Steve Russell: About that 'obsession' with tribal sovereignty

The lands of the Cherokee Nation in 1830, before the tribe was forced to walk the Trail of Tears. Image from Wikipedia

Judge and professor Steve Russell, a member of the Cherokee Nation, looks at some of the challenges facing Indian Country in advancing the sovereignty movement:
I saw then and see now an obsession with sovereignty in two respects, neither of which interests me.

First, there’s sovereignty as a cloak for misconduct, primarily theft. Even among thieves, there is nothing lower than stealing from people who have next to nothing, but that is why some tribal governments only turn over in response to federal indictments.

Second, there’s sovereignty in the sense of the Westphalian nation-state, a bureaucratic representation of the person of the monarch, a pursuit of the fantasy that a people who cannot feed and educate their young people properly are going to join the United Nations and open embassies in 193 capitols to represent policies tailored to every one of them and consistent with our vision.

Vision, what vision? There’s the rub.

African-Americans were also tribal peoples but they were thoroughly and forcibly stripped of their tribal identity and then shoehorned into a new identity as “Negroes” when they were treated badly based on color.

We still have our tribal identities in the superficial sense that allows us to assert differentness not just from white and black people but also—and too often principally---from other Indians. This is death to organizing when, outside the rez, coalition politics are the only kind of politics you can have.

Tribal identity requires us to organize our own tribal governments before we can worry too much about state and federal governments. As to those yonega governments, we exist in a perpetual defensive crouch, because the only time we can act as Indians is when they attack us as Indians but as Indians we have no positive vision beyond grasping for power.

Even if the tribal government is nothing more than an IRA-inspired board of directors, it has the task of presenting to the states and the feds. Sovereignty in a realistic sense remains with the people to decide what shall be presented.

Get the Story:
Steve Russell: You Can Do Anything With Bayonets (Indian Country Today 5/16)

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