A New Era of American Indian Autonomy

by Ned Blackhawk

Million Native American March, 2003, Washington, DC. (Carol Highsmith, LOC)The American West is home to the majority of America’s Indian Nations, and, within the past generation, many of these groups have achieved unprecedented political and economic gains. Numerous reservation communities now manage diversified economies. These economic gains—best exemplified by the gambling casinos—and the political gains that have accompanied them have emerged from within Indian country itself, yet they are best understood in the context of, and as a response to, historic federal Indian policies. This new era of Indian autonomy, in short, is linked to the past.

Sovereignty and nationhood are not terms generally applied to American minorities. Yet, unlike any other American ethnic group, American Indians maintain unique political relationships with the federal government. Tribal enrollments, courts, police forces, constitutional governments, departments of natural resources, and school systems are but a few of the federally and tribally enacted institutions within reservations. Thus understanding the relationship between the federal government and reservation communities helps explain recent Indian history. That relationship is defined by ambivalence and violence, yet it is also shaped by the ability of Indians, like other dispossessed and disenfranchised groups in America, to use the legal system for redress of grievances. Much like the African American Civil Rights Movement, the modern American Indian sovereignty movement is grounded in constitutional law. The same legal currents that have made it illegal to deny political rights on the basis of race, gender, or creed have also maintained that America’s indigenous populations have a unique relationship with the national, or federal, government.

The relationship grew slowly but steadily in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The sectional and constitutional crises of the early republic and the first half of the nineteenth century have often overshadowed the place of Native Americans within the nation’s past. Yet policies enacted to deal with eastern Indians during this period help explain the context in which modern Indians operate and add to our understanding of the larger history of these eras. For example, scholars have recently explored the curious place of Indians in the pageantry and rhetoric of the Revolutionary-era generation. They have found that both during and after the imperial struggle Revolutionary leaders and followers showed ambivalence toward Indian culture, adopting various forms of Indian masquerade and affinities yet exhibiting deep anxieties regarding the Indian presence. And, throughout backcountry settlements, fears of Indian attack helped unite varying European ethnic groups as “Indian haters.”[1] The colonial threat operated in the same fashion to unite disparate Indian communities.

The American victory in the Revolution and the imperial vacuum it created did great damage to these eastern Indian societies. The end of the war brought sustained pressures for land that troubled such groups as the Algonquian communities along the Ohio River, the Iroquois communities in New York, and Cherokees in the interior South. What to do with Native peoples within as well as outside of the nation perplexed the Revolutionaries and every presidential administration of the new nation until well into the nineteenth century. From Washington to Jackson, federal authorities attempted to deal with the “Indian problem” through a variety of policies, from programs of assimilation, education, religious conversion, and agrarian experimentation to policies of separation, removal, and extermination.

By the nineteenth century, the issue was: who ought to set Indian policy. Indian leaders continued to insist upon their rights to land and resources within their homelands, addressing these demands more frequently to national officials. But the federal government faced obstacles to the policies they developed in both states’ rights advocates who challenged the federal government’s authority and backcountry settlers who ignored it. Even without these impediments, the federal government lacked the resources needed for consistent policy enforcement.

Ultimately, however, the federal government’s authority was strengthened. The battle for Indian rights or Indian subjugation took place on the battlefield and in the courtroom. The military confrontations were largely encounters between Indian and US Army forces, rather than state militias. Similarly, legal arguments fell within the federal government’s venue, for that government’s power over Indian affairs was enshrined in Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution. Section 8 cedes powers from the states to the federal government to “regulate Commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” Debated, reinterpreted, and ultimately upheld through numerous Supreme Court rulings, the supremacy of the federal government over Indian affairs remains a defining characteristic of Indian policy today.

Federal Indian policies have often been brutal and destructive. The emergence of reservations proved an assault on the fabric of everyday Indian life. Boarding schools, divisive allotment policies, and economic and political chaos were the legacies of federal power in the Indian West. The modern sovereignty movement among Native peoples is thus focused on reshaping these federal policies. Casinos, fish, fireworks, and tobacco may be the more readily identifiable efforts, but constitutional issues remain critically important. Federally recognized Indian tribes have taken advantage of their unique position and have acted, just as states like Nevada have acted, to legalize varying gaming enterprises that have proven successful. However, casinos have not been a universal panacea. Most Indian communities have not benefited from gaming’s largesse, and others, including the Navajo Nation, the nation’s largest tribe, have chosen not to pursue this avenue of self-determination. Many Indian leaders continue to struggle to get their communities’ most basic health, educational, and cultural concerns addressed by federal agencies.

The recent political and economic ascendancy of Indian communities offers cause for reassessing commonplace assumptions about the capacities of Indian peoples to endure American conquest. Castigated, vilified, and often forgotten in narratives of our nation’s past, American Indians have a history that provides an opportunity to understand the complexities of America. Counterpoints to the mythology of western expansion, Indians now figure more prominently both in narratives of the American West and, more important, in the everyday politics of western America. That such developments are linked to the past may provide potential guidance to those continuing such efforts into the future.


[1] Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).


Ned Blackhawk, a Western Shoshone, is a professor of history and American Studies at Yale University and the author of Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (2006), which has received numerous awards including the Frederick Jackson Turner Prize from the Organization of American Historians.

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