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Lessons from the ‘Last Frontier’: Tribe/State Conflict and the Modern World
Barry Zellen, 4/1/2009

Since the modern state first began to encroach upon their pristine and sparsely inhabited homeland three centuries ago, the Inuit of the Arctic have aspired to regain, or at least reassert, their tribal sovereignty over their homeland, and to preserve their long-practiced cultural traditions. As they learned more about the systems and structures of governance that were exported from Europe and later the newly independent capitals of North America, they found new ways to reclaim lost powers through innovative domestic diplomacy, negotiation, and various forms of political protest.

Elsewhere in North America, where the modern state collided with the interests and sovereign aspirations of hundreds of indigenous tribes and proto-nations, from the late fifteenth century onward, the result was annihilatory warfare, forced migrations, and policies of forced assimilation – all aiming at the general extinguishment of indigenous identity, and the ability of indigenous tribal entities to assert and defend their sovereignty on lands sought by the expanding states of the New World.

It was a brutal chapter that pioneered the art of ethnic cleansing and perfected genocide, but which also resulted through its decisive results in an enduring domestic security, and opened up an entire continent to American power. And the three centuries of Indian wars were a useful training ground for counter-insurgency, coalitional warfare with tribal allies, balance-of-power diplomacy, and many an improvised admixture of hard-, soft-, and smart-power in an effort to superimpose the political culture of the modern state over the cultural mosaic of the aboriginal tribes that pre-existed the very concept of America.

Who we are as a nation, and how we fight wars around the world, continues to be shaped by our experience tackling the many strategic challenges presented by America’s first inhabitants, and their spirited defense against our inevitable expansion.

Far to the north of our continent, the state collided with the Aboriginal indigenous tribes much later in history, with economic contact, and later military interaction, largely coming in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By then, the original insecurity felt by the young American republic had given way to a confidence in American values, military power, and ultimately its Manifest Destiny – as reflected by William Seward’s famous 1853 Destiny of America speech, which predated his 1867 purchase of Alaska by more than a decade, when America finally completed its continental map, the same year that Canada became an independent, sovereign state.

Just as the presence of the modern state began to be felt in the Far North, its methods for asserting political control began to mellow, with hard-power shifting to soft- and smart-power within a domestic and no longer international context; and with treaty negotiation replacing conquest for the final integration of the last, virgin territories into the American and the Canadian polities.

America learned much in its long centuries of frontier Indian wars, from waging protracted and successful counterinsurgencies, to practicing blunt methods of war termination on favorable and decisive terms against distinctively non-American (or at least, not yet-Americanized) opponents. These skills would prove valuable as America became a world power. But what worked in the Hobbesian realm of international politics became less favorable as a tool for consolidating political power along the domestic frontier, which became increasingly perceived to be more Rousseauian in nature.

This would prove to be fortuitous for the Inuit and other Natives of the Far North, who would have otherwise faced raw American military power, and like the many defeated, often annihilated and geographically displaced Indian tribes to their south, would most surely have been crushed by American arms, rolled-back from their homelands to enable the complete assertion of American sovereignty over these new northern lands.

Instead of conquest by war, America negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia and with it Russia’s assertion of sovereignty over Alaska’s interior tribes – but its climate and isolation left most Americans thinking Seward was foolish to have dropped over $7 million on these frozen acres – dubbing the new territory “Seward’s Ice Box,” or “Seward’s Folly.”

British North America, and later Canada, extended its sovereignty through a series of Numbered Treaties, nation to nation, that brought its northern and western tribes into Canada’s young confederation through negotiation – with cash, farm implements, and limited land title exchanged for the surrendered title to most of their vast tribal homelands. The original idea was that the members of thesse tribes could become productive and self-sufficient farmers, and thus require less need for land than their traditional hunting and trapping cultures had required. The bulk of their homelands would thus be opened to settlement as the modern state expanded north and west.

Thus, largely through negotiation between tribe and state, the new territories of the Far North entered into southern control without the need for protracted war as experienced to the south during America’s westward expansion – with one notable exception being Canada’s Metis rebellion from 1871–1885, and more recent, and very limited, armed uprisings such as that in Oka, Quebec in 1990, and in Ontario in more recent years.

Because most of the integration of the Far North into the American or Canadian state was achieved without war, this made it possible for the preferred tools to be predominantly non-violent, modeled on the British-Canadian Treaty Process, with negotiation helping to bring some balance to the many other asymmetries – such as the profound gap in economic and military power separating the indigenous tribes of the North from the modern states laying claim to their homelands.

Without knowing it, the treaty negotiators, Indian Affairs administrators, and other agents of state sovereignty were practicing an early manifestation of the art of Human Terrain Mapping – navigating the tribal undercurrents of pre-state, pre-modern North America, enabling the expansion of state power through the cultural knowledge they gathered, which they used to guide policy, and consolidate sovereignty over the newly integrated frontier lands.

If we fast-forward to our time, we can take note of a tremendous amount of structural innovation made through this long, multi-generational process of negotiation – with various treaties clarifying the issue of land title; new co-management structures enabling a joint approach to managing resources; and new forms of governance taking root, helping to soften the blow of the new reality of modern state power, and embedding tribal laws and customs within the modern constitutional architecture of the state.

Sovereignty was thus consolidated all the way out to the outer continental rim, and conquest achieved without resort to protracted or total war as seen during the Indian wars to the south. The new principles of economic and environmental co-management; the increasing recognition by the state of an Aboriginal right to self-government; and its new commitment to preserve (and not abolish) traditional subsistence cultures are evidence of a new spirit of compromise. This commitment to shared decision-making, and the effort to preserve and not abolish Native culture and identity – in balance with the forces of inexorable modernization of the northern political-economy – have planted a seed of reconciliation that many hope will bloom into an enduring political stability, free of insurgency, sabotage or terrorism, with the sovereignty of the modern state reinforced by its indigenous residents, and the mutual recognition of tribe and state providing an enduring bond.

This spirit of reconciliation between tribe and state recognizes two fundamental truths on the ground: that the modern state had arrived, and with it a preponderance of economic and military power; and that the indigenous tribes already there were nonetheless part of the heritage of the New World – and that their cultures did matter.  The state would thus become enriched by this cross-pollination, as sovereign indigenous culture became part of the greater patchwork of multi-ethnicity.

The land claims and Indian treaty experience, with its increasing effort to ensure that subsistence culture endures and does not disappear under the pressure of modernization, is reminiscent of earlier historical efforts to promote land reform around the world, from post-war Germany and Japan, where old land tenure patterns were a source of power and wealth for the militarists who conquered their neighboring nations; to the Philippines during the Huk Rebellion; and later war-torn Vietnam and El Salvador, where the ideological battles of the Cold War were waged on the ground between poor peasant farmers, amidst the dueling ideologies that each promised them a better life.

By promoting “land to the tiller,” as a component of both peacetime foreign policy as well as wartime counterinsurgency strategy, land reform advocates sought to look beyond the artifice of political ideology to the underlying root of conflict: inequity in land ownership, which led in turn to a disparity of wealth and power. Behind this basic fault-line, between the landed and the landless, was often the legacy of colonial domination, and of the onslaught of a modern state against a less powerful indigenous tribe. To prevent protracted wars, or the defection of potentially friendly farmers to the hostile ideological rhetoric of our opponent, required an imaginative approach, a rethinking of land use, land ownership, access to agricultural credits and implements, and the endurance of subsistence culture.

And when the Zapatista rebels rose up in their war against globalization fifteen years ago, well after the Cold War had been settled in our favor, they were fighting over their enduring right to own and use their land for subsistence purposes and to resist the unrestrained forces of economic globalization and integration. Land and conflict are thus closely interconnected, and often underlie disputes we perceive through a lens of ideology, or in our current struggle, through the lens of faith and sectarian distinction. In the Americas, the enduring conflict over land, ongoing for half a millennium, is ultimately a clash not of civilizations, but between indigenous, Aboriginal tribes, and modern, expanding states.

Far to the north, along the Arctic coastal plain, instead of farmland and forest, there is endless tundra and taiga – but the land and waters of this region are nonetheless productive, with a rich bounty of wild game, and fish, and fur-bearing mammals, and the indigenous cultures remain close to that land, tied for millennia to their hunting traditions. To ensure the social peace, and to accommodate the tribal interest, meant that the modern state, as it marched further north, would have to embrace the cultural, and economic, importance of subsistence to its practitioners, and not force harpoons into ploughshares in the belief that modernity could only have one form.

This resulted in much innovation, and the creation of new systems and structures of governance of these predominantly Native lands. The resulting institutions came in all manner of shapes and sizes:

  1. At the municipal level of government, we see entities like the North Slope Borough in Alaska, a giant municipality on the Arctic coast that has been in existence for over three decades, which sustains itself through property taxation of the Prudhoe Bay oil facilities – a “town” that is larger in size than 39 of the fifty U.S. states, governing a population of some 7,000 mostly Inupiat residents.
  2. At the territorial level, we see the sprawling Nunavut Territory – which has been in existence for ten years, and which governs one-fifth of Canada’s land-mass, home to just 30,000 mostly Inuit residents in 28 far-flung villages, built atop much of Canada’s future natural resource wealth and along side of emergent strategic waterways.
  3. And at the tribal level, there is the new ethnically-distinct Inuit government of Nunatsiavut in northern Labrador, formed in 2005, which has a distinct Inuit constitution and governs over 2,000-plus Inuit residents in its six villages along the Labrador shore.

As shown by these innovations in governance, we can see that culture has become increasingly recognized as not only a fault line of conflict – but a viable boundary-line for new political institutions, providing a foundation for political stability.

This recognition is not so different from what we are experiencing in conflict zones from Iraq to Afghanistan, or the fault lines of numerous conflicts around the world where mountainous, forested, or desert frontier regions remain home to enduring tribal cultures – and where we see the modern state is only now asserting itself.

Interestingly, from the time of Japan’s invasion of the Aleutian Islands through to the end of the Cold War, American war planners and their Canadian counterparts sought to integrate the tribal peoples of the Arctic frontier into their defensive architecture, with Muktuk Marston training his “Tundra Army” of Alaska Eskimo Scouts to become our first line of defense against a Japanese invasion force, as well as a source of human intelligence and early warning. The Canadian Rangers similarly integrated coastal Natives from the entire periphery of maritime Canada – from the Atlantic to the Arctic to the Pacific, serving an important role in coastal surveillance, while further strengthening the unifying bond between tribe and state.

A half century later, we would again find use for tribal militias in our effort to restore stability to post-Saddam Iraq, and to help fill the power vacuum left with the collapse of that centralized state. We are similarly employing this practice for pacifying an increasingly hostile Afghanistan through tribal alliances and coalitions, to fracture the power asserted by the Taliban, and to rollback hostile forces such as those of Al Qaeda.

Working with tribal entities, and integrating them into our military architecture, and forging a lasting political accommodation with them through structural reforms to political and economic systems – whether of the sort experienced in the Arctic such as seen in Nunavut, or the Tribal Awakening that restored order to Iraq’s Sunni triangle – can enhance political and military security, and augment traditional tools of national power in places where the state has never found solid ground. So, does tribal culture still matter in our modern world of nation-states, and in the face of modern warfare? Yes. When it comes to restoring political order, maintaining the peace, increasing security, or defeating insurgencies, understanding the underlying political topology, and the nuances of tribal identity and culture, can spell the difference between protracted war, or enduring peace.

Barry Zellen is the author of Arctic Doom/Arctic Boom: The Geopolitics of Climate Change in the Arctic (Praeger, October 2009), as well as Breaking the Ice: From Land Claims to Tribal Sovereignty in the Arctic (Lexington Books, March 2008). His next volume, due out in December 2009, is On Thin Ice: The Inuit, the State and the Challenge of Arctic Sovereignty (Lexington Books).