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.
Dina Gilio-Whitaker’s column, “Moving from Sovereignty to Autonomy,” is troubling on a number of levels. She advocates that we use the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to achieve “autonomy” within the context of what she terms the “multinational state.” Unfortunately, her article lacks semantic depth and critical analysis, and serves to undermine the foundation of the movement by our Original Nations and Peoples of Great Turtle Island to liberate ourselves from established patterns of domination on the basis of true self-determination.
One problem is Gilio-Whitaker’s uncritical usage of the English language. That, along with failure to address the linguistic patterns of domination and subordination endemic to U.S. federal Indian law and policy, and international law, prevent readers from understanding the stakes and the importance of current international debates about the rights of peoples termed “indigenous.”
Current international working definitions reveal that “indigenous” in that context means “dominated peoples” and “peoples under dominance.” One definition, for example, says that “Indigenous populations are composed of existing descendants of the peoples who inhabited the territory or a country.” Then, “persons of a different culture or ethnic origin arrived from other parts of the world,” “overcame” the peoples living already there, “and, by conquest, settlement or other means, reduced them [those peoples] to a non-dominant or colonial situation.” In other words, the original peoples are considered to have been “reduced” to a predicament of domination. In her article, Gilio-Whitaker fails to make this background explicit.
Another international definition treats the words “indigenous” and “aboriginal” as synonymous. (See UN Centre for Human Rights, “The Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” 1990). The term “aboriginal” traces to “aborigine,” which, according to Webster’s unabridged dictionary, means “an indigenous inhabitant [a single person] of a country: one of the native people as distinguished from an invading or colonizing people.” Thus, peoples termed “Indigenous” or “aboriginal” are contrasted with present day dominating or domination-societies, typically called “states,” which are descended from the invading and colonizing peoples of Western Christendom.
Gilio-Whitaker’s column does not grasp a key point: We have to explicitly focus on the above framework of domination, and specifically use the word “domination,” in order to become conscious of the ‘state of domination’ that has been forced on those nations and peoples the UN now calls “Indigenous.” Importantly, Gilio-Whitaker does not mention the history of colonial domination in her article. Her omission is not unique. In the strange unspoken code in the English language and international political discourse, “’domination’ is the name that shall not be spoken.”
It is within the above noted context of domination that Gilio-Whitaker’s use of the term “autonomy” is accurately understood. In the classic Greek sense, autonomy means “the quality of state of being independent, free, and self-directing,” which is a powerful meaning for purposes of liberation. However, another meaning is, “the degree of self-determination or political control possessed by a minority group, territorial division, or political unit in its relation to the state or political community of which it forms a part.” (emphasis added)
The latter concept of “autonomy” is meaningful “in relation to” and “inside” the context of “the state.” It envisions “indigenous” units of “autonomy,” or “minority groups of autonomy,” considered to form “a part of the state,” which is a system of domination. In this sense, then, autonomy is considered to be a form of political assimilation whereby originally free nations and peoples which are now considered to be existing under, and subject to the authority of, some state dominance. They are deemed to have been made a part of, or politically incorporated into the body politic of “the state.” This version of “autonomy” is completely consistent with the racist and Christian-premised pronouncements of the US Supreme Court in the areas of “domestic dependency,” “and “plenary power. ”
Few would argue that the 21st century has proven to be a major turning point in the global indigenous rights movement with the passage of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Even its original opponents have officially signed on to the declaration (if conditionally) and terms and concepts that were once considered radical or unacceptable (such as “peoples” and “self-determination”) are at least tacitly endorsed by nation states. Intellectual space has been created to talk about multinational states, in political terms that expand beyond the assimilationist multicultural state.
The multinational state recognizes pre-existing nations and peoples within its borders. It acknowledges their rights to exist and flourish without the interference of unilaterally imposed state structures and legal systems. It does this by allowing a process of mutual engagement where governments are perceived as equals without one being subordinate to another. It does so because it ensures an inherently more politically stable, cohesive state.
Decolonization for indigenous peoples in settler states means a lot of different things but politically it manifests as a realigning of relationships between governments, indigenous and settler. For states it signals movement toward a more self-conscious multinational state and for indigenous nations it means a greater recognition of their right to self-determination.
Article 3 of UNDRIP recognizes that “Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” Article 4 guarantees that “Indigenous peoples, in exercising their right to self-determination, have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal or local affairs as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.”
The concept of self-determination contained in UNDRIP has of course been highly contested with the United States among the most opposed to it. Some argue that it is limited to the exercise of “internal” self-determination, i.e. within the constraints of a domestic federal system (this is how the United States views it) while a more expansive exercise of “external” self-determination would allow for the possibility of secession from the state. Experts have pointed out repeatedly that indigenous nations virtually never speak in terms of independence in the form of statehood (i.e. secession) and that they instead stress the interdependent nature of their relationships with states.
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Dear President Stephen D. Nadauld, Dixie State University:
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