September 17, 2008

Obama's unconvincing promise

TallBear:  ‘Exceptionalism’ narrative doesn't jiveOn May 19 at Crow Agency, Mont., Barack Obama received a Crow name that translates as “One who helps people throughout the land” [Indian Country Today, Vol. 27, Iss. 51]. He then committed, if president, to fulfill tribal treaty obligations: a fitting promise for a candidate who has the “audacity of hope.”

Does Obama understand the enormity of his promise? Fulfilling treaty commitments will entail legal and material remedies that the majority of Americans will be unwilling to accept--especially the renegotiation of title to vast tracts of land, including the Black Hills, and tremendous financial commitments. The political and economic challenges of fulfilling Obama’s promise make it unconvincing.

Nevertheless, David Wilkins and Tsianina Lomawaima (Uneven Ground, 2001) note a similar audacity to hope on the part of American Indian tribes. In the face of a lengthy list of treaty violations by the United States, and persistent U.S. colonial domination, tribes exercise faith in the federal-tribal “trust” doctrine and the rule of law, even as they engage in “everyday acts of resistance.” Some see such faith as naïve or representative of deep psychological colonization. Quoting Jim Wallace (The Soul of Politics, 1994), Wilkins and Lomawaima interpret such faith as “hope believed,” as “history in the process of being changed.” It is no surprise that Obama’s message resonates in Indian country.

I am dubious about the prospect for treaty rights with an Obama (or a Sen. John McCain) presidency. But as an American more broadly, I am cautiously optimistic about the change that Obama can bring.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see Why Indians Are Democrats.

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