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A Different Declaration of Independence


On November 7, 1785, a group of Native American families gathered in a farmhouse near present-day Deansboro, New York—about 15 miles southwest of Utica—and established a new nation, the first American republic to be founded in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War.

The families derived from seven tribes along the Northeastern Seaboard: Narragansett, Niantic, Groton Pequot, Stonington Pequot, Tunxis, Montauk, and Mohegan. They were united by a common Algonquian language, shared traditions, and a desire to distance themselves from the colonial chaos of their coastal homelands. Their founding moment was recorded in the diary of one of the group’s leaders, a minister from the Mohegan nation named Samson Occom. “Now we proceeded to form into a Body Politick,” he wrote. “We Named our Town by the Name of Brotherton, in Indian Eeyawquittoowauconnuck.” The tribe established a governing committee to be reelected yearly, appointed various officials, and commenced the business of self-government. Soon after, their counterparts in Philadelphia started doing the same under their new federal Constitution.

One of these foundings eventually became much more famous than the other. But as a historian and teacher of early-American culture and politics, I’ve found that knowing about both can upend some common misconceptions concerning the Revolutionary era. The United States founding was undoubtedly a momentous event in world history, but it happened on a continent where other communities were seeking independence at the same time. If the Revolutionary era marked a “birth of freedom,” per President Abraham Lincoln’s famous metaphor, then the United States was not the only baby in the delivery ward.

Brothertown and the United States were born less than a decade apart and, by 1800, readily acknowledged each other’s sovereignty. As the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) later put it, the Brothertown founders had created a “tribal political entity,” and the federal government “recognized a relationship between that entity and the United States.” Today, the Brothertown Indian Nation still abides by its founding traditions. It still has a tribal council and a judiciary, the Peacemakers, which settles disputes under the Brothertown constitution. Brothertown citizens celebrate November 7 as the founding day of their national autonomy, much as U.S. citizens celebrate July 4, 1776. The tribe also has officers and cultural institutions for communicating with outsiders, including academics like me. When I was researching my book about Occom, I emailed a tribal historian and was invited to attend a book club on Brothertown history that I still go to most Wednesdays.

Only after several years of conversation with my friends there did I start to wrap my mind around the significance of a Native American founding in the Revolutionary Northeast. This is partly because of the way historians typically periodize the American story, with the founding era bookended by the pre-1776 “colonial period” (as if this had ever ended) and the early republic, a schema that makes the U.S. government the only relevant actor. But it’s also because non–Native Americans tend to assume that the history of Native nations must stretch back into the mists of precolonial time. Native people aren’t supposed to “found” their nations, and certainly not in 1785. Those nations are supposed to be passed down, from generation to generation, and get interrupted by upstarts like the United States.

Brothertown defies these expectations of Indigenous otherness. But here’s the crucial point: That doesn’t mean that Brothertown, which was created as a refuge from colonialism, ever wanted to emulate Great Britain or the United States. To be sure, Brothertown and the United States were born around the same time and, as members of the same political “generation,” share certain traits. But the Brothertown founders created their “Body Politick” to solve very different problems from those the American Revolutionaries faced.

Let’s start by considering what the U.S. Declaration of Independence was for. As the historian David Armitage has argued, its main purpose was to get the United States recognized as a sovereign state in the sphere of international law. In 1776, the colonial rebels required two things to win their war against their mother country: military allies and access to credit. They could expect neither so long as Great Britain was sovereign over them. Hence the need for the 13 colonies “to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.”

This kind of rhetoric is almost entirely absent from the proclamations, treaties, and laws enacted by the Brothertown Nation in the first half century of its existence. Declaring independence, for Brothertown, didn’t require appealing to some international tribunal or the “opinions of mankind.” It was primarily about creating a new home: a political space where tribal members could self-govern and settle disputes.

That’s not to say the Brothertown founders lacked a foreign policy. Diplomacy, after all, was a major part of Native life, and had been since long before the arrival of Europeans. In the 150 years or so leading up to the establishment of Brothertown, Northeastern tribes had developed a complex web of relationships with the British Crown. Sometimes diplomacy was a matter of straightforward treaty-making, sovereign to sovereign. Occasionally, tribes affirmed allegiance to Great Britain, but this was almost always done provisionally: “upon condition of His Majesties’ royal protection, and righting us of what wrong[s] us, or may be done unto us,” as one Narragansett declaration from 1643 put it. The advantage of acknowledging the jurisdiction of a distant monarch was that it gave the tribes legal standing equal to (or better than) that of colonists. Being “subjects unto the same King” in the years before the American Revolution, as the historian Jenny Hale Pulsipher has shown, was typically better than squaring off directly against colonial greed and malice. From this point of view, the Revolution was a disaster for Native people, because it deprived them of one of their most effective legal strategies.

Even so, the tribes of the Northeastern Seaboard expressed little nostalgia for the British after their defeat. Although Brothertown’s parent tribes sometimes benefited from the protection of the British sovereign, they never aspired to full participation in the commonwealth. Nor did they see themselves as bound by “social contracts” of the kind theorized by European philosophers. Among tribal nations, political allegiances were fluid. A sachem (an Algonquian term for “chief”) who betrayed the interest of his tribe could easily find himself rejected by his people. This was what happened in the 1760s and ’70s, when the Mohegan sachem Ben Uncas III oversaw the leasing of tribal lands, allegedly in collusion with the governing assembly of Connecticut Colony. In a petition to the Crown’s appointed governor, the tribal council declared that “the English intend to Continue him as a Sachem over us, but we have a Law and a Custom to make a Sachem over us Without the help of any People or Nation in the World, and When he makes himself unworthy of his Station we put him down—ourselves.”

Even though the Mohegans said it was “a Law and a Custom” to live this way, by U.S. standards, their concept of sovereignty was remarkably nonlegalistic—in a way that’s worth appreciating at this time of year, especially, when U.S. citizens traditionally celebrate their republic’s founding documents. Today, we understand the United States Constitution as the “supreme law of the land” as ratified through official public procedures. But in the 18th century, the term constitution more commonly referred to a whole way of life, as in the “ancient constitution” sometimes described as the unwritten source of English law. Tribal constitutions were described in similar terms; having a sachem who sold out the tribe was unconstitutional in the sense of being incompatible with the Mohegan way of life. Native constitutions were culturally embedded to a degree that the U.S. Constitution, which was purpose-built to govern a society of factions “actuated by different sentiments and views,” wasn’t.

Historians are finally beginning to confront the hard fact that the U.S. Constitution rules over Native nations as a kind of imperial law. This is ironic, given the “anti-colonial” ambitions of the U.S. rebels against British rule. Arguably, however, the “constitution of American colonialism” (to borrow a phrase from the legal scholar Maggie Blackhawk) has more in common with the imperial law of ancient Rome than that of early modern Britain. Like Roman imperial law, U.S. law since the 1970s has allowed for the flourishing of multiple “sub-political groups,” each with its own national culture, under its sovereign jurisdiction. Like Rome, too, the U.S. has turned the determination of Native nationhood into a question of imperial administration. Today, the BIA, a division of the Department of the Interior within the executive branch, gets to decide which Native tribes are “sovereign” from the perspective of federal law—regardless, in many cases, of what tribes say about themselves.

The case of Brothertown is instructive here. The U.S. dealt with Brothertown as a sovereign tribal nation until 1839, when an act of Congress granted the tribe’s members U.S. citizenship while declaring that “their power of making or executing their own laws, usages, or customs, as such tribe, shall cease.” (Note how Congress denied Brothertown’s power to make “customs” as well as “laws,” which seems to acknowledge the cultural embeddedness of tribal sovereignty, even as it denies tribal sovereignty with an authority transcending culture.) Then, in the late 20th century, Brothertown appealed to BIA to get its federal recognition reinstated, arguing that the 1839 act didn’t really “terminate” the tribe’s sovereignty. Over successive presidential administrations, BIA went back and forth on the question, deciding most recently (in 2012) that Brothertown had, in fact, been congressionally terminated. The nation’s sovereignty under federal law now hinges on whether Congress can be persuaded to reverse its 19th-century mistake.

Brothertown is doing everything it can to get its recognition restored, one of many tasks that make up the daily business of tribal government. Like other Native Americans, the people of Brothertown are fighting for sovereignty in the context of an empire that claims a monopoly over the meaning of Native nationhood. The persistence of Brothertown, from the Revolutionary period to today, shows that claim to be false. Brothertown declared its independence in 1785, and it’s been independent ever since.

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