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On the Words ‘Tribe’ and ‘Nation’

At the conclusion of the War of 1812, during talks leading to the 1814 Treaty of Ghent, American and British treaty commissioners engaged in a heated and lengthy political debate over the status of American Indians. The British commissioners wanted an Indian buffer state to exist between the United States and Canada. The America commissioners were very much opposed to such a plan.

Bilateral political talks are discussions involving power and power relations. They are talks in which both sides use words and ideas to maneuver and jockey for a position of power in relation to one another. In keeping with their political perspective and their desire to establish an American Indian buffer state, the British commissioners used the expression "Indian nations" because they considered this phrase to be the most politically powerful use of the English language. The British commissioners consciously rejected the phrase "Indian tribes," thus pointing out that the distinction between nations and tribes is extremely important.

The American treaty commissioners, on the other hand, steadfastly refused to use the term "nations" in reference to the Indians, and were careful to never deviate from the phrase "Indian tribes." The American commissioners didn't want Indians to be dignified with the more politically powerful term "nations."

The sharp difference between "nations" and "tribes" in the debate between Great Britain and the United States in the early part of the 19th century is instructional for us as American Indians in the early part of the 21st century.

It is almost impossible for any attorney to write in a typical manner about federal Indian law without referring to "Indian tribes." Charles F. Wilkinson, for example, wrote: "Indian tribes are the basic unit in Indian law." However, the refusal by British treaty commissioners to use the term "tribe" in a political dispute raises the question, "Is tribe the most politically powerful term to use in reference to our respective nations and peoples?"

The word "tribe" is derived from the Latin language, and refers to the three (from the prefix tri, meaning "three") main divisions of the Roman people representing the Latin, Sabine and Etruscan settlements. Tribe refers to, "any group of people united by ties of common descent from a common ancestor, community of customs and traditions, adherence to the same leaders." Another meaning is, "a local division of an Aboriginal people." A tribe is also defined as, "a class or type of animals, plants, articles or the like." Tribe is also a term of stockbreeding, "a group of animals, esp. cattle, descended through the female line from a common female ancestor."

The word "nation" refers to "a body of people, associated with a particular territory, that is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess a government peculiarly its own." Also, "the territory or country itself." Synonyms include: "State, commonwealth, kingdom, realm." Another meaning is, "a member tribe of a confederation," which is a kind of state. The word national means, "or, pertaining to, or maintained by a nation as an organized whole or independent political unit," and, "peculiar or common to the whole people of a country."

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The contrast between the two terms is striking. The concept of nation is inclusive of such terms as, "government, territory, realm, confederacy, independent political unit," etc., which are not necessarily or generally associated with the term "tribe."

The title of the book, "Indian Tribes as Sovereign Governments", put out by Charles Wilkinson, and the American Indian Resources Institute (2004) is an interesting example of the effort that must be made to link "sovereignty" and "tribes." Because "sovereignty" is not found in the etymological history of the word "tribe," federal Indian law commentators have to make a special effort to link the two concepts together. By contrast, the concept of "sovereignty" is naturally embedded in the word "nation."

A book title "Indian Nations as Sovereign Governments" would be considered redundant because it would state the obvious: Nations are sovereign. It would be sort of like a title: "Roses as flowers." Based on the word's etymology, "tribe" does not obviously mean "sovereign," or self-governing, thus the need to specify the idea of "Indian Tribes as Sovereign Governments", with the added caveat of the subjugating federal Indian law paradigm: "subject to federal supervision," or "subject to the plenary power of Congress."

If you were in a conversation with a representative of a member state of the United Nations, and referred to that country, nation or state as a "tribe" (for example, the "tribe" of Canada), your remark would spark an immediate and sharp response. No nation-state representative would allow his or her country to be referred to as a "tribe." In fact, that representative would feel highly insulted because the Western mind immediately associates the word "tribe" with "primitive," "uncivilized," "backward" and "inferior."

Our indigenous sisters and brothers to the North saw through this semantic dilemma at least a decade ago, and began to politically demand that the dominant Canadian society refer to them as "First Nations."

The word "treaty" refers to "a formal agreement between two or more states in reference to peace, alliance, commerce or other international relations." Not one mention of "tribe" or "tribes" is found in this definition because such demeaning terminology is outside of formal international diplomatic relations. We talk about the treaties that so many of our respective nations have made with the United States, but we allow ourselves to be demeaned with the words "tribe" and "tribal."

Mental habits are extremely difficult to break because we become emotionally committed to them whether those habits promote our interests or not. A mental habit occurs unconsciously, without thinking. When we call attention to something so customary, so taken for granted as the use of the words "tribe" and "tribal," we bring these concepts up to the level of conscious awareness and begin to ask specific questions about them. Once we have taken the time to engage in conscious and critical assessment of these terms, we can make a conscious decision to shift our language usage and our ideas towards more politically powerful terms.

As far as I'm concerned, it's time to stop denigrating ourselves with the terms "tribe" and "tribal." We downgrade ourselves, and our status, as nations and peoples when we fail to choose the most powerful terms in English to express our political identity.