Skip to main content

Institutions in Indian country


Institutions are enduring and established organizations or group activities. Most communities are composed of institutions such as ceremonial cycles, kinship groups, government, economy or others. Shared understandings, norms, rules or laws are characteristic of communities that are endowed with strong institutions. While leadership and responsibility are major features of institutions, most depend on agreements or consensus about rules, behaviors, goals and methods.

In traditional societies, often institutions are handed down from previous generations, and are given in creation and related teachings. For example, the trickster figure Raven gave the Tlingit people on the western coast their clans, moieties, potlatch ceremonies and moral and ethical teachings. Because Raven gave the ceremonies and clans, people honor and maintain them as sacred gifts from the Creator. Indigenous peoples have very strong institutional relations that very different from one another and other peoples.

For most indigenous peoples, institutional relations usually are overlapping or tightly interrelated. Many indigenous people say that everything is related in their communities, and such a reflection is a comment that institutions are holistic, or non-compartmentalized. In most indigenous communities families, political leadership, economic organization and distribution, ceremonial organization and practice are often interrelated or hard to distinguish from one another. Families engage in economic production and distribution, and families may play a role in political decision making with other families, clans or villages. Religious activities often are individual-, family- and community-based.

Each indigenous nation has its own political, cultural, economic and community organization; but overall, the nations tend to have overlapping political, family, economic and cultural relations embedded within a sacred community or nation. Furthermore, indigenous nations are not only about relations with other peoples, but also with the plants, animals, sun, moon, stars and forces that compose the cosmic universe. In critical ways, indigenous nations are not political nations in the modern Western sense of politically mobilized body of citizens. Rather, indigenous nations were more like religious communities who spoke a common language and practiced a common ceremonial cycle. There were more commitments to the ceremonial cycle than to political unity, which was divided among clans, families and individuals. Political norms in indigenous nations generally were decentralized and consensual with great respect for autonomy of families, groups and individuals in political and spiritual matters.

When we talk about contemporary nation-building or institution-building, we should not suggest that indigenous nations do not have institutions or nations. Rather, indigenous nations had very strong institutions and nations, but they are organized very differently from the Western models, especially as government- and market-based institutions are currently understood in Canadian or American societies. Furthermore, the colonial period introduced new institutions into indigenous communities like Christianity, new forms of government, market economies, nation-state forms of bureaucracy, courts and police. One major problem with colonial institutions is that they often are not accepted voluntarily by indigenous communities. Often colonial institutions conflict deeply with indigenous institutions and create cultural and organizational schisms in the community, and tend to give significant decision-making powers to external political, economic and cultural groups and organizations.

Contemporary institutions in Indian country are mixed, a combination of traditional, colonial and contemporary institutional relations. Consequently, contemporary nation-building is not simply a matter of adopting Western institutional forms of political, economic, community and cultural organization. Nation-building does not occur in an institutional vacuum, and new institutions must have general acceptance or consensual support, otherwise they will not last or work well. However, returning to traditional national forms is not likely because of the colonial intrusion, and the world now is a very different and highly nationalized and globalized place.

Contemporary institution building is about moving values, norms, social and community organization in ways to help ensure cultural, and political autonomy, and economic self-sufficiency. The process is one of maintaining community and cultural continuity through adjusting institutional relations whether traditional, colonial or contemporary, to meet the cultural, political and economic needs of contemporary communities. Institutional change is achieved best through processes of consensus-building, which helps ensure cultural continuity and acceptance of compatible change.