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Jefferson Keel’s Message of Political Assimilation

Steven Newcomb
2/22/13

On February 14, 2013, in Washington, D.C., Jefferson Keel (Chickasaw Nation) delivered his "State of the Indian Nations” address in his capacity as President of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). Although his talk was titled, “Securing Our Futures,” the theme woven into his speech seemed to be “Ensuring our Political Assimilation as Indian Nations.”

Let’s be clear. Jefferson Keel addressed his audience primarily from the viewpoint of the United States. In his opening, Keel addressed himself to “my fellow Americans,” and thereby gave the impression that Indian people are just one of many different kinds of “Americans.”  He then said “all our vibrant threads” as Indian people “are woven into the fabric of America.” The word America is, of course, short for “the United States of America.” So, it is evidently his view that Indian nations have been “woven” into the United States.

Keel also referred to “America’s tribal nations,” the “possessive tense” apostrophe-s on America thereby depicting the United States as holding what he calls “tribal nations” as possessions. That Keel gave his address from the viewpoint of the United States is also found in his wording indicating that almost 25 percent of “America’s” on-shore oil and gas resources are found on “tribal lands.” (emphasis added). This frames the resources of Indian nations as rightfully belonging to the United States.

Speaking of the late Senator Inouye, Mr. Keel said: “He knew that America was at her strongest when all of her governments worked together to advance our security and prosperity.” (emphasis added) This again uses the possessive tense to frame Indian nation governments as belonging to the United States of America (this includes Indian nation governments in the category “all her governments”).

When Keel said “that America was at her strongest” when “all her people were thriving,” he was thereby including Indian people in the category “all her people.” Just as the phrase “her house” indicates that the house belongs to “her,” in this instance, “her people” indicates that Indian people are included in the category “her people” who Keel considers to belong to the United States.

When he said that “a sovereign people are a strong people,” Keel’s larger context was the United States, rather than Indian nations. (Otherwise he would have stated “sovereign peoples are strong peoples” so as to acknowledge our own peoples and nations as politically distinct from the United States).

As a retired United States military officer, Mr. Keel’s background includes a lifetime spent in military service to the United States of America. His mind operates on that basis, which is fine for him personally. However, he has stepped far beyond his purview as the president of N.C.A.I when he delivers a speech in which he assumes that all Indian nations and peoples, and all Indian people share his personal military worldview. He has gone far beyond his purview when his language presumes that Indian nations already have been or are to be politically assimilated (from a metaphor of digestion) into the body politic of the United States. Or, as he put it: “To affirm our rightful, [U.S.] constitutional place in the American [United States of America’s] family of governments.”

As originally free and independent nations and peoples that predate by thousands of years the U.S. Constitution, it is important to remain mindful of the fact that it is the United States's Constitution. It is not our Constitution because we come from our own distinct nations that predate the United States, and which the U.S. has a track record of patiently and methodically attempting to dominate and destroy. Yet, by using the possessive tense “our,” Keel gives the false impression that his personal view of the U.S. Constitution is shared by all of Indian Country.

In the nineteenth century, the United States began its intensified efforts to assimilate Indian people into the society and “fabric” of the United States. That agenda is still in motion. This is why we ought to be on a guard against present day assumptions, such as we find in Mr. Keel’s speech, that an assimilative melding of Indian nations into the political “fabric” of the United States is an envisioned positive outcome that we all share.

Along these lines, Mr. Keel also said: “This is the task at hand, to move together toward a more perfect union.” What is a union? It is “the formation of a single political unit from two or more separate and independent units.” The idea of our originally free and independent Indian nations moving “together” on a path of political assimilation, toward a “single political unit” with the United States is not a path of self-determination. It is a path toward self-oblivion.

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), and the Indigenous and Kumeyaay Research Coordinator for the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.

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I thought "Apples"were blase'
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Steven Newcomb's writings reflect the progressive thinking native indigenous peoples of the America's are now using. We Natives must always be mindfull of the true intent the colonizers have and continue to pursue. We once had respected leaders that fought and died attempting to protect our human rights, then came the politically elected tribal representatives, thoses who have been educated by the non-natives and either forgot or set aside their tribal teachings. Now the younger native generations are comparing the directions taken by the "respected leaders" and the "political representitives", they see true leadership is needed, not representatives pursuing special interests for a few. Steven, I am an old native man, I believe I can see your vision, keep educating yourself and others for we need your wisdom. "Buzz an Old School Native"
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As an elected NCAI leader, one is required to act in a fiduciary manner for the best interest of Indigenous Nations, not promoting the indoctrination, assimilation, or pacification into the so called melting pot of America. The Euro-Americans have been attempting this on-going task since 1492 to today.
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For thousands of years we existed as originally free and independent nations and peoples, by which I mean free and independent of Christian European claims of domination. That original free existence provides a permanent basis for taking the position that we shall forever be rightfully free of a domination / subordination idea and language system that the Christo-Europeans invasively brought here. Don't buy it? Then please tell me: On what basis is domination valid or legitimate. It is imperative that we develop a view from the shore historically looking out at the invading ships coming into our lands and territories, with their false claims of dominium, etc. Typically, even our own people tend to have, without realizing it, a view from the ship coming into shore. This is because of the programming that pretty much everyone received in the 'schools' of the colonizers. This means that the view from the shore perspective is something we have to work at developing. To critique Mr. Keel's speech from the viewpoint of an originally free and independent existence, as distince nations and peoples, while refusing to accept domination, is not an effort to attack him personally. Something I have no interest in doing. It is to examine the content of the ideas that he has put forward as the President of a very influential Indian organization. When a major speech is given by the head of that or any other Indian organization, and that speech contains ideas that make it seem as if our the distinctive identity as rightfully free nations has been ended, then it is our responsibility to speak up. It is imperative that Indian leadership not think, speak, and write as if our own nations have been somehow 'melded' or 'absorbed' into the United States. The legal scholar Milner Ball made the important point that Indian nation "incorporation" with the U.S. never happened," (despite what the Supreme Court said in Oliphant). And when Indian leadership and some scholars say "incorporation" did happen, they are mistaken. When they say such things, we need to have the courage to not agree. And we need to do so publicly when they give their speeches publicly. Living up to the responsibility of delivering such a critique has nothing to do with attacking Mr. Keel personally. The point of my column was to analyze and critique the ideas that he has put out for N.C.A.I. That is what I addressed in my column. As for Mr. Trimble's question about some utopian vision for Indian nations and peoples, how about the right to live free of an imposed U.S. federal system of domination and subordination, which begins with the so-called 'right of christian discovery', and the stupid and little known premise that our free ancestors were not baptized, which supposedly made them nullus (not existing as full human beings) ? A life free of domination and abuse should not be too much to ask for those of us who are still able to remember and express the fundamental point about our originally free way of life. And if you don't believe that the domination is real, take a look at the figures on murdered and missing Indigenous woman in Canada, as just one example, and try telling me that is not a manifestation of the domination of our women. To take the opposite view is to either claim that there is no such thing as a domination / subordination system, or else to say that we are perfectly willing to accept and not challenge the domination system despite its crushing effects on our nations and peoples. Here's a puzzler: Given how much domination, subordination, and dehumanization there is in the world at this time, how is it that not one college or university that I know of has a Department of Domination Studies?
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Thank you Steven for your persistence in articulating these concepts - I believe discussions on these types of issues are exactly what our NDN forefathers and mothers did way before we got "civilized" - it worked for them but it doesn't produce concrete results for us today because we are also now "Americans". More and more I refrain from commenting on articles like this because the issues are so complicated as a result of the last 500 years, and because in our lifetimes there will never be the all-encompassing all-knowing answer(s). I also agree with just about all the comments to this article - all of which point a core issues facing Indian Country both as individuals and as members of our ancestor clans and nations - just how much NDN of whatever tribe(s) can we truly remain when we have been overwhelmed by American ways in just about every detail of our lives for at least the last 100 years? How long can we keep claiming political "sovereignty" when the Feds have final approval over just about everything we as members of politically subordinated entities think, do, and say? Today, as “Americans” we are forced to engage in the battles of the intellect – who is “right”, who is “wrong” - rather than in the ways of our ancestors – the ways of our spirits and souls who worked for the common good of our communities. The fact that some of us can’t see beyond being right or wrong reveals just how assimilated to American ways we’ve become. In my job I work daily with mostly urban Indian people, government administrators, and non-Indians who become involved in some American Indian related issue - I spend most of my time trying to explain circumstances to create some basic understandings.... ICWA is,.. NAGPRA is…, Relocation did..., Allotment did... FIL does... etc. etc. etc. This is all done in the English language because that’s what everyone can understand. The only existing resources and tools are in the English language created primarily by non-Indians whose objectives were to “fit” Indians into molds created by non-Indians to categorize us in ways that made sense to them, not us. Non-Indians have never and probably will never see us and our cultures as CORE components in how the U.S. defines and makes sense of. Generations of non-Indians have stood on this land, know at least the fundamentals of U.S. history, and still regard as us as props, bit players, “cultural curiosities”, “interesting”, but certainly not essential to what they deem American stands for. At this point in history, the only place we can be truly “sovereign” is in our own minds and spirits – but they’re working constantly to change that – the fact that we are using the internet to communicate is a prime example. Years ago I used to think I’ll just go back on the rez and hide out in some remote area and have nothing to do with our tribal government, let alone the local, state, and federal governments like my great grandpa did even up into the 1960’s, but eventually he got “rounded up” and died in our IHS hospital – so ultimately he didn’t escape from the system. He gave me my Indian name when I was around 4 or 5 years old, but unfortunately I never got to talk with him. His grave is in our family burial groups on our family allotment, but even that was chosen for us by some BIA official. So what U.S. history as it has worked out leave us in Indian Country? It’s up to each of us individually to decide for ourselves, NCAI is a way, NARF another, and there are other ways….each tribal government, each individual has to determine their own ways, or just wait for whatever the feds or other non-Indian “authorities” decide for us next. Until the U.S. get nuked or they nuke themselves, or all decide to go back to wherever they came from (yeah, right), we’re stuck with them overpowering us at every turn. If the Chinese or the Muslims take over, will things be any different for us? At this point in history, the only things in Indian Country that possibly are not totally compromised are our own spirits and minds – and that’s the best place to start. As I’ve gotten older, and I’ve taken the time to ask, my spirit tells me the story is not over, in spite of all that’s happened and as pointless as it sometimes seems. The last 500 or so years have been pretty destructive to us, but I think we all know that our ancestors persisted long, long before all that, and I believe will persist on long after this thing called the U.S. crumbles. “It’s not over” - that’s what comforts my soul, and that’s what I try to teach and share with those who care to sincerely ask.
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