Lesson from the Election: Indigenous Leaders Must Stand Up

Peter d’Errico

The latest U.S. presidential election holds a major lesson for Indigenous politics. Lets explore what happened and add it up: Stand up for nationhood or lose it.

We learned from the “upset victory” of Donald Trump that mass media and polls didn’t understand how angry masses of people are at being tossed aside by the masters of global finance. In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton said, “Our nation is more deeply divided than we thought.”

Bernie Sanders understood the anger, but the powers that run the Democratic Party didn’t want Bernie and stopped him in the primaries; Wikileaks exposed their shenanigans by releasing insider emails. Donald understood the anger—or at least he recognized it—and though the powers that run the Republican Party tried, they couldn’t stop him. Their shenanigans came out on prime time television.

As it happened, the election pitted two candidates beholden to global finance: one whose embrace of global money earned her big money behind closed doors; the other whose embrace of bankruptcy—one of big money’s favorite tools—earned him big money behind a big logo.

Hillary’s “glass ceiling” argument was a red herring—because electing a woman doesn’t necessarily mean electing someone with a sense of economic injustice. Margaret Thatcher was a woman, but she governed like Ronald Reagan—tearing up the UK’s social contract to benefit global finance. Need I mention Sarah Palin—a woman who may yet find a political position in Trumplandia? Or Carly Fiorina, whom the Conservative Review called “a cross between [Ben] Carson and Trump”?

A contest between Bernie and Trump would have provided a substantive choice to America: go “left” with Bernie and take on the global finance regime that puts profits above all else; or go “right” with Donald and pit people against each other with race and religion to divert their attention from global finance.

Bernie’s appeal grew because he ‘spoke truth to power”—and his record showed he “walked the talk.” Donald sometimes spoke truth about global finance—as in his critiques of “free trade” and hedge fund tax laws—but his “walk” belied his words: “the Trump” brand built on bankruptcy laws. His appeal grew because he talked trash.

Donald’s racism compounded his disingenuousness about global finance. His rhetoric about free trade in search of cheap labor became an attack on workers who immigrate to take the cheap jobs that global finance offers. Donald’s own bankruptcies demonstrated how much he shares the ways and means of global finance.

Global finance profits from pitting workers against each other in a “free market”—i.e., a market without unions and regulations. Global finance undermines ‘safety nets” of social services that get in the way of keeping workers willing to work for less. Global finance gains from racial and gender divisions that keep workers fighting workers. By stirring up worker-on-worker hatred and mixing it with racism, Trump actually served global finance.

None of this surprises anyone with a grasp of history. When right-wing politicians encourage racism as a response to economic insecurity, and left-wing politicians fail to put forward an alternative agenda, racism becomes the only game in town. Hillary’s agenda was not an alternative to global finance, but, rather, a rehash of her husband Bill’s “centrist” approach—like Tony Blair in the UK, whose policies also moved to “the center”—meaning to the right, following the lead of global finance rather than leading against it.

The characteristics of global finance are well known to economists and politicians, but not to masses of workers and voters. Republicans and Democrats portray global finance as a good thing for everyone, ignoring the damage to nature and people’s lives. Politicians and corporate leaders—increasingly a single class—encourage ignorance of global finance.

When push comes to shove, Donald will confront the continuing effort of global finance to drive down the cost of labor. Will he take steps to rein in global finance, or will he try to avoid the confrontation by stirring up more animosity, racist and otherwise, among workers? Or will Trump decide to have another war—a common tactic of politicians on the global finance payroll?

Naomi Klein, writing in The Guardian, diagnosed the election this way: “Neo-fascist responses to rampant insecurity and inequality are not going to go away. But what we know from the 1930s is that what it takes to do battle with fascism is a real left. A good chunk of Trump’s support could be peeled away if there were a genuine redistributive agenda on the table.”

In 2000, Chantal Mouffe wrote a similar critique in “The Democratic Paradox,” about political parties attempting to “rise above” partisanship, and especially of left parties trying to become “centrist,” as if there were no fundamental political choices and everyone were on “the same side.” Mouffe concluded, like Klein, that “populist right-wing parties” arise where there are no “real political choices” to challenge global finance.

Let’s sharpen our focus now and ask how we can apply this to Indigenous politics.

For a long time, Indigenous Peoples have been exploited by global finance, through colonialism—the extraction of “resources” from Indigenous territories. Colonizer governments make every effort to destroy Indigenous opposition—directly, through genocide, and indirectly, through mental colonization—making people forget who they are.

The U.S. has tried to make Indigenous Peoples forget who they are through “boarding schools,” “Citizenship Act,” “Indian Reorganization,” “Termination,” and other programs that work like missionary efforts: they aim to “convert” Indigenous Peoples into something else—”American Indians” or “Native Americans.”

Mental colonization builds on the effects of physical destruction. The memory of genocidal violence in the past—”Indian wars”—and the threat of violence in the present—Oak Flat, Standing Rock—tells Indigenous Peoples they might be better off pretending they are Americans than insisting on who they actually are.

The success of pretense manifests in big ways and small—the U.S. flag at Powwows, even though that flag carries stains of Indigenous blood going back centuries; “Tribal leaders” meeting with the U.S. president, who assures them they “have a seat at the table,” even though they are legally still “wards” under the doctrine of Christian Discovery and their peoples don’t exist if they aren’t “recognized.”

We can apply the lesson of the election as follows: When anti-Indigenous politicians stir up non-Indigenous hate and anger, Indigenous leaders must respond with strong alternative views.

It will not be sufficient for Indigenous leaders to talk about being “Americans,” or to pretend that “we are all part of the same country.” It will not be sufficient for Indigenous leaders to rely on federal Indian law principles, either, because those principles deny Indigenous sovereignty.

The U.S. claims to be the “trustee” for Indigenous Peoples” lands; but the “trust doctrine” arose from the doctrine of “Christian Discovery”—the claim that the colonizers are the owners of Indigenous Peoples” lands. As applied by U.S. courts, the “trust doctrine” is interpreted to mean the U.S. Congress can do as it pleases with Indigenous Peoples” lands.

A true “government-to-government” relationship does not mean a “trust” relation. The federal “trust” concept creates a relation of domination by one government over the other. Indigenous leaders must understand that—and stand up for a true government-to-government relation against those who try to undermine Indigenous Peoples and grab their lands.

Indigenous leaders must articulate and insist on the fundamental difference between Indigenous self-determination and “domestic, dependent nation.” No one else has the interest or the motivation to do that. If they don’t do it, the other side will dominate the field.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinébe”iiná Náhiiłna be Agha”diit”ahii Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.

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