by Jeff Armstrong
U.S. imperialism originated and continues unabated in Indian Country, indigenous territories demarcated under international treaties brazenly flouted by the United States since its inception. Indigenous peoples in the Americas languish under layers of oppression at the hands of federal, state, and, more often than not, tribal authorities. Under President Obama, the U.S. has accelerated its assaults on internationally recognized human rights standards in Indian Country and intensified its longstanding policy of propping up compliant puppet dictatorships there. As a result there is an institutionalized human rights crisis in Native America, which must be addressed.
The Obama administration has extended its declared war on terror and undeclared war on illegal immigration to Indian reservations, most notably the Tohono O’odham nation straddling the U.S.-Mexico border, where U.S. border patrol and military forces have systematically violated the sovereignty and human rights of the indigenous inhabitants and refugees alike. In 2009, the IRS took the unprecedented move of seizing tribal lands of the Crow Creek Dakota people, who were forcibly relocated to the South Dakota reservation after the U.S.-Dakota war of 1862, for unpaid federal employment taxes on a reservation with 70% unemployment.
Likewise, the U.S. recently pressured the British government to reject the passports of the Iroquois Confederacy, an alliance of indigenous nations that predates and informed the creation of the United States of America. Thus, because of the Confederacy’s refusal to relinquish the sovereignty it never surrendered, the lacrosse team of the nation that invented the sport would be barred from participation in an international competition in which it was ranked fourth in the world.
At the same time, tribal sovereignty is considered sacrosanct when it comes to human rights abuses committed by U.S.-backed tribal governments. Nowhere was this more evident than on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s, a time when the FBI helped train and equip death squads to defend a corrupt tribal president while waging a relentless COINTELPRO operation against the American Indian Movement. Dozens of Lakota deaths from that time have gone unpunished and uninvestigated, while indigenous freedom fighter Leonard Peltier unjustly remains in prison and subject to threats on his life and safety.
In January 2009, Peltier was viciously assaulted by fellow inmates in what appears to have been an incident orchestrated by prison authorities and possibly the FBI in the run up to his unsuccessful parole hearing that year. The U.S. continues to suppress as many as 100,000 government documents relative to Peltier’s railroading, including some 10,000 pages involving law-enforcement agents and informants, whose privacy is deemed by federal judges to be more important than justice or historical truth.
To break from this deeply ingrained pattern of imperial domination, we must unequivocally recognize the inherent and internationally accepted right of self-determination of indigenous peoples in the Americas and elsewhere. By extending our solidarity to those who struggle against all odds for its realization, we might assist Native nations to create the space to develop new models of economic development founded upon true democracy, equality, and ecological sustainability.
We should stand with the Anishinaabe people of the White Earth Reservation, whose fight to hold the reservation governing body to its own tribal constitution was met with brute force by the colonial Bureau of Indian Affairs police on July 13, 2010. It is noteworthy that White Earth was the first reservation to petition for tribal court recognition under Obama’s Tribal Law and Order Act, which in conjunction with the White Earth Prohibited Conduct Code, an enactment that would put Joseph McCarthy himself to shame, raises the prospect of the U.S. government holding tribal dissidents in federal prison on a scale rivaling or exceeding that of the illegal colonial detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
President Obama’s token support for the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on Dec. 16 was nothing more than an attempt to rationalize the U.S. government’s assumed totalitarian authority over Indian Country and undermine the effects of the Declaration as a statement of international law.
The U.S. State Department, which has no role in the formulation or implementation of federal Indian policies, immediately served notice that Obama’s statement would have zero effect on U.S. conduct: “The Declaration’s call is to promote the development of a concept of self-determination for indigenous peoples that is different from the existing right of self-determination in international law” (emphasis added). Indeed, the U.S. statement seeks to undercut the effect of the Declaration itself as reflecting “aspirations … not legally binding or a statement of current international law.”
The UN Declaration must instead serve as the minimal standard for assuring tribal self-determination and implementing unfulfilled treaties. Indigenous self-determination and territorial sovereignty are integral and inextricable elements of a program for revolutionary, democratic change in the Americas. As Friedrich Engels observed more than a century ago, there is much for socialists to learn from indigenous peoples and their histories.
Native peoples in the Americas today are on the frontlines of struggle against corporate and state domination and exploitation, but on the margins at best of public attention. By offering ideological solidarity and concrete support to besieged indigenous communities, we might reduce their sense of isolation and in the process find invaluable allies for the international proletarian movement.
> This article was originally published in the February 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.