Some of us who have embarked on a path of intellectual work have also worked throughout our lives with spiritual leaders so that our intellectual efforts and work is grounded in ceremony and prayer. Some of us have worked for decades with traditional headmen of Original Nations, such as the Oglala Lakota Nation, and have garnered the respect of traditional spiritual leaders.
Some of us have spent our entire adult lives as Native people in an effort to research, and reflect on our findings for the purpose of locating the most powerful information, and developing the most powerful arguments that would result in the liberation of our nations and peoples from the dominating system of the United States. Having done so, we have gained reading, writing, and interpretative skills, along with a tremendous amount of information that we have desired to provide for the assistance of the original free and independent Nations and Peoples of Great Turtle Island.
We do not hold elected positions, but we do have the capacity to, and have for decades, provided counsel to elected and traditional leaders based on the information we have gathered and arguments we have developed for the liberation of our nations and peoples. With regard to elected leadership positions, the legitimacy of an elected leader is a matter to be decided upon by a given people. The issue of legitimacy of elected leadership has to do with whether a given leader was indeed elected or otherwise chosen by his or her people.
Whether the given position of and language used by a particular elected leader works toward or against the liberation of our nations and peoples is a different matter. As readers of this column know full well, I have not been at all hesitant about calling attention to leadership at the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), for example, referring to us as if we are all “Americans” now, just “Native” ones. I have not been hesitant about being critical of such terminology because such rhetoric does not acknowledge that there are many Indian nations that refuse to go along with such politically assimilationist thinking.
Nineteenth century U.S. policy makers worked out the plan for the future destruction and domestication of our nations, and our eventual assimilation into the United States. We are now living in the future that those U.S. policy makers envisioned. Shouldn’t elected Indian leaders still be resisting that U.S. plan rather than now using terminology that serves, in the name of “accommodation,” to bring into effect the political assimilation of our nations?
Mind you, not all elected Indian leaders are working in that manner, and all would probably deny that they have any such interest. But if that is indeed the case then Indian leaders need to reflect that view by the words they use and their way of framing the issues. If it is merely out of bad habits established over generations that some of the elected leaders are now typically using politically assimilating terminology such as “U.S. tribes,” then once they have been apprised of this, it is imperative that they stop using that terminology especially in the context of the United Nations.
The fact that some elected Indian leaders are using “U.S. tribes” and the fact that the lawyers and other experts working with those leaders have not advised against the use of such terminology tells us a great deal. What this tells us is that those elected Indian leaders and their experts have not truly understood the subtlety of language and its reality-constructing nature. The expression “U.S. tribes,” which, by the way, exactly matches the U.S. government’s terminology, is politically destructive to our nations and peoples. Use of that terminology constructs, maintains, and reinforces that form of reality.
There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of language when it comes to our issues as original free nations. This is especially true in the international arena and the United Nations. Language creates reality. What we think, speak, and write in combination with how we behave creates reality.
Reality is constructed on an ongoing basis by the interaction between our minds and our social and physical world. Meaning is not in the text of a given document, such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Meaning is the result of an inter-action—a back and forth—between our minds and what it is we are interpreting. Meaning is what happens, for example, when our minds interact with the text of a given physical (or, these days, digital) document. But different minds will inter-act in different ways with a given text and therefore come up with a different interpretive result.
The minds of U.S. government officials interacting with the text of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, for example, results in an interpretation that is designed to serve the best interests of the United States. U.S. officials use “U.S. tribes” in the context of the UN Declaration for one reason. It interprets the text of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in a manner that reconstructs and maintains domestic U.S. federal Indian law exactly as it is today, premised on the right of Christian discovery and domination. In 1996, Seth Waxman, U.S. Solicitor General of the United States, said to Indian leaders about the UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 1996: it “must remain consistent with U.S. law.”
Any elected Indian leaders who use “U.S. tribes” in the context of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples are doing damage to the liberation of our nations and peoples. Why? Because that U.S.-centric terminology works to support the U.S. government’s efforts to construct, maintain, and reinforce the domination-subjection framework of domesticating U.S. federal Indian law and policy. Any elected Indian leaders who have been using that terminology in relation to the international arena ought immediately cease doing so, and explain their rationale for using such self-domesticating and self-colonizing language to begin with.
Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is the co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He has been studying U.S. federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980s.