The difference between a tribe and Western democracy is the difference between individualism and place, and kinship and place. Tribes have kinship groups that have rights to places.
Democracies do not recognize extended kinship groups, but rather recognized territorial areas, “demos” on the original Greek. A demos, like a precinct, organized the nation according to places, and recognizing individuals or populations within those places. This is how the United States is organized into states, counties, townships, and precincts. The trend toward western forms of nation states or democracies is a movement toward individual citizenship and individual votes. Lineage groups or kinship structures are explicitly put to the side. The nation is seen as a population of individuals who share the same rights and obligations of citizenship.
Indigenous nations were originally defined by families, clans, moieties, extended lineages and other kinship forms. Kin groups often meted out justice and organized local farming, hunting, and gathering as well as defining the patterns of political leadership and rights to territory. Kinship was central a central feature of social and cultural community. Many indigenous nations continue to uphold their understanding of kinship and the powers and obligations of kinship relations.
Western forms of political government, landholding, community, and political organization have slowly evolved over time away from kinship groups. Since at least World War I, the reliance on the kinship group leadership of aristocracies has been greatly doubted, in part because of their failures in leadership over time. The children of aristocrats often turned out not to be the best leaders or managers of economy. In the U.S., laws prohibiting nepotism, and also the decline of city political machines, reduced emphasis on family in political processes. Christian religion also emphasizes the salvation of individuals, and community that is bound by spiritual unity rather than by kinship group.
Some contemporary Indian nations have lost their kinship heritages, although some look to reclaim clan and kinship names. Western forms of individualistic organization have become part of Indian nations. In fact, one might say that many contemporary Indian nations are composed of both traditional kinship-family forms while at the same time Indian people are also working within American individualistic forms of economic and political organization. American political and economic institutional forms are used by many nations in the contemporary world, and so it is no different among American Indian nations.
Nevertheless, many indigenous nations continue to honor and live within kinship groups. Good examples are most of the southern California Indian nations. Most have not adopted democratic political models, despite offers by the American government. While the southern California tribes have elected chairs and councils, the most powerful institutions of tribal government are general councils. The general councils have the last say on any issue of significance. The general councils are composed of families that each descended from independent extended lineages that traditionally held land and exercised self-government.
The federal government had herded southern California Indians onto reservations, without regard to their traditional territories or political organization. The forced coalitions composed of several village-lineages formed general council governments in order to preserve traditional family autonomies. The general council coalitions managed the collective affairs of reservation life, which included self-government and collective land assets under U.S. law. Many southern California tribes where quick to join into the opportunities of gaming. A critical gaming case, California v. Cabazon Band of Indians, was tested by both Morongo and Cabazon Indian nations. The management of gaming as a collective business enterprise adopted corporate forms of management. However, while business management usually is separated from tribal council management, ultimately the business and political sectors report to the general council. As in traditional times, southern California general councils continue to have the last say in issues affecting the collective economic, political and cultural interests of their tribal nations.