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The Term ‘American Indian,’ Plus Ethnicity, Sovereignty, and Identity

Ethnicity, sovereignty, and tribal citizenship are concepts that many Indian nations have adopted, but they originate primarily in U.S. society.

There is a widespread view that Native American identity has been shaped by ethnicity, sovereignty, and tribal citizenship. Ethnicity, sovereignty, and tribal citizenship are concepts that many Indian nations have adopted, but they originate primarily in U.S. society, and have been adapted by Indian nations under U.S. influence.

I would not say that Native American identity is shaped by ethnicity, rather Native American identity was and continues to be shaped by specific tribal cultures and traditions. American Indians do not form an ethnic group, they are composed of thousands of independent nations, communities, and cultures that have very different and specific identities.

Indian country is more like the multitude of nations that form the United Nations than a shared ethnicity. The concept of ethnicity oversimplifies American Indian identities and homogenizes the cultural, political, and diversity of American Indian identities.

“American Indian” is a mainstream label that is attached to thousands of indigenous nations for the sake of simplicity. The general use of the term American Indian implies a homogenization that does not exist. The expression describes the collectivity of American Indians who occupy similar political, cultural, and economic niches in relation to mainstream U.S. society. While the term American Indian is useful, it should only be used if one truly understands the diversity, complexity, and like marginality of American Indian nations, and does not imply any internal cultural or pan-national unity.

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Similarly, I would not say that American Indian identity has been shaped by sovereignty, rather American Indian cultures and identities have informed and supported the use or appropriation of the Western concept of sovereignty. If we mean by sovereignty the right and power to make our own decisions, then sovereignty has been a part of Indian nations from time immemorial.

Indigenous local groups, in the form of clans, villages, regions, and lineages usually make their own political, economic, and culture decisions, and sometimes work in larger groups through shared consensus. American Indians maintained self-government in diverse social and cultural forms from time immemorial. For most Indigenous nations, sovereignty or self-government was given by the creator at creation. Thereby no other earthly body (including the United States) has the right to take sovereignty and territory away from Indigenous nations. Despite loss of legal control over land and self-government, indigenous nations retain spiritual relations with traditional territories and uphold powers of self-government.

All around the world, Indigenous Peoples struggle for rights to self-government and territory. The powers of Indigenous self-government are spiritually based and inherent within indigenous nations and are not a grant of powers from nation-states, but rather the exercise of powers long held and granted from the creator. Many indigenous nations believe they have a special task or role to play in world history, and do not give up these visions even under the conditions of extreme marginalization.

Tribal citizen is a common expression nowadays. In the Western world, national citizens are a population of individuals who share a common national government or state. The expression citizen used in Indian country is often an expression of tribal jurisdiction or tribal membership. However, tribal citizenship is culturally diverse and more complicated than a unified nationality of individuals.

Tribal citizens have cultural, kinship, often spiritual ties to a tribal nation and to its history, goals and values. Tribal citizens uphold and obey the laws and traditions of an indigenous nation. Tribal citizenship carries a political commitment to take on the responsibilities and benefits of tribal government and tribal nationality. However, tribal citizenship requires cultural understanding of the indigenous nation, and knowledge of the history of self-governance. Indigenous nations are holistic with overlapping cultural, political, kinship, economic, and community relations and identities. Tribal citizens take on time-honored obligations to respect kinship, community, nation, and ceremony, all of which are overlapping and holistic.