Indigenous Nations Prefer Citizenship to Secession, Though Some Have Tried

Head and shoulders portrait of Chief Joseph (IN-MUT-TOO-YAH-LAT-LAT: Thunder coming from the water up over the land). Nez Perce photograph, 1900.

Indigenous Nations Prefer Citizenship to Secession, Though Some Have Tried

Stay or go? When it comes to Indian tribes and the United States, the answer has almost always been the former. And for that, there are many reasons.

When the U.S. began to make treaties with Indians in the 1770s, the agreements generally contained a clause affirming that the Indian nations recognized this country’s dominion. These understandings did not mean that the Indian nations accepted administrative control over Indian lands and affairs. Rather, it was acknowledged that Indian nations would no longer make treaties with other European nations—such as France and Spain—and, later, Canada.

In return, the Indian nations would have the military protection of the United States—which would assume trust responsibilities to manage government-to-government and international affairs in ways to protect Indian interests and well being. The Indian nations were pretty much forced to accept U.S. dominion, especially after the War of 1812, since European nations such as Great Britain agreed not to enter into any more treaties with Indian nations within territories recognized as the U.S. sphere of influence.

The U.S. Supreme Court case Worcester v. Georgia (1831), which acknowledged that Indians lived in “domestic dependent nation” status, established that they were not U.S. citizens but “wards” of the government. This notion implied that Washington had trust responsibility to look after the interests and future welfare of Indian peoples and issues. Chief Justice John Marshall, writing in Worcester, affirmed that Indian nations continued to manage their own internal political affairs and retained management over land until ceded to the federal government.

Worcester is used by Indian tribes to argue for the right to retain and maintain their own internal forms of government and powers of decision-making. However, recognition of U.S. dominion does not enable Indian nations to make the decision to leave the United States, or to manage government activities outside of U.S. treaty alliances.

In brief, today’s Indian tribes can’t simply decide to exit the U.S. They are bound to U.S. alliance at the will of the federal government. And thus, they have no possible means of secession.

But that hasn’t stopped a few tribes from trying, at least long ago. Some Apaches in the 1880s left this country and sought the protection of the Mexican government. A band of the Kickapoo Nation once emigrated to Múzquiz, in the Mexican state of Coahuila. In 1877, Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce people sought escape into Canada, only to be stopped 40 miles from the border.

In addition, some members of the Sioux Nation in the 1860s and 1870s moved to Canada after the Plains Wars. Many members of the Delaware Nation Turtle Clan found refuge by moving to Ontario in the 1790s. (Conversely, many Yaqui Indian communities and individuals sought refuge in the United States after enduring several centuries of political and cultural persecution in Mexico.)

It should be noted that today, the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples does not provide for indigenous nations to withdraw from the nation-states that surround them. Article 46, section 1, states, “Nothing in this declaration may be interpreted as implying for any state, people, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act contrary to the charter of the United Nations or construed as authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent states.”

So, for most indigenous nations, immigration or exit secession is not a favored strategy. By all indications, contemporary indigenous nations prefer to enjoy the benefits of citizenship and trust responsibility, live on their territories, and focus on purely internal political, territorial and cultural recognition. And when it comes to seeking redress for past or present wrongs, indigenous persons work with national governments instead of bolting from them.

That may not be their ideal solution. But that is the hand that history has dealt them.