Putting the World Back Together

Mike Myers

There are a couple of interesting stories that have emerged that will have some impacts for Indigenous nations and peoples. The first is about the process taking place in Hawaii to re-establish a government for the Indigenous Hawaiians. As reported in Aljazeera America there are some folks who have gone to court to challenge the process. Two are non-Hawaiians, two are Hawaiians who say their names have been put on a roll without their permission and two other Hawaiians who don’t agree with a phrase in a declaration on the process that states: “affirm the un-relinquished sovereignty of the Native Hawaiian people, and my intent to participate in the process of self-determination.”

The non-Hawaiians are arguing that the process is illegal because it’s about a “race based election.” That’s to be expected from settlers who have greatly benefited from the military overthrow of the Hawaiian government that led to it becoming a U.S. state.

As the declaration states, this is an issue of self-determination. This is in line with international law which 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.” A right that was violently abrogated, first by the overthrow and then the statehood vote.

I first became aware of this effort in the 1980’s when I had the opportunity to go to Hawaii to identify Native Hawaiian projects a funder was looking to assist. I had the opportunity to meet with Indigenous leaders and people on several islands and to listen and learn about their efforts to re-establish their government. For the longest time the U.S. has been a major roadblock but seems to have stepped out of the way. But the process still lies with the Department of the Interior who will play the final role in defining what the U.S. relationship to the new Hawaiian government will be.

Hopefully this doesn’t turn out to be a variation of the IRA or worst yet – the Alaskan model where everyone got converted into corporations. It is indeed an opportunity to fully exercise the right of self-determination, and who knows, maybe the start of getting their country back.

The second emerging issue is the Liberal Party victory in Canada. The press on this issue has taken note that there are now 10 Aboriginal members of parliament – 8 Liberal and 2 New Democrats. For those of us from the south who don’t realize that the Canadian governmental system is quite different from dealing with the Americans. Up there everyone must hold to the party line or face censure or isolation. Unlike down here where things can get quite raucous, such as we’re seeing amongst the Republicans and their various factions.

So with a strict party discipline in place what can 10 folks do without falling into disfavor with the party bosses? They’re certainly free to express opinions and ideas but when it comes to a vote everyone is expected to vote “correctly.” To not do so will raise the ire of the bosses.

The first challenge for these folks will be the Keystone Pipeline that their leader, Justin Trudeau, supports. This is where the rubber will meet the road.

Inside this issue is another issue, why would an Indigenous person not only get involved in settler politics but become a member of one of their parties? As a Haudenosaunee citizen I’ve grown up with the clear policy set out in the Two Row Wampum Treaty – we are two distinct and separate nations, governments and peoples and as such, we do not interfere in the internal affairs of the other. Not that the settlers have upheld this treaty but that certainly isn’t an excuse for us to violate it either.

I’ve heard all of the rationales that Indigenous folks come up with for working in the settler governments as well as getting involved in their politics and political parties. The two key ones are: “I’m doing it to make a difference for our people.” and “To show we can beat the Whiteman at his own game.” So after more than 30 years of hearing this, my questions are – How’s that working out for you? Can you show me the change you’ve made? Are we winning yet?

This is also manifesting at the nation and local level but in the form of people who identify as “traditional” running in nation/tribal elections. In talking with a couple of folks who have done this I once again hear the same rationale about “making a difference” or something to effect of “we can’t sit on the sidelines and complain, we need to do something.” But I’m not hearing any discussion about a focused agenda around nation re-building or strengthening our sovereignty and inherent rights. It’s always about trying to transform or impact a system that isn’t ours, that isn’t an authentic expression of our principles, values and beliefs.

I get it that getting elected into an alien system is easier than trying to re-conceptualize what our forms of governance would look like in the 21st Century. Fourteen years ago I worked on a contract for three years to develop a culturally based constitution and structuring of a governmental administration that would unify seven communities from the same nation. It was an extremely rewarding exercise because of the elders we got to work with. But it hasn’t really advanced except for implementation of some minor pieces of the overall concept.

In looking at why things have stalled there is one significant factor that jumps out: fear. Fear of breaking the love/hate relationship we have with the settler governments. Fear of becoming responsible for our own development and growth. Fear of taking the huge chance of actually trusting ourselves and each other to undertake this effort.

In the 1980s I learned an important socio/political/cultural concept in the word “anomie.” The word means “A state of alienation experienced by an individual or group.” When I understood this word I understood what has happened to us. At the very core of our issues and efforts, at the back of our mind, is this state of alienation from ourselves our civilizations, our societies, and our cultures.

We’re pretty familiar with the concept of Historic Trauma but one piece that helped me really understand is Sandra Bloom’s article,Every Time History Repeats Itself, The Price Goes Up: The Social Reenactment of Trauma,” in which she discuss how “whole nations become organized around traumatic experiences.”

Nation re-building is not simply a political act. Be nice if it was but it’s not. It is about how we are literally “putting our world back together” emotionally, socially, culturally and economically. There is no one priority, all aspects are of equal priority. What is of utmost importance is that those who are engaged in these processes come together—not on one page—but rather as chapters in the same book. The title of the book is “Restoration of Indigenous Nationhood” and it will necessarily have many contributing authors.

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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