This is an excerpt from A Proposed New Constitution, a call for 15 articles to be adopted in a new constitutional convention. Currently, dozens of states have called for a new constitutional convention for a variety of causes, as well as proposals from scholars such as Larry Sabato, Andrew Burstein, Nancy Isenberg, and myself.
1.The United States recognizes the great wrongs done by genocide against American Indians, apologizes fully, and shall always strive to make amends. All federally recognized American Indian tribes are forever sovereign, defined by their treaty or other legal relationship to the United States, with full rights to decide their own government and laws, and to enforce those laws on all residents and visitors within their territory.
Scholars know that what happened to American Indians was genocide. The evidence is overwhelming and hard to deny. The number of deniers teaching in universities is as low as it has ever been. Today many scholars are themselves Natives, and non-Native scholars often think of themselves as allies aiding Native causes.
But you would likely not hear the same answer by asking much of the general public, or looking at what is taught in public schools. I've taught over 2,000 college students in the past ten years. Public school students are mostly given the Thanksgiving story about Natives, and not much else. Not one in a hundred ever hears the word genocide. Many students are taught that Columbus was actually a friend to Natives. It is hard to be more appalling and dishonest.
In Germany, the nation admits the wrongs in their history. They teach extensively about the Holocaust in their public schools. Having an American admission of genocide, an apology, and a vow to work to always change these wrongs, needs to be written into the new US Constitution itself. Then no one can ever deny it again. Our schools will have to teach it, much like having MLK Day forces them to teach about civil rights. Teaching the truth makes a repeat of past wrongs much harder, and just as important, difficult to deny present wrongs.
Honesty and self-rule are the best form of reparations. Native tribal nations should be sovereign by right. By international law, sovereignty cannot be abrogated or taken away, and is permanent. Tribal nations are defined by their treaty or other legal relationship to the federal government. But the Supreme Court defined that relationship as domestic and dependent. One result is that non-tribal members often cannot be prosecuted under tribal law, leading to a number of abuses. Squatters occupy reservation lands. Even legal residents who are non-Native cannot be punished in tribal courts. Worst of all is the high number of crimes committed by outsiders, especially rapes that were until recently not punished because of lack of jurisdiction. Recognizing tribal sovereignty over all who come onto reservation lands is long overdue.
Most Americans do not know about how Native sovereignty was taken away with the start of reservations, and only partly returned with the New Deal for Indians and by the efforts of Native activists. Most do not know how Termination tried to end all reservations in the 1950s, that dozens of tribes were targeted, and that some still suffer from that awful time. There are also dozens of tribes awaiting recognition that deserve to be federally acknowledged, sometimes decades overdue. Often they are hampered by a lack of written records because scientific racists like Walter Plecker in Virginia systematically destroyed or altered every document he could. There are also dozens of dubious outfits posing as tribes clogging up the recognition process, often taking advantage of an unwary public financially.
Recognizing tribal sovereignty in a new constitution can change all of that. A repeat of Termination becomes impossible, and those still denied recognition from those days retrieve it. The recognition process would be decided by tribal nations, not Washington, with the greatest weight given to the opinion of those tribes most related to those applying. Some reservations might choose to split, since they are today made up of several tribes forced together by federal agents. Other tribes split by treaties into multiple reservations might choose to unite.
2.All American Indian tribes have permanent and absolute rights to their current reservation lands, forever. All federal lands, or lands reacquired by American Indian tribes, that are within their historically recognized boundaries or protected by treaty, will be part of their reservations. All sacred sites of federally recognized American Indian tribes shall be returned immediately, or protected by federal partnership if requested by tribes.
Having a tribe's right to their homeland needs to be written into the constitution itself, to make it inviolable, permanent, and not just protect it, but also make it easier to get homelands returned or purchased. Some tribes are making efforts to buy back their homelands. But often these efforts are blocked by state governments. Where the federal government at times works with and protects on behalf of tribes, state governments are traditionally those most hostile to American Indian nations.
State efforts to limit a tribe's rights to land or anything else should be entirely and permanently blocked, since the constitution makes it clear Indian relations are purely a federal matter. All the Five Tribes remember that during the Trail of Tears states led the effort to drive them off their homelands. In recent times, both California and New York had bouts of anti-Indian sentiment led by their governors.
Federal lands within a tribe's recognized traditional homeland should be returned. The best known example is the Black Hills, Paha Sapa to the Lakota. Lakota have been pushing for their return for over a century, repeatedly turning down monetary offers. For sacred sites especially, there should be a strong effort to return them to the tribes' jurisdiction, and if the tribe does not have the means to protect them, then do so by partnership with the federal government.
There are also many reservations that are endlessly fractionated, divided up again and again, starting since the Dawes Allotment Act. This makes jurisdiction, law enforcement, and economic development far more difficult. Returning control of all lands within traditional recognized territories can end these problems.
3. Native Hawaiians are recognized as a sovereign tribe by the US government and shall have a reservation with a sovereign government with relations with the US government and rights equal to an American Indian tribe, and shall see their sacred sites returned. Nothing in this article shall be construed as denying or abridging Native Hawaiians' right to pursue the return to being an independent nation as they were before the illegal overthrow and seizure of their nation.
Pacific Islanders, Hawaiians, Chamorros, and Samoans, are America’s other indigenous peoples, America’s other original tribes. Not enough people know the history of the Hawaiian kingdom's illegal overthrow or US takeover of these islands.
The Hawaiian story is similar to American Indians. Anglo-Americans came to the islands bringing disease that wiped out much of the people. They took over most of the land for their own profit, starting plantations that brought in exploited workers, Asians rather than Africans. When Hawaii’s Queen Liliuokalani tried to halt them, the plantation owners overthrew her with the help of US Marines. The Hawaiian language and religion were both banned. Hawaii became a state in an illegitimate vote. Few Asians or Native Hawaiians could vote, and most who voted for statehood were white servicemen who were very recent residents.
The Hawaiian sovereignty movement today is very strong. It overturned the language and religion bans and started Hawaiian schools. Most Native Hawaiians want to see the Hawaiian nation be independent again. This part of the proposed article might be a first step, giving Hawaiians a sovereignty recognized by law, and constitutionally backed. Just as for American Indians, all Hawaiian sacred sites taken away (some actually used as bombing ranges) are given back.
4. US citizens and nationals of American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and Washington DC have full local self-rule, and shall vote in federal elections and have federal congressional districts.
Puerto Rico's people are a mix of Taino Indian, African, and European, both by blood and culture. The island has a larger population than over twenty US states. Yet its people have never voted in federal fall elections. Samoa, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and even DC have been denied the vote or local self-rule because of a leftover status from colonial conquest. They are legally territories or a district rather than a state.
All of them are also made up mostly of people who are not white. 49 of 50 US states have white majorities, all except Hawaii. These four territories and one district all have populations with nonwhite majorities. Puerto Ricans are mostly mixed. The people of Samoa and Guam are Pacific Islanders, though the military almost outnumber Chamorros in their own homeland. The Virgin Islands is Black majority, as was DC for much of its history. Today DC has no racial majority, with many Asians and Latinos.
All these territories and the federal district are often treated like colonies. Most of the people are poorer on average than most of the rest of America. Resources often flow out of them. They have often had little to no say in their own destiny. Puerto Rico saw several independence movements crushed, and citizenship was forced on them against their wishes. Chamorros and Virgin Islanders had no self-rule at all for about 60 years. Even Washington DC had no local self-rule until the 1970s.
Both Puerto Rico and DC have seen statehood blocked because the major parties don’t want to add a state that will vote for the other party. All the islands were all either independent nations or are distinct cultures in their own right. Only DC can vote for presidents, but none of these territories or the district have a vote in Congress like the states. Over 5 million Americans are denied some voting rights and their own congressmen because of these hold overs from colonialism.
All of these peoples, American Indians, Native Hawaiians, Chamorros, Samoans, Virgin Islanders, and the people of DC, deserve self-determination and a full voice. The fact that they do not have it shows continuing system wide racism. Most of the American public does not know these histories, and that must end.
Let American Indians be truly sovereign on reservations and have them expand to include as much traditional homelands as desired. Let Native Hawaiians have status as a sovereign tribe, and pursue independence. Let Guam, Samoa, and the Virgin Islands finally vote in federal elections, and let all of them plus Washington DC finally have voting congressmen to represent them. It should be a source of shame to the US that this has continued as long as it has.
Al Carroll is assistant professor of history at Northern Virginia Community College and the author of numerous articles and books, among them Medicine Bags and Dog Tags, Presidents' Body Counts, and the forthcoming A Proposed New Constitution and Ira Hayes: The Meaning of His Life.