The Birds & Bees and Sovereignty

10 Feb 2020

“The birds and the bees” is a euphemism for sex. Instead of examining the details of human reproduction, “bees” suggest insemination while “birds” suggest gestation and growth. Similarly, “sovereignty” is often a euphemism for self-determination, independence and identity. But whereas human reproduction is well understood, sovereignty, with respect to the powers and functions of tribes, nations and states, is not. 

In the United States, American Indian tribes are political entities whose status is higher than the states. For instance, the United States has not negotiated even one treaty with any of the fifty states, but it did ratify over 500 treaties with American Indian nations. Also, federally recognized tribes, as do all nations, have citizens. States do not; they have residents. Yet states do have some sort of sovereignty based on what they do, how they are represented, and where their claims to sovereignty are situated. 

It is not unreasonable, therefore, to study states as well as nations for examples of how sovereignty is exercised. The birds and the bees, after all, have countless ways of propagating themselves. 

One criticism of comparing tribes to non-tribal nations is that tribal territories are too small to be considered “real” nations. But with respect to square miles of land, even the smallest Lakota reservation in South Dakota—Lower Brule with 390 sq. mi.— is larger than Sao Tome and Principe (372 sq. mi.), the world’s 24th smallest country.  Rosebud Reservation (1,975 sq. mi.) is almost the same size as Trinidad and Tobago (1,980 sq. mi.), the 30th smallest country. Standing Rock Reservation (3,663 sq. mi.) is larger than Cyprus (3,572 sq. mi), the 32nd smallest country; Pine Ridge Reservation (4,354 sq. mi.) is about the same size as Gambia (4,361 sq. mi.), the 35th smallest country; and Cheyenne River Reservation (4,419 sq. mi.) is only slightly smaller than Qatar (4,473 sq. mi.), the 36th smallest country, which is scheduled to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. 

In comparison to U.S. states, four of these Lakota reservations are larger than Rhode Island, and three of them are larger than Delaware. Therefore, the size of Lakota reservations is within the range of the size of world nations and U.S. states. 

If we examine the populations of these reservations in comparison to world nations, Lower Brule Reservation, with 1,505 residents, is larger than Vatican City, the world’s least populated nation with 799 residents. The numbers of residents in Cheyenne River Reservation (8,090) and Standing Rock Reservation (8,217) are closer to the population of Tuvalu (10,200), the second least populated country, than to the population of Vatican City. Rosebud Reservation (10,869) has almost the same population as Nauru (11,000), the third least populated nation. And the 18,834 residents of Pine Ridge Reservation are more than the 17,900 residents of Palau, the fourth least populated nation.

Looking beyond the ranking of nations by the size of their territories or the  number of their residents, flags are symbols that nations use to identify themselves and to differentiate them from other nations. Tribes also have flags and so do all U.S. states. Additional national or state symbols that rarely are quantifiably compared include things such as national birds, mammals, or trees. But these and similar things seem to be more popularly identified by states rather than by nations. 

For instance, of the nations mentioned above, only the U.S. and Trinidad and Tobago have national birds; but the U.S., Cyrus, Gambia and Qatar have national mammals, and the U.S., Cyprus and Qatar have national trees. None of these nations or apparently any other has a national insect.

U.S. states, however, all have state birds, state mammals or animals, state trees, and even state insects. The state insect of South Dakota, along with 16 other states, is the European honey bee. 

Apparently, no tribe has identified a tribal bird, mammal, tree or insect. Imagine the enthusiastic involvement of students and reservation residents if each of the Lakota tribes undertook initiatives to identify an official tribal bird, mammal, tree and insect. But why stop there? How about a tribal flower, rock and constellation? There are many ways to express identity and sovereignty. So let’s do it! Let’s encourage tribes to engage the residents of their reservations in performing  this simple process of exercising self-determination, independence and identity. In so doing, we will all be discussing the birds and the bees and sovereignty.

(This article is also published in Lakota Times.)