When Europeans found Indigenous Peoples in the Americas, they discovered peoples who had significantly more democratic social and political relations. The emphasis on egalitarian and negotiated consensual social and political processes was in striking contrast to European Absolutist states.
In Europe, kings ruled by divine right and landed aristocrats sometimes had voting powers. Most subjects of European states did not have the right to caste a vote. Indigenous political and social processes were often local and respectful of the right of every individual to express their views within village, lineage or clan groupings. Most local indigenous villages, lineage, clans or other relations held local land where they had resources to produce an independent livelihood. Indigenous Peoples, through their land holdings, produced enough food for consumption and some trade.
Economic independence often fosters political autonomy as well, since there was less economic dependency. Individuals and groups were recognized to have their own economies, and their own leadership, and had the right to make their own decisions. When negotiating with other groups, each group stated their position, and tried to develop an agreement or consensus. When consensus was not possible, then each group went its own way. No friendly group imposed their will on others. Indigenous Peoples continue to believe they have inherent powers to make their own decisions, and the power to negotiate with the other groups whether they are of their culture or from other cultures.
Self-determination is often defined as the power to make your own decisions. Indigenous nations and sub-groupings have deep traditions of self-determination and continue to believe that all human nations have the right to make their own decisions. Many European explorers and observers, used the example of the consensual political processes of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas to critique the centralized and authoritarian political and social institutions of European.
Indigenous democratic relations influenced and are reflected in the evolving democratic relations of European government and contemporary constitutional nation states. Indigenous Peoples resisted and continue to resist social and political inclusion into nation states because they prefer the democracy, territories, and social-government of their own traditions. Indigenous Peoples do not reject change, but want to make political, cultural, and economic change in ways that conform to their own cultures, institutions and interests.
Nation states, and colonial governments, moved to limit self-determination by Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Peoples while often forced to comply to the demand of nation states, continue to prefer their own governments, territories, and political decision making processes.
By granting citizenship to Indigenous Peoples, without continuing to recognize indigenous rights and democratic traditions, results in the imposition of nation state rules and limitations on indigenous political processes and government.
For example, the U.S. legal tradition of Congressional plenary power over Indian policy and the powers of U.S. courts, inhibits American Indians to carry on their own self-determination and realize their own political processes, goals and values. With some exceptions, like Bolivia, throughout most of Latin and South America, Indigenous Peoples are encouraged to form municipal governments as citizens of the nation state. Municipal governments fit into the national, regional, and local political order.
While an indigenous municipal government can observe its own laws and norms, any conflict with state or federal government laws and policies are overruled in favor of centralized and national rules and interests. Similarly, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples enables local government, like municipal governments, but under the power of the state and federal governments. Consequently, under most contemporary forms of national and international government, Indigenous Peoples are not allowed to express traditional self-determination, and are often at odds with the political, policy, and bureaucratic processes of national and international agencies and governments. For most Indigenous Peoples, self-determination will remain a continuing point of contention with present and future national governments and international law.