More Than Profit and Loss

So for some time now, I've been meaning to write about why non-Native people (like, say, me) should support sovereignty rights for Native American tribes in the United States. In fact, I've started this essay at least three times, and for some reason I never seem to save it, or I get so frustrated that I delete it, because each time - like this one - I've had to start from scratch.

Actually, I'm pretty sure I know the reason I keep tossing it out in frustration. Because why we should support Indian sovereignty boils down to one thing: it's the right thing to do. And in this day and age, that argument seems to convince almost no one. "But what are the advantages to me?," we are primed to ask. "How will this benefit me personally, or at very least my community?" And the "problem" here is that in most ways, Native American sovereignty really won't benefit non-Native people.

Now, that isn't, in my view, actually a problem with sovereignty. That's a problem with a worldview where value equals monetary value, a worldview that teaches that things aren't worth doing unless you profit materially from them. (Some might say that's a problem with free market capitalism.) And as far as I can tell, non-Natives really won't do a lot of material profiting from Native American sovereignty. (I'm no economist, though, so if anyone out there knows different, do let me know.)

And yet, it's a good thing to support. Even when it doesn't mean money in your own pocket. There's more to value than money.

Sovereignty would mean that Native American nations have full control over their lands. In theory, of course, "Native American lands" means the entire United States. (And boy, wouldn't that be interesting? I'm really enjoying the vision of George W. handing over the keys to a group of tribal chairpersons. Heh.) In practice, though, it means those areas which are currently designated as Native nations and reservations. There are already some sovereignty rights in practice, and many more in dispute, including whether Native American nations must abide by the U.S. tax code or whether the U.S. labor relations board has jurisdiction over labor relations in tribal casinos; whether Native nations can issue passports or require non-tribal members to present their passports to enter the nation; whether tribal courts have jurisdiction over all crimes committed on tribal lands; and whether tribes have the right to determine their own citizenship laws. Some of the issues are symbolic, but many are material, and many are about economic control. (And the question of economic control is the origin of some of the most resolute opposition to sovereignty.)

Obviously, these are complex issues, and there's a lot more going on in the debate about sovereignty than I can get into here. I'm not suggesting that everything would be grand if suddenly sovereignty just happened. Nor am I suggesting that tribal self-government is going to be the cure-all for all of Native America's problems. We all know there are corrupt tribal governments, especially in places where being Indian means access to casinos. But corruption, while reprehensible, is no argument against sovereignty. There's corruption in the U.S. government, too - don't tell me that GW "winning" in Florida had nothing to do with his brother being governor there - but aside from The Onion, no one's suggesting that Americans have no right to self-government. What's more, it's not as if U.S. control over tribes ever eliminated corruption anywhere; in fact, often, it's fostered corruption, not to mention that the U.S. has habitually seriously mismanaged and "lost" Indian funds. Sovereignty doesn't just mean the right to good self-government; it's also the right to make mistakes, and - as we are seeing in both the U.S. and in Iraq - the right to institute governments that don't seem right to outsiders. And those outsiders can feel free to express their opinions, and they can even try to persuade a nation's citizens to change their minds - but they can't force sovereign nations to change.

The more control that tribes have over tribal lands and production, of course, the less control the U.S. government and non-Indian-run corporations have. And like I said, this is where so many objections to sovereignty come in, because it's all about "how does it benefit me," and as far as material benefits, sovereignty really benefits Native peoples. (Which is a good thing, especially given that Native American poverty rates are well above the national average.)

The benefits, such as they are, for non-Native Americans in supporting Native American sovereignty are largely not material. Doing the right thing, acting morally, keeping our word - those are the benefits. And these days, it seems, there's very little priority placed on any of those. In spite of the amount of Bible-thumping we see in the public sphere, there's very little real sense that intangibles like trustworthiness, ethics and morality are valuable - that, in fact, value cannot always be measured in terms of profit and loss.

The argument for sovereignty goes back a long way, to the earliest encounters between Europeans and American Indians. The treaties that Britain, at first, and later the U.S. signed - signed, and then broke - dealt with Indian nations as fellow sovereign nations, and although the U.S. still acts as if a treaty is only binding as long as it's useful (as we saw most recently in our disastrous negation of the Geneva Convention), there's something to be said for trying to become a nation that stands by its word, for beginning to measure value, again, as something more than just material.

It's late in the day, very late; but it's never too late to start acting right, instead of just talking about it.


12. August 2004


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