Tellingly, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave his speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations yesterday, he made no mention of the this year’s uprisings in the Middle East known as the Arab Spring—and with good reason. The recent emergence of Arab Spring is clearly of historical significance to the Arab peoples who are so courageous in their bloody struggles against oppressive governments. But it also promises to be of importance for those committed to Tribal sovereignty.
Arab Spring—an ongoing movement composed of revolutions, uprisings, and protests in countries that include Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Morocco, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Libya (which is currently in the midst of a civil war)—can provide insight into a workable Tribal Nation self-determination, which itself is more than simple rhetoric about American Indian sovereignty. Tribal Nation self-determination, which originated in the early 1970s, is ultimately a political and social movement. And this movement can benefit from lessons learned in the ongoing Arab Spring.
Perhaps one of the most important of these lessons is cosmopolitanism, a concept the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah describes as shared responsibility for each other. This certainly is a Tribal ideal. And in acknowledging the existence of global citizens who must look out for the well-being of others (and for the earth, as recently articulated by Bolivian President Evo Morales), cosmopolitans realize that our integrated world depends upon the exchange of ideas about what is right and wrong, an exchange that must cross geopolitical borders.
Like Arab Spring, the success of American Indian self-determination is dependent not only on restructuring and rebuilding community with the goal of empowerment of the people, but it also is dependent upon developing international relationships and communications. These relationships ought to be oriented toward the political, cultural, and educational.
For example, the young people who mobilized in Egypt did not work in isolation, shut off from the international community. A few years before January 25, one of the best-known Egyptian groups devoted itself to the study and practice of nonviolence (itself an international philosophy, and one that is rather successful) while networking with individuals from successful movements such as Otpor, a 2004 Serbian student movement, and from the 2004 Ukrainian youth movement. In addition, the young Egyptians utilized what Professor Manuel Castells terms “informationalism”—in this case, using social media intelligently with the goal of spreading/gaining knowledge while increasing political development. The result was a revolution, one that of course will take years to unfold.
It is this type of international support and networking—the significant exchange of ideas and information—that will enhance the Tribal Nation self-determination movement. Of course, pockets of mutual support already exist as illustrated by the international Indigenous groups that worked on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Indigenous Environmental Network also works with others outside the geopolitical borders of Indian Country. The goal in this activity is to assist us in the international necessity for respectful coexistence.
Tribes and Tribal Nations, like the Arab world, are misunderstood by Westerners. This is due to a list of reasons we are all familiar with including false representations in the history books and stereotypes in the media and popular culture. For example, I am confident that if you watched director Jackie Salloum’s “Planet of the Arabs,” a short 2005 video showcasing the portrayal of Arabs in the Western media, you would immediately see the connections between how American Indians and Arab Peoples have been popularly misrepresented. In fact, Salloum’s critique is a perfect segue into Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond’s 2009 documentary Reel Injun.
But Arabs and American Indians have more in common than being routinely caricatured or savaged in mainstream films for mass consumption. We also share the experiences of living, at one time or another, under political tenures that have been more interested in undermining our communities (under the guise of “civilization” or “reorganization”) than in investing in an informed and engaged people who can be the basis for a participatory style of intelligent and community-based government. Arab Spring, like other events, promises to be of help in learning how to create such a style of governing through the supportive role of cosmopolitan communication.
A couple of years ago, I was approached by a CIA recruiter who had become familiar with my research on the Middle East. She told me that there existed a level of ignorance about Tribes and Tribalism in her agency, and so she invited me to consider giving lectures to a group of her colleagues on these topics. At one point in the conversation, the recruiter said that a central question asked by the agency—referring to overseas activities—was Why do Tribes undermine Western efforts? That question is ripe, full of assumptions and equipped with a specific lens for seeing. Or, rather, not-seeing. Tribalist that I am, I reframed the question by asking simply why coordinated efforts were still in play to undermine the right of Tribes to exist.
This gets us to back to the idea of the cosmopolitans, which understands that diversity is a political strength. It takes diverse strength to overthrow an oppressive and blood-thirsty government or to resist fort-type leadership that is based upon corruption and profits-before-people, a government in which nepotism and cronyism are supported instead of an engaged citizenry. In the case of American Indian self-determination, there exists the extra struggle of contending with anti-Tribalism. Anti-Tribalism is a form of extremism that insists upon erasing differences in our humanity, it is an extremism that refuses to recognize that Tribes do belong in a thriving international community.
Arab Spring, like the Self-Determination movement, through its belief in global conversations, offers us one possible pathway into a world which acknowledges both Tribal and Non-Tribal Peoples. Perhaps this movement will be called Indian Summer.
Julia Good Fox is a citizen of the Pawnee Nation (from the Kitkahahki band) and a direct descendant of Curly Chief who was born and raised in Oklahoma. She now resides in the Midwest and teaches in an Indigenous and American Indian Studies Program at a Tribal college. She is also a researcher, traveler, and writer.