“We Have the Right to Exist”


Haven’t posted in longer than I would have liked as I’ve had a lot of personal stuff to deal with.  Today I was working on the last weekly discussion question for my “Federal Indian Law and Policy” course which dealt with a fascinating subject: Decolonization.  After I had finished my question I was thinking a little more and wanted to address a quote from one of our readings (by Wub-e-ke-niew from the conclusion of We Have the Right to Exist).  Below is a copy of the quote along with my response to it that I posted along with my answer to the weekly discussion question:


"The answer is not paternalism–helping us to "adapt" to a changing world; but to look at why, and in what directions, the world is changing, and whose choices are generating those changes."


In some ways I feel that adaptation is one of the strengths of Indigenous populations and is what has allowed Indian nations to survive previous U.S. policies of genocide and assimilation, so when I read this sentence after writing my answer, I wasn’t sure if I agreed with him or not.  I had to think about whether my idea about encouraging some "Westernized" tribal members to return to their native communities was a form of forced adaptation.  I came to the conclusion that if it was implemented as something that could be enforced, it would indeed be paternalistic; but it didn’t mean that it was a bad idea.  However, I have come to realize that he isn’t arguing against adaptation in general, he is just reinforcing the concept of Decolonization by saying that indigenous people should be the ones to determine how they adapt to a changing world.        


The full original question and my answer are below:


How would you define Decolonization?  If you work for an Indian nation, or are a member from one, how could and should that Indian nation Decolonize?


To begin with, below are some of the quotes from the four readings that jumped out at me:


  • Reading One: "Yet, in my estimation, not every sovereign act undertaken by an indigenous nation necessarily promotes sovereignty of the people."
  • Reading One: "Indigenous groups must define for themselves what traditional law is, because others cannot adequately define it for them and because it is unique to each group."
  • Reading Two: ". . . the U.S. Government entered into a trust relationship with the separate tribes in acknowledgment, not of their racial distinctness, but of their political status as sovereign nations." [from 1979 National Security Council approved progress report on US government Final Act compliance concerning American Indians]
  • Reading Three: "Indians are a mythology created by the White man, who controls the definitions and stereotypes attributed to Indians."
  • Reading Four: "If there is to be hope for anybody in the future, we have to work together to recreate a network of harmonious societies which provide for all people."


There is so much talk about the effects of colonization that I don’t think I’ve run into the concept of Decolonization before.  I like it!  It seems to be an idea that has moved past the trauma and victimization stages and is now looking to take action for the future.  The lecture identifies Decolonization as something which removes negative Western influences and restores traditional Indigenous values, and I think this is a really positive way to look at it.  It is important to remove the negative Western influences, but to try and remove all Western influence would be an impossible task.  (Yet it seems to be held up quite often, especially by Westerners, as the definition of Indian authenticity.)  The exciting part about concepts of Decolonization and self-determination, is that individuals, communities, and tribal nations are now in a position to make their own decisions about who they are and what that means.  Looking only to the past in an attempt to return to a time before European contact is wishful thinking, however taking information from the past, present, and future, is what I believe will allow indigenous peoples to assert themselves as participants in the here and now, and not continue to be relegated to a category of "vanished races."  


Although I am an enrolled member of the Karuk Tribe, I was adopted and grew up in a middle-class white family far away from my tribal homelands.  It has only been as an adult that I have been able to forge connections and begin to actually work on, well… "Decolonizing" my Karuk self, so I want to specifically state that the following comments are based on observations from afar.  (Although I am a tribal member, I would go as far as to consider myself a cultural insider!)  The Karuk tribe has taken steps toward increasing tribal cultural awareness through beginning to restore our language, which I see as a very positive step towards Decolonization.  A focus has emerged recently on teaching language to the children especially, and I believe this is probably the most critical thing to do because language has such a significant effect on how we interact with the people and places around us.  If you are fluent in a language, then you can think in that language.  There are also some really strong health and housing programs available to tribal members who still live in our ancestral territory, and I think that this type of community awareness and involvement helps to keep people connected.  I still don’t entirely understand how a reservation differs from land held in trust for the tribe by the federal government, but I do believe that control of aboriginal territory is very important.  Additionally, I think that many Indian nations, my own included, might benefit from reaching out to tribal members who no longer live within their reservations or territories.  I think that this type of outreach would have a positive benefit in two directions: it could allow motivated individuals to reconnect with their background and possibly encourage people to move back to their homelands, and it might offer isolated tribes more potential resources in tribal members who are already familiar with how things work in mainstream American society.  This idea really relates to the quote from the fourth reading that I started out with above, in that it acknowledges a need to look past our differences and instead focus on working together.  


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