They picked the wrong road to glue themselves to this time.
Monday afternoon (US Mountain Time), a group of Extinction Rebellion protesters threw an improvised roadblock across Nevada State Route 447. It’s a rural highway in the middle of the desert. In the middle of nowhere. In the middle, in fact, of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian Reservation.
The protesters were there to block traffic heading to the 2023 Burning Man festival, an idiotic (apologies) event at which 80,000 people commune in a tent city to celebrate “radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy.” Oh, and to burn a big wooden effigy of a man.
The Extinction Rebellion people seem not to have objected to the celebration of radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy. Instead, it seems that they were upset that people (“capitalists”) from around the world would fly private jets to Nevada to do so.
What happened next is internet history (which can be watched at the foot of this page).
An armed Paiute tribal ranger arrived on the scene, siren blasting. He made one announcement: “Disband, get off the highway, this is a state route. Everybody will be arrested if not. Thirty seconds.” And that was it. Backup rangers arrived, and one of them proceeded to smash his Chevy Colorado extended cab through the roadblock, amidst cries of disbelief from the protesters.
A ranger then exited his vehicle, gun drawn, yelling “get down now, on the ground, all of you on the ground now.” When a woman was slow to respond, he yanked her down to the God-knows-how-hot asphalt (it was 35 degrees Celsius under cloudless desert skies) and knelt on her while he reached for his handcuffs. Everyone who remained on the road was tied hand and foot and promptly carried off.
A fellow protester who had wisely left the road could be heard sobbing “We have no weapons at all, we are environmental protesters, please!”
You don’t mess with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Rangers. You really don’t mess with them. Over the weekend, they had lost an officer when a driver rammed him at a traffic stop. His partner shot the driver dead.
The lesson here is not to glorify American police violence, or to attempt to import heavy-handed policing tactics into Australia. It’s that native American tribes like the Paiute really do possess a kind of sovereignty. They are “domestic dependent nations” existing within the United States and operating under US law, but with powers similar in many ways to those of a US state or county.
The Paiute tribe has 1300 members and controls nearly 2000 square kilometers of high desert. They administer social services to their community, run their own K-12 schools, and (obviously) maintain their own (armed) police force. They maintain their own membership rolls, recognising fellow Paiutes according to their own written laws. Under their tribal constitution, in force since 1936, they elect their own tribal council members—making the Paiute one of the world’s oldest constitutional democracies.
Oh, and the Paiute have compulsory voting.
The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribal Council has powers of taxation, law enforcement, land management, and corvée—the authority to demand community labour, an authority that even the US government does not have. Under their constitution, all natural-born Paiute are automatically granted tribal membership, but the Council can grant membership to others, and restrict residency on tribal land: i.e., it has powers over immigration.
Who appoints foster parents for orphaned children? The elected Paiute Tribal Council. Who ejects unwelcome outsiders from the reservation? The elected Paiute Tribal Council. Who registers individual leases for tribal lands? The elected Paiute Tribal Council. Who manages natural resources on tribal lands? The elected Paiute Tribal Council. And who is the tribe’s voice to Congress and executive government? The elected Paiute Tribal Council.
And if one-third of the Paiute people disagree with a decision of their council, they can call a referendum to overturn it.
For good or for bad, the people of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe control their own destiny. Their written constitution is typical of the governance structures of all 574 native American tribes. Like democratic systems around the world, American tribal democracies are sometimes poorly managed, are sometimes corrupt, and (frankly) sometimes fail. But they represent real indigenous self-governance within a larger host society.
When Australians consider the structure of the Voice that their self-appointed indigenous elite have called for, they might reflect on the relative infantilisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Voice does not envisage indigenous self-governance. It does not envisage indigenous taxation. It does not even envisage indigenous voting.
Unlike the Paiute and hundreds of other native American tribes, Australia’s indigenous peoples will not even have a voice to their own “Voice”. If they did, Australians might be surprised to hear what ordinary indigenous people have to say for themselves. Extinction Rebellion sure was.
Salvatore Babones is The Philistine