The Colonization of Self-Determination

Guest Commentary

Nichlas Emmons

Nichlas Emmons

Since the 1970s, Native Nations have made progress towards obtaining meaningful cultural protection and revitalization, economic development, and environmental stewardship. Advances have been made in governance, education, healthcare, and freedom of religion, yet many longstanding issues have remained or worsened while new ones have emerged. There have been many great achievements under self-determination policies, but the current framework is not adequate because they specifically do not address core problems. I argue that policies under self-determination have been, and presently are, additional forms of colonization.

Oftentimes, we use ideas of colonization to discuss current conditions of Native Nations. It may be helpful, though, to define “colonize” and “colony” for the purposes of instruction. Merriam-Webster provides interesting definitions. Colonize, a verb, is explained as “to infiltrate with usually subversive militants for propaganda and strategy reasons.” To colonize also means “to establish a colony”, which is defined as “a group of individuals or things with common characteristics or interests situated in close association” and “a group of persons institutionalized away from others.”

When considering these explanations, it becomes easier to understand that colonization still is occurring under self-determination.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is a major, public institution that is charged with assisting Native communities with a variety of issues. Chief among these issues are economic development and natural resource management, which are intricately linked as natural resources directly dictate the development of economies. Additionally, anecdotal and scientific evidence suggests that the BIA is not very efficient or effective in responding to the needs of Native peoples across the United States. Despite being a leading source of employment on reservations, there are many areas that need drastic modification should the Bureau truly work for Native communities. As is, the BIA is a colonizing institution whose infrastructure is not well suited to definite concerns of Native Nations. For the record, it is worth acknowledging that the chronic lack of funding, and capacity, are interrelated agents of organizational breakdown.

Delving more deeply into this framework, a major component of the contemporary relationship between the United States and Native communities is the trust system. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior website, approximately 56 million acres of land are owned and held by the federal government for the benefit of Native American communities and individuals. While there are certain tax incentives of this program, it traditionally has removed a great deal of authority from Native communities in ways that have been shown to hinder economic development and tribal self-governance and decision-making. In recent years, there has been some interest by the federal government to revise the trust system and this has included the involvement of Native peoples in the improvement process. Furthermore, the goals of the new Cobell Buy-Back Program also seek to expand tribal sovereignty through the consolidation of fractionated land. These are steps in the right direction that have the potential to strengthen many essential foundations that will strengthen our communities.

Despite these positive changes, we must not lose sight of the inherent sovereignty we possess. While we have to operate under a colonial system at large, we should redevelop a middle ground that will strengthen governmental and economic relationships while preserving our cultural and environmental heritages. Developing a better and clearer understanding of land consolidation and Native involvement in land management decisions may benefit the larger American society because Indigenous worldviews keep humans part of the environment. This long has been acknowledged through our traditional livelihoods and cultural practices within our ecosystems. Contemporary science consistently reaffirms Indigenous worldviews and knowledge systems in ways that beg for Native participation in planning and mitigation strategies.

In this way, we may become influential actors in the development and implementation of decolonizing policies that strengthen the cultural, economic, and social foundations of our communities.

Nichlas Emmons is faculty in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University. Nichlas researches Native American natural resource management and Native land acquisition. 

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