Written by Kayla DeVault.  Edited by Greg Eichhorn.

At SustainUS, we strive to incorporate and empower the voices of more than just US citizens.  We also include immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, students and workers on visas, and dual citizens.  This last piece is important because “dual citizens” also includes Native Americans and acknowledges the reality that 567 sovereign nations exist within the geopolitical boundaries of the United States.  Therefore, when we advocate in UN and World Bank spaces, we not only need to keep indigenous citizens in mind but we also need to repeat this narrative enough that it is no longer an ignored reality of public “American” identity.

A Historic Context

As colonization began, tribal nations were from the start seen as separate nations.  They were not only pre-Constitutional, but were also considered extra-Constitutional.  Treaties – or agreements made between sovereign nations – were signed between tribes and foreign governments, including the United States.  In 1824, in the midst of the Removal Era, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was founded within the U.S. Department of War.

From 1823 to 1832, three court cases were decided on Indian affairs and jurisdiction was established that continues to affect legal interpretation to this day.   These cases, known as the Marshall Trilogy, upheld tribal sovereignty while also emphasizing the plenary power of Congress over Indian affairs and the trust relationship, or the duty the United States has to “protect” tribes.  These cases showed a shift in American perspective because now tribes were viewed as “dependent, domestic nations”.  

Despite these court interpretations, the BIA remained under the Department of War until 1849 when it was transferred to the Department of the Interior.  Westward expansion and the failure of US military to uphold its duty in protecting tribes meant settlers trespassed on lands frequently, often resulting in fatal conflicts.  Today, we are most familiar with the stereotypes that come from these conflicts, especially with Plains tribes.  These stereotypes, as portrayed in Western films, always glorify the trespassing settlers and criminalize Indian victims.  This trespass was critical during the California gold rush as well, and lead to a near obliteration of tribal peoples as settlers killed innocents for territory and the prospect of gold.

The late 1800s brought about the Dawes (General Allotment) Act which effectively stole more lands previously granted to tribes for the purpose of settling, dividing, and conquering.  This Assimilation Era also brought the residential boarding schools notorious for the motto: “Kill the Indian, save the man”.  During this time, Native Americans were still only considered eligible for U.S. citizenship if they relinquished their tribal allegiances.  While some might find this degrading to not consider Native Americans American citizens, it actually reinforced the reality that tribal nations are sovereign.  But this changed after tribal members returned from World War I. In 1924, the United States passed the Citizenship Act, automatically granting dual citizenship to tribal citizens, despite the resulting controversy over what was implied of their sovereignty.

This is an incredibly incomplete overview, but it is essential to realize the complexity of this history and the paternalistic and oppressive relationship between the United States and tribes.  As members of SustainUS, it is paramount that we encapsulate this reality in how we advocate for citizens and land.

Questioning the World Bank

While our delegation has been here at the World Bank Annual Meetings, we have had several opportunities to pose questions about continued fossil fuel investment.  We have also integrated the reality of indigeneity in the United States and questioned the Bank on the structural violence that keeps tribal citizens from having a space in these conversations.  For example, when Dr. Jim Kim and Madame Lagarde held a Townhall in the Annual Meetings on October 11th, we had the opportunity to pose the following question:

“The United States is a wealthy member state, but hundreds of allegedly sovereign tribal nations within its boundaries are suffering from high rates of poverty, health disparities, land grabs, etc. … so what can the World Bank do to acknowledge sovereignty and abolish these conditions in tribal nations who are not authentically represented by oppressive colonial governments?”

We posed similar questions twice before this, once to Oscar Avalle and again to the Executive Directors.  The Executive Directors flat out ignored our query, not once mentioning the word “indigenous” in talking about the impacts of their projects.  Avalle and Kim both addressed the question in a way that perpetuated the exact oppressive, colonial narrative we are attempting to unravel.  In fact, here are Dr. Kim’s exact words:

“One of the things we’ don’t do is comment on domestic policy.”

He went on to explain that his group, Partners in Health, is very aware of the health disparities and the reality of these sub-nations and the conditions they’re subjected to because of historic context.  However, his answer is disappointing as it demonstrates the World Bank’s failure to acknowledge the validity of international treaties, assuming that tribal nations are in fact “domestic issues”.


However, our delegation did get the opportunity to hand both Dr. Kim and Madame Lagarde an expanded version of our one-pager which outlines this exact issue.  We are anxious to get a response, realizing of course that those responses are never fulfilling.  Here’s the exact language of one of our demands, which criticizes this failure of the World Bank:

Create a shift in the operating paradigm by prioritizing cultural loss and mitigation of related damages by creating a mechanism for consent, not merely consultation. The WB must use a framework for evaluating project impact that is based on equity and reciprocity. When sovereign indigenous communities impacted by projects are consulted but do not give consent, the WB effectively breaches its political prohibition by siding with colonial oppressors. Sustainable development requires a framework devised to include qualitative elements such as cultural customs, rituals, and priorities. Not creating a shift in the development paradigm further exacerbates systemic injustice and irreversible loss of identity.

The World Bank will not work with “American” tribal nations because it views them as part of the United States.  The issue carries over to other countries, however, where it does work, often consulting with tribes but ultimately operating off of the consent of the larger government.  This problematic framework affects indigenous peoples around the world as well as those here at home.  If the World Bank continues to side with the United States on this perspective of tribal sovereignty, tribal nations will continue to be underfunded and under-supported pockets of dual citizens – in a wealthy country with a large amount of voting power and funding in the World Bank – who have no authentic representation in international spaces.

What can we do?

For us at the World Bank meetings, we must continue to pose the question of honoring sovereignty and attempt to remove the option of making this a “domestic issue” by cleverly crafting how it is posed.  For us in SustainUS, we need to prioritize the use of this language and the repetition of this narrative to increase visibility to the issue.  We must honor treaties and acknowledge sovereignty, for even this affects energy issues – like #NoDAPL – and the fact that the majority of extractable resources in the United States remain on tribal land.  How can we make a shift in the paradigm so that powerful institutions stop viewing the world as full of Resources and instead full of Relatives?

I’m grateful that we will again have indigenous representation on our COP delegation, and that COP23 delegate Michael Charles has been advocating for these same narratives.  In this blog post this week, he wrote:

“Indigenous voices have been systematically left out of these decision-making processes as many of our treaties are broken for profit and power. Although colonialism has tried to bury and rewrite our cultural history, I dream that the indigenous take back the pen and write a new story: one where our culture, rights and values are honored and our leadership drives a global culture away from consumerism and towards balance and harmony.” (emphasis added)

Of course we cannot represent entire nations or the choices they should make, but we must continue the dialogue in a meaningful way, when opportunities for exposure arise.  There is a huge risk that comes to tribal nations when they push for their sovereignty, but what we can do is increase awareness and visibility to encourage participation in our organization from people who are indigenous dual citizens, displaced climate refugees, immigrants, and those from all other underrepresented voices.


Aneesa Khan

About Aneesa Khan

One Comment

  • I say leave the old system behind. If we all walk away, it has no power. So what do we walk to? Don’t worry, everything you asked for and more. Meet us at the United Nations on November 11th to get all the details and be apart of this momentous moment. We are Uniting all Tribes, All Nations. The Assemblage team has already put together this event at the United Nations, you can visit their website here https://www.theassemblage.com/index.html. Also the Earth Bank and Earth Dollar will go live on the markets Novemeber 11th, as well as the climax of the Earth Jubilee to end world poverty and forgive all debt. All this November 11th at the United Nations. Hope to see all you powerful young people there, we need your energy.

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