On January 27, Jefferson Keel, President of the National Congress of the American Indians delivered the 9th Annual State of Indian Nations Address in Washington, D.C. Mr. Keel is also Lieutenant General of the Chickasaw Nation.
Up front, I want to clarify that while this column does take issue with a key aspect of Mr. Keel’s address the views expressed here are not intended in any way as a statement against him personally.
The title of Mr. Keel’s address was “Sovereign Indian Nations at the Dawn of a New Era.” He opened his address under the heading: “Toward a More Perfect Union,” a reference to the preamble to the United States Constitution.
Mr. Keel’s use of the phrase “Toward a More Perfect Union” is troubling because it creates a kind of category confusion. Our Indian nations did not enter into a “union” with the political system of the United States by making treaties with the United States.
While the use of “perfect union” makes perfect sense when used by an American politician, when used by an Indian leader, it does not accord the proper level of respect for the fact that our Indian nations are distinct from and not part of a “union with” or “union of” the United States. A better Introduction for respecting the distinctiveness or our nations would have been, “Toward More Perfect Relations Between Sovereign Nations.”
Mr. Keel’s use of the notion of movement “toward” a “more perfect union” was problematic for another reason: It too closely matches something that President Obama said in his December 16, 2010 statement of “support” for the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Mr. Obama said that the UN Declaration is “a matter of whether we’re going to live up to our basic values. It’s a matter of upholding an ideal that has always defined who we are as Americans. E Pluribus Unum. Out of many one. That’s why we are here. That’s what we’re called to do.” “Unum” means “one” in Latin. This concept thus matches Mr. Keel’s use of the phrase “a more perfect union.”
These remarks by President Obama’s to an audience of hundreds of American Indian leaders—and his specific use of phrases such as “out of many one,” and “who we are as Americans”—implicitly references a long standing United States agenda toward Indian nations that is still being carried out today. That agenda involves an effort to by the United States government to politically meld or integrate our Indian nations into the body politic and consciousness of the United States.
Referring to us as “Native Americans” (which, unfortunately, Indian Country Today Media Network is now beginning to do), as President Obama did in his Dec. 16 address, is also blurring the distinction between our Indian nations and the United States.
The term “Native Americans” contains an implicit narrative. After traveling a troubled road through many historical eras, we as Indian people have psychologically arrived at a point in our thinking where we are now willing to say something that our ancestors who fought and died for our traditional ways of life refused say, “we are all Americans”—Indians and non-Indians alike. As if we as American Indians are simply the “Native” portion of the overall population of the American society.
Such thinking is the thought-path of assimilation, derived from the philosophy of the “melting pot.” If not guarded against it will lead to something that United States government has desired for centuries, an end to our distinctiveness as Indian nations and peoples.
The United States agenda I am talking about dates back to “the Indian wars” and to the days in the 19th and 20th centuries when Indian children were forced into the government and church schools. Our own ancestors (family members) were forcibly programmed to daily raise the American flag and recite the American pledge of allegiance, and also go to a Christian church service one or two times a day in an effort to make us think of ourselves as just another variety of the “American” public.
We need to stay focused on our status as originally free, sovereign, and independent nations that entered into treaties with other independent nations. We don’t need rhetorical attempts to show that we as American Indian nations and peoples have supposedly become—in fulfillment of the United States’ plan to reduce us and render us down in its “melting pot”—“Americans,” just “Native” Americans.
Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of “Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery” (2008), and a columnist for Indian Country Today.