Can we reconcile rolls, relations and identity?

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Before the 1970s, tribal rolls were controlled and determined by BIA policy, but since then tribes have won the power and freedom to determine tribal enrollment requirements. Nevertheless, many tribes continue with legacy membership requirements from the days when the BIA made and administered the tribal rolls.

The ability to construct and administer tribal rolls is a significant product of the present-day self-determination policy. Determining membership is a fundamental political right and cultural responsibility of any nation. Increasingly, tribal governments are turning their attention to membership issues for a variety of reasons. Gaming tribes have scrutinized their tribal rolls and procedures. Other tribes are managing long-standing debates about who qualifies as a tribal member and who does not. Many Indian nations are rethinking constitutional governments and in the process, developing and recording rules of membership.

Determining membership is a fundamental political right and cultural responsibility of any nation.

Creating membership requirements is a great responsibility and for some nations, the exercise has become highly politicized. The possibility of determining tribal membership offers a fundamental opportunity to exercise sovereignty, but at the same time presents councils with the often difficult task of deciding how to define its citizenry. Some governments have very clear, ancient rules. For example, many Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) nations still use a matrilineal clan system, whereby a person reckons descent and citizenship through the clan of their mother.

Many tribal nations, however, have members who do not know their kinship or clan groups, or their groups are no longer operable or recognized. Further, many tribal governments have adopted bylaws or Indian Reorganization Act constitutions which define citizenship or membership rules according to non-Native constructs, usually without reference to any traditional criteria. This is at least one complicating factor in modern membership disputes.

Embedded within traditional determinations of membership is a moral community, often characterized by shared ceremonial relations. Membership in the traditional way was a kinship, a moral and sacred set of relations to kin, other clans, the nation, other nations, as well as the natural world.

Most contemporary tribal governments do not use traditional ways to determine tribal membership, although in many communities the continuity of sacred kin groups defines the social and political processes of the community, and are often at direct odds with secular constitutional governments. The words citizen and member do not encompass the moral and kinship structures that continue to inform many Indian communities. Neither citizen nor membership – English words – consider kin group identities, or embrace the worldview of tribal nations. Constructing tribal governments, constitutions and membership rules no longer need be restricted by the legacy of BIA administered membership rules, or even restricted to the secular and individualistic terms of citizen or membership.

Tribal nations should be more conscious of tribal traditions, traditional membership rules, and the social and political power that is represented within community kinship groups and their connections to sacred teachings. We now have a great opportunity to reconsider issues of citizenship, membership and tribal community, and we are free to renew reservations and governments in ways that take into account our own unique cultural histories and kinship relations.

Securing traditional identity and community in contemporary membership and political institutions is a creative and challenging path. By constructing governments, constitutions and tribal rolls that reflect the social and political power of ongoing community relations, we will be more soundly prepared to face the future as tribal nations.