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What we can learn from Native American politics

In early November, Danielle Vinson, professor of politics and international affairs, gave a Cultural Life Program called “Breathing New Life into Old Treaties: Contemporary Enforcement of Native American Treaties,” which examined the United States government’s legal interactions with Native American tribes.

From 1777-1868, the U.S. signed and ratified nearly 370 treaties with Native American tribes or nations. Vinson’s CLP covered several examples of these treaties and new efforts to enforce them. Next fall, she will be will be teaching a course about Native American politics.

In this Q&A, Vinson explains the relevance of these treaties today and what we can learn by better understanding Native American political culture.

Why have you chosen to teach this class for the first time?

Danielle Vinson, professor of politics and international affairs

“This is a topic I’ve been interested in for a long time. I did the Indian country MayX with (Furman professor) Helen Lee Turner in the religion department back in 2015. Up to that point, I’d had a passing interest in Native American history, culture and politics. But she had been telling me about interesting developments on Hopi reservation, regarding their constitution, and I just found the politics really fascinating. And then we took the students out there. I tell the students all the time I learned more in those three weeks than I’ve ever learned in my lifetime in a three-week period. It was astounding. And the politics is fascinating, and for it to be something that happens in the United States – which, I teach American politics – but I knew so little about it. I thought, ‘Our students don’t know anything about this.’… This would be a way for me to think about things going on in American politics in a little bit different way.”

Why is it important for students to know about our treaties with Native American nations?

“Students tend to learn about Native Americans in history and they don’t realize they still are sovereign nations within the United States today. And that affects the way our government interacts with Native Americans. They are strangely situated to be citizens of their tribes but also citizens of the United States. The treaties are an interesting way to see that relationship, how the treaties are dealt with in the courts, is an interesting way to see that interaction between the U.S. government and the individuals and the tribal nations.”

More generally, how does learning about Native American political culture help us see our dominant American politics more clearly?

“I think for students, it’s just an important opportunity to think about American politics in a different way. Native American political culture is quite different from the individualism and focus on rights and individual freedoms that we’re used to in American political culture. But there is this whole other way of thinking about political culture, more as part of a community and responsibility, not just for individual freedoms and what’s good for me but what’s good for my community, what’s good for the society around me. That is more the Native American political culture, and our students don’t get to see a lot of that in American politics. But it’s an interesting way of approaching problems very differently from the way we tend to approach problems. There’s a lot for us to learn from Native American politics and culture.”

When you gave a Cultural Life Program talk this month on the topic of Native American treaties, what was the response from students? Did they have any particular questions, misconceptions or reactions to what, for many of them, was probably information they had not encountered before?

“They were more really interested in trying to understand the nature of the treaties, why the government makes the decisions that it does make in regard to Native American lands, particularly, and what people could do in support of the tribes and the positions they’re taking, particularly because our students are often interested in climate change issues.

We find out that in some cases, Native Americans are in a better position because of treaty rights to advocate on behalf of some of these climate and environmental issues than regular American citizens would be. Whenever we bring something up as it relates to the environment and environmental policy, the government has to kind of do a cost-benefit analysis – are we restricting someone else’s economic rights if we protect this particular plot of land? But when you start talking about Native Americans, you have the claim of hunting and fishing rights due to these hundred and some year-old treaties. They’ve got a different kind of claim that doesn’t require that weighing of costs and benefits. It’s just a matter of, ‘Are we going to enforce this treaty or not?’

That was the angle a lot of students were interested in: How do you advocate then on behalf of tribes because it fits with a lot of what students are thinking in terms of climate change and environmental policy.”

One of the examples you gave in your talk was about Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020 using an 1836 treaty with tribal nations to argue for shutting down an oil pipeline, which you believe is the first time a political leader used treaty rights to advocate for a decision, instead of waiting to be forced to recognize those rights by the courts. Do you anticipate other government entities will now follow suit and use treaties in a similar manner?

“I certainly see some of them being interested in that. It’s another tool to try to use to push an environmental agenda. And so for governors who would like to do that, it gives them, potentially, another tool. I have to say, some of the tribal lawyers are a little nervous about this, because they also see it as the possibility of the government deciding we don’t need to worry about those treaty rights or we don’t need to interpret treaty rights in that way. So for them, it potentially brings cases that, if they get decided the wrong way from the tribe’s perspective, might undermine treaty rights.”



Last updated November 23, 2021
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Clinton Colmenares
News & Media Relations Director