David Wilkins: Disenrollments aren't about tribal sovereignty

Members of the Nooksack Tribe of Washington protest disenrollment. Photo from Facebook

Tribes that are disenrolling their own citizens are abusing their sovereignty, argues professor David Wilkins:
Tribal politicians and jurists who work to disenroll legitimate Native citizens justify their perverted behavior by wrapping themselves in the cloak of sovereign power, often described as sovereign immunity, and then declare that this protects them from their own people. They equate criticism of their leadership with an attack on sovereignty, itself. Like European kings of old, they place themselves above their “subjects,” beyond the reach of traditional and common law.

But as political scientist Louis Henkin has said: “sovereignty as a right to do as one pleases is part of the concept, but not sovereignty as anarchy, not sovereignty as resistance to cooperation. And not sovereignty as immunity.” This term, he noted, was wrongly used to excuse “immunity from law, immunity from scrutiny, immunity from justice.” Sovereignty does not mean that leaders are above the people. Sovereignty means leaders have a profound responsibility to the people. It is up to the people to hold their leader accountable for their words and deeds.

In the history of Native nations in North America, no single individual or group of individuals would have been allowed to wield the kind of abusive and absolute control we increasingly see today. The clan and kinship system dictated accountable, not autocratic behavior. In fact, many nations, such as the Cheyenne, have traditional protections to prevent political tyranny. Some have forgotten these safeguards or have not considered how they might incorporate them into their modern governmental practices.

A corrupted kind of sovereignty is now increasingly being used as a weapon against Native people and as a shield by those thieves, robbers, and charlatans Sam Deloria so clearly envisioned. It has taken us hostage through the idea that criticism of abusive leadership is criticism of our own powers as nations. This twisted logic has paralyzed many of our responsible Native leaders.

Get the Story:
David Wilkins: The Sovereignty of Everything, the Power of Nothing (Indian Country Today 5/12)

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