Political Sovereignty & First Nations Rights: Also I greatly dislike John Locke

America’s foundation has been based upon the idea that our citizens and our country have more personal sovereignty than under the oppression of Old World states. In that we have rebuilt our country under ideologies and influences of philosophers who sought to use their intellect in order to create a more ideal country. One of the greatest influences to such change and development were men like: John Locke, David Hume, and John Stuart Mill. Locke believed heavily in property and contractual laws, limiting the government to enforce these sovereign rights. After the formation of treaties and the ending of the Indian wars, First Nations people agreed to the social contract placed before them. Defining their property rights Euro-centrically, making them eligible to the protection of such rights as defined by these contracts. Mill and Hume later built upon this foundation and theorized deeper and more specific guidelines. All of which, to some extent have influenced the development of this nation and its laws.

Not many people are aware of this, but under the laws of the United States tribal nations of this country are considered sovereign nations of their own. That is, to an extent, as there are a great number of exceptions acted upon quite readily by the government. What is sovereignty and what does it mean, and how has it applied in this country’s interactions with the First Nations? Sovereignty for the First Nations allows each tribe to create and enact their own laws of government within reservation borders, members who are registered to the tribes are subject to the laws of their individual tribes. These laws are put in place and upheld by tribal councils with elected officials, and laws that cater to the culture values of the different tribes.

First Nations laws, rights, and land holding were defined through treaties signed during the last hurrah of the Great Indian wars (considered officially ended after Crazy Horse was killed, but that is a cultural standard).While sovereignty is, in theory, granted to First Nations people, federal law still takes precedence. This means that our government has created laws that restrict tribes, examples of which are:  laws that influence which people can and cannot be registered to their tribes (called Blood Quantum laws), how large a population has to be to be considered a recognized tribe under our law (an example of an unrecognized nation is the Lumbee people), and what lands, granted by previous treaties, still remain under the charge of these sovereign nations (ex: the DAPL protests currently happening in North Dakota). Our government’s overbearing control of the nations that have been in theory nulled as rights were granted to this concept of sovereignty of First Nations people, make this concept almost void in actual practice. Normally the government enacts its control over the First Nations to strip them of benefits, and when there are severe issues within indigenous communities the government turns its back, stating the First Nations’ sovereignty as the reason for not intervening in situations such as rampant poverty, severe lack of housing, and sexual assault of indigenous women (1 out of 3 native women before the age of 25) committed by non-registered white men 80% of the time.

Where people like Locke and Hume come into play are that they both believe that a number of restrictions should be upheld in order to keep whatever government is in place in balance with its people. Hume believed: 1. The social contract is revocable once a sovereign removes a sense of safety and organization. 2. Social contracts can be reviewed and revised. 3. Using force or violence to create these social changes is acceptable if the other routes have been exhausted (pg 33, para. 3). This relates to the above example of the DAPL in particular; under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1865 the land surrounding the Standing Rock reservation reverts to the jurisdiction of the Sioux Nation.  An example that is currently relevant, DAPL was approved without the consent of the people who actually have property rights over the drilling area, so it follows under both Hume and Locke’s ideologies that the choice to protest is well within the rights of those in residence at Sacred Stone Camp.

Protesting the pipeline is not only legally permissible to Locke but also morally. It follows under the ideas of reparation and restraint. Considering our massively genocidal history with First Nations people, and our continuation of breaking contracts (treaties), a protest is a more measured response than should be expected. When First Nations people moved out of what could be considered (under Locke’s view) their “state of nature,” and agreed to receive the benefits and protection of the state that imposed this contract upon them. First Nations agreed to live majority consent, so long as the treaties were upheld.

Our Nations rightfully governed themselves before colonial influence stripped them of their right to their own sovereignty. However, the type of “sovereignty” currently granted by the United States government is arguably not actually sovereignty, but some perversion of the concept.  If we are to really uphold the Locke’s rights in relation to First Nations people the first step would be to obey treaty laws, and not affect or intervene in the property entailed to them. The second would be equal reparations for the wrongs done to them under the jurisdiction of the United States government. In current application many groups who are currently affected by the restrictions on their sovereignty are and would be well within their rights to refuse the current social contract and demand a new one, or a removal of the current system.

Locke personally considered Native Americans to be wild and not entitled to their land rights as they had no concept of property. However once we had agreed to the social contract First Nations did not receive the legislative protection Locke promoted in order to protect property and sovereignty. The main criticism that could be made of Locke is his lack of consideration for protecting the property rights for minorities. He believed that if you could not commit yourself to the will of the majority, you should, and are allowed to, leave the state or community you feel does not benefit you. However, the major issue here how we apply this case to indigenous people. When one has left Europe for the Americas and found the laws here do not suit them, they can simply return to their land of origin. This is the First Nations’ land of origin and so they are severely restricted in their ability to leave. Furthermore, Locke did not believe in being physically restricted; one’s ability to move themselves in a literal sense is a right. The very creation of reservations is a break with this idea, if a whole group of people lose their rights and protection outside of a reservation then the social contract has become nothing more than a repeat of feudalism. This is because Locke did not consider the rights of minorities that this gap has become a problem. Someone who followed him, John Stuart Mill, did consider these factors.

Mill, in reflection of current events, would have seen the need to question the current usage of our legislative branch, which should be in place to protect all people, including minorities, from being completely run over. Minorities should not be subjected to enslavement by the majority. This form of Utilitarianism, if actively placed and practiced by our government, would mean that injustices such as DAPL would not be forced upon First Nations people (pg 133). As soon as a minority is fighting to maintain their property, as well as fighting for their physical well being, they should not only be supported, but ignoring these goings on is immoral.

Furthermore our government (and frankly our populace) could be accused of and proven to cause evil by not intervening in the construction of DAPL and the violence being enacted upon the protectors currently stationed at Sacred Stone.

All three of the philosophers cited in this paper did not intentionally create their ideas to protect First Nations people. As a matter of fact, Locke did not believe in rights for indigenous people at all. This, however, in modern context would prove to be confusing to especially Locke. Once Locke, Hume, and Mill found out that by signing treaties Native Americans had given their explicit consent to be a part of the current social contract, they would find that now their philosophies would have to be applied to First Nations people. Thus endowing them with the same rights as European colonizers, rights that have repeated been violated. In conclusion this means that First Nations specifically are no longer obligated to uphold their side of the social contract. Their sovereignty and safety has not been upheld, and so our government is, within reason, removable, and in need of being completely restructured. Whether this is applied only through the lens of Locke’s property rights, or Mill’s ideas of Utilitarianism, our current government has violated the philosophical rights of the people, breaching the standards and contract originally created to prevent harm to the populace of the states.

(no lies I wrote this for a class, got a b+ and never turned in a second draft, so there is huge room for improvement)


Works Cited


Stewart, Robert. Readings in Social and Political Philosophy. Oxford University Press, New York. 1st edition. 1986.