Indigenous sovereignty, as with all claims to and manner of sovereign power, is not a question of having or not having some transhistorical or universal thing or capacity named sovereignty. Despite its now conventional definition as supreme, unconditional, and indivisible authority, sovereignty is a necessarily relational and interdependent set of claims and strategies that are made and mobilized in specific times and circumstances with regard to particular antagonisms. Sovereignty is neither a self-evident principle nor does it have inherent explanatory value. In the juridical and political sense, sovereignty names an ensemble of claims, practices, and aspirations that take on specific meaning in the agonistic conditions in which it is enunciated. Just as Jean Bodin conceived of a secularized doctrine of sovereignty [End Page 148] as absolute and exclusive authority in response to the violent conflicts between the Huguenots and the Catholic League during the late sixteenth century, each and every claim to sovereignty derives legibility from striving to remake preceding iterations of sovereignty within the context of relations of power specific to their own time and location.
Variously inflected over time, indigenous sovereignty names a collective persistence and obstinate refusal to succumb to the genocidal onslaught of a colonial necropolitics that extends dispossession, displacement, death, and disavowal. Historically and culturally specific conceptions of indigenous political collectivity, power, and authority preceded colonization, but as Joanne Barker asserts, “Since the initiation of conquest, indigenous leaders had assumed the relevance of a legal discourse that was, conventionally speaking, ‘not their own’ as a way of claiming a status, and its associated rights, against the ideologies and practices of colonialism.”1 To say that sovereignty is remade in the context of present conflicts does not deny a theological and monarchal inheritance from sovereignties past.2 At the same time, Saliha Belmessous rightly insists that “contrary to common perception, European justifications of colonization should be understood not as an originary and originating legal discourse but, at least in part, as a form of counterclaim.”3 In the US and other settler colonial contexts, indigenous sovereignty remains constitutive for colonial justifications and counterclaims even when it has been ostensibly subsumed or attenuated.4
The question of democracy—or, more precisely, liberal constitutional democracy—serves as one of the primary governmental logics through which sovereignty has been asserted, justified, and negotiated within and in relation to the United States—in ways that have shifted significantly over time and in the context of different conflicts, despite frequently ahistorical evocations of democracy as such. Focusing on the long nineteenth century, my aim here is to briefly suggest some specific ways in which indigenous peoples challenged and disrupted US settler claims to constituent power and national coherence while also reimagining their own terms of political belonging. Whereas Jacques Derrida’s conception of a “democracy-to-come” approaches democracy as a promise—not as an elusive ideal but as a political form of calculation, deferral, and futurity—United States colonialism extends this promise of democracy as a justificatory and tutelary project for overcoming (or subsuming) indigenous and subject peoples. Premised on the idea that its constituents are free to govern themselves and that they are formally equal and equivalent, normative configurations of [End Page 149] democracy in the United States can only further signal what the settler state contrives to be the inevitable attrition and disappearance of incommensurable sovereignties. Yet, still beholden to conventions of legitimacy irreducible to the “reason of the strongest” and imagining itself to be the righteous adversary of “rogue states” worldwide, the United States continues to claim authority from the sanction and founding by “the people.”5 Throughout the long nineteenth century, it was precisely the fraught and unsettled relations among the practices of constituent power, popular sovereignty, colonialism, and slavery that conveyed the spuriousness and impossible grandiosity of US claims to sovereignty as absolute, exclusive, and indivisible.
Indeed, indigenous sovereignty recurrently appears significant to what Jason Frank calls “constituent moments”—enactments of “the people” that “invent a new political space and make apparent a people that are productively never at one with themselves” 6—and troubles affirmations of a uniform and coherent nation. In constituting the...