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A New (Old) Way to Govern Indian Country

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I just finished a road trip through Indian Country and had the chance to meet with a number of folks from five different Indigenous nations/tribes and they all had the same issue – how to reform their constitutions and get better government.

This is not just a growing phenomenon on the U.S. side but it’s a growing question on the North side as to how to get out from under the oppressive Indian Act and the Tribal elective system (IRA).

From my perspective, this is a challenge of how to restore democracy to Indigenous nations. Before the invasion we all lived within highly democratic governments and societies. And then, the Great White Fathers decided we needed to be “civilized” and “assimilated” and one of the tools they chose was to overthrow and displace our original forms and systems of governance.

In the north this began with the 1924 revision of the Indian Act. Ten years later the south adopted the “Indian Reorganization Act” (IRA). In the north the Canadian settler regime made it mandatory to opt into the Band Council system. There was heavy resistance in the Haudenosaunee territories that resulted in the assassination of one chief and the incarceration of five others.

When the IRA was passed the Bureau of Indian Affairs was charged with the task of getting Indigenous nations to opt into the new system. The historical record shows that there were some 77 nations out of 230 who refused to become part of the IRA system. Those who did join the system were initially deemed to be both federal corporations under section 17 of the act and to have a constitution under section 16. From the beginning this dual identity has caused all sorts of problems within the Indigenous nations and communities that opted in.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and ask ourselves, “Are elections the only valid form of democratic expression?”

According to the UN website in a section addressing Global Issues they state: “The spread of democracy around the world is one of the most significant achievements of our times. Elections sit at the heart of this, making possible the act of self-determination envisaged in the Charter of the United Nations.

In this phrase they’re saying that elections are part of the act of self-determination. Are they?

The two international conventions on self-determination both start by declaring: “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” No mention of elections or the electoral process as the vehicle for exercising and achieving these rights.

Having elections as a way for people to believe they have some form of participation in their levels of government is a purely Western phenomenon. What the electoral process does accomplish is the institutionalizing of a state of constant discord and unrest caused by having to choose people to occupy seats of power supposedly on your behalf. It is adversarial in practice in that there must be a winner and a loser. With the creation of political parties this creates whole blocks of people who become disenfranchised when they are the losers. They have to sit on the sideline waiting for their chance to regain power while their adversaries exercise the power of being elected to operate a state apparatus for a period of time.

In Indian Country this has meant the creation of oligarchies – families who have remained in control of the electoral process and the functions of governance for generations. They have become the political elites of their territories.

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So what does original democracy look like? How did it function? Is it still feasible today?

My work with Indigenous nations and governments over the years has produced a model of the common factors that are the hallmarks of original Indigenous governance systems and processes:

  • A desire for harmony in inter-personal relations.
  • Respect for the freedom and autonomy of one’s self and others.
  • Respect for the integrity of the individual.
  • Respect for the integrity of the collective whole.
  • Caring and regard for the dignity of all life.
  • Honesty in inter-relating.
  • Insuring fairness in all of our ways of relating and being.

The key functional component of original governance is the extended family. In many civilizations this is expressed through the clans or other structure to which all citizens belonged. I’ve also found that the majority of our civilizations were matriarchal/matrilocal providing women with the absolute right of participation.

We didn’t have elections, we had selection processes. Each extended family is responsible for selecting the best member of their family to represent them on the council or any other form of organization within our civilizations. In today’s time that would mean each extended family not only selects their representative for council but for committees, commissions, boards, etc.

We have long had a problem with the English word “nepotism”. In their world this is a bad thing. But in our world it is a good thing because you have been selected by your extended family to work on behalf of them and to look out for their rights and interests. It is important to note that in our original systems there is generally a Teaching that insures fairness and it is given in the context of “all heads are the same height”. What this means is universal equality. Larger extended families could not use their size to intimidate or dismiss the needs, rights and interests of the smaller families. Instead it means they have an obligation to give due consideration to smaller families to insure they are thriving and growing.

Balancing the demands and needs of all extended families within the village or the nation is achieved through the process of consensus development. Achieving consensus on various issues can be done very quickly when there is universal agreement on key principles and values. It can also take a period of time when the issue is complex or controversial. What is of utmost importance is that the process produces “one mind, one heart, and one spirit” to be able to move forward.

I believe it is doable to restore our original forms of governance and decision making. I’m also convinced we cannot do it through trying to reform or revise an IRA constitution. That thing is not of our making. We need to set it on the side and start with a clean slate asking ourselves – what is best for us?

I’m really inspired by the following written by Professor Christine Zuni Cruz of the UNM School of Law: “The change of, or addition to, traditional law is clearly within the sovereign authority of an indigenous nation. However, where the end result of such change and addition is that an indigenous nation’s law is no different in substance or language from state law, indigenous nations participate in their own assimilation into the mainstream of American law.”

It’s okay to be selfish in the interests of our seventh generation. In fact we are required to be so. It is our responsibility to ensure that our existence as intended by Creation never ceases to exist.

Mike Myers is the founder and CEO of Network for Native Futures, a Native non-profit that works with Indigenous nations, communities and organizations internationally. The network's mission is to support sustainable development and nation re-building through providing of technical assistance, training and consulting.