The terms citizen and member are not entirely good fits for Indian country. Contemporary discussion emphasizes nation building, constitutions and tribal sovereignty, and some communities have taken up the term of citizens to describe their members. Certainly the discussion of political sovereignty, treaty rights, and the rights of nations are part of the current direction in Indian affairs. This discussion is in many ways influenced by U.S. legal cases and the legal discussions of U.S. and Indian law.
The world is currently, according to the predominant view, composed of nation states. Contemporary nation states have citizens. Part of the pathway to effective constitutional governments and nations must be supported by loyal and active citizens. The theory and assumptions here are all the contemporary discourse of democratic nation states. If tribal communities are to exercise nation-to-nation relations with the United States then nations, citizens, constitutions, and sovereignty are all part of the current language of political and legal theory.
The Western interpretation of nation and nation state overlooks the social and political structure of indigenous organization.
Nevertheless, the terms and historical contexts of the contemporary meaning of words like nation, citizen, sovereignty, and constitutions arise from social and cultural contexts that are not well matched or do not arise through consensual processes from indigenous social and political relations. Indigenous communities have political processes that are based on consensus building. Enduring and stable institutional orders are those that are built upon strong consensual support from its constituent participants.
Consequently, the most enduring and stable institutional arrangements for indigenous communities will be those that are built upon and reflect the culture of consensual institutions and the values, goals and interests of tribal participants. The expression citizen, in its contemporary form, implies an individual, who has by birth or naturalization, agreed to the political ground rules, or constitution, of a democratic nation state. There is a strong element of consensus with the fundamental agreement or contract of government, which generates both obligations and rights for the citizen.
Most indigenous peoples are born into kinship groups or villages or bands, which define their relations to the community. Local and kinship identities and political commitments prevail. Many tribal communities retain such organization wholly or in part. Good examples are the many Pueblo communities, or the Iroquois, but many others to varying extents.
Furthermore, the conception of nation, or more specifically political nation or nationality, in its contemporary form is a collection of individual citizens. Indigenous nations are much less secular and are more like confederations of cooperation, kinship, village or band groups, each of which retains local political sovereignty and rights to make most local decisions. Indigenous political structure and process tends to be decentralized, consensual, local, and often kin-based. The Western interpretation of nation and nation state overlooks the social and political structure of indigenous organization.
If tribal communities are to exercise nation-to-nation relations with the United States then nations, citizens, constitutions, and sovereignty are all part of the current language of political and legal theory.
When tribal communities adopt the terms citizen, nation, or sovereignty, they are often attempting to gain legal recognition and protection for their political, cultural, and territorial rights, but at the same time, they are disempowering their own tribal, political and cultural institutions. Every indigenous community has the right and obligation to decide its own pathway to the future, and adopting constitutions, citizenship, secular political sovereignty are all possible decisions.
The world is changing, and so will indigenous nations. However, whenever new institutions are adopted without full support among tribal communities, conflict often emerged between the new government institutions that may disempower continuing and strong local forms of political sovereignty. Simply adopting the language of contemporary nations is not enough to build future indigenous governments. Each community needs to consensually negotiate change, support any adoption of nation state forms of social and political powers within their tribal communities.