My Rebuttal to Steven Newcomb: A Worthy Debate

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

I write this in response to Steven Newcomb, who took issue with the column I recently wrote titled, “Moving From Sovereignty to Autonomy.” He is passionate about his opinions and intellectual projects and I respect that. I respond in the spirit of public debate that this issue requires.

Not surprisingly, Newcomb is concerned about language and the meanings behind words and concepts such as “autonomy” and “indigenous” and the ways they are deployed in international law to imply and reinforce relationships of domination. Of course his concerns are justified, and in principle I agree with him 100 percent. Where we part company, perhaps, is in our approaches to addressing those structures of domination he so aptly names. For me the question is: how do we as “indigenous” peoples negotiate our way within those very deeply entrenched and troubling structures to find workable solutions? To borrow a bureaucratic colloquialism, how do we find “work-arounds” to what sometimes appear to be insurmountable obstacles?

In a perfect world, states’ governments would wake up one day and having seen the error of their ways they would renounce those oppressive structures in the interest of following an altruistic, moral imperative to do right by indigenous peoples. We can all hope and even work for that. What he is saying needs to be said. But it seems to me that in reality we could be waiting a very long time, if it were to happen at all.

Would I like to see the doctrine of discovery repudiated and the entire regime of international and federal Indian law restructured to assume new, more just meanings and models relative to indigenous peoples? Yes. Is it possible that Indian nations can be restored to their pre-colonial levels of independence? In my opinion, that’s highly questionable and at this point maybe even undesirable for some nations, but it’s for each nation to decide for themselves.

We live in a different world now compared to our pre-contact ancestors. It is a world far more dependent on the quality of our political relationships. Like it or not we are swimming in the river of international relations as it exists, not as we wish it to be. From my perspective we must find ways to advance self-determination through the channels that are available—as imperfect as they may be—even while we imagine better paths. We can do both.

The fact is that the world of human relations is always evolving; it has never been static. Contrary to Steve’s Alice-in-Wonderland metaphor of “the illusion of moving from one state of being to another” the one thing we can count on is change. This is the core of the idea of political development.

Right now an available channel for indigenous political advancement is UNDRIP, written with the language of self-determination and autonomy. It stresses the ability of “indigenous peoples” (and I would argue indigenous governments as political bodies accountable to their respective peoples) to “freely choose their political status.” Are the choices circumscribed by relationships of domination? Probably, yes. Is it possible for indigenous and state governments to come to new political arrangements with each other based on mutually agreed upon understandings of the meanings of autonomy and self-determination (and whatever else they deem necessary)? I think so.


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Oro Lee's picture
It takes both -- the practical idealist. A comparison of the political platforms of the various national parties of the early 20th century indicates, based on federal laws in place at the end of the century, that the Socialist Party of America was the most successful. Few socialists ever won a national office, but the Party influenced political discourse and the actions of other political parties. That's why the mascot fight is so important -- to influence political discourse and action on a host of issues affecting the native nations.
Oro Lee
shadowdragon42's picture
Now this is a good debate. Very well worded. Of course I do agree with you on quite a few points and that does put me more in your favor lol.
sikak iskwew's picture
You can't build what you cannot even imagine. You can't even begin to construct a workable or realistic blueprint. I think what Newcomb's work does best is to offer a critique and discourse around what the actual problem is (colonialism) and what the best case scenario or antidote to colonialism is: which is an Indigenized ideological cognitive model for independence and self-determination. Since the vast majority of Indigenous Nations did not manifest hierarchical models of social structures where there was a king or queen (hence, the emergence of the term "sovereignty"), "autonomy" has always resonated as more appropriate to Indigenous socialities. That being said, "self-government" in "Indian" country is, in fact, an illusion. Until Indigenous Nations are accorded something akin to diplomatic recognitiion by the colonial state, "self-government" will always be an illusion. You cannot be exercising "self-government" when every decision must ultimately be channeled through another government for approval. That's not "self-government"...it's colonial government. Perhaps smaller nations cannot realistically stand on their own as autonomous nations, but I would say there are many models throughout the world to learn from: the United Arab Emirates, for one, the United States, for another: ie, oalitions between smaller Indigenous nations resulting in a "united" and much more powerful aggregate, but with respective autonomous identities is not a new thing....not even for Indigenous nations. The dependence on the colonial governments has to end somewhere or if not then Indigenous nations will be totally assimilated into the body politic with a complete extinguishment of the so-called "special relationship". Alternate versions: Indigenous nations can become true partners with their colonial overseers, (if diplomatic recognition is accorded to Indigenous nations), as a necessary evil of geographical and historical realities. Regardless, even the Vatican---considered the world's smallest nation with a mere 770 pop. replete with diplomatic recognition and all its concomitant perks---has more soveriegnty. Monaco only has approx 32000 people and enjoys total sovereignty. So why couldn't Indigenous nations pool resources and lobby for greater control over their ancestral land bases? As you said, change is the one constant...but intentional change or being swept along by it, that is the defining difference between being truly self-governing or a mere colonial proxy.
sikak iskwew