We Need to Be Free

Mike Myers

As many Indigenous territories throughout North America once again enter the settler imposed election cycles it might be a good time to revisit the meaning of democracy as we understand it.

Both settler regimes decided to abolish and overthrow original Indigenous governments, Canada in 1924 and the U.S. in 1934. Each created laws proscribing what they would consider to be acceptable forms of Indigenous governance and methodically imposed these systems on nearly all Indigenous territories. Each maintained a tight leash on what they had created by insuring that these entities could not take any actions without the approval of the federal governments.

In 1966, the UN passed two international laws, the covenants on civil and political rights and on social, economic and cultural rights. Both came into force in 1976. Article 1 in each covenant states: “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”

Both of these important pieces of international legislation remain largely unknown or understood within Indigenous nations and amongst peoples, except for those who are active in the international arenas. Our ignorance of these laws makes the settler regimes happy because it means that we won’t be drawing upon them as the international support we need to accomplish de-colonization and re-establishment of our original nations. Our ignorance of them keeps us within the trap of settler imposed laws, regulations, and policies as though these were legitimate forms of oppression just because they say so.

Let’s take a step back from the never ending legal morass we’ve been engaged for decades and ask ourselves, “What would our political status look like, if we truly and freely determined it?” This discussion would have to start with a clean slate free of the impositions put on us by the Indian Act and Indian Reorganization Act. It requires us to re-visit our original forms of governance and decision-making. To once again look to the ancient principles, values and beliefs that undergird centuries of democratic growth and development in this Hemisphere.

It requires us to ask a fundamental question: “Who are they (Canada or the U.S.) to come into our territories and overthrow our forms of governance and civic participation?” This question demands that we examine the fundamental racism that is the foundation of the formulation of settler laws governing Indigenous nations and peoples. That racism is rooted in the Doctrine of Discovery, which really is alive and well today.

There were three Papal Bulls which established the foundations of supposed Christian rights of invasion and conquest – the Dum Diversas 1452, Romanus Pontifex 1455, and Inter Caetera, 1493. The theme of all three is summed up in the phrase: “..to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit…”

We’re considered the pagans in this scenario. The Protestants who arrived here expressed this belief with the word redskinne – meaning “the children of devil”. This is how the fight with the Washington football team ties into all of this.

This is also the origins of the racist theories of the plenary power of the U.S. Congress, or the parliamentary powers of the Crown, to do as they will with Indigenous nations and peoples.

This background sheds an interesting light on the opposition of both governments to the phrase, “free, prior and informed consent” found in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. While the U.S. has stopped being so vocal in their opposition, Canada has not.

It is unfortunate that there are Indigenous persons who have come out in opposition to this phrase. That opposition all too often smacks of internalized racism that somehow we continue to be the “dumb Indians” who can’t defend ourselves. And all too often these are the utterances of Indigenous folks who have made tremendous careers out of “saving us”.

As a negotiator for several Indigenous governments I have all too often found us engaged in a process arguing about a development or action that has already been planned and is on the verge of activation. We have not received any prior notice nor have we received sufficient information that would be the basis of formulating an informed decision.

These become important principles for changing what has been the status quo of relations between Indigenous nations and other governments or non-Indigenous interests. These are not redundant intensifiers as they’ve been proclaimed by people against the principles.

The other major challenge is that we are always having to argue over their laws, policies or regulations. What I have learned is that when we come to the table with our own laws, policies and regulations there is a dynamic shift in process. When we do this we are engaging in a process reflective of the principles of nation-to-nation and government-to-government. And isn’t this the goal we’ve been striving for all these decades?

This brings us back to – what nation are we talking about and who is its government? Are these settler imposed entities operating under colonial laws really our governments? They are operating under authorities delegated to them by the settler governments. This is not the same as being a government constituted by its citizens and empowered to act on their behalf.

So once again, what would our freely determined political status look like? To answer this question will take a hard work and a dedicated focus on the re-establishment of authentic Indigenous democracies. This is not about tinkering with the Indian Act or the IRA. It is about the journey of de-colonization and healing that leads to the re-emergence of the Ways of Life that we were intended to be by the fact of our creation.

Mike Myers is the founder and CEO of Network for Native Futures, a Native non-profit that works with Indigenous nations, communities and organizations internationally. The network's mission is to support sustainable development and nation re-building through providing of technical assistance, training and consulting.

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