With Liberty and Justice for All? When Will We Include First Nations?

↑ “Raven and the First Men” by Bill Reid. Permanently installed at the Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

Our Pledge of Allegiance offers liberty and justice for all. Who will be the last to join the circle?

This Fourth of July, I watched the fireworks in a new light after the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. To celebrate the expanding circle of equal rights in America was a good feeling, and I imagined what it must have been like to watch the fireworks after women won the right to vote, or after segregation ended.

Our Pledge of Allegiance offers liberty and justice for all, but it’s taken us several generations to slowly expand the circle of justice to include more and more people.

I don’t know who will be included in our expanding circle of liberty and justice next, but I know who will be last: Native Americans. (Note: We used to call them Indians, but “Native Americans” isn’t much less insulting—imagine if aliens invaded Europe, renamed it Borgop, and called Germans and Brits “Native Borgopians.” In Canada, native people are referred to by their nation’s name, or collectively as First Nations. We should do the same.)

The great irony in the continuing exclusion of First Nations people is that our Constitution and Bill of Rights are largely modeled on the laws of First Nations, particularly the Great Law of the Iroquois. The Framers believed that First Nations societies offered a model for how people could live—before aristocracy, theocracy, and coercive power ruined society as it had in Europe. First Nation societies and confederacies had a huge influence on the Enlightenment (in both America and Europe) that remains underappreciated by white Americans today. In their 1980 book Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy, Donald A. Grinde, Jr. and Bruce E. Johansen write:

How did these native confederacies govern themselves? Each had its own variations on the common theme of democracy in councils, but most were remarkably similar in broad outline. Jefferson, Franklin, Adair, Le Jeune, and others—from framers to farmers, the length of the coast into the Saint Lawrence Valley—all saw governmental systems which shared many similarities. These systems had evolved to co-ordinate governance across geographic distances that seemed huge to European eyes at the time, and to permit maximum freedom to nations within confederations, and individuals within nations.

The colonists forming the United States laid before themselves much the same task in molding their own government, so it should not be surprising that early government in the United States, especially under the Articles of Confederation, greatly resembled native systems in many respects.

One of the more fascinating structural differences between First Nations governments and ours is this: In the First Nations, male representatives were typically elected exclusively by women. Imagine a Congress that can be elected only by female voters. It’s a fine idea for achieving some form of gender balance in politics.

In many ways, the form of government we largely cribbed from the First Nations was more ideologically advanced than we ourselves were at the time (having inherited and descended from a political system in Europe based largely on coercive forms of power). It’s taken us many generations to come around to honoring these principles and treating everyone—people of different races, religions, national origins, genders, and sexual orientations—as the same under the law and in our hearts.

A family therapist will tell you that healing a relationship between two family members (the First Nations have taken us into their family, not the other way around) usually begins with an apology. Let’s start there. Many nations around the world have formally apologized to people they’ve wronged, including those they’ve colonized and systematically murdered and oppressed.

Complicating matters is the fact that in our present legal framework, American land is a fully legitimized theft. The most common means of legitimizing the thefts of nations were fabricated debts and faked acts of aggression that justified taking everything in a war. If those failed to work (if we couldn’t induce nations to take on unpayable debts or incite them to violence) we simply took what we wanted for no legitimate reason, and/or forced people to sign legally binding “treaties” at gunpoint. Look no further than what happened to the Cherokee, a nation that did everything America asked, and even won a Supreme Court case proving its sovereignty under our own legal system, before being told by Andrew Jackson to abandon its entire nation and move to a reservation in Oklahoma, or be slaughtered.

Given the magnitude of what we’ve done, how could things ever be made right? What would it mean to watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July in some distant future knowing that First Nations people were fully included rather than mostly excluded?

Once again, I believe Canada might show us the way. Its approach to First Nations (both in attitude and law) is so much healthier. First Nations are given more say in Canadian affairs. Their citizens also enjoy far greater sovereignty in their own nations within Canada.

To get a small glimpse of the difference, look at the Pull Together Campaign opposing the Canadian Tar Sands project. The following video documents how First Nations people are teaming up with other Canadians to prevent the pipeline from going through. In this video, the subtle but important differences between Canadian attitudes toward First Nations people and the attitudes one encounters in America is palpable. See for yourself:

As readers of this publication know, Left Coast magazine approaches the Left Coast as a distinct region or nation with unofficial borders extending from Northern California through British Columbia. Even though our region has a great deal of cultural cohesion and commonality, the Canadian section of the Left Coast is light years ahead of the rest of the region in terms of relations with First Nations.

I hope the rest of the Left Coast catches up. As we’ve seen with so many other sociopolitical issues, once we change things on the Left Coast, we can eventually extend those changes across North America.

In some distant future, maybe there can truly be liberty and justice for all—maybe even with fireworks synchronized to music from First Nations people.

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