B. Behavioral Evidence of Acceptance of American Citizenship by Indigenous Peoples

In recent years, it appears that Indigenous people are identifying more and more with American society and have come to accept a place within that society as one of its racial or ethnic minority groups. In the absence of reliable statistics on the number of Indians who reject American citizenship, this conclusion can be supported by observing the way in which Indians engage in political activities ordinarily associated with being an American. Considerable evidence can thus be obtained by assessing the degree to which Indians have become involved in the American political process through activism, voting and participation in the legislative process.


1. Activism

For many years following the grant of American citizenship in 1924, states imposed barriers in their voting laws to prevent Indians from voting. These actions, not surprisingly, had the effect of inhibiting Indian participation in the American political system. With the passage of time and the enactment of federal civil rights laws addressing the disenfran-chisement of African Americans, the legal barriers to the exercise of the Indian vote were eliminated. Indians, however, did not immediately begin to vote in American elections. They were unfamiliar with the process, unable to read and write in English, and were otherwise passive about voting. Moreover, many thought the notion of participating in the colonizing nation's electoral process was seen as an abandonment of citizenship in one's Indigenous nation. In the words of one Mohawk woman, “my parents taught us that once you vote, you stop being Indian.”

This view changed dramatically after the emergence of the Red Power movement in the late 1960s. During the twenty years prior to that time, the United States had adopted and carried out its Termination Policy--an effort analogous to the Allotment Policy of the late nineteenth century--that focused on denying the recognition of the separate political status of the Indian nations. Influenced heavily by the activist movement that was occurring nationally, Indians--mainly from urban centers--began to take more aggressive efforts to assert Indigenous political rights. It is well acknowledged that the Red Power movement was tied to the civil rights and anti-war protests common to the era. Indeed,

Red Power borrowed from civil rights organizational forms, rhetoric, and tactics but modified them to meet the specific needs and symbolic purposes of Indian grievances, targets, and locations. The black lunch counter “sit-in” became the tribal “fish-in”; “Black Power became “Red Power”; the term “Red Muslims”, paralleling the Nation of Islam's “Black Muslims,” was used for a short time in the 1960s to refer to American Indian militants.

These activist efforts led to the emergence of the American Indian Movement (AIM), the foremost and most aggressive of the activist organizations, and such political activities as the “fish-ins” in the Pacific Northwest to assert treaty violations in the 1960s, the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969 and the takeovers of the BIA building in Washington in 1971 and 1972. While AIM and the Red Power movement eventually sought to move from civil rights activism to treaty rights activism--through such efforts as the Trail of Broken Treaties protest march to Washington in 1972 eventually moved toward violence, such as the siege at Wounded Knee.

The Red Power movement came to an end during the late 1970s and early 1980s as the result of many of the movement's leaders being repressed by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. Moreover, the federal government effectively co-opted many of the movement's leaders by including them in its Indian policy making process and incorporated the Indian nations themselves through recognition of Indigenous self-determination and the provision of considerable federal funding.

This era of Indian activism was “not only a political mobilization; it was also a wellspring of transformation and renewal.” Instead of being perceived simply as victims, Indians following the Red Power movement were perceived as “victorious rather than victimized, confronting an oppressive federal bureaucracy, demanding redress of long-standing grievances, challenging images of Indians as powerless casualties of history, [and] redefining æredÆ, ænativeÆ, and ætribalÆ as valued statuses imbued with moral and spiritual significance.”

Unfortunately these positive benefits overshadow the fact that the Red Power movement contributed greatly to the assimilation of Indians into American society. This occurred in at least two ways. First, Indian advocacy was directed away from the government-to-government relationship between the Indian nations and the United States and shifted toward the individual rights orientation of the civil rights movement. Individual Indians, and not the recognized or even traditional Indian leadership, were the primary leaders and spokespersons of the Red Power movement. This blurred the conception of Indian status in the eyes of both Americans generally as well as the Indians involved in the movement.

By adopting the tactics of the civil rights movement, Indigenous people relinquished much of the power associated with being citizens of separate sovereigns located within the United States. This was realized later on by the movement's leaders when they sought to strengthen ties with the reservation Indians and their leaders. Unfortunately, the methods and tactics associated with the movement by then were not only foreign and frightening to many reservation Indians, but the nature of the advocacy was genuinely ill-suited to redressing the problems associated with Indigenous self-determination. Rather than participate in the much more important but less provocative day-to-day business of strengthening Indigenous sovereignty through, for example, the operation and management of tribal government, the movement became ideologically predisposed to attacking all governments on behalf of what it perceived to be the downtrodden and oppressed. This meant attacks on tribal government, as well as attacks on the federal government.

Second, the movement was unable to sustain itself against the federal government's efforts to co-opt the movement's leaders and to incorporate them into the American political process. Through such vehicles as the American Indian Policy Review Commission established by the federal government in 1975, many of the movement's leaders went “mainstream” in the effort to effectuate the Indian agenda from the “inside.” This was combined with the fact that by the late 1960s, the first generation of Indigenous lawyers began to graduate from American law schools. Rather than relying on the direct political action associated with the movement, these new Native lawyers had been trained as part of the colonizing nation's legal system and were thus committed to working within that system for the betterment of Indigenous peoples. In addition to the efforts taken to co-opt the Indigenous leadership, Congress gave Indian tribal governments millions of dollars to effectuate their self-determination and thus their absorption into the American economic and political system.

The lasting legacy of the Red Power Movement, then, is that it promoted the absorption of the Indian nations into American society. The Movement led to broad acceptance of the view held by both Indians and non-Indians that the Indian nations are part of America, that Indians are Americans, and moreover, that Indians are simply members of a minority group-- “Native Americans”--on par with other minority groups like African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans. Vine Deloria, Jr., the renown Indigenous scholar, affirmed this conclusion when he said that

Until 1960, it would not have been proper to have discussed American Indians in the context of American minorities because few Indians saw themselves as a minority within American society à. As Indians became more familiar with the world outside the reservations, there is no question that they began to see themselves as another minority group within American society. The activism of the 1970s only confirmed this viewpoint and made it a regular part of the Indian perspective, even of the reservation people.


2. Voting and Lobbying

Despite the fact that Indigenous people have become more assimilated into American society during the past thirty years, the Indigenous population has been slow to participate in American elections and to participate in the federal legislative process. Historically, Indians have been much more inclined to participate in tribal elections rather than federal elections. In 1992, for example, the Senate estimated that over 85% of Indians voted in tribal elections but that only about 20% of Indians voted in federal elections.

During the last ten years, however, Indians have begun to vote in American elections in increasingly higher numbers and have spent millions lobbying Congress to further Indigenous interests. So dramatic has been this recent spate of Indian political activity that some have suggested that Indian nations are now undergoing a “political renaissance.” A number of factors appear to be contributing to this “renaissance,” including leadership from national federal and tribal political figures, the end of Republican control of the White House, the need to protect tribal gaming rights and general acceptance of the American political credo that participation in the system will make things better.

It would be hard to pinpoint any one person or group of people who might be responsible for the increase in Indian voting during the last decade, but it would be hard not to notice the prominence of such national Indian leaders as Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the Republican Senator from Colorado, who is the only Indian member of Congress. Campbell, who did not grow up in an Indian community or serve in tribal government is a firm believer that “[i]f you want to make change, you may bring some attention to the problem on the outside, but you've got to get on the inside to make policy changes.” Indeed, he appears to have considerable disregard for the activist politics of the American Indian Movement that arguably precipitated the mobilization of Indians to accept a role in the American political system that made his career possible. Regarding his efforts in Congress to have the Custer Battlefield renamed the Little Big Horn Battlefield, he concluded that “[w]ith all that yelling and complaining and protesting and marching, [AIM] never got it done.”

Another prominent leader in the effort to increase the Indian vote in recent years was Ada Deer, a former tribal leader, Congressional candidate, and the Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs (the top official in Washington responsible for administering Indian affairs) during the first Clinton term. Deer has said that Indians must vote to change Congress or else no federally funded Indian program will be safe from budget cuts. Her successor, Kevin Gover, while an attorney in private practice representing Indian nations, was in charge of the effort to increase Indian voting on behalf of candidate Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party in 1992. Gover said that Clinton “reached out to the tribal community in a way that was unprecedented in the presidential campaigns.” In 1996, Gover was involved in a similar effort to “get out the Native vote” and was later appointed as Deer's successor as Assistant Secretary.

There have been other national Indian leaders promoting Indian voting during this decade, including Larry Echohawk, the former Attorney General of Idaho, who during his tenure was the only Indian elected to statewide political office in the United States. While in office during the early 1990s, Echohawk focused on getting more “Native American people involved in the [[[American] political system, not necessarily as candidates for office but as participants and workers.”

Tribal leaders, too, have been involved in the effort to promote Indian participation in American politics. Joe Byrd, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, believes that “[Indians] must rise up to defend issues that are important to all of us--not only as citizens of tribal government, but as citizens of the United States.” Former chairman of the Quinault Tribe, Joe DeLaCruz, was instrumental in launching a voter registration drive amongst the Indian nations in the state of Washington. And others, such as Dean Chavers, a renown Indian educator, argues that “[i]t makes eminent sense à to vote in the national elections à [because] [t]o Indian Country, the umbilical cord to Washington, D.C. is still attached. It is the people in D.C. who hold the power of life and death over Indians.”

Aside from Campbell (who switched to the Republican Party in 1995) all of those vigorously promoting Indian participation in the political process are Democrats, which no doubt coincides with the fact that Democrats have taken over the White House and that Indians who do vote tend to vote Democratic. Indians have come under heavy pressure from Indian leadership to vote in American elections and to contribute to the Democratic Party. In this decade, aggressive efforts have been waged by many Indian leaders to mobilize Indian voters on behalf of Democratic candidates for office, particularly President Bill Clinton. Indians have been encouraged by Indian leaders and Democratic party officials to register to vote, to get involved in political campaigns, and to give money to support political candidates and issues. So concerned has the Democratic Party been with its own success that party officials have even sought to convince Indians to vote against one of the strongest champions of Indian rights and the only Indian in Congress, Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

While Republicans also court Indian votes and support, the results appear to have paid off mainly for Democrats. In 1988, there were a record fifty-one Indian delegates to the Democratic National Convention and in 1992, there were sixty-two. In addition, a number of Democrats (and Campbell) can attribute their elections to the strength of the Native vote. Indians have also begun to have impact on state and local races.

One of the main reasons for this increase in political activity appears to be the need to safeguard gaming rights, a phenomenon that has emerged in the last ten years to make a few select Indian nations extremely wealthy and allowed many more to generate modest income to support tribal government operations. Some of these Indian nations, naturally, have used this new income to lobby Congress for protecting these rights.

Because Indian gaming activities are so heavily dependent upon federal law, some Indian nations stand to gain or lose millions in gambling revenue depending upon how Congress responds to pressure from anti-Indian gambling interests. Thus, Indian nations have spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress to prevent adverse amendments to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, to oppose efforts to impose income taxes on casino revenues, and to thwart attempts to waive tribal sovereign immunity. Moreover, tribal leaders have urged their people to vote in state elections to protect gaming rights controlled by state officials. And perhaps most dramatically, Indian nations in California recently spent $68 million to persuade the California electorate to change state law to allow them to expand into casino gambling.

Despite these influences, much of the recent spate of Indian political activity appears to be driven by the genuine belief that working through the American political system is the only way in which to effectuate the Indian political agenda. “We have to make Indians understand that decisions of concern to Indians are made in Washington, D.C., and they have to vote in federal elections,” said Janice Chilton, a tribal planner and Democratic Party official. This view is shared by Frank LaMere, a Democratic Party activist and one of two Indians on the DNC, who believes that

the [American] political process is perhaps the most important vehicle that drives individuals in society à politics determines who is represented, who is heard, who is provided for and who gets opportunities. æAnd to put it bluntly, politics determines who lives and who dies.Æ
LaMere says that his work for the Democrats is motivated, “first and foremost,” by a commitment to “our Winnebago veterans and to my own brother, who gave his life in defense of our Constitution.” Perhaps as a reflection of this commitment, Senator Bob Kerry of Nebraska says of LaMere that his most significant quality is that he “is a patriot who loves his country [the United States].” Many others, such as Dean Chavers, share the view that change for Indians can only come through the American political system.

In the face of these efforts to spur Indian suffrage, tribal leaders appear to have accepted the notion that working within the American political system is a necessary requirement to properly represent tribal interests. For example, ten years ago, only five of the twenty-three members of the United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc., a tribal lobbying organization, had paid Washington lobbyists. Today, fourteen do. These Indian nations have made considerable changes in the way they deal with Washington. Now “they are using high-priced lobbyists, savvy public relations firms and big campaign contributions to win influence, make friends and crush opponents.” In contrast, but still attempting to accomplish similar objectives, the Washo Tribe of Nevada has managed to get 85% of its 1600 members registered as Democrats. Brian Wallace, their chairman, says, “We're not an independently wealthy group of people. We rely on delivering votes à. For us, it's a matter of survival.”

In recent years, individual Indians as well as Indian nations have become increasingly inclined to exercise their rights to vote and to participate in the American political process. To be sure, these activities are frequently accompanied by assertions that doing so will promote tribal sovereignty. But regardless of whether the Indian nations are involved in attempting to directly influence Congress or whether individual Indians are simply voting and helping candidates for American political office, these activities are little different than the political activity engaged in by American corporations or American citizens generally.

Indeed, much of this recent political activity seems predicated upon the faulty assumption that what is good for Americans politically is also good for Indians politically. A recent study by Geoff Peterson concluded that “Native Americans do not vote at the same levels as other groups when controlling for socioeconomic factors.” His explanation for what this means, however, is symptomatic of what appears to be the emerging political philosophy amongst Indian leadership:

The continued inactivity of Native Americans in the political process should be a major cause for concern for all persons who value democratic principles à.

Full participation in the political process is a desirable quality for the maintenance of a democratic government. If communities are underrepresented in the process, the potential for majority dominance increases. If Native Americans want to have their views taken into account in the political process, they need to show themselves to be a force in the electoral arena.

This philosophical approach ignores an inherent limitation on the ability of Indians to manipulate the American political system and it suggests additional reasons why Indians should not blindly commit to such an advocacy approach. Despite the assurances of those supporting a greater role for Indians in the American political system, there is no convincing evidence that the candidates supported by Indians (whether they be Indian or non-Indian) are consistently able to promote Indian interests. Senator Campbell, for example, recently made a controversial deal with long time opponent of Indigenous sovereignty Senator Slade Gorton over tribal sovereign immunity and the ability of states to collect taxes from Indian nations. Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover, also has made a controversial agreement with Senator Gorton regarding federal funding of tribal governments. And President Clinton too has made critical compromises adverse to tribal sovereignty, such as his signing of legislation denying the Narragansett Tribe the right to conduct gaming activities on their own land.

Moreover, not only might the message being sent to Indian people be flawed, but the messenger might be flawed as well. Most of those Indian leaders supporting an increased role for Indians in the American political process appear themselves to already be a part of the American political establishment. This mentality suggests a predisposition in favor of federal, rather than tribal, solutions to the problems facing Indian people. Indeed, the comments conceding a belief that the federal government has control over the “life and death” of Indians suggests a deference to federal power that makes the decision to support Indian voting in American elections follow quite naturally. And of course, there is always the possibility that support for Indian voting may be driven by the more self- interested motives of promoting one's political career by offering up Indian votes to the White political establishment.

While some tribal leaders seem to have agreed that increased voting and lobbying is the best way to defend and strengthen tribal sovereignty, the absence of a large number of Indigenous people aggressively supporting these efforts--as evidenced by the lack of Indian voters--makes this strategy inherently suspect.


3. Acceptance of Racial Minority Status

Additional evidence that Indigenous people have been absorbed into America's political culture is the seemingly well-settled belief that Indians are simply a racial minority group within American society. Even though Indigenous society is rooted in a sovereignty separate and apart from American sovereignty, Indians today appear to be suggesting that they should be treated in the same way as such racial minority groups as African Americans and Asian Americans. Primarily, this suggestion arises within the context of complaining about racism directed toward Indians. While it is certainly the case that Indians have long been thought to be of a different “race,” protestations solely along racial lines can only serve to undermine the perception that Indian nations have a political existence separate and apart from that of the United States.

A good example of this effect was the Indian response to the recent effort by President Clinton to address race relations in the United States through his One America initiative. To carry out his initiative, the President appointed a seven-member advisory board comprised of three White men, an Asian American woman, a Hispanic American woman, and two African Americans (including its chairman). When the appointments of the Board members were announced, there was an immediate outcry from Indian leaders condemning the President for not appointing an Indian to the Board. While the President never did appoint an Indian to the Board, the Board itself appointed Laura Harris, a Comanche Indian and Bambi Kraus, an Alaska native, to serve as advisors on American Indian issues.

This action did not assuage Indian critics, and the matter came to head during the Board's scheduled public hearing in Denver in late March of 1998. Indigenous activists attending the meeting condemned the absence of Indian representation on the Board and disrupted the meeting by shouting down the Board members in attendance and preventing the planned agenda from going forward. Noted Indian academic and AIM leader Glenn Morris yelled at the Board, “How can you have a national dialogue on race without one American Indian on your board?” and, “There can be no national dialogue on race without dealing with the first peoples of this hemisphere.” Board members tried to take the position that determining representation on the Board was beyond their limited authority, and argued that they have met with Native Americans more than any other group. While there was some sentiment that taking over the meeting was the right thing to do, criticism of the Board did not cease.

In September of 1998, the Board issued its final report. To its credit, it sought to distinguish the status of Indians from other racial minority groups on the basis of Indigenous sovereignty. In acknowledging that “American Indians and Alaska Natives à are the only minority population with a special relationship with the United States,” the Board concluded that the “more than 550 à tribes are home to people who are both U.S. citizens and members of tribes that are sovereign nations.” The Report also described the complex legal relationship that exists between the United States and the Indian nations, how important sovereignty is “to [their] existence as Indians,” how “little, if any information about tribal governments is taught in most schools” and how “[d]eeply entrenched notions of white supremacy” have made Indians “America's most invisible minority.”

But the Report failed to draw a clear distinction between the treatment of Indigenous people as citizens of the United States and as citizens of their own separate sovereign nations. Thus, the Report's conclusion that racism affects American Indians in ways similar to “other non-White and Hispanic minorities in America” undermines its acknowledgment of Indigenous people as having “a distinctive and extraordinarily complex status in the United States.” Unfortunately, Indians compounded the erosion of this distinction with such oxymoronic statements such as “the most virulent and destructive form of racism faced by Indian people today is the attack on our tribal sovereignty.”

The failure for all involved in this debate to appreciate the difference between Indigenous people as a race and Indians as citizens of separate sovereign nations has confused the message sent to American society about Indigenous political status and thereby compromised the existence of Indigenous sovereignty. Given the degree of cultural and political assimilation that has occurred to date, confusion regarding this issue is not surprising. Not all Indigenous people are Indigenous citizens, and not all Indigenous people live within an Indigenous nation. Thus, the existence of these “Native Americans” creates very real issues of racial discrimination that are indistinguishable from that faced by other minorities in the United States. That an Indian is a citizen of a separate sovereign nation means little as a legal matter when that person is living outside of his or her nation. Discrimination can and does occur solely on the basis of having a racial background different from that of the majority population.

The problem, then, with fixating on “race” when dealing with discriminatory treatment faced by Indigenous people is that Indigenous people are thus only perceived by American society in terms of race. This is true notwithstanding the fact that many of these discussions about “race” actually focus on concerns about Indigenous sovereignty and self-government.

For example, a recent dialogue involving a few Indigenous leaders commenting on the President's Report highlights how this mixed message is conveyed. Under the caption, “Reflections on Racism,” a national Indian affairs newsmagazine asked several Indian leaders to respond to a number of different questions. The first was “[d]o you think American Indians identify with the struggles of other ethnic or racial groups that have experienced discrimination?”

Ray Halbritter, Representative of the Oneida Nation of New York simply answered yes to the question, but then proceeded to give a more detailed answer highlighting the differences between Indians and other minorities:

Minority groups in America share a struggle with racism in one form or another.

The fundamental difference between sovereignty and equal protection under the law makes our struggle to maintain our identity unlike that of any other ethnic group. Our governments, laws and cultures existed long before the United States and its laws came into being. Our sovereign rights are recognized in repeated treaties with the federal government. Yet that same federal government continually passes laws that infringe on those sovereign rights. And state and local governments often enact legislation and pursue court actions that completely disregard Indian sovereignty. Only the American Indian in this country is engaged in this never-ending struggle to protect our pre-existing inherent sovereign rights.

Conversely, Marge Anderson, chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, impliedly answered no to the question by first highlighting the differences between Indians and other minorities and then arguing that there were similarities:

There are important differences between the struggles of other racial groups in this country. The obvious one is that we did not immigrate here. We were not forced to relocate here. We were not forced to relocate here as slaves. We are the first Americans.

But in some respects, our story is similar to the stories of other racial groups. While I don't pretend to be an expert on African-Americans or Asian-Americans or Hispanic-Americans, I do know that these people--like my People--have struggled for years to keep from being swallowed up by the dominant culture. American Indians have had to fight off deliberate attacks against our culture, as well as sincere but misguided attempts to help us assimilate. I'm sure these are struggles that sound familiar to other racial groups.

To anyone reading these two statements looking for Indian “reflections on racism,” it would be hard to get a clear sense of how Indians interrelate with minority groups on the basis of race. Halbritter actually dismisses the question and instead gives a strong explanation about how Indians are totally different than racial minorities because of sovereignty. Anderson starts down the same route, but then changes her position by mistakenly assuming that Indians are like racial minorities because of a common desire to resist assimilation. In light of the fact that all racial and ethnic minorities in the United States, unlike Indigenous peoples, have always generally resisted segregation and wanted to obtain equal status with Whites, her statement is an accurate one regarding Indians that is misleading against the backdrop of what she states as the goal of racial minorities in the United States.

Sending confusing messages to American society relating to questions of Indians and race threatens Indigenous sovereignty because Americans as a general matter are so ignorant about the subject. If all answers to similar questions were like Halbritter's, except that they began with a rejection of the “racism” categorization instead of an acceptance of it, over time there might be the possibility of educating an American audience about the significance if Indigenous sovereignty. But American, as well as Indigenous ignorance of America's colonial history makes it difficult to fully develop the sophistication of thought necessary to parse away the labeling and rhetoric about race from the substance about sovereignty.

Fundamentally, when Indian tribal leaders talk about American “racism” toward reservation Indians, a large part of what they are really seem to be referring to is “xenophobia”--a fear of foreigners. When Indians are attacked personally by Whites--Anderson, for example, says that she was called a “squaw” in high school discrimination is driven by a cocktail of hatred, jealousy and cultural supremacy spawned by generations of conflict over life, land and way of life. This kind of discriminatory treatment might more properly be thought of as national origin, rather than race discrimination. This might be less true with those Indians living outside of an Indigenous nation, who could argue that discriminatory treatment faced by them is most likely race discrimination. But when Whites attack Indians because of assertions of treaty rights, for example, accusations of racism only confuse the underlying facts associated with what are fundamentally nation-to-nation political conflicts.

Because of the success thus far in transforming conceptions of separate political status to merely conceptions of race, there will most likely continue to be an erosion of the perception of Indigenous people as citizens of separate sovereigns. It seems clear that Indians engaging in this debate are foremost driven by a deep frustration with America's unwillingness to accept Indigenous people as both citizens of separate nations and as human beings. Unfortunately, the tools made available by the colonizing nation to redress this frustration such as anti-discrimination law and “race” panels often only confuse the message being sent to American society at the detriment of Indigenous nationhood.