When Congressman Paul Gosar referred to sovereign Indian nations as “wards of the federal government” a couple of weeks ago, he set off a storm. While referring to Native people as “wards of the state” is deeply problematic and racist language that the US government wants to leave in the past, the term itself is indicative of how federal and local governments still treat Indian Country and its peoples.
It should also provide us a space to recognize some of the oppressions that Native people face within the United States – including state-sanctioned genocide. A little history is in order, to set the context.
Chief Justice John Marshall was the first to call native people and their nations “wards of the state.” Marshall’s rulings influenced national and state laws and interpretations of the US Constitution until present. The idea that the federal government was the protectorate of Indian Country was not exactly the kind of relationship that parents have to their children. The federal government, under the agency of the tribal courts, worked expansively to handle all internal matters of native peoples and lands, waters, and other natural resources in efforts to “protect” natives not just from outsiders, but, ostensibly, from themselves. Of course, the only protection was of US monetary interests through the infantilization of an entire race of people.
This infantization is necessary to wrest political, economic, and militaristic power and land from the First Nations back to the US and white people. It is a way of operating and masking genocide of native people and cultures, from Justice Marshall to the Dawes Act of 1883, to the fact that Tribal Courts still have no jurisdiction over non-Natives committing crimes against Indians on tribal lands. This is why the iconography of Indian mascotry1 is so important and fighting it is even more important. Dan Snyder and his compatriots get to pretend that they are honoring Native peoples and cultures by turning them into mascots and whooping cries even as Indian Country roundly rejects being turned into savage children in the popular imagination. In fighting this “Mascotry”, Native activists are making their presence and agency known to a world that has long presumed them either disappeared or as children. It is not an unimportant fight.
We see the continuation of the genocide of indigenous people with the First Nations-led protest against the Keystone Pipeline that would tear through Native Reservations. We see the continual genocide also through economic means (in fact, much like with Black Americans, the abject poverty of Indian Nation is blamed on the victims), through schooling and education (mainstream American education has incredibly shoddy things to say about Native history. In fact, public schooling began in federally-controlled reservations as a means of re-educating Native children to forsake their cultural traditions), through adoption issues that tear apart Native families, through tribal courts (which began as a means of eradicating native spiritual practices and currently do not allow for prosecution of non-Native peoples for crimes done on Native lands, even if against a member of the tribe).
The continual genocide of native peoples was necessary in order to steal their lands and resources – not just the ones already taken (so that Native Americans cannot claim those because they are being made extinct2), but the ones they exist in now. It is particularly telling that Rep. Gosar’s remarks happened in the context of a talk about land swaps. Recent Native actions have also been focusing on getting the Keystone XL pipeline route away from tribal and sacred lands. They go so far as considering the laying of the Keystone pipeline as an act of war. I believe they are fully justified in this.
But let’s go back to points of Native sovereignty. It’s obvious that tribes do not have full sovereignty over their lands in the same way that the US says that it has sovereignty over itself. The US nation is solidified by military might, and states by police violence. But First Nations are denied militaristic and economic powers needed for conquest – but are rather kept in this semi-dependent state by the most powerful militaristic state in the world. Native scholar and activist Andrea Smith distinguishes between the sovereignty of the US and that of indigenous nations (via Native feminists)3:
Whereas nation-states are governed through domination and coercion, indigenous sovereignty and nationhood are predicated on interrelatedness and responsibility. In opposition to nation-states, which are based on control over territory, these visions of indigenous nationhood are based on care and responsibility of land that all can share.
This is actually a pretty good vision of what the United States could aspire to be. But that would mean we’d have to give up any pretenses of being Big Daddy. Maybe 2015, huh?
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1In the linked article, I defined Mascotry of Native people as “popular, money-making images of devaluing, appropriating, and mocking of Native people by billionaire team owners and White fans.” Jacqueline Keeler says:
Native Mascotry… is not just the static image of the native mascot that is the problem. You have Native mascots that are pretty noble. And you have these grotesque caricatures like Chief Wahoo. The problem is in either case, is what people do with it. It’s the issue of… the first acting out that goes out. I coined ‘Mascotry’ combining ‘mascots’ with ‘pageantry’ where people are not accountable for the things they do. You have people dressing up in red face at games wearing regalia that is precious to us. And also doing these very stereotypical chants. [Mascotry] reinforces the idea that we are not really present today. And maybe make it harder for people to see us as fully human.
2For more, see Andrea Smith, “Three Pillars of White Supremacy” http://laylacassim.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/andrea-smith.pdf , specifically p 67. “Why would non-Natives people need to play Indian… if they thought that Indians were alive and perfectly capable of being Indian themselves?” Much of this article in fact owes to the work of Native activist and scholar Smith and her colleagues, in fact.
3Andrea Smith, “American Studies without America: Native Feminisms and the Nation-State.” American Quarterly, June 2008 (60:2). p 312.
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