The Voice

Indigenous Sovereignty Done Right

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

8 thoughts on “Indigenous Sovereignty Done Right

  • Alistair says:

    The point you are making is quite obvious. The problem with Aboriginal “nations,” which distinguishes them from other “First Nations” around the world and means that “nationality” is an unachievable fantasy, is that Aboriginal “tribes” never had, and still do not have, the political structures that are needed for self governance. They have always been (65,000 years and counting?) made up of independent patriarchal clans that are totally autonomous. The difference between Aboriginal “tribes” and Native American Tribes or even the Maoris is that they possess a political structure, a tribal leader who speaks for the whole tribe – a tribal chief and that at least gives them the fundamental structures to pass themselves off as “nations” in its broadest sense. The idea of a “collective voice” that speaks for Aborigines as a whole is an anathema to traditional Aborigine. No Aborigine can speak on behalf of another Aborigine.
    What this means is that the assimilated Aborigines from the cities will set up European-style political structures and dominate the “Voice” while traditional Aborigines will be pushed further and further into the political wilderness of irrelevancy.

  • gardner.peter.d says:

    Alistair, as you describe it, that is precisely the meaning of terra nullius. The popular myth that it means Aborigines were not considered human is totally false. Britain declared terra nullius as a fact to explain why it could not reach any kind of treaty with the Aboriginal people of Australia.
    If we are to have so called ‘truth telling’ as the ‘Yes’ campaign claim, then this would be a good place to start and to write terra nullius into the constitution as the reality prior to settlement.
    In my own efforts to understand the issues with The Voice and all that is intended to follow it, I fail to see how any of it will improve the conditions and society of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. There is a genuine difficulty in assimilating primitive cultures into a modern democratic state and I see no alternative but to set up reservations and allow them to govern themselves as they wish within them. Aborigines should be free to go and live in them if they wish. Conversely if they choose not to they should assimilate into the country of the majority of the population of Australia as all others are encouraged to do.
    the actual problems on the ground – violence, alcoholism etc etc are all matters for local government and no amendment to the constitution is required from them to be dealt with effectively at that level. If Aborigines believe they can govern themselves better in their own way a reservation would provide them with the opportunity to show they can. They would come round to a modern ‘western’ view in their own good time – and probably quicker than their campaigners realise.

  • DougD says:

    In the past, land acquired its value from the the produce generated by its cultivation. The mid- 18th century writer on international law, Vattel, drew a distinction between land that was effectively occupied and cultivated, and the unsettled and uncultivated land of nomads which was open to colonisation by settlement. That is the sense in which the term terra nullius eventually came to be used to justify the British claim to the Australian lands. The British in 1788 well knew that the continent was peopled. From Dampier to the Dutch navigators to Cook, their existence was chronicled. The claim that the British believed. Australia was not inhabited is only used by primary school teachers to tell their students how stupid the British were to think that the continent was uninhabited. Pascoe’s Dark Emu is a clumsy attempt to show that British claim based on settlement by the colonisers is unfounded because Australia could not have been terra nullius: aboriginals were agriculturalists who farmed the land, not nomads.

  • cbattle1 says:

    I’d have to check the facts, but I think that the term and concept of terra nullius was never originally used to “justify” settlement, because no justification was needed. Anthropology used to hold that people with cultures like the Aboriginal inhabitants of this continent were described as “Paleolithic”, or “old stone age”, and people like the Māori and most of the inhabitants of the Americas were “Neolithic” or “new stone age” Europeans were Neolithic until acquiring the ability to smelt metal to make tools. Stonehenge in Britain was built by Neolithic people.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Thanks Salvatore. All good points that you make and my only comment re the Paiute Tribal incident shown in the footage is :
    Oh dear ! Those poor innocent extinction rebellion come environmental protesters just going about minding their own business, out there in the middle of the desert that they obviously identify with & know so well, what is the world coming to…I ask myself for the umpteenth time !

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Yep. Native Justice is harsh and to the point. Poor trembling environmentalists with their urban love of the land and its gentle people find it hard to get used to that. Then wham! Lesson learned.
    Such independent reservations are not a model for Australia’s stone age peoples though. Nugget Coombes took the ‘reservation’ approach and it just doesn’t work within the culture of Terra Nullius. Assimilation was well underway when the outstations were established and employment by cattle stations and schooling by missions was stopped. What replaced these assimilationist successes was a created culture of economic dependence on government handouts and a glorification of stone-age practices like ‘skin’ marriages and shared goods and foods.
    Time now to return to assimilation under it’s polite title of integration, and build housing in regional townships where employment and schooling will do its good job if ‘traditional’ culture goes on the back burner. There are laws about rental, maintaining housing standards and being responsible for your children, and working for the dole; apply these as we do to all other Australians and the gap will close, just you watch it, like a zip running over the frayed parts of a lost world bringing them into the other side, making one Australia. The Voice will only perpetuate what exists now, which is crazy stuff. Vote No.

  • whitelaughter says:

    Thank you for giving me the most joy I have had in some time! A delightful read

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