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Understanding Indian communities

For many tribal peoples, the word community does not indicate where and how mutual obligations and shared beliefs and rights are exercised, and this is critical since most indigenous peoples did not exercise collective or regional communities in the European patterns.

Indigenous communities are decentralized and social and political power are embedded in local kinship, band or village groups. Power or authority is not designated to a particular individual or council, but rather local communities gather and participate according to agreement or consensus. Larger social, cultural and political entities are created by the gathering or consent of economically and politically autonomous local groups.

Groups may share common ceremonial commitments and understandings, and participate in a common schedule of rituals, but at the same time maintain kinship, political and economic autonomy. For Indians, nations are created by the mutual consent of decentralized kinship groups, villages, or bands, according to the various traditions of each culture.

The more we understand about the diverse processes of tribal communities, the more we can appreciate their values, goals and future pathways.

The decentralized, consensual character of tribal, political and social processes are very important to understand when discussing concepts like community and nation. Indian communities were not provided as often implied in the Western interpretation of community, but were possible only through consent of any potentially participating local groups. This consensual social-political-cultural community of Indian groups was possible because of the economic, kinship and political autonomy of most local Indian entities.

Since indigenous local groups were often self-sufficient economically they did not need to depend on centralized organization for resources and did not delegate political or economic authority to centralized organizations. American political culture of centralized and delegated authority contrasts with American Indian preferences for decentralization, consent and negotiation.

Contemporary tribal communities are further complicated by the introduction of American concepts of citizenship, nation, community and Western religions and worldviews. New religions, new economic relations, and more centralized governments often come head to head with the continuity of tribal consensual communities and social processes. American observers evaluate tribal communities according to the collective standards of American or Western community ideals. They expect to see centralization, leadership patterns, and centralized authority, power and control over resources that did not historically exist in the past and tend not to exist in the present.

For many Native peoples, the future is unthinkable without the renewal of tribal communities albeit within contemporary economic, political and cultural environments. The complexities of renewing or reconstructing indigenous communities requires that indigenous identities, goals and values are preserved and upheld. The ways and patterns of community building will vary according to the culture, history and economic conditions within each tribal community.

Like the social and cultural diversity of the original tribal communities, the communities of the future will remain diverse. One cannot say that the processes of consensual social change will continue for all tribal communities, since even those rules are subject to possible replacement by American social and political rules. Recovering and sustaining community, however, will be a primary goal of many tribal nations. Nevertheless, tribal communities are not well understood, especially in this period of globalized economic, cultural and political change. The more we understand about the diverse processes of tribal communities, the more we can appreciate their values, goals and future pathways.