Eighty years ago last month, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Wheeler-Howard Act aka the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), devised and championed by then-Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier....
Every few decades it seems that Indian country has new concepts that it adopts that become the backbone for how we talk about ourselves. Those concepts usually seem to be about how we frame our relationships as Indian people to the dominant society, or more specifically to the federal government. They often mirror whatever the current policy regime happens to be. For the last 40 years we have spoken in terms of self-determination and sovereignty. Now “good governance” seems to be our new buzzwords.
A few weeks ago I attended a conference on that very topic at a prominent law school. It was organized by some prominent Native law scholars and academics, people highly regarded for their brilliant work in the fields of Indian law and Native American studies. Sadly, the conference was only one day long and could easily have filled two or three days with presentations. The presenter list read like a who’s who of people that have written influential policy papers, law articles, and books on topics related to tribal governance.
But there was something that stood out about the topics they were talking about and the kind of work many of them are doing: the presentations seemed to have a heavy emphasis on economic development. How to best maximize economic development; good self-government for better economic development; attracting business to the reservations; these were the kinds of things being talked about under the umbrella of good Native governance. It was as though good Native governance means good economic development.
What was missing, it seemed to me, were any critical perspectives. Possible critical topics that could have been included: the problem of tribal disenrollment in gaming tribes; the environmental repercussions of resource extraction on reservation lands; the dangers of hydraulic fracking to reservation communities; income disparity in Indian communities. Here’s one: how about negotiating the philosophical differences between capitalism and indigenous worldviews in economic development projects?
The very nature of capitalism is its commitment to unending economic growth (which means unending resource exploitation). It doesn’t recognize limits. It is a reflection of the Western (civilized) never-ending imperative, always wanting more: more land, more growth, more money, more technology, more power. The commitment to values based on profit. This paradigm is what caused our ancestors to lose their lands and what is causing indigenous peoples in other parts of the world to lose their lands in this globalized economy. Capitalism is wrapped up in the language of civilization, disguised as the desire for a better, easier life. It is responsible for a changing climate, for increasing global poverty, human rights violations and war. It is the big trickster of our time—it is coyote in his modern day manifestation.
Capitalism as a way of life is imposed as a civilizing technique of the colonizing American government, especially during the eras of assimilation and the Indian Reorganization Act. The goals of self-government under the IRA were envisioned primarily as a business creation and management regime, tribal governments were organized as corporations. This was in response to the poverty that resulted from the miserable failure of allotment (and arguably, all the land theft and cultural disruption before that)...
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...