Territoriality and Sovereign Advantage: Public Lands, Treaty Rights, and the Contentious Politics of the American West

Corresponding Author :

Dr. Séan Patrick Eudaily
University of Montana Western
Department of History, Philosophy, and Social Sciences
710 South Atlantic St.
Dillon, MT 59725
(tel.) 01-406-683-7103
(email) sean.eudaily@umwestern.edu


Dr. Steve Smith
Missouri Southern State University
Department of Social Science
3950 E. Newman Rd
Joplin, MO 64801
(tel.) 01-417-625-3008
(email) smith-steve@mssu.edu

Seán Patrick Eudaily is Professor of Politics at the University of Montana Western, where he teaches courses in politics, law, geography, history, and philosophy. He is the author of The Present Politics of the Past: indigenous legal activism and resistance to (neo)liberal governmentality (Routledge, 2004) as well as various shorter works on sovereignty, democratic theory, poststructuralism, and contentious politics. Currently, he is working on a book analyzing the transformations of the practice of sovereignty in comparative English domestic, British Imperial, and continental European contexts during the 17 th century.

Steve Smith is Professor of Geography at Missouri Southern State University, where he teaches world geography, cultural geography, and international studies. His recent publications include “Hemp for Sovereignty: Scale, Territory and the Struggle for Native American Sovereignty.”

Extended Abstract:

     This paper examines the territorial basis of claims to sovereignty by various actors in the contemporary era. These claims shift the question of sovereignty away from state institutions and toward the problem of territory. We argue for a genealogical approach to territory that considers how and under what circumstances different forms of territoriality have emerged and been used to continually modify sovereign claims-making. A genealogical approach then focuses our attention on the emergence of geopolitical forces, as well as their quantity and quality, beyond the edifice of the territorial, sovereign state. Thus, we argue for a reversal of the classic formulation wherein a sovereign controls territory, instead understanding territory as a starting point from which an individual or a group may advantageously engage in the practices of sovereignty. Explaining the (re)arrangement of the elements of sovereignty and territory provides a fruitful opportunity to engage the study of peoples’ movements, states, and international institutions as they vie to create positions of sovereign advantage.

     To take the notion of “movement” in social movements literally for a moment, scholars should reconsider the “where” of social ( or, as we prefer, peoples’) movements, both in terms of where they are located, where groups’ members and sympathizers choose to go, what territories they occupy, and what state borders they may cross. Peoples’ movements now grapple with territory in attempts to create spaces of resistance. States, now more than ever, wrestle with transnational and sub-state actors. And histories of sovereignty are more and more confounded by innovative analytical approaches to the historical sociology of the state.  Thus, a genealogical account of peoples’ movements will highlight the emergence of both deterritorializing and reterritorializing practices, and how these practices may transform both the quantity and quality of sovereignty’s territorial articulation. We articulate this position by means of a structured comparison of two recent cases: the armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Reserve by a sovereign citizen militia group with the peaceful protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) by the Standing Rock Sioux people and their allies in defense of tribal sovereignty and treaty rights.

     By arguing for a genealogical approach, we situate the questions that arise from displaced sovereign spaces into a larger discourse that acknowledges that there is a diversity of territorial practices that allow for the creation of alternative articulations of sovereignty. This, then, means taking state sovereignty out of the driver’s seat and thinking instead of the state as being one of many vehicles used to craft territory. By bringing together concerns from various traditions in political theory and political geography, and by reconsidering the historical nature of sovereignty in the American West, we thus provide an intellectual reflection and triangulation which allows scholars to gain critical, theoretical leverage concerning questions of sovereignty, territoriality, and indigenous peoples’ resistance. Such alternative genealogies of power have the possibility of writing in the gulf between the acknowledgments that state sovereignty is not monolithic, and the observations that it is displaceable in a variety of ways. These lines of inquiry may satisfy the developing scholarly interest in the intersection of space and peoples’ movements.


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