Padraig Kirwan on Indigenous Sovereignty

This  post, from Dr Padraig Kirwan (Goldsmiths, University of London) is based on a paper delivered at the first CCUSB Workshop in London in September 2012

Sovereignty. Self-determination. Autonomy. Nation. Native American Studies is currently being shaped dramatically by this particular set of terms, and the prevailing discourse aims to interrogate not only various senses of tribal self-determination, but also to re-examine earlier formulations of cultural, spiritual, political and artistic autonomy. Indeed, the publication of myriad nuanced and substantial works of scholarship focussing on the subject of sovereignty alone is testament to the critical role that definitions of indigenous self-determination and authority play within the field today.

Inevitably, perhaps, it is also the case that the definition of the terms mentioned above, and the application of those terms to any particular set of circumstances in Indian Country is not entirely a straight-forward affair. Nor, given the seriousness of the matter in hand, should it be. On the contrary, the values that a state of sovereignty affords a Native individual or tribe are a complex and multifaceted matter, and should be understood as such. For that reason, while it is vital to prioritize the benefits of tribal independence, it is also necessary to take note of the diverse nature of a range of issues that inform current conversations about indigenous homelands, tribal self-government and various forms of Native sovereignty. Not least among these issues is the degree of usefulness that extremely involved, ostensibly Westernized political terms such as ‘sovereignty’ and ‘nation’ have for Native American communities in the United States today.

As members of tribal communities, indigenous writers have sought to examine the structure of tribal self-government, the circumstances that inform cultural and political autonomy, and, above all, the manner in which sovereignty is expressed. In my recent talk at the CCUSB I aimed to examine the fictional and critical narratives created by these authors, and argued that their writing maps out a crucial set of distinct and discernible indigenous spaces—spaces concerned with intellectualism, political and aesthetic sovereignty, tribal consciousness, contemporary Native identity, and life in Indian Country today. This is in keeping with critical readings that interweave notional and concrete definitions of tribal lands, and suggest a methodology that takes into account various territories and places, and does so in a way that aims to enliven existing senses of Native American texts and contexts.

I would also argue that readings of the contemporary Native American novel disclose its engagement with tribal sovereignty and independence and with indigenous writers’ bid to “honor the geographic, political, and experiential space[s]” that they come from. In order to conduct such analyses, it is necessary to critically examine the intricate aesthetic figuring of autonomy that occurs within the space of the Native American novel. My talk subsequently suggested that we should examine the connection between fictional spaces, the extratextual locations that shape them, and critical responses to both. My particular objective is to assess the ways in which a particular set of novels speak not just from, but also of, indigenous worlds, and do so through a distinctive use of narrative style. It is hoped that this approach provides a deeper consideration of the dynamic between Native fiction and current definitions of sovereignty and nation. It is through the investigation of indigenous authors’ recurrent interest in various forms of storied location—specifically the literary manifestation of “boundaries and sovereignties”—that a practical interpretative structure framed by extant notions of territory and frontier comes into being. Within that structure it is possible to consider how narrative composition reflects a variety of indigenous autonomies, ranging from land claims and treaty rights to artistic and imaginative forms of individual and communal expression.

Before that task can begin, it is worth noting that some general, but important, questions spring to mind when the word ‘sovereignty’ is mentioned. For example, we have to question the extent to which the ‘sovereignty’ that Native communities refer to is (dis)similar to other, autonomously defined, international ‘sovereignties.’ Who, for instance, guides or regulates supremacy within the various tribal territories? Is it apt to compare a sovereign ruler from the Native community—say, perhaps, the leader of the tribal government—to a head of state such as a president or prime minister, or to search for points of comparison between the offices or roles held by both leaders? Or is tribal sovereignty unrelated to such political structures? Similarly, is it always constructive to regard Native lands as sovereign, separate states, or are there occasions when an insistence upon a more deeply imbricated relationship with the federal government of the United States can be of greater benefit to tribes seeking economic or political support? Moreover, can the privileges and rights held by the tribe be exercised, expressed and protected off the reservation?

We need only call to mind James Sheehan’s succinct point that “Sovereignty assumes…that political power is distinct from other organizations in the community—religious, familial, economic” in order to reveal what might be regarded as an essential point of divergence between Western definitions of dominion and the definitions offered by tribal peoples. The rapacious, political expediencies underlined by Sheehan’s definition run contrary to the spiritual and ancestral ties that most folk in Indian Country see as constituent parts of modern-day self-determination. For that reason, it is not difficult to see why Taiaiake Alfred has argued “‘sovereignty’ is inappropriate as a political objective for indigenous peoples” (Sovereignty Matters, 38). Alfred’s conclusion is based on the fact that the theological and philosophical arguments that have shaped definitions of sovereignty are European in origin and are therefore irrelevant the tribal peoples. Notwithstanding the fact that Thomas Jefferson shared a similar conviction – albeit for very different reasons – and argued that an absolute power domiciled in any collaboration between Church and State was “an idea belonging to the other side of the Atlantic”, Chief Justice John Marshall had little qualms about adapting the Christian Doctrine of Discovery into U.S. law. While writing up the Supreme Court’s unanimous finding of law in the case of Johnson v. McIntosh, Marshall pointed out that “The potentates of the old world found no difficulty in convincing themselves that they made ample compensation to the inhabitants of the new, by bestowing on them civilization and Christianity, in exchange for unlimited independence” (No. 21,1823).

More importantly, he found that:

On the establishment of these relations, the rights of the original inhabitants were, in no instance, entirely disregarded, but were necessarily, to a considerable extent, impaired. They were admitted to be the rightful occupants of the soil, with a legal as well as just claim to retain possession of it, and to use it according to their own discretion; but their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations, were necessarily diminished and their power to dispose of the soil at their own will, to whomsoever they pleased, was denied by the original fundamental principle, that discovery gave exclusive title to those who made it.

The United States’ supreme power in law, which was influenced by (if not a scion of) the Christian Doctrine of Discovery, was consolidated in Marshall’s subsequent findings in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and Worcester v. Georgia. That is to say, Marshall’s contention that the tribes had only “diminished” power in the case of Johnson v. McIntosh informed his interpretation of them as “domestic dependent nations” who were “under the protection of the United States of America, and of no other power” (in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and Worcester v. Georgia). These rulings have dramatically influenced definitions of Indian sovereignty, and Marshall’s legal findings frame Indian sovereignty in rather benign terms. Crucially, the tribes have been no less frustrated on occasions when the court has identified a fuller, stronger version of Indian sovereignty, often with the result that cases brought by the tribes are thrown out. For instance, in 1997 the Coeur d’Alene in Idaho

sought, inter alia, a declaratory judgment establishing its entitlement to the exclusive use and occupancy and the right to quiet enjoyment of the submerged lands, a declaration of the invalidity of all Idaho laws, customs, or usages purporting to regulate those lands, and a preliminary and permanent injunction prohibiting defendants from taking any action in violation of the Tribe’s rights in the lands.

Writing for the majority Justice Anthony Kennedy found that “‘Indian tribes … should be accorded the same status as foreign sovereigns, against whom States enjoy Eleventh Amendment immunity [citing Blatchford v. Native Village of Noatak, 501 US 775 (1991)].’ [Idaho v. Couer d’Alene Tribe, No. 94-1474 (June 23, 1997)]” (Peter d’Errico, “American Indian Sovereignty: Now you see it, Now you Don’t”).

In spite—and quite possibly because—of the significant, often manifest, strain caused by political and philosophical definitions of sovereignty or nationalism in a wider context, several Native commentators, tribal leaders and artists have found it both enabling and useful to speak about ‘sovereignty’ and ‘nation’, particularly with regard to self-determination and autonomy. It is to these ends that Joanne Barker (Lenape) while acknowledging that supreme autonomy within a territory was once used to troubling colonial ends, points out that sovereignty has been “rearticulated to mean altogether different things by indigenous peoples”; a suggestion that signals the likelihood that various, sometimes contending, definitions of sovereignty are current. Adding considerable value to this line of reasoning is the commonly held proposition, succinctly expressed by Stuart Christie, that “indigenous sovereignty never departed.” Of relevance here is the claim of Harry Charger, a tribal leader of Sans Arc Lakota, that his people “are already sovereign…. It is god given: it is our thoughts, our words, our ceremonies. Everything is free.” Charger’s contention, which appears in Foundations of First Peoples’ Sovereignty (2008), underscores the belief that Native American sovereignty has long been a distinct phenomenon, separate to and vastly different from its Western counterparts. It is unsurprising, therefore, that in the same collection of essays Ulrike Wiethaus argues “First Nations’ practices of self-determination and politico-philosophical thought have remained in continuous, autonomously defined existence, even if hidden from Euro-American view.”

As well as indicating that sovereignty can contain a host of diverse or separate meanings, Barker’s notion of a process of “rearticulat[ion]” usefully reminds us that although various forms of indigenous sovereignty existed pre-contact, those same forms continue to be redefined by tribal peoples today. It is in this sense that Seneca scholar Michelle H. Raheja argues that while it is most certainly the case that “the term predates European notions of nation-to-nation political sovereignty” it is also the case that “indigenous conceptions have now incorporated these non-Native articulations of the term into their definition.” This articulation of sovereignty is slightly different to Charger’s, in-so-far-as Raheja suggests that recent definitions of the term itself have intercultural roots. Thus, she concludes, the “English word sovereignty…becomes a placeholder for a multitude of indigenous designations that also takes into account the European origins of the idea.” Craig Womack (Oklahoma Creek-Cherokee) has similarly drawn attention to the wider application of the term in the American context: “[s]overeignty (by definition government to government relations) has a profound cosmopolitanism at its core” he writes, and “tribal governments exist in complex relationships with municipal, state, and federal powers that demand constant movement between and across borders.”

However, while this conceptualization is generous and enriching, it comes close to the kind of “functional plurality” that Christie believes will “serve as a valuable tool further enabling indigenous autonomy.” Underpinning these arguments is the key premise that Native American sovereignty reflects cultural, ethnic, historical and political distinctions particular to tribal peoples, while also revealing the ways in which indigenous communities are simultaneously knowledgeable of, and conversant with, the countless other meanings that continue to be applied the term. Subsequently, it can be seen that in each of these critical treatises, tribal sovereignty is introduced in a way that comprehensibly reveals its logic and its reasonableness, announces the more enabling aspects of the term, and circumvents many of the limitations that Philpott finds in Westernized, historical definitions. Emerging from Native definitions of the term as a consequence, then, is a democratic and pluralistic point of view. While it is clear that such designations can, and will, shape and inform wider debates surrounding complex forms of sovereignty in a global context, I would argue that it is far more important to recognize how they reflect the dynamic and intricate fashion in which Native American critics, writers and communities are currently describing and outlining their own positions.

 A portion of this post appeared in an co-authored book chapter, titled “I’m indiginous, I’m indiginous, I’m indiginous’: Indigenous Rights, British Nationalism, and the European Far Right” (Tribal Fantasies: Native Americans in the European Imaginary, 1900-2010 Edited By James Mackay and David Stirrup [New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013]). A longer version of this post will appear in my forthcoming book, Sovereign Stories: Aesthetics, Autonomy and Contemporary Native American Writing, which is to be published later this year.


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