Decolonization of American Indians

Decolonization of American Indians

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March 4, 2007

Decolonization of American Indians, part 2 of 2
by: Elizabeth Cook-Lynn
February 23, 2007

ICT Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from a speech given by Cook-Lynn at a recent Indian Studies conference. It is the conclusion of a two-part series.

For Part 1, please see here

Our relatives of past generations who fought hard wars and difficult negotiations for the survival of the people must be mourning the moral and political tragedy of this recent attack on women, tribal government and the law.

The truth is, Oglala Sioux men have never interfered in the reproductive lives of Oglala Sioux women until this moment … until this modern age when domestic violence is increasing and tribal sovereignty is reduced to signing gaming contracts with the state for casino halls. Indian men, now believing in the Christian notion of the inferiority of women, have forgotten who they are. In the old days it would have been the subject of ridicule for men to have forced the submission of women and the dispossession of their roles as creators of life. Men like Russell Means and Lyman Red Cloud would have had no authority in traditional times because misogynistic behavior on the part of men was condemned by tribal authority and not given agency by ignorant media figures and white power systems. That’s where men like Means and Red Cloud get their influence, and the tragedy is that I wouldn’t have said that 30 years ago when I saw the American Indian Movement as an essential political movement toward the empowerment of tribal nations.

We must decolonize entire communities held in the grip of damaging non-tribal ideologies, which are the basis for tribal/state and tribal/federal relationships that have not changed in 200 years. Among the ideologies responsible for our condition are Christianity, which has brought about a belief in male privilege so that even Native men and women harbor this belief; Manifest Destiny, which has brought about anti-Indian legislation, the superiority of white colonizers and land theft; and capitalism, an economic system based in the exploitation of resources. We must ask ourselves to what extent we have adopted, and adapted to, these ideologies and how these adaptations have been a detriment to us.

As we look at this attack on Cecelia Fire Thunder, tribal government, the courts and women, who make up half of the population in any tribe, it seems evident that ideologies embedded in American history have devastated Indian tribes in the last century and that they are now in a crisis situation. Lakotas are the survivors of Wounded Knee, the theft of the Black Hills, the survivors of the unconstitutional Allotment Act and the survivors of federal Indian policy which is a study of colonization and genocide. We are not fooled into believing that casinos are going to rescue us. They will not because the ideologies that are the basis for their contemporary dilemmas are left intact. It’s possible that casinos will rescue some tribes, maybe at Fort McDowell, just outside of Scottsdale, Ariz., but not at Fort Thompson, S.D., or Wellpinit, Wash.; not at Crow Agency; not at Shields, N.D.; and not at Pine Ridge.

There is a study going on now – a three-judge panel brought together by Oglala Sioux Tribal President John Yellow Bird Steele – that could lead to a new presidential election. It may even lead to the writing of a new Constitution. This is called Democracy at Pine Ridge. White Plume said his rights were ”grossly violated” when he was removed from the ballot and Steele won a subsequent election. Little was said about the impeachment of Fire Thunder, and nothing about the attack on the court systems that followed her impeachment. Two female tribal judges have resigned in the last year. Nothing was said about the failure of the courts and the political process.

The regional BIA office deferred comment on the OST matter to the Indian affairs office in Washington, D.C. Three judges selected to serve on this panel are John St. Clair, chief judge of the Court of Indian Offenses of Wind River; John Thorne, an American Indian lawyer and Court of Appeals judge for the state of Utah; and Daniel Naranjo, a former chief judge of the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas, a former U.S. magistrate and an ”expert on alternative dispute resolution.”

This entire matter is being handled as a tribal dispute, not as a systems failure. Examiners of tribal governments know that the failure of a legislative function in these governments, the corruption of the court systems by heavy-handed executives and the lack of separation of powers inherent in these systems will never bring about fair and just government to indigenous peoples. These systems were set up to fail in 1934, and it should come as no surprise that they have failed. To treat this as a petty tribal dispute in need of ”alternative dispute resolution” is like handling the Black Hills land case like it was a real estate matter, not as a historical theft with unimaginable consequences to peoples and democratic ideals.

What can be done? When we recognize the enemy, lots can be done. The enemy is not people who stand up in tribal council meetings and denounce women out of fear and ignorance. The enemy is a system of trust and dependency that makes us all powerless. We must all concern ourselves with this seeming powerlessness. We have to remember that power corrupts, and the white man in his dealings with us has proven his corruption. We have to remember that the absence of power also corrupts. That is what can happen to colonized and powerless people if we don’t pay attention to the controversies that divide us. We, too, become corrupt. We are in danger of becoming the colonized and oppressed, and the corrupt people we have long feared we would become.

The first thing is to recognize that when white men took away tribal power they challenged us to fight back and recognize the weaknesses brought upon our communities through the theft of our lands, and of our rights and responsibilities as indigenous peoples. We must dismiss the notion that our weakened systems cannot be reformed. We must become political because within politics is the necessary dialogue that challenges the status quo.

We must understand that just law is a major agent of social change. When law becomes unjust, the consequence is chaos, and, therefore, we must struggle to make an egalitarian law in accordance with our Native belief systems. We must understand that treaties are the basis for our relationships with other nations, and that includes the defense of our traditional homelands. Treaties do not mean that Native women cannot have legitimate leadership roles in our self-determination efforts, no matter what movie actors and dance instructors and former AIM leaders with famous names say.

Most important, we must understand that much of what we call Federal Indian Law and State Law, as it applies to Indians, is outmoded. The Supreme Court must disavow the ”plenary power” it claims over Indian lives. I recommend everyone read ”American Indian Sovereignty: the Masking of Justice,” by David Wilkins, professor at the University of Minnesota. Most of all, we must continue in our efforts to dismantle much of the claimed personal, state and federal power that diminishes tribal knowledge and leadership.

When we confront injustice, defend the moral principles that our ancestors have taught us. If there is one moral principle that all indigenous peoples share, it is the moral principle of consent. Indian societies do not overpower, invade, colonize, oppress, mandate, intimidate. It is not about control and supremacy. It is about consensual problem-solving.

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn (Crow Creek Sioux) is professor emeritus of Native American Studies at Eastern Washington University and a visiting professor at Arizona State University. Her new work, ”New Indians, Old Wars,” will be available in May 2007 from UI Press. She makes her home in the Black Hills of South Dakota.


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