‘Sovereignty’ Versus Original Independence

Steven Newcomb

In his book Captives of Sovereignty (2010), Jonathon Havercroft points out that a number of contemporary political philosophers (Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri) have regarded “sovereignty” as an “unjust and unaccountable structure of domination” (p. 52). According to this view, to be a political “sovereign” is to have assumed a position of political domination in relation to those deemed to be non-sovereign, or sub-sovereign.

In American Indians, Time, and the Law (1987), Charles Wilkinson says that U.S. Supreme Court opinions written by Chief Justice John Marshall “made it clear that Indian tribes were sovereign before contact with Europeans…” (p. 55). But this way of stating the matter accepts the view that “Indian tribes” and “sovereignty” were already existing here in our part of the planet before the foreign European words and ideas of “Indian tribes” and “sovereignty” had been invasively brought here.

To think that “tribes” and “sovereignty” can emerge and exist in human experience without those names (words) and ideas is tantamount to saying that Columbus could “discover” a place by the name “America” fifteen years before the name (word) “America” had even been coined. Mexican scholar Edmundo O’Gorman pointed this out in his book The Invention of America (1962): It would have been necessary for a place called “America” to be existing at the time when Columbus first set sail in order for him to “discover” a place by that name on his voyage.

The view that “tribes” and “sovereignty” were already existing here on this continent before the Europeans brought those foreign words and ideas here to this continent does not stand up to scrutiny. Extending a point expressed by Richard Brown in A Poetic for Sociology, it was not possible for a reality of “tribes” and “sovereignty” to emerge here on this continent until the foreign words and ideas of “tribes” and “sovereignty” were available here for our ancestors to depict themselves in that manner and to share that experience of reality by means of those foreign words and ideas.

Clearly, human reality existed in terms of the languages of our ancestors, and we had a whole vocabulary for understanding the nature of the existence of our original free nations. But that form of reality called “tribes” and “sovereignty” could not exist here on this continent until those specific foreign words and ideas were available to provide the basis for that shared experience of reality.

Additionally, think of Havercroft’s point that many political philosophers consider sovereignty to be an unjust structure of domination. To claim that the European idea of sovereignty was existing here on this continent before Europeans arrived with the foreign word and idea of “sovereignty” is to claim that an “unjust and accountable” monarchical “structure of domination” was already existing here on Great Turtle Island before Europeans got here. This goes to show that much of what passes for accurate scholarship about our pre-European existence involves taking European words and concepts and mentally projecting them into our pre-European past, and into a time when only our words and concepts were existing here in our original languages.

In American Indians, Time, and the Law, Charles Wilkinson also says that Chief Justice Marshall’s opinions for the Supreme Court expressed the view “that some, but not all sovereign powers continued in existence after relations with Europeans and the United States were established” (p. 55). What audacity for Chief Justice Marshall and the Supreme Court to quantify our pre-European existence in terms of Europeans words and ideas, and then assume that a “diminishment” of the assumed quantity of our pre-European existence had occurred simply because the Europeans showed up. That Marshall and the Supreme Court were able to conceive of such a “diminishment,” and saw that idea as critical to the political and economic future of the U.S., was the basis for the conception of such a “diminishment.”

On reflection, we begin with our pre-European existence, completely free and independent of European words and ideas. Our existence after-European-arrival initially begins with our ancestors still being completely free. Later, however, men such as Chief Justice Marshall claimed that our free and independent existence was “diminished” because the Europeans showed up and began to mentally and unilaterally impose foreign words and ideas of “diminishment” on our ancestors.

But here’s the question, given that our ancestors began completely free and independent of foreign European words and ideas, on what basis was it suddenly assumed that our ancestors became validly subject to European words and ideas in the first place? From a Christian viewpoint, one possible answer is that the unbaptized must be presumed as subject to the words and ideas of a baptized “sovereign” (dominator). If not, then by what possible means would the unbaptized ever become baptized, which is “God’s will?” And if the unbaptized were not subject to Christian words and ideas, then by what means would the lands and resources of the unbaptized ever end up in the possession of the baptized?

To this day we are rightfully free of the colonizers’ imposed words and ideas of domination. It’s just that many of us have not yet grasped and acted on this critical point. When we live our lives based on the assumption that we are subject to the colonizers’ dominating words, and ideas, and systems of domination then that becomes the reality we learn to expect and experience in our everyday lives. We must think and act free in order to exist as originally and still rightfully free nations.

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.

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swrussel's picture
Steve, you are saying exactly what I've said in my book and in these pages using different words. "Sovereignty" refers to a historical paternal figure, the monarch, who used to get his powers from the Pope but, over time, got to be the Great Father in his own right. (Historians tend to judge Queens by how well they acted like Kings.) When democracy became the ascendant ideology, the sovereign became, nominally, "the people." That is, the concept remained in a context where it made no sense. Now, globalization has put the ancient, paternal idea of "sovereignty" under siege from both the top and the bottom. I draw the conclusion that it's futile to enter a contest for sovereignty in the ancient meaning at the precise historical moment when it is becoming less relevant if not obsolete. You have reached the conclusion several times, including here, that we are "rightfully free." If self-determination were in fact an organizing principle of the universe, you would be correctamundo. As it is, you have an excellent moral argument that I say avails us little except insofar as we can use it to wield more practical sources of power: public opinion, coalition politics, and--eventually, if we are to prevail--nonviolent direct action against domination when it has an immediate impact on our lives. When there is no immediate impact, let the colonists strut. There are no threat when busy congratulating themselves.