Indian Self-Determination and Sovereignty

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

If ever a concept grabbed hold of hearts and minds in Indian country in the past couple decades surely it would be that of sovereignty. Native people talk about it with reverence, demanding that it be respected by the federal government, and expect their tribal governments to assert it. Even the federal government speaks the language of sovereignty when it claims to uphold the “unique government-to-government relationship” it has with tribes. Never mind that what the feds mean when they use the word “sovereignty” is that unique brand of quasi-sovereignty they believe they bestow upon tribal nations via the federal Indian legal system, not sovereignty in the international sense, the kind nation-states mean when they talk about it. The same is true with the concept of self-determination.

In general there’s a huge difference between what the federal government means when it talks about Indian sovereignty and self-determination and the kind tribal nations mean. Although it can be said that the concepts probably vary from tribe to tribe, self-determination for Indian people overall is representative of the state of political independence that existed prior to colonization. The process of colonization has given a new meaning to the idea of self-determination for the colonized, and the process of decolonizing the relationships between tribes and the United States is, at least in part, about how we define the terms of “sovereignty” and “self-determination.” Self-determination and sovereignty have become concepts that colonizing states have defined for the colonized, and indigenous peoples worldwide have pushed back against those limiting and self-serving definitions, which is why it took 22 years to pass the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Self-determination and sovereignty for indigenous peoples is seen by colonizing states (especially the US) as “aspirational,” that which doesn’t really exist but may (or may not) at some point in the future. There is, however, an important difference between the concepts of self-determination and sovereignty, reflected in a growing and sophisticated body of academic literature by Native scholars. For example, we find that the roots of the concept of sovereignty (and the modern nation-state) are in feudal European monarchies, characterized by hierarchical power structures with profound religious overtones. Because these kinds of governing structures were typically foreign to indigenous peoples, sovereignty is said to be an inappropriate concept for Indian nations. Self-determination, on the other hand, is as the name implies the ability to be self-determining independent of an outside power.

The problem is that in the context of a colonial relationship such as the one between the United States and tribal nations, self-determination is reduced to the ability of a tribal nation to be merely self-governing. There’s nothing innately wrong with tribes being allowed to govern themselves (as they have always done), but it leaves unaddressed a whole host of other problems that the colonial relationship presents, embodied in the system of domestic law that tribal nations are unconsentingly subjugated to, complete with its doctrines of discovery, plenary power, domestic dependent nationhood and trust. It is still a paternalistic relationship with tribes generally thought of as incapable, if not undeserving of the type of self-determination reserved for nation-states—despite their centuries-long histories of foreign relations with outside and international actors.

Throughout the over 200 years of the colonial relationship between tribal nations and the United States several milestones indicate turning points where the colonial nature of the relationships deepened, i.e. where the US became more controlling. One of those is the ending of the treaty making relationship in 1871. However, one little-known fact of the modern sovereignty/self-determination movement is the restoration of the bilateral treaty process through self-governance compacts under the Self-Governance Demonstration Project between tribal nations and the United States government. This was exercised by a handful of tribes including the Lummi, Hoopa, Quinault and Jamestown S’Klallam in the early 1990’s. The compacts are, arguably, indicative of a new type of US-tribal political relationship, and reflect a particular type of international political status known as the Associated Nation.

Associated Nations are characteristic of “nations within nations” with powers of internal self-governance and although the Self-Governance Demonstration Project was far from perfect, the important point is that it represents movement in a process toward greater independence and an elevated level of self-determination. Coupled with UNDRIP and other international human rights instruments that support indigenous peoples, for tribal nations it can be seen as a step in the direction of international political status. This is how we chip away at the forces of colonization as Native nations adopt the characteristics of international players in a process that coagulates into something we might identify as decolonization. It reminds us that decolonization is as much a journey as it is a destination.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker is a Research Associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies and frequent contributor to ICTMN.

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piqua's picture
Jean Bodin, in support of French Absolutism, defined sovereignty as "supremacy over citizens or subjects, unrestrained by the laws." The concept is one of "the sovereign" being restrained by no laws, but everyone existing beneath, and subject to, the dominant sovereign power (the mon-arch, the "one arch," which symbolizes the dome of dominance or domination). Dom and sub are the key, almost subliminal, units of meaning that are operational in this discussion. Up/down, above/below, over/under is indicative of the structure. In the early 1900's, prior to WWI, the term "self-determination" was first coined in the context of places and peoples under colonial domination, such as Ireland and India. The intended meaning was "liberty" (free) from domination. Your use of the phrase "tribal nations unconsentingly subjugated to..." indicates the context of being unfree as the result of an imposed dominating framework of meaning. Even the term "indigenous" as found in the international working definition means "dominated." The "indigenous" are considered to be the original peoples of a place, but with an added element: Outsiders arrived "from other parts of the world, overcame them, and, by conquest, settlement or other means reduced them to a non-dominant or colonial situtation." Overcame, conquest, reduced, and dominant all indicate the framework of domination and subordination at the core of U.S. federal Indian law and policy, and at the core of the international context of Indigenous nations and peoples as contrasted with the dominating framework of "States." Notice the use of the capital 'S' to indicate the higher level dominance of those human societies that have organized themselves behind the concept of state. Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1976) contains the entry "Conquest state: a state formed by or based upon the subjugation of the original inhabitants." The word "state" in such a context is accurately interpreted as "a state of domination" relative to the original, and originally free, nations and peoples. The deepest "aspiration" of peoples with a history of being forced under a dominating, assimiliting, and dehumanizing set of processes is to one day be free of that domination (euphemistically called "subjugation"). A key question is how to achieve that goal, especially given the extent to which the domination- subordination structure of language and behavior has been institutionalized, and thus operational and seemingly normalized, in our day-to-day lives. s. newcomb
dinagw's picture
Thanks for that Steve (correct?). Yes, the key question is always about how to achieve that freedom from domination. It's a work in progress and for indigenous peoples worldwide the beginning part of that process has been waking up to exactly how we came to be and continue to be dominated. We all know we are dominated but deconstructing those relationships down to understanding the definitions of the terms of the dominators is paramount, as you so successfully point out in your own work. We cannot take for granted that the terms they use mean the same thing as the terms we use. This is the power of language and who controls "reality."
Anonymous's picture
Hi Dina, Yes, it's Steve. Thanks for your positive response to my post. Further support for this line of analysis and the use of this vocabulary is found in Rene Maunier's book "The Sociology of Colonies," published in 1949. He was a Member of the French Academy of Colonial Sciences and a Professor in the University of Paris. The book is based on lectures he delivered in the 1930's. In Vol. I, Book I, we find section II, which is entitled: "Definition of Colonies: Domination and Government." In Book II "Doctrines of Race Contact," Section IV, we find and entire chapter titled, "Domination."
chuhamok's picture
One part of the self-determination theory is the expectations of tribal employment (and other programs) opportunities will provide tribal members self-determination and autonomy. Studies show that workers, who are intrinsically motivated, will overcome work barriers or other limits to achieving one’s goals. Native Americans who are more autonomous are more likely to have good success in achieving their dreams. However, the approach of the self-determination theory depends on characteristics of the incentives. The incentive is of little value if it is “depended” on Tribal employment and Federal depended programs. The problem with Tribal self-determination approaches is “Salient Culture Values” stay on the reservations. Then Tribal cultural values stop when the Native person enters the Western dominant cultural mainstream. Because mainstream dreams (employment, education, and so on) do not have a cultural part that is salient to a Native person. Many Tribal employment enterprises and programs that invoke autonomy re-enforce dependency, which leads to failure in the world that believes Western culture is superior to Indian people’s culture.
dinagw's picture
Amazing reference. Thanks Steve!
michaelmack's picture
I think the "Idle No More" movement is encouraging as social network young people based effort that includes environmental activism. Because statistically our numbers are small, so we need partnerships with activist non-Natives which increases our visibility. I have long wished for tribal governments to join together to create an independent Native controlled lobbying group, that monitors and acts upon issues at the federal level, in addition to their dealing with just their individual issues. Every other group in the U.S. has independent lobbying groups that actively engage in the U.S. politicial process and decision-making at the highest levels, we are the only group that doesn't. Whatever methods are undertaken, Indian Country needs to get clear that the continuing methods and terminology of conquest are only how the dominant culture has shaped and attempts to keep hold of its status - We need not be confined by it. Our goal is to look BEYOND the dominant cultures interpretation of history and how it has structured its legal stranglehold over us. Political and statistical realities require us to gain knowledge of the dominant culture's methods, in order to use them to our advantage and to find new ways to work around them.
piqua's picture
Greetings Michael: you say "our goal is to look beyond the dominant cultures interpretation of history..." A worthy objective, no doubt, and it would be great to see a demonstration of that. Part of the means of gaining that 'look' (insight) is by identifying the fallacious nature of the conceptual and behavioral system that has been and continues to be used against our nations and peoples. What you call "continuing methods and terminologies of conquest" falls short, in my view, by not challenging the very notion of 'conquest.' The concept of 'conquest' presumes that a permanent state of domination was developed in the past that all of our original nations and peoples are now obligated to accept without question, in the form of the typical language of federal Indian law and policy. Conquest is considered permanent, legitimate, and unchallengeable from the viewpoint of the dominating society. That is why I have chosen the more accurate and more fundamentally challenging terminology of domination and subordination as a framework for analysis. To provide just one very specific and concrete example, we see that framework graphically in evidence in the murdered and missing women in Canada.
FicechugMinge's picture
Now all is clear, thanks for an explanation.
FicechugMinge's picture
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FicechugMinge's picture
Ideal variant