Don't Treat Indian Nations as a Minority Group
On July 8, 1970, President Richard Nixon delivered a “Special Message on Indian Affairs,” in which he formally ended what he called “forced termination.” The Termination Era was the result of several pieces of legislation, including House Concurrent Resolution 108, passed by Congress in August, 1953. It was a policy to end, as rapidly as possible, what is commonly termed the “trustee” relationship between the federal government and Indian nations or “tribes.” Once that relationship of federal recognition was severed, it resulted in a particular nation or tribe being “terminated” from federal dollars and federal programs.
Although it has been typical, even among Native politicians and lawyers, to praise Nixon for announcing a new U.S. policy of American Indian Self-Determination, it has been less typical to notice something else: In his Message, Nixon framed American Indians, and self-determination, in terms of a “minority group” existing in “the nation” of the United States. This is made evident by the opening sentence of President Nixon’s message: “The first Americans—the Indians—are the most deprived and most isolated minority group in our nation.” (emphasis added).
The strategy of Nixon’s Self-Determination Policy was essentially to convert American Indians to simply another minority group, comprised of individual Americans who, because of their American Indian ancestry, also happen to be members of some “tribal group” or “tribal community.” In such a “minority” context, the idea of self-determination for Indian nations is eclipsed and entirely out of focus. Such ideas serve a key U.S. political agenda: Make it appear that our original nations no longer exist as nations because of the U.S.’s claim that we have been assimilated as minority individuals into the overall society of the United States.
Strangely, Nixon’s phrase “first Americans” implicitly conceptualizes American Indians as the first people to become “Americans” in the political system of the United States of America. Presumably, President Nixon described American Indians as first Americans because our ancestors were here in North America before the invading Europeans arrived. However, it seems strange and ironic to consider American Indians to be “first” in a U.S. body politic that our nations and peoples did not form, particularly in a country that emerged as a consequence of the Christian European invasion (they called it “discovery”) of our lands and territories; particularly in a country that has consistently been devoted to the physical, spiritual, cultural and territorial destruction of our peoples.
Before Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, the term “first Americans” would have made no sense. That Act was designed to make it seem as if all American Indians have been continuously included as “citizens” in the civil and political society of the United States, and that American Indians are simply one of many minority groups in “America.”
The language of assimilation in President Nixon’s Message seems designed to prevent us as American Indians from formulating a particular political argument: As a result of our original independence prior to the existence of the United States, our nations are entitled to the full measure of self-determination in international law, as full-fledged nations, politically distinct and free from the claimed plenary power or authority of the United States. As a way to foreclose such an argument, President Nixon’s Message stayed focused on minority or “tribal self-determination” for American Indians. Through this ploy, the U.S. government was attempting to “domesticate,” our international right to self-determination. Nixon’s strategy was not unlike that of John Marshall, 140 years earlier when he coined the termed “domestic dependent nation” in an attempt to minimize what he acknowledged to be the international status of indigenous nations.
Nixon’s message was, of course also focused on Indian “tribes” because that word appears in the U.S. Constitution; but, notably, the terms “tribe” and “tribal” do not cancel out the way Nixon’s Message conceptually reduces our nations down to the level of a minority group. The Nixon administration’s use of conceptual reduction as a technique is also made evident by the following: “Down through the years through written treaties and through formal and informal agreements, our government has made specific commitments to Indian people.”
The administration said the government had made specific treaty and other agreement commitments to “Indian people,” not to Indian “nations” or even “tribes.” Despite the fact that treaties are, by definition, made between two or more nations, the administration conceptualized them as having been made with “Indian people,” which removes the collective sense of nationhood, and reduces the conception down to the level of Indian individuals. When employed by the Executive branch of the U.S. government, such skilled use of language is no accident.
Fast forward four decades after President Nixon’s Message. In December 2010 the U.S. Department of State issued its “Announcement of U.S. Support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” The State Department said that the U.S.’s support for the UN Declaration “goes hand in hand with the U.S. commitment to address the consequences of a history in which, as President Obama recognized, “few have been more marginalized and ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans—our First Americans.” President Obama’s phrase “our First Americans” matches President Nixon’s phrase “the first Americans” 40 years earlier.
A meeting was scheduled for October 11, 2013 (but postponed due to the federal furlough) between officials of the U.S. State Department and tribal government representatives. The meeting will focus on U.S. designs for a 2014 High Level Plenary Meeting of the U.N. General Assembly to work on implementation of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The October meeting will be held at the Department of Interior for symbolic reasons. The “domestic” location of the Interior Department is a symbolic way for the State Department to repeat the message of December 2010 and attempting to “domesticate” indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination.
The past and current message of the United States seems quite clear: In the view of the U.S., American Indian “tribes” are not nations, at all; we are “internal” to the United States and therefore have been “domesticated” from the U.S. government’s perspective. It would be the delusional for Indian tribal representatives and others at the upcoming October 11 (if the current shut down does not interfere) meeting to believe the “minority group” “domestic tribal self-determination” orientation that President Nixon created in 1970, and which the Obama administration is now maintaining, is, in any way the equivalent of the right of self-determination in international law.
Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008).