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The factionalism stereotype

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There is much talk about Indian factionalism among Indians and non-Indians. The term is an American and British expression and is often used to express conflict between parties vying for political control. Factionalism is used most often these days to express historical or political conflict in foreign nations. However, most mainstream political commentators do not use the expression to define political competition between American political parties. The primary reason is that American political parties are a form of institutionalized political competition where both parties play by the established rules and adhere to the Constitution. The academic literature and contemporary commentators are rife with comments about factionalism in American Indian communities and history. I suggest that

such general comment is only applicable occasionally, and perhaps not directly in the way the term factionalism is commonly understood.

For most American Indian communities, the main social and political groups are families, clans or territories. Political organization is generally decentralized, with smaller local groups governing themselves. Broader, or collective, tribal decisions were possible, but generally only with agreement or consensus from all the local families, clans, bands, nations or whatever social form the community maintained. The rule was decision-making by consensus by all groups and individuals. If two groups did not come to agreement, then each group made its own decision. Decisions were not forced by one group on others, since they generally did not have power to do so, and most other local tribal groups maintained considerable economic and political autonomy. If severe disagreements emerged, disaffected members could move and establish their own camp away from disputants.

American Indian cultures foster strong senses of individual and group autonomy. This is part of the cultural worldview in which every people, group and individual plays a role and purpose in the master plan of creation. It is respectful to honor the paths chosen by people and nations. They have purpose and it is not the place of other peoples to interfere. Ceremonies and vision quests often are ways to seek knowledge about future goals, tasks or appropriate moral action. Just as the plants, animals and power beings of the universe are to be respected, so too are the views and actions of individuals and groups in Indian culture.

The factionalism stereotype arises when Americans and British colonists apply their terms of political action to the political processes of American Indian groups and nations. Americans expect a centralized government and decision-making, but most traditional Indian political organization is very decentralized with great emphasis on respecting and honoring the views and chosen paths of individuals, groups and nations. The assumption in American Indian communities is that autonomy must be respected to a higher degree than the need to develop a centralized agreement or collective decision.

American observers say that Indians cannot come to agreement; others call Indian political processes highly factional, and try to impose more centralized political patterns and majority rule. But just as U.S. political parties and the political competition that arises form American political processes, American Indian political processes focus on the rules of consensus and respect for autonomy. Even today, much American Indian political process is the matter of individuals, families and local groups. Indian decentralized political processes remain hidden under Indian Reorganization Act government rules and bylaws. Centralized and concentrated power created in IRA governments often runs counter to the decentralized political process that many American Indian communities continue to uphold.

Factionalism occurs when there is political competition but not agreement about the fundamental rules of political process and decision-making. In Indian communities, factionalism often arises when there are competing forms of American and tribal political organization, as in many IRA government arrangements, or when there are competing visions of traditional and Christian religion and culture within the community. Disputes over the basic ground rules of political and cultural action happen often enough in contemporary American Indian communities. Nevertheless, much of what is wrongfully described as factionalism is rather the continuity of individual and group autonomy in American Indian communities.

American policy-makers throughout history have encouraged American Indian nations to adopt more centralized governments and majority rule. More centralized, bureaucratic governments with delegated powers to elected officials were offered as pathways to modern government. However, some recent patterns suggest that many tribal communities retain decentralized political processes, like general councils composed of all adult members, and yet can manage large, profitable casinos.

Many of the largest gaming tribes do not have IRA governments or similar forms. Rather, some have general tribal councils composed of competing families, and few have immediate interest in changing to more centralized constitutional political forms. In general, council governments, family, community, government and management of collective economic activities fit well with community values of sharing and collective well-being. No American government policy - or academic theory - predicts that a general council government could be successful in contemporary market competition. Yet many American Indian communities have found ways to manage collective economic development and decentralized political processes that uphold many values of respect for individual and family autonomy, and pursuit of collective economic and cultural well-being.

Factionalism, where there is little agreement about the rules of cultural and political organization, is an issue that each American Indian nation will continue to confront. But factionalism should not be confused with the institutions and values of respect for individual, group and national autonomy, which may be critical elements in gaining community support for meeting contemporary and future economic, political and cultural challenges in ways that are compatible with American Indian values and culture.