Tuesday, June 15, 2021

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B. Transformation of Indigenous Political Identity

Forcing American citizenship upon Indigenous people transformed Indigenous political identity in the way it was intended. This effect can best be depicted by imagining an “Indigenous citizenship continuum,” with on one end of the continuum the pure “Indigenous nationalists”--those Indigenous people who reject American citizenship and who maintain an exclusive conception of Indigenous citizenship--and on the other end the “Native Americans”--those people of Indigenous ancestry who have fully accepted American citizenship and rejected any notion of retained Indigenous citizenship. Along the continuum are Indigenous people who think of themselves as being some degree of a “dual citizen” of both the United States and their Indigenous nation. As this continuum looks today, it most likely would be skewed heavily to the side favoring Native Americans with very few Indigenous nationalists and very many falling somewhere between dual citizenship and being considered a Native American.

It may seem totally innocuous that most Indigenous people today self-identify as dual citizens and that a great many do not maintain a citizenship connection with any particular Indian nation. But this misconception ignores the fact that maintaining dual political allegiance has a negative effect on the loyalty that one has to a political community. Failure to hold absolute political allegiance toward one nation can compromise ones' political loyalty to either or both of the nations of which the individual is a citizen. This can be a threat to both of the nations extending citizenship status and is the main reason why the United States does not generally recognize dual citizenship for its citizens (except, of course, for its “Native American” citizens). This effect can be even more destructive if one of the two nations is small and weak in relation to the other.

Because forcing American citizenship upon Indigenous peoples undermines the loyalty that one has to one's Indigenous nation, as the commitment of Indigenous citizens to their Indigenous nation diminishes, dual citizenship will have the effect of destroying the Indigenous nation from within. This conclusion must be true because, after all, American citizenship was forced upon Indigenous peoples for precisely that reason.

If there is any doubt about this proposition, one need only look at the increase in Indian participation in the American political system during the last thirty years. In an unprecedented manner and degree, Indians today are becoming more active participants in the American political process. Proponents argue that this is the best evidence that Indians are reestablishing--for the first time in 200 years--a strong voice in its relations with the United States. If Indians are able to “work the system” to their advantage, these defenders say, then the pinnacle of political power will have been achieved. Success in the American political system would thus constitute an Indian “political renaissance” that would allow Native Americans to preserve advantages associated with both their Indigenous and American heritage.

It was exactly this state of affairs that was anticipated by one of the founders of the SAI, Arthur Parker, an American of Seneca descent:

To survive at all [the Indian] must become as other men, a contributing, self-sustaining member of society à. The true aim of educational effort should not be to make the Indian a white man, but simply a man normal to his environment à. No nation can afford to permit any person or body of people within it to exist in a condition at variance with the ideals of that nation. Every element perforce must become assimilated. I do not mean by this that the Indian should surrender things and passively allow himself, like clay, to be pressed into a white man's mold à I do mean, however, that the Indian should accustom himself to the culture that engulfs him and to the force that directs it, that he should become a factor that directs it, that he should become a factor of it, and that once a factor of it he should use his revitalized influence and more advantageous position in asserting and developing the great ideals of his race for the good of the greater race, which means all mankind.

What Parker failed to appreciate, and what the modern proponents of this view fail to comprehend, is that participating in the American political system wholly abandons the notion of Indigenous sovereignty and the nation-to-nation relationship established by the treaties with the United States. Voting in American elections, running for political office and lobbying American officials totally concedes to the United States the controlling authority that it has long sought. Being able to participate equally and successfully in the American process has been one of the most important objectives of historically disenfranchised groups in American society. For Indigenous people to accomplish this objective, however, is to casually relinquish the unique path for Indigenous citizens carved out and preserved by the treaties with the United States. This unique relationship--that even the United States still honors to a significant degree--can only perpetuate itself through the discourse and currency of nations--diplomacy and bilateral nation-to-nation relations. Foreign nations do not direct their citizens to vote in American elections, nor do they fund American political candidates to effectuate their agendas with the American government; they send ambassadors and engage in diplomatic relations. Indeed, this view is so strongly held by the United States that federal law prohibits its officials from taking political contributions from foreign governments.

For Indigenous people to act like Americans and scrap for votes, lobby politicians, and make political contributions simply puts us in the same category as every other political interest group in the United States. Having the status as a corporation, trade association, or special-interest group may look pretty good for an Indigenous nation that has never had much of a voice in American political affairs, much less its own. But such a political status is very limited compared to being recognized as a separate sovereign nation.

Acceptance of American citizenship status wholly undermines what it means to be a citizen of a sovereign Indigenous nation. After attending the 1998 Arizona Indian Voters Convention, David Wilkins and Richard Witmer came to a similar conclusion:

We found this keen eagerness to participate in American politics, so keen that a young Hopi woman went to the podium and invited the audience to join her in a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, both exciting and troubling. It is exciting in that Arizona Indians are finally in a demographic à and financial à position to potentially be able to affect the outcome of some state or even congressional and gubernatorial elections. But it is troubling in that it raises questions about the literal extent and actual meaning of tribal sovereignty à if tribal members are so actively involved in non-Indian electoral politics, can they still legitimately claim to belong to separate if connected sovereign nations?

Indian participation in the American political process is the natural result of forcing American citizenship upon the Indigenous population. Not surprisingly, over time this change in identity has induced Indian people to abandon what it means to be a citizen of a separate sovereign nation and to think, believe, and act like Americans when it comes to political activity. This is not only significant in its own right, it is an effect that feeds upon itself. As more and more Indigenous people come to identity strongly with their American citizenship, the pressure to conform to this conception of political identity and to abandon notions of Indigenous political identity will grow with it. Over time, the political discourse amongst Indian people will only be thought of in terms of how one can influence the American political process directly and not how one's Indigenous nation can carry out diplomatic relations with the United States. Thus, the act of forcing American citizenship upon Indigenous peoples will continue to increase pressure on all Indians to conform to this behavioral paradigm and to abandon any remaining conception of a distinct Indigenous citizenship. When this happens, John Marshall's haunting prediction will have been proven true: “the distinction between them is gradually lost, and they make one people.”

 

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