No Human Is Illegal
Joshua Cohen (“The Last Last Summer,” Issue 27) writes that Connecticut and New York legalized tribal casinos. But the states did no such thing. Tribal nations governed here before the United States was even a theory in the white imagination. As such, these nations hold tribal sovereignty, a legal framework the US federal government uses to recognize that tribal nations are immune to state law, among other things. Tribal sovereignty is the same concept by which the Supreme Court has ruled that states lack the authority to regulate tribal casinos. That’s why tribal nations enter into compacts with states; those compacts are agreements between governments.
I understand that Cohen is lamenting a peculiar kind of loss of Atlantic City, which he uses as a proxy for the rest of the United States. But there’s an irony in failing to identify colonization as the premise by which the sea change Cohen describes is taking place. Absecon Island was much more than, as Cohen snidely writes, the “desolate sandspit that had been fishing-and-hunting grounds to the Lenni Lenape.” Before Absegami territory was essentially stolen, what is now known as Atlantic City was the site of annual summer ceremonies for indigenous people (who also spent one last last summer there). Tribal dispossession in the past facilitated Atlantic City’s reality today. Public traces of the indigenous names that dot the region reveal how profoundly this is misunderstood — perhaps most notably at Absegami High School, which uses a woefully racist mascot with an equally offensive motto: “Home of the Braves.” But I digress.
Later in the essay, Cohen chooses to describe some people as “illegal immigrants.” It was that word choice that persuaded me to stop reading. That term, another residue of colonization, is based in a dangerous idea that some human beings can be illegal. It might be easier for other readers to endorse or ignore the term. But I couldn’t seem to spend my free time reading past that mark.
I know that this precise moment demands that we ask different questions, and that we come up with different answers. Yet here we are in 2017, asking the same questions we’ve asked for a long time: the ones about the way we understand and misunderstand history, and the ones about the way we use language to further dehumanize the most vulnerable among us. We’re still here 525 years later, waiting for different answers.
— Aura Bogado