"They Made Us Many Promises": The American Indian Experience, 1524 To the Present

By Philip Weeks | Go to book overview

Chapter 14
Native Sovereignty:
Then and Now in California
and the Northwest

Clifford E. Trafzer

Native sovereignty is a term used a great deal by contemporary Native Americans, a defining and significant term in English that indicates that all power rests with Native people and their chosen representatives. American Indians view sovereignty in a unique way, one based on tribal experience and memory. Native sovereignty is not a power derived from the United States, Canada, or any other foreign nation. Native sovereignty is a gift of creation received when holy forces first established “laws” by which American Indians should live. Thus, Native American sovereignty in California, the Northwest, and elsewhere emerged at the beginning of time, during the creative era of American Indian history when animal and plant people interacted with spiritual forces and elements of the natural environment to put the world into motion. Native sovereignty is a tribal construct that continues to operate within tribal societies in California and the Northwest to this day.

According to history of the Maidu Indians of northern California, water once covered every part of the Earth. Although there was no land, life existed. At this time, Earth Maker and Coyote floated on a raft in an endless sea, each day peering off across the water wondering where the sea met the sky. One day Earth Maker told Coyote that he had a vision of solid land, a place where there would be sun, moon, clouds, mountains, valleys, lakes, rivers, rain, deserts, forests, fog, plants, animals, and other elements of the natural environment. Earth Maker conceived of such a place, the Earth, and put his vision into focus by singing about creation. He sang until Robin, fluttering above a nest floating in the sea, sang back to him. Together they sang until Earth Maker proclaimed that he would create Earth from Robin's nest by extending ropes in different directions and placing mud from the bottom of the Ocean onto the ropes. Earth Maker created the Earth and all its natural features before creating plants and animals—and ultimately the people.

Earth Maker gave all the people laws by which to live. He determined that there would be life and death, sunlight and darkness, males and females. He in-

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