Friday, 22 June 2012

US Government as the Grinch: Commentary on US Supreme Court ruling on tribal trust land

As the British might describe it, the state of affairs to do with self-determination, autonomy and inherent sovereignty and indigenous lands in the United States is a bloody mess. The United States government has spent the past two hundred plus years trying to sort out what relationship it wants with the indigenous groups that were there first, before the US, before the first European colonizers made their way over the ocean.

On the one hand, the US has an invented fiction now accepted as fact in the form of the Thanksgiving holiday “tradition” that venerates the help of indigenous groups that saved the “Pilgrims” from starvation at Plymouth Colony. The tradition goes that without the help of the benevolent and altruistic neighboring indigenous groups, the Pilgrims would not have known how to plant crops and harvest them in the New World and would have died rather miserable deaths of starvation and disease in what was meant to be the land of plenty. After being saved by the wisdom of the Indians, a big harvest feast was thrown where everyone got together in a happy celebration, perhaps not unlike the Christmas feast after the Grinch found out his heart was not in fact three sizes too small and that he could enjoy a feast with the Whos.

As a child growing up, playing outside with neighbourhood kids and making up games (yes I was fortunate enough to grow up in a time when this was possible and the word play-date had never been uttered) around October we started to play “Pilgrims.” The problem was, no one in fact wanted to play the Pilgrim, we all wanted the role of the Indians. The Indians were cool, skilled, heros. The Pilgrims were sort of grim and mostly ungrateful bumblers.

The United States like its Indians in myths and traditions, in dusty relics of the past, in sports mascots and nicknames. Presented like that, Indians are just like envisioned in my childhood games: cool, skilled, heros.

Thus, on the other hand, The United States government has never really gotten over the fact that the indigenous groups within its boundaries or on the land it wanted to put in the boundaries were there. It tried to make them go away. It tried massacres. Then again, from time to time, the United States thought it might be helpful to be friends. Especially when there was a war to be fought against the British. So the United States would strike up treaties of friendship, treaties that made provisions for land and so forth. But then it would be back to business as usual and the United States government would be again trying to find ways to make the Indians go away. If massacres did not work, perhaps shipping them off to lands no one else would want would work. That was fine for awhile, until it turned out that the United States really wanted that land after all. Then assimilation was tried. Perhaps simply getting the indigenous groups to fade into the European white society would work. Nope, that did not work either. Unrecognizing all the tribes might force the issue... reorganizing them on a blueprint that mimicked the assimilative government styles of white society and that disregarded the traditional ways in which peoples had lived and organized themselves, quite successfully in fact.

Now and again the United States would have a pang of conscious. Self-determination era. Restoring lands that were taken—albeit held in trust by the United States for the benefit of the tribe. Occasionally deciding to pay monetary damages for treaties breached and land stolen.

The thing is, the US just cannot make up its mind what its relationship should be with indigenous groups. Now it seems to be backfooting, this latest United States Supreme Court decision reveals the utter farce of the way in which the US deals with trust lands, and anything else they have been trusted with in regard to indigenous groups. This is a ridiculous decision and deserves to be treated with contempt and utterly condemned. There is no judicial soundness in the decision. If this were the answer to a law exam question, it would have been failed as being pure fiction based on no legal authority. But this is not an errant student. It is the United States Supreme Court and once again, in its supreme indecision and flip-flopping of whether to be friend or foe to indigenous groups, it has added a new layer to the bloody mess it makes of state-indigenous relationships.

Unlike the Grinch, who eventually overcame the problem of a heart three sizes too small, the United States Supreme Court and the government is unable to do this, and instead slither about in the dark, forcing trees and presents and such back up the chimney--taking back what was never really theirs to seize in the first place.

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