Self-determination & responsibility, constructive defeat, and repatriation

[Three short essays]

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Self-Determination & Responsibility

Native Americans have a long history of fighting to retain as much self-determination and sovereignty as they possibly can. It has not been easy and they have had to deal with more than their share of obstacles and setbacks along the way. However, the last half of the 20th Century saw large advances in their favor. The Native American community has recovered much of what has been taken from, or denied them. They are no longer looked upon as second class citizens. They have fought for and acquired their legal rights. They have demanded and received a voice in matters that concern them, such as the management of reservation resources, watering and fishing rights, health care, education, etc. Tribal governing has become a reality, not just a puppet show with the U.S. Government pulling all the strings. There are still some areas to tackle in the complex nature of self-governing or sovereignty when still relying on the U.S. Government for financial assistance in many areas. The adage, “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” is still valid to some degree. But like a child fighting for their independence when coming of age, the Native American community has successfully utilized the knowledge acquired under the U.S. Government’s tutelage/support to strengthen their position and step out from under the Government’s wings. After all, the American eagle belonged to them first.

Self-determination and sovereignty in the 21st Century will continue to see strides made by the Native American community. However, they will never truly possess complete sovereignty until they master the various reservation bound problems, such as dropout rates, alcoholism, drugs, teen pregnancy, suicide, etc. This needs to occur in order to elevate the overall education levels, do away with rampant reservation unemployment, and create a solid reservation economy so they are not so dependent upon the U.S. Government handouts. If 30-50% of individual reservations remain below poverty lines and its citizen’s grow-up with a handout mentality the overall community will never completely break free of Uncle Sam peering over their shoulder and having a strong voice in certain areas of their life. It is similar to a child who leaves the nest, but still relies on their parents to pay for their education, health care, and other major costs still being obligated to their parents. They can never be truly independent until they can handle all the costs and responsibilities for themselves.

Sovereignty is not simply having the right to self-govern; it is handling all the responsibilities of your people, costs and all. I believe the Native American community can eventually reach this goal, but it is going to require a lot of hard work and life-changing decisions on the reservations… and not just from their capable leaders.

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Constructive Defeat

The concept of “constructive defeat” with regard to Native Americans is as follows: the chiefs and other elders of a tribe (or tribes) would press an issue, even though they knew they would eventually lose, in order to avoid a strict unconditional defeat. By pressing an issue long enough – whether through warfare, negotiation, or legal means – and becoming a thorn in the proverbial side of U.S. governmental expansion, the government representatives would be more willing to allow the tribe(s) to retain a say in the final outcome. The tribes who utilized this tactic to the best advantage ended up with larger reservations, greater provisions, and better treaty rights: including hunting and fishing rights off the reservation.

The treaty rights given under the Stevens treaties (and others) in the 19th Century are an example of “constructive defeat.” Not only did they allow certain tribes to hunt and fish off their reservations immediately following the treaty negotiations, those same rights eventually became the legal leg to stand on when Native Americans in the 20th Century found themselves at odds with the government and progress once more.

In places like Celilo Falls and other locations along the Columbia River various conflicts between Native Americans, non-Natives, private interests, and the Government erupted over water rights, fishing, and other disputes. Fishing canneries, dams, and other obstacles were taking their toll on traditional Indian catch sites. Skirmishes, fraudulent claims, and finger-pointing increased with each side polarizing against the others. Legal battles became common place, and some of the more complex cases would last beyond a decade. But a trend eventually began to be noticed: many of the treaty rights were being upheld. And even when treaty areas had to be sacrificed in the name of progress, it was becoming apparent that proper compensation had to be given to the Native Americans affected. Furthermore, the trend continued until not only compensation was given but Native Americans were getting power to have a voice in subsequent actions regarding water rights, fishing, unallotted reservation land, and various other concerns that they had little say about in previous years.

The “constructive defeats” 100-150 years earlier were coming back to reap dividends far beyond what the early elders could have imagined. They never dreamed of massive dams, hydro-electric power, fish hatcheries, and being an integral part in the decision making process during their time of conflict with encroaching settlers, military battles with the ever-growing cavalry, and imposing policies of an expansion driven Government. But they did have a strong urge for self-determination that allowed them to fight and retain as much of their way of life as they could. Their descendants should be proud.

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Repatriation

The Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. It came on the heels of a 1989 Congressional law requiring the Smithsonian Institute to return most of its skeletal remains and grave goods to Native American communities. Although the law garnered strong public opinion in favor of the Native American community, it sparked controversy that has continued in some areas till present-day. By passing NAGPRA two prior laws, the 1906 Antiquities Act and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 were overturned. The earlier laws declared that Native American bones and other objects or remains discovered on federal land were the property of the United States. Naturally, as the Indian movement began to mature, and Native Americans found themselves with more power, a legal leg to stand on, and public opinion in their favor, they took on more and more causes related to self-determination and sovereignty. This was one of those causes.

The decision in favor of repatriation of Native American remains and grave goods has led to expanding battles to reclaim religious artifacts and even the use of sacred sites. There are still opposing forces who believe this trend is going too far. The remains of other nationalities, including Whites, are still exhibited and there is no equal effort to pacify every nationality in this same manner. Likewise, the remains of outlaws, carnival freak show attractions, war dead, and various other remains are studied and put on display. Thus, the opposing factions want to know why favoritism is now in play for the Native Americans. And other opposing groups, those in the hard hit fields of archaeology, anthropology, and those in charge of the educational and tourist attractions (museums, etc), though trying to work in collaboration with the Native Americans, still feel that advancing knowledge should be given a higher priority than it is presently. Thus, the controversy will most likely continue.

An interesting parallel regarding the NAGPRA controversy is how it can be shown to emulate the Native American experience over the past two centuries. When the governments of England, France, and Spain began their push to expand their domains in America they had little regard for the Indian obstacle. Dishonest trade, land grabs, force of arms, and various other strategies became the norm among themselves and against Indians. When the American government was established westward expansion took on a whole new meaning in terms of speed. Tribes were pushed off their lands, their way of life was disrupted in various ways, and burial sites and items meant little or nothing to a land hungry nation. Most of the tribes were scattered to the winds, placed on reservations, and some became extinct. That fact parallels their skeletal remains, confiscated items, and sacred ways: sent faraway, locked in exhibits, studied, and/or destroyed. The fate of both tribes and their remains and relics were in the hands of the U.S. government. Fortunately, it did not remain that way indefinitely.

When the Indian movement began to take shape after decades of striving to retain self-determination and sovereignty, the Native American communities began to achieve greater control on their behalf. After being pawns in the expansion game of the Government, blown about on the winds of governmental whims, the winds of change now favored them. The Native American community came together in a Pan-Indian effort. And as their power and rights grew they saw the opportunity to push for repatriation of remains and relics. So now the remains and relics are coming back to where they belong – like the Native American community has likewise been returning to its more traditional way of life, beliefs, etc.