My Beautiful Wickedness

Siouan sovereignty
December 21, 2007, 10:50 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I feel a little like a genius. I told my students in my AI History class that they should look for a western group (probably the Lakota, for all sorts of historical and political reasons) to elect to make an issue out of full sovereignty in the next few years. I didn’t think it would happen so soon…

Anyhow, here’s my thoughts, prompted by Betsy’s post and Lee’s comment…it just got a little long for a comment.

1. The Lakota are just one oyate (think states or other political group within a larger body known as the Sioux). They are a transnational people (split between US and Canada) so it sort of makes sense for them to not visualize themselves as a domestic dependent part of just one nation-state. I will be interested to see what the other oyates do, as they have a history of not always going in lockstep with one another. (I am totally cynical about the people leading this, but that’s just one outsider opinion. Having studied these guys for a while, I see some grandstanding that might not be helpful in addressing the longterm serious problems that really need national attention.)

2. They’ve tried this before — peer-to-peer negotiations (how do you think those treaties got there) — and it’s had mixed results. The last time, tanks rolled into South Dakota and the FBI handed Siouan “Goon Squads” armor-piercing bullets to take out AIM. This could be very bad. Mike Rounds is still governor out there and he’s a longtime crony of the Janklow gang; the Janklows had a history of using coercive force any time any Indian so much as farted, so I’m not optimistic.

3. On the other hand, if race and racism and crazy Indian-hating was taken out of this….it’s maybe not such a bad time to do this. The Great Plains is depopulating pretty drastically, especially the Dakotas. Why not let the Lakota repossess their homelands, if some sort of property arrangements can be reached? It’s not like those titles haven’t been clouded since 1868 — it’s that the farmowners, homesteaders, and state courts have chosen not to acknowledge the competing claims. The Lakota aren’t “inventing” problems; the problems have existed and now they want them resolved.

4. They may be doing your pocketbook a favor. If you haven’t been reading about the ruling in Cobell v Kempthorne (wherein the US government has been held liable to pay several hundred billion dollars to American Indians denied monies held in trust by the Department of Interior), you should. The claimants have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting everything they are owed (because the DoI has assiduously destroyed records that would document what they have coming), but the ticket on any resulting payout is going to be huge and a substantial slice would be going to the Lakota.

5. Other groups — like the 6 Nations — are also pursuing land reclamation strategies. Some are trying to use the courts, others pressing old treaty obligations. Anyhow, this is part of a national trend.

6. What other econ choices do they have? They have tried to ranch and the DoI and BLM have made it nearly impossible to run sufficient herds to make a living. There have been some Indian economic success stories, like the Choctaw — but their successes came at the expense of northern industrial workers like those in Flint and their successes began to dry up when offshoring sucked away light manufacturing jobs in the mid-1990s. Besides, the Sioux live in a pretty remote area and it’s not like they can supply for local industry as the Dakotas aren’t a real industrialized place. Casinos aren’t a viable econ solution for the Sioux, as they’re too remote and they don’t have any big population centers near them. So what are they supposed to do? Make meth? These folks don’t have a lot of options.

My take? It’s part of a desperate drive to pressure the US government to actually finish paying off their debts. American Indian peoples sold, were eminent domained off, or to a lesser extent were militarily driven off of a tremendous amount of land and were in most cases handed a promissory note that was only imcompletely paid. In many cases, western tribal properties were placed in trust and they had to fight like hell to get any control over its supervision. Even when they owned their own lands through allotment, they were not permitted, for most of the 20th century, to control their own property, supervise their investments, or even do something basic like decide how many cattle they could run. Tribes and individuals owned mineral wealth but the Department of the Interior and the BIA never gave them an accounting of what they were earning and never cut the checks.

American officials in the 19th century believed, for the most part, that American Indians were going to die off. When they didn’t, they thought that maybe they should be helped along on that…they’ve been starved, shot at, had their property withheld, involuntarily sterilized…it’s a big black mark and not at all what we want to aspire towards as a nation.

American public policy towards Indians has been a big mess — invest in reservations, disinvest; encourage assimiliation, reverse course and encourage self-governance, no wait, now we think that we should terminate tribal bodies, no no wait, maybe we should let Indian people run the BIA, no no wait, maybe something else would work better, no maybe get rid of the BIA (which, believe me, few Indians would be crying about). Every twenty years or so, like clockwork, the US government changes its mind — the only thing it hasn’t changed it’s mind about is that Indians are a problem to be “solved” rather than a group of varied peoples with some common historical relationships vis-a-vis the federal government that need to be understood, negotiated with, and redressed. Meanwhile, the poorest counties in the nation are those on Indian reservations. You want to feel bad about the “Third World” and the structural underdevelopment that attends colonialism? Take a drive through Rosebud.

I guess what bothers me most is that each time the US changes policy direction, the officials involve pretend that they were starting with a totally clean slate. I’ve thought about this a lot and one of the biggest problems in the policy muddle is the fed/state unwillingness to face the hard truths contained in the history of our country. There’s a lot of unexamined racism in the common law that is now under all these new initiatives, huge amounts of pain and distrust…and while I’m not stupid enough to think that a big group hug and a hearty apology would fix anything, I don’t think that we’re going to get very far in communicating a mutually acceptable outcome. The temptation among the empowered is to tell those on the shit end of the stick to “get over it and quit living in the past.” The thing is that it’s not the PAST. What happened then shapes what happens now. We who are empowered at the moment might do well to get our heads out of our asses and stop pretending that this inequality that privileges us at the moment just “happened.”

The trick is to not leave it at “yes, we did this and we feel so bad. Now go away.” Useless breast-beating isn’t what I’m calling for. Rather, a solemn self-reflection of what was, what is, and what that commits us to do as an act of reconciliation.


3 Comments so far
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I love having historians about…

Comment by magniloquence

The Penobscot and Passamaquoddy sued for much of the state of Maine back, during the Carter Administration, right? They didn’t get anything close to sovereignty out of it, but they did get a substantial financial settlement.

(Damn, I’m suddenly all nostalgic for the time I spent in the law library researching that case for a paper. Yeah, I love having historians about, too.)

Comment by Phantom Scribbler

Yes, that’s right. The US part of the 6 Nations is currently reviving a NY state suit for possession of most of upstate New York. They are unlikely to win (because US property law contains colonial assumptions that assures that they cannot), but they may increase the control that they have over their own holdings and maybe a little money.

But really, that’s not what the traditionalists/culturalists want. If you really really believe that you were created in a particular place and your gods want you in that place and that your cultural health and religious identity depends on gathering all the people together in that place…well, it’s the Israel/Palestine problem, sort of.

Comment by bridgett

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