From respected leaders like NCAI Chair, Brian Cladoosby, to just about every Native high school or collegiate valedictorian giving a graduation speech, someone you encounter today will likely invoke this ubiquitous phrase.
Just who are the Seven Generations and how do we show proper respect for them? And what does this concept have to do with our modern nations, particularly, for the seventy Native governments that have cut individuals or entire families from their citizenship rolls? After more than twenty years of following this trend, it is clear that much can be learned from nations that respect their ancestors, themselves, and those to come. Such nations exemplify the true meaning of the Seven Generations by maintaining their integrity as peoples.
Vine Deloria, Jr. spoke of the Seven Generations in very practical terms. In his cantankerous way, he would express extreme annoyance at the romanticism of the concept as it was popularly used. Because, as explained to him, the generations we are sworn to protect and revere are the seven we are most immediately connected to.
Think about it for a moment. It is possible that many of us have known or will know our great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Even if we aren’t fortunate enough to have been in the physical presence of those who came before us, we usually have stories, songs, and photos that have been shared so that we feel a connection. We also want to make sure our kids and grandkids are healthy, safe and aware of where they come from. So, counting our own generation—ourselves, siblings, and cousins—we are accountable to those seven generations, not some imagined futuristic peoples two hundred years down the road.
Deloria’s articulation of the Seven Generations makes so much more sense on a human scale and does away with the destructive myth of mystical, all seeing Natives. In truth, our peoples were visionary but not in a passive, new-age way. We actively tended our families and our clan-ties by holding the lives, memories, and hopes of all Seven Generations close. Each generation was responsible to teach, learn, and protect the three generations that had come before it, its own, and the next three. In this way, we maintained our communities for millennia.
Consider what happens when we think of the Seven Generations as only flowing from each of us as individuals, as seems to be the dominant interpretation today. Then we live in a world where we owe nothing to our predecessors, where we have only a tangential connection to our present-day relations, and where we have but a vague notion of the “future generations.”
We all know the dangers in this kind of thinking. When tribal leaders focus only on themselves and what it takes for them as individuals to succeed, then we have the basis for the surge of disenrollments we witness every day, where both the living and the dead are cast out and hope for the future is deeply compromised.
These disenrollments occur for a number of reasons. Some, such as fraudulent enrollment, dual membership, or failure to maintain contact with the home community are arguably legitimate; others, however, are fundamentally tainted and bear the mark of rank injustice—political power plays, economic greed, and pseudo-scientific arguments about insufficient blood quantum, among others.
And while the number of unjustified disenrollments continues to plague Indian Country, a small but determined and diverse chorus of individuals, organizations, and even a few Native nations (Spokane most recently), are raising substantive challenges to the egregious practice of dismembering otherwise legitimate citizens. It raises hope for those that have already been terminated and gives succor to those who face imminent dismemberment.
We have to keep in mind that nearly 500 of the currently recognized Native nations are not engaged in these acts of suicidal sovereignty. It behooves us, then, to ascertain what it is within those communities that has precluded them from cannibalizing their own kin. All nations have struggled mightily with the core question of who is entitled to clanship, citizenship, or membership. We are left with the legacy created by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies and departments as they imposed regulations and policies designed to reduce the number of Native citizens deemed “eligible” for federal or even treaty-based benefits.
Yet, despite the five centuries of colonial intrusions and the subsequent devastation that ensued, the large majority of Native nations seldom acted, prior to the modern era, to forcibly terminate otherwise bonafide relatives. Even now the dismemberment process is being engaged in by less than 12% of Native governments. Seventh Generation thinking appears relevant in precluding the vast majority of Indigenous peoples from disenfranchising their fellow citizens when they are otherwise lawfully enrolled.
Deron Marquez, former chair of the San Manuel Band of Serrano Indians in Southern California, points to the small population size of his community (a little over 200 members) as a key to their community health and membership stability. He believes that this simple fact is conducive to political and social cohesion as citizens are keenly familiar with one another and behave with a measure of respect based on a sense of kinship.
He also emphasizes the importance of San Manuel’s governing structure: a general council arrangement, whereby the membership adopts ordinances and sets policy for the Nation. This means that the people control the tribe’s officers so that no one person or small group can claim substantive authority. The entire community gathers monthly to discuss and guide the community’s affairs, providing every member an opportunity to raise questions, express concerns, or discuss grievances in a way that forestalls lingering resentments and retaliation. San Manuel citizens continuously respect and tend their familial bonds with one another.
For 38 years, W. Ron Allen, has served as the Chair and CEO of the Jamestown Band of S’Klallam, a small Washington state people. He exemplifies the role that dedicated and long-serving tribal leaders can play in facilitating a stronger dose of community cohesion and respect for the sovereignty of the people. Such leaders, by the dint of their character and length of time in office, provide stability and a frame of reference for community members and outside agents alike
Allen emphasizes that his small nation (around 600) also has in place a clearly articulated legal and political infrastructure. Their accompanying governing documents, including a constitution, provide due process safeguards for everyone and guide both policy makers and the people. The Jamestown Band of S’Klallam thus remembers their origins and pass the knowledge forward.
Finally, Ron Haven, a respected tribal attorney for the Dine Nation, our largest Native nation—nearly 300,000 strong—suggests that shared cultural values provide a principled foundation that, while not preventing conflict, seems to enable the Dine, an ever increasingly diverse people, to get along without resorting to the termination of political rights of fellow citizens.
Our conversation reminded me of an excellent book by Raymond Austin (Dine), a former Navajo Supreme Court justice, who analyzed how the Dine courts have sought to apply traditional values, especially theses—k’e (kinship through positive values), hozho (harmony, balance, and peace), and k’ei (the Dine clan system)—to deal with contemporary legal, political, and cultural conflicts.
Austin emphasized that Dine philosophy views the three central values as interrelated, and one of the goals of his book was to encourage other Native peoples to employ “their own cultural norms, values, and traditional institutions” to address current challenges. These values are a guide to tending the Seven Generations.
These are just three examples from three very different Native nations that highlight a few variables—demographics, committed and qualified leadership, community established legal and political institutions and procedures, and philosophical principles—that appear, at least for these nations to produce a degree of social cohesion that helps maintain membership stability.
Of course, we can easily find contrary example of small tribal nations that are disenrolling; nations with long-tenured leaders who wield virtually autocratic powers, including the power to terminate their fellow citizens; and nations where those who call themselves “traditional” sometimes exercise a harsh, almost fundamentalist, cultural code that can sometimes lead to the dismemberment of those viewed as too progressive or lacking sufficient blood quantum.
That said, San Manuel, Jamestown S’Klallam, and Dine give us reason to look for closely at every Native nation that is protecting their citizens, to identify what social, cultural, or other determinants might preclude dismemberments.
If we can all come to stand on the solid ground of shared vision and traditional values, we might begin the healing, reconciliation, and eventual reinstatement of those unfairly disenfranchised by their governments, thus restoring the honor and respect we purport to have for the Seven Generations.
David E. Wilkins (Lumbee) is a citizen of the Lumbee Nation and holds the McKnight Presidential Professorship in American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of several books, including Hollow Justice: Indigenous Claims in the US (2013); The Navajo Political Experience, 4th ed. (2013); and The Hank Adams Reader (2011).