The Border(s) Crossed Us Too: The Intersections of Native American and Immigrant Fights for Justice

In the last two years, the American public has had urgent discussions about our current immigration system and national borders. Our country is deeply divided. As dreamers have rallied support for their families, and communities have staged demonstrations against deportations, politically conservative Americans and President Donald J. Trump have pressed for stricter immigration regulations and sought the expulsion of non-US born residents. At the front and center of this debate have been essential conversations about borders, deportations, undocumented labor, and the intellectual and social roles of immigrants in our communities.

Yet as we think about how to critique our current immigration system and find ways to challenge the policies and articulate alternatives, we are still largely operating within the flawed ideologies of a settler colonial state. Even among the progressive left, many of our arguments are still based on the fundamental premise that the United States has a natural and unchallenged right to this land, and that the federal government is the only entity that has the right to determine who remains within and who is expelled from this territory that we currently call the United States.

Over the past year, we have spent a tremendous amount of time and energy debating the merits and architecture of the proposed walls along the US-Mexico border, travel bans and immigration quotas for specific countries, and the kinds of immigrants we would like to encourage to come to our nation. Yet even as we become entangled in these debates over logistics and international relations, we have missed one of the most fundamental challenges to the current administration’s efforts to restrict immigration based on religion and national origins. If we reposition ourselves, and think about migration not as American citizens, as documented or undocumented, but as settlers who have built lives and identities on Indigenous lands, and often at the expense of Indigenous peoples, this conversation looks very different. This is a difficult truth to accept, and I emphasize our presence on Native American lands not to suggest yet another round of violent displacements or expulsions of the current occupants, but as a way to reframe our conversations about the contemporary claims that US citizens make about belonging to and controlling these territories.

Almost all of us are occupying stolen Indigenous land. For example, I, like so many of us, am living within a series of colonial entanglements. I—a Native American woman who is of both Native American and Polish Jewish immigrant descent, who holds dual citizenship both in the United States and in the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma—am currently settled on neither my Peoria ancestors’ original homelands in Illinois, nor on our contemporary tribal lands out in Miami, Oklahoma. Instead, I am living as an uninvited guest in New York City on ancestral Lenape territory. Recognizing the Indigenous peoples and past of New York City implicitly raises the questions about whether I get to claim this land as my own, and whether I have the right to prevent anyone else from settling here as well. In effect, unless we challenge the fundamental framework that undergirds the immigration debate, we are participating in the work of settler colonialism that supports our current exclusionary policies. Instead, by including Indigenous peoples and taking Indigenous sovereignty and land claims seriously, we fundamentally challenge not just the specifics of our current immigration systems, but we also completely reorient our relationships to migration, the lands, and the obligation to share resources.

Leonard Monkman, “'No ban on stolen land,' say Indigenous activists in U.S.” CBC News, 2/2/2017, LINK

In February 2017, Indigenous scholars and activists Nick Estes and Melanie Yazzie joined a protest at the Los Angeles international airport. President Donald Trump had just issued an executive order banning all travel from Syria and 90-day bans on travelers from Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Libya, and Iran. Dr. Estes, who is Lower Brule of the Great Sioux Nation, and a historian who is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, was wearing jeans and a t-shirt that read “Indigenous resistance is ceremony” with an image of an upside down flag—a nod to both the American Indian Movement and the international signal of distress. Yazzie, a Diné professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of California, Riverside was wearing cat eyed glasses and a pair of Converse sneakers. Both carried hastily made cardboard signs that bore messages in bright red paint. Estes’ sign read NO BAN ON STOLEN LAND while Yazzie’s proclaimed REFUGEES WELCOME ON NATIVE LAND.

Their message was simple, but the critique of US foreign policy was powerful and multilayered. By reminding the public that the land where we now live and work was and is Native territory, we are reminded that US claims to this land are both relatively recent, and that they are still deeply contested. We need only think back to the conflict over water rights at Standing Rock or the ongoing fight over Oak Flat in Apache territory to be reminded of the contemporary nature of this fight over Native lands and sovereignty (Dokoupil 2015; Uenuma and Fritz 2011; UNITED STATES, Petitioner, v. SIOUX NATION OF INDIANS et al. 1980; Ostler and Estes 2017).

In this context, it is essential that, as we consider bans and walls, we do not exclude Native peoples and histories form the conversation. The intentional erasure of Native people from public conversations has historically led us to assume that the United States is the only entity that is entitled to claim control of these spaces, and that it is the inherent right of its government to welcome some migrants while restricting and placing quotas on others.

By including Native people and respecting Native sovereignty, in contrast, we not only support America’s original and rightful inhabitants in their struggles against colonial borders, walls, state power, but also challenge the claims of the United States to make exclusionary policies. Essentially, by putting Native people back into this conversation and remembering the Native origins and claims of these polities to North America, we critically reframe the conversation about borders and immigration and more effectively challenge US justifications for exclusion and expulsion.

The Border(s) Crossed Us Too

The border between the United States and Mexico looms large in our contemporary fight over migration and state expulsion. For many migrants from South and Central America, this border represents both the hope and the promise of new opportunities, as well as danger, violence, and separation from family. Each year hundreds, of migrants die attempting to cross the southern border of the United States, and thousands more are detained by the US border control. (“Migrants Crossing US-Mexico Border Dying at Faster Rate in 2017: UN Migration Agency” 2017; Holpuch 2017). As such, many on both sides of this border have criticized US practices and argued for structural overhauls of detention, deportation, and asylum policies. In articulating support for these critical reforms, many typically appeal to humanitarian sympathy and visions of a modern world that provide all humans with the right to migration and citizenship. Yet we often forget that Native people have been fighting the United States’ efforts to carve borders into their homelands and territories for centuries and, in many ways, we have come to see exclusionary borders as a natural and normal state of international relations. In this context, then, including Native people both bolsters challenges to US borders and provides alternative models of relationality and nationhood that may help us reimagine solutions to our current humanitarian crisis.

Long before either the birth of the Mexican Republic, or the expansion of the nascent United States west across the Mississippi River, the region that is currently Texas and New Mexico was tended and controlled by Native people who understood themselves as intimately linked to these lands. In the seventeenth century, the southwest United States was dominated by Apaches, Caddos, Comanches, and many other smaller Native polities. Contrary to popular imaginings, these were not nomadic peoples who roamed the plains seeking only to raid or chase buffalo. Rather, each of these groups did indeed have specific homelands, territories that they controlled, and resources that they each reserved for exclusive use. Spanish settlers who encountered Karankawa and Hassanai peoples in eastern Texas in the 1700s reported that these groups had such strict understandings of where their territories ended and that they would not cross into other groups’ lands in order to meet with the Spanish newcomers. Spanish colonial officials found that they were only permitted onto these lands after building relationships with these Indigenous polities that controlled them (Barr 2011).

Unlike European conceptions of nation-states, however, these Indigenous conceptions of territoriality were not based less on a concept of hard borders, as there were on the relationships that tied people to places and resources. By forming relationships with groups who already had connections to specific rivers, grasslands, roads, pine nut trees, or other non-human relations (what non-Indigenous people usually call natural resources), other Indigenous groups and Spanish settlers could also be made into relations and brought into the social and political networks that would connect them to these lands and resources. In effect, outsiders could be brought into these spaces and given access to these resources by forging relationships with those who were already settled there. Especially in eastern Texas, where Native people lived in smaller polities, Native people developed reciprocal connections to mountains, waters, animal herds, and each other in ways that allowed multiple groups to settle in close proximity and thrive in the harsh environment (Nadasy 2016, 1-5; Basso 1996, 32-5).

In the eighteenth century, just as the US was growing and expanding its empire in the east, the Comanche too built an expansionist empire on the plains. Yet this empire was based not on the expulsion of Native people from territories and mass resource extraction. Rather, in what we currently call New Mexico and western Texas, the Comanches famously built a massive, grasslands empire, and they did this in part by incorporating refugees and newcomer groups who sought to join their people. By forging relations with Comanche groups and embracing the Comanches’ equestrian economy, Shoshone, Ute, and other groups could be integrated into their political nexus and permitted access to buffalo, grasslands, water, and diplomatic networks. Using strategic raids, the Comanches halted the spread of the Spanish dominion northward and maintained control of large swaths of what is currently Texas. This is important because during the early nineteenth century, after the Louisiana purchase, the Mexican government was so desperate to finally gain control of this territory that it invited U.S. settlers to come move into northern Mexico on the theory that with enough population they could check Comanche power. This, in turn, facilitated the development of the republic of Texas and the annexation of this territory to the US, which sparked the Mexican-American War in 1846 and led to the redrawing of the modern Mexico-US border. In effect, Comanches developed a powerful empire not by excluding or expelling their neighbors, but by incorporating them. They then used this power to check the advance of colonial empires into their territories (Hämäläinen, 2008).

In effect, this system of political, social, and environmental relationships created a world that was sustained by overlapping sovereignties. Again, this does not mean that Comanche, Hasainai, or Caddo resources were shared equally among all people, but rather that by forging relationships among polities and with environmental resources, Native peoples created a political and social system that allowed multiple nations to thrive within the challenging and arid environment of the American southwest. When Spanish and French, and later American people arrived in these regions, Native people made space for these newcomers within their geopolitical systems not by giving them exclusive lands, but by incorporating them into their existing relationships and networks which permitted the newcomers to also make use of these resources and territories. The Comanche model therefore serves as a way to think about belonging that is not framed as conversations about “individual rights” or “citizenship,” but rather one of reciprocal obligations among humans and resources, and one that sees consensual incorporation and inclusion as a way to expand power rather than as a threat to the state.

Native challenges to borders did not simply die in the 19th century, as so much of our American mythos would lead us to believe. Rather, these remain as hotly contested topics through the present day. While Native peoples have experienced tremendous levels of violence and dispossession at the hands of the federal government, the United States government has not in fact either succeeded in wiping out Native people or extinguishing Native claims to our territories. Although we often write off this Indigenous past by acknowledging these alternative borderlands structures of “overlapping sovereignty” and extensive resource sharing facilitated by reciprocal social and political relationships, we can begin think beyond our current political economy, which is one that insists on exclusive, extractive resource use and exclusionary borders. By simply remembering that Comanche, Caddo, and Apache communities remain in the Southwest and continue to exist as sovereign nations, we are forced to consider whether these nations ought to have a role in discussion of the southwestern border.

For years, “the border crossed us” has been a cry of Latino and Mexican communities on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border. The critique in this statement is that this imperial border severed Latino communities and that Hispanic people who had been living in the North American Southwest long before the U.S. dumped a border that divided families amount two separate states. If we expand on this critique, however, we come to see that this border similarly severed Indigenous territories, and that the US’s current border cannot be understood as disconnected from our current administration’s fight to refuse to recognize Native sovereignty and the international relationships of Native nations.

Furthermore, although when we think about border issues, many of us most frequently think about the U.S./Mexico border, some of the clearest examples of Indigenous rejection of colonial borders in the modern era comes from the US-Canada border, which passes through lands controlled by the Haudenosaunee (commonly known as the Iroquois Confederacy, and composed of the Seneca, Cayuga, Tuscarora, Mohawk, Onondaga, and Oneida). Today the Haudenosaunee are located on reservation and reserves near lakes Ontario and Erie and live on and across this border, and they continue to reject the right of the U.S. or Canada to divide this ground. Unlike the United States, which was created in the late eighteenth century, the Haudenosaunee confederacy formed in the fifteenth century, more than three hundred years before the US. For more than 500 years, the six nations have controlled the swath of territories that stretch between what we now know as New York and Canada (Calloway 2011). Any serious consideration of sovereignty should conclude that the right of the six nations of Oneida, Tuscarora, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, and Mohawk to control these lands far precede and therefore supersede the rights of the United States to control over these lands.

We can see these intersections of these struggles in the ways that Native nations in the southwest, like the Diné (commonly Navajo) whose territory stretches between Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona, have long fought state attempts to exert control over immigration on their territories (Wyloge 2010). In a recent and highly publicized case, as Trump promised to build his border wall in early 2017, the vice chairman of the Tohono O’odham nation challenged federal attempts to enforce this colonial border. The Tohono O’odham have territory, community, and families that stretch across the US and Mexico border, and they have controlled and lived on these same lands since long before the United States created a border across them. Vice Chairman Verlon Jose lashed back at this proposition and announced, “only over my dead body will a wall be built” through Tohono O’odham lands (Náñez 2017; Morales 2017). Jose’s statement was picked up my national media and celebrated by immigrants and American-born citizens alike. This critique of federal policy using Indigenous sovereignty again demonstrates the power of these narratives in challenging the normalization of imperial borders and exclusionary settler colonial policies (Aran 2017). To be clear, not all Native people support migrants or immigrants rights reforms. Even within the Tohono O’odham nation there is conflict, and within the community there is strong opposition to setting up water stations and providing support for undocumented migrants who attempt to cross into the US via Tohono O’odham territory and sometimes die in the process. Nonetheless, it is clear that increasingly both Native American and migrant communities see their struggles as intertwined (Hallbritter 2017; “Tribe Divided Over Providing Water to Illegal Migrants Crossing Indian Land” 2008; Lucero 2014).

Beyond thinking about who holds documents, who receives citizenship, and how to enforce these borders, we need to question the fundamentals of the borders of this colonial state and the assumption that the settler government of the United States is the only entity with a right to regulate these lands and withhold or force citizenship onto the peoples of North America.

Citizenship-Violent Inclusions and Exclusions

Throughout the nineteenth century, as American settlers streamed ever westward across North America, the young United States was confronted with the question of what to do about Indigenous nations within these territories. Anglo-American settlers had long histories of violence and conflict with their Native American neighbors in the centuries that preceded the American Revolution, but as the territorial land base of the American Republic rapidly expanded during the 19th century, the nation could no longer simply push Native nations beyond its borders. Instead, during the nineteenth century, the U.S. developed complementary policies of social exclusion, territorial expulsion, and political incorporation, that served to dispossess Native communities of their lands, dismantle the territorial sovereignty of Native nations, and often to exterminate Native people themselves. This process is long and complex, and certainly not all of the United States’ Indian policy was driven by genocidal desires, but in general U.S. policies served to make Native lands and resources accessible to Anglo-American settlers by violently removing Native peoples and using racial legal systems to discredit Indigenous claims to land and self-determination.

On the most basic level, we can explain the logic of Indian removal as the product of an extractive colonization plan coupled with a racial ideology that envisioned no future for Native peoples within the modern United States. Much as African Americans were enslaved and barred from citizenship on the basis of their race and supposed biological inferiority, throughout most of the nineteenth century Native people were also barred from citizenship based on their supposed inherent savagery and primitivism. The belief that their savage nature was transmitted in their blood, and our contemporary fixation on Indian blood quantum as a marker of real Indigeneity, all stems from this ideology of inherent biological inferiority.

Anglo-American notions of biological inferiority and Native people’s lack of citizenship also meant that the federal judicial system also refused to recognize Indian nations as foreign nations with territorial sovereignty over their lands or as citizens with rights in the new nation. In 1828, for example, the Cherokee Nation attempted to sue to the State of Georgia in the Supreme Court over Georgia’s efforts to extend legal jurisdiction into the Cherokee nation. In response, the justices of the Supreme Court ruled that the case could not be heard in the Supreme Court because the Cherokee nation was neither a state within the nation nor a properly independent nation. The court ruled, rather, that the Cherokee nation was a “domestic, dependent nation” with a relationship to the federal government like that of a ward to the state, and that the nation had only land usage rights rather than proper titles to their territories they inhabitant. In effect, despite the fact that the Cherokees were settled farmers with a written constitution and centralized government, because of the perceptions that Indian people were savage and nomadic, and because the U.S. was desperate for a rationale to justify the dispossession and dissolution of this preexisting nation state, the federal courts insisted the Cherokees had neither the rights to their lands as foreign nations, nor the right to protections as American citizens (Duthu 2008; Sturm 2002; Garrison 2002; Perdue and Green 2005).

Using this logic of barbarism and racial inferiority, the United States pursued the massive dispossession of Indigenous peoples within its expanding borders over the course of the century. While the process of individual settlers violently pushing into Native territories continued as it had for the centuries prior, in the 1800s the U.S. formalized the process of forced removal. In the southeast, the Indian Removal Act led to the forced expulsion and relocation of Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, and many other nations to lands in Oklahoma. After the civil war, the U.S. turned its newly expanded and modernized armies to the task of corralling Native groups like the Comanches, Apaches, and Lakotas on reservations and enrolling these Indigenous peoples in civilization programs. Reformers suggested that on reservations these Native people would be allowed to civilize at their own pace. Through missionary programs and federally funded boarding schools, moreover, the government facilitated efforts to destroy Native languages, cultures, and identities. Ultimately, Native peoples were expected to die out or assimilate and, in doing so, ensure that the US government would be the only surviving sovereign with claims to lands, resources, and peoples within its national borders.

If the 19th century was marked by US efforts to exterminate Native Americans and expel them from their homelands, the twentieth century was framed by less explicitly violent, but no less insidious processes of eradication of Indigenous identity and the political dismantling of Native nations, thus destroying the separate sovereign nations that preexist the United States.

We often think of the extension of US citizenship as a positive good and as the ultimate end goal for all people who wish to live permanently within what is currently the U.S. For many Native people, however, citizenship is a form of oppression and is perceived as the most recent version of ongoing colonial policies. In 1924, the federal government granted citizenship to all Native Americans living within the US borders. To be clear, many Native people saw this as a positive move, as it would give their children rights to public education, to vote, to hold titles and own their lands, to live and work outside of reservations, and possibly to a path toward existence within a country that had for so many years sought to destroy Native people completely.

Yet many other Native people, especially those who lived with in their own sovereign lands, in independent territories, where they had fought long and hard to avoid removals and dispossession, understood this extension of citizenship as not only illegal, but also as a fundamental threat to Native sovereignty. In effect, while the US fervently denied citizenship to Chinese immigrants and to many Latino families, it forced citizenship onto Native people en mass. Despite the apparent contradiction here, these policies can be understood as part of the same larger project to build an exclusionary empire. In response to this move, some Native peoples completely rejected US citizenship insisting that they could not simply be forced into the U.S. without their consent. As Akwesane Mohawk (Haudenosaunee) Charles Benedict argued in 1941, when he explained the rejection of US citizenship by Mohawk nationals, the assumption that the US could incorporate Native peoples simply by passing laws or claiming to have jurisdiction over their territory was absurd. Citizenship, Benedict argued, “cannot possibly apply to Indians [Iroquois] since they are independent Nations. Congress may as well pass a law-making Mexicans citizens” (Hauptman 1981; Bruyneel 2007).

In effect, if the US could turn foreign nations and their people into domestic territories and US citizens, the US could then clam the resources held by these people, the right to implement legal restrictions on their behalf, and the right to control their territories and place borders through their lands. In this context, many Native people completely rejected US citizenship and refused to recognize this colonial re-imagining of their people’s relationship to their own lands, and to the United States. Haudenosaunee people who reject US citizenship, for example, frequently travel internationally on Haudenosaunee passports (Hill 2015; Kaplan 2010; Hamilton 2015; Healey 2017; McChesney 2010). In addition to refusing to recognize U.S. citizenship or to be bound by the border between the United States and Canada, Haudenosaunee people also annually force the federal government to renew their treaty agreements. In fact, each year U.S. officials meet with Haudenosaunee representatives and gift $4,500 worth of cloth to these tribal leaders. To many in 2018, this may sound startling. Why on earth would the US go to the trouble to procure cloth to send to a small nation of Haudenosaunee people? The answer is simple—they have no choice if they do not want to explicitly sever their peace treaty with the Haudenosaunee peoples. In 1794, when the US was just a fledging republic, the US signed a treaty with the powerful Haudenosaunee confederacy in which they promised that in perpetuity they would respect the land claims of this foreign Native nation and that they would provide them with that quantity of cloth annually. The cloth is of inferior quality, and it does not have the same practical use in the modern era as it did in the late eighteenth century when such fabric could be used to make clothing, blankets, or for other critical quotidian uses. By forcing the U.S. to deliver this cloth each year, however, the Iroquois confederacy is forcing the US to engage in the Native diplomatic practice of renewing and strengthening diplomatic relationships each year. More importantly, this gesture forcefully reminds the US each year of the obligations they have to this foreign nation, to which they are bound by international accords (Schilling 2016; Bonspeil 2017).

Beyond forcing the U.S. to honor its more than 200-year old treaties, the Haudenosaunee people are engaged in what Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson has termed the politics of refusal. Kahnawake Mohawks refuse to change the way they identify, refuse to use other citizenship or identities, refuse to change the way they relate to their lands or to their relatives across the border, and refuse to recognize the imposition of colonial law. Some travel internationally on Iroquois passports. By refusing to recognize these later borders as more valid that the territorial claims of the Haudenosaunee, the Mohawk nation presents a fundamental challenge to U. S.’s and Canada’s claims to these lands and their rights to impose a border and regulate migration through this territory (Simpson 2014; Jackson 2015).

We Are All Immigrants Here

How is it that we have so missed this critical part of the conversation? And why don’t we take Native claims to sovereignty seriously? The Native people that we do see in conversations about immigration mostly appear in the form of cartoons. Cartoons like below, created by artists Jeff Parker in 2006 and Mike Lukovich in 2010, do use Native Americans to critique our current immigration debate, and Parker’s image in particular has been widely shared since its initial publication more than a decade ago. Parker’s cartoon depicts scantily clad Native American men lashing together a timber wall along the shoreline at Plymouth Rock. In a small boat on the sea sit a group of Puritan men who are looking dejected as they have not been permitted to enter the lands to settle. The caption reads, “They say they’re building a wall because too many of us enter illegally and won’t learn their language or assimilate to their culture.” In Lukovich’s cartoon, we see first the shadows of two men proclaiming that “we’ve lost control of our borders, they must be rounded up and deported,” and in the second panel the carton shows that the men are Native Americans and one says to the other “all 300 million of them,” indicating that they mean all non-Native settlers.

Jeff Parker, “Editorial Cartoon,” Florida Today, 11/1/2006,LINK

While Parker’s famous cartoon critiques the hypocrisy of our current debates over migration, it is also somewhat ambiguous in nature and could be mobilized both to support migrants, or as a warning against the dangers of newcomers. Lukovich’s cartoon is decidedly less ambiguous and clearly indicates that this country was entirely built by undocumented immigrants. Critically though, in both of these images, and in nearly all of these popular cartoons or representations that use Native people to critique our current debates, artists rely on historic and stereotypical images of Native peoples in order to communicate their messages. This is significant because while these serve to remind the public of the Indigenous past of North America, these stereotypical or historical representations further exclude contemporary Native voices from the conversation. It is not that these critiques are not helpful, but rather that because our media is so saturated with these stereotypical images, it makes us less able to recognize and acknowledge contemporary Native people and to hear their opinions. The ongoing invisibility of Native people has hindered the ability of most Americans to recognize Native sovereignty and Native people in the modern era. Therefore, to work with not only critiques that involve Native American peoples, but that are actually from Indigenous perspectives, we need to first see Native people as modern humans and recognize Indigenous nations as legitimate sovereigns.

Mike Lukovich, “The Original Immigration Problem,” The Atlanta Constitution-Journal, 6/25/2007, LINK

In doing so, we must recognize that the narrative that insists that America is a nation of immigrants is dangerous. The project of Indigenous eradication and erasure is deeply bound up in the national project to claim vacated Native lands and thereby assert sovereignty over the lands that now compose the United States. I want to emphasis that the slogan “we are all immigrants here” is very helpful in reminding so many Americans that most of our families also immigrated to this land to seek better lives. Many of our parents and grandparents faced discrimination or marginalization because they spoke different languages, practiced diverse religions, or had skin, hair, or even clothes that marked them as different from our idealized imaginings of white, Christian founding fathers.

However, we must also be very careful with this refrain, careful not to erase the experiences of the hundreds of thousands of captive and enslaved Africans who were dragged to this continent and brutally exploited as their labor built the structures that created the US society and economy. And we must also be careful in insisting that everyone today was at some point an immigrant, an assertion that erases the very existence of Native people in our midst as well as their claims to this territory.

Scholars Jean O’Brien, Phil Deloria, and many others have written extensively about how the project of erasing Native peoples and the critical implications of this expulsion from mainstream American conversations. At a basic level, we can distill these critiques into five central points. First, our national origin stories often write Indians out of history. We insist that all the real Indians died out long ago, and our children’s school textbooks reify this narrative as they emphasize Native peoples’ roles in welcoming the pilgrims, the removal of Native people in the Southeast, and the U.S. and homesteader’s victories over Indian nations as the federal army conquered the Plains. Second, in the United States we avoid the public celebration of Native peoples, and we have far more statues of nameless, semi-naked, Indians than we do monuments celebrating Indigenous Americans. Unlike Christopher Columbus, George Washington, or Andrew Jackson, and many others responsible for slaughtering Native peoples whose images and stories we recount each year and who we commemorate in marble across the United States there are no national statues to Popé, Pontiac, or Dragging Canoe.

Third, and this is crucial, we insist that Indians cannot be modern. We imagine and represent Indians as wearing buckskin and living in teepees, and we “know” that they belong on reservations. They cannot exist in jeans and flat brims walking in urban spaces and video-chatting their friends. If we see Native people in modern dress, driving cars, or working as baristas, we assume they must not be “real” Indians, as they are missing all of their markers of authenticity. Fourth, we have used a distinctly American racial ideology to convert people who are part of more than 500 autonomous nations that pre-existed the US into a racial minority within the United States. Building on the logic of racial inferiority, which undergirded slavery and Indian removal, in the late nineteenth century the federal government began using “measures” of the amount of “Indian blood” in a person to determine whether they would be recognized by the federal government as part of a tribe. The 1887 Dawes Severalty Act codified this process by granting only those who were described as half or more Indian blood the ability to enroll within Indian nations and stripping land from those found not to qualify. This move not only dramatically reduced Indian land holdings and opened up Native territories to the American settlers, but codifying this measure also gave the federal government a way to bleed out Indian nations. Rather than growing with each generation, Native people were destined to dilute this essential genetic profile with each successive generation. Collectively then, this constellation of policy, racial ideology, misrepresentation and invisibility, undermines Native sovereignty and undergirds the national myths that sustain the United States’ claims to control Indian nations and to impose borders and boundaries on top of older sovereign nations (Deloria 2004; O’Brien 2010; Deloria 1998; Tallbear 2013; Lowery 2013).

To illustrate how visibility is such a critical part of this conversation, lets return to the image we began with—Dr. Yazzie and Dr. Estes at the airport. On their signs you can see that in addition to the powerful articulations of Native sovereignty and the Indigenous right to welcome people on their sovereign territories, they have painted a handprint and an arrow. In effect, they needed to use some of the iconography that we recognize as Native, that codes as Indigenous, so that we can validate them as real Indian people and therefore understand their critique. In effect, they need to first be visible as modern Native people before we can hear their criticism of settler colonialism and exclusionary land claims. I made a point to emphasize Estes and Yazzie’s dress and presentation at the beginning of this article because so often we are unable to recognize and see Native people unless they are dressed or behaving within he realms of stereotypical imaginings of Native people that we have created. Yes, we wear squash blossom necklaces, or beaded bolo ties, or ribbon shirts, but we also wear Nikes and sequined cocktail dresses and flannel shirts, and you need to be able to hear our perspectives regardless of our sartorial choices.

Towards an Intersectional Future

But what is the potential if we recognize modern Native Americans and take Native sovereignty seriously? Can Native nations only provide critiques of our current system, or could they actually provide tangible sanctuary? Each native nation determines its own citizenship and enrollment policies. At least in theory, Native Americans could offer citizenship or asylum to refugees and migrants fleeing violence in their homelands.

Native nations certainly have long histories of taking in refugees and adopting in outsiders. Although today we often talk about Native people as though they have some form of pure Cherokee, or Pauite, or Crow blood, for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, Native nations and communities adopted and integrated outsiders from other Native groups. In fact, during the seventeenth century Haudenosaunee people largely rebuilt their confederacy after devastating bouts of disease by integrating outsiders from other nations. Likewise, the Chickasaws integrated so many outsiders during the eighteenth century that by the 1770s North West, a Chickasaw leader, described the nation as primarily composed of non-ethnic Chickasaws (Snyder 2018).

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Native nations also took in Europeans and integrated them as full members of their nations and they continued this practice into the nineteenth century (Snowden, Tyndall, and Smith 2001). During the 1870s, for example, the Plains Ojibwe in what is now North Dakota took in hundreds of Métis (people of mixed Native and French ancestry) refugees who were forced to flee Canada after the collapse of Louis Riel’s rebellion. The descendants of these Plains Ojibwe and the Métis refugees are today recognized as the nation of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa (Richotte 2017). In fact, during the nineteenth century, the federal government perceived the ability of native nations to provide sanctuary to “outsiders” and to integrate non-ethnically Indigenous newcomers as a serious challenge and potential threat to U.S. sovereignty.

By the mid 19th century the Supreme Court was explicitly challenging the rights of Native nations to continue to integrate non-ethnically Indigenous people. In 1846, the Supreme court heard the case of William Rogers, an Anglo-American man who had been adopted into the Cherokee nation, and was accused of murdering another Anglo-American man, Jacob Nicholson, who had also been adopted into the Cherokee nation, while both men were living within the territory of the Cherokee nation in Oklahoma. The court ruled that although the men had become Cherokees, they remained white men (racially non-Indian) and thus Rogers could be tried in a U.S. circuit court for his crimes. In effect, the Supreme Court ruled that race trumped geographical jurisdiction when it came to enforcing U.S. laws over Native nations and territories (Snowden, Tyndall, and Smith 2001). The question is, would this same argument hold up in a modern U.S. court today? Would the same racial logic be applied to limit Native sovereignty and prevent Native nations from providing sanctuary in the way that any other modern nation may?

Considering the barrage of government efforts to strip tribal sovereignty and the ongoing efforts to refuse to recognize Native nations as full sovereigns, this process would be bring with it immense risk and almost certainly generate a federal backlash. Given our current immigration crisis, however, and the disastrous state of the relationship between the federal and tribal governments, it is arguably equally as risky for us to do nothing. So, as we move forward to build a truly intersectional movement it is time for those of who operate in non-Indigenous American to begin pushing these perspectives and critiques into the mainstream immigration debates, and for those us who are part of tribal nations to begin bridging these conversations within our Indigenous communities.

In essence, part of the first step in reorienting our thinking is reimagining our spaces as deeply Indigenous, learning to recognize that today Indigenous people look like any other modern humans, and that modern Native nations are just that, nations. We come in all colors, with all kinds of hair, and we speak with southern drawls, and Brooklyn accents, and at home in our communities in the languages of our people. The point is that these struggles for visibility are overlapping with our struggles with imperial borders and modern perceptions of who gets to belong to the U.S. and who our nation belongs to. Therefore, as we talk about coming out of the shadows and making American immigrants and undocumented folks not only visible but celebrated parts of our communities, we also need to think about how we can celebrate and recognize the Native people of this land. In doing so, and recognizing the rights of modern Native nations, we are stuck not just arguing over the number of visas, or at what extent a kinship network goes beyond your basic family and should not be allowed to live with you, or how much money we are willing to invest in border control, but we challenge the entire ideology and system that places borders onto your people and mine. As we move forward and talk about new ways of imagining relationships to each other, to these places, and visions for what the U.S. will look like in the coming years, we must remember that this state is not the only state that claims the land between the East River and San Francisco Bay, but that another 573 nations whose claims all precede those of the current government do so as well.

Elizabeth Ellis is Assistant Professor of native American and early American history in the Department of History at New York University. She is also a citizen of the Peoria Tribe of Oklahoma and an activist. Her current book project investigates the histories of Louisiana’s small, Native American polities during the eighteenth century. Her work has been published in Tunicas, the Journal of Louisiana History and the volume The World of Colonial America (Routledge, 2017).

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