The expression that American Indians are organized into tribes is common everyday and legal language. The expression, in part, comes from the Commerce Clause within the U.S. Constitution in which Congress is granted the right to regulate trade with Indian tribes. All federally recognized Indian communities are now considered tribes for legal and political purposes. Indian people and leaders have taken up the expression and use of ;'tribe'' as the legal and political form of their communities, regardless of their history and culture.
The American government wants to work with Indian tribes, with central leadership and collective rights and obligations. During the colonial period, colonial governments did not like working with many decentralized political leaders, and began recognizing centralized leaders among Indian communities when none existed. There were men such as Teedyuscung, who was recognized by the English colonial governments as ''King of the Delaware,'' and others among the Cherokee who were recognized as the ''Cherokee Emperor'' during much of the 1700s.
Often the tribal communities did not pay much attention to the colonially recognized leaders, since they were created for political and trade interests by the colonists, and did not conform to the political and social traditions of the Indian communities. The colonists preferred that Indian governments reflect their own forms of political and social organization, which in those days tended toward centralized leadership by patrilineal males, such as kings.
In the present American period, the U.S. government wants Indian tribes to reflect American social and political forms; hence the current emphasis on constitutional government. Nevertheless, how is the term ''tribe'' defined? How well does a uniform application of tribe as social and political form accurately reflect the diversity of social and political forms of present-day and historical communities? These questions are not well-addressed in Indian policy, if they are not completely ignored altogether.
During the 1950s, the famous anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber was hired by the California Indians to supply support for an Indian Claims Commission case. Eighteen treaties were negotiated in the early 1850s, but were not ratified by Congress. While several reservations were subsequently created by executive order, many, if not most, California Indians were left landless.
As part of the claims argument, Kroeber and other anthropologist colleagues, such as R.F. Heiser, provided background support for the California Indians and in the end they were successful in gaining a settlement that was paid out in 1972. Kroeber is often in disfavor these days by California Indian tribes, but he was instrumental in helping achieve the claims settlement. Kroeber is also often castigated for developing a linguistic conception of California Indian political and tribal organization, but the writings he provided to the Indian claims court defy that interpretation. He argued ''that more often than not in Native North America, the land-owning and sovereign political society was not what we usually call 'the tribe,' but smaller units.''
Kroeber is not trying to destroy the Indian sovereignty argument; rather, he wants to point out that colonial and now U.S. government officials are not using the expression ''tribe'' in a way that actually reflects the political power and organization of Indian peoples. He suggests that tribes should not be confused with nationalities. Nationalities are groups that share similar customs, ceremonies, languages, and shared social and cultural rules.
Nevertheless, nationalities, and many Indian tribes, do not share a common collective or centralized political organization. The political units of Indian peoples are often located in local bands, villages or lineages. The governing units were local groups that managed and identified local territory, rather than an overall government that held large amounts of collective territory.
Many Indian communities, like the Tlingit or Hopi, did not have centralized principal chiefs, and government and economy was mobilized through villages and clans. Kroeber says, ''Ordinarily, the nationality, miscalled tribe, was only an aggregate of miniature sovereign states normally friendly to one another.'' Kroeber does not deny the sovereignty of Indian government, but suggests that the expression ''tribe'' in many cases - not all - is a creation of colonial and American officials who want and need more convenient political entities to negotiate treaties, trade and policy.
Kroeber and Hieser analyze the Indian signatories to the 18 California treaties and they say that out of 139 groups, only 67 were ''tribes'' and 45 were representatives of villages. Of the 67 tribes, Kroeber suggests that most of them were local sovereign entities that did not have power or authority to surrender the large territories that American treaty officials sought.
''The commissioners evidently pressured the chiefs or representatives they met with, into signing 'treaties' on which they had no possible jurisdiction, and which they probably did not understand.'' The treaty signatories were not representative of the whole of California Indians, and the representatives who attended the treaty meetings were asked to surrender land they neither occupied nor claimed.
Tribes and tribal sovereignty now are central concepts in the discussion and negotiation of indigenous rights and political process in the United States. Of course, larger more powerful groups are much more effective in the political relations of contemporary national and international politics. Nevertheless, political power in many contemporary Indian communities continues to lie in lineages and local groups. Much of what media and anthropologists call factionalism in Indian communities is largely a misreading of where social organization and power lie: not in national or tribal entities, but in local families, groups or villages. Nation building in many Indian communities will succeed only if there is recognition of local political power and organization that is respected and consensually included in the processes of reclaiming, building and sustaining political, cultural and territorial sovereignty.