Sovereignty and Other Fairy Tales

So there's been a lot of discussion, lately, about what "sovereignty" means. When the U.S. hands over sovereignty to Iraq on June 30th, what will that entail? So many people are used to thinking of "sovereignty" as "independence" - which, of course, is not entirely wrong, as the dictionary definition goes.

But "sovereignty" has often meant something different in a U.S. political arena - something different from "independence," something not quite "free." Given the fate of sovereign Native American nations at the hands of the United States, no one should be surprised when the U.S. decides that "sovereign" does not mean "free to tell the U.S. to get the hell out." Sovereign nations within the U.S. borders have been trying that for several hundred years, and it hasn't really worked so far.

A bit of history might help to explain this strange concept of sovereignty. (Well, actually, maybe not; I don't think that it can really be explained, but at least I can try to describe it.) Up until the 1800s, the U.S. (and the colonial governments that had preceded it) would deal with particularly powerful Indian tribes as they would any other nation. They set up embassies (Franklin, for example, was an ambassador to the Iroquois Confederacy; he was so impressed by the political structure of the Confederacy that he saw it as a model for the U.S. federal system), they conducted treaty negotiations, and, of course, they went to war. The colonial and U.S. governments also broke the negotiated treaties with astonishing regularity, maintaining the treaties only until they got in the way of expansionist goals. (Less powerful or populous tribal nations, of course, often found themselves facing massacre and genocide without even the benefit of a broken treaty.)

In the 1820s and 1830s, the young United States was expanding, and particularly in Georgia, a lot of white folks were pretty irritated at having a bunch of Indians in their midst, since the U.S. had grown around land owned by the Cherokee, Choctaw, and other southeastern tribes. Whites were particularly irritated because in addition to owning coveted land, these Indians had democratic governments, newspapers, schools, and even owned slaves - and so they weren't as easily dismissed as uncivilized savages, an otherwise favorite tactic of anti-Indian activists. In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, calling for the removal of all Southeastern Indians to Indian Territory (later the state of Oklahoma).

Image of Geronimo and other Apache fighters, captioned "Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorism Since 1492."  Link to purchase t-shirt. There's a reason t-shirts with this theme are quite popular these days.

As a result, various attempts were made at removing the Southeastern Indian nations westward, to Oklahoma, against their will. Indians insisted on their sovereignty - there it is, that word again. The Cherokee reminded the Georgians that they were a nation, that their land rights and sovereignty were guaranteed by treaties and international law. The Georgians had no right to remove them, the Cherokee said, and they took their case all the way to the Supreme Court, which agreed with them, though it also defined them as "domestic dependent nations," whatever that exactly means. (As you can guess, it doesn't exactly mean "sovereign and independent.")

Enter Andrew Jackson.

President Jackson agreed with the Georgians, and he wanted the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creeks, Chickasaws, Seminoles, and, really, all Indians the hell out of his United States. With an abdication of responsibility that should seem quite familiar to anyone living in GW's America, he washed his hands of the whole affair and told Georgia that, regardless of the Supreme's Court's decision that Removal was illegal, they should do whatever they wanted - he, and the federal government as a whole, would not stand in their way. "You made the decision," he is said to have told the Supremes, "so you enforce it!"

Because of Jackson's inaction, the Trail of Tears followed, and the forced marches of the Choctaws and the Creeks. The Indians were illegally driven out of their homes, and it is estimated that thousands died on the way - around one-fourth of those forced to walk to Oklahoma. And once arrived in Oklahoma, it was only a matter of time before white settlers (known as "sooners") moved illegally into what was supposed to be Indian territory, and eventually the U.S. government asserted that its rights and claims extended to the land that it had earlier declared to be the possession of these sovereign Indian nations. And while this is probably the most well-known instance of the U.S. government's intriguing interpretation of the notion of "sovereignty" in relation to Native Americans, there are plenty more, including many other instances of removal; some of these infringements of sovereignty are, of course, more recent than others.

This, then, is sovereignty, as the U.S. government understands it. It's a pretty word, freedom on paper, but that freedom has no power when military force opposes it. Perhaps the Iraqis will be luckier than the Indians; their advantage, at least, is that they're not on the same continent as the U.S., but global business interests in their oil will likely effectively keep them a vassal state, regardless of what it says on paper.

In any case, no one should be surprised when the handover on June 30th turns out to be not quite as thorough as the word "sovereignty" might otherwise indicate. Because right here at home, Native Americans have been trying to assert their sovereign rights - recognized in treaty after broken treaty - for a good five hundred years.


27. June 2004


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