Tuesday, February 07, 2023

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C. The Weakening of Indigenous Sovereignty

Forcing American citizenship upon Indigenous people not only has had the effect of incorporating the native population into the fabric of American political society, it also has had the effect of weakening Indian self-determination and sovereignty. This effect can be demonstrated by looking at the practical consequences of encouraging Indians who still live in their own territories to participate in the American political process through voting.

While proponents of Indian participation in the American political process trumpet the reasons why Indians should do so, they undervalue the fact that Indians also have their own Indigenous governments and political processes. There is much activity that tribal government engages in that can have a dramatic effect on the life of the average ordinary Indian citizen. How strong and capable these governments are able to deal with the demands place upon them may have as much to do with affecting their lives, if not more so, than what goes on in Washington.

Unfortunately, when it comes to political participation, every person has only so much time in the day to devote. Indian people, as dual citizens, are thus presented with yet another difficult choice. Should he or she spend time trying to help some Democratic or Republican “friend of the Indian” Governor or Senator get re-elected, or should he or she spend time trying to drive the incumbent, and perhaps corrupt and incompetent, tribal chair out of office? Few Indian people have the luxury of making a meaningful commitment to carrying out both efforts with much success. The practical effect, then, is a kind of zero-sum game of political participation in which time spent participating in the American political system is time taken away from participating in the tribal political system.

As a result, Indian participation in the American political system serves to undermine the quality of Indigenous government, and thus, Indigenous sovereignty. This sovereignty is a reflection of the degree to which an Indian people believe in the right to define their own future, the degree to which they have the ability to carry out that belief, and the degree to which their collective actions are recognized by others within the tribal nation and the outside world. Indigenous sovereignty cannot survive or be strengthened if Indigenous citizens spend all of their available political action time working on the political campaigns of the colonizing nation's politicians. If Indigenous nations are to grow stronger, it will be because of the commitment and energy of their citizens working together toward improving things from within. Sovereignty, after all, does not come from the federal government, it comes from the people, and if it is not cultivated and nurtured, it will be lost.

In addition to this effect, participation by non-reservation Indians in the American political process can also have a detrimental effect on Indigenous sovereignty. As the Indigenous population in America has become increasingly urbanized in this century, the rise in Native political participation has had the disproportionate effect of giving a greater political voice to non-reservation Indians. This is not inherently problematic, but urban Indians have a different set of political priorities than Indians maintaining residence in their Indigenous nation. Some have argued that educated, urban Indians, while “thoroughly grounded à in municipal bonds, capital formation, and other esoteric topics à do not understand the perspective of tribal leaders, or of Indian people” who must deal with the milieu of cultural and social problems found on the reservation as well as the challenges of self-government. This gap in ideology has the very real effect of shifting the debate away from reservation Indians--who have the stronger connection to Indigenous self-government and sovereignty--to urban Indians--who have a much weaker and even nonexistent connection.

As American politicians become increasingly more concerned about the “Native” vote, this difference will also serve to undermine Indigenous sovereignty over time. Urban Indians will naturally vote based upon their self-interest and seek to have their political concerns addressed over the concerns of reservation Indians. This may result in a shift of economic resources to urban Indian communities. But it may also include a detrimental shift in focus on the political issues that are perceived as important by American politicians. In the absence of the need to concern themselves with Indigenous self-government, urban Indians have become increasingly preoccupied with their status as minorities in the American political system and the racism and discrimination that is inflicted upon Indigenous people by virtue of that status. These are surely legitimate concerns, but American politicians have a tin ear for genuine assertions of Indigenous sovereignty and will not perceive the shift away from the reservation Indian voice. And because this urban Indian political message is very similar to the message heard from other political minorities in the United States, these factors will combine to make the Indigenous political agenda more and more Americanized over time. Sovereignty, rather than being the true manifestation of Indigenous self-government, will simply become a mantra to be used by Indian advocates as leverage against other minorities in the competition for political power within the American political system.