|“Sovereignty” is essentially an attempt to place a modern legal framework around the time-honored principle that s/he who can inflict the most force on a region, gets to call the shots on that region. Though we can debate whether Mao was correct when he said “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”, we can certainly see that sovereignty does. At the end of the day, the government of the United States is sovereign over the fifty states not because of a pretty piece of paper, but because it controls an awesome amount of weaponry, far beyond anything controlled by a challenger to that sovereignty (and yes, that piece of paper motivates people to go along with that control, but popular agreement is not necessary for sovereignty to exist–ask the people of Chechnya).|| |
Chechnya: not sovereign
Dressing up the reality of force with the legal niceties of the modern era can cause real headaches. For example, students learn that an important path to sovereignty is recognition from other countries and international organizations that you do indeed control an area of territory.
Officially, the Cypriot government of Nicosia is sovereign over the whole island 97%* of Cyprus…but it isn’t. A “Turkish Cypriot” government controls much of the rest of the island in the wake of a Turkish invasion decades ago. Only the Turkish government recognizes that “other” government, but it is they who control the guns in that part of the island.
|Same question with the Kurds. The Kurds seem to think that they are sovereign, and though they humor the American government with their fiction of a united Iraq, their sense of humor seems off kilter lately. The Kurdish Workers’ Party is in deep hostility with Turkey after a series of incursions into that country, resulting in dozens of deaths.|
Kurdistan: not sovereign
The United States is employing a “Vice-President of Iraq” to try to defuse this situation (remember, not that long ago Israel bombed a site in Syria to smithereens, with no real consequence. Life is funny in this part of the world).
But these negotiations are hobbled by the fact that a Sunni official based in Baghdad is negotiating on behalf of the Kurds, when the Kurds have a functioning government. This Iraqi vice-president has no guarantee that what he promises will be done, and those who can make that guarantee are being ignored. To stop these attacks, wouldn’t the Turks be better off swallowing their pride and dealing with Kurdish officials such as, oh, Kurdish Regional President Marsoud Barzani. With their well-equipped Peshmerga military and oil wealth, the Kurds essentially control their patch of land and have since the institution of the NATO no-fly zone in the early 90s. It’s the most mature government in Iraq, and I’ve long said the only thing so far that hasn’t gone wrong in Iraq is that the Kurds haven’t been seriously ticked off yet.**
So, the Kurds aren’t being recognized for their control over their territory, even though the Kuridsh government — similar to that in Somaliland — does indeed have a full monopoly of force over that area. Confused? Good — now that’s flip that idea on its head: Native American sovereignty.
Before we go any further, let us all take a moment to enjoy the American President’s clear grasp of the issue of “tribal sovereignty” circa 2004:
The legal fiction he gets right — that the relationship between Native American tribal governments and the federal government is that between sovereign entities. Thus any federally recognized tribe (such as the Mashpee Wampanoag) that receive land in trust*** (as they want to get in Middleborough) are free to ignore American laws (on gambling). Right? This PDF summarizes some attempts to deal with this reality on the issue of border crossings with Canada and Mexico.
|I’m reminded of the “sovereign” Native American tribe that symbolically allows two people a year to enter the United States from Canada without going through customs, to “prove” their sovereignty.||
Part of Middleboro: Soon to be sovereign?
But sovereign is as sovereign does, not as sovereign sounds on the lawbooks. What would happen if the Tohono O’odham tribe of Arizona suddenly opened the gates wide open on the Mexican border — how quickly would this legal fiction crumple? They don’t even try; the state of Arizona controls that border in joint with the tribe. The fact is, a group that survives only on the sufferance of a neighbor is sovereign only in the most useless, legalistic manner. Heck, many of these tribal police forces buy weaponry with money supplied by the governments of Canada or the US to begin with.
And so it is with gambling. It is indeed possible that the Mashpee Wampanoag could try to open a resort casino. They could have the equipment flown directly onto the reservation if the state doesn’t legalize Class III gambling. They could do whatever they wanted. Apparently according to the legal framework, they could build the whole thing as a giant f— you to the state.
And the state could refuse to fund maintenance or construction of any infrastructure in Middleboro to supply this resort with electricity, or to build roads leading to the casino door. They could shut down the airspace leading into the tribal trust. How useful is this sovereignty — especially with no international recognition to provide you allies? How long will the money backers for whom the Wampanoag are fronting stick around if they can’t get the cooperation from the state and country they so desperately need?
Look, tribal sovereignty is the least that is owed the Native Americans of this country, just as sovereignty is the least owed the Kurds of Iraq. However, in both cases law is hitting reality head-on. And talking about laws is only so useful when we discuss sovereignty. After all, who do you want to face across the table — the “I
raqi” Kurdish armed forces, or the sovereign attendance of the Wampanoag Cultural Center?
*Oddly enough, the UK is properly sovereign over 3% of Cyprus.
**The Kurdish government does not include the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), but they have a better understanding of life on the frontiers than some pampered bureaucrat in Baghdad.
***For that matter, how “sovereign” are you when another government places your land “in trust”? Can you imagine Sam Adams agreeing to control the 13 colonies after they’d been placed in trust by the British crown?