The Sovereignty of Everything, the Power of Nothing

David Wilkins

“Every time we carry an eagle feather, that’s sovereignty. Every time we pick berries, that’s sovereignty. Every time we dig roots, that’s sovereignty.” — Billy Frank, Jr., Nisqually

Tribal sovereignty is arguably the most important, unifying concept across Indian Country. It is about more than political boundaries; it defines nothing less than our living, collective power which is generated as traditions are respectfully developed, sustained, and transformed to confront new conditions. We as Native peoples have been too lax with these words, allowing their power to be misused and even turned against our own relatives.

Words matter. And sovereignty is a word so strong and generous that it can be stretched to fancy-up just about any idea, from the profound to the frivolous. Yet, even as we dilute and diminish it through overuse, we know that it is our individual and collective sovereignty as citizens of Tribal nations that unites and protects us. It is both a weapon and a shield wielded on behalf of our lands and peoples.

This venerated force can also be contorted and abused. Increasingly, we see it turned destructively inward by Native policymakers who engage in the shameful process of dismembering bona fide citizens. These violations of human and civil rights take place under a false, bright banner of sovereignty. All Indigenous people, the heirs and agents of this collective life-force, have a moral duty to put a stop to the heinous acts committed in its name. I contend that it is even more incumbent upon those who have been given authority in Indian Country–holy people, elected officials and academics–to take action.

Few recall a time before we talked so easily of sovereignty. It is now so widely used and understood that most believe it came into our parlance through treaty making. In fact, Vine Deloria, Jr. deserves credit for popularizing it in his 1969 best-selling book, Custer Died for Your Sins.

Vine placed the word tribal—meaning, the people—before the word sovereignty. In that context, sovereignty, he reasoned, “can be said to consist more of continued cultural integrity than of political powers,” and he emphasized, “to the degree that a tribal nation loses its sense of cultural identity, to that degree it suffers a loss of sovereignty.” Sever our roots, and our sovereignty withers. Native governments, like states, are abstractions and that it is the people, acting from a foundation of cultural integrity and community discipline, who generate and exercise genuine sovereignty. Tribal sovereignty is nothing less than the expressed living power of our nations.

These word choices were carefully made because Vine could foresee their importance as a unifying concept. He also knew Native nations needed to employ strong political terms that would resonate with legal-minded federal and state officials and thus form the basis for discussions of the reconstruction of our self-governing capabilities

Of course, he was well aware of the history of the word sovereignty–dating back to at least the 13th century—and that, like the doctrine of discovery, it had been appropriated by political theorists to empower kings. While the Pope continued to view himself as God’s chosen sovereign on earth, monarchs throughout Europe came to believe that they, too, had been divinely selected to rule.

Thus, the concept of tribal sovereignty was embraced by Native nations and became a unifying principle, so ubiquitous that by 1998, a mere 25 years after first promoting its use, Vine bemoaned that its definition “covers a multitude of sins, having lost its political moorings, and now is adrift on the currents of individual fancy.”

He said that because the political and culturally based concept of tribal sovereignty he articulated had increasingly been hijacked by politicians, professors, and pundits for their own purposes. Its vast, inclusive power is stretched thin as more and more ideas seek to claim a bit of its magic.

We now have intellectual sovereignty, fashion sovereignty, rhetorical sovereignty, artistic sovereignty, energy sovereignty, and even food sovereignty. A people should make intelligent decisions, produce great art, and work tirelessly to keep their food supply healthy. Each of these endeavors has value. But, intelligence, fashion, rhetoric, art, energy, and food are not sovereign. Peoples are sovereign. Attaching the term to a concept does heighten that concept’s importance, but after a while, this liberal usage also devalues the fundamental meaning of sovereignty.

Academics are some of the worst offenders, tacking the word onto just about anything they want to promote. It’s like overusing an exclamation point or all capital letters–after a time, it is just a device that no one takes seriously. Scholars who make their livelihoods purporting to help Native peoples must choose their words carefully and make sure their work is of real use. Otherwise, we sit smugly in our ivory tower sweat-lodges at an intellectual and cultural dead-end–our work used for professional gain with little meaningful returning to nourish the roots in our communities.

Once scholars’ commander the term sovereignty, it makes it harder for them to criticize when others do the same. And while misuse of a powerful word may simply seem crass or selfish, we all know it can also be dangerous. Sam Deloria, an equally gifted thinker, foresaw this and cautioned Native national leaders to take care in how they wielded their delegated authority, lest they begin to act as powerful individuals whose behavior comes to threaten the sovereign people they are sworn to represent.

Sam Deloria said the time would come when some Natives would begin to abuse their powers under the guise of sovereignty; “there has been much discussion in recent years about tribal sovereignty … Let me warn you–as in many areas of political discussion, this is a conceptually thick forest. It can be beautiful and contain a lot of riches. It can also be a hiding place for thieves, robbers, and charlatans.”

Tribal politicians and jurists who work to disenroll legitimate Native citizens justify their perverted behavior by wrapping themselves in the cloak of sovereign power, often described as sovereign immunity, and then declare that this protects them from their own people. They equate criticism of their leadership with an attack on sovereignty, itself. Like European kings of old, they place themselves above their “subjects,” beyond the reach of traditional and common law.

But as political scientist Louis Henkin has said: “sovereignty as a right to do as one pleases is part of the concept, but not sovereignty as anarchy, not sovereignty as resistance to cooperation. And not sovereignty as immunity.” This term, he noted, was wrongly used to excuse “immunity from law, immunity from scrutiny, immunity from justice.” Sovereignty does not mean that leaders are above the people. Sovereignty means leaders have a profound responsibility to the people. It is up to the people to hold their leader accountable for their words and deeds.

In the history of Native nations in North America, no single individual or group of individuals would have been allowed to wield the kind of abusive and absolute control we increasingly see today. The clan and kinship system dictated accountable, not autocratic behavior. In fact, many nations, such as the Cheyenne, have traditional protections to prevent political tyranny. Some have forgotten these safeguards or have not considered how they might incorporate them into their modern governmental practices.

A corrupted kind of sovereignty is now increasingly being used as a weapon against Native people and as a shield by those thieves, robbers, and charlatans Sam Deloria so clearly envisioned. It has taken us hostage through the idea that criticism of abusive leadership is criticism of our own powers as nations. This twisted logic has paralyzed many of our responsible Native leaders.

Our living, collective power, generated through nurturance of our traditions has been misnamed and misdirected. We can no longer stand by, rendered helpless just because someone falsely plays the sovereignty card when we all know the game is rigged to disempower us all.

Let us reorient ourselves and focus not on how we as academics can paste sovereignty onto some idea; or as government officials use the term to justify civil and human rights violations, but rather let us reclaim our tribal sovereignty, our life force. Only then will we have the weapon and shield necessary to address the problems that continue to bedevil our nations.

David E. Wilkins (Lumbee) is a citizen of the Lumbee Nation and holds the McKnight Presidential Professorship in American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of several books, including Hollow Justice: Indigenous Claims in the US (2013); The Navajo Political Experience, 4th ed. (2013); and The Hank Adams Reader (2011).


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