Suppression of Indigenous Sovereignty in 20th Century United States

Ward Churchill


As the 20th century prepares to take
its rightful place in the dustbin of history, the last
vestiges of sovereignty among the more than 300 indigenous
nations trapped inside the claimed boundaries of the United
States are rapidly sliding into a kind of final oblivion. In
one of official America’s supreme gestures of cynicism,
American representatives at the United Nations and elsewhere
have long been aggressively peddling their government’s
Indian policy to other countries as the "most
enlightened, progressive, and humanitarian model for the
actualization of indigenous self-determination in the modern
world." It would do well to consider this policy
carefully, with an eye towards separating fact and
implication from the fantasies induced by Washington’s
propaganda mills. In such clarity reside the analytical tools
with which any effective (re)assertion of native sovereignty
must be forged.

Allotment and Assimilation

Towards the end of the 19th century,
with the wrap-up of the protracted series of military
campaigns known as the "Indian Wars"—through
which it had, after 1790, invaded and occupied most of its
land base west of the Appalachian Mountains—the U.S. set
out to simultaneously absorb the remaining 150 million acres
of native-held territory inside its borders and to digest the
residue of about a quarter-million indigenous people residing
on these treaty-reserved tracts. The stated federal agenda
devolved upon bringing about a comprehensive forced culture
dissolution and eventual physical dispersal of every
surviving American Indian society. It was the stated
objective of this formally articulated "Assimilation
Policy" that no Indians, culturally identifiable as
such, remain within the U.S. by 1935.

Although there were a range of
antecedent experiments, the real opening round of
Washington’s assimilation program came with the 1885
Major Crimes Act, under which U.S. jurisdiction was
unilaterally asserted over every reservation in the country
(each of which, it had previously been conceded in American
law, constituted a distinct and separate national
sovereignty). This was followed, in 1887, by passage of the
General Allotment Act, described by Indian Commissioner
Francis Leupp as a "great engine for grinding down the
tribal mass," through which the U.S. effected another
sweeping and uninvited intervention in the internal affairs
of indigenous nations, this time by supplanting their
traditional modes of collective landholding with the
Anglo-American system of individuated property ownership.

In compiling the
lists—"tribal rolls"—of those eligible to
receive title to land parcels averaging a mere 160 acres
each, federal agents typically relied upon eugenicist
"blood quantum" methods, thus converting native
peoples from their prior status as national/cultural entities
into "racial" groups for purposes of U.S. legal and
bureaucratic administration. The "standard" was set
very high, usually at one-half or more "degree of
blood," in order to minimize the number of individuals
entitled to retain any property at all. Once all those
meeting these racial criteria had received their allotments
of land, the balance of the territory belonging to each
indigenous nation was declared "surplus" and handed
over to non-Indians.

In this manner, some 100 million
acres—about two-thirds of the 1880 reservation land
base—was stripped away by the early 1930s, the bulk of
it acquired not by average American citizens but by various
corporate and governmental interests. What was left was
managed in perpetual "trust" under a "plenary
power" relationship imposed by Congress, exercised by
the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs
(BIA), and not only upheld but amplified by the Supreme Court
in its 1903 Lonewolf decision. In the latter, the
"justices" opined, in a manner grossly contrary to
even the most elementary principles of international law,
that the United States possesses an "absolute and
unchangeable right" to abrogate the provisions of any
treaty into which it had entered with any indigenous nation
but that the latter remains legally bound to comply with
whatever provisions the U.S. finds useful.

Meanwhile, the campaign to achieve
total destruction of native cultures was proceeding apace.
The main vehicle for this was a massive and prolonged forced
transfer of indigenous children to government-run boarding
schools situated in locations quite distant from their
families, friends, and societies. The purpose of this,
according to Colonel Richard Pratt, a prominent
"educator" of the period, was to "kill the
Indian" in each youngster by systematically
deculturating them. Kept at the institutions for years on
end, the children were forbidden under penalty of corporal
punishment to speak—and in many cases ever to
know—their own languages, practice their own religions,
dress or wear their hair in the accustomed manner, learn
their own histories, or to be otherwise raised as who they
were. Instead, they were indoctrinated from the earliest
possible age to embrace Christianity, compelled to speak only
English, to accept Anglo-America’s self-serving
intellectual constructions, and to adopt its values and
socio-cultural mores. All the while, they were trained to
perform menial labor in service of their conquerors.

To enhance the effects of the boarding
school system, through which perhaps 80 percent of successive
generations of native youth were processed between 1875 and
1965, the BIA proclaimed a series of draconian regulations on
the reservations. In 1897, for example, it was decreed that
the practice of traditional spiritual ceremonies was an
offense punishable by fines, imprisonment, and impoundment of
property. Local agents also increasingly utilized their
"delegated trust authority" to lease whatever
productive land remained on the reservations to non-Indian
ranching and agricultural concerns, always at a pittance and
often for periods of 99 years. Under this combination of
conditions, the U.S. portion of Native North America was in
utter disarray by 1930; politically, economically, and
militarily prostrate, socio-culturally destabilized to an
extreme degree, and literally verging on the very sort of
ultimate extinction federal policymakers had so confidently
predicted as its fate.

Reorganization and

The basis upon which U.S. assimilation
policy was reversed embodies one of history’s more
sublime ironies. During the period of allotment, the few
remaining American Indians were largely consigned to die off,
comfortably out of sight and mind of the immigrant society
which had annihilated and usurped them, in remote and barren
locales thought to be essentially valueless by federal
planners. By the early 1920s, however, it was increasingly
apparent that there had been something of a miscalculation in
this respect. What remained of the reservations was some of
the most mineral-rich territory in the world, containing
about two-thirds of what the U.S. now claims as its own
domestic uranium reserves, a quarter of the readily
accessible low sulfur coal, a fifth of the oil and natural
gas, as well as substantial deposits of copper, iron,
zeolite, molybdenum, and several other ores.

This presented an interesting dilemma
for U.S. elites, not because of any regard for the obvious
native interest in the resources at issue or other
humanitarian concerns, but because of the predictable results
of allowing America’s vaunted, and entirely mythical,
"free market" system to hold sway over them.
Previous experience in this respect, notably in the
Indian-owned oil fields of Oklahoma, had demonstrated that
pursuing such a course led to chaotic production
inefficiencies and a considerable squandering of potential
wealth. It was perceived as vital that native assets be kept
out of the public domain, and placed instead under a sort of
centralized governmental management which could not control
royalty rates and other overhead costs—thus channeling
highly inflated profits to officialdom’s preferred
corporate partners—and also coordinate overall
timetables of reservation resource extraction in conformity
with America’s broader economic and strategic interests.

The already well-advanced liquidation
of indigenous nations had to be abandoned in favor of a
program preserving most of them as demographic/geographic
entities. Equally essential, a structure had to be created to
oversee this archipelago of permanent internal colonies. Both
requirements were accommodated by passage of the Indian
Reorganization Act (IRA) in 1934.

The basic thrust of the IRA, while
canceling such assimilationist initiatives as allotment, was
to follow closely on the models of colonial governance
perfected by the European imperial powers. In essence, this
involved supplanting whatever remained of the traditional
organic forms of indigenous government entities with which,
over the years, the U.S. had entered into more than 370
ratified treaties and a host of other international
agreements—with federally designed and sponsored
local/territorial councils, each of which derived its
exceedingly limited authority, its operational
funding—its very existence—to Congress rather than
to its ostensible constituency. While such bodies were meant,
under strict BIA supervision, to handle many of the
day-to-day details of U.S. policy implementation on the
reservations, their larger purpose was to foster the illusion
of native consent to and participation in their own

To this end, the IRA’s
"tribal councils" were formed behind a carefully
crafted facade of "democracy." Much was made of the
fact that council functions were to be anchored on formal
tribal constitutions. Unmentioned was the reality that these
were boilerplate instruments written by BIA bureaucrats,
containing provisions concerning council powers, the racial
criteria of tribal membership, and so forth which were flatly
antithetical to the traditions of the peoples whose values
they supposedly reflected. The procedures through which
indigenous nations "voluntarily accepted" these
constitutions were similarly rigged. Probably the most
glaring example is that of the Hopi, where 85 percent of
eligible voters actively boycotted the entire referendum
process. In the aftermath, U.S. Indian Commissioner John
Collier decreed that all abstentions should be counted as
"aye" votes, instantly transforming an overwhelming
and unequivocal refusal by the Indians into an apparently
near-unanimous endorsement of the IRA.

Such official fraud was hardly unique.
In the 1936 referendum conducted by the BIA among the
Lakotas, for example, it was later discovered that a
sufficient number of ballots had been cast on behalf of dead
people to change the outcome from rejection to an appearance
of acceptance. It has also been well-documented that,
throughout California, federal officials engaged in a
systematic pattern of deception, fundamentally
misrepresenting the nature of the IRA during pre-referendum
"educational workshops" conducted in 1936 and 1937.
Many native people in that state were thus led to believe
that by casting ballots to affirm the IRA they were actually
voting to the exact opposite effect. In each
instance—and there are many more—such transparently
fraudulent results were not only allowed to stand, but
promoted as evidence of the enthusiasm with which indigenous
peoples embraced reorganization.

While the IRA structure was being set
in place between 1934 and 1939, the federal school system
"serving" Native America, which had been geared to
delivering "education for extinction," was largely
retooled to train and indoctrinate the petty functionaries
and technicians needed to make the system work. With the
spawning of this comprador e1ite among Indians, a direct
counterpart to the "talented tenth" identified by
W.E.B. DuBois as having been selected and groomed to fill a
similar management role within the African-American
population, federal overseers could increasingly rely upon a
strata within virtually every indigenous nation to carry out
their instructions. Moreover, they could rely upon this
emergent "broker class" to cast an aura of
legitimacy over the matrix of its own domination by
claiming—as Indians—that it comprised the very
foundation of any genuine exercise in native self-governance.

Termination and Relocation

By the early 1950s, the U.S. internal
colonial system was functioning rather well. The mining of
reservation resources, particularly uranium and copper, had
commenced on a relatively massive scale and, although the
royalty rates assigned to these minerals by the BIA rarely
exceeded 10 percent of what they might have generated on the
open market, and despite the fact that most of the
arrangements included no requirement that mining companies
perform even minimal cleanup of the mess they’d made
once profitably extractable ores had been exhausted, all
leases allowing for corporate development had been duly
approved by the relevant tribal "governments." The
shallow pretense of indigenous self-determination embodied by
the IRA was even sufficient to prevent the United Nations
from requiring, in accordance with its charter, that the
reservations be inscribed on a list of
"non-self-governing territories" scheduled for
timely decolonization.

It was at this point that congressional
conservatives decided the time was ripe for a "trimming
of fat" from federal budget allocations to underwrite
the administration of Indian affairs. Pursuant to House
Resolution 108, effected in 1953, a lengthy series of
"termination acts" was passed, each of them
withdrawing U.S. recognition of the existence of one or more
indigenous nations. By the time this throwback to
assimilationism had run its course a decade later—the
policy was for the most part implemented by Indian
Commissioner Dillon S. Myer, a man whose qualifications for
the job seem to have consisted mainly of having presided over
the mass internment of Japanese Americans during World War
II—some 108 native peoples had been arbitrarily declared
"extinct," their reserved land bases officially
dissolved. While the victims ranged from the tiny,
impoverished "mission" bands of southern California
to the much larger and more prosperous Klamaths of Oregon and
Menominees of Wisconsin, their common denominator was that
their reservations possessed no mineral wealth substantial
enough to warrant the government’s paying the costs of
continuing to hold it in trust.

Simultaneously, emphasis was placed on
"relocation," a program designed to remove a
substantial portion of the population from non-terminated
reservations, dispersing them in major urban areas. While
funding was deliberately withheld from initiatives which
might have improved living conditions in Indian
Country—according to federal census data, American
Indians comprised the poorest identifiable population sector
in the U.S. from 1935-1995, with gross unemployment running
well over 60 percent for the entire period—the
government displayed a peculiar willingness to engage in
relatively lavish spending to convince native people to
"voluntarily" abandon their homelands and melt into
the vastly larger "mainstream" society.

The results of this rather crude
carrot-and-stick routine are striking. In 1900, 99.6 percent
of all federally recognized American Indians were land based.
By 1930, as a steady rebound in the size of the indigenous
population—from a little over 237,000 in 1890 to more
than 333,000 a generation later—began to push against
the territorial constraints imposed by allotment, the
proportion had declined to 90.1 percent. In 1950, 86.6
percent of all recognized native people in the U.S. still
lived on reservations. By 1960, the federal relocation
program had abruptly brought the proportion down to 72.1
percent, nearly as great a drop in just 7 years as had
occurred in the preceding 60. By 1970, 44.5 percent of all
recognized Indians had been removed from the reservations; by
1980, the figure had climbed to 49 percent; today, it stands
somewhere around 55 percent.

The sorts of governmental/corporate
benefits of this process are readily discernible, beginning
with the fact that keeping huge tracts of certain
reservations effectively depopulated makes it far easier to
engage in wholesale strip mining and related activities. The
conditions of stark destitution imposed on most reservation
residents also tends to render them more malleable, less
resistant to any kind of activity, no matter how destructive,
which might generate income, no matter how meager, than might
otherwise be expected. At another level, termination and
relocation have served to make indigenous societies unstable
in a cultural sense, fracturing the close knit kinship
relations which made them extraordinarily cohesive, eroding
the abilities of many peoples to perpetuate their languages,
and so on. This, in turn, has left the majority of Indians in
the U.S. steadily more "adaptable" to and dependent
upon the Euro-American settler society which dominates and
exploits them.

At another level still, the
proportionately massive population dispersal brought on by
relocation, in combination with a calculated governmental
pattern of manipulating native identity criteria to achieve a
pronounced undercounting of indigenous people during the past
quarter-century—analyst Jack Forbes has estimated that
while federal census data admitted an aggregate of just under
two million Indians in the U.S. by 1980, the real number
should have been closer to 15 million—has left
contemporary Indians in a position of social invisibility.

As might be expected, federal methods
of circumscribing native demography have been avidly embraced
and promoted by the IRA’s "Vichy" governments
and their adherents, a matter which radically undercuts the
numerical basis on which Native America as a whole might
force some favorable alteration in its collective
circumstance. Worse, such posturing has unleashed a recurrent
cycle of bitter infighting among indigenous peoples, as
"certified" Indians endeavor to protect their tiny
shares of each year’s pitifully small congressional
appropriation against the prospect of their federally negated
cousins joining the queue. At this point, the bestowal of
formal recognition upon several long neglected
peoples—the Abenakis of Vermont, Miamis of Ohio and
Lumbees of North Carolina among them—is resisted
fiercely by the leaders of several "federally-recognized

Rebellion and Repression

During the 1960s, the final dissolution
of Europe’s colonial empires and Third World efforts to
prevent their replacement by neocolonial modes of
exploitation became a primary international agenda. By the
end of the decade, the important segments among the
internally colonized "minorities" of the United
States—most especially blacks, Chicanos, and
Puertorriquenos (both on the mainland and in their externally
colonized island homeland), but also other groups, including
Appalachian whites—inspired by the tangible short-term
successes of this global struggle, had embarked on
decolonization initiatives of their own.  

In this environment of generalized
sociopolitical ferment and instability, a new spirit of
militancy began to congeal among native peoples, not only in
the lower 48 states, but in Alaska and Hawai’i as well.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, increasingly substantial
confrontations occurred in the Pacific Northwest between
state and federal authorities, and several indigenous nations
intent upon exercising their treaty-guaranteed fishing
rights. In 1969, a multi-tribal group of relocatees in the
San Francisco Bay Area seized Alcatraz Island, site of an
infamous but, by then, abandoned federal prison, in order to
establish a land base for the area’s displaced Indians.
Before the Alcatraz occupation ended a year-and-a-half later,
others had begun in locations as far-flung as Fort Lawton,
near Seattle, a Nike missile base in Chicago, the Mayflower
replica at Plymouth, Massachusetts, and the Mt. Rushmore
National Monument in South Dakota.

By late 1972, a coalition of native
groups calling themselves the Trail of Broken Treaties took
over the BIA headquarters in Washington, DC, on the eve of
the U.S. presidential election, holding it until the
incumbent administration of Richard M. Nixon agreed to review
a 20-Point Program redefining U.S./Indian relations. Among
the program’s more significant features were demands
that the government meet its existing treaty obligations to
indigenous nations, reinstate terminated peoples, repudiate
blood quantum criteria and other such impositions on native
identity, and resume the nation-to-nation relationship with
indigenous peoples required by the first article of its own
constitution. Instructively, the strongest outcry against any
such changes came from the National Tribal Chairman’s
Association (NTCA), a federally-funded consortium of IRA
council heads.

Buffered by these "representative
tribal leaders," federal officials not only dismissed
the Trail of Broken Treaties’ 20 points out-of-hand
(once the militants had withdrawn from the BIA building), but
launched a major campaign of repression against them. Marked
as a priority for neutralization was the American Indian
Movement (AIM), a group described at the time as being
comprised of the "shock troops of Indian
sovereignty." Most sensationally, this involved a force
of several hundred federal paramilitaries—advised,
equipped and supplied by army counterinsurgency
specialists—laying siege to virtually the entire
organization at the hamlet of Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge
Reservation, in South Dakota.

In the aftermath of the 71-day standoff
at Wounded Knee, several key AIM leaders were assassinated.
The rest were targeted for multiple prosecutions—Russell
Means, to name a prime example, was charged with 37 felonies
and several other offenses carrying a combined potential
sentence of triple life plus 113 years imprisonment process
which, although it resulted in almost no convictions, tied
them up in U.S. courts for several years. The demands of
meeting their usually high bails and underwriting their
various legal defenses also effectively bankrupted the
organization, while diverting considerable time, energy, and
attention away from other sorts of political organizing.

While this was going on, more than 60
grassroots AIM members and supporters were killed on Pine
Ridge, victims of death squads assembled by Richard Wilson,
head of the reservation’s IRA government, and funded by
the BIA. As has now been confirmed by at least one leader of
the "goons," as Wilson’s gunmen called
themselves, they were composed mostly of off-duty BIA police
personnel, armed, coordinated, and essentially immunized from
prosecution by the politically repressive Federal Bureau of
Investigation (FBI). The arrangement was remarkably similar
to those engineered by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
in roughly the same period as a means of maintaining
"order" in U.S. client states throughout Latin

The orgy of state violence culminated
on June 26, 1975, when a large body of FBI agents and BIA
police surrounded and attacked a small AIM encampment on Pine
Ridge. In the resulting firefight, one AIM member and two
agents were killed, a circumstance used by the government as
a pretext to assault the entire reservation with overwhelming
force. Using armored personnel carriers and helicopters
loaned by the military, and brandishing automatic weapons,
several hundred FBI men swept Pine Ridge and the adjoining
Rosebud Reservation for nearly two months. It was not until
late September, when open resistance on both reservations had
been thoroughly suppressed, that the last of these occupation
troops were finally withdrawn.

Shortly thereafter, the government was
able, on what it now concedes was a fraudulent basis, to
obtain the extradition from Canada of Leonard Peltier, head
of the group which had fought off the FBI in June. Subjected
to a travesty of a trial for "murdering" the two
FBI agents—two codefendants in the case had already been
found by a jury to have acted in self-defense and federal
prosecutors now admit they have "no idea" who fired
the lethal shots—Peltier was sentenced in 1977 to serve
two consecutive life sentences in prison. Twenty years later
and in failing health, he remains incarcerated in a maximum
security facility, a symbol of the high price which can be
extracted by federal authorities from anyone bold enough to
seriously assert native rights to sovereignty in the United

Decimated, exhausted, heavily
infiltrated, and completely outgunned, AIM disintegrated
during the late 1970s. Although there have been occasional
flashes of life, as with the Yellow Thunder Camp occupation
in the Black Hills during the early 1980s, and a series of
successful demonstrations to prevent public celebrations of
the Columbian Quincentenniary in Denver a decade later, the
movement’s overall decline could not be reversed. Today,
while chapters continue to exist in Denver and a few other
localities, references to AIM are associated mainly with a
governmentally/corporately funded Minneapolis corporation run
by the brothers Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt, apparently
subsidized to subvert the reputation and rhetoric of the
movement’s past radicalism into a blanket endorsement of
the colonial status quo.

Subterfuge and Self

Even as the repression of AIM crested
in the wake of Wounded Knee, the movement sought to broaden
its latitude of action. In response to requests by elders
like Frank Fools Crow, who had proclaimed the continuing
existence of an Independent Oglala [Lakota] Nation during the
siege, a meeting on the Standing Rock Reservation, North
Dakota, was convened during the summer of 1974. Its purpose
was to consider ways of placing the question of American
Indian treaty rights before the community of nations as a
whole. The result was the formation of the International
Indian Treaty Council (IITC), an AIM subpart specifically to
establish an indigenous presence at the United Nations. Under
direction of Cherokee activist Jimmie Durham, an
organizational office was opened at New York’s UN Plaza
and a lobbying effort begun.

Durham’s initial strategy was
straightforward. Article I, Section 10, of the U.S.
Constitution both reserves American treaty-making
prerogatives to the level of federal authority and disallows
the government from entering into a treaty relationship with
any lesser entity. Hence, each time the Senate ratified a
treaty between the U.S. and one or more native
peoples—as it did more than 370 times between 1778 and
1871—it simultaneously conveyed formal recognition of
the full national sovereignty inhering in the other party or
parties. Since no nation possesses a right in international
law to unilaterally extinguish the sovereignty of another,
and since the indigenous nations formally recognized as such
by the U.S. have never willingly relinquished their
sovereignty, it follows that they still retain it in a legal
sense. Since all nations are expressly prohibited under
provision of the United Nations Charter, the 1960 Declaration
on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and
Peoples and other international legal instruments from
preempting the exercise of sovereignty by any other, it
was/is quite reasonable to conclude that, when presented with
the facts, the UN would have no valid alternative but to
enter a resolution requiring the decolonization of Native
North America.

Well aware of what was afoot, the Nixon
administration moved decisively to co-opt IITC’s
initiative. The vehicle for this was the American Indian
Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act, passed in
1975, long after Nixon had been driven from office. Although
the statute had absolutely nothing to do with the concept of
self-determination articulated in international law (it
offers a hiring preference to American Indians in
implementing federal policies, thus incorporating them even
more directly into the matrix of U.S. colonial domination)
the government’s use of the term greatly confused the
situation. This was all the more true in that the NTCA and
comparable organizations quickly offered themselves as what
amounted to a cheering section for the measure, lauding it
as, among other things, "the final confirmation of
American Indian sovereignty in the modern era."

Thus, when Durham was finally able to
arrange for IITC’s participation in an unprecedented UN
conference on discrimination against indigenous peoples
during the summer of 1977, the U.S. announced—falsely,
but with the apparent agreement of most native people within
its domain—that, in its case, many of the matters raised
had already been resolved. Only the fact that Durham had
cannily solicited representation of 98 indigenous nations,
including a number from South and Central America, averted a
probability of the process stalling right there. As it was,
since a U.S. domestic statute could hardly be argued as
bearing upon the circumstances of native peoples elsewhere,
the Human Rights Commission’s parent body, the Economic
and Social Council (ECOSOC), determined that matters would
have to be considered in more depth.

This led, after much maneuvering, to
creation of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous
Populations in 1981. Although much-heralded as a major
breakthrough in the cause of native rights worldwide, this
entity carried within it the seeds of a fundamentally
different outcome. To begin with, its very title consigned it
to considering the circumstances of certain
"populations" rather than "peoples." The
wording, insisted on by the U.S. and Canada, is legally
significant: under international law, all peoples are
guaranteed the right of true self-determination—as
opposed to the grotesque parody embodied in American
law—while populations, defined as demographic subsets of
a given country’s polity, are not. It was not until 1989
that the two North American super states abandoned their
terminological objections, and then only with the caveat that
they were doing so with the specific understanding that use
of the term "peoples" would not be construed as
conveying legal connotations.

Secondly, rather than being charged
with responsibility for exploring the applicability of
existing international legal instruments to the situations of
various indigenous peoples, the Working Group was assigned to
first conduct a comprehensive global survey of the conditions
which had been imposed upon them, and then, after 1984, to
draft an entirely new element of law to address their needs.
It, in reality, set the stage for a formal codification of
their collective demotion from the status of either nations
or peoples to that of "domestic minorities" within
assorted UN member-states.

In 1979, Durham resigned in disgust
when, among other things, the Treaty Council board of
trustees decided the organization should push for the
drafting of the new international instrument. His
replacement, closely associated with those who engineered the
chartering of "National AIM, Inc." in Minneapolis,
piloted the organization, first into alignments with a welter
of nation-state governments considered hostile to the United
States—regardless of their own records on indigenous
rights—and finally into "cooperative"
relations with any government, including that of the U.S.,
willing to subsidize it. By 1987, the tiny clique who had
assumed control was prepared to drop all but the most shallow
pretense of complying with the wishes of the grassroots
people whose interests they ostensibly served, reforming IITC
as a San Francisco-based corporation accountable only to a
hand-picked board of directors.

This course of action resulted in an
almost complete erosion in the base of support which had
propelled IITC to its early prominence. Although it has never
abandoned its now grossly misleading claim to represent
them—it actually increased the putative number to over
100 during the early 1990s—virtually all of the
indigenous nations which participated in Durham’s 1977
delegation had carefully separated themselves from
"AIM’s international diplomatic arm" by 1985.
Some, like the Hawaiians, the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations
Iroquois Confederacy), the Treaty 6 Chiefs of Canada, the
Hopi, and the Lakotas, elected to represent themselves in
international fora. Others, including virtually all the
indigenous peoples of South and Central America, founded far
more genuinely representative organizations of their own.

The capstone to the whole charade came
in November 1996, when, prior to its submission to ECOSOC,
and thence the General Assembly, a subgroup of the Commission
on Human Rights convened to consider a Draft Declaration on
the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which had been approved by
native delegates in 1993 and subsequently adopted by both the
Working Group and its parent body, the Sub-Commission on
Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities.
When the Commission’s panel of nation-state
"reviewers" set out to alter the draft in a manner
intended quite literally to gut it, a unified body of
indigenous delegates demanded that it go forward unchanged.
U.S. representatives, who had for the most part remained much
more circumspect in their approach over the preceding 20
years, at last openly responded that no draft instrument
would be approved which "conflicts with the principles
of American legal doctrine."

While this affront precipitated a mass
walkout by native delegates, thereby bringing the approval
process to a temporary halt, the Treaty Council delegation
was conspicuous in breaking ranks. Not only did its members
refuse to join their ostensible colleagues in a separate
strategy session, they opted instead to engage in a sequence
of informal caucuses with offending American officials before
launching a marginally successful campaign to convince
individuals from other organizations to return to the session
and endorse the draft document. Meanwhile, back in the U.S.,
a concerted effort was mounted to discredit those in
opposition on the rather bizarre grounds that they were
suspected "FBI provocateurs, CIA agents, or both."
Instructively, the "representative group of Indian
leaders" issuing these increasingly bitter communiqués
were not to be found in the ranks of the NTCA. Instead, they
were located in the IITC-affiliated offices of National AIM,

Prospects and Potentials

The recent events in Geneva represent
something of a crossroads in the struggle for native
sovereignty and self-determination, not only within the
United States, but globally. The sheer audacity with which
the U.S. has moved to convert a supposed universal
declaration of indigenous rights into little more than an
extrapolation of its own posture in foreclosing on the most
meaningful of these, clearly, describes one direction in
which things are moving. Should the American initiative prove
successful—and it is strongly supported by the
governments of Canada, Australia, and a number of other UN
member states—the ever more refined and sophisticated
model of internal colonialism developed by the U.S. for world
replication will be formally legitimated, enshrined as
international law. At that point, the only legally sanctioned
option available to native people will be incorporation into
the governing structures of their colonizers, a status
amounting to permanent subjugation within their own

The craven performance of the National
AIM/IITC amalgam reveals the utter bankruptcy of these twin
husks of 1970s radicalism ever mounting even token resistance
to such an outcome. While their irrevocably supine posture in
the face of U.S. power may provide valuable lessons on how
repression, subversion, and co-optation can be used to deform
genuine national liberation movements, it furnishes nothing
by way of an alternative to capitulation. The
"something" they now offer in seeking to facilitate
an indigenous ratification of the Draft Declaration is not
better than nothing at all. On the contrary, insofar as it
would present for the first time an appearance of native
consent to the denial of our sovereignty and self-determining
rights, this something is far, far worse than nothing.

This is the point taken by the
delegates who walked out of the November Working Group
session, and herein lies the potential for things to move in
a different direction. In their collective refusal of any
formulation which might legally consolidate the notion of an
intrinsic right of states to wield hegemony over our peoples
and homelands, they have paved the way for an indefinite
stalemate or even cancellation of the drafting process. This,
in turn, reopens the fundamental question—from which the
whole idea of a Universal Declaration of the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples may be seen more than anything as an
elaborate, 15-year diversion—of identifying and applying
those elements of extant international law which have all
along pertained to the rights and circumstances of indigenous

Salient in this respect are Chapters XI
and XII of the United Nations Charter, which require, among
other things, that all non-self-governing territories
(colonies) be inscribed on a list of entities placed under UN
supervision and within which the self-assigned trust
authority of colonizing powers is strictly limited in terms
of both scope and duration, exercised only in such manner as
may be required to ensure the resumption of genuine
"self-governance or independence as may be appropriate
to each territory and the freely expressed wishes of the
peoples concerned" in the most timely possible fashion.
Amplification and clarification of what is intended by these
chapters of the Charter is found in the Declaration on the
Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples
(General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV), 1960), which states

The subjection of peoples to alien
subjugation, domination, and exploitation constitutes a
denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the
Charter of the United Nations, and is an impediment to the
promotion of world peace and cooperation.

  • All peoples have the right to
    self-determination; by virtue of that right they
    freely determine their political status and freely
    pursue their economic, social, and cultural
  • Inadequacy of political, economic,
    social, or educational preparedness should never
    serve as a pretext for delaying independence.
  • All armed action or repressive
    measures of all kinds directed against dependent
    peoples shall cease in order to enable them to
    exercise peacefully and freely their right to
    complete independence, and the integrity of their
    national territory shall be respected.
  • Immediate steps shall be taken, in
    Trust and Non-Self-Governing Territories or all other
    territories which have not yet attained independence,
    to transfer all powers to the peoples of those
    territories, without any conditions or reservations,
    in accordance with their freely-expressed will or
    desire, without any distinction as to race, creed or
    color, in order to enable them to enjoy complete
    independence and freedom.
  • Any attempt aimed at the partial
    or total disruption of the national unity and
    territorial integrity of a country is incompatible
    with the purposes and principles of the Charter of
    the United Nations.

Reinforcement of such principles
obtains from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
(General Assembly Resolution 217 A (III), 1948), the
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural
Rights (General Assembly Resolution 2200 (XXI), 1966), the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (General
Assembly Resolution 2200 (XXI), 1966) and other instruments.
Possible impingements upon the applicability of this stream
of international to indigenous internal colonies—notably
General Assembly Resolution 1541(XV; 1966), which posits that
the decolonization procedures required by the UN Charter and
Resolution 1514 pertain only territories which are
"geographically separate and…distinct ethnically
and/or culturally from the country administering
it"—are hardly insurmountable. Although Resolution
1541 has typically been construed as meaning that, to be
eligible for inscription as non-self-governing territories,
colonies must be separated from colonizing powers by at least
30 miles of open ocean, strict adherence to this so-called
"Blue Water Thesis" is indefensible insofar as it
would not even admit to the fact that Germany colonized
contiguous Poland during the Second World War, or that the
Poles possessed a legal right to decolonization.

Ultimately, the issue can be resolved
only on the basis of a logically/legally consistent
determination of whether indigenous peoples actually
constitute "peoples" in the legal sense. While the
deliberately obfuscatory arguments entered on this matter by
the U.S. and other nation-states have by this point
thoroughly muddled the situation with respect to a host of
untreatied peoples throughout the world, the same cannot be
said concerning the treatied peoples of North America, most
especially those within the United States. As was noted
above, we have long since been recognized not only as
peoples, but as nations, and are thereby entitled in existing
law to enjoy the rights of such regardless of our
geographic disposition vis-a-vis our colonizers.

The route leading to an alternative
destiny for native people is just as clear as that prescribed
for us in the newly revised Draft Convention. By relentless
and undeviating assertion of the basic rights of treatied
peoples—at all levels, through every available venue,
and excluding no conceivable means of doing so—we can
begin to (re)secure them, restoring to ourselves and to our
posterity our/their rightful status as sovereign and coequal
members of the community of nations, free of such pretense as
IRA-style "self-governance" and subterfuges like
the 1975 "Indian Self-Determination" Act. Only by
achieving success in this enterprise can we eventually
position ourselves to tangibly assist our relatives in other
quarters of the globe, untreatied and thus presently
unrecognized as being imbued with the same self-determining
rights as we, to overcome the juridical/diplomatic quandary
in which this circumstance places them.

Any such progression, of course, serves
to incrementally disempower nation-states even as it steadily
(re)empowers those upon whose subordination statism depends
most heavily and directly for its very existence. This, for
its part, undermines a cornerstone on which that rapidly
metastasizing malignancy described by U.S. President George
Bush in 1991 as constituting a "New World Order" is
designed to rest. The inestimable benefit to all humanity
deriving from a trajectory of this sort should be readily
evident to anyone not already vested in the perpetuation of
planetary business as usual, and may serve to explain why the
agenda of indigenous liberation deserves the broadest
imaginable prioritization and support among those who profess
commitment to constructive sociopolitical and economic

Fittingly, the contours of the
liberatory strategy which has begun to congeal among the
dissidents who walked out of the Working Group session last
November may be readily discerned in the charge delivered by
the elders to those assembled at the first International
Treaty Council gathering 23 years ago. Theirs was a vision
from which, as Jimmie Durham rightly insisted, we should
never have departed.

Whether we can recover the sense of
cohesion, purpose, and momentum they so generously bestowed
on us—and which we so frivolously squandered in the
arrogance of our belief that we might somehow dance with the
devil and win—remains to be seen. There is tremendous
ground to be made up and damage to be undone.

Our struggle will be longer and harder
than it might have been had we heeded our old people during
the late 1970s. It is likely also to be much harsher, given
that we have by now wasted most of the moral authority gained
through the sacrifices of AIM warriors at Wounded Knee and
elsewhere. We may have to undergo the whole grim process once
again, or many times, in order to recoup what has been lost.
We are nonetheless obliged to regain our stride, however
painfully and belatedly. We are obliged because if our
histories have taught us anything at all it is that, whatever
the future may hold for our peoples, it must be something we
collectively forge for ourselves or it will be truly too
dreadful to contemplate. Our coming generations surely
deserve far better.