Indian Sovereignty in America
by David A. Yeagley
Originally published at FrontPageMagazine.com | January 14, 2002
Tribal “Sovereignty” is a hot subject in Indian country these days. Many white Americans are offended by the concept. They think Indians mean to break away from the United States.
But they should set aside their fears.
There is nothing more American than a confederation of sovereign, independent states. There is also nothing more Indian than that.
Many readers have probably heard that the American Constitution was inspired by the Iroquois Confederacy. And many have probably heard this claim debunked by "conservative" scholars such as classicist Mary Lefkowitz of Wellesley College.
The Founding Fathers would not have debunked it though. The Iroquois Confederacy was their neighbor – a regional power with which they had to contend economically, militarily and diplomatically.
Yes, they read the Greco-Roman classics. They drew lessons from Rome, Athens and the confederation of Swiss cantons.
But there is no question that the Founding Fathers took note of Iroquois statecraft and admired it. There is no question that an Iroquois spirit animated early American government.
David Weintraub documented this fact in his award-winning research in Court Review (Winter 1992).
Five Indian nations (in today’s New York state area) – the Onondaga, Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, and Oneida – had established a League of Peace among themselves, long before Europeans arrived. They ran a "Congress-like council," a government with checks and balances, "protected freedom of speech, and gave women power to choose office holders," says Weintraub.
In a retort to Mary Lefkowitz in the April 10, 1997 Wall Street Journal, Professor Bruce E. Johansen of the University of Nebraska at Omaha noted that, "I have researched this idea for more than two decades with my co-author Donald A. Grinde, Jr. of the University of Vermont, and published four books on the subject... We do not advocate that anyone ignore the Enlightenment, the Greeks, or the rest of our European heritage. We are adding an Iroquois role to the picture. … We can have our Greeks, and our Iroquois, too."
Johansen further wrote:
"A complete description of the evidence for an Iroquois role is beyond the scope of a letter to the editor, but is available in our book Exemplar of Liberty (University of California, 1991). Lefkowitz may wish to examine a speech by the Iroquois sachem Cannasatego, in 1744, in which he advises the colonists to form a union like that of the Iroquois. She also should note Franklin's publication of Cannasatego's admonition on his own press, his advocacy of an Iroquois-style government in 1751, and his application of this idea in his Albany Plan of 1754. Lefkowitz might be enlightened by the fact that Iroquois leaders were invited to witness debates over the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia during 1776, when they gave John Hancock an Onondaga name, as well as the use of an Indian woman (by no less than Paul Revere) as a national symbol for the patriots at the time that they dressed as Mohawks to dump tea in Boston Harbor."
The First Session of the 100th Congress (Sept. 16, 1987) actually included a resolution "to acknowledge the contribution of the Iroquois Confederation of Nations to the development of the United States Constitution."
Indians should realize that America is our own son, politically speaking. He may have turned out to be an ungrateful son, who roughly displaced us. But we are still exceedingly proud of his accomplishments.
Indian tribes should not seek independence from the United States. We should seek to redefine our "reservations" as latent states within the union.
When I was an alumni delegate at Emory University in 1995, I urged Indian tribes to work for sovereignty.
"If you want to be a people, you have to work for economic independence," I wrote in the April 13, 1995 Emory Report. "Otherwise your identity is based on someone else’s charity."
We must reject federally imposed tribal organization, and superimposed political bureaucracy, like the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The BIA is a black hole in which billions of dollars have disappeared under Clinton-appointed administrators. In 1999, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt couldn’t produce Indian trust-fund records. Babbitt said the government had no idea how much money was missing or where it might be. The trial rages now, two years later.
Sovereignty is simply financial solvency. It is a way for Indians to regain self-reliance, to keep our culture, while competing in the American marketplace.
It is a way for Indians to control our own money and manage our own affairs. What could be more American – or more Indian – than that?