Indigenous Autonomy and Immigration


A recent poster prepared by Michigan State University assistant professor and artist,  Dylan Miner, asks that we “decolonize immigration through indigenous and migrant solidarity.” On seeing this beautiful artwork, I was compelled to once again reflect on the perverse nature of U.S. immigration law. The struggle to decolonize immigration law and policy challenges an unjust, racialized, and convoluted history, and reveals the highly problematic qualities of modern state sovereignty in the policing of borders across a region that remains a resurgent indigenous homeland.

I recall the sorrow and discrimination provoked by Arizona’s SB 1070 when numerous Native American elders were suspected of being “illegals” because they could not produce birth certificates to prove otherwise. Imagine that: natives seen as “illegals” and deemed subject to deportation under the state of exception for failure to provide documentation of their right to live on their native land. A deeper injustice and more banal contradiction is not possible, since the authors of 1070 arrived in Arizona but a mere night ago and are now dictating the legal status of peoples inhabiting the bioregion for tens of thousands of years.

This is what it means to be a stranger in your native land. This is what it means to be denied your indigeneity under the policing of borders and citizenship instigated by the telluric partisans who are allied with the fear-driven state of exception.

What the history of U.S. immigration policy reveals is that the politics and policies of white resentment and racialization were and continue to constitute a failed response born of the perception that Native peoples (including Mexicans) are a demographic and biopolitical threat: The difference we represent has had to be managed and eradicated precisely because of our continuously illustrated resilience and long-term “reproductive fitness.”

Of course, it is too late for that game despite the militarization of the border, criminalization of immigrants, and alienation (really self-estrangement) associated with the neoliberal trap of identity politics that has always accompanied the state of exception. This is the exact same fearful logic that drives the law seeking to render our collective wisdom and cultural traditions as forbidden knowledge in the attack on Chicana/o and Ethnic Studies in Arizona under the unconstitutional HB 2281.

Miner’s insightful poster speaks to an issue that has been on my mind for some time and that of many fellow sojourners: What is an indigenous policy or traditional view of immigration and naturalization? What can we learn from such policies and traditions? And how might we rekindle and assert these traditions in practice?

This poster, created in the best tradition of political poster art in the Chicana/o movement (I am reminded of the work of countless artists associated with Self-Help Graphics) teaches us an important principle: Regardless of the direction and presumed legitimacy of U.S. immigration law, there are much deeper traditions that Native American and MesoAmerican peoples have practiced and are starting to embrace once again as they negotiate their experience of trans-border citizenship, regardless of the state of exception that seeks to suspend the rule of law and declare the undocumented flow of Natives as the moral equivalent of terrorists and drug runners.

A study by social scientist Fiona Nicoll examining aboriginal rights in Australia offers an observation that is certainly relevant to our own context in North America:

“When non-Indigenous people are welcomed to [a] country by the Indigenous owners, we acknowledge not only the traditional ancestors but also their living descendants as bearers of a sovereignty that exists within and beyond the [settler’s] nation…. The legacy of Terra Nullius sticks to our shoes with the dirt as we walk over Indigenous sovereignties everyday.”

This is the supreme irony of U.S. history: If not for Native people warmly and generously welcoming the Mayflower’s itinerants; if they had not fed them and showed them how to grow crops; these newcomers would have died off. The settlers then returned the favor not with thanksgiving but with murder, genocide, and displacement of the Natives so they could imagine their right to a land rendered void and empty of the original people.

Because of laws like SB 1070, today this problem is further complicated when Indian [sic] people become dupes and accomplices of immigration and border control as has some times occurred along the U.S,-Mexico Border. As one critic has noted, “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.”

It is therefore not a surprise that the mass media has often featured stories of Native Americans serving as agents of border control, which reinforces the idea that Natives support U.S. sovereignty over indigenous autonomy.

Indigenous solidarity with the struggle for immigrant rights is important because many if not most immigrants from Mexico and Central America are displaced Native peoples; they are relatives, cousins of northern Native Americans. Chinantca, Chontal, Hña Hñu, Maya, Mixteca, Nahua,  Raramurti (Yaqui), Seri, Totonaca, Triqui, Zapoteca, and many others are part of the post-NAFTA MesoAmerican Diaspora.

Indeed, many tribal nations are divided by our politically-imposed borders as illustrated by the cases of the Raramuri and Tohono O’odham in Sonora-Arizona on the southern border; the Tlingit and Haida First Peoples along the Alaska-Canada border; and the Ojibwe, Salish, Mohawk, and Blackfeet who are now negotiating the northern borderlands between the U.S. and Canada.

Finally, there is a largely hidden but long and complicated history that reveals how indigenous polities have long asserted the right to grant naturalization status to newcomers in their midst. One of the best-known examples of non-Natives being “naturalized” is the case of Mary Jemison, who wrote of her experiences in a book first published in 1824. A commentary on this narrative provides insight on the effects of the practice of naturalization among the Seneca:

“In 1753, fifteen year old Mary Jemison was captured by Indians along the Pennsylvania frontier during the Seven Years’ War between the French, English, and Indian peoples of North America. She was adopted and incorporated into the Senecas, a familiar practice among Iroquois and other Indian peoples seeking to replace a lost sibling or spouse. Mary married and raised a family in the decades before and after the American Revolution; many captives, once adopted and integrated into an Indian community, refused the opportunity to return home, finding life in Indian society more rewarding.”

This is a truly profound example of the type of humane and just immigration policy our country should adopt. Native peoples have long accepted strangers in their communities and indeed have deeply grounded cultural traditions for the integration of these newcomers. This is why today we have children born at Neah Bay with Makah mothers and Zapotec fathers; this is why there is a “Mexican” clan in the Dine [Navajo] Nation; this is why the Tlingit in Canada’s west coast villages are welcoming Mixteca, Zapoteca, and Maya brothers and sisters as new members of their communities.

We would do well to learn from this example; better, we need to embrace a social movement that creates an autonomous track to citizenship based on the indigenous traditions that integrate newcomers into the community based not on some paranoid fear of the other but on the ability to judge people based on the content of their character. This is presumably a basic ideal of American democracy from the ice flows of Inupiat to the rocky pine barrens of Tierra del Fuego.

Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His influential books include Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (University of Arizona Press, 2005) and the edited volume Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (University of Arizona Press, 1998). Dr. Peña is the founding editor of the Environmental & Food Justice blog, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.

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