On Sen. Barrasso’s Column, ‘Getting Washington Out of Indian Country’

Steven Newcomb

Senator John Barrasso (R-Montana) is the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. He recently published a column at Indian Country Media Network, provocatively titled, “Getting Washington Out of Indian Country.” (Nov. 20, 2015). In the article, Senator Barrasso holds what he calls “Washington’s invasive bureaucracy and overregulation” responsible for millions of dollars in “lost revenues.” He claims that these monies, if they had been generated through mining on Indian reservations, could provide health care for Indian families, safer roads on reservations, and scholarships for deserving students. His article conveniently ignores the extent to which mining is destructive to health, ecological systems, and water.

To facilitate additional mining on Indian reservation lands, Senator Barrasso has proposed legislation which he claims will provide more jobs for Indians, and bring other benefits to Indian reservations located in states such as Wyoming, Montana, Oklahoma, and Alaska. He says his legislation makes sense because “unemployment” in Indian country “is shockingly high—up to 50 percent among some tribes—and hope is often in desperately short supply.” Senator Barrasso sees his two pieces of legislation as a solution to these kinds of problems.

What Senator Barrasso fails to recognize, however, is that a lack of mining on Indian reservation lands is not the source of the many problems faced by our Native nations. What is the source of those problems? Answer: Washington’s system of domination used against our original nations. Why is the unemployment rate so high on Indian reservations? Why are there so many dire health statistics on Indian reservations? Why are teens and young people taking their own lives at epidemic rates? The U.S. system of domination used against our Native nations.

Perhaps Senator Barrasso does not realize that the very term “Indian country” is integral to the U.S. system of domination being used against our Native nations. Felix Cohen’s Handbook of Federal Indian Law (1942, University of New Mexico reprint) explains that the definition of Indian country has been in flux for generations. The Cohen Handbook explains that the “conception of the Indian country reflects a situation which finds its counterpart in international law in the case of newly acquired territories where the laws of those territories continue in force until repealed or modified by the new sovereign” (p. 6).

Who is the “new sovereign” referred to in the above sentence? It is the United States. Cohen is talking about “territories” that the United States is said to have “acquired” by a treaty transfer from other “sovereigns.” Examples of such territorial transfers include the United States’ treaty with Great Britain (Treaty of Paris, 1793), or with France (Louisiana Purchase, 1803), or with Spain (Florida Purchase Treaty, 1819), or with Mexico (Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, 1848).

In each of those treaties, “sovereignty” is considered to have been transferred from a prior “sovereign” to the United States as “the new sovereign.” What is sovereignty in the context of the aforementioned treaties? According to Jonathon Havercroft, in his profound book Captives of Sovereignty, sovereignty is “an unjust structure of domination” (p. 21), “an unjust structure of political domination, that limits human freedom” (p. 34).

Senator Barrasso ought to know that an unjust structure of political domination forms the basis for the idea of “Indian Country” as defined by the United States. Evidence of this is found in the following wording from a congressional Act, of June 30, 1834: “That all that part of the United States west of the Mississippi, and not within the states of Missouri and Louisiana, or the territory of Arkansas, and, also, that part of the United States east of the Mississippi river, and not within any state to which the Indian title has not been extinguished, for the purposes of this act, be taken and deemed to be Indian country.” (emphasis added).

The phrase “all that part of the United States” demonstrates that the United States government does not consider “Indian country” to be the distinct territory of any Indian nations. To the extent that the United States considers Indian country to be a distinct “territory” at all, it considers it to be a “part of the territory of the United States” over which the United States government claims an absolute and “sovereign” territorial dominion (right of domination).

On the basis of a territorial definition of “property” (domination) traced to the law of nations, to international treaties, and to the idea of “territoriality,” the U.S. Congress considers Indian country to be U.S. territory rather than the territory of Indian nations. In short, the profound issue that Senator Barrasso has failed to touch on is this: The task of lifting the U.S. system of domination off our original nations, which were originally existing free and independent of any claimed right of domination.

Senator Barrasso would be showing truly courageous leadership if he were to hold a hearing on the past and present day domination of Indian nations by the United States, a domination that is traced to the claimed right of Christian discovery and domination. That claimed right is premised on the argument that Christians are entitled to “sovereignty” (domination) in relation to non-Christians nations.

Given Havercroft’s finding that “sovereignty” is an unjust structure of domination that limits human freedom, the U.S. claim of “overriding sovereignty” over our nations amounts to the United States claiming the right to hold our nations and our lands inside and under U.S. domination as part of the “territory” and “property” of the United States. Senator Barrasso’s hearing will need to address a key point: that the imposition of an unjust structure of domination on Indian nations by the United States is, to this day, still premised on the original argument that Christians have the right to dominate non-Christians.

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 is the co-producer of the documentary movie, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree).

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Sammy7's picture
Increasingly, the English language requires new words to describe it's foul hubris. I'm wondering, does super-sociopath go far enough?