Wrapping your Head around Sovereignty

Indian Rorschach

Indian Rorschach

A dinner party conversation turned to Indian sovereignty.

The diners knew little about policies, and asked me how tribes can exist as nations within nations.

The answer is sovereignty—a pretty hard concept to wrap your head around.

A tribe can exist independently within a country while exercising some degree of agency over its laws, practices and customs—but not complete agency.

What does sovereignty mean for an individual?

Imagine my surprise when I came across a passage in a Buddhist text about sovereignty.

Be sovereign wherever you are and use that place as your seat of awakening.

That’s the advice of Thich Nhat Hanh in his book Nothing to do, Nowhere to go.

Rather than be outer-focused, turn your attention inward, he says.

If you direct your search to what lies outside of you, you have made a great mistake.

The book is like a Rorschach test: you read into it what you want to read.

Rather than fixing your sights on external benchmarks, Hanh’s advice is to look within.

Such advice fits with Indian ways-of-knowing and, at the same time, contradicts ontology.

For Buddhists and American Indians, knowing oneself is important. But focusing inward can be tricky.

Being too self-absorbed is frowned upon in both American Indian and Buddhist ideologies.

While Buddhism appears to encourage us to live in the moment (rather than in the past or in the unseen future) many indigenous teachings urge us to live for others: for our families and communities.

For American Indians, the past is important. Indeed, many tribes work diligently to preserve our stories for new generations.

Sovereignty presents a dilemma–not in the political sense–but in the personal sense.

Just like tribes aren’t truly sovereign (just look at the relationship with the US Federal Government), individuals aren’t truly sovereign, either.

We are individuals within the context of our families and communities.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in framing, Indian, Native Science, science and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Wrapping your Head around Sovereignty

  1. Alphonse Estrada says:

    Wilkins told me other tribes are watching the Chukchansi and others disenroll their members with no consequences and so they’re trying it, too. And he said something that I’d heard from a lot of Indians. We were almost wiped out by other people. And why are we now whittling ourselves away through disenrollments?


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