Many U.S. tribal communities use the expression of citizen to designate the relation of individuals to their nations or tribal governments. Since there is a great amount of contemporary emphasis on sovereignty and nation-to-nation relations, it seems logical to adopt the language of nation-states. The politics of the contemporary world is about nations, states and citizens, and so, if tribal communities want to emphasize tribal sovereignty and nationality, then it seems appropriate to adopt the concept of citizens.
Also in current general usage is the expression of tribal membership. It is not clear where this expression came from, and again, it is unlikely that it is an indigenous expression, although we are saddled with the English interpretation. Membership is a generic expression of group inclusion, and signifies something like individual choice to join a group or club. The expressions of membership and citizenship suggest individualism and individual choice, and a group structure that is composed of homogeneous population.
Many U.S. tribal communities use the expression of citizen to designate the relations of individuals to their nations or tribal governments.
While widely used, both terms – membership and citizenship – do not easily express the way that many tribal communities are socially and culturally organized. Membership and citizenship do not recognize the social and cultural forms of indigenous communities. Neither expression describes nor consciously ignores clans, lineages, bands, villages, or other social forms found in indigenous communities. For example, “citizen” and “member” do not have any spiritual significance. In the past, indigenous communities were organized along political, spiritual, economic and community bases that were thoroughly interconnected and interrelated. Often decentralized political groups gathered during national ceremonies. The secular expressions of membership and citizenship strip away any acknowledgment of the sacredness of social interrelations among bands, clans, families and other indigenous social forms, or sacred relations of the community with the powers of the universe.
The concepts of membership and citizenship emphasize the individual and explicitly ignore the families, clans, lineages, bands, villages or other social groups that are the main social and political entities in most indigenous communities. Each indigenous language has a name for community or nation. Generally, there was no direct citizenship or membership in a nation, but people were first members of kinship groups or bands, or villages. In matrilineal communities, one belonged to the family or clan of your mother, and that was enough for inclusion in the community.
If we want to construct nations that reflect the interconnected social and spiritual relations of our ancestors, we need to choose words and names from our own historical languages that reflect the composition of indigenous nations. Such choices would reflect the specific features of each indigenous community and emphasize the uniqueness of each tribal community. Choosing citizen or member or an indigenous expression should now be a choice of an indigenous community.
Some communities may choose to use citizen because it reflects the secular and bureaucratic organization of government and nation that the community has chosen to adopt. Such choices are the right of sovereignty. Other communities may want to recover names and expressions that more accurately reflect the continuing social, spiritual and political relations of their communities. Some might choose a combination of traditional and contemporary expressions that reflect the changing relations of nations and communities.
We should be conscious of our choices of words that reflect the kinds of nations and communities we still live in, and reflect the internal spiritual and social relations of nations that want to construct for the present and into the future. There is no need to lose the battle of definition of nation or citizen, or member, or have non-Indians linguistically choose the labels and forms of governments we live in. Tribal communities now have the knowledge and understanding of history and themselves, so they can choose their own futures and reinforce the meaning of their communities and identities.