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Tribal Governments: What Price ‘Democracy’?

A puzzling aspect of the term tribe is its lack of a clear definition. Even the Department of the Interior, the last word on federal recognition, doesn’t have one.

Most tribal communities do have an expression in their own language of what their community means to them and to their people. Take Lakota Oyate, which is often translated as nation. But appearances can be deceiving. In Western parlance, a nation is a group of individual citizens who share a common political government.

However, as is true for many Indigenous Peoples, Lakota Oyate is actually a coalition of kinship groups that have collective ceremonial and spiritual relations with the cosmic power beings. For Indigenous Peoples, a nation is best thought of as a unity of kinship groups, bands or village that in turn have relations to other nations of plants, animals, and the spiritual powers of the cosmos.

By this definition of nation, tribal governments are those entities that manage the social, political and spiritual relations with the human (and nonhuman) nations of the cosmic order that can affect their affairs. So when Indigenous Peoples speak of self-government, they are not talking about that word in the contemporary sense.

They mean instead leadership and management that a human nation performs to ensure balanced, respectful and reciprocal ties with all other power-being nations in the cosmic order. As is true of the governments of modern nation-states, indigenous government has long been concerned with secular, legal and strategic management—but also with much more.

It is important to note that in this regard, tribal government and democracy are not necessarily the same thing. Traditionally, most indigenous nations had consensual political processes that gave respect for individual rights to speak on important community issues. Decisions depended on consensus among the kinship groups that made up the nation.

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But that all began to change with a radical innovation in 508 b.c. In that year, the Greek Cleisthenes wrote a new constitution for the city-state of Athens. Determined to break the power of families and closely knit kin—the “tribes” of their day—he did away with the old concept of government as those groups had defined it.

In its place he boldly proposed a system whereby power was derived from local districts or towns, both the ancient ones that already existed in the countryside, and the more recent ones that had lately been created in the city of Athens proper. There were 139 of these discrete local districts. Called demes, they were not only the basis of the new Athenian social order, they gave us our word democracy.

Although democracy ultimately emerged as the prevailing paradigm for 20th century nation-states, many indigenous communities still have government based on ancient kinship relations. The pueblo clan-based governments, southern California general councils, and Haudenosaunee Confederacy are living proof. In some cases, as among many Sioux reservation communities, the kin-based government and nation operates as a shadow government within or underneath the adopted constitutional governments.

By contrast, some American Indian reservation communities have adopted constitutional governments based on political districts and individual rights, omitting references to ancient forms of kinship. Indeed it seems that every indigenous nation is confronted with pressures to adopt constitutional forms.

That poses an ongoing dilemma. Some indigenous nations are reluctant to adopt constitutions because their original mandates define governments as derived from kinship and spiritual organization. Other indigenous communities, lacking the same spiritual restrictions, have greater opportunity to experiment with constitutional constructs.

So there is no universal solution. Instead, indigenous nations must decide their own form of government on a case-by-case basis according to their cultural traditions and contemporary needs. And just as there is no clear definition of tribe, the decision to adopt a constitutional government also varies, with the outcome in the hands of the governed.