Preserving Indigenous Democracy

An Indian of the Tarahumara Mountains in northern Mexico in January 2012.

Duane Champagne

Preserving Indigenous Democracy.

When Europeans first came to the Americas they took note of the democratic processes they observed in most indigenous nations. Indigenous political relations were usually decentralized, consensus based, and inclusive. Indigenous democracies may not seem remarkable by contemporary standards, but when Europeans arrived their governments were not democratic. Most of Europe was characterized by centralized absolutist states dominated by class structures, where the majority of people did not participate in the political process. Wars of independence, starting with the United States in 1775 and then throughout Latin and South America during the early 1800s, enabled creation of democratic states after overthrowing European colonial governments. The new democratic American states engaged market economies, and retained class structure, albeit within a nation of individual citizens.

While the influence of indigenous political cultures on American democracies is heatedly debated, contemporary indigenous nations seek respect, compatibility, acceptance, and mutually beneficial relations within contemporary democratic nation states. Indigenous political processes often remain based on kinship, community, culture, and territory. Most nation states do not recognize indigenous nations as political entities, and prefer to incorporate Indigenous Peoples into the body politic as individual citizens. Such a position is consistent with the values of equality, individual citizenship, and inclusive political processes that characterize modern liberal democratic states, but are not consistent with most contemporary indigenous political processes based on family, community, and territory. Many indigenous people want to participate in the nation as citizens, but at the same time retain loyalties to their ancient cultural and political communities. Gaining nation state recognition of the political rights and powers of indigenous governments has been extremely difficult.

Most nation states prefer that Indigenous Peoples accept citizenship, and participate within the nation state as an individual. The Mexican mestizo nation, for example, consists of individuals who participate in national government and market economy. About 10 percent of the Mexican population live as indigenous people within their own communities, often declining to speak Spanish. Many Mexican indigenous communities are willing to work within the Mexican constitution, and accordingly have organized their communities as municipal governments. The municipal governments, or pueblos, follow Mexican law, but at the same time Indigenous Peoples can enact laws, and carry on government activities in ways that conform to their own values and preferences.

In Canada, the First Nations are governed by the Indian Act of 1876 and subsequent revisions, which imposed electoral processes on First Nations under Canadian government administration and monitoring. The original political forms of First Nations were subordinated to electoral systems by parliamentary legislation without First Nation consent. In recent years about 20 Canadian bands sought greater autonomy from the band form of government, composed of a chief and elected council, in favor of First Nation control over band government administration and constitutional matters. The Akwesasne Mohawk have negotiated release from the controlling Indian Act in all but two clauses. Other First Nations are beginning to rethink the band government and are looking to recover greater local cultural and political control over land and communities. In the United States, the self-determination policy fostered greater tribal control over government programs. Tribal governments actively seek economic sustainability that will support cultural expression, political autonomy, and preserve territorial rights.

While indigenous and nation states share some common ground, history, and concerns with inclusive political participation, each indigenous nation retains unique cultural and political heritage, and ways of managing government. Indigenous governments and cultures are diverse. Most indigenous nations engage the contemporary world through a mix of traditional values and selected political and economic innovation. The diversity of indigenous cultures and political processes, however, is not compatible with the theory and practice of most contemporary liberal nation states, which prefer common acceptance and primacy of national political institutions. As indigenous nations regain greater self-determination, they will challenge nation states to rethink the concepts of liberal democracy in order to accommodate culturally diverse indigenous democratic governments and perspectives.