Head and shoulders portrait of Chief Joseph (IN-MUT-TOO-YAH-LAT-LAT: Thunder coming from the water up over the land). Nez Perce photograph, 1900.

Indigenous Nations Prefer Citizenship to Secession, Though Some Have Tried

Duane Champagne

Stay or go? When it comes to Indian tribes and the United States, the answer has almost always been the former. And for that, there are many reasons.

When the U.S. began to make treaties with Indians in the 1770s, the agreements generally contained a clause affirming that the Indian nations recognized this country’s dominion. These understandings did not mean that the Indian nations accepted administrative control over Indian lands and affairs. Rather, it was acknowledged that Indian nations would no longer make treaties with other European nations—such as France and Spain—and, later, Canada.

In return, the Indian nations would have the military protection of the United States—which would assume trust responsibilities to manage government-to-government and international affairs in ways to protect Indian interests and well being. The Indian nations were pretty much forced to accept U.S. dominion, especially after the War of 1812, since European nations such as Great Britain agreed not to enter into any more treaties with Indian nations within territories recognized as the U.S. sphere of influence.

The U.S. Supreme Court case Worcester v. Georgia (1831), which acknowledged that Indians lived in “domestic dependent nation” status, established that they were not U.S. citizens but “wards” of the government. This notion implied that Washington had trust responsibility to look after the interests and future welfare of Indian peoples and issues. Chief Justice John Marshall, writing in Worcester, affirmed that Indian nations continued to manage their own internal political affairs and retained management over land until ceded to the federal government.

Worcester is used by Indian tribes to argue for the right to retain and maintain their own internal forms of government and powers of decision-making. However, recognition of U.S. dominion does not enable Indian nations to make the decision to leave the United States, or to manage government activities outside of U.S. treaty alliances.

In brief, today’s Indian tribes can’t simply decide to exit the U.S. They are bound to U.S. alliance at the will of the federal government. And thus, they have no possible means of secession.

But that hasn’t stopped a few tribes from trying, at least long ago. Some Apaches in the 1880s left this country and sought the protection of the Mexican government. A band of the Kickapoo Nation once emigrated to Múzquiz, in the Mexican state of Coahuila. In 1877, Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce people sought escape into Canada, only to be stopped 40 miles from the border.

In addition, some members of the Sioux Nation in the 1860s and 1870s moved to Canada after the Plains Wars. Many members of the Delaware Nation Turtle Clan found refuge by moving to Ontario in the 1790s. (Conversely, many Yaqui Indian communities and individuals sought refuge in the United States after enduring several centuries of political and cultural persecution in Mexico.)

It should be noted that today, the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples does not provide for indigenous nations to withdraw from the nation-states that surround them. Article 46, section 1, states, “Nothing in this declaration may be interpreted as implying for any state, people, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act contrary to the charter of the United Nations or construed as authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent states.”

So, for most indigenous nations, immigration or exit secession is not a favored strategy. By all indications, contemporary indigenous nations prefer to enjoy the benefits of citizenship and trust responsibility, live on their territories, and focus on purely internal political, territorial and cultural recognition. And when it comes to seeking redress for past or present wrongs, indigenous persons work with national governments instead of bolting from them.

That may not be their ideal solution. But that is the hand that history has dealt them.

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jaytaber's picture
Submitted by jaytaber on
I think it would be more accurate to describe Chief Joseph and his tribe's attempted exodus as refugees seeking asylum rather than seceding. While Indigenous nations in the US may for now be content with autonomy, Indigenous nations elsewhere are seeking full independence. That may happen in the US someday as well.

piqua's picture
Submitted by piqua on
Mr. Champagne, You have failed to demonstrate even the most basic working grasp of your subject matter. It is not possible to secede from political domination. Thus, your article title is inapt and makes no sense. Stay or go from domination? What in the world are you talking about. Do you mean: to be liberated or not liberated from political domination? Secession suggests that there was a willing accesion to enter a political system. That has never happened for our nations. Treaties demonstrate a capacity of our ancestors operate on the basis of our original free and independent existence. In Worcester v. Georgia the U.S. Supreme Court said: "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." The Court further said in Worcester: The very fact of repeated treaties with them recognises it, and the settled doctrine of the law of nations is that a weaker power does not surrender its independence -- its right to self-government -- by associating with a stronger and taking protection. A weak state, in order to provide for its safety, may place itself under the protection of one more powerful without stripping itself of the right of government and ceasing to be a state. Examples of this kind are not wanting in Europe. "Tributary and feudal states," says Vattel, "do not thereby cease to be sovereign and independent states so long as self-government and sovereign and independent authority are left in the administration of the state." Worcester versus Georgia was decided in 1832 not 1831. It was Cherokee Nation versus Georgia that was decided in 1831. Cherokee Nation v. Georgia was the first case that said that Indian nations "may, perhaps, be denominated domestic dependent nations." It did not "establish" that Indians were "wards" of the government, it said that relationship between the U.S. and Indian nations "resembles" that of a ward to his guardian. To say as you have that Cherokee Nation v. Georgia "established" something makes it seem as if that terminology is an irrefutable "fact" rather than an expression of opinion by the non-Indian court system. As originally free and independent nations and peoples we still have the ability and the capacity to develop an alternative view from our own traditional Indigenous perspective. You, however, have provided no leadership by demonstrating how this might be done. Repeating the position as expressed by the State Department of the United States regarding the UN Declaration does not make for intellectual leadership; it merely demonstrates that you prefer to write from within the confines of a colonial conceptual cage. How truly sad... The U.S. State Department couldn't have written a better piece of propaganda from the perspective of the United States. You have done a real disservice to Indian nations and peoples by writing from the viewpoint of U.S. propaganda rather than Indigenous self-determination and liberation. What you have written is nonsense masquerading as solid research and scholarship.

julianalien's picture
Submitted by julianalien on
My ancestors knew Horatio Mico(Billy Bowlegs)before he went to Oklahoma,as much so that his obituary in the paper was saved in a box,until all these tribal things were destroyed in the 60's.From what I gather,obeying the Federals by following the trail of tears got his family tribal recognition as an end result after many hardships.My family stayed and just bred with the whites until we are mostly white with a few native traits.The decision to stay was a hard one I am sure.My GGG used to put lemon juice in his hair to make himself look blondish.He could only grow a mustache so it appeared as if he was clean shaven all the time.I know the decisions his parents had at leaving the Carolinas,and then Georgia were equally tough.I guess they got tired of running and liked the weather.We still live in the same County,and I am not sure what the right decision was,or if there was one.By our family accounts it was about survival in confusing and troubling times.They also could have died along the way as so many others did.One of my ancestors served the South and then the North in the War of Northern Aggression,so I guess at one point we did secede.