An image from the movie "Cesar Chavez: History is Made One Step at a Time."


An image from the movie "Cesar Chavez: History is Made One Step at a Time."

How Chavez Dealt With the US Government—and How Natives Do

The recent movie Cesar Chavez: History is Made One Step at a Time brings home differing strategies between minority groups and indigenous nations in their legal and political relations with the United States.

Chavez focused on non-violent methods and did not challenge the U.S. government, Constitution or values system. The farm workers movement under Chavez’s leadership embraced central U.S. laws and values. The movement won broad support because they fought for inclusion and realization of American values of equality, equal opportunity, cultural tolerance, and non-violence. The farm workers values under Chavez’s leadership wanted, and to a certain extent obtained, more complete citizenship and participation within the American economy and society.

American Indians, however, approach the United States from a different stand point of not wanting to fully take on U.S. values, culture, and institutions, at least not within their tribal communities and territories. Most American Indians are accepting of U.S. citizenship, and as citizens are willing to live under U.S. laws and the Constitution when living or engaged in activities outside of tribal jurisdictions. A primary reason that American Indians struggle to preserve dual citizenship—tribal and U.S.—is because American Indians are committed to preserving their tribal heritages, which are culturally, politically, and economically different from U.S. values and laws.

Many American Indian tribes have a hard time separating religion or worldview from everyday life and government. For some tribes, kinship, worldviews, and religious leaders continue to play a role in important community decisions and activities. Religion in U.S. society for the most part is separated from politics, economy, and everyday life.

American Indians, unlike minority groups, seek to maintain self-government and territory. Americans, and nation states around the world, tend to find the indigenous struggles for territory and self-government disturbing and threatening to the existing national political and legal orders.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples clearly states that the document does not support political recognition of indigenous governments, or rather leaves such issues to the individual nation states. The California state constitutional referendum for Proposition 1A in 2000 considered making Indian gaming legal. The tribes launched a TV campaign to support the proposition, but found in their focus groups that commercials emphasizing tribal sovereignty were negatively regarded by California voters. Focus group responders thought claims to tribal sovereignty were too un-American, and created images of the Queen of England. The focus groups supported presentations that emphasized how Indians would rise out of poverty, and become more economically self-sufficient.

Some Indigenous Peoples, like Bedouin in Isreal and Indians in Mexico have worked within constitutional frameworks to create municipal governments. Their strategy is to create local governments that remain under local indigenous authority, so they can exercise and implement their laws and norms.

The Inuit in Alaska have taken control over the North Slope Borough, and have been very successful running a government that supports Inuit culture and issues. Other American Indian groups, like the Passamaquoddy of Maine, however, have found themselves under effective state control when mistakenly agreeing to a municipal government plan. Indigenous Peoples in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and perhaps Scandinavia, have made some progress at nation state recognition of indigenous government, territory, and cultural autonomy. However, most Indigenous Peoples around the world are not politically recognized.

Many indigenous nations may not be able to maintain an “indigenous position” since they will not be able to hold land, maintain indigenous based government, and may be reluctant to separate their worldviews and communities from land and government. Many nation states recognize indigenous people as individual citizens, however not as indigenous nations. Working outside the laws and values of the nation state tends to lead to rejection, misunderstanding, and lack of cooperation. Most Indigenous Peoples, however, find their goals and values are foreign and at odds with the core values of nation states.


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How Chavez Dealt With the US Government—and How Natives Do