- Sequoyah Rising: Problems in Post-Colonial Tribal Governance
Steve Russell's book Sequoyah Rising is extraordinary on several levels. On the one hand, Russell provides a thoughtful review of the theoretical underpinnings of tribal sovereignty. He critically analyzes, with a series of examples in case law and insightful anecdotal evidence, the current forms, functions, and usefulness of modern tribal governments. At the same time, he provides a careful examination of the relationships that tribal citizens have with political institutions of all stripes. It must be said at once that Russell has a gift for critical thought and for pinpointing with almost surgical skill that which needs fixing. And he does it all without the cynicism that typifies most postmodernist works on tribal governance.
Russell's concise and insightful presentation of the course of American Indian policy is exceptional and should immediately be adopted by all who teach courses on Native American history and law. In a page and a half (34-35), he explains the essentials underlying why and how the allotment of tribal lands in severalty in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was so devastating to Indian societies. The "fractionation" and absolute loss of the tribal estate was hardly a boon to tribal economies and, in fact, worked against the assimilation of the Indian population into the American body politic, the allotment policy's intended purpose.
Sequoyah Rising does equally well in analyzing the ultimate troubles connected with the Indian New Deal. The Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934, inspired by John Collier, ended allotment and allowed the reservations to govern themselves. For the most part, the new tribal constitutions created, according to Russell, "boards of directors, styled as tribal councils rather than . . . [political systems] of institutional checks and balances" (74). In a single sentence, Russell got to the heart of much of the political conflict that plagues reservations today. The IRA boilerplate constitutions, which had to be submitted to the secretary of the interior for approval (a continuation of a certain [End Page 108] aspect of colonial rule), gave political power to a single institution, the tribal council. Tribal chairs, presidents, and even judges were creations of, and subordinate to, these boards of directors. I have witnessed firsthand the effect of this particular facet of an IRA boilerplate constitution. Several years ago, I was asked to give a presentation on tribal constitutions at a meeting of a citizens' group to discuss a new, but not yet ratified, tribal constitution for a reservation that I will not name. It seemed as if the entire political system for this reservation was lurching toward a shutdown because of a lack of checks and balances. The tribal council had turned on the tribal chairman, and the tribal judges did not have the power to declare the council's resolutions null and void. The followers of the tribal chairman were threatening the tribal council, and council's supporters were on the verge of physically preventing the tribal chairman from entering his office. Luckily, reason prevailed and the tensions were eased when the commission assigned to write the new constitution promised to include a system of checks and balances in the document.
But more than simply pointing out problems in tribal governance, Russell looks at how the tribes can solve some of their most vexing problems. Taking a note from Vine Deloria Jr., perhaps the twentieth century's most important American Indian political observer, Russell makes the pertinent case that in order to be sovereign, tribes have to act sovereign. The "doctrine of discovery" and the "right of conquest," on which the United States has based its claim to its territorial boundaries and, in fact, its own sovereignty, are actually myths conceived to justify colonialism. The tribes have not really had their sovereign powers stripped from them. By way of treaties, many tribes have surrendered their right to raise standing armies and have accepted protectorate status, much like the Republic of San Marino within Italy or the Principality of Monaco, surrounded by France. Tribes in the United States can tax, determine citizenship...