US Calls on UN to Accord Recognition to 'US Federally Recognized Tribes'

Steven Newcomb

On June 3, there was an informal meeting at the United Nations regarding the development of an “action oriented outcome document.” The document is scheduled to be formally adopted by the UN General Assembly at the end of a UN High Level Plenary Meeting that will take place this coming September at the UN in New York.

The June 3, 2014 informal meeting took place at the UN headquarters in New York City, and the spokesperson for the United States delivered what she called “a few comments from the US government’s perspective.” The U.S. government spokesperson said that “with respect to the participation of indigenous peoples in the United Nations, the United States has consistently reiterated its support for indigenous participation in the UN.” The United States representative then said:

We agree with indigenous peoples that existing arrangements for indigenous participation in the UN are not satisfactory. This is definitely true with respect to U.S. federally recognized tribes. US federally recognized tribes are governments with inherent powers of self-governance, but in the UN setting these characteristics are not recognized. We are committed to finding an appropriate response to this challenge. We will continue consulting with U.S. based tribes, indigenous organizations, and member states to explore options.

When we parse the above U.S. statement, what do we see? “U.S. federally recognized tribes” are not recognized “in the UN setting.” Thus, one thing seems clear. The United States is engaged in semantic gamesmanship. The specific United States’ category “US federally recognized tribes” (and “U.S. based tribes”) is a subjected or subordinated status created by the United States by means of the racist and religiously bigoted US federal Indian law and policy idea-system.

Given the run up to the UN High Level Meeting in September, which is “to be known as a World Conference on Indigenous Peoples,” it is imperative that we remain hyper vigilant. We must not allow ourselves to be caught in any semantic traps being laid for us by the United States government. Another meeting is scheduled for June 17-18, 2014 at the UN in New York.

By advocating that our originally free and independent nations and peoples be recognized in the United Nations as “US federally recognized tribes,” the U.S. is attempting to find an “appropriate” place in the United Nations for the US federal Indian law and policy system that created the U.S. category “U.S. federally recognized tribes.”  

By taking this approach, the United States is making good on a commitment that it expressed in its 2010 “Announcement of U.S. Support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” issued by the U.S. Department of State.

Specifically, the key sentence from the U.S. Department of State reads: “…the United States is committed to serving as a model in the international community in promoting and protecting the collective rights of indigenous peoples as well the human rights of all individuals.” I see this new approach by the United States as an effort to trick us into accepting the idea that the U.S. federal Indian law and policy idea-system ought to be recognized as a model by the UN, and normalized within the UN, with our “free, prior, and informed consent.” In my view, we should not assist the United States to legitimize internationally the U.S. law and policy domination system.

If and when that happens, will we be able to say that US. Federal Indian law and policy is a dominating system imposed on our nations and peoples against our will. Or, will the United States then will be able to say that we are the ones who asked for our “subjected” status under U.S. federal Indian law and policy to be recognized in the UN, and have it thereby legitimized in the international arena, all in the name of implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?

The myriad problems arising from US federal Indian law and policy drove our nations, our spiritual leaders, our activists, and our scholars into the international community in the 1970s. They did not go into the international arena in an effort to have the US federal Indian law and policy system recognized by the United Nations. In fact, that’s the last thing that would have occurred to them because that is the very system of domination that has caused the problems that our nations and peoples have been dealing with for centuries.

The technical term metonymy may provide some insight into what is happening when the US asks the UN to recognize “U.S. federally recognized tribes.” A metonymy is a part of a greater whole. A metonymy is the part that implies the whole from which it is derived. Take, for example, the expression “the White House said today,” which is sometimes found in news reports. It uses the house in which the President of the United States resides as “the part” that “stands for” the entire U.S. Executive Branch. It is the part that stands for the whole.

Similarly, “US federally recognized tribes” is a metonymy (the part) that stands for the entire context of the US federal Indian law and policy system; “US federally recognized tribes” is a mental construct that emerged from the minds of white men as they developed U.S. federal Indian law and policy. The white man’s racist and religiously bigoted mental system is the origin of the concept of “US federally recognized tribes.”

Yet now we see organizations such as the National Congress of American Indians and the Indian Law Resource Center, apparently without even realizing it, attempting to find “an appropriate and dignified” place for US federal Indian law and policy at the United Nations, all in the name of “implementing” the articles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous 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 (Fulcrum, 2008). He has been studying the conceptual origins of federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980s.

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andre's picture
Asked and answered by Steven with this comment excerpted from the article. "Thus, one thing seems clear. The United States is engaged in semantic gamesmanship. The specific United States’ category “US federally recognized tribes” (and “U.S. based tribes”) is a subjected or subordinated status created by the United States by means of the racist and religiously bigoted US federal Indian law and policy idea-system." Seems as though the deck is stacked when the U.S. controls the agenda. I'm always amazed how the U.S. continues to play this game of words (semantics).
Mary Aurelia Johns's picture
These viewpoints are too important to allow the NCAI to represent the tribes on this issue. They do not represent all of the Federally Recognized Tribes who need to participate in this discussion. If they have had these discussions at their Annual Meetings then the majority of the Sioux (I’m using this term to represent all of the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota or the Oceti Sakowin) have been left out. Furthermore, their attorneys are non-Indians who may understand Indian Law but are not experts on all of the Treaties the United States signed with the tribes. Without serious dialogue by all of the Tribal Nations and a clear understanding of what this would mean to each - either your position (Steven) or the NCAI’s this is once more keeping the tribes in the dark while someone speaks for us. There are clear standards for what designates a nation by the UN. There will be many of the over 500+ Federally Recognized Tribes that will not be able to meet those standards. So who will be invited to the table to discuss this issue? Who will control the table and set the agenda. I for one no longer trust the NCAI because it is now controlled by many very, very small communities of Indians who claim to be nations with 40 or fewer members and only less than 25 acres of land. Where my own tribe with over 10,000 members and 2.5 million acres of land is out voted so no longer participate in this farce. The Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires = Sioux) is a nation; the Navajo (Deni) are a nation; the Tlingit & Haida are a nation; the Cherokee are a nation; etc. Is there a place for these large tribes and large land based tribes to have a place where they are shown the respect needed to come to some type of understanding? We all have a major role to play in this discussion so why is this not happening. This is a question for Ambassador Harper to be asked. What does he have to say about this important issue or does he have to sing the company song and support the Ambassador of the United States to the UN? This is where he can play an important role – will he play it? So now that you brought this to our attention what should happen? I am a believer in bringing issues up but also offering solutions – therefore, what do you suggest?
Mary Aurelia Johns
Two Bears Growling's picture
That may be good & all for those tribal nations that have gained "federal recognition", but what about the nearly 2,000 "unrecognized" tribal nations STILL trying to get their status changed to "recognized"? What rights would these "unrecognized" tribal nations have in the UN? Anything? None at all? This just brings up even more unanswered questions to be answered. ................................................................................................................................. You are right about one thing, the US policy makers are masters at word play. Like a bunch of slippery snakes they are.
Two Bears Growling
piqua's picture
Greetings Mary, You ask: "So now that you brought this to our attention what should happen? I am a believer in bringing issues up but also offering solutions – therefore, what do you suggest?" Well, I don't have some grand proposal as a definitive solution, but I do know is that it makes no sense to say, in the name of reform, that we freely accept the system of domination imposed on our nations and peoples on the basis of a claimed right of Christian discovery and domination. In Felix Cohen's Handbook on Federal Indian Law (1942) W. G. Rice is cited as an authority, specifically his law review article, "The Position of the American Indian in the Law of the United States." The article was published in 1934 in the journal of the British Institute of International and Comparative Law. The third paragraph of Rice's article begins, "International law--white man's law--has recognized that discovery and occupation of a land inhabited by 'savages' give the discovery state the sovereignty." That's there premise that presumes a right of domination by means of a semantic "reduction" (deprimantur in Latin) of the Original Free and Independent Existence of our Nations and Peoples. In U.S. federal Indian law that right of domination and reduction is premised on the "right of discovery," which Chief Justice John Marshall in Johnson v. M'Intosh said "was confined to countries then unknown to all Christian people." He also said that the conceptual system they were constructing was premised on an "extravagant pretension" (a pretense) of "converting the discovery of an inhabited country into conquest." We need to come together and challenge that pretense (lie) of "discovery" and the lie of pretending that "discovery" of so-called heathen and infidel lands by "Christian people gave them sovereignty over and title to the lands discovered," as U.S. Supreme Justice Stanley Reed said in his dissenting opinion in United States v. Alcea Band of Tillamooks. He was the one who wrote the majority opinion Tee Hit Ton ruling in 1955. We need to have a grand conversation about these theological and metaphorical roots of U.S. federal Indian law and policy instead of working with the United States to have U.S. federal law and policy, and its bogus foundation of "extravagant pretension" recognized and normalized in the United Nations. All Our Relations, Steve Newcomb
Two Bears Growling's picture
Mary Aurelia Johns, you ask some very good questions that deserve answered. Like you say, the NCAI is not living up to their mission or representing ALL tribes. Many are left out & the whole organization has become another washichu political organization ruled at times by folks with deep pockets as the years have gone by. There are answers to solve this all: Those who are not part of the NCAI could always start a better organization that actually represented & solved the problems we see in our Native communities by listening to ALL People regardless of their station in Life among our various People. Great leaders listen to the People because they always have access to such a leader. They are not arrogant, prideful or carriers of gossip who take part in petty & self-serving things. They truly serve the People. ................................................................................................................................ Instead of complaining about short comings of a group, people can always get up & do better by organizing something far better than what has come before. In the times of our ancestors if a group within a village didn't like something going on there they could & did pick up, move & start their own community. We can always find answers to todays problems by looking to the past for the answers that were found by our very wise ancestors.
Two Bears Growling
Wanbli Koyake's picture
Hau mitakuye, Greetings my Relative, Steven! Wopila for your voice and standing for All Red Nations/Peoples! The clarity of your writing is sorely needed, as we say, in our honor songs, "The People need you" Wasicu (Fat Takers, a.k.a, The Greedys) Law is just that, based on Greed; the racism, monotheism, ism's galore are all ways of Greed. In our stories, our ancestors identified, stood up to, engaged and defeated Greed. Maybe that's why Original Peoples are so generous yet today! Even the wasicu recognize greed as a spiritual, psychological, disease! Their institutions and experts are powerless against it. We Original Peoples have the wisdom of our Ancestors and Elders as an alternative to such giant ism's. People are always saying, "What's the use, nothing can be done about it." True, all the pathological issues Original Peoples face are overwhelming, horrific, unassailable. We're swallowed up by Greed (u.s.a.) and don't know it. It matters to know we've been devoured. If only to be a pathogen in Greed's gut. The thing that most frightens such giantisms is the sound of Life; that is, People being what they're made to be, human beings in kinship with All Life! The ongoing Genocide against Original Peoples is one such giant. Our ancestors weren't afraid to live and so they defeated Greed. Our ancestors are in us, we are our ancestors, we are our unborn generations ancestors. We must act accordingly!
Wanbli Koyake
michaelmack's picture
I received a Masters in American Indian Studies History and Law in 1999 and since then have been working on the education side as the manager of an archive of American Indian materials that includes many FIL materials. I'm often asked to speak on various topics at colleges, conferences, and local NDN groups. Because I'm not a lawyer I don't attempt to teach legal details on any FIL topic, but rather focus on the histories of the individual phases of FIL policies. One of the things that has always stood out to me is the 1823 Johnston v. M'Intosh decision in which Justice Marshall clearly states the PRETENSE of the U.S. government in establishing its authority over American Indians... Looking closely at the language reveals that he openly acknowledges that such authority has NO basis in legal fact, and that such authority exists only because this group of justices says so. Marshall could as well have said "black is white because we say so" which likewise has no basis in factual reality. What I have never understood is why NDN country lawyers don't jump on these clear admissions of the false nature of U.S. government control over NDN country? As a starting point to refute the FIL that has undermine and continues to undermine tribal sovereignty since that 1823 admission? What more clear statement can an NDN Country lawyer need to start refuting FIL? To my way of thinking Marshall's ADMISSION of the PRETENSE was like waving a red flag to a bull, in this case NDN Country being the bull. Why don't NDN Country lawyers take up this challenge? To my way of thinking in most all other issues impacting NDN Country from Baby Veronica to "unrecognized" tribes, NDN Country needs to FIRST challenge the authority that we've been conditioned to believe is rightly over us - because by Marshall's admission in 1823, such authority IS a PRETENSE. It's way overdue the NDN Country jump on this LEGAL FACT and start using it to start disconnecting our thinking and our actions from the PRETENSE of FIL.