Sunday, December 21, 2008


My daughter participated in a grade school activity and inadvertently caused me to reflect on issues of modern colonialism and tribal sovereignty.

Every year, the fifth grade students at my daughter’s school study the original thirteen colonies and the American War of Independence. As a culminating event, the children participate in a school-wide open house where they invite the public to learn more about life in colonial America. Each child assumes a role from that time period, dresses up in the appropriate costume, and then presents a short speech. For example, a child dressed as an apothecary spoke to us about colonial medicine. A boy wearing shackles and a wooden pillory spoke to us about crime and punishment. Another boy wearing a white wig spoke to us about the legal system. Dozens of children participated, each one representing a different aspect of colonial society.

As a teacher, I was greatly impressed by the students and the evidence of learning they presented.

As a parent, I was also impressed. My daughter presented her role with grace and confidence. She wore a long dress, a simple white apron, and a bonnet. Standing beneath a large placard labeled, “What is a colony?” she delivered her speech like a pro:

“You may already know that England had 13 colonies, but do you know what a colony is? A colony is a place that belongs to another country, like a landlord and a renter. The colonies lasted in America from 1607 to 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was signed.”

As a father, I couldn’t help but think she was the cutest thing God ever placed on this Earth, but a rather innocent mistake in her words gave me pause to reflect. Several times, as she repeated the speech to other parents, she said the colonies lasted in Spokane from 1607 to 1776, instead of saying the colonies lasted in America. I gently corrected my daughter, but not before the words began their powerful effect on me.

Some of the parents chuckled, but the words sank into my brain like a time-release capsule. I had never thought of colonies in Spokane...

The teacher’s definition proposes a simple landlord/tenant model of colonialism, but according to another source, colonialism is “the control or governing influence of a nation over a dependent country, territory, or people.”1 Based on this definition, colonialism more than certainly applies to Spokane. In this case, the United States provides the control and governing influence over the Spokane Tribe as a dependent territory and people. In fact, colonialism still thrives in Spokane and throughout Indian Country a full 232 years after the Americans signed the Declaration of Independence, and 48 years after the United Nations passed a resolution to end colonialism.2

As indigenous people we often refer to ourselves as “sovereign nations,” but that sovereignty has limits. Specifically, the United States regards Indian tribes within its territorial jurisdiction as “domestic dependent nations,”3 and reserves the right to limit, alter, or amend tribal powers at will. This lesson raises huge implications. Specifically, the United States promotes democracy abroad while maintaining colonial power over hundreds of indigenous nations right here in North America. The irony saddens and astounds me.

Independence means different things on different levels. On a national level, tribal governments continue to struggle to maintain their sovereign right to self-governance. On a personal level, we declare independence from colonial powers when we teach our children to remember the language, traditions, and cultures of our indigenous ancestors.


1. colonialism. (n.d.). Unabridged (v 1.1). Retrieved December 21, 2008, from website:

2. Retrieved December 21, 2008, from

3. Retrieved December 21, 2008, from


jenx67 said...

My husband, who I've mentioned before is a member of the Achumawi Tribe has said the exact same thing. This is such a smart post. Your daughter is adorable. This brought back memories of 3rd grade, 1976! (The Bicenntennial). Boys in the school program sported white wigs, too, and white leotards, which made me laugh. I was 8...

Barry Moses (Sulustu) said...

Certain school events have a similar effect, especially Thanksgiving. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE the idea of families getting together to share gratitude and good food, but the cultural myths are hard to deal with. I don't want to assign blame to anyone, I just want an honest assessment of our American history as it touches the original inhabitants of North America.


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