John Borrows and Stephen Cornell: Citizenship: Culture, Language and Law (Q&A)

William Mitchell College of Law

Professors John Borrows and Stephen Cornell field questions from conference participants about a number of topics surrounding Indigenous notions of citizenship and membership. In addition, some participants provide brief commentaries about how their particular Native nations are wrestling with this issue internally.

This video resource is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the Bush Foundation.

Resource Type

Borrows, John. "Citizenship: Culture, Language and Law (Q&A)." Tribal Citizenship Conference, Indian Law Program, William Mitchell College of Law, in conjunction with the Bush Foundation. St. Paul, Minnesota. November 13, 2013. Presentation.

Cornell, Stephen. "Citizenship: Culture, Language and Law (Q&A)." Tribal Citizenship Conference, Indian Law Program, William Mitchell College of Law, in conjunction with the Bush Foundation. St. Paul, Minnesota. November 13, 2013. Presentation.

Sarah Deer:

"I want to thank this incredible panel -- great way to start the day. And at this point we have about 15 minutes for questions and comments for our panelists. Of course, Professor Berger had to leave to go back to teach, but Professor Borrows and Professor Cornell are still here, so open it up for questions or comments."

Audience member:

"So I have question for both professors. [Anishinaabe language] is the word that Mr. Borrows had offered out and for Ojibwe that's the way that we say, 'All our relations.' And that hits on a couple different scales, a couple different levels because the way my grandmother taught me is you say that because when you speak Ojibwe all your relatives hear you and they come to listen to what you have to say. And sometimes they're here and sometimes they're in the next place and they want to come back and here the voice of their grandchild speaking the language because that's the gift that we have from the Creator. But one of the things that we have a difficulty with among...I'm going to only speak from Lac Courte Oreilles' perspective, is the definition of 'citizenship' because for us that's almost an offensive word because 'citizen' -- and I mean no disrespect to your presentation -- citizenship seems to create this, kind of like this foreign concept because 'citizenship' doesn't translate in Ojibwe. It doesn't...there is no distinction between how someone is a part of something. And so the best that we have is 'member of.' So [Anishinaabe language] and my other relatives here, they know their clans and so we're a part of that group, that functioning -- I guess we use 'nation' now -- but it's our functioning tribe or our family. So how do you reconcile citizenship under an English term that's been kind of forced on tribes throughout the United States and how do you reconcile that with the words that we have as...that we were taught that is our responsibility to know, when that word doesn't translate into that?"

Stephen Cornell:

"My only advice would be go with the words that are yours. Even if...I really like what Oren Lyons had to say about 'member' and 'citizen,' but he was really speaking about what those words mean to an English-speaking audience because they have certain connotations. And I think what's much more important is what your people think the word means in your own language and it may be that you can't find an English word that adequately captures that. I think that's very likely that you have a conception of what those things mean, that it's very hard to express in English, it's very hard to capture the full sense of what you're talking about. But it's much more important that your people share an understanding of that than that they pick a particular word. If 'member' is the English word that comes closest in the way you think about it to what you mean, then you have to use that word. These are the limitations of language. I think there are a lot of concepts in Indigenous languages in the United States, in North America, which it's very hard to capture in English because English arises out of very different traditions and is much more removed from its own Indigenous origins. So it's very hard to make that transition and I just think it's much more important to try to be true to your own understanding and then you're stuck with what...if you've got to talk about it in English, you're stuck with what the English language has to offer. I'm not sure of a better way to deal with it than that."

John Borrows:

"Just my thought is too to draw on [Anishinaabe language] and talk about [Anishinaabe language] and what that could mean to Lac Courte Orielles or [Anishinaabe language], whatever community you're a part of, and then to think about giving that concept meaning by the stories that your grandmothers and grandfathers have told you. That when we identify a concept we then have to look to a place for understanding its meaning, and if the meaning is drawn from that beautiful teaching that you just shared with us, that can be a part of understanding being [Anishinaabe language]. If you need then to be able to talk to the other system about what this word might require...again, I draw on a New Zealand example. In the Natural Resources Act that's been passed by the New Zealand Parliament, they have a list of English words that correlate with some concepts of environmental stewardship, but then they have a list of Maori words that also correlate with ideas of stewardship, and they say the meaning of this legislation will be worked out in conversation between these two words. They don't provide a definition that's determinative; they say the meaning is triangulated. And so that's a possibility as well that some Indigenous peoples choose to do, they say, 'This is what it means to us. That's what it means to you. If you want then to enter into discussion with us, both are helpful by way of analogy.' Neither are completely determinative because you're in a relationship, and that is again, looking to a backdrop of understanding. The final thing I would say is we have our [Anishinaabe language] and the stories illustrate...they're like common law, they're like cases. There's past examples of what it meant to cut someone in or out of a relationship and the [Anishinaabe language] can interpret [Anishinaabe language]."

Gordon Thayer:

"My name's Gordon Thayer, from Lac Courte Oreilles (Ojibwe), with my other folks here. I was looking at what you presented today in this...looking at the historical roots of our communities, our tribes. It was a concept that did not need fixing. It's not broke, don't fix it. But we've got a membership based on what I was writing in my notes here that blood quantum is focused on the eligibility of goods and services and in a sense that's created some...perhaps some greed: who's a member, who's not a member. It's created a lot of turmoil and battle in our tribe, as with other tribes determining that based on that hierarchical model, and I'm wondering if...can we ever get to the point where we were people, in our case Anishinaabe people? Can we ever get to the point where we are back to recognize that members or citizenship is really the core of our strength and sovereignty? I don't know if we can get there because of the...let me go back, back in the '60s.

Prior to the '60s, Lac Courte Oreilles was impoverished in a lot of ways but rich, rich without the casinos in another way. We did have the spirit of entrepreneurship. We have a history of most tribes of being barterers and traders. They survived that way. And as you begin to see the evolution of tribal government, the growth of tribal government, goods and services, you have a dependency're hanging around the fort for your blanket. So you're getting this dependency on that, and we have a lot of entitlement thinking and nowhere near going back to that entrepreneurial spirit of surviving and recognizing. We put together -- I should say I put together -- an urban office down here in Minneapolis when I was chair here last year -- it was two years ago I was chair of the tribe -- following other tribes who recognize their members who are off the reservation. Over 65 percent of Native people live off the reservations in America today. But we took so much heat for having that office based on money should be going here, that should not be used there. The Mille Lacs Band had that, White Earth, Red Lake, all these tribes have their...but we took so much heat that one director of that could not take it anymore -- on Facebook, in general membership meetings. And I feel the strength of your tribal government and your sovereignty is based on your membership wherever they may be.

So I guess what I'm saying, to make a long story short here is, can we ever get back to that place, the historical strength? Lac Courte Oreilles now we're starting with [Anishinaabe language], a language immersion school we have there, proud of that. Let's bring our young people up. But as that brings them up, they have the language, but do they still have that spirit, can they still obtain that spirit that we're talking about of membership or citizenship, whatever you want to call that? Can we engrain that into them at the same time they're learning the language? We've got people calling all the time for, 'What can the tribe do?' I always use that thing that [John F.] Kennedy said, 'Ask not...what you can do for your country...but what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.' The same thing, bringing it back to the tribal place. So I don't know if we can ever get back there at this day and age unless we do some critical thinking and teaching that. In our college, I don't know if we're teaching the history of Lac Courte Oreilles, even the contemporary history, what took place. I don't know if that's being done the way it should be. I just looked at that. I think everything's based on this economy and the economic model and it's taught us how not to be who we really were designed to be."

John Borrows:

"Two comments: one in relationship to getting back, I do believe there are many amazing traditions that are in time of memory that you and I have experienced where people don't always calibrate what they do based on economics. There are those experiences in our past. At the same time, we have to recognize in our past that we had conflict then as well. In fact, many of our stories demonstrate great conflict and some of them are the more recent stories about our conflict with our neighbors, be it the Haudenosaunee where I live, or Lakota and Dakota people and Anishinaabe people in this area. And we had processes for dealing with that conflict. And so when we think about getting back, part of getting back is getting back to a recognition that conflict has always been a part of our lives, is a part of our lives today and will be in the future, and that's why we have laws, that's why we have teachings, that's why we have stories because there wasn't an idyllic past. So then what can we take from that that allows us to deal with the conflict today and into the future? And I think that we see examples around in people who are generous with their time, who are in the [Anishinaabe language] school, people who are generous in serving on elders and youth committees, mothers and fathers, grandmas and grandpas who raise children who might not be their own, and identifying all of those elements of civics that are currently in place and celebrating that. And then there's a great role for a leader to be able to step forward and pull forward the things that we're talking about. That's the first comment.

The second comment is probably controversial, but there's lots of those 65 percent of the people that live off the reservation that earn a comfortable middle-class salary. What I would love to see, and this would require a lot of negotiation and conversation is, when I'm earning a salary, to be able to take that tax that results from that income and have that directed back to my own reservation. So when I'm in Canada and I'm earning a good amount, why couldn't there be negotiations to be able to have what is significant in the range of what the community's living on today. Then when I feel like there's this opportunity, then when you create an urban office off the reserve, there's this sense of it's not just drawing away from the reserve, but the people off the reserve are also contributing their resources to things that are happening off and on the reserve. This is hypothetical.

The point I'm making is how can we take all the resources that we're marshalling off the reservations and start to think about ways of flowing those resources back to the reservation? It may be money, it may be fiscal policy and that could be significant. It could also just be human capital. I like what the Zuni Pueblo did with their settlement in relationship to their lands that were damaged through erosion is they invite all their students home to be able to work on the reservation from the trust funds that have been set up. Those people then get connected with the community, they go back to the universities, they develop further skills and there's this then flow that starts to occur. It's a seasonal round. We did that as Anishinaabe people, had this huge seasonal round. Maybe we can think about our territories and our seasonal round not just being based with the [Anishinaabe language], which is the leftovers, but the entire territory is our territory and from that territory of the United States, resources can start to flow back to the community, through our own members. Other people are smarter than me to be able to work out what all of those components of that flow back might be both fiscal and human resources, but I think it's a great conversation to have and I think we would have many people living off the reservation that would be willing to be involved in that because they regard their own self as being connected. Even though it seems intangible, it's a very tangible thing for people."

Rusty Barber:

"My name is Rusty Barber. I'm on the tribal council of Lac Courte Oreilles and this is just the first session here and it gets the blood kind of...the blood level going up, the pulse starts to quicken a little bit, but going back to the first presentation there, the presenter in regards to the Cherokees. In their constitution, back when [U.S. Supreme Court Justice John] Marshall, the philosophy was, 'Let's show the white man that we can create our own laws and we're just equivalent to them.' And then they came down and made that ordinance saying this is what our citizenship and the right to vote, etc., I think that set the tone for what the United States took to heart then is how to kill the Indian and make them model citizens. And throughout the morning here, we look at a pedigree amongst the nations here in the United States where we were once a proud people, that we all had definitive roles in tribes and where we were coming from. Now the United States even has a book that they go...a 25 CFR, this is who the Indians are. Okay, a federally recognized tribe.

I've been to meetings throughout the United States where blood quantum was an issue, citizenship was an issue for a lot of tribes, and I know that some in the northeast that try to regain recognition were refused based upon they no longer believe, they no longer practice their culture, they no longer speak their language. But still they regarded themselves as a tribal nation and they still attend Housing and Urban Development meetings, WETA meetings, everything throughout the United States, even though they don't have their recognition, but they have a hope that some day that they will regain that recognition as a tribe. And I think that's a big thing that we have to base who we are as a people is that the culture and the language and our beliefs is a must be for who we are, because once that's gone then you're mainstreamed, we then become that melting pot of the United States and immigration.

Lac Courte Oreilles didn't sign on to our constitution until 1966 and from there it was a hasty drawn up constitution with a lot of mettled words such as 'inclusion' -- inclusion to the tribe based upon this -- and there was a lot of interpretative language that hurts us today and causes turmoil. I know as a young man when I was growing up, this is your relative, this is your cousin. Some didn't look Indian, but it was never in our was our cousin. And all of a sudden after awhile it was like, 'Well, I'm from Lac Courte Oreilles.' 'Oh, you are? Nah, no, you're not.' 'I've got an ID card. I'll dig in my pocket, I've got an ID card.' So now that we are tribal members of a federally recognized tribe, we come down to the concept of proof of identification. Here, in a land that we once owned and lived on and to prove to other people that we are who we are. Anishinaabe, Ojibwe, Lakota, whatever, what nation we come from to prove that. And so when it comes down to it, and I've got a little [Anishinaabe language], a little upset and angry that it's up to us now to determine who our people are.

My good friend Will here had a baby. 'Ah, another Anishinaabe, ah.' My father says, 'More Indians. More Indians, good.' There was no question that that child was Ojibwe and so...and I often hear of a tribal elder that's long gone now that said as long as that child had a drop of Indian blood they're Ojibwe. I see this as a systemic problem that'll continue for not just the 21st century because your ordinances and your codes are going to change and change and change until finally you're looking at lineal descent because the laws of average to be an eighth, how many generations of eighth blood do you have? How many generations of sixteenth blood do you have? At some point that blood's going to run out and then it'll be lineal descents and so that is the...from my perspective is the end result is that...and is that the intent of the United States government when they did the Dawes Act and the IRA and many other things that came into play? So I just wanted to express my point."

Chris McGeshick:

"[Anishinaabe language]. Chris McGeshick, I'm the tribal chairman from the Sokaogon Chippewa community in what's now northeastern Wisconsin, part of the lCO tribal treaty right recognition. I also wanted to talk...when we look at this from the tribal side and we discuss membership at every council meeting that we had, it always comes down to it's a form of what we view as assimilation, the assimilation process is still there. It's still being forced upon us by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Department of Interior, the federal governments, the state governments, but now that we've lived with it for a number of years we have this process where we go out, we become educated, we come back to the community and now we're seeing the greed factor. We're seeing, 'All right, I have this knowledge, but now I see what it can do for me, what it can...' Rather than worry about money, we need to worry about our language, our culture, our history and exercise what we feel as a people that we need to accomplish certain things to further our population within our communities or our reserves. We're always being held back though by government and money and business outside of our tribal communities. So we're always fighting that.

And I look at our constitution and it doesn't have a blood quantum there. However, a blood quantum was established in our base roll, which they say we have to go by because it's a part of our constitution that we look at and we can interpret 20 different ways and it's just not the way we do things. But we have these internal arguments all the time and it's always based on what another tribe -- whether it's out west -- may have done or what the federal government feels is the correct ruling in a court system. We talk about citizenship. We don't talk that way within the community. We're not 'citizens.' We are 'members' of our tribe and...but we're also members of a greater nation and that nation isn't just within what's called the United States or Canada. It's across those boundaries and both governments still tend to keep their foot on top of us to keep us down and have us be good little Natives, but what we want to do is we want to...we all have ideas, each tribe, each band's going to have their different idea, but we're believers of that if you have a drop of blood in you, you're part of this community.

It's the individuals that we have to battle back that are the ones that are thinking about the money and what they can get. 'You owe me this. The government owes us this.' The government don't owe me anything. I don't want anything from the government. I just want to be able to lead my people down the right path and allow that for all Anishinaabe people, not just our band or our community. And whether it's in Canada or the United States, we have the ability to do that and it's individuals like William Mitchell Law School where we may have to look to the legal mind to get some of this established and we shouldn't have to fight those battles. And why do we fight this blood quantum battle all the time? Every month, it takes probably about 20 hours of my time every month to decide whether or not this individual's a member of our community and we just say, 'Hey, yep, you're one of ours. You've shown that.' Even if we have somebody on the committee that says, 'No, we need a DNA test.' Really? We're going to sit here and say now we're going to require DNA testing? It's not something we do, but yet it feels like there's being pressure put on us by other communities throughout the nation that say, 'We want that. We want DNA testing. We want this technology to help us establish our boundaries and pass on our cultures and traditions.' I'm not one of those believers, but I'll listen to them and I'll take what I can from that. How do we get away from that whole...who made this initial base roll and put blood quantums on our tribal members? 15/16ths back in 1937? Somebody from...some non-tribal member from some government agency had the ability to come in and do that and we still have to abide by that blood quantum today? I find that ridiculous, but that was my comment."

Sarah Deer:

"I want to be really cautious of the time because we're over. You should have been done with your break by now. So maybe we could have a couple closing comments for the panel and then take our break. And I just want to again emphasize that our position here is not to take a position. Our position as William Mitchell and funding from the Bush Foundation is to provide this forum. So we expect that there will be disagreement and agreement about various issues and I really want to encourage that discussion and dialogue. So I really appreciate the tribal leaders who've spoken out. So I'll turn it over to..."

Robert Durant:

"I want to make a comment. My name's Robert Durant and I'm secretary/treasurer for council at White Earth. All the words we've said, I'm feeling a sense of one direction as far as the enrollment process is and the descendencies and there's many visits with historians and other peoples in the communities, the studies...I'm going to say that, I want to mention that White Earth is going through a constitutional reform vote. It's wonderful Bush Foundation came along and helped fund some of the studies, but in some of those studies also, what is the other side of the stories, too? Where's the funding when there's people who not agree with diluting the blood quantum because there's a reason we believe some of the historians and friends, old people I visited with, there's a reason there was an agreement. Is it to stop the volunteering or to stop your...did we have a choice? We do have a choice to keep our bloodlines going. We have that choice. Is there permission to make it so that in the future we get rid of ourselves, without consciously thinking of this. We think of that because...we were thinking of talking that because of like White Earth Nation. It's like the White Earth experiment, pulling the bands together on White Earth and the treaty was with the Mississippi. There's a lot of issues that were talked about on it. So are we looking at giving permission to go head let's drop the blood quantum so we don't have to...I've spoken with tribes in Southern California where they had to pass resolutions to not marry any closer than second cousin because they found a way. We need to survive as people, our language, our cultures. Now that's really...that's the power to this. So when it came to Bush helping to create the statistics and when we disappear, where was the other side of it and what are the statistics on how are we going to survive? I just wanted to bring that out there because there's other side of what we're talking about today."

Sarah Deer:

"Absolutely. A couple comments and then we'll take a break."

Stephen Cornell:

"Well, thanks to those who've spoken. I really appreciate what you've had to say and you're the ones who have to deal with this and I realize it is an extraordinarily difficult issue that raises the temperature I think for all of you are members, citizens, whoever they are. I think the key point is you have the opportunity to actually have that discussion. Who knows what will happen at the federal scene, but right now you have the power to say, 'This is how we are going to define this.' You have the power to do that and so that discussion can happen. You can escape from some of these outside intrusions if you wish. You can invent what you want. You can struggle to figure out, 'How do we survive as peoples?' And to me that's the only bottom line. There's no direction here except to take advantage of that opportunity to have that discussion and think through what to you is the most important thing in order to still be here 50 years down the road."

John Borrows:

"There was mention made of Justice Marshall and those seminal cases in Indian law and one of the principles that flowed from those cases was that Indians could not engage in intercourse with foreign nations in terms of having them now be independent in relationship to foreign nations. Justice Marshall also said that Indians could no longer have trade and intercourse with local traders to sell their land, it had to be with the United States. And I think that's an interesting choice of words that he put into play when he was talking about the limitations of Indian rights because what he said was that the United States will control the intercourse of Indian people. Now you can see where this is going, right? If our intercourse -- when we think about forming family relationships and passing on our love and our cherished relationships with our children -- is controlled by the United States and not ourselves, then we buy into that vision of Justice Marshall, which is a doctrine of discovery that limits us in the world and I think that even if we never can quite pull this together as tribal groups, and I think we can, but even if you're doubtful that this could be done as tribal groups, individually we have the power to be loving and to strengthen families and to be good and to look for sustenance and to offer healing and to create ways of being free in our nations. Right? That's the power of our traditions and if we don't get it together, you and I can still be loving and I'm grateful that this is part of our traditions. [Anishinaabe language]."

Sarah Deer:

"So again please join me in thanking our panel this morning. I thought it was a great way to start the conference." 

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