This can be very messy. Hell, it *is* messy, historically and even now. Just check out this article about tribal casino gambling and federal labor law. And this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, of just how messy American Indian identity (and sovereignty) in the United States of America is.
But I’m a simple person, who likes analogues. I bounced a handful of analogues at my Hubby, who is American Indian, and he said, “Yeah, that’ll work.” So here goes.
We know the story. Western Europeans, especially those from Great Britain, came over to the New World, expecting it to be empty of people. (One notable exception was Columbus, who was looking for a western route to Asia, and so he wasn’t surprised to see people, even though he thought the Taino in the Caribbean were Asian.) They didn’t recognize the indigenous peoples as political entities but as backwards savages, underutilizing the natural resources of the land. So, through political and military finnagling, these indigenous peoples lost the recognized right to their land in order for the United States of America and its citizens to exist. The American Indian story is filled with lost homes, involuntary migration to other parts of their own land, designated by a foreign power. Broken treaties. Forced removal. War. Reservations. Indigenous cultures and languages outlawed. Second-class citizen.
ON THEIR OWN LAND.
And that’s what makes the American Indian version of “On Being Conquered” different from my African-American student and me. His ancestors were forced immigrants. My ancestors were colonized, but then set free, and my folks choose to become immigrants themselves. But the ancestors of my husband and those like him didn’t immigrate *anywhere*. Western Europeans emigrated to their homeland, and told them that their homeland wasn’t their homeland anymore.
Yes, this was clearly illegal. Yes, this was clearly immoral. But it’s what it is. So, that’s the past. What’s the present?
American Indians de facto hold dual citizenship, similar to a friend of mine who is both a British and an American citizen. And Great Britain and USA are peers in their sovereignty, recognizing that the laws unique to one does not have jurisdiction to the other. For instance, I — an American citizen — don’t pay the British VAT tax on American soil.
It’s easy to see dual citizenship and sovereignty in two nations like Great Britian and the USA because those two nations occupy descrete, separated spaces: the British Isles and North America. But for the American Indian, he is a dual-citizen of two nations that occupy the same space, and that’s where the messiness comes in. In the past, the American federal government did not recognize the American Indian nations as sovereign nations. But, as seen in the story of a foreign political force occupying the land of politically and culturally organized peoples, that foreign political force and those indigenous peoples are — at the very least — political peers, even if one does not recognize, and actively suppress, the political rights of the other.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Those rights may have been suppressed, but those rights are still there.
And, if we as Americans truly believe in those words of the Declaration of Independence, then we must recognize the political travesty of American Indians being treated like unwanted, illegal immigrants, when their illegality lies in an outlawing of their unalienable sovereignty.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs, actually, should be a part of the Department of State. American Indians who are active in their tribes and hold a BIA card are actually holding a passport to another nation, like my American friend who holds a British passport. A member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma is both a Choctaw citizen as well as an American citizen. But unlike my American friend living in North Carolina with the British passport, the Choctaw living in Oklahoma resides in his Choctaw nation and his American nation, at the same time. And, in sovereignty, both nations are equal to each other.
So when it comes to what law has the higher jurisdiction — federal or tribal — you can see the ungodly mess that can be. Historically, it has been federal law. But the grounds for that were illicit, and whole bureaucracies and two centuries’ worth of “legal” precedence has been built on those illicit grounds. Hence lawsuits, like you find in the article I mentioned above, occur to figure out the whole mess.
But it’s *still* a mess, because the American government will only recognize those tribes that it has deemed having sovereignty. The occupying power had excluded tribes from sovereignty, and now that occupying power is selectively including some tribes in its sovereignty game, to the exclusion of others. And some tribes are even fighting amongst themselves, in order to get on top of the sovereignty game at the expense of others.
It’s for this Machiavellian reason that many American Indians opt-out of this sovereignty game, that is, choose not to get their BIA card, the CDIB — Certified Degree of Indian Blood. Filling one out, one needs to complete a genealogy chart, to track what percentage of Indian blood is flowing in their veins. For those who violently refuse to get one, even if they easily can, a CDIB is like a Star of David, sewn on German Jews’ clothes in order for the Nazi-regime government to be able to identify and manage them.
On the one side, a CDIB is clear evidence of an American Indian’s dual citizenship. Yet, on the other hand, a CDIB card, for many angry American Indians, gives clear evidence that their tribal citizenship has no true sovereignty, that it is, at most, on par with a state like Oklahoma or Texas or California, and thus subject to the federal sovereignty of the United States of America.
In other words, for American Indians, there is no winning back their free-and-clear sovereignty, pre-European contact. They must play USA’s game, or they aren’t acknowledged at all. They’ll be as politically relevant as Anasazi dioramas in museums — dead and barely remembered. And, in that respect, they are conquered people.
But they are still a people, alive and kicking…
… strangers in their own land, trying to find a place to call home.