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  • “Sovereignty”
  • Kirby Brown (bio)

In social science, political theory, and philosophy, “sovereignty” is variously understood as a power inherent and exclusive to states; as a theory of internal political authority and external independence; and as a more general discourse of claims states make about themselves and their relations to other states (Brierly; Hinsley). It has its origins in late medieval conflicts between church and secular governments, in Renaissance and Enlightenment debates between the divine rights of kings and natural law, and in conflicts between emergent European states competing over lands and resources possessed by peoples they’d never heard of, couldn’t account for, and didn’t understand (Williams, American; Deloria and DeMaille; Deloria and Wilkins). Along with papal bulls and doctrines of discovery and conquest, sovereignty is a foundational principle of international law and forms the basis for understandings of land-as-political-territory and of what constitutes legitimate actors within that system (Brierly; Anghie; Leeds; Jackson). Not surprisingly, sovereignty has been used to rationalize everything from popular revolution and fascist repression to religious conflict and secular revolt and from imperial conquest and decolonial resistance to political isolationism and expansionist intervention (Hannum; Krasner). In this framing, sovereignty is an origin story not unlike the horrific narrative of witchery, fear, paranoia, death, and destruction released into the world in Laguna novelist, poet, and essayist Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony. The multiply occupied and colonized Indigenous homelands we now know as the settler states of the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand/Aotearoa bear the historical traces and contemporary consequences of these histories.

The “survivance” of tribal nations—that is, their active, five [End Page 81] hundred-year-old struggles for survival, continuance, resistance, and resurgence—also points to what White Earth Anishinaabe writer and theorist Gerald Vizenor might term a “postindian” “trickster hermeneutic” at work in the ways in which sovereignty has been taken up in Indian Country and within Native Studies in service of Indigenous peoples’ original and inherent rights to self-determination (Vizenor, Manifest and Fugitive; Wilkins and Stark). Though falling away somewhat in the onslaught of allotment and termination from the late-nineteenth through mid-twentieth centuries, Indigenous sovereignty reemerged as a response to termination policies of the 1950s and ’60s and as a strategy to demand fishing and treaty rights, urban Indian access to services, demands for BIA reform, and a return to treaty/trust relationships with the federal government (Deloria, Custer; Porter; Barker; A. Cobb). This activism, taking place at both intensely local and expansively national levels, led directly to a shift in federal policy toward self-determination and a series of legislative actions from the 1970s into the 2010s to protect American Indian treaty and civil rights, religious freedoms, economic development, child welfare, artistic production, and prosecutorial authority to name but a few (Deloria, Behind; Smith and Warrior; Cobb and Fowler; D. Cobb; Shreve). Such acts include the Indian Civil Rights Act (1968), Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (1975), American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978), Indian Child Welfare Act (1978), Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990), Indian Arts and Crafts Act (1990), and the Violence Against Women Act (2013). Sovereignty also provided the legal and discursive basis for tribal governments to grow and strengthen their political autonomy, mobilize resources for cultural revitalization and resource management projects, (re)gain federal recognition, and contest the actions of an increasingly hostile Supreme Court (Wilkins; Wilkins and Lomawaima; Williams, Like). While such efforts don’t reflect “traditional” forms of Native governance, and while tribal sovereignty itself is a hotly contested topic in federal courts and across Indian Country alike, they nevertheless constitute what Anishinaabe scholar Scott Richard Lyons has called “x-marks,” qualified assents to modernity under [End Page 82] conditions not of one’s own making but in the hope that something good, innovative, and productive might come of them (X-Marks).

Drawing upon these legal and political contexts, Native and allied scholars over the past two decades have put sovereignty to work for a variety of political, intellectual, and methodological projects. Indigenous literary and cultural studies scholars redirected critical attention from questions of identity and authenticity toward more pressing issues of...


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pp. 81-89
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