The Longue Durée of Native American Sovereignty: Review of Frank and Goldberg, “Defying the Odds: The Tule River Tribe’s Struggle for Sovereignty in Three Centuries” (Yale University Press, 2010)

Tule River CoverWhen considering Native and non-Native relations in the United States, it is first necessary to remember that the history rests on the foundational principal of sovereignty, or the ability of Native America to exercise autonomy within a defined geopolitical border. To varying degrees and throughout time, Federal and State governments have contested the sovereignty of Native America, and this is a topic anthropologist Gelya Frank and legal scholar Carole Goldberg cover in Defying the Odds: The Tule River Tribe’s Struggle for Sovereignty in Three Centuries (Yale University Press, 2010). Near the beginning of chapter 3, Frank and Goldberg give a concise paragraph description of the Tule River Tribe in the mid-nineteenth century:

After a brief but devastating war started by settlers in 1856, the Tribe was settled on the first Tule River Reservation located on the site of the traditional Koyeti tribe village. The federal government failed to secure this land and twenty years later forcibly removed the Tule River Tribe to its present reservation in the mountains. In 1886, a tribal council ordered the execution of an Indian on the reservation to reassert order and authority after the death of the Tribe’s recognized leader. The United States government, which indicted the executioners for murder, could have chosen to respect this act of community protection and social control. Judge Erskine M. Ross had an available legal theory that could have allowed him to dismiss the charges and let the four Tule River defendants go free. Under a theory of the Tribe’s “concurrent jurisdiction,” Judge Ross could have found that the execution was not a criminal act, even though Congress had passed the Major Crimes Act. (Frank & Goldberg, 2010: 67)

Judge Ross could have, but he did not. Before embarking on the specifics of this three hundred year struggle that the Tule River Tribe — a First Nation of America and the Western Hemisphere — has had with European and Euro-American nation-states, it is worthwhile to lay out two elements of political philosophy. The first is what is traditionally meant by sovereignty, and the second is the specifics to the 2007 United Nations General Assembly’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Tule River Tribe's ancestors and map illustration. (Frank & Goldberg, 2010: 23)

The Tule River Tribe’s ancestors and map illustration. (Frank & Goldberg, 2010: 23)

In political philosophy, a broader definition of sovereignty ensures that the sovereign nation is not only defined, but that it is recognized by other sovereign nations. Within each individual nation, sovereign people are able to define and govern themselves, speak a desired language, rejuvenate the culture with its own forms of religion or spirituality, develop its own economic resources, and defend themselves from harmful outsiders and nonmembers. In the case of the Tule River Tribe, they have always had this internal sovereignty, but the Euro-American nation and state has not always recognized it. This is why the focus of Defying the Odds resides on uncovering the internal sovereignty of the Tule River Tribe, or agency, and focusing on how the tribe has, in the words of the authors, “relied on its inherent cultural sovereignty when its externally recognized political sovereignty has been weakened or compromised by the dominant federal and state governments.” (Frank & Goldberg, 2010: 5-6)

For those who are not a-historical, it is easy to understand that unrecognized or challenged sovereignty throughout history has resulted in war, genocide, ethnocide, and the dislocation of indigenous — and non-indigenous — groups throughout the world. This is why the United Nations in 2007 issued a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that made it illegal for indigenes to be subject to forced “action aimed at or affecting their integrity as distinct peoples, their cultural values and identities, including the dispossession of land, forced relocation, assimilation or integration, [and] the imposition of foreign lifestyles and propaganda.” This declaration does more to recognize the collective rather than individual human rights, but it does this so that the defined and defended collective can internally navigate the individual rights of the domestic populace. (Frank & Goldberg, 2010: 6-7)

Frank and Goldberg define sovereignty in a national and international context. In the history of the United States, the Federal and state governments have persistently asked Native America to not only articulate its sovereignty through a legal framework (through treaties and legalese), but also with a romanticized ideal of expected aesthetics. This simply means that non-Natives often want Natives to “look” Native, and if they do not achieve the expected aesthetic, they are somehow no longer authentically Native. Speaking to this, the Lakota scholar Philip S. Deloria noted how the United States holds Native America’s inherent sovereignty to a much different standard than non-Native America. Deloria says the United States does not audit “the demographic status of all the little countries in Europe that are frequently compared in size and population with Indian tribes,” and that “No one asks whether Monaco and Liechtenstein are sufficiently culturally distinct from neighboring countries to justify their continued existence.” The ethical and philosophical point of this remark is impossible to ignore. If representatives of the Monaco or Liechtenstein governments did not show up “looking” like they were from Monaco or Liechtenstein, the United States government would not use this to undermine the sovereignty of Monaco or Liechtenstein. This has not been the historical case throughout Native America and, particular to this study, the Tule River Tribe. (Frank & Goldberg, 2010: 13)

The history of the Tule River Tribe is divided into two segments, particularly what happened before and after the 1888 court case, United States v. Whaley. In the case, United States Judge E.M. Ross favored the U.S. Major Crimes Act of 1885 rather than established tribal sovereignty. In the events that lead up to the 1888 case, Tule River tribal members Salt Lake Pete, Bill Whaley, Pancho Francisco, and Juan Chino ordered the internal execution or capitol punishment of their shaman who was accused of killing the tribe’s Yaudanchi tiya, or chief, and 12 to 20 other tribal members. During the court hearing, though, U.S. Judge Ross favored the Major Crimes Act, a Federal law that prohibited one Native from killing another on a reservation — again, a Federal Act that attacked tribal sovereignty by undermining the sovereign tribe’s ability to take care of its own domestic issues. In essence, the Major Crimes Act criminalized tribal authority and sovereignty. Frank and Goldberg chart how the Tule River Tribe has remained culturally distinct from 1885 to the present, no easy task considering later policies aimed at forced assimilation and relocation.

The Tule River Tribe location in California.

The Tule River Tribe location in California.

This work of scholarship is important to Historians, Public Historians, World Historians and Legal Scholars for several reasons. The first is why it is necessary for scholars to understand the historical origins of political philosophy, specifically the notion or notions of sovereignty, and how the definition changed in a variety of ways within distinct cultures. In the Western world, absolutist monarchs developed some of the first notions of sovereignty. In subsequent centuries secular and Enlightenment colonists altered the definition but retained the word. By the late-nineteenth century, though, Euro-Americans, and particularly Anglo-Americans, developed increasingly strong notions of Social Darwinian or racist thoughts, and they obsessed over domestic and foreign nation-making. This nation-making favored a strong, sovereign arm of the Federal government that rallied around an imagined and common “race.”

This brings up a secondary interest in Frank and Goldberg that speaks to nineteenth century international law, specifically extraterritoriality, which exempted individuals from the jurisdiction of local law. Much in the same way that the Great Powers of the West — Great Britain, France, Germany, the United States — planted their own overlapping versions of jurisprudence in areas they colonized — throughout the Ottoman Empire in North Africa and the Levant, and in places such as Hong Kong, China — so too was the United States engaged in planting the strong arm of Federal jurisprudence in Native America. World Historians, Historians and Legal Scholars (I am capitalizing these professions for some reason) would benefit in understanding these 19th-century processes. In the case of the Tule River Tribe, Public Historians can increasingly consider how a cultural landscape, the Tule River, is linked to an ethnicity much in the same way that a Euro-American with, say, the surname Bergstrom, was at one point in time connected with a mountain stream (“Bergstrom” in many northern European languages is directly translated as Mountain Stream).

Where these considerations will lead is unknown, but the world’s population in the 21st century still carries cultural baggage that originated in and before the 19th century. As well, when a-historical politicians in the 21st century bemoan the “problems” on reservations, the onus is on the historians, anthropologists and legal scholars to point out how the Euro-American colonization of America waged genocide and ethnocide on Native America and disrupted indigenous sovereignty, the political and humanist philosophy that allows a people and culture the spirit and self-determination to breath and live.


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