Comparing Puerto Rico to Native American Tribes Offends Dignity of Both

A recent Caribbean Business essay by Schoene Roura cites denial of statehood in the distant historical past to what he calls American “Indian” tribes. According to CB editor Schoene, federal rejection of statehood for “Indian” tribes in the past is a predictor Congress will reject statehood for Puerto Rico.

Unfortunately, to fuel the flames of division and polarization that sells newspapers and magazines, the CB editor mischaracterizes the history of both U.S. “Indian nation” law and federal territorial law.

According to Schoene, denial of statehood to Native American tribes was a racist policy refusing to admit an ethnic “cultural nation” as a state. The CB editor suggests Puerto Rico is a racial and ethnic “cultural nation” now precluded from statehood due to current politics of ethnic prejudice.

Nations have cultures, but cultures are not nations, so this is simply anti-historical. It also ignores that statehood gives equal rights to residents of a U.S. territory based on their status as U.S. citizens, not as members of an ethnic or racial subculture.

In addition, statehood will give Puerto Rico more ethnic and cultural empowerment than the current “commonwealth” regime. In contrast, the “commonwealth” system of territorial government remains subject to supremacy of federal law with no democratic representation limited by the U.S. Constitution to citizens of states. So if U.S. citizenship is to continue there will be no fully democratic government by consent or even a zone of sovereignty reserved to the people of Puerto Rico.

Ignoring these realities, CB conveniently neglects to mention another important aspect of the Native American experience. Thomas Jefferson’s original 1787 version of the Northwest Ordinance on territorial status envisioned an “Indian territory,” where Native Americans could be empowered politically.

Before the Civil War a semblance of self-government and economic development was taking hold in territory inhabited by tribes driven west by U.S. citizen migration. That included Creek, Seminole, Choctaw and other tribes, some from southern slaveholding states. These tribes adapted aspects of southern plantation model commercial farming to their needs, including importation of African slaves for labor.

As the brutal scourge of Civil War descended on America some of the slave-holding Native American tribes declared loyalty to and fought with the confederacy. After the Civil War some of the Native American tribes that fought with the confederacy against the Union Army enlisted in the so-called “Indian Wars” against the U.S. Army. An estimated 45,000 Native Americans were reported killed, and 20,000 U.S. Army casualties were reported.

In the era that ensued the Native American tribes were not able to politically sustain petitions for a federally organized and recognized “Indian Territory,” much less a state of the union for native tribes. The native tribal peoples were recognized as “sovereign nations” under federal Indian law, but were denied U.S. citizenship and acculturated to federal Indian reservation dependency.

Native Americans were denied equal rights of U.S. national citizenship until 1924, years after Puerto Ricans had become U.S. citizens in 1917. Even before the tribes, in 1922 the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico were recognized by federal courts as fully equal in any of the 50 states, even though denied equal rights of citizenship in the territory.

To compare Puerto Rico’s modern era quest for statehood with the saga of Native American tribes is confusing and misleading. Puerto Rico is a territory that has contributed to and defended our nation and union in every war.

Equating present day Puerto Rico to the legacy of the Native American tribes is simply dishonest race baiting propaganda. As such it is best understood as an attempt to use subliminal suggestion to belittle the statehood majority, as well as shame and stigmatize Puerto Ricans who believe Puerto Rico can achieve equality and retain its cultural pride through statehood.

More Misconceptions

The CB editor’s article also includes a report of his interview with an unnamed federal territorial official that is even more historically unhinged from reality than the Native American tribe narrative. According to the published article, this mysterious federal territorial policy expert asserted Puerto Rico is still “foreign in the domestic sense,” and not ready for transition to statehood.

The “foreign in a domestic sense” phrase originated in an infamously vexatious federal court ruling attempting to justify imperialist doctrines adopted in a series of territorial law cases dating back to 1901. It is an expression of legal and moral ambivalence emanating from U.S. Supreme Court rulings that defined a colonial political status for non-citizens in the Philippines under U.S. territorial status.

Puerto Rico’s status was also defined by that 1901 case until 1917, when Congress granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Rico that it had denied to the Philippines. The notion that evolution of Puerto Rico’s political status since 1917 and readiness for statehood in 2017 can be compared to the political, social and economic conditions in the Philippines in 1901 defies reason and rational judgment.

By trafficking in such notions uncritically CB is promoting historical revisionism that is untrue and prejudicial to the right of informed democratic self-determination by 3.4 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. It is an affront to Puerto Rico’s allegiance and patriotism as a body politic that has been tested and proven in every war for a century.

That ignoble “foreign in a domestic sense” phrase was directed in 1901 not to U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico, but rather to non-citizens in the Philippines territory under U.S military occupation. A large percentage of whom were or soon would be supporting their fellow countrymen waging a war for independence against the United States.

At that time members of Congress, Harvard Law School professors, members of the U.S. Supreme Court and the American territorial Governor were constantly and consistently referring to the territorial peoples to whom that 1901 ruling applied in openly imperialist, colonialist, racist and dehumanizing terms.

For example, in 1901 and for decades that followed it was considered acceptable if not erudite to explicitly question whether the people of the Philippines were genetically as well as culturally capable of democratic participation in their own governance. The U.S. Governor of the Philippines was somewhat more “enlightened,” and “benevolently” allowed that self-rule and democratic citizenship might be possible with at least a century of U.S. imperial rule.

For a U.S. territorial official in the post-WWII era to use the “foreign in a domestic sense” phrase to suggest Puerto Rico is not ready politically or otherwise for statehood is something the CB editor should not have gloated about. Instead of being smug and glib, the CB editor should remind readers that the statement attributed to a federal territorial policy expert ignores Puerto Rico’s history and role in our nation’s history since 1901.

In 2017 Puerto Rico has a far more metropolitan political economy and is far more integrated into the political, economic, social, cultural and moral life of the nation than any of the 32 territories that have been admitted as states of the union between 1796 and 1959. For example, Puerto Rico alone among current territories has a U.S. Federal District Court established under Article III of the U.S. Constitution.

Puerto Rico’s institutions or government and political economy are much more state-like than other territories admitted to the union. So much so that Puerto Rico’s failed “commonwealth” regime of territorial government currently is experiencing extreme fiscal and budget pressures, similar to some large mainland cities, states and potentially the federal government itself.

The difference between Puerto Rico and the states is that as a territory it is not able to compete and succeed on an equal footing and pay its own way in the union. Instead, bankruptcy of the “commonwealth” regime existing and operating under federal law is being used as an excuse to deny statehood. But it is the denial of statehood that has led to developmental arrest and allowed the “commonwealth” regime to borrow more money that it can repay.

More fundamentally, no U.S. citizen has the most important right, government by consent through federal voting rights, except through citizenship of a state. That is because federal voting rights are allocated by the U.S. Constitution exclusively to citizens of the states. So pretending the problems in Puerto Rico that are due to domestic territorial law and policy arise from it foreignness is inane.

Puerto Rico Stands Alone at the Threshold of Statehood

Finally, the CB editor also quotes another so-called territorial expert claiming to be an outside advisor to the Trump administration, stating that the U.S. will duly consider any statehood proposal before Congress for Puerto Rico, Washington DC or Guam.

It would be truly lamentable if the Trump Administration took seriously this “expert’s” notion of any legal or policy equivalency between Guam, DC and Puerto Rico.

Guam has never voted or petitioned for statehood, or for integration into an existing state.

There is no precedent for Washington DC to become a state.

Puerto Rico is a large U.S. citizen populated territory petitioning for statehood based on the precedent of 32 territories that became states.

CB owes the public an apology for this sloppy and biased article.



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