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Political Autonomy and Sustainable Economy

A unique attribute of Indian political ways was noted early on—they were engaged in everyday political action as full participating community members.

A unique attribute of Indian political ways was noted early on by colonial observers. Indians, Indigenous Peoples more generally, were engaged in everyday political action as full participating community members. Every person had the right to be heard. Decisions were made through discussion and caucusing—an Indian derived word. Indian orators worked to persuade others to adopt a specific position and arrive at agreements.

There is much talk in early colonial literature about the eloquence of Indian orators. In part, this eloquence and articulation was necessary to develop agreement among all tribal members including young men, women, elders, group and kinship leaders. The general rule was to gain consensus on significant issues. If a group or person did not agree to a proposition, they usually expressed dissent. Dissent was common. Often when agreement was not reached after numerous attempts, the discussion was abandoned, and each person, kinship group, village or community was free to continue on their own path.

Many colonial commentators noted the engaged democratic processes of Indigenous Peoples. Some wrote about indigenous democracies as a critique of the centralized, undemocratic, absolutist governments of Europe. By showing that absolutist states were not the sole divine political order for all humans, critical writers could undermine the cultural foundations of centralized and authoritarian governments. New forms of government slowly emerged with greater emphasis on individual freedom and rights. It is no accident that the first modern democracy emerged in the United States. The new nation and its political culture was deeply embedded in long-term relations with Indian nations.

While Indians continue to insist on equal access in tribal political processes, the basis of Indian individual group autonomy was eroded by colonial relations through the loss of land and sustainable economies. Indians were not individually engaged only because it was a traditional right, but because individuals, families, clans, and other groups had rights to land and economic resources within the tribal nation. Each individual and local Indian groups controlled their own gathering of food, and had an economic independence that avoided material dependence. People who are economically self-sustaining, as were Indians in traditional times, have the power to act politically without economic retaliation. In some sense, Indians were like contemporary rich people or medieval nobles, because they were not dependent on governments or aristocracies, who could extend control over their land and exploit their labor.

The loss of land creates a whole new situation for Indians during the contemporary period, if not during much of the latter colonial period. While Indians remain culturally cognizant of their individual and political rights, the economic sustainability that fostered the exercise of individual political and local group independence was destroyed. Many contemporary Indians live on small reservations with few market opportunities for economic sustainability.

Gaming tribes and other tribes who are successful in the marketplace have adopted collective forms of economic management and distribution. Indians generally managed their land rights collectively and the benefits were distributed equally. Most successful gaming tribes follow the same pattern, where the asset of tribal gaming is collectively managed and the benefits distributed equally to tribal citizens. Such a collective economic strategy allows the successful gaming tribes to support and maintain the traditional patterns of individual political and economic autonomy. Political autonomy and economic sustainability are major indigenous goals.

However, many small and isolated tribes do not have the advantage of collective tribal market opportunities like gaming, or land that will support a healthy sustainable economy. The impoverished reservations have lost their ability to maintain economic and political autonomy and are dependent on federal resources. On many reservations, poverty is accompanied by social distress, and political and cultural conflict. Nevertheless, most indigenous nations when offered market and subsistence economic opportunities will follow culturally informed collective and egalitarian economic patterns that preserve fundamental democratic features expressed by most Indigenous Peoples.