A First Nations Manifesto
What do I believe about my people? I believe in the peaceful reassertion of our full and inherent sovereignties, as I believe in the sovereign rights of all original nations that share our Mother Earth. So in 2010 I presented the following paper as a manifesto:
First Nations Ethos and Moral Force
Waylon Gary White Deer
Adjunct Instructor, Bacone College
Presented at 11th Annual Conference of the American Indian Studies Association Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, February 4, 2010.
“The most powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”
Stephen Biko, South African anti-apartheid leader
I will address the three components of the conference theme; sustainability, community, and activism from a tribal nationalist perspective by first offering a definition of First Nations nationalism and evidence as to why this inherent and immutable right to nationhood is under sustained and calculated assault. I will also propose the philosophy of Moral Force as a vehicle of decolonization, along with a concept that I call the Doctrine of Tribal Community Sovereignty.
First Nations Identities
We are premier nations among later nations upon this part of Mother Earth, imbued with the same abiding powers as other nations. Our birthrights as First Nations are divine, ancient, perpetual, and self- evident. We are neither domestic to nor dependent upon the American government for our national existences, therefore we are not Native American nor are we American Indian nor First American nor are we merely native nor indigenous. We are Choctaw, Lakota or Navajo, Mvskokee or Chippewa, Hopi or Quechan in the same clear sense that a German is expressly and distinctly a German national and is not definitively regarded as a “first” European or some sort of “native”.
Although the free exercise of our rights as sovereigns has been abridged, compromised, suppressed and denied, our liberties may never be extinguished nor revoked, for we have been sanctioned by our Creator as free and sovereign peoples. Although now constrained by colonialist forces and policies, our freedoms as sovereign nations are nevertheless inherent, autonomous, and immutable, acknowledged as such even by American Federal law:
“…those powers which are lawfully vested in an Indian tribe are not in general delegated powers granted by express acts of Congress, but rather limited powers of an inherent sovereignty which has never been extinguished”
(Cohen, Felix S. Federal Indian Law, U.S. Department ofthe Interior, 1944)
We have been taught to regard ourselves in ways less sure and true. American military campaigns, compulsory Euro-American education, evangelical western religions and intermarriage have distorted our sense of normalcy. Many of us now regard ourselves as belonging to an ethnic subset of American society, for it is in the ongoing interests of our colonizers to persuade or coerce us into losing our abiding sense of sovereign nationhood.
In 1982 the National Congress of American Indians issued an analysis paper which outlined a secret two- pronged American federal policy designed to dismember tribes “in increments” and effect an “end state” in Indian-federal relations. Under the guise of self-determination, these twin strategies aim to end American obligations to First Nations, concluding with our assimilation into the American mainstream. The basis of the NCAI report is an April 19, 1976 confidential memorandum from the American Office of Management and Budget titled “Organization for Indian Affairs”
Long-Range Social Problem-Solving Strotegy or the first prong, has been designed to achieve through “allocation of resources” increasing tribal dependence on the federal grant and contract system, creating coercive leverage to force more rapid “self chosen” assimilation and a corresponding dismemberment of tribes as nations. The Incrementalist Strategy or the second prong, allows for tribal nations to self-assimilate over time. What evidence suggests that Incrementalism is the current and hidden American federal Indian policy agenda, and if it is, how successful has it been?
The rise of a burgeoning class of business managers to supplant tribal leaders, accelerated assimilation, paternalistic economic development bound to the American state, and an increasingly entrenched tribal dependence on the American grants and contracts system are all bellwether indicators that an insidious strain of neocolonialism, nationocide through economic means, continues to effectively fragment the tribal mass. It is self-assimilation labeled as self-determination, an ongoing dismembering of sovereign tribal nations by increment.
As tribal nations who have been taught to regard ourselves in ways less sure and true, we must first be clear that our internal sense of normalcy has been significantly impacted and in many instances supplanted by an American mainstream sense of normative. We may feel that we understand what tribal community should ideally concern; communalism, cooperation, and the articulation of those original instructions given to us by the Creator. In practical terms, individualism, consumerism, materialism, foreign political models, drugs and alcohol and a continual looking to foreign Euro- American standards for personal and community validity have to varying extents, denatured our national characters, our ethos, the original essences of who we are as distinct and continuing sovereign peoples.
In this too, it may also be admitted that no culture or community can remain static and long survive and we are surely the people of our time. But the question remains; what kinds of changes may we accommodate and to what degree before our national and community characters devolve into another ethnic subset of greater mainstream America?
As an example, in my time in the North of Ireland I observed that despite sectarian conflict, many in the Nationalist community seemed to agree that if they could reasonably expect safety in their streets and in their homes, reasonably expect justice and parity of esteem from courts and other authorities and also have an equal chance at employment, then as a practical consideration it didn’t seem to matter that much whose flag flew over the courthouse or what social paradigms were in place. Conversely, it was the absence of social justice and human rights that were and now remain catalysts of unrest. As First Nations tribal communities, is this our reality as well? And if this is the case, then is Incrementalism, a gradual dismemberment of the tribal mass, an inevitable conclusion?
I believe that if a given tribal community has maintained a sufficient degree of its national character and has the will to continue as a recognizable and distinct entity, then the reaffirmation and reactivation of indigenous tribal community institutions will succeed in sustaining the essential character of that community, provided that such institutions can successfully resolve basic issues relating to public safety, social justice, and economic well-being, but according to traditional community standards and values.
In my parent’s time, the Choctaw community of Bokko Chaha or High Hill was vibrant and prosperous right up until WWII. It was a communal based system of living, and Choctaw was its first language. Although the old tribal town model of civil chiefs and war chiefs had devolved into an informal council of community elders, societal decisions were still being made according to tribal norms. The elderly and infirm were looked after, domestic issues were resolved, and economic viability was collectively maintained. It was said of High Hill that its members didn’t know that the Great Depression was in effect until some of them went to town and saw soup lines.
In relation to mainstream material American standards my father once asked simply “How much is enough?” High Hill’s ultimate answer to that question sealed its swift decline. During the Second World War a local munitions plant began to hire Indians. Most of the community moved into town to take jobs at the plant. They felt they didn’t need to collectively rely on each other anymore and promptly turned into individualistic consumers and wage earners. My Uncle John said that it seemed like one day they all went to town and never came back. High Hill had successfully survived the Indian Removals and succeeding generations of challenges. It couldn’t survive the all-consuming mainstream desire to have more stuff.
I don’t like to use the term “activism” in relation to Indian political and social issues because it is reminiscent of the type of Indian social protest of the 1970’s and 80’s which by first-hand observation seemed to be long on protest and passion but short on both practical and philosophical perspective. If for example, Indian social justice issues are addressed outside a nationalist context they may likely take the familiar form of parity of esteem protest logic, a mainstream line of reasoning which asserts that “native” Americans should be valued and respected like any other subset of Americans.
Invariably, appealing to American authority for redress of longstanding social abuses further empowers a colonialist regime as the definitive moral arbitrator of human rights, reaffirming its political and social control. In place of “activism” I will offer the concept of Moral Force, a philosophy of social change which I encountered overseas this past summer and subsequently introduced at Bacone College’s 2009 Fall Colloquium.
The Politics of Moral Force
Neither paramilitary nor parliamentary initiatives will restore the free exercise of tribal sovereignty. Armed conflict against the most powerful military in the world did not succeed for First Nations historically, nor will it now succeed. New American legislation which would truly unfetter tribal liberties and sovereign prerogatives would mean decolonization, a process of political surrender impossible to achieve without sufficient political pressure.
Sufficient political pressure involves the application of moral force, which we may define as a collective willingness by peaceful means to consistently affirm and assert our rights as sovereign nations in tandem with an individual willingness to accept the consequences of doing so. The unwavering application of moral force can be used as political leverage to achieve and sustain incremental decolonization:
“Moral force is a powerful tool available to anybody with sufficient courage. It involves saying no to being dehumanized in any way and instead asserting and insisting on our dignity and rights as free human beings… Moral force is not just a tactical strategy… Moral force is an affirmation of our common humanity in the midst of our struggles…”
– Mark Garavan, Afri.
Historically, moral force has been employed with success worldwide by many colonized peoples, including Chief Standing Bear, Ponca Nation, who won a writ of habeas corpus in an American court by affirming that an Indian is a human being. Moral force requires the moral courage to act on conviction. As a transformative power, moral force is used whenever a sovereign people feel they are left without choice:
“The means we use to achieve our social and political objectives tell us about the goals we have in mind – the type of world we want to bring about. Moral force requires moral courage because at the time it is employed its position on the side of justice is not necessarily recognized or accepted. Indeed, it is inevitably contested. Moral courage is standing up and taking your position in the always ambiguous uncertain ground of the present. History will determine who was right but history belongs to the future.”
– Mark Garavan, Afri.
In applying the politics of Moral force to the continuation and revitalization of tribal community, social and political boundaries need to be reestablished and maintained. Such boundaries may include territorial claims, the right to community-based education and the right to determine the nature of that education, the right to determine social policy without undue external pressure or influence and the overarching right to reestablish balance in our affairs according to traditional methodologies. For balance leads to order, order to harmony, and harmony to peace as an ongoing social condition. Centuries of societal experiences have taught us that without the central crux of balance, then disorder, disharmony and chaos will eventually follow.
Decolonization is a concept that is gaining currency in First Nations political and academic circles. In this regard, decolonization must also mean retribalization; the constant renewal of tradition based tribal communities to address through the application of moral force, the ongoing challenges imposed by those who so eagerly and actively seek our dismemberment. There are in many instances other challenges as well; those tribal governments and their politicians who accept without question the American government’s definition of First Nations as “domestic dependent nations” and whose policies, goals, and orientations are essentially based upon the notion that they are clients of the American State and then as a direct and largely unblinking result, govern accordingly.
The Doctrine of Tribal Community Sovereignty
I will introduce a concept which purports that in those instances when the free exercise and representation of tribal sovereignty has been rendered sufficiently dormant by a given colonized tribal government; then sovereign authority reverts to community authority. Tribal community sovereignty further purports that tribal government in whatever form is merely the representation of ongoing tribal autonomy, as our national characters, ethos, and rights as First Nations have always abided within and have been maintained by our bands and communities.
Tribal community sovereignty is limitedly acknowledged within American federal law. The American federal government treats with the tribal towns of Thlopthlocco, Kialegee, and Alabama-Quassarte, and the United Ketoowah Band separately from the Muscogee Creek Nation and the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, respectively. Certain of the First Nations Pueblos, essentially tribal city-states, are also treated with as nations, however diminished or controlled. However, American federal recognition cannot legitimize tribal community sovereignty, which is a preexisting polity status that is neither domestic to, nor dependent upon any foreign power.
Invoking Tribal Community Sovereignty
A band or community may invoke their right of political separation if their tribal government has been effectively compromised as a sovereign state, provided that the separating polity has maintained a self-evident preponderance of tribal language, custom, racial identity, and original worldview in order to promulgate its sovereignty. If a sufficient degree of ethos or national character abides within the separating polity, a formal declaration of partition should ensue through application of moral force and premised by the following:
- Indian tribes are not now, nor have they ever been a part of the United States or its federal political system.
- The desire to achieve Indian self-government, political distinctiveness, and the fulfillment of Indian rights threatens U.S. political stability and its desire to achieve its national, political, economic and social goals.
- Treatment of Indian tribes by the United States is a matter of international importance which has long played a part in U. S. foreign relations.
- Tribes must exercise political leverage within the United States and within the international community to counter U.S. strategies and policies of dismemberment and assimilation.must be better informed and work cooperatively toward common goals against the common threat. Communities must be fundamentally reorganized to build semi- closed tribal economies which turn Indian labor and natural resources in direct support of tribal needs rather than the export needs of the U.S. economy. Tribal communities must work toward tribal goals and objectives and not U.S. goals and objectives – NCAI Analysis Paper, 1982.
Tribal communities Development of “semi-closed tribal economies” would create political sustainability for community autonomy. Both a domestic and international initiative to expose American self-determination policies as neocolonialism would be employed as political leverage. As ongoing strategy, a confederation of First Nations governments-in-exile organized for purposes of international trade, political solidarity, and mutual defense would advance the restoration of our status as free nations through an evolving inter-tribal alliance of sovereign bands and tribal city-states.
Shifting the Academic Paradigms
As a corollary to renewing tribal communities, existing mainstream institutions which we now inhabit may be utilized to accelerate the process of decolonization and retribalization. Perhaps foremost among such institutions is American-style education. The enduring role of western education in mainstreaming or assimilating First Nations youth is well documented and may not be disputed. At the university level, Incrementalism is further perpetuated by those “American Indian” studies programs whose primary function is to train and socialize Indian students as consumers and wage earners for the American economy. To make such mainstreaming palatable, curricula are offered that emphasize “heritage” rather than nationhood. “Let’s hang a feather on it and call it Indian” describes in practical intent, mere heritage-based mainstreaming programs.
As counterpoise, curricula should be developed and implemented through mainstream colleges and universities to inculcate First Nations cultural, social, and political ideologies within nationalist paradigms under the banner of academic freedom. Tribal colleges and “native studies” programs should also be evaluated as to whether or not they are essentially mainstreaming models for American consumerism, which models may offer relatively limited reinforcement of tribal concepts, values, and practices.
We now collectively enjoy a burgeoning cadre of western-style Indian educators of whom we should reasonably expect more than heritage based replications of existing paradigms. While those Indian educators who identify as Americans with the prefix “Native” attached by an implied hyphen should be respected and we assume them to be the majority, they are nevertheless not relieved of the moral obligation to provide meaningful nation building alternatives to the highly pervasive and therefore highly persuasive practice of academic mainstreaming.
Here retribalization can get tricky, for as other colonized nations who have entered the process of decolonization have found, the world views of colonial powers can become so embedded that handy colonialist paradigms are simply reused as educational models by those who once sought so diligently to alter or destroy them:
“We pretend to be real, to be learning, to be preparing ourselves for life, we mimic men of the New World, one unknown corner of it, with all its reminders of the corruption that come so quickly to the new.”- V.S. Naipaul.
“Such a system produces, with dire predictability, a people lacking in self confidence and easily bullied by outsiders. Doctors, dentists, lawyers, engineers and architects are produced in over-abundance, to meet the career aspirations of the new elite, but most are then exported as free, instant experts to the First World: and so it is with most native critics. The more gifted amongst them are often simply internalizers of the imperial mode.” – Declan Kiberd.
If First Nations decolonization is to succeed it must do so in tandem with the sure rebirth of tribal nationalism achieved through the unwavering application of moral force.
The tribalization of existing colonialist institutions, the doctrine of tribal community sovereignty, and the politics of moral force may be applied in combination to arrest the neocolonial dismemberment of the tribal mass, promote the continuation of tribal ethos and eventually regain the functional exercise of First Nations freedoms. The coming institutions of a new sovereignty must be imbued with and informed by a constant sense of who we are as carried forth first by community, a fundamental embodiment of our ongoing capability and commitment to remain ourselves.
Cohen, Felix S. Handbook of Federal Indian Law: United States Department of the Interior publication, 1944.
Garavan, Mark. The Politics of Moral Force: Davitt and Saro-Wiwa. Afri Publication, Dublin, Ireland, 2008.
Kiberd, Declan. Post-Colonial Ireland – “Being Different” Reconsiderations of Irish History and Culture, Daltun 0 Ceallaigh, ed. Published by Leirmheas, Dublin, Republic of Ireland, 1994.
Naipaul, v.s. The Mimic Men
Ryser, Rudolph C. Neo-Termination and the Reagan Administration: U.S. Assimilation Policy with a New Label. National Congress of American Indians Analysis Paper, 1982.