On Indian Nationhood: Steven Newcomb Responds to Steve Russell's March 20 Column

Steven T. Newcomb

After reading Steve Russell’s March 20 column “Citizenship and Nations,” I have to wonder why he would publicly challenge one of the strongest words we have in the English language to express the political existence of Indian nations and peoples. I am referring specifically to the word “nation.”

As Mr. Russell stated in his column: “Nation or tribe is another semantic issue that conceals as much politics as citizenship. I dislike nation because we don’t have all the attributes of a nation and most of us are ill-equipped to take on nationhood…The problem is we are not states.”

Well, what are the attributes of nationhood? There are five: A population, a territory, a culture, and language, and a decision-making body or government. So which of these do American Indian nations not have? Vine Deloria, Jr. made this very point in his 1974 book Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence.

I do believe the Cherokee Nation does use that term in its official title. Since Mr. Russell dislikes “nation” does he dislike the title of his own nation? Also, he says, “The problem is we are not states.” Yet in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia the Court said: “So much of the argument as was intended to prove the character of the Cherokee Nation as a state…has, in the opinion of a majority of the judges, been completely successful.”

Mr. Russell, a Cherokee, needs to brush up on the 1832 Worcester v. Georgia decision regarding the Cherokee Nation. Undoubtedly the language of Worcester is the strongest pro-Indian nationhood language to be found in any U.S. Supreme Court decision. I just went back over it and found that Chief Justice Marshall used the term “tribes” only once in his majority opinion. He used the words nation or nations throughout. The Court even spoke of the Cherokee Nation’s “national character.” Worcester is all about Indian nations, and particularly Mr. Russell’s own nation, the Cherokee Nation.

In one of the most powerful passages from Worcester, Marshall explained why the words “treaty” and “nation” had been applied by the U.S. to its political and diplomatic relations with Indian nations. In the quote below, notice how the chief justice said that the United States had applied those words to Indian nations “as we have applied them to the other nations of the earth.”

The very term "nation," so generally applied to them, means "a people distinct from others." The Constitution, by declaring treaties already made, as well as those to be made, to be the supreme law of the land, has adopted and sanctioned the previous treaties with the Indian nations, and consequently admits their rank among the powers who are capable of making treaties. 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.

In contradiction to such powerful language, with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek, I can imagine a sarcastic suggestion based on Mr. Russell’s dislike for the word "nation": Let's publicly disavow the most politically powerful word that the Supreme Court has ascribed to Indian nations and cast it aside. After all, it is better to consciously disempower ourselves as a ‘sensible’ political strategy because it is always best to take on less rather than more powerful terms of political identity. Such a suggestion, however, is obviously as nonsensical as a ‘dislike’ for the word ‘nation’ in the context of Indian nationhood.

The Treaty of Hopewell was made between the United States and the Cherokee Nation after the Revolutionary War. It contained language referring to the United States “managing all their affairs.” “To construe the expression ‘managing all their affairs’ into a surrender of self-government,” wrote Marshall, “would be, we think, a perversion of their necessary meaning, and a departure from the construction which has been uniformly put to on them.”

Marshall pointed out that misinterpreting that passage, which only had to do with Indian trade, “would convert a treaty of peace covertly into an act, annihilating the political existence of one of the parties. Had such a result been intended, it would have been openly avowed.”

In the above quote, the key phrase is “political existence.” It is the political existence of every Indian nation, no matter how small, that is best supported by the word “nation.” We have an original existence free and independent of any illegitimate claims of domination that would attempt to annihilate the rightful political existence of our originally free nations and peoples.

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is 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 Indian Country Today Media Network.

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jennings5089's picture
While some anthropologists use the word "tribe" to signify one stage of cultural development in human evolution, the etymological origins must be understood. Historically, the term "tribe" to Roman colonial expansion, was referred to as "tribus" meaning a conquered people away from the centers of "civilization" at the peripheries of the empire. Prior to the rise of colonialism, many of today’s "tribes" were "nations" or "kingdoms" with whom the Europeans and Americans negotiated on a state to state basis only after these people were subjugated was "tribe" applied to them". It makes sense that the modern day Pequot, Cherokee or other indigenous groups call themselves a "nation" as reclamation of their original status. With the concomitant rise in racist ideology, "tribal" people came to be stereotyped as "inferior, backward, heathen and uncivilized" from the loftiness of the European and colonial perspectives".
swrussel's picture
The public is in no position to know this, but both columns are the result of a long discussion about the issues among Steve Newcomb and myself and a number of others. I'm pretty satisfied with the public exchange the way it is even if puzzled by a couple of ad hominem remarks. You will note that I use the terms "nation" and "citizenship" in spite of my discomfort, because they just work better in the context than the other options, and "citizenship" seems to me always appropriate except when discussing "Indian" as ethnicity, as in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And I concede Steve's point about the power of language, even though "nation" in this context yields to the analogy I used. There is more to the discussion that I hope becomes public, much of it not contained in my remarks or Steve's. We both labor under space limitations. Note that I do not advocate for "tribe," but I do use it, like "nation," when it fits. I can offer no appellation that fits all Indian nations/federally recognized tribes in all circumstances.
maunka's picture
Hinikaragiwi, Good discussion here and good points Jennings5089. Now, if only we can strip our pyschological identity of the word, "Indian." To take on master's identity for us is truly a colonized mind. My relations call ourselves Ho-Chunk, at least those that do not use the misnomer (another of master's names for us) Winnebago, but even more relevant is our term for human being or two-legged, "Wank-Shik." I like the term "Wank-Shik" because it tells the story that we have always had a sacred word to describe our relationship in the universe, which to me means we have an equal right to be here, not a superior right. "Wank-Shik" expresses the ideal that we are part of the creation. The term "Indian" is used among our people today like the "N" word is used among the Sep-ga or Black Man, as used in our Ho-Chunk language. This is a clear expression of the failure of education system, in my mind. I remember asking an old professor why higher learning institutions use the term "Indian" in there classes knowing it is a misnomer, which in my mind should devalue the education being offered at that institution and who knows question their accreditation. The professor's response to me was, "but do you know what it would cost to change the word, "Indian" in all these documents?" -- so says the oppressor or master. It costs to much to refer to me as a Wank-Shik or Ho-Chunk.
ndnlady's picture
Argue for your limitations and they are yours. Thank you, Mr. Newcomb. As usual, you nailed it.
duwaynesmith's picture
Whew! Hope you guys get this one settled. I'm never sure which word is either inappropriate or just a caricature - or maybe both. I remember talking with a fellow, a Brit, who thought if everyone just used the words "Native American" instead of "American Indian", then all the problems of Native peoples would be solved. I can even remember when the word, "Native" was odd and inappropriate, and you would never refer to Indian people as "native". Language itself is frequently the problem. Know what I mean?
pechangami's picture
Why so sensitive to Mr. Russell's commentary? Why not trust readers to discern for themselves what is relevant? Mr. Russell's commentary is thought provoking and intelligent. Stop trying to quiet Mr. Russell's voice. Just the fact you both write for Indian Country Today Media Network indicates to me that is oversight as to what is allowed to be expressed.
pechangami's picture
Correction. 'indicates to me that there is oversight as to what is allowed to be expressed.'
swrussel's picture
Maunka, I regret that the Canadians seem to have exclusive possession of "First Nations," and I'm not too sure why that possession should be exclusive. Everyone I know who has addressed the issue prefers a tribal ID to a "racial" one, but the fact remains it's sometimes necessary to refer to ourselves collectively. One year at Indiana University, we sent an email to every incoming freshman who had checked the "Native American" box on enrollment. It was a disaster, as it seemed to have touched the most aggressively white of white people, who were really insulted at being mistaken for Indians. There were replies about how many generations back they go. Sigh. I know "First Nations" is an equivocal use of "nation," but, as Steve Newcomb says, there's power in words, in this case the power to call attention to the treaties. I've been called an Indian all my life, so it's hard to get worked up about it after all these years, but I hear what you are saying. It just seems like the Canadians have possession of the only viable alternative.
editors's picture
We published an early draft of the story in error, and we have since replaced it. Our apologies to Newcomb and Russell.
softbreeze's picture
One part of the original article that got me to thinking a lot was something like, "if you're not part of a state or federally recognized tribe, you're not really a legitimate native american." I think this statement is an important example of how one's beliefs and ideas really form their sense of the world and their sense of reality. How can we, as native nations, become free and independent, if we don't even believe we are native nations without the stamp of approval from another nation? It's a lot like what people who are freed from slavery go through. Freedom is a two-part process. You remove the chains from their bodies, but the bigger challenge is removing the chains from their minds. In terms of being nations, I think we must think of ourselves that way, and call ourselves nations, in order to continue being nations. But, in reality, as long as we are treated with paternalism by another nation state, who we are unable to resist, then on some level, calling ourselves nations is really a title, not necessarily a reality, so to speak. I am currently going through the new edition of the indian legal rights handbook, and I have to say, I was a little shocked to find out just how much of recognized native peoples lives have been legislated. I recently spoke with a chief of one of the state recognized abenaki tribes in my state. It appears that if I applied for membership that I would qualify. But, I hesitate. I'm really torn about it. Part of me would like to label my beadwork as native american made, but I feel like I would be trading it for assimilation, loss of autonomy, and being legally categorized as someone who is "conquered". I'm just really having a hard time with all of that. As much as I appreciate the kind chief's offer to consider my membership, I just don't know that I can bring myself to do it. I think I define who I am. Not someone else, not some government body, just me. And I don't think that means I'm only an abenaki in my own mind. I have proof. I have my geneology and DNA testing. Do you really need more than that?