“War on Terror” versus Native Sovereignty

Against the Current, No. 105, July/August 2003

Andrea Smith

SINCE 9/11, MANY Native American tribes have come out in support of the U.S. war against “terror.” In fact, however, it is important to understand that this war against “terror” is really an attack against Native sovereignty.

Bush has used the war on terror as a pretext to increase energy resource extraction in the United States, arguing that this country needs to harness its domestic energy reserves to support the war on “terror.”

Indigenous Resources, Nuclear Waste

It is important to remember that the vast majority of energy resources are on indigenous lands, and almost all uranium mining takes place on or near Native lands. So whenever we hear the rhetoric of developing U.S. domestic energy resources, we are hearing a veiled attack against Native sovereignty.

Consequently, Native peoples are facing greater assaults under the government’s energy policy. Bush continues to support drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge (home to the Gwich’in people), while at the same time he opposes making sports utility vehicles more fuel efficient.

Since the proposed drilling would affect the calving grounds of the caribou the Gwich’in peoples depend on, this project could be genocidal for them.

Another huge blow against Native sovereignty was the recent Congressional act to locate a permanent high-level nuclear waste repository on Yucca mountain, which is sacred to the Western Shoshone. This land is also part of the same territory covered by the Treaty of Ruby Valley, which should protect the Shoshone from federal incursion.

Yucca Mountain is located on an active volcanic zone. Kiloton bombs are also exploded underground nearby, thus increasing the risks of radioactive leakage. In addition, many nuclear facilities had closed down because there was no permanent site for nuclear wastes.

By opening Yucca Mountain, the Bush administration has opened the way for nuclear facilities to re-open. Ultimately, this recent decision will not just impact on indigenous peoples, but on all of us.

The proposed repository on Yucca Mountain would receive nuclear wastes throughout the nation. Only five states would not be affected by the transport of high-level radioactive wastes.

With up to 4,000 shipments of radioactive waste crossing the nation annually, trucking industry statistics reveal that up to fifty accidents per year could occur during the thirty-year period that nuclear waste would stream to Yucca Mountain.

The Border and Native Sovereignty

The Bush administration continues to use the war on terror as an excuse to support anti-immigration policies and the militarization of the U.S./Mexico border. Many Native peoples may not see these anti-immigration policies as attacks against Native sovereignty, and in fact many support these policies.

What is at stake for the U.S. government, however, is the ability to assert who gets to determine who can be on these lands. By militarizing the U.S./Mexico border, Washington is asserting that this is the border that must be maintained — not the borders of indigenous nations.

Thus, anti-immigration policies are ultimately about asserting U.S. sovereignty over and against indigenous sovereignty. By instituting repressive immigration policies, the U.S. government is asserting that it, and not indigenous nations, should determine who can be on these lands.

That is why popular media often feature stories of American Indians serving on border control — presenting the picture that Native peoples support U.S. interests over those of their own nations.

Unilateralism Home and Abroad

Bush’s war against terrorism is a clear attempt of the United States government to assert its military and economic power over the rest of the world.

As such, George W. Bush’s administration continues to assert its own agenda without regard for any other country. He has undermined the UN process repeatedly by refusing to support the Kyoto Accord, refusing to support a permanent tribunal to investigate war crimes so that U.S. responsibility for war crimes cannot be investigated, and boycotting the UN Conference Against Racism.

Through economic and political blackmail, other countries are often forced to support U.S. policies. Native peoples, by contrast, have been arguing that because they come from indigenous nations, they deserve protection under international human rights law such that their sovereignty would take precedence over U.S. domestic laws. The constant U.S. undermining of UN process hinders the ability of indigenous nations to gain recognition as sovereign nations under international law.

War Economy and Domestic Violence

As Bush increases spending to support the military, taking money out of social services, we can expect to see increasing cuts in federal spending for tribally based programs. Already, for instance, John Ashcroft is shifting monies from tribally-based domestic violence programs to support “homeland security.”

As Native peoples are at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder in this country, they are disproportionally hit by cuts in social spending. Native women in particular are burdened taking care of their communities as the economy worsens and their access to social services declines.

Native women activists have been heroic in their efforts to end violence in Native communities. A multitude of tribally-based domestic violence programs have developed in Indian country to address violence against women and children.

The “war on terror,” however, makes it much more difficult to address violence within this country. In addition, war escalates rates of sexual/domestic violence — both in sexual assaults committed against the women with whom the U.S. is at war, and in domestic violence within aggressor countries.

The connection is clear with the murders of Teresa Nieves, Andrea Floyd, Jennifer Wright and Marilyn Griffin, who were killed by their military partners, recently returned from Afghanistan, within days of each other.

Before invading Afghanistan, “there had been no deaths attributable to domestic abuse by Fort Bragg personnel in two years.” In the same report, Jennifer Wright’s mother comments that “until he came back from Afghanistan, I didn’t worry about violence.”

In fact, the Miles Foundation reports rates of domestic violence as two to five times higher in military homes. It is simply inconsistent to say it is not okay to beat your partner, yet it is okay to bomb civilians in Iraq. We cannot end violence in Native communities while supporting violence in other countries.

Ultimately, a military response to “terrorism” will be unsuccessful because the U.S. military is itself the great perpetrator of terrorism and violence in recent history. How can this country, guilty of genocide against indigenous peoples, suddenly be expected to promote peace and security?

It is time for indigenous peoples, who have suffered 500 years of this terrorism, to lead the world in thinking new and creative ways to restore peace based on indigenous values of respect, accountability, and reciprocity.

ATC 105, July-August 2003