Steve Russell: Tribal sovereignty really is not what it used to be

"American Indians need to note that date historians pick for the rise of the modern nation-state, 1648. The idea that all European governments were more advanced than all governments indigenous to the Americas at the time Columbus got lost is fairly preposterous.

We had monarchies just like Europe’s, but also pure democracies, various kinds of confederations, and theocracies. The Six Nations had famously solved the riddle of representation by geographical area and by population, whether or not Ben Franklin brought that into the writing of the U.S. Constitution. There is plenty of physical evidence that pre-Columbian trade routes spanned the entire continent. Trade on that scale does not take place without political organization sufficient to guarantee the peace.

To say that European diseases decimated Indian nations would be absurd understatement, since to “decimate” is literally to kill one in ten. There is no hard count of the Indian nations lost to history. The U.S. colonial government currently recognizes 566 remaining, but many of those are fragments of peoples who used to be one. My own nation is divided into three pieces by various accidents of colonial history.

My people progressed from theocracy to monarchy to confederated towns. We became a constitutional republic in 1827, making our republic older than many of those recognized by the United Nations. The most common form of tribal government in the US is by a “constitution” pulled off the shelf at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Chiefs are weak, tribal councils are elected boards of directors, and tribal courts are tacked on afterthoughts."

Get the Story:
Steve Russell: The Context and Content of Sovereignty (Indian Country Today 7/24)

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