On Sovereignty

On Sovereignty: Indigenous Liberation and the Failure of the Nation-State

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For non-Natives living in Canada and the United States, one of the most difficult aspects to understand in Native peoples’ struggle for liberation is their claim to sovereignty.  In April 2006 when the Six Nations occupied an estate development site in Caledonia, ON, they claimed sovereignty over that land citing the 1784 Haldimand Proclamation—a document signed by Mohawk leader Joseph Brandt and Governor Frederick Haldimand allotting the Six Nations all the land six miles deep on each side of the Grand River from source to mouth.[1]  Today Six Nations holds about 5% of that land, the rest having been sold by the crown to settlers or taken over by squatters (migrants to the area, whom the government did not stop from claiming land).  At Caledonia, the Six Nations argued they had their own law, the Iroquois Confederacy, an agreement made between the six different Nations long before European settlers arrived on the scene.  In the broadest sense of the word, the Six Nations did indeed have their own form of government.  They had their own ways of organizing themselves based on “Haudenosaunee laws of communal ownership and balanced leadership.”[2]  As the tensions rose between Caledonia and area residents and the Six Nations occupiers, the public and media employed the rhetoric of one government and “all people under one law” to counter the Native claims to sovereignty.

A similar instance of public opposition to Native sovereignty was expressed in a recent letter to the editor in the Winnipeg Free Press.  Citing a previous article advocating a separate justice system for Aboriginal peoples, the respondent writes: “A separate justice system based on race?  In Canada?  It is unacceptable to me that my fundamental right to equal protection under the law, as guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, should be violated in an effort to reduce the [high] proportion of Natives in jail.”[3]

These examples of public discourse reflect a deep misunderstanding and conceptual divide between Native claims to sovereignty and their own law and non-Native claims to state sovereignty and Canadian law.  George Tinker explains that within this debate we are not dealing with two equal or identical claims to sovereignty.  In global political theory only nations that function as states are recognized as sovereign.  The peoples that can participate at the international table are any of the 193 countries recognized by the United Nations.  The mere fact that the number of recognized countries existing in the world varies between political bodies illustrates the degree to which national political identity is a construct and a matter of continuous debate.  Nationality and sovereignty are defined by state government.  On a national and international level, state sovereignty is the only way of conceiving of sovereignty.[4]  It is no wonder then that people are alarmed when a particular group of people living within a nation (country) begin to voice claims to their own sovereignty and law.  Understood against the backdrop of nation-state government, with all citizens under one law, and equal human rights, any other claims to sovereignty, autonomy, and self-determination raise suspicions of anarchy, racial privileging, separatism, and political exceptionalism; i.e., any claims to sovereignty apart from the state are seen as a threat to the state (and capitalist democracy).

However, Native claims to sovereignty are not about competing for power in the sovereign state.  Nor are they about establishing Native nations as separate sovereign states in Canadian territory.
Native sovereignty is emphatically not state sovereignty.[5]  Rather, it is a call for recognition and legitimization of Native forms of political imagination.  That is, just as the Iroquois Confederacy has its own way of organizing people and maintaining balanced relations (peace) with each other and all of creation, so too do other Native nations have their own forms of social, political, and economic organization.

The second problem for Native sovereignty is human rights discourse.  Bradley Walker’s letter reflects the general public attitude well.  Tinker argues that human rights discourse is not functional for Indigenous peoples because they do not understand themselves as autonomous individuals in a nation-state.  Many Natives even reject their identity as Canadian (all practical and legal arguments otherwise aside).  Walker sees Natives as one ethnic group among the many that comprise Canadian society, and the fact that one particularity should be privileged in some ways over others undermines his understanding of democracy.  Tinker argues that this is precisely the problem.  Indigenous voices are excluded from the international table because they are viewed as “merely ethnic minorities within state structures, who may have individual rights but who do not have any distinct set of community or cultural rights as an independent people.  Hence the sovereignty or autonomy of indigenous nations is a priori bracketed from consideration in any state discourse.”[6]  Within a political system governed by state law, any identity group only has rights as individuals.  In this system, people can claim oppression and abuse only as individuals, on a case by case basis.  Technically speaking, then, forms of violence that are directed against distinct groups of people such as racism, sexism, and genocide, are categorically impossible.  This form of government does not have the conceptual capacity to recognize and address such forms of violence.  Because conquest and assimilation of Indigenous peoples are acts of violence on a specific identity group, human rights discourse is insufficient at best (and complicit in the violence at worst) for Native liberation theory/theology.

Another common methodology employed for liberation struggles is Marxist class analysis.  By casting society in terms of base and superstructure, certain groups of people can be identified as oppressed and others as oppressors.  While class analysis does some of the important work needed in deconstructing power structures and can advocate for a group of people, it is inappropriate for analyzing Indigenous struggle because it associates Native peoples with “a much larger colonizer proletariat who are also foreign to [the] land.”[7]  Tinker contends that “indigenous peoples are struggling with existence in ways that are not and probably cannot be addressed by class analysis at all.  Rather, they are rooted in the economic need of the colonizer to quiet our claims to the land and to mute our moral judgement on the United States’ [and Canada’s] long history of violence and conquest in North America.”[8]  It must be understood that Native land claims are not primarily a legal issue but a spiritual one.  In other words, Marxist revolution and liberation still functions within an economy of ownership while Indigenous resistance and liberation rejects this way of relating to the land for its spiritual relation to the land “economy” of creation, if you will, or an economy of mitakuye ouyasin (an economy of or for all-my-relations, all things created).

The fundamental failure of Marxist theory to provide Native peoples with viable forms of resistance and liberation is its adherence to the state as a legitimate form of government and political organization.  In contrast, Indigenous struggle fundamentally resists this claim of state sovereignty over their people and land.[9]  In other words, “[s]ocialist ideology wants to take over and transform the state into a more egalitarian whole; indigenous ideologies want to challenge the very legitimacy of the idea of state and claim freedom from these larger, artificial and imposed political entities that were born out of euro-western colonization and the will to empire.”[10]  Tinker additionally observes how “[b]oth socialist and democratic capitalist states have vested interest in the continued oppression of indigenous communities in all parts of the world.”[11]  Thus, while class analysis can help second peoples struggling for liberation, second peoples (whether classified as bourgeoisie or proletariat) act in collusion in oppressing Indigenous peoples, because the first peoples’ call into question the very legitimacy of their existence.  As Tinker concludes, “[s]tates have no choice but to oppress and suppress precisely because our ancient claim to the land is a constant and persistent challenge to the legitimacy and coherence of the state and its claim by virtue of discovery (read conquest) of our territories.”[12]  For Tinker, the state is by definition incapable of offering genuine peace, justice, freedom, and security to all the inhabitants of its territory because a) Indigenous people do not acknowledge the sovereignty of the state over them, and b) because the continuous existence of Indigenous peoples as oppressed peoples perpetually attests to the intrinsic injustice of state sovereignty.


[1] Laura DeVries, Conflict in Caledonia:Aboriginal Land Rights and the Rule of Law (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011), 32-33.

[2] DeVries, Conflict in Caledonia, 36.

[3] Bradley Walker, “Separate System Unacceptable,” Winnipeg Free Press, May 30, 20-13,  A12.

[4] George E. Tinker, Spirit and Resistance: Political Theology and American Indian Liberation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 7.

[5] Tinker, Spirit and Resistance, 8.

[6] Ibid., 7.

[7] George E. “Tink” Tinker, American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2008), 23-24.

[8] Tinker, American Indian Liberation, 23.

[9] Ibid., 24.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 24-25.

[12] Ibid., 25.

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