On Dina Gilio-Whitaker’s Column, “Moving From Sovereignty to Autonomy”

Steven Newcomb

The modern state, said the German thinker Max Weber, “is a compulsory association which organizes domination.” Thus, domination is the context of the terms “multinational state” and “autonomy” used by Gilio-Whitaker in her article. And from what, in her view, does the political status of autonomy “derive?” She answers: “It derives from the internal constitution or legislation of the state…” In other words, the political status of autonomy she is advocating is, in her view, derived from the very state of domination from which Original Nations and Peoples are working to liberate themselves. So, Gilio-Whitaker has made herself appear to be supporting the US government’s official statement that it will respect the UNDRIP, “only to the degree that it is consistent with U.S. law.”

Gilio-Whitaker also raises the red-herring of “secession” when she points out how some people say that “…a more expansive exercise of ‘external’ self-determination would allow for the possibility of secession from the state.” She seems oblivious to the key point that is impossible to “secede from” or engage in “secession” from political domination. Because our Original Nations and Peoples have not engaged in an “accession” i.e., exercising the free choice to join the political framework of states, it is impossible for our Nations and Peoples to “unjoin” or “secede” from the body politic of the state. In international law, the exercise of the right to self-determination is not synonymous with secession. “Secession” is a pointless distraction that results in the denial of the right of Original Nations and Peoples freely to determine our own political, economic and cultural status.

Finally, Gilio-Whitaker’s last paragraph is the most troubling, for she claims that the U.S. expression of “support” for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “officially ‘internationalized’ the relationships between indigenous nations and their state governments.” (emphasis added) The fact that she has used the phrase “their state governments” reflects her view that indigenous peoples are rightfully subordinate to states. It makes no sense to claim, for example, that a “domestic dependent nationhood” political fabrication in U.S. federal Indian law and policy has been “internationalized,” and then claim that this supposed “internationalization” has resulted in “the possibility” of nations under political dominance being “elevated from the limitation of colonial law.”

These kinds of approaches remind me of the Alice in Wonderland bit about having the sense of “running” (‘moving’ from one state of being to another) so you must be getting “somewhere,” but, come to find out, it’s an illusion and you haven’t really “moved” at all.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee-Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He has been studying U.S. federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980s.



You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page