The Order of The Self



Africa Speaks

Africa Speaks

Suppression of Indigenous Sovereignty in 20th Century United States

By Ward Churchill
May 29, 2003

As the 20th century prepares to take its rightful place in the dustbin of history, the last vestiges of sovereignty among the more than 300 indigenous nations trapped inside the claimed boundaries of the United States are rapidly sliding into a kind of final oblivion. In one of official America's supreme gestures of cynicism, American representatives at the United Nations and elsewhere have long been aggressively peddling their government's Indian policy to other countries as the "most enlightened, progressive, and humanitarian model for the actualization of indigenous self-determination in the modern world." It would do well to consider this policy carefully, with an eye towards separating fact and implication from the fantasies induced by Washington's propaganda mills. In such clarity reside the analytical tools with which any effective (re)assertion of native sovereignty must be forged.

Allotment and Assimilation

Towards the end of the 19th century, with the wrap-up of the protracted series of military campaigns known as the "Indian Wars" - through which it had, after 1790, invaded and occupied most of its land base west of the Appalachian Mountains - the U.S. set out to simultaneously absorb the remaining 150 million acres of native-held territory inside its borders and to digest the residue of about a quarter-million indigenous people residing on these treaty-reserved tracts. The stated federal agenda devolved upon bringing about a comprehensive forced culture dissolution and eventual physical dispersal of every surviving American Indian society. It was the stated objective of this formally articulated "Assimilation Policy" that no Indians, culturally identifiable as such, remain within the U.S. by 1935.

Although there were a range of antecedent experiments, the real opening round of Washington's assimilation program came with the 1885 Major Crimes Act, under which U.S. jurisdiction was unilaterally asserted over every reservation in the country (each of which, it had previously been conceded in American law, constituted a distinct and separate national sovereignty). This was followed, in 1887, by passage of the General Allotment Act, described by Indian Commissioner Francis Leupp as a "great engine for grinding down the tribal mass," through which the U.S. effected another sweeping and uninvited intervention in the internal affairs of indigenous nations, this time by supplanting their traditional modes of collective landholding with the Anglo-American system of individuated property ownership.

In compiling the lists - "tribal rolls" - of those eligible to receive title to land parcels averaging a mere 160 acres each, federal agents typically relied upon eugenicist "blood quantum" methods, thus converting native peoples from their prior status as national/cultural entities into "racial" groups for purposes of U.S. legal and bureaucratic administration. The "standard" was set very high, usually at one-half or more "degree of blood," in order to minimize the number of individuals entitled to retain any property at all. Once all those meeting these racial criteria had received their allotments of land, the balance of the territory belonging to each indigenous nation was declared "surplus" and handed over to non-Indians.

In this manner, some 100 million acres - about two-thirds of the 1880 reservation land base - was stripped away by the early 1930s, the bulk of it acquired not by average American citizens but by various corporate and governmental interests. What was left was managed in perpetual "trust" under a "plenary power" relationship imposed by Congress, exercised by the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and not only upheld but amplified by the Supreme Court in its 1903 Lonewolf decision. In the latter, the "justices" opined, in a manner grossly contrary to even the most elementary principles of international law, that the United States possesses an "absolute and unchangeable right" to abrogate the provisions of any treaty into which it had entered with any indigenous nation but that the latter remains legally bound to comply with whatever provisions the U.S. finds useful.

Meanwhile, the campaign to achieve total destruction of native cultures was proceeding apace. The main vehicle for this was a massive and prolonged forced transfer of indigenous children to government-run boarding schools situated in locations quite distant from their families, friends, and societies. The purpose of this, according to Colonel Richard Pratt, a prominent "educator" of the period, was to "kill the Indian" in each youngster by systematically deculturating them. Kept at the institutions for years on end, the children were forbidden under penalty of corporal punishment to speak - and in many cases ever to know - their own languages, practice their own religions, dress or wear their hair in the accustomed manner, learn their own histories, or to be otherwise raised as who they were. Instead, they were indoctrinated from the earliest possible age to embrace Christianity, compelled to speak only English, to accept Anglo-America's self-serving intellectual constructions, and to adopt its values and socio-cultural mores. All the while, they were trained to perform menial labor in service of their conquerors.

To enhance the effects of the boarding school system, through which perhaps 80 percent of successive generations of native youth were processed between 1875 and 1965, the BIA proclaimed a series of draconian regulations on the reservations. In 1897, for example, it was decreed that the practice of traditional spiritual ceremonies was an offense punishable by fines, imprisonment, and impoundment of property. Local agents also increasingly utilized their "delegated trust authority" to lease whatever productive land remained on the reservations to non-Indian ranching and agricultural concerns, always at a pittance and often for periods of 99 years. Under this combination of conditions, the U.S. portion of Native North America was in utter disarray by 1930; politically, economically, and militarily prostrate, socio-culturally destabilized to an extreme degree, and literally verging on the very sort of ultimate extinction federal policymakers had so confidently predicted as its fate.

Reorganization and "Reform"

The basis upon which U.S. assimilation policy was reversed embodies one of history's more sublime ironies. During the period of allotment, the few remaining American Indians were largely consigned to die off, comfortably out of sight and mind of the immigrant society which had annihilated and usurped them, in remote and barren locales thought to be essentially valueless by federal planners. By the early 1920s, however, it was increasingly apparent that there had been something of a miscalculation in this respect. What remained of the reservations was some of the most mineral-rich territory in the world, containing about two-thirds of what the U.S. now claims as its own domestic uranium reserves, a quarter of the readily accessible low sulfur coal, a fifth of the oil and natural gas, as well as substantial deposits of copper, iron, zeolite, molybdenum, and several other ores.

This presented an interesting dilemma for U.S. elites, not because of any regard for the obvious native interest in the resources at issue or other humanitarian concerns, but because of the predictable results of allowing America's vaunted, and entirely mythical, "free market" system to hold sway over them. Previous experience in this respect, notably in the Indian-owned oil fields of Oklahoma, had demonstrated that pursuing such a course led to chaotic production inefficiencies and a considerable squandering of potential wealth. It was perceived as vital that native assets be kept out of the public domain, and placed instead under a sort of centralized governmental management which could not control royalty rates and other overhead costs - thus channeling highly inflated profits to officialdom's preferred corporate partners - and also coordinate overall timetables of reservation resource extraction in conformity with America's broader economic and strategic interests.

The already well-advanced liquidation of indigenous nations had to be abandoned in favor of a program preserving most of them as demographic/geographic entities. Equally essential, a structure had to be created to oversee this archipelago of permanent internal colonies. Both requirements were accommodated by passage of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) in 1934.

The basic thrust of the IRA, while canceling such assimilationist initiatives as allotment, was to follow closely on the models of colonial governance perfected by the European imperial powers. In essence, this involved supplanting whatever remained of the traditional organic forms of indigenous government entities with which, over the years, the U.S. had entered into more than 370 ratified treaties and a host of other international agreements - with federally designed and sponsored local/territorial councils, each of which derived its exceedingly limited authority, its operational funding - its very existence - to Congress rather than to its ostensible constituency. While such bodies were meant, under strict BIA supervision, to handle many of the day-to-day details of U.S. policy implementation on the reservations, their larger purpose was to foster the illusion of native consent to and participation in their own exploitation.

To this end, the IRA's "tribal councils" were formed behind a carefully crafted facade of "democracy." Much was made of the fact that council functions were to be anchored on formal tribal constitutions. Unmentioned was the reality that these were boilerplate instruments written by BIA bureaucrats, containing provisions concerning council powers, the racial criteria of tribal membership, and so forth which were flatly antithetical to the traditions of the peoples whose values they supposedly reflected. The procedures through which indigenous nations "voluntarily accepted" these constitutions were similarly rigged. Probably the most glaring example is that of the Hopi, where 85 percent of eligible voters actively boycotted the entire referendum process. In the aftermath, U.S. Indian Commissioner John Collier decreed that all abstentions should be counted as "aye" votes, instantly transforming an overwhelming and unequivocal refusal by the Indians into an apparently near-unanimous endorsement of the IRA.

Such official fraud was hardly unique. In the 1936 referendum conducted by the BIA among the Lakotas, for example, it was later discovered that a sufficient number of ballots had been cast on behalf of dead people to change the outcome from rejection to an appearance of acceptance. It has also been well-documented that, throughout California, federal officials engaged in a systematic pattern of deception, fundamentally misrepresenting the nature of the IRA during pre-referendum "educational workshops" conducted in 1936 and 1937. Many native people in that state were thus led to believe that by casting ballots to affirm the IRA they were actually voting to the exact opposite effect. In each instance - and there are many more - such transparently fraudulent results were not only allowed to stand, but promoted as evidence of the enthusiasm with which indigenous peoples embraced reorganization.

While the IRA structure was being set in place between 1934 and 1939, the federal school system "serving" Native America, which had been geared to delivering "education for extinction," was largely retooled to train and indoctrinate the petty functionaries and technicians needed to make the system work. With the spawning of this comprador e1ite among Indians, a direct counterpart to the "talented tenth" identified by W.E.B. DuBois as having been selected and groomed to fill a similar management role within the African-American population, federal overseers could increasingly rely upon a strata within virtually every indigenous nation to carry out their instructions. Moreover, they could rely upon this emergent "broker class" to cast an aura of legitimacy over the matrix of its own domination by claiming - as Indians - that it comprised the very foundation of any genuine exercise in native self-governance.

Termination and Relocation

By the early 1950s, the U.S. internal colonial system was functioning rather well. The mining of reservation resources, particularly uranium and copper, had commenced on a relatively massive scale and, although the royalty rates assigned to these minerals by the BIA rarely exceeded 10 percent of what they might have generated on the open market, and despite the fact that most of the arrangements included no requirement that mining companies perform even minimal cleanup of the mess they'd made once profitably extractable ores had been exhausted, all leases allowing for corporate development had been duly approved by the relevant tribal "governments." The shallow pretense of indigenous self-determination embodied by the IRA was even sufficient to prevent the United Nations from requiring, in accordance with its charter, that the reservations be inscribed on a list of "non-self-governing territories" scheduled for timely decolonization.

It was at this point that congressional conservatives decided the time was ripe for a "trimming of fat" from federal budget allocations to underwrite the administration of Indian affairs. Pursuant to House Resolution 108, effected in 1953, a lengthy series of "termination acts" was passed, each of them withdrawing U.S. recognition of the existence of one or more indigenous nations. By the time this throwback to assimilationism had run its course a decade later - the policy was for the most part implemented by Indian Commissioner Dillon S. Myer, a man whose qualifications for the job seem to have consisted mainly of having presided over the mass internment of Japanese Americans during World War II - some 108 native peoples had been arbitrarily declared "extinct," their reserved land bases officially dissolved. While the victims ranged from the tiny, impoverished "mission" bands of southern California to the much larger and more prosperous Klamaths of Oregon and Menominees of Wisconsin, their common denominator was that their reservations possessed no mineral wealth substantial enough to warrant the government's paying the costs of continuing to hold it in trust.

Simultaneously, emphasis was placed on "relocation," a program designed to remove a substantial portion of the population from non-terminated reservations, dispersing them in major urban areas. While funding was deliberately withheld from initiatives which might have improved living conditions in Indian Country - according to federal census data, American Indians comprised the poorest identifiable population sector in the U.S. from 1935-1995, with gross unemployment running well over 60 percent for the entire period - the government displayed a peculiar willingness to engage in relatively lavish spending to convince native people to "voluntarily" abandon their homelands and melt into the vastly larger "mainstream" society.

The results of this rather crude carrot-and-stick routine are striking. In 1900, 99.6 percent of all federally recognized American Indians were land based. By 1930, as a steady rebound in the size of the indigenous population - from a little over 237,000 in 1890 to more than 333,000 a generation later - began to push against the territorial constraints imposed by allotment, the proportion had declined to 90.1 percent. In 1950, 86.6 percent of all recognized native people in the U.S. still lived on reservations. By 1960, the federal relocation program had abruptly brought the proportion down to 72.1 percent, nearly as great a drop in just 7 years as had occurred in the preceding 60. By 1970, 44.5 percent of all recognized Indians had been removed from the reservations; by 1980, the figure had climbed to 49 percent; today, it stands somewhere around 55 percent.

The sorts of governmental/corporate benefits of this process are readily discernible, beginning with the fact that keeping huge tracts of certain reservations effectively depopulated makes it far easier to engage in wholesale strip mining and related activities. The conditions of stark destitution imposed on most reservation residents also tends to render them more malleable, less resistant to any kind of activity, no matter how destructive, which might generate income, no matter how meager, than might otherwise be expected. At another level, termination and relocation have served to make indigenous societies unstable in a cultural sense, fracturing the close knit kinship relations which made them extraordinarily cohesive, eroding the abilities of many peoples to perpetuate their languages, and so on. This, in turn, has left the majority of Indians in the U.S. steadily more "adaptable" to and dependent upon the Euro-American settler society which dominates and exploits them.

At another level still, the proportionately massive population dispersal brought on by relocation, in combination with a calculated governmental pattern of manipulating native identity criteria to achieve a pronounced undercounting of indigenous people during the past quarter-century - analyst Jack Forbes has estimated that while federal census data admitted an aggregate of just under two million Indians in the U.S. by 1980, the real number should have been closer to 15 million - has left contemporary Indians in a position of social invisibility.

As might be expected, federal methods of circumscribing native demography have been avidly embraced and promoted by the IRA's "Vichy" governments and their adherents, a matter which radically undercuts the numerical basis on which Native America as a whole might force some favorable alteration in its collective circumstance. Worse, such posturing has unleashed a recurrent cycle of bitter infighting among indigenous peoples, as "certified" Indians endeavor to protect their tiny shares of each year's pitifully small congressional appropriation against the prospect of their federally negated cousins joining the queue. At this point, the bestowal of formal recognition upon several long neglected peoples - the Abenakis of Vermont, Miamis of Ohio and Lumbees of North Carolina among them - is resisted fiercely by the leaders of several "federally-recognized tribes."

Rebellion and Repression

During the 1960s, the final dissolution of Europe's colonial empires and Third World efforts to prevent their replacement by neocolonial modes of exploitation became a primary international agenda. By the end of the decade, the important segments among the internally colonized "minorities" of the United States - most especially blacks, Chicanos, and Puertorriquenos (both on the mainland and in their externally colonized island homeland), but also other groups, including Appalachian whites - inspired by the tangible short-term successes of this global struggle, had embarked on decolonization initiatives of their own.  

In this environment of generalized sociopolitical ferment and instability, a new spirit of militancy began to congeal among native peoples, not only in the lower 48 states, but in Alaska and Hawai'i as well. Beginning in the mid-1960s, increasingly substantial confrontations occurred in the Pacific Northwest between state and federal authorities, and several indigenous nations intent upon exercising their treaty-guaranteed fishing rights. In 1969, a multi-tribal group of relocatees in the San Francisco Bay Area seized Alcatraz Island, site of an infamous but, by then, abandoned federal prison, in order to establish a land base for the area's displaced Indians. Before the Alcatraz occupation ended a year-and-a-half later, others had begun in locations as far-flung as Fort Lawton, near Seattle, a Nike missile base in Chicago, the Mayflower replica at Plymouth, Massachusetts, and the Mt. Rushmore National Monument in South Dakota.

By late 1972, a coalition of native groups calling themselves the Trail of Broken Treaties took over the BIA headquarters in Washington, DC, on the eve of the U.S. presidential election, holding it until the incumbent administration of Richard M. Nixon agreed to review a 20-Point Program redefining U.S./Indian relations. Among the program's more significant features were demands that the government meet its existing treaty obligations to indigenous nations, reinstate terminated peoples, repudiate blood quantum criteria and other such impositions on native identity, and resume the nation-to-nation relationship with indigenous peoples required by the first article of its own constitution. Instructively, the strongest outcry against any such changes came from the National Tribal Chairman's Association (NTCA), a federally-funded consortium of IRA council heads.

Buffered by these "representative tribal leaders," federal officials not only dismissed the Trail of Broken Treaties' 20 points out-of-hand (once the militants had withdrawn from the BIA building), but launched a major campaign of repression against them. Marked as a priority for neutralization was the American Indian Movement (AIM), a group described at the time as being comprised of the "shock troops of Indian sovereignty." Most sensationally, this involved a force of several hundred federal paramilitaries - advised, equipped and supplied by army counterinsurgency specialists - laying siege to virtually the entire organization at the hamlet of Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, in South Dakota.

In the aftermath of the 71-day standoff at Wounded Knee, several key AIM leaders were assassinated. The rest were targeted for multiple prosecutions - Russell Means, to name a prime example, was charged with 37 felonies and several other offenses carrying a combined potential sentence of triple life plus 113 years imprisonment process which, although it resulted in almost no convictions, tied them up in U.S. courts for several years. The demands of meeting their usually high bails and underwriting their various legal defenses also effectively bankrupted the organization, while diverting considerable time, energy, and attention away from other sorts of political organizing.

While this was going on, more than 60 grassroots AIM members and supporters were killed on Pine Ridge, victims of death squads assembled by Richard Wilson, head of the reservation's IRA government, and funded by the BIA. As has now been confirmed by at least one leader of the "goons," as Wilson's gunmen called themselves, they were composed mostly of off-duty BIA police personnel, armed, coordinated, and essentially immunized from prosecution by the politically repressive Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The arrangement was remarkably similar to those engineered by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in roughly the same period as a means of maintaining "order" in U.S. client states throughout Latin America.

The orgy of state violence culminated on June 26, 1975, when a large body of FBI agents and BIA police surrounded and attacked a small AIM encampment on Pine Ridge. In the resulting firefight, one AIM member and two agents were killed, a circumstance used by the government as a pretext to assault the entire reservation with overwhelming force. Using armored personnel carriers and helicopters loaned by the military, and brandishing automatic weapons, several hundred FBI men swept Pine Ridge and the adjoining Rosebud Reservation for nearly two months. It was not until late September, when open resistance on both reservations had been thoroughly suppressed, that the last of these occupation troops were finally withdrawn.

Shortly thereafter, the government was able, on what it now concedes was a fraudulent basis, to obtain the extradition from Canada of Leonard Peltier, head of the group which had fought off the FBI in June. Subjected to a travesty of a trial for "murdering" the two FBI agents - two codefendants in the case had already been found by a jury to have acted in self-defense and federal prosecutors now admit they have "no idea" who fired the lethal shots - Peltier was sentenced in 1977 to serve two consecutive life sentences in prison. Twenty years later and in failing health, he remains incarcerated in a maximum security facility, a symbol of the high price which can be extracted by federal authorities from anyone bold enough to seriously assert native rights to sovereignty in the United States.

Decimated, exhausted, heavily infiltrated, and completely outgunned, AIM disintegrated during the late 1970s. Although there have been occasional flashes of life, as with the Yellow Thunder Camp occupation in the Black Hills during the early 1980s, and a series of successful demonstrations to prevent public celebrations of the Columbian Quincentenniary in Denver a decade later, the movement's overall decline could not be reversed. Today, while chapters continue to exist in Denver and a few other localities, references to AIM are associated mainly with a governmentally/corporately funded Minneapolis corporation run by the brothers Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt, apparently subsidized to subvert the reputation and rhetoric of the movement's past radicalism into a blanket endorsement of the colonial status quo.

Subterfuge and Self Determination

Even as the repression of AIM crested in the wake of Wounded Knee, the movement sought to broaden its latitude of action. In response to requests by elders like Frank Fools Crow, who had proclaimed the continuing existence of an Independent Oglala [Lakota] Nation during the siege, a meeting on the Standing Rock Reservation, North Dakota, was convened during the summer of 1974. Its purpose was to consider ways of placing the question of American Indian treaty rights before the community of nations as a whole. The result was the formation of the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC), an AIM subpart specifically to establish an indigenous presence at the United Nations. Under direction of Cherokee activist Jimmie Durham, an organizational office was opened at New York's UN Plaza and a lobbying effort begun.

Durham's initial strategy was straightforward. Article I, Section 10, of the U.S. Constitution both reserves American treaty-making prerogatives to the level of federal authority and disallows the government from entering into a treaty relationship with any lesser entity. Hence, each time the Senate ratified a treaty between the U.S. and one or more native peoples - as it did more than 370 times between 1778 and 1871 - it simultaneously conveyed formal recognition of the full national sovereignty inhering in the other party or parties. Since no nation possesses a right in international law to unilaterally extinguish the sovereignty of another, and since the indigenous nations formally recognized as such by the U.S. have never willingly relinquished their sovereignty, it follows that they still retain it in a legal sense. Since all nations are expressly prohibited under provision of the United Nations Charter, the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples and other international legal instruments from preempting the exercise of sovereignty by any other, it was/is quite reasonable to conclude that, when presented with the facts, the UN would have no valid alternative but to enter a resolution requiring the decolonization of Native North America.

Well aware of what was afoot, the Nixon administration moved decisively to co-opt IITC's initiative. The vehicle for this was the American Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act, passed in 1975, long after Nixon had been driven from office. Although the statute had absolutely nothing to do with the concept of self-determination articulated in international law (it offers a hiring preference to American Indians in implementing federal policies, thus incorporating them even more directly into the matrix of U.S. colonial domination) the government's use of the term greatly confused the situation. This was all the more true in that the NTCA and comparable organizations quickly offered themselves as what amounted to a cheering section for the measure, lauding it as, among other things, "the final confirmation of American Indian sovereignty in the modern era."

Thus, when Durham was finally able to arrange for IITC's participation in an unprecedented UN conference on discrimination against indigenous peoples during the summer of 1977, the U.S. announced - falsely, but with the apparent agreement of most native people within its domain - that, in its case, many of the matters raised had already been resolved. Only the fact that Durham had cannily solicited representation of 98 indigenous nations, including a number from South and Central America, averted a probability of the process stalling right there. As it was, since a U.S. domestic statute could hardly be argued as bearing upon the circumstances of native peoples elsewhere, the Human Rights Commission's parent body, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), determined that matters would have to be considered in more depth.

This led, after much maneuvering, to creation of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1981. Although much-heralded as a major breakthrough in the cause of native rights worldwide, this entity carried within it the seeds of a fundamentally different outcome. To begin with, its very title consigned it to considering the circumstances of certain "populations" rather than "peoples." The wording, insisted on by the U.S. and Canada, is legally significant: under international law, all peoples are guaranteed the right of true self-determination - as opposed to the grotesque parody embodied in American law - while populations, defined as demographic subsets of a given country's polity, are not. It was not until 1989 that the two North American super states abandoned their terminological objections, and then only with the caveat that they were doing so with the specific understanding that use of the term "peoples" would not be construed as conveying legal connotations.

Secondly, rather than being charged with responsibility for exploring the applicability of existing international legal instruments to the situations of various indigenous peoples, the Working Group was assigned to first conduct a comprehensive global survey of the conditions which had been imposed upon them, and then, after 1984, to draft an entirely new element of law to address their needs. It, in reality, set the stage for a formal codification of their collective demotion from the status of either nations or peoples to that of "domestic minorities" within assorted UN member-states.

In 1979, Durham resigned in disgust when, among other things, the Treaty Council board of trustees decided the organization should push for the drafting of the new international instrument. His replacement, closely associated with those who engineered the chartering of "National AIM, Inc." in Minneapolis, piloted the organization, first into alignments with a welter of nation-state governments considered hostile to the United States - regardless of their own records on indigenous rights - and finally into "cooperative" relations with any government, including that of the U.S., willing to subsidize it. By 1987, the tiny clique who had assumed control was prepared to drop all but the most shallow pretense of complying with the wishes of the grassroots people whose interests they ostensibly served, reforming IITC as a San Francisco-based corporation accountable only to a hand-picked board of directors.

This course of action resulted in an almost complete erosion in the base of support which had propelled IITC to its early prominence. Although it has never abandoned its now grossly misleading claim to represent them - it actually increased the putative number to over 100 during the early 1990s - virtually all of the indigenous nations which participated in Durham's 1977 delegation had carefully separated themselves from "AIM's international diplomatic arm" by 1985. Some, like the Hawaiians, the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy), the Treaty 6 Chiefs of Canada, the Hopi, and the Lakotas, elected to represent themselves in international fora. Others, including virtually all the indigenous peoples of South and Central America, founded far more genuinely representative organizations of their own.

The capstone to the whole charade came in November 1996, when, prior to its submission to ECOSOC, and thence the General Assembly, a subgroup of the Commission on Human Rights convened to consider a Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which had been approved by native delegates in 1993 and subsequently adopted by both the Working Group and its parent body, the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. When the Commission's panel of nation-state "reviewers" set out to alter the draft in a manner intended quite literally to gut it, a unified body of indigenous delegates demanded that it go forward unchanged. U.S. representatives, who had for the most part remained much more circumspect in their approach over the preceding 20 years, at last openly responded that no draft instrument would be approved which "conflicts with the principles of American legal doctrine."

While this affront precipitated a mass walkout by native delegates, thereby bringing the approval process to a temporary halt, the Treaty Council delegation was conspicuous in breaking ranks. Not only did its members refuse to join their ostensible colleagues in a separate strategy session, they opted instead to engage in a sequence of informal caucuses with offending American officials before launching a marginally successful campaign to convince individuals from other organizations to return to the session and endorse the draft document. Meanwhile, back in the U.S., a concerted effort was mounted to discredit those in opposition on the rather bizarre grounds that they were suspected "FBI provocateurs, CIA agents, or both." Instructively, the "representative group of Indian leaders" issuing these increasingly bitter communiqués were not to be found in the ranks of the NTCA. Instead, they were located in the IITC-affiliated offices of National AIM, Inc.

Prospects and Potentials

The recent events in Geneva represent something of a crossroads in the struggle for native sovereignty and self-determination, not only within the United States, but globally. The sheer audacity with which the U.S. has moved to convert a supposed universal declaration of indigenous rights into little more than an extrapolation of its own posture in foreclosing on the most meaningful of these, clearly, describes one direction in which things are moving. Should the American initiative prove successful - and it is strongly supported by the governments of Canada, Australia, and a number of other UN member states - the ever more refined and sophisticated model of internal colonialism developed by the U.S. for world replication will be formally legitimated, enshrined as international law. At that point, the only legally sanctioned option available to native people will be incorporation into the governing structures of their colonizers, a status amounting to permanent subjugation within their own homelands.

The craven performance of the National AIM/IITC amalgam reveals the utter bankruptcy of these twin husks of 1970s radicalism ever mounting even token resistance to such an outcome. While their irrevocably supine posture in the face of U.S. power may provide valuable lessons on how repression, subversion, and co-optation can be used to deform genuine national liberation movements, it furnishes nothing by way of an alternative to capitulation. The "something" they now offer in seeking to facilitate an indigenous ratification of the Draft Declaration is not better than nothing at all. On the contrary, insofar as it would present for the first time an appearance of native consent to the denial of our sovereignty and self-determining rights, this something is far, far worse than nothing.

This is the point taken by the delegates who walked out of the November Working Group session, and herein lies the potential for things to move in a different direction. In their collective refusal of any formulation which might legally consolidate the notion of an intrinsic right of states to wield hegemony over our peoples and homelands, they have paved the way for an indefinite stalemate or even cancellation of the drafting process. This, in turn, reopens the fundamental question - from which the whole idea of a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples may be seen more than anything as an elaborate, 15-year diversion - of identifying and applying those elements of extant international law which have all along pertained to the rights and circumstances of indigenous peoples.

Salient in this respect are Chapters XI and XII of the United Nations Charter, which require, among other things, that all non-self-governing territories (colonies) be inscribed on a list of entities placed under UN supervision and within which the self-assigned trust authority of colonizing powers is strictly limited in terms of both scope and duration, exercised only in such manner as may be required to ensure the resumption of genuine "self-governance or independence as may be appropriate to each territory and the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned" in the most timely possible fashion. Amplification and clarification of what is intended by these chapters of the Charter is found in the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV), 1960), which states that:

The subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination, and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations, and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and cooperation.

  • All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development.
  • Inadequacy of political, economic, social, or educational preparedness should never serve as a pretext for delaying independence.
  • All armed action or repressive measures of all kinds directed against dependent peoples shall cease in order to enable them to exercise peacefully and freely their right to complete independence, and the integrity of their national territory shall be respected.
  • Immediate steps shall be taken, in Trust and Non-Self-Governing Territories or all other territories which have not yet attained independence, to transfer all powers to the peoples of those territories, without any conditions or reservations, in accordance with their freely-expressed will or desire, without any distinction as to race, creed or color, in order to enable them to enjoy complete independence and freedom.
  • Any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
Reinforcement of such principles obtains from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (General Assembly Resolution 217 A (III), 1948), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (General Assembly Resolution 2200 (XXI), 1966), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (General Assembly Resolution 2200 (XXI), 1966) and other instruments. Possible impingements upon the applicability of this stream of international to indigenous internal colonies - notably General Assembly Resolution 1541(XV; 1966), which posits that the decolonization procedures required by the UN Charter and Resolution 1514 pertain only territories which are "geographically separate and...distinct ethnically and/or culturally from the country administering it" - are hardly insurmountable. Although Resolution 1541 has typically been construed as meaning that, to be eligible for inscription as non-self-governing territories, colonies must be separated from colonizing powers by at least 30 miles of open ocean, strict adherence to this so-called "Blue Water Thesis" is indefensible insofar as it would not even admit to the fact that Germany colonized contiguous Poland during the Second World War, or that the Poles possessed a legal right to decolonization.

Ultimately, the issue can be resolved only on the basis of a logically/legally consistent determination of whether indigenous peoples actually constitute "peoples" in the legal sense. While the deliberately obfuscatory arguments entered on this matter by the U.S. and other nation-states have by this point thoroughly muddled the situation with respect to a host of untreatied peoples throughout the world, the same cannot be said concerning the treatied peoples of North America, most especially those within the United States. As was noted above, we have long since been recognized not only as peoples, but as nations, and are thereby entitled in existing law to enjoy the rights of such regardless of our geographic disposition vis-a-vis our colonizers.

The route leading to an alternative destiny for native people is just as clear as that prescribed for us in the newly revised Draft Convention. By relentless and undeviating assertion of the basic rights of treatied peoples - at all levels, through every available venue, and excluding no conceivable means of doing so - we can begin to (re)secure them, restoring to ourselves and to our posterity our/their rightful status as sovereign and coequal members of the community of nations, free of such pretense as IRA-style "self-governance" and subterfuges like the 1975 "Indian Self-Determination" Act. Only by achieving success in this enterprise can we eventually position ourselves to tangibly assist our relatives in other quarters of the globe, untreatied and thus presently unrecognized as being imbued with the same self-determining rights as we, to overcome the juridical/diplomatic quandary in which this circumstance places them.

Any such progression, of course, serves to incrementally disempower nation-states even as it steadily (re)empowers those upon whose subordination statism depends most heavily and directly for its very existence. This, for its part, undermines a cornerstone on which that rapidly metastasizing malignancy described by U.S. President George Bush in 1991 as constituting a "New World Order" is designed to rest. The inestimable benefit to all humanity deriving from a trajectory of this sort should be readily evident to anyone not already vested in the perpetuation of planetary business as usual, and may serve to explain why the agenda of indigenous liberation deserves the broadest imaginable prioritization and support among those who profess commitment to constructive sociopolitical and economic change.

Fittingly, the contours of the liberatory strategy which has begun to congeal among the dissidents who walked out of the Working Group session last November may be readily discerned in the charge delivered by the elders to those assembled at the first International Treaty Council gathering 23 years ago. Theirs was a vision from which, as Jimmie Durham rightly insisted, we should never have departed.

Whether we can recover the sense of cohesion, purpose, and momentum they so generously bestowed on us - and which we so frivolously squandered in the arrogance of our belief that we might somehow dance with the devil and win - remains to be seen. There is tremendous ground to be made up and damage to be undone.

Our struggle will be longer and harder than it might have been had we heeded our old people during the late 1970s. It is likely also to be much harsher, given that we have by now wasted most of the moral authority gained through the sacrifices of AIM warriors at Wounded Knee and elsewhere. We may have to undergo the whole grim process once again, or many times, in order to recoup what has been lost. We are nonetheless obliged to regain our stride, however painfully and belatedly. We are obliged because if our histories have taught us anything at all it is that, whatever the future may hold for our peoples, it must be something we collectively forge for ourselves or it will be truly too dreadful to contemplate. Our coming generations surely deserve far better.

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