Elizabeth Warren, Settler Colonialism, and the Limits of Democratic Citizenship

by Adam Dahl, author of Empire of the People; Settler Colonialism and the Foundations of Modern Democratic Thought

In my recently published book, Empire of the People, I trace the ideological development of American democratic thought in the context of settler colonialism, a distinct form of colonialism aimed at the appropriation of native land rather than the exploitation of native labor. Specifically, it traces how the ideological disavowal of indigenous dispossession laid the foundations of American democracy, and in doing so profoundly shaped key concepts in modern democratic thought such as consent, constituent power, citizenship, social equality, popular sovereignty, and federalism. Through engagement with a complex array of authors such as Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John O’Sullivan, Walt Whitman, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, Francis Lieber, and William Apess, I argue that norms of modern democratic legitimacy acquired their conceptual coherence and foundational logics from the erasure of settler conquest. Not only was American democratic society founded upon settler colonialism, the boundaries of democratic peoplehood and the intelligibility of “the people” as a subject of rule in American democratic thought emerged through the elimination of indigenous peoples.

Although the book is largely a historical interpretation that ends around the Reconstruction period with Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas (1871), the recent controversy over Elizabeth Warren’s genetic test proving her Cherokee identity has led me to rethink the book’s relevance in our contemporary moment, what experts of federal Indian law often refer to as the era of self-determination. After months of harassment and the hurling of ethnic slurs from the bigot-in-chief – who often berates Warren by calling her “Pocahontas” – the Massachusetts Senator released the results of a DNA test on October 15 showing that she may have had one Native American ancestor anywhere from six to eight generations back. Indigenous peoples across North America have rightly called foul. Senator Warren’s use of DNA testing, among other things, essentializes tribal identification as a form of ethnicity and uses non-indigenous standards to define indigenous identity. The very idea of native DNA testing partakes in a long settler-colonial legacy of using genetic technologies to control and curtail indigenous citizenship.

Due to the time frame of the book, I was unable to consider the main thesis in light of more contemporary currents of democratic thought championing “cultural pluralism” and “multiculturalism” as a way of ensuring the inclusive bases of liberal democratic citizenship in the twentieth century. In David Hollinger’s vision of Postethnic America, for instance, a pluralist and multicultural democracy would foster shared citizenship in a civic nation while also affirming the right of citizens to identify with distinct racial and ethnic groups. Crucial to this vision of pluralist democratic citizenship is the ability of individuals to voluntarily self-identify with ethnic groups. Such a vision of voluntary membership combines the deep appreciation of racial and ethnic diversity with a shared sense of national identity.

Citizenship in indigenous communities, however, is determined through a complex mixture of tribal law and custom, ritual practice, kinship connections, ancestral relations, and responsibilities to the land. The liberal-multicultural ideal of citizenship as voluntary membership stands in inherent tension with this more complex understanding of indigenous citizenship. It is what allows Elizabeth Warren and millions of others filling out census forms to “self-identify” as Native American by checking a box or paying $100 for genetic screening. Proclamations of an era of indigenous self-determination notwithstanding, Warren’s announcement of her self-defined Cherokee heritage both draws from this cultural pluralist strand of thinking and in doing so reveals the settler colonial and dispossessive logics of liberal democratic citizenship in its multicultural vein.

Of course, this ideal of liberal citizenship where members of different ethnic groups voluntarily identify or dis-identify with this or that group is an understandable response to legacies of ascriptive hierarchy and civic exclusion in the United States in the form of immigration quotas, Chinese exclusion, residential segregation, forced sterilization, Japanese internment, Muslim bans, and prohibition of interracial marriage. Any democracy deserving of the name must prevent the ascription of racial and ethnic categories onto citizens without their consent so as to ensure the basic protections of equal rights and liberties.

But here one of the main points of Empire of the People might help us understand our present predicament. The politics of indigenous sovereignty and citizenship cannot be collapsed into the politics of ethnicity, race, and immigration precisely because indigeneity is a different political category than racial identity, ethnic affiliation, or migrant status. For this reason, critical indigenous theorists have warned against the “racialization” and “ethnicization” of indigenous peoples. When Indian nations are cast solely as internal, ethnic minority groups rather than as nations with a government-to-government relationship with the settler state, their ability to pursue their own sovereignty and self-determination diminishes. Where ethnic and racial groups often engage in civil rights struggles for inclusion in the constitutional architecture of liberal democracy, indigenous peoples seek to preserve their own political traditions through the protection of their status as sovereign, self-governing entities.

When we take the liberal democratic ideal of voluntary membership in identity-based groups and impute it onto indigenous peoples, there arises an inherent tension between modern democratic values and indigenous self-determination. Part of what self-determination means for indigenous peoples is not just the control of their own communal resources or the protection of cultural rights to language and land-use. Rather, it has always meant, and must continue to mean, that indigenous communities themselves must be in a position to determine their own communal self-identification, that is, their own standards of citizenship and membership.  But when we treat indigenous citizenship as membership in one among any other ethnic group – precisely as Elizabeth Warren has done – we erode the capacity of indigenous nations to define the boundaries of citizenship in their communities and thus to determine the identity of “the self” that rules in the name of self-determination. To the extent that Warren’s invocation of ethnic identity as a form of voluntary identification represents a crucial aspect of the meaning of citizenship in a multicultural cum settler society, it reveals the constitutive contradictions between contemporary liberal democratic ideals and indigenous sovereignty.

In 1953, Felix Cohen, a seminal expert on federal law, argued that the fate of American Indians indexes and indeed portends the fate of democracy in America: “It is a pity that so many Americans today think of the Indian as a romantic or comic figure in American history without contemporary significance. In fact, the Indian plays much the same role in our society that the Jews played in Germany. Like the miner’s canary, the Indian marks the shift from fresh air to poison gas in our political atmosphere; and our treatment of Indians, even more than our treatment of other minorities, reflects the rise and fall in our democratic faith.” Cohen’s famous quip about “the miner’s canary” as a warning sign of the decline of “our democratic faith” suggests that the pursuit of indigenous rights and self-determination moves in tandem with modern liberal democracy.  As one diminishes, the other declines.

As I argue in my book, however, it is, at times, the democratic faith (and by implication the standards of liberal democratic citizenship) itself that undermines ongoing struggles for indigenous self-determination. The closing words of Empire of the People are perhaps relevant here: “Grappling with the foundational role of colonial dispossession in shaping modern democratic thought must lead to a reimagining of the democratic traditions and democratic identity. Unsettling democracy requires more than simply attaching more inclusionary frameworks of constitutional law to democratic institutions. It requires rethinking the theoretical and conceptual foundations of democratic practice in a way that critically confronts their ideological entwinement with the colonial legacies of native dispossession” (184).

On Naming and Remembering

by Daniel Cobb, author of Native Activism in Cold War America; The Struggle for Sovereignty

“Say Their Names” has become one of the most potent aspects of the ongoing struggles against racism, state violence, and sexual abuse in the United States and the world over. It has been deployed in opposition to police killings of African Americans, the violation of international human rights, and, most visibly of late, sexual predation.

“Say Their Names” is vitally important because it refuses erasure. By acknowledging the persistent presence of people who might otherwise be rendered invisible, it empowers the targets of disempowerment.

And as #MeToo continues to demonstrate naming emboldens others to shatter a pernicious silence that can only be sustained as long as people subjected to violence and abuse feel isolated, humiliated, guilty, and ashamed. We might hear in #MeToo, then, the words “Say My Name,” which encourage others to break their silence by conveying messages such as “It’s Not Your Fault” and “You Are Not Alone.”

In this way, naming demands that we not only recognize but also remember and, as a consequence of both, take responsibility.

As an historian, this strikes a resonant chord because the work of people in my field is really about memory, about remembering. Our scholarship plays a role in conveying to others a sense of whose lives matter, what events should be considered significant, and why. With this comes the responsibility that inheres in having made decisions about what stories to tell, how to tell them, and why they matter.

I grappled with these questions in writing my first book, Native Activism in Cold War America: The Struggle for Sovereignty, which I published with the University Press of Kansas in 2008.  The book focuses on the period between the late-1950s and late 1960s, and I defined it this way because I wanted to recover stories of American Indian activism during an era that had been overshadowed by the founding of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in 1968, the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969, the Trail of Broken Treaties and Bureau of Indian Affairs takeover in 1972, the confrontation at Wounded Knee in 1973, and the Longest Walk in 1978.

The popular and scholarly fixation on these later events contributed to AIM and Alcatraz being defined as the “beginning” of American Indian activism and to the perception that the 1970s were the 1960s in Native America. During an interview I conducted with him in October 2001, Standing Rock Sioux scholar Vine Deloria, Jr., put it this way:  “What you’re talking about really is moving everything that happened in the Seventies into the Sixties and pretending that it happened then.”

By concluding with the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, I chose to end where most histories of twentieth-century Indian activism begin. It did so to decenter (without diminishing the significance of) the more familiar stories mentioned above. In so doing, I hoped that it might restore the presence of at least some people, places, and events that had been all but erased.

Reinterpreting this critical period in American Indian history did other memory work, as well. Native Activism intended to challenge conventional narratives about the Sixties in the context of United States and global history, which I consider incomplete if Indigenous experiences are designated as peripheral or marginal.

Indeed, I came to realize that the individuals, ideas, events, and issues in Indian Country were at once shaped by and gave shape to the other histories of which they were a part—from the struggle for black equality and the War on Poverty to the youth movement and decolonization. They were at once distinct and inseparable.

Since the publication of Native Activism, I have continued exploring this theme. In Say We Are Nations, a primary document collection, I illustrate how, from the late nineteenth century to the opening decades of the twenty-first century, American Indians, Kanaka Maoli, and citizens of First Nations have rhetorically and literally connected perennial concerns over treaty rights, land, and sovereignty to other domestic and international concerns, events, ideas, and movements—a strategy Vine Deloria, Jr., described to me as “talking the language of the larger world.”

I have come to see all of the individuals featured in both of these books as part of a much older, vastly more expansive, and ongoing Indigenous political and intellectual tradition of countering colonialism—of demanding not only recognition but also remembrance and, as a consequence of both, the taking of responsibility. By speaking to the persistence of individuals, communities, and nations that might otherwise be rendered invisible, they empower the targets of disempowerment. If settler colonialism, to paraphrase anthropologist Patrick Wolfe, seeks to destroy to replace, these voices refuse such erasure.

Given that we are now moving into the final years of a decade marking their fiftieth anniversary (and because of the profound sense of déjà vu inspired by our present moment), there could be no better time to remember the 1960s. There could be no better time to say the names of people whose lives defined the Sixties and to reflect on what meanings they hold not only in the context of their time but in the context of our own.

For my part, I’d like to share the names of some of people that I wrote about in Native Activism in Cold War America, knowing only too well how many more could be included and deserve recognition.

And so to D’Arcy McNickle, Helen Peterson, Clarence Wesley, and Joe Garry

To Georgeann Robinson, Lacy Maynor, William Rickard, and Ed Dozier

To Bob Thomas, Mel Thom, Browning Pipestem, and Clyde Warrior

To Herb Blatchford, Sandy Osawa, Billy Frank, and Bruce Wilkie

To Angela Russell, Frank Dukepoo, Jeri Redcorn, and Fran Thom

To Gloria Emerson, Shirley Hill Witt, Dorothy Davids, and Della Warrior

To Francis McKinley, Phillip Martin, Forrest Gerard, and Helen Scheirbeck

To Vine Deloria, Walter Wetzel, Wendell Chino, and Jim Wilson

To Bob Satiacum, Roger Jourdain, Ronnie Lupe, and Cato Valandra

To Tillie Walker, Mattie Grinnell, Martha Grass, and Rose Crow Flies High

To Charlie Cambridge, Kathryn Redcorn, Gerald Brown, and Hank Adams

To Victor Charlo, LaDonna Harris, Iola Hayden, and Phyllis Howard

To Esther Ross, Patty Baker, Al Bridges, and Sam English

To Janet McCloud, Andrew Dreadfulwater, Bob Dumont, and Jack Forbes

To the few I have named and the many I have not

To those gone and with us still

As we remember the fiftieth anniversary of the 1960s

I remember you.

Daniel M. Cobb is an Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Fulbright Bicentennial Chair in North American Studies, University of Helsinki, 2017-2018