Sovereignty not a given

In comments to this post below, a couple of folks asked about the sovereignty of Native American tribes. This brings to mind President Bush's recent garbled, gasping response to a question on sovereignty at the Unity: Journalists of Color conference. Here's how that exchange went:

QUESTION: What do you think tribal sovereignty means in the 21st century, and how do we resolve conflicts between tribes and the federal and the state governments?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Tribal sovereignty means that; it's sovereign. You're a — you've been given sovereignty, and you're viewed as a sovereign entity. And, therefore, the relationship between the federal government and tribes is one between sovereign entities.

Lewis Kamb, of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, notes that "Bush's comment on tribal sovereignty creates a buzz" (link via Cursor). That buzz is due to one word: "given."

To many Native Americans the president's answer spoke volumes about what they see as his ignorance of Indian issues. And to many, the operative word in Bush's response was the verb "given."

As the continent's first societies, American Indian tribes hold their status as sovereign nations with an almost sacred reverence; an inherent standing as self-governing, independent bodies dating back millennia, something that's always existed.

Sovereignty is "the nearest and dearest, No. 1 issue in Indian Country," said Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Congress of American Indians. "It's not something that was given to us. As tribes, we see sovereignty as something we've always had."

Kamb goes on to note that Bush's use of this word could have an effect on the outcome of the election. The Indian vote is a significant factor in swing states such as New Mexico, Arizona and Washington.

To prospective Indian voters, sovereignty is an issue steeped in legal meaning that drives Native American stances on public policy, court cases and tribes' core "government-to-government" dealings with the United States. And it's a status that many indigenous people see as falling increasingly under attack.

With the erosion of tribal sovereignty, some say, so too comes the weakening of tribal rights, traditions and customs, and essentially, the American Indian's way of life.

So, unsurprisingly, the president's view that sovereignty was something "given" to tribes — and conversely, some fear, is something that could be taken away — carried much weight in Indian Country.

A very similar fear was expressed earlier this year by an observer on the other side of the world who had just listened to President Bush's May 24 speech on the "transfer of sovereignty" to the Iraqi people.

"The message in the speech was not that Iraqis will be given sovereignty but that the US will grant them this sovereignty as a gift," Baghdad political analyst Abd-al-Razzaq al-Na'as told Al-Jazeera.

Sovereignty that is granted as a gift is a conditional sovereignty. "Conditional sovereignty" is, of course, an oxymoron. And that oxymoron is upsetting to sovereign people on two continents.

(In answer to the specific question about sovereignty issues, one place to start would be the links under "governance" on the National Congress of American Indians' issues page.)

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  • dmm

    Thanks for point out that context, Fred. Most of the other coverage of this that I’ve seen focused on the President’s recursive definition of what sovereignity means, which suggested that he doesn’t even know the first thing about the issue. (That and the fact that the audience actually laughed out loud at the appalling badness of his answer.)

  • kodi

    Yeah, I was really squicked when I heard “you’ve been given sovereignty,” but that faded away as soon as I recognized his answer for what it was – a high school kid trying to B.S. his way through a short answer question that wasn’t in the Cliffs Notes. I agree that it’s important to call attention to the fact that the President said something that just doesn’t make sense, though, and I’m glad that’s being picked up on, at least a little.
    I would be very interested to know where Bush (who reportedly believes that he was called by God to lead the United States) believes sovereignty originates. “You’ve been given sovereignty” would actually make sense if he believed that national authority originated in God, wouldn’t it? On the other hand, my impression is that he’s never viewed Iraq as a sovereign entity.

  • Itea

    Going off on a tangent, it scares me to think of Washington (where I live) as a swing state. If Kerry can’t carry Washington, where Gore won handily, I think his chances of winning the presidency (by electoral college) is very small.
    How has Bush done anything to improve his standing since 2000? Unemployment rates here have been among the worst in the country for a few years running. I will be somewhat surprised and extremely disheartened if the Democrats don’t win Washington in November.
    – Itea

  • Miss Authoritiva

    I can relate. I understand. It’s how I feel when I hear about women “being given the vote.”

  • william

    In fairness, I think Bush was talking theoretically about sovereignty at that point, and using “you” to mean “one” — not the specific statement “America has given the Native Americans sovereignty”, but the general statement “when you’re sovereign, you’ve been given soverignty.” I don’t think it speaks to his attitude to Native Americans as such, just to his overall inability to say anything interesting.

  • none

    the fact that it was such an off the cuff comment points out one very important point.
    this is how bush thinks of all sovereignty, America’s, Amerindian’s and Iraq’s.
    combined with the the whole ‘god wants me to be president’, it implies a kind of ‘divine right of the presidency’ in bush’s mind.

  • Rick
  • none

    … or posterity. :P

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