This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was the same as the question above: “Are Indian Tribes Sovereign Nations?” You can hear the whole episode online here.
We all tell the stories of our lives as if they are immediately understandable. We expect people to hear our history and grasp, pretty quickly, how we ended up where we are and why we do what we do. Our narratives are our explanation for who we claim to be.
We do the same thing when we tell the story of our nation. In America’s case, we can describe the progress of an exceptional country or the bullying of an imperialist one; we can paint a picture of a battlefield wracked by inequality and racism, or a home of great opportunity. But however we tell the story, we expect, for the most part, that the connection between the pieces will be self-evident. History feels like reason, justification, and explanation, all at the same time. It is told as if it is simple, obvious, and intuitive.
But the fact of the matter is that there is no easy connection between the past, the present, and the future. There is no inevitable outcome for any one event, and the facts are buried in meaning, emphasis, and experience. History—what actually happened—is hidden by historiography, the story that we create to connect and explain events, and this historiography is the epicenter of our deepest most intractable disagreements. It is also the core of our greatest misunderstandings.
I say all this because on the latest episode of Why? Radio, we are considering a question that threatens almost all of our national narratives. By asking whether American Indian tribes are sovereign nations, we are forced to encounter the present that the past has brought us to, and the justifications we use to endorse or reject it. Whatever position we take on the issue, the question itself forces us to acknowledge that there are insider and outsider perspectives, victim and perpetrator points of view, and deep convictions held by the inheritors of pain and the recipients of advantage.
Suppose, then, that we say that tribes are indeed sovereign nations. What are the consequences for our national boundaries, our federal laws, and our systems of free trade? These concerns don’t fit into our political way of thinking. It is conservative in that it preserves a glorified past, a way of being that no longer seems compatible with the modern world. But it is revolutionary too, in that it requires a radical break with the present, a massive structural change. Americans don’t know how to deal with anything that is both conservative and revolutionary at the same time. We expect them to be opposite.
But suppose we say instead that Indian tribes are not sovereign, how then can we claim that we have acknowledged and respected those who were trampled as the country expanded? We want justice, retribution, healing—the liberal progressive outcome—but we also want stability, consistency, and to preserve what we have. This is a different kind of conservatism, the day-to-day kind that we rely on to keep our property and preserve our laws as we understand them.
Each answer to the question is overwhelming, so we look towards other experiences. We ask, fairly, I think, how the genocide and enslavement of Indians relates to the genocide and enslavement of Jews and Africans. But if that’s all we do, in fact even if that is mostly what we do, we obscure the American Indians’ unique experience. To talk about Native Americans only in terms of others, is to suggest that we don’t have to find the right words, the right, stories, the right tone to talk about American Indians themselves, as people who are worthy of our full attention.
These are all tough questions and they describe very abstract ideas, but they are intensified by this being North Dakota, the land where much of it happened. They are made even more problematic by this program being produced by UND, a university that has never made its Indian students feel welcome and that fought tooth and nail to preserve the moniker “Fighting Sioux,” the team nickname and logo that reduced all Indians to cartoon characters for fun and profit. It took the U.S Supreme Court and the National Guard to desegregate Arkansas. It took the courts and the NCAA to force my university to entertain the American Indian point of view.
So, when we pose the question asking whether tribes are sovereign nations, we realize that history is not simple, that there is no single point of view, that our political understanding resists the question itself, and that whatever answer we come up with is invasive to all our ways life. And this means, frankly, that I don’t know where to start. But what I do know is that it is precisely this kind of question that philosophy excels at, because philosophy lets us ask about it all, without embarrassment and without fear. Acknowledging this early on allows me to be optimistic because it suggests that we are already on the right track.