The radical origins of international Indigenous representation
In this excerpt from Our History Is the Future, Nick Estes looks at the foundation and the legacy of the International Indian Treaty Council, the international arm of the American Indian Movement (AIM), tasked with gaining international recognition at the UN for Indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere.
In the late summer of 1977, a small group of Indigenous elders from Canada’s Six Nations, the Oceti Sakowin, Hopi, Panama, Guatemala, the Amazon, Mexico, and Chile led a delegation of 120 through Geneva, Switzerland. The march bore the marks of history. Having survived centuries of genocide and punitive colonial policies of assimilation and land theft, they also carried with them the aspirations of hundreds of millions of Indigenous peoples from around the globe to gain a seat at the United Nations. Geneva and the UN had never seen anything like it before, and probably have not since. Dressed in their traditional regalia, the delegation sang the “Raymond Yellow Thunder Song,” (widely known as the “AIM Song”) to honor the Oglala elder brutally murdered by white vigilantes in 1972. The procession wound through the quaint mountain town, arriving at the Palais des Nations. UN security guards opened the tall double doors as they approached. The singing grew louder as they ascended the stairwell to the second-floor council chambers, where world leaders had met to decide the fates of colonized peoples, and where generations of American Indians had been categorically denied entry as nations. Fifty-four years earlier at this exact location, the Cayuga leader Deskaheh (Levi General) from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy made an unsuccessful appeal to the League of Nations in defense of Indigenous rights and nationhood, in protest of the overthrow of the Six Nations government by the Canadian state. This time, however, with the support of Soviet bloc countries, Third World nations of the Non-Aligned Movement, and national liberation movements such as the South African anti-apartheid struggle and the Palestine Liberation Organization, Indigenous peoples had, to a large degree, provincialized the influence of North Atlantic powers to dictate their diplomatic relations “outside” the settler colony. Consequently, US media and diplomats largely boycotted the conference that laid the groundwork for what became the touchstone document of international Indigenous rights: the 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a document four Anglo settler states—the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia—initially refused to endorse.
While Indigenous representation has become a permanent feature at the UN, its radical origins are less well known. The historic 1977 Geneva gathering was preceded by a simpler, but no less monumental, gathering in Standing Rock, along the banks of the Missouri River. In the heat of the Northern Plains summer, 5,000 people from more than ninety-seven different Indigenous nations met from June 8 to 16, 1974. By the end of the week, the International Indian Treaty Council was founded as an international arm of the American Indian Movement (AIM), tasked with gaining international recognition at the UN for Indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere. The Treaty Council’s founding document, the “Declaration of Continuing Independence,” foregrounded nationhood and treaty rights as central features of an American Indian political identity. “We condemn the United States of America for its gross violation of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty in militarily surrounding, killing, and starving the citizens of the Independent Oglala Nation into exile,” it read, in reference to the brutal crackdown on AIM following their occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. The Treaty Council appealed to “conscionable nations” to join “in charging and prosecuting the United States of America for its genocidal practices against the sovereign Native Nations; most recently illustrated by Wounded Knee 1973 and the continued refusal to sign the United Nations 1948 Treaty on Genocide.”2 Following the seventy-one-day siege, AIM leadership had been arrested and tied up in court proceedings. Then came the brutal repression under the infamous FBI Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) that nearly destroyed Indigenous, Black, and revolutionary movements in the United States. The strategic turn to international human rights law largely saved the Indigenous movement from utter collapse in a moment of intense state repression.
The Treaty Council, however, was not the first or only version of what historian Daniel Cobb calls a “global Indigenous identity.” Rather, it belonged to and drew from a long tradition of Indigenous internationalism.5 Prior to European contact, Indigenous nations had often entered into relations with each other for alliance, kinship, war, peace, or trade. As shown in previous chapters, agreements were made not solely between human nations, but also among nonhuman nations as well, such as the buffalo and the land. Such treaties were, and continue to be, the basis of diplomacy and the evidence of a prior and continuing status of Indigenous nation- hood. Sovereign nations do not enter into international relations or treaties with domestic or “internal” populations. On the contrary, the very basis of sovereignty is the power to negotiate relationships between those who are seen as different—between other sovereigns and nations. But concepts of “sovereignty” and “nation” possess different meanings for Indigenous peoples than for their European-derived counter- parts. And they are not entirely consistent, either, with the aspirations for a nation-state that came to define decolonization movements in the Third World. While doing important defensive work, on face value these Western and Third World concepts only partially reflect traditions of Indigenous resistance.
Far beyond the project of seeking equality within the colonial state, the tradition of radical Indigenous internationalism imagined a world altogether free of colonial hierarchies of race, class, and nation. This vision allowed revolutionary Indigenous organizations such as the Treaty Council to make relatives, so to speak, with those they saw as different, imagining themselves as part of Third World struggles and ideologies, and entirely renouncing the imperialism and exceptionalism of the First World (while still living in it). They were in the First World but not of it—much like American Indians are in, but not entirely of, the United States. Indigenous peoples across North America and the world have fought, died, and struggled to reclaim, restore, and redefine these powerful ideas. Their goal has been to take their proper place in the family of nations.
Radical Indigenous internationalism, however, predates AIM and the Treaty Council. Contemporary pan-Indigenous movements were a result of more than a decade of Red Power organizing that began in the early 1960s, nearly a decade before the creation of AIM. Earlier, in the 1950s, Flathead scholar and writer D’Arcy McNickle and the National Congress of American Indians had explored a similar intellectual and political terrain of internationalism. And before that, the Society of American Indians advocated for a seat at the table during the 1919 Paris peace talks and representation at the League of Nations. Each distinct instance posed a similar question: If Indigenous peoples are nations, why are they not afforded the right to self-determination?
Two strands of thinking about self-determination for the colonial world prevailed following the First World War. In the first, US President Woodrow Wilson argued for self- determination with a limited set of rights that would not radically upset the colonial order. Such liberal internationalism, however, glaringly omitted Indigenous peoples, as they under- stood themselves as nations that existed prior to the forma- tion of settler states. Rarely were Wilson’s principles applied to North America or the United States; nor were they ever intended to extend to Indigenous peoples.
A second, more radical vision put forward by Communist revolutionary V. I. Lenin argued for the right of colonized nations to secede and declare independence from their colonial masters. This view was echoed by the Third World decolonization movement, as part of a global Socialist and Communist revolution, and it has frequently been applied in the Asian, African, and South American contexts. But this view remained almost entirely absent in North America, except among radical Indigenous, Black, Asian, Caribbean, and Chicanx national liberation movements.
The Treaty Council advocated Indigenous nationhood as part of this global anti-colonial movement and in line with Third World liberation movements. After decades of experiencing land loss, enduring bare survival, attempting to work with federal programs, filing court cases, defeating termination legislation, and facing mass relocation, an assertion of Oceti Sakowin sovereignty went from ambition to prescription. Few avenues remained other than the pursuit of international treaty rights. Treaties made with the United States were proof of nationhood. But what legal institution would uphold this position if the United States refused to? If the goal was to reverse the unjust occupation of an entire continent, the advancement of Indigenous rights through the very legal and political systems that justified that occupation in the first place had proven limited in some instances, and hopeless in others. To survive, AIM and the Treaty Council therefore had to look elsewhere to make their case—beyond the confines of the most powerful political construct in world history, the nation-state.
Prior to and during colonization, Indigenous nations had self-organized into deliberate confederacies, alliances, and governments. The Nation of the Seven Council Fires (the Oceti Sakowin), for instance, is a confederacy of seven different nations of Lakota-, Dakota-, and Nakota-speaking peoples in the Northern Plains and Western Great Lakes. They are hardly unique; in North America alone there are the Creek Confederacy in the Southeast, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy of Six Nations in the Northeast, the Council of Three Fires (made up of Ojibwes, Odawas, and Potawatomis) in the Great Lakes region, the United Indian Nations in the Ohio River valley (under the Shawnee leadership of Tecumseh), the All Indian Pueblo Council of the Southwest, and the Iron Confederacy of the Northern Plains. Many other political confederacies also flourished prior to, alongside, and in spite of settler states in North America. And their legacies are hardly relegated to the primordial past.
Modern Oceti Sakowin internationalism, for instance, traces its origins to the early twentieth century, an era generally viewed as a low point for Indigenous activism and resistance. In North America alone, an estimated precolonial population of tens of millions of Indigenous peoples had been reduced to about 300,000, and for Flathead historian D’Arcy McNickle, writing in 1949, two processes contributed greatly to this decimation: the institution of private property and the destruction of Indigenous governance that once held land in common. Indigenous nations at the time also possessed little in the way of either collective property or political power, as Indigenous territory had been drastically diminished, and the reservation system had overthrown or almost entirely dissolved customary governments. If Indigenous peoples once constituted the tree of the Americas, whose roots deeply entwined in the land, the cultivation of “growth from the severed stump,” McNickle argued, was the pivotal challenge of the twentieth century.
Physical extermination and the repression of Indigenous political power verified the United States’ genocidal intent, but these had not accomplished their purpose. And despite otherwise stating pluralistic claims to inclusion, McNickle concluded that the United States simply “cannot tolerate a nation within a nation.” If Natives were to be assimilated, they would be assimilated as individuals and not as nations. In the popular imaginary, Natives disappeared into the wilderness of history, were never truly nations, and had been overpowered by a superior civilization. If they were nations, they were eclipsed and replaced by the real nation—the United States. Such erasure notwithstanding, vibrant Indigenous political traditions persisted. But to the untrained eye, nothing was awry. From the severed stump began to regrow the tree of life—the tree of resistance that would blossom into revolt decades later.