Learning From Martin Luther King: Can Natives Make 566 Dreams One Dream?

Steve Russell

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously told the nation, “I have a dream.” Less famously, he said on April 3, 1968: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”

The next day, April 4, he was taken by an assassin’s bullet.

I asserted in my column on his most famous speech that Indians, too, have a dream. A fine rhetorical flourish, if I do say so, but is it true? And if it is true, does our devotion to that dream match MLK’s?

Or do we have 566 dreams that conflict, each with the other? If that’s so, there is nothing traditional about those dreams, since many of the 566 federally recognized tribes are peoples separated by accident of history. Look no farther than my people, split into three governments with three sets of enrollment criteria and only one with a serious land base.

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I must ask whether the conflicts we have among us rise to the importance of MLK’s dream? I look around Indian country and I see conflicts not over fundamental values but over jurisdiction and over market share.

I see companies get contracts for tribal casino business using opaque practices that allow all tribes to get screwed by telling tribe A they get a better deal than the other tribes and so it must be kept secret…and, of course, telling tribes B, C, and D the same thing.

I see tribes taking sides in the bureaucratic process of federal recognition on the theory that pie is being divided up and their slice will diminish if more tribal governments are on the dole or more casinos are enabled.

I see companies feeding at the tribal trough because, we are told, our people are ignorant of the necessary skills. If that’s true, why do we not require those companies that profit from our ignorance to remove that ignorance as a cost of doing business on Indian land?

I see tribal governments justifying their existence by reference to tradition and hiding their misdeeds behind tribal sovereignty, while they provide nothing for the most traditional people among us and fail to assert sovereignty for any purpose but short-term gain.

Ask an Indian activist about tribal sovereignty and the activist will favor it as an article of faith. Ask an Indian activist about their own tribal government and they will claim it has the morals of pond scum and the attention span of a fruit fly.

Governments are governments and always shall be governments. They do as they are told when the people are organized to tell them and when the people are not organized they do as they please, building tiny empires for outsized egos and sucking sustenance from our collective body like so many remora fish.

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To put it another way, we get the government we deserve, our dessert being measured by the amount of attention we are willing to pay and the amount of risk we are willing to take.

When African-Americans finally had enough, they determined to risk their lives in pursuit of a dream deferred since the end of the Civil War.

So I ask again, do American Indians have a dream? If so, how much blood is it worth? Not anybody else’s blood, but our own.

If we have no dream, or the dream is not worth risk, we should, as the kids say online, STFU.

We claim tradition as our pole star, and if this were true, it would be a problem. It’s not true. The traditions about which we are most vociferous come from the horse cultures and the horse cultures did not exist on this continent until the Spanish colonists proved unable to keep track of their livestock.

The peyote culture goes back at least 10,000 years, but where would it be without Quanah Parker?

The pueblos have some of the strongest claims to tradition among us, but even they would have a hard time without not only the things but also the ideas modernism has wrought.

I keep coming back to Vine Deloria, Jr.’s observation that white people vote for morons and Indians vote for crooks. It provokes an involuntary smile even as it stings, like much of Deloria’s thought.

If he’s right, why is he right?

Seems to me that our crooks are some of the smartest political scientists we’ve produced. They look at the structure. The money comes in from the feds or from the casino or from the extractive industry and it is the source of continuing power. As long as this engine turns, I and mine can take a reasonable cut and I shall be important to outsiders.

One reason you will never see me run to represent outlanders on the Cherokee Tribal Council is that I have no problem with people who stay in the homelands and keep the culture having more rights that those of us who left to chase things the homelands can’t offer. But another serious reason is that I look at outlander Cherokees as a nascent tax base.

Indians paying taxes? To tribal government?

My illusions, if such they are, come from having worked for César Chávez. He had the poorest workers in the country, migrant farm workers, paying union dues before the union had a contract or any prospect of a contract. His organizers made the same as Chávez made, room and board and five bucks a week for spending money, which would be about forty bucks in today’s dollars.

But Chávez was an honest man, and my tribal government is a den of thieves!

For whom do they work, this den of thieves? If you don’t pay taxes, you are not paying them. They owe more of their keep to the feds than they owe to you. Why should they answer to you and why should you bother to make them? You have no skin in the game other than a place at the trough.

And there’s another political science catch that most Indians understand in their viscera: sovereignty and dependence cannot coexist. Your tribal government can assert itself against the federal government only to the extent that it could survive without the federal government. The list of tribes that could do that is short.

In my book, Sequoyah Rising, I set out many ways that tribal governments are failing to use the powers that they have under current law as the US Supreme Court bleeds those powers away and the white peoples’ rights movement outflanks us.

What I failed to fully appreciate is that tribal governments, as presently constituted, are more of the problem than they are of the solution. That is not, however, the fault of the people who serve in them.

We, the people of the tribal nations, have allowed ourselves to be yoked up to non-traditional processes that respond to a system of perverse incentives. Unless we, as indigenous political scientists, can find ways to align tribal government incentives to our interests, we will continue to elect crooks, since kleptocracy is the only option on the table.

This is not an argument against voting. Rather, it is recognition that voting is necessary but not sufficient. Government—national, state, tribal, city---is a means to an end, the dream MLK found worth his life. For us, no less than for African-Americans, the dream is to make the decisions that affect our lives. MLK, in a 1957 speech, said that without the right to vote, “I cannot make up my own mind — it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped enact — I can only submit to the edict of others.”

If we are satisfied with the edict of others, if we have no dream to call our own, then discontent is merely our signature political sport as fry bread is our signature food, and one is about as nourishing as the other.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

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azpark's picture
Excellent article Steve but I can't help but go back to your previous article where you stated that the Black sought integration while the Indian sought segregation. I think all Indians need to examine that statement carefully. Would it require change? Absolutely. Would it mean the loss of your history. One can't loose his history.Would it mean the loss of culture? For some maybe. Would it mean a change in culture. Probably but culture is always changing.