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Indigenous Knowledge Commons

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn

For many people “tribalism” has become a term of abuse, others see it as a worthy ideal. Does “tribalism” have a valid role to play in modern society?

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn says “ The survival of the First Nations of this continent was never a part of the scheme toward progress as envisioned in historical America. Yet that survival has been nothing if not miraculous in the face of aggressive and persistent destructive policies. Writers who have asked “Why?” have come up with a myriad of reasons, but few of them have shown an understanding o the native people themselves and their connection to their lands. … The miracle of the 200 years of recnt Indian-white history in this country is that in spite of these U.S. nationalistic longings and the resultant detrimental legal history of the courts, America has not fully decimated the tribal first nations of the American continent. It would seem that the indeteminate history regarding the questions represented in these longings has inadvertently allowed Indian treaty enclaves to continue as ‘domestic, dependent” nations. The question is, for how long? What will be the long-term consequence of this colonial stance? … When will the future for American Indians change from bleak and bare survival to predictable and open participation in the greatest democracy of modern times?

By and large, Indian scholars believe … that there is little hope that the courts and specifically the Supreme Court of the United States will be deterred by any of the usual deterrents embedded in our democratic history, such as public opinion, academic criticsm, Indian resistance, or public charges of partisan and race-based politics. Many scholars now believe that the Court is presently so entrenched as an active right wing court that it will do as it pleases in spite of those obvious deterrents.

“Diminishment” is now the interpreted description of the vast body of treaty law that has sometimes protected Indian nations and “ disetablishment” has become the action to be enforced. The law toward Indians now has come full circle, turning from decimation to alienation and back to decimation again – and this recent turn has happened in the past twenty years.

Not since the German anti-Semitic laws of the 1930s—generally referred to as the Nuremberg precedents—which significantly curtailed Jewish rights in that country, has such a body of law been promulgated to exclude a people from fairness and justice and its own history in this country.

In the past twenty years, the courts in the United States have consistently undermined tribal sovereignty in its dealings concrning state jurisdiction in Indian Country. They have curtailed the rights of tribal citizens in religion and other social matters; the courts have legitimized massive land and resource thefts and redefined states’ rights vis-à-vis tribal nation rights.

While wrangling goes on in political enclaves and in the courtrooms of Indian Country, tribes are unable to organize coherent economic policies, develop political strength, claim law-and-order rights to protect their citizens, and develop the tribal nation judiciary. The degradation of justice inherent in legal action and theory for American Indians threatens all of us. If the historical rights of Indian nations cannot be upheld, the rights of any American cannot be held sacred.