'Tribalism' is tearing the country apart ... or the word is just misused

Mark Trahant

Challenging the use of 'tribalism' in the Senate debate about Brett Kavanaugh

“Tribalism” is the word that’s defining the political narrative in Washington.

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake put it this way on Wednesday: “Tribalism is ruining us. It is tearing our country apart. It is no way for sane adults to act.”

MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki has a new book out, The Red and The Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism. In that book he credits Newt Gingrich with the 1994 midterm’s landslide victory because it “further cemented the coming tribalism.”

And then The Atlantic writes: “When we think of tribalism, we tend to focus on the primal pull of race, religion, or ethnicity. But partisan political loyalties can become tribal too. When they do, they can be as destructive as any other allegiance.”

Destructive tribalism. But it’s the wrong word, folks. Sure, the literal definition might be correct, “the behavior and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one's own tribe or social group. ‘A society motivated by cultural tribalism.””

Strong loyalty, yes? But tribalism? Seriously? A member of a tribe is not just ideological. It’s a people who share a history -- say 10,000 years -- a geography, and a culture. Tribalism is not a word that should be reduced to fealty to the crown. Or the opposition.

Why does the word matter? Because it shrinks the idea of tribes as self-governing communities, nations to that of a self-selected group bound by interests. One chooses to be a Democrat. Or a Republican. And that’s a choice that can always be reversed.

The Senate will decide by Saturday the fate of Brett Kavanaugh’s lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court cementing a conservative majority for a while. (How long is “a while?” Until a future president appoints new members or a future Congress changes the rules, perhaps adding to the number of justices.)

Irony alert here, the courts since the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, too often defined tribalism in the context of a social group instead of a government.

Tribalism, as the Supreme Court stated in the 1994 Nevada vs. Hicks case,makes “clear that the Indians’ right to make their own laws and be governed by them does not exclude all state regulatory authority on the reservation. State sovereignty does not end at a reservation’s border. Though tribes are often referred to as ‘sovereign’ entities, it was ‘long ago’ that the Court departed from Chief Justice Marshall’s view [in Worcester] that ‘the laws of [a State] can have no force’ within reservation boundaries. ‘Ordinarily,’ it is now clear, ‘an Indian reservation is considered part of the territory of the State.’”

And, thus, that logic goes, tribes are social clubs with powers only over their members. So inherent sovereignty is diminished by language and law.

Previous stories:

VIDEO: Alaska Natives arrested at Sen. Sullivan’s office after Kavanaugh protest

Alaska Federation of Natives urges no vote on Kavanaugh

Writing on the hand: From a 2010 election to Brett Kavanaugh's nomination

Only a few members of the Senate will even think about tribalism and the use of words when the vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination occurs on Saturday.

Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono questioned Kavanaugh on this very point and schooled the judge on Native Hawaiians and history. It’s clear from the record that he does not see a governmental history, or sovereignty, in that history. So, Kavanaugh wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “if Hawaii is permitted to offer extraordinary privileges to residents on the basis of race or ethnic heritage, so will every other state.”

Other senators who represent Indian Country -- at least the Democrats -- see this important policy distinction. Other Democrats, such as New Mexico’s Tom Udall, have cited the judge’s views on Native issues as a reason to vote no.

That’s why the vote of Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski remains so important. She has said nothing about how she will vote, only that she will look at all of the favors before deciding. (But Murkowski alone cannot stop this nomination. It will take 51 votes for the Senate to deny confirmation.) Several Alaska Native organizations have made their case against the Kavanaugh nomination citing his logic on Native Hawaiian issues, fishing, climate change, and even the possibility of a future court overturning the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

The allegations of sexual assault, of course, add weight to Murkowski’s consideration significantly. As the Brookings Institute pointed out last week: “Murkowski’s Alaska is home to the highest percentage of Native Americans & Alaska Natives in the country (14.9 percent). And this is an issue Sen. Murkowski cares deeply about. Just this summer, she introduced two pieces of bipartisan legislation to end sex trafficking among Native Americans and to improve critical care among the victims of sexual violence.”

The country’s politics are divided, not by tribalism, but by fealty to the crown. This is now a vote about who runs the court for the next few years. It’s a loyalty test to President Donald J. Trump and to the Republican brand.

Brand. Ideology. Call it what you want. Only it’s not tribalism.

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter -@TrahantReports

Email: mtrahant@IndianCountryToday.com

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Comments (1)
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Who puts emphasis on "Tribal" anymore other than in name only? The appropriate term is Casino Gaming-generating. Those who make the Tribal casino gaming revenues have the power/influence in funding gaming revenue dollars in the NCAI's experimental Indian Country Today and Mark Trahant. Its your loyalty test to report only the news that is bought and paid for by Tribal Gaming Corporate Tribes.