianembassy's picture
Aloha Steve, As a representative of Hawaiian nationals to the UNPFII It does seem that we can not enter the dialogue with the western powers without being subsumed into definitions that works at cross purposes to our needs. The original language proposed for the Declaration [DRIP] may have been somewhat more effective, but it has long fallen by the wayside. The Hawaiian Kingdom has decided not to sign the DRIP for we can not participate in a instrument that would allow alienation of our indigenous subjects land. Many of the original nations have boycotted this UN process. The question is does that abdicate the assignment of rights to others [seemingly academics]to determine. The DRIP does appear to now be crafted to bolster hegemony and may be way Australia and the US have now signed it. It does appear in its early test with Rapa Nui that is has failed to create remedy and more over give standing to the Chilean government where there was none. I suggest that people consider returning to the UNPFII to reject its real purpose of placating the owners of the land use rights of most of the world and end the illusion! Aloha Kakou Kai Landow Aupuni Hawaii