Native American Sovereignty is an Obstacle to Equality

by Benjamin Studebaker

Many left wing commentators writing about the tragedy unfolding in Standing Rock believe that the government erred by failing to respect Native American sovereignty. This argument claims that Native Americans are nations that have sovereign rights over the territory reserved to them and consequently the US government is wrong to take action that impacts them and their territory without their consent. This is well-intentioned, but there are few beliefs that have done more damage to the welfare of Native American citizens than the idea that Native American tribes constitute sovereign nations. Native Americans are treated very poorly in the United States and tribal sovereignty facilitates this instead of ameliorating it.

Native Americans in the United States are at an economic disadvantage that exceeds that of African-Americans, and Natives living on reservations have it much worse than Natives living off-reservation:

The Natives on reservations do worse because of their sovereignty. When the state takes a group of people and gives them sovereignty, this is a way of divesting responsibility for that group of people. Because Native Americans are said to be sovereign, the government can dismiss poor outcomes on reservations as neither its business nor its responsibility. What’s more, when deciding where to build something (like a pipeline) that may negatively impact those living near it, the government does not feel it needs to consider the interests of Native Americans because their sovereignty makes them responsible for defending their interests. Sure, sovereignty prevented the pipeline from running through the reservation, but just as a large coal power plant just outside the reservation might produce air pollution that would affect those inside it, an oil pipeline might produce spills that affect those living some distance from where the pipeline itself is located.

The government is only interested in meeting the minimum conditions required by law because it doesn’t view their welfare as its responsibility because it is accustomed to thinking of the Natives not as full American citizens but as some kind of “other”. The concept of tribal sovereignty is what sustains and perpetuates this “othering”.

The “sovereignty” we claim to respect is itself defined by the federal government through its own laws. It’s the American state that created the reservation system and it’s the American state which decides how the federal and state governments will interact with that system. The American state chooses to neglect Native Americans and calls that “respecting sovereignty”. The reservations are not meaningfully independent–they function as ghettos and the language of sovereignty is used to legitimize perpetuating their existence. The reality is that the reservation system is just a form of segregation and the language of sovereignty is our 21st century way of legitimizing continuing that segregation. Separate is still not equal, even when separate is called “sovereign”.

Some who support tribal sovereignty nonetheless claim that it helps to preserve Native American culture. It is true that if you take a group of people with different cultural practices and you isolate them in a ghetto they will not integrate, and some of these people object to integrating Native Americans on the grounds that this would be the final step in a process of colonization which effectively erases Native American culture completely. This is undoubtedly true–Native Americans who live off reservation do better economically at a cost to maintaining a distinct and separate cultural identity, especially as time passes and those Natives intermarry with the wider population, mixing their cultures into the American melting pot and becoming progressively less distinct from other Americans.

But those who implore Native Americans to perpetuate their cultural identities must recognize that in so doing they are also perpetuating their economic disadvantage. It is easy for affluent, college-educated people to look at Native Americans as valuable primarily for the cultural diversity they represent, forgetting that these are individual American citizens with potentials and aspirations that are as diverse as those within any other group of people. When we choose to bring up Native American children in reservations we are choosing to limit their economic and individual potential in the service of a cultural project they never signed up for and which doesn’t benefit them as individuals. The fact that many Native American adults are committed to this project is no evidence to the contrary, because in choosing to raise Native American children on reservations we are deliberately shaping them into the sort of people who will be committed to this cultural project and willing to perpetuate it into the next generation. We are using Native American culture to make Native Americans complicit in their children’s own economic marginalization. The notion that we can preserve Native cultural distinctness while at the same time eliminating inequality between Natives and other Americans is a lie which perpetuates Native poverty. In truth we face a binary choice:

  1. Maintain the reservation system to preserve Native American culture as a distinct entity while at the same time othering Native Americans and leaving them mired in poverty.
  2. Integrate Native Americans living on reservations and begin a long process of diminishing inequality between Natives and other Americans while at the same time sacrificing their cultural distinctiveness.

We face this choice for the same reasons that separate has never been equal in any rich democracy–governments tend to show less concern for the interests of citizens when those citizens have been separated from wider society. Consequently those who sustain cultural separation always in the process perpetuate economic marginalization. Jim Crow laws existed for this purpose, as did apartheid in South Africa. The only difference this time is that we have an insidious narrative that because the separation preserves cultural difference it’s justified and perhaps even good for the people subject to it. There can be no doubt that the more African-Americans come to resemble white Americans economically, the smaller the cultural distinction between black and white America will be. When black and white Americans tend to do the same kind of jobs for the same kind of pay, they will mix with each other and develop a shared culture which erodes the historical distinctions. Efforts to resist that shift in white and black culture serve to perpetuate black economic marginalization. We’ve seen this historically–Irish and Italian Americans used to be much more culturally distinct from American protestants (and suffered tremendous discrimination as a result), but they traded that cultural distinctiveness for economic prosperity and have now melted into white American culture.

Muslim immigrants in Europe face a similar problem–marginalized in ghettos they must choose between preserving culturally distinct Muslim communities and integration with the economic benefits that go with it. In Europe multiculturalism is presented as a means of respecting the culture of immigrant groups, but in practice it also functions to perpetuate their economic marginalization, fueling racial and religious resentment and contributing to the rise of right nationalist political parties in Europe which view these immigrant groups as economically dependent and a burden on European welfare states.

We need to recognize that our world has never been culturally static and never can be. It is in the nature of cultures to mix and change, and this mixing can only be resisted if we isolate groups from one another and deny them the economic and social opportunities that come from mixing. When we attempt to preserve our cultures unchanged we inflict social and economic penalties on our children that we have no right to inflict. Colonization was brutal and morally horrifying, but we live in a world where it has happened. Our policy must acknowledge the fact of colonization and try to help colonized peoples to achieve equal standing within the societies that have arisen in the lands that were once theirs. Efforts to decolonize are well-intended but fundamentally mistaken–we cannot turn back the clock and undo this process. We can only do what we can to minimize the substantive suffering that goes along with it. That means making colonized peoples equal citizens within their new societies. It cannot mean walling them off in ghettos, enclaves, and reservations and forgetting about them. We must take our duties to these people as citizens seriously and stop treating them as living history. These are real people, they matter, and it is not their job to preserve their culture to make us feel good about ourselves at the expense of their welfare. We must stop thinking of Native Americans as “them” and start thinking of them as “us”, because in choosing to colonize them we made them ours. We took their sovereignty from them and it’s gone, and it is never coming back, and pretending otherwise is an abdication of our responsibility. You cannot colonize a group of people and pretend they’re still sovereign in any meaningful sense–they are yours now, and the only way you can begin to atone for the sin of colonizing them is by treating them every bit as well as you treat your other citizens. When you break a nation, you buy it. Don’t try to glue the pieces back together and stick it on the shelf like nothing happened.