As a part of the Myaamia Heritage Program at Miami University, our students take part in a series of courses that help them to better understand who our people are today and who we were in the past. One of these courses focuses on key issues that our community faces today and the important role that sovereignty plays in helping us respond to those issues.
At a basic level in the global political community, sovereignty is usually understood to reflect political power. A nation is understood to be sovereign if it governs itself. In this course we work together to complicate this basic definition of sovereignty and develop our understanding of what it means to be sovereign from a Myaamia point of view.
In this quest, we are aided by the deep thinking and wise words of the Dakota scholar Vine Deloria Jr. (1933-2005). Deloria was a citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and over the course of his adult life was widely recognized as a foremost thinker on a wide array of topics that continue to impact tribal nations whose homelands fall, at least in part, within the boundaries of the United States.
Our class relies heavily on a short but complex 1979 essay by Deloria entitled “Self-determination and the Concept of Sovereignty.” In this brilliant bit of writing Deloria lays out multiple overlapping ways in which tribal nations could think about sovereignty. He begins with what he considers to be the common definition of the word as used by nations around the world: “Sovereignty was the absolute power of a nation to determine its own course of action with respect to other nations.” When we discuss this definition in class we emphasize how this definition centers notions of independence and separateness between nations. Control of territory through the use of military force is usually essential to the operation of this type of sovereignty.
This common understanding of sovereignty can be contrasted with a type of sovereignty that Deloria felt had its foundation in each nation’s unique culture. Legal manifestations of sovereignty exist to protect and care for the people of the nation. In class, we usually ask some version of the following question: if the people cease to exist as a distinct and different nation, then what is the purpose of governmental sovereignty? Near the end of the essay, Deloria makes the strong argument that sovereignty consists “more of continued cultural integrity than of political powers and to the degree that a nation loses its sense of cultural identity, to that degree it suffers a loss of sovereignty.”
A sovereignty that springs from culture is a sovereignty that can be innately Myaamia at its core. Our sovereignty has always had its roots in Myaamia culture. In the distant past we would have referred to the health and strength of our communities using our language to express concepts inherent in our culture. Colonization certainly changed some of this for our people. Aspects of our political sovereignty were shaped by treaties, legislation, and supreme Court rulings, but at its core our sovereignty is still defined by our people.
Deloria gets at this deeply empowering notion when he describes sovereignty as revolving “about the manner in which traditions are developed, sustained, and transformed to confront new conditions. It involves most of all a strong sense of community discipline and a degree of self-containment and pride that transcends all objective codes, rules, and regulations. Unless individuals have a commitment to a larger whole they cannot function efficiently and unless a nation is composed of committed individuals it cannot function with the efficiency that sovereignty is meant to describe.” (27)
Near the very end of the essay, Deloria emphasizes that sovereignty is not a fixed state that a nation achieves but rather a never-ending process of development. If sovereignty has a use to us today as an English word and an inter-cultural concept, it is because it allows us to “describe the process of growth and awareness that characterizes a group of people working toward and achieving maturity.” (28)
In class, we use these varying definitions to get our group thinking about the importance of cultural sovereignty. We are a nation that is engaged in an inter-generational effort of communal revitalization of our language and culture. Instead of a sovereignty hyper focused on independence, our beliefs and practices force us to remember that we are at our strongest when we recognize the interdependencies that connect us to other human beings as with the non-human world around us.
Vine Deloria Jr.’s essay continues to give us much to think about in terms of the foundation role of our culture in our sovereignty as a people. I’m certain that the next time we read his essay we will draw new insights from this brilliantly complex work.