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Sovereignty, property, and indigeneity: the relationship between Aboriginal North America and the modern state in historical and geographical context

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posted on 2023-06-08, 15:08 authored by David Todd Scarth
Accounting for indigenous forms of sovereignty poses difficult problems for the discipline of International Relations, which is framed by the story of the modern, territorial European state. Most attempts to conceptualize Aboriginal nations in the international system confirm the modern state as the benchmark for sovereignty. In this dissertation I address the problem of how to incorporate Aboriginal peoples into IR without granting the modern European state as the only legitimate form of sovereignty. I proceed through an examination of key moments in the European colonization of the Americas, from first contact through the geographic isolation of indigenous peoples onto reservations. In each case it is demonstrated that the assumption of “formal” sovereignty – based on recognition, and with insufficient regard for historical context – underpinning conventional IR accounts of colonialism is inadequate to theorize colonialism. I argue that colonialism is not a story of political-legal recognition (sovereignty), but of politicaleconomic social relations – specifically the appropriation of land (property). My contribution to the discipline is two-fold. First, I contribute to a richer understanding of sovereignty. Establishing sovereignty over territory in the New World allowed the English (and then American) state to set the legal, political and cultural framework for the private acquisition of land. Second, rather than using indigenous nations only as a foil for modern sovereignty, or as victims in a narrative of colonial domination, I make the case for incorporating the political agency of Indigenous communities into IR’s account of colonialism. Far from the passive victims implied by conventional IR, they were central to a dynamic history of resistance and compromise, and their interactions with Europeans shaped modern sovereignty in lasting ways.


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