When nations declare independence from the domination of other nations it is often within the context of the carnage of bloody confrontations, which tends to get the attention of international media (the old adage in the news business "if it bleeds it leads" really does apply). However, when nations declare independence peacefully it often goes unnoticed. Such was the case recently in Spain with the declaration of sovereignty by Catalonia. You are probably thinking to yourself that you've never even heard of this place, but for Indian country there is a lesson here and we should be watching very carefully what happens in the months and years to come in the relationship between Catalonia and Spain.
Catalonia is one of 17 autonomous regions in Spain. Roughly the size of Belgium, it lies on the northeastern Mediterranean coast of Spain sharing a border with France, and is just east of another autonomous region known as the Basque country. The city of Barcelona is in Catalonia. Like many nations/cultures of the Mediterranean regions, it has been invaded and conquered many times over the past couple of millennia, but historians generally pinpoint the birth of the Catalan nation in the 9th century CE when Barcelona emerged as a dominant political and military power in the region. Catalonia would attach its allegiance to various French and Castillian monarchies during the Middle Ages while maintaining elements of its autonomous culture, language and system of government but would ultimately come to be dominated unconsentingly by Spain in the 1700’s.
Various eras of the last 300 years would see resurgent battles of victory and loss in struggles for Catalan independence. The dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1939 to 1975) resulted in oppressive policies designed to submerge Catalonian culture and language, but a new Spanish constitution in 1978 restored democracy and the recognition of automomous “nationalities”, including Catalonia. Since then Catalonia has been pushing for gradually increasing levels of independence from Spain, manifesting in the establishment of its own municipal districts (similar to American counties), an autonomous police force, and a Supreme Court. It has its own national parliament.
The call for a sovereign Catalonia ramped up in 2010 and again last year on September 11, a holiday known as the National Day of Catalonia. An estimated 2 million people took to the streets in Barcelona demanding the independence of their nation under the slogan “Catalonia, new state in Europe.” Then, on January 23, 2013 Catalonia issued a Declaration of Sovereignty in a step toward a Catalan referendum which would put a vote to the Catalan people to decide on what direction to take their nation. Reasons? In recent years the Spanish government has taken steps to limit Catalonia’s autonomy, and unfair taxation policies that have contributed to the economic crisis have fueled Catalonia’s push for independence. Naturally, the Spanish government is not enthusiastic about it and will not likely be willing to let go without some sort of a fight.
As indigenous scholar Rudolph Rÿser points out in his new book Indigenous Nations and Modern States we are witnessing the breakdown of the modern nation-state as once-colonized nations (referred to as fourth-world nations) upon and around which the majority of nation-states were formed are systematically rejecting their colonial shackles and insisting on a return to autonomy. The decolonization movement in Africa and the disintegration of the USSR are perhaps the clearest examples and many more can be cited, with Catalonia being the most recent case in point. The message is clear: the abusive policies of dominant states toward the colonized are no longer acceptable.
While colonization as a global force follows predictable patterns, it has taken specific forms in each different nation-state. Although there are similarities across the board, the way Catalonia was colonized is not the same as the way American Indians have been colonized, the way Hawaii was colonized or the way Palestine is being colonized. Thus, what emerges in terms of decolonization and autonomy among fourth-world nations will vary from state to state. We are seeing the emergence of new forms of international political status and what form of autonomy a fourth-world nation will take depends on its particular circumstances and what it determines it wants for itself.
The lessons for American Indian tribal nations are many, but the starting place is that new forms of a political relationship with the United States (and the rest of the world) can easily be imagined. It’s possible to go beyond the bounds of the models of the domestic dependent nation, the doctrine of discovery, and even the trust doctrine. Each tribal nation will have to be honest with itself about how well these have been working for them and decide what it wants, and not willing to continue to accept what it is told is good for them. And that’s what it means to assert self-determination.
Dina Gilio-Whitaker is a research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies.