15 January 2005

Professor Ward Churchill

Department of Ethnic Studies - The University of Colorado, Boulder

Ward Churchill
B.A., M.A., Sangaman State University

Faculty Focus

"Remembering Bob Thomas: His Influence on the American Indian Liberation Struggle"

The Indian picture isn't any blacker than it always was. It is just that American Indians are trying to do something about their problems and injustices. They are speaking out more and making their wishes known. Maybe a new day is dawning for the Indian.

-Robert K. Thomas, Indian Voices , 1966

Although Robert K. Thomas was known primarily as an ethnographer and cultural anthropologist of considerable stature, his interests and activities transcended all boundaries conventionally associated with those fields. Stan Steiner, for one, went to some lengths in recording Bob's involvement with organizations like the National Indian Youth Council during the 1960s, and careful students will discover not a few explicitly political treatises published under his by-line, mostly appearing in the American Indian activist-pulp venues of the day, papers like Indian Voices and ABC: Americans Before Columbus . On the scholarly side of things, too, he was known to make such excursions into what has today come to be known as "applied" anthropology. His essay "Powerless Politics," for example, published in the winter 1966-67 edition of New University Thought, a small-circulation academic journal produced at the University of Chicago, is known to have had a significant impact upon the leadership of the fish-in protests of the Pacific Northwest in 1967, occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969, and 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties.

It is one of the latter cluster of writings, also published in 1966-67 issue of New University Thought , that I believe may turn out in the end to have been the most influential of all his many endeavors. The essay entitled, "Colonialism: Internal and Classic," was short, more the tentative probing of ideas than a finished piece of scholarship. Yet for me, and for many of those with whom I've worked over the past two decades, it has assumed a decisive conceptual importance in terms of our understandings of ourselves and what it is we are about. Perhaps predictably, perhaps ironically, many of those most affected by it at this point have forgotten -- or were never really aware of -- the article itself. By the same token, it is certain that Bob himself was, by the end of his life, both amazed and to a large extent perplexed by the directions in which some of us have taken his seminal perspective on the nature of the American Indian Relationship to the United States. Most likely, he was also a bit frightened by certain of our prescriptions as to what should be done about it.

The Concept

What Bob Thomas accomplished in this one brief excursus was to redeem an entire classification of socio-economic and political relations seemingly denied to analyses of the Indian condition in the U.S., one which appeared to have been permanently foreclosed by the passage of the United Nations' General Assembly Resolution 1541 (XV) -- or "Blue Water Thesis," as it is often called -- in 1960. According to the U.N. definition, a situation of colonialism can be properly (and legally) said to exist if, and only if, one nation directly and as a matter of policy dominates the social, economic and political life of another from which it is physically separated by at least thirty miles of open water. In such instances, the dominant nations are construed as being absolutely entitled to relief from their circumstances under international law, and, whenever their colonizers prove reluctant to comply with legal requirements in this regard, the colonized are accorded the right of pursuing decolonization and self-determination by any and all means available to them. Conversely, nations dominated by others to which they are encapsulated, are cast by Resolution 1541 not as colonies per se, but as "minorities" domestic to the dominating power. While such minorities are guaranteed (or conceded) a certain range of rights under international law, both the type and extent of these rights, and the means by which they may be lawfully pursued, are very much constricted when compared to those acknowledged as being inherent to colonies.

Indirectly, and in the somewhat homey style which was his trademark, Bob pointed to the obvious. In effect, he argued that while the definition of colonialism at issue might be adequate to describe the traditional form marked by historical empires such as those of France, Spain and Great Britain -- most of which had passed into oblivion in the late 1960s -- it plainly failed to address the realities underlying a number of other readily observable phenomena. Following the reasoning imbedded in Resolution 1541 would, for instance, force one to conclude that the Poles and French had been somehow transformed into "German minority groups" by virtue of the World War II Nazi conquest and occupation of Poland and France, both of which were/are contiguous to Germany. Clearly, any such conclusion would be absurd, and is universally recognized as such; no one questions that France remained France, and Poland Poland, after the German invasion of each country; hence, no one questions the rights of the Poles and French to liberate themselves from German rule. Why then, Thomas asked by implication, should the situation be perceived as different for a host of other nations -- those of American Indians, for example -- which can be readily shown to have suffered entirely similar processes of conquest and occupation of their homelands at the hands of contiguous aggressors?

"If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck," goes the old adage, "it's probably a duck." All evidence, Blue Water notwithstanding, combining to suggest that American Indians suffer exactly the same kinds of domination and exploitation as, say, the Algerians under French rule, or the Congolese under the Belgians, and for the most of the same reasons. Bob concluded that the concept of colonization is as appropriate to describing the circumstances of indigenous nations within the U.S. as it is to describing those of the country's more easily recognizable colonies abroad (i.e.: Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, the "U.S." Virgin Islands, "American" Samoa and the Marshal Islands, among others.) To make his concept immediately comprehensible, he offered a formulation in which colonialism might be viewed as a system divided into two overarching categories: "classic" would be the descriptor used to designate those colonies separated from their colonizer by open water, "internal" the term used to define colonies appended to or incorporated directly into the territory claimed by the colonizing power as constituting its own home turf. Bob's notion of internal colonialism, applied as it was to the specific context of American Indians in the late twentieth century, has yielded a powerful analytical utility to those of us seeking to decipher the peculiarly convoluted relationship of the federal government to North AmericaÕs native peoples, and how this relationship has caused Indians in "the land of the free" -- despite our nominal retention of land and resources sufficient to make us the wealthiest single racial/ethnic population aggregate on the continent -- to experience literal Third World levels of impoverishment. By the mid-70s, the idea of Indians as colonies had taken firm hold among a number of scholars exploring questions of Indian rights. Even elements within the government itself had to some extent admitted the validity of the premise, with the U.S. Civil Rights Commission publishing a major study of conditions among the Navajos entitled The Navajo Nation: An American Colony. A whole new understanding of Native North American context began to evolve.

A Legacy

"Colonialism: Classic and Internal" represented what Herbert Marcuse once described as a "breach of false consciousness," an insight, the appropriateness and explanatory power of which "can provide the Archimedian point for a more comprehensive emancipation," of thought and action. Such breaches typically occur "on an infinitely small space," Marcuse concluded, "but the chance for change depends upon the widening of such small spaces."

It is self-evident that, before Bob wrote his little essay, Indians were by-and-large groping about for ways to make sense of what it was that had been happening to us throughout the twentieth century. After New University Thought published his piece, enough of us could put a name to it to find our voices, and thereby to begin moving together in a constructive direction. A dynamic was unleashed which undoubtedly surpassed anything he might in his wildest imaginings have envisioned when he sat down to write what was on his mind in 1966. The small Archimedian space he crafted has, by this point, been expanded beyond all recognition. Change has certainly occurred because of it, for better or worse, and it will inevitably continue to occur for some time. Quite possibly, things have gone in a direction very different from whatever it was he originally desired to see come of his work. That is often the fate of those who give birth to a new and different approach to understanding.

It is fair to say that Bob Thomas achieved a genuine breakthrough for American Indian people, setting out a much needed conceptual beacon in the depths of a very dark night of ignorance and confusion. That is quite a lot for any one person to accomplish. It is now up to each of us to honor his accomplishment, using his beacon as a guide upon which to steer our liberatory project home, keeping in mind that only when we find ourselves in a Native America freed from every vestige of the plague of colonization, internal and otherwise, will we be able to say truthfully that we've at last arrived. Let that be our legacy to those who come after us.

Selected Publications

From a Native Son: Selected Essays in Indigenism, 1985-1995 . South End Press: Boston, 1996.

Since Predator Came: Notes on the Struggle for American Indian Liberation . Aigis Press: Littleton, CO, 1995.

Indians Are Us? Culture and Genocide in Native North America . Common Courage Press: Monroe, ME, 1994.

Struggle for the Land: Indigenous Resistance to Genocide, Ecocide and Expropriation in Contemporary North America . Common Courage Press: Monroe, ME, 1993.

Fantasies of the Master Race: Literature, Cinema and the Colonization of American Indians . Common Courage Press: Monroe, ME, 1992.

The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI's Secret War Against Domestic Dissent , (co-authored with Jim Vander Wall). South End Press: Boston, 1991.



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